Distinctive cities and the Sahara

By Wayne Wirtanen
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(Part 2 of 3 on Morocco)

Casablanca

The arrival/departure city for international flights to Morocco, Casablanca is a bustling major city with a population estimated at anywhere from three to eight million.

Like all large Moroccan cities, Casablanca has an Old Town — a walled, self-contained marketplace and residential center (or medina) in the middle of the modern city. More than in other Moroccan cities, stepping through the medina gate into the myriad winding streets of merchant stalls seemed, on my visit in September ’04, like a step through a time warp.

Within seconds and 20 to 30 paces, the narrow streets and the 2-story buildings seemed to cause the adjacent bustling big city to disappear. Except for the fact that the merchants were peddling ballpoint pens, plastic kitchen utensils and flashlight batteries, in addition to traditional household/cooking supplies, it could have been a thousand-year-old scene.

Incidentally, “At last, there’s a Rick’s Café in Casablanca.” Check out the article with that title at the website www.rickscafe.ma/about. htm.

The Hassan II Mosque

A sight not to miss in Casablanca is the massive Hassan II Mosque, finished in 1993. Reported to be the third-largest religious monument in the world, with the world’s highest minaret, it can hold 25,000 worshipers. It is one of the few Islamic religious buildings that is open to non-Muslims. There is an enormous paved esplanade around the mosque and outbuildings that is said to be able hold an additional 80,000 Muslims.

Much of the interior is easily visible without entering the mosque proper. As I stepped briefly inside, I saw enormous open spaces and what have been claimed to be the finest examples of traditional Moroccan architecture — lots of carved wood, marble and elaborate ceramic tile work.

Rabat

Rabat, the country’s capital, is the site of the mausoleum of Mohammed V (somewhat Morocco’s George Washington), who was instrumental in obtaining independence from France in 1955-1956. Given the choice of type of government, Moroccans chose monarchy with the leadership of Mohammed V. He became king in 1957 but died suddenly in 1961. He was succeeded by his son, Hassan II.

Adjacent to the mausoleum are very old ruins of a minaret/tower from about the year 1200 and rows of columns that are all that’s left of a large mosque that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.

Old Fez

I found the Old Fez medina to be the most interesting of the Old Towns in Moroccan cities. A local guide is required here as there are some 9,000 narrow, twisting streets, alleys and dead ends. Because of the original narrow streets, no motorized vehicles are allowed within the medina walls. All commerce comes and goes with hand carts and mules.

Coca-Cola is delivered by mule. My guide said, “In America, the Coca-Cola truck is owned by the company and the driver is hired help. Here, the company owns the mule and the mule driver is hired help.”

There is a good number of decent places to eat plus accommodations ranging from the upscale to hotels for the backpack set. For local merchants there are even cheaper hotels, with stalls for their mules just below the rooms. The medina is large, with space for beautiful mosques, and there is a great variety of styles and qualities of individual residences.

Residents are used to fresh-baked bread with their meals. There are wood-fired ovens for baking each neighborhood’s bread. Young family members (boys) or hired “runners” take wooden trays with a couple loaves of kneaded bread to these ovens and then deliver the fresh results daily and sometimes more often. The wooden bread trays have identifying marks so that the oven operator can keep track of the individual customers’ loaves and accounts.

One of the most famous Moroccan photo sites is from the second floor of a leather shop overlooking the multicolored mud-brick leather tanning and dyeing vats. A major tanning industry is right before your eyes and, thankfully, far enough below for you to avoid the foul smells. An exotic mix of tanning and dyeing ingredients has been developed over the centuries. In addition to a few simple chemicals is a long list of animal parts (and excretions) that you don’t want me to list here.

Marrakech

Marrakech is one of those “faraway places with strange-sounding names” (lyric from the popular late-’40s song) that lives up to its exotic reputation. The focal point for this well-earned reputation is the large, open square, Djemaa el-Fna, at the center of the old medina.

My hotel was a half-dozen blocks from the square. Walking there at dusk was like walking into an old “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” movie. Only local protests kept this living museum from being turned into a parking lot a few years ago. It was often said that without this colorful square, Marrakech would be just another Moroccan city.

I suppose that there were foreign tourists among the crowds — but none that I could see. The crowds are mainly locals who turn out for an end-of-the-day outing. There is a modest number of merchants, but the principal draws are the picnic-bench barbecue eateries, the entertainment and small-town socializing.

Yes, there’s at least one snake charmer — basket, flute and all — next to exotic dancing girls who only on close inspection are revealed as agile young men. Henna tattooing is a popular personal decoration available here. Solitary musicians with a donation cup sit on any available open space. Except for the relatively permanent cooking/eating stands, all of this hustle takes place on a crowded open, paved plaza.

I stopped to watch a young magician who had attracted an audience. His tricks were accompanied by a nonstop banter with his crowd. As I was obviously the only nonlocal in the crowd, he quickly brought me into his act, using excellent English followed by asides to his crowd in Arabic.

The audience obviously enjoyed his give-and-take with me. At first he asked me where I was from — “Japan? China? India? Black Africa?” — to great roars of delight from the crowd as I continued to answer “No!” (If anything, I look like a senior Scandinavian.)

When he finally got me to admit that I was from California, that became my name for the next 30 minutes or so of his performance while he used me as his foil in his repertoire of tricks.

Essaouira

I was told that Essaouira, a seaside town of about 45,000 in population, had been a haven for hippies back in the 1960s. Back then, $20 a month paid the rent on a small house that could be shared by eight to 10 tenants. Food, drugs and sex were inexpensive and/or readily available.

My memorable meal here was at the seaside fish market. Only a few steps from fishermen unloading their catches were several outdoor stalls that had colorful displays of freshly caught seafood. I was able to pick out several individual fish and some shrimp for immediate cooking on a grill behind the display. At a picnic bench, I consumed one of my best meals in Morocco. With a beer, the cost was approximately $5.

The Sahara

The Sahara dominates most of the northern half of Africa, but an excellent and nonthreatening location to experience this phenomenon is outside of the small village of Merzouga, on the southeast edge of Morocco at the eastern edge of the desert.

Much of the Sahara is simply windswept flat desert with no roads except for the tire tracks of previously passing vehicles. The dune areas are called ergs. I stopped for the night at the famous Erg Chebbi. (Parts of the 1999 horror/action film “The Mummy” with Brendan Fraser were filmed here.) I stayed at Auberge les Hommes Bleus (Hotel of the Blue Men?).

Erg Chebbi began just in the backyard of this small hotel. Given the choice of staying in one of the rooms or sleeping in a Berber tent out on the dunes about 150 feet from the hotel, I quickly opted for the dunes even though I would have to go out and help pitch the tent.

The tent was constructed of heavy, blanket-like material and I was supplied with thick floor rugs, a rubber mattress, blankets and a flashlight. After dinner, I was accompanied out onto the dunes and was told that someone would check on me once or twice during the night.

I slept like a log and was up at dawn, ready for a hearty breakfast. . . and grinning inwardly, knowing I’d have bragging rights for some time to come, if the topic of unusual sleeping accommodations should come up in a conversation. It’s sometimes difficult to bring the topic up in a normal conversation, but I try.

Oussaden Tours

I was a guest of Oussaden Tours on this trip. They offer a variety of trips to Morocco. Contact Oussaden Tours, 8 West 38th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018; phone 800/206-5049 or 212/382-1436, fax 212/382-3588 or visit www.oussadentours.com.

Next month: distinctive Moroccan architecture and distinctive Moroccan people. Happy trails!

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Part 2 of 3 on Morocco)

Casablanca

The arrival/departure city for international flights to Morocco, Casablanca is a bustling major city with a population estimated at anywhere from three to eight million.

Like all large Moroccan cities, Casablanca has an Old Town — a walled, self-contained marketplace and residential center (or medina) in the middle of the modern city. More than in other Moroccan cities, stepping through the medina gate into the myriad winding streets of merchant stalls seemed, on my visit in September ’04, like a step through a time warp.

Within seconds and 20 to 30 paces, the narrow streets and the 2-story buildings seemed to cause the adjacent bustling big city to disappear. Except for the fact that the merchants were peddling ballpoint pens, plastic kitchen utensils and flashlight batteries, in addition to traditional household/cooking supplies, it could have been a thousand-year-old scene.

Incidentally, “At last, there’s a Rick’s Café in Casablanca.” Check out the article with that title at the website www.rickscafe.ma/about. htm.

The Hassan II Mosque

A sight not to miss in Casablanca is the massive Hassan II Mosque, finished in 1993. Reported to be the third-largest religious monument in the world, with the world’s highest minaret, it can hold 25,000 worshipers. It is one of the few Islamic religious buildings that is open to non-Muslims. There is an enormous paved esplanade around the mosque and outbuildings that is said to be able hold an additional 80,000 Muslims.

Much of the interior is easily visible without entering the mosque proper. As I stepped briefly inside, I saw enormous open spaces and what have been claimed to be the finest examples of traditional Moroccan architecture — lots of carved wood, marble and elaborate ceramic tile work.

Rabat

Rabat, the country’s capital, is the site of the mausoleum of Mohammed V (somewhat Morocco’s George Washington), who was instrumental in obtaining independence from France in 1955-1956. Given the choice of type of government, Moroccans chose monarchy with the leadership of Mohammed V. He became king in 1957 but died suddenly in 1961. He was succeeded by his son, Hassan II.

Adjacent to the mausoleum are very old ruins of a minaret/tower from about the year 1200 and rows of columns that are all that’s left of a large mosque that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.

Old Fez

I found the Old Fez medina to be the most interesting of the Old Towns in Moroccan cities. A local guide is required here as there are some 9,000 narrow, twisting streets, alleys and dead ends. Because of the original narrow streets, no motorized vehicles are allowed within the medina walls. All commerce comes and goes with hand carts and mules.

Coca-Cola is delivered by mule. My guide said, “In America, the Coca-Cola truck is owned by the company and the driver is hired help. Here, the company owns the mule and the mule driver is hired help.”

There is a good number of decent places to eat plus accommodations ranging from the upscale to hotels for the backpack set. For local merchants there are even cheaper hotels, with stalls for their mules just below the rooms. The medina is large, with space for beautiful mosques, and there is a great variety of styles and qualities of individual residences.

Residents are used to fresh-baked bread with their meals. There are wood-fired ovens for baking each neighborhood’s bread. Young family members (boys) or hired “runners” take wooden trays with a couple loaves of kneaded bread to these ovens and then deliver the fresh results daily and sometimes more often. The wooden bread trays have identifying marks so that the oven operator can keep track of the individual customers’ loaves and accounts.

One of the most famous Moroccan photo sites is from the second floor of a leather shop overlooking the multicolored mud-brick leather tanning and dyeing vats. A major tanning industry is right before your eyes and, thankfully, far enough below for you to avoid the foul smells. An exotic mix of tanning and dyeing ingredients has been developed over the centuries. In addition to a few simple chemicals is a long list of animal parts (and excretions) that you don’t want me to list here.

Marrakech

Marrakech is one of those “faraway places with strange-sounding names” (lyric from the popular late-’40s song) that lives up to its exotic reputation. The focal point for this well-earned reputation is the large, open square, Djemaa el-Fna, at the center of the old medina.

My hotel was a half-dozen blocks from the square. Walking there at dusk was like walking into an old “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” movie. Only local protests kept this living museum from being turned into a parking lot a few years ago. It was often said that without this colorful square, Marrakech would be just another Moroccan city.

I suppose that there were foreign tourists among the crowds — but none that I could see. The crowds are mainly locals who turn out for an end-of-the-day outing. There is a modest number of merchants, but the principal draws are the picnic-bench barbecue eateries, the entertainment and small-town socializing.

Yes, there’s at least one snake charmer — basket, flute and all — next to exotic dancing girls who only on close inspection are revealed as agile young men. Henna tattooing is a popular personal decoration available here. Solitary musicians with a donation cup sit on any available open space. Except for the relatively permanent cooking/eating stands, all of this hustle takes place on a crowded open, paved plaza.

I stopped to watch a young magician who had attracted an audience. His tricks were accompanied by a nonstop banter with his crowd. As I was obviously the only nonlocal in the crowd, he quickly brought me into his act, using excellent English followed by asides to his crowd in Arabic.

The audience obviously enjoyed his give-and-take with me. At first he asked me where I was from — “Japan? China? India? Black Africa?” — to great roars of delight from the crowd as I continued to answer “No!” (If anything, I look like a senior Scandinavian.)

When he finally got me to admit that I was from California, that became my name for the next 30 minutes or so of his performance while he used me as his foil in his repertoire of tricks.

Essaouira

I was told that Essaouira, a seaside town of about 45,000 in population, had been a haven for hippies back in the 1960s. Back then, $20 a month paid the rent on a small house that could be shared by eight to 10 tenants. Food, drugs and sex were inexpensive and/or readily available.

My memorable meal here was at the seaside fish market. Only a few steps from fishermen unloading their catches were several outdoor stalls that had colorful displays of freshly caught seafood. I was able to pick out several individual fish and some shrimp for immediate cooking on a grill behind the display. At a picnic bench, I consumed one of my best meals in Morocco. With a beer, the cost was approximately $5.

The Sahara

The Sahara dominates most of the northern half of Africa, but an excellent and nonthreatening location to experience this phenomenon is outside of the small village of Merzouga, on the southeast edge of Morocco at the eastern edge of the desert.

Much of the Sahara is simply windswept flat desert with no roads except for the tire tracks of previously passing vehicles. The dune areas are called ergs. I stopped for the night at the famous Erg Chebbi. (Parts of the 1999 horror/action film “The Mummy” with Brendan Fraser were filmed here.) I stayed at Auberge les Hommes Bleus (Hotel of the Blue Men?).

Erg Chebbi began just in the backyard of this small hotel. Given the choice of staying in one of the rooms or sleeping in a Berber tent out on the dunes about 150 feet from the hotel, I quickly opted for the dunes even though I would have to go out and help pitch the tent.

The tent was constructed of heavy, blanket-like material and I was supplied with thick floor rugs, a rubber mattress, blankets and a flashlight. After dinner, I was accompanied out onto the dunes and was told that someone would check on me once or twice during the night.

I slept like a log and was up at dawn, ready for a hearty breakfast. . . and grinning inwardly, knowing I’d have bragging rights for some time to come, if the topic of unusual sleeping accommodations should come up in a conversation. It’s sometimes difficult to bring the topic up in a normal conversation, but I try.

Oussaden Tours

I was a guest of Oussaden Tours on this trip. They offer a variety of trips to Morocco. Contact Oussaden Tours, 8 West 38th St., 11th Floor, New York, NY 10018; phone 800/206-5049 or 212/382-1436, fax 212/382-3588 or visit www.oussadentours.com.

Next month: distinctive Moroccan architecture and distinctive Moroccan people. Happy trails!