Entering a time warp in Morocco

Discovering the unsullied splendour of Marrakech, Essaouira and the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
Dotted with traditional antiques, Essaouira's walls are predominantly white, in contrast with the peach tint that characterises Marrakech. Photo by Samar Al Sayed
Dotted with traditional antiques, Essaouira's walls are predominantly white, in contrast with the peach tint that characterises Marrakech. Photo by Samar Al Sayed
It's a very warm summer afternoon as I embark on a tour of Marrakech. My travel companion and I buy hats to shield us from the scorching heat before wandering out of our riad and into an alleyway dotted with colourful carpets on the walls, then onto a pedestrian street with the Mansouria Mosque and its minaret facing us and pharmacies selling Moroccan remedies along the way.

The tiny street is filled with old lamp posts; buildings made of red sandstone and mud floors surround us. While the heat doesn't deter us from making our trip, travellers should make it to the Saharan country in spring if they can.

To our surprise, we quickly realise that Marrakech, which has just been voted the top destination for 2015 in the TripAdvisor Traveller's Choice awards, is so small it can be seen and experienced inside two days, so we decide on a whim to escape to the cooler coastal city of ­Essaouira.

We're ushered into a pharmacy by an eager taxi driver who promises a remedy for every ailment. From herbs for heart disease, peppermint granules for chesty coughs to weight-loss potions and stone foot scrubs, I buy every possible exotic mixture, spending a not-­inconsiderable Dh600, in a country where goods are cheap.

As it happens, the strange smells are enough to keep me away from the potions after I buy them until I end up throwing them away, so I'd advise fellow travellers not to get carried away with such ­purchases.

Next, we get a glimpse of the colourful Saadian Tombs in the area, which contain tiles akin to the Spanish designs in Seville, and later find ourselves at a majestic gate, Bab Agnaou, one of 19 built by the country's 12th-century dynasty, with Quranic inscriptions lining the archway.

The walls are made of orange-red clay and chalk, which give Marrakech its nickname, "the Red City" - though I prefer to refer to it as a warm peach colour. It's seen everywhere, and feels almost ­surreally simplistic.

The gate leads us past a (peach) fortress, dotted with what look like bullet holes, to La Mamounia, an ostentatious but magnificent luxury hotel built with Arab and Andalusian influences. The hotel is also a tourist site in its own right, thanks to flawless finishes and old ornaments juxtaposed against each other.

Morocco is no place to stay at a Hilton or a Sheraton. Staying at authentic riads is an integral part of the experience. The Riad Dar White is owned by a ­Frenchman. I love its impeccable mudstone interior and pervasive Moroccan oud scent. Its sister site, the Riad Dar One, is even more aesthetically pleasing, with smaller rooms but the same level of "realness", cleanliness and service. Rooms are very affordable, although rates can almost double in spring.

We're surprised, too, at the variety of food on offer. While we thought that couscous dishes, the main staple in the African country, would be of similar quality everywhere, we find that the higher-end restaurants, which often come with ­belly-dancers and other forms of folklore entertainment, offer the most refined types of couscous, which differ vastly in taste and texture from the lower-end restaurants, but cost much more per head (Dh80 compared to a measly Dh40 in "street" joints).

We deliberately save the city's famous main square, the Jemaa El-Fna, for last.

We arrive at the square, with its magicians, snake handlers and an extensive souq, where tagines and other local crafts are for sale. The area, I discover, is abuzz.

My travel companion gets an intricate henna tattoo drawn on her arm in the middle of the square, as others watch a monstrous serpent wrap itself around a man's neck.

Towering over the main square is the Koutoubia Mosque, which is also made of red stone and brick. At dusk, we hear the call to prayer bellowing from its colourful, imposing ­minaret.

We then walk into vintage, cobblestoned alleyways with shops selling Moroccan antiques. After bargaining with talkative sellers over souvenirs, we find ourselves, dozens of carpeted walls later, at yet another stone building that once housed the Ben Youssef Islamic college. Morocco's largest madrassa (Quranic school) was reopened to the public 22 years after it closed down. Here, the peach stone is laced with green. A cyclist in a thobe and Muslim cap passes by on his bike in the quiet ­alleyway. The area is packed with small madrassas and mosques.

We find other obvious sites, such as the El Badi and Bahia palace ruins, to be a little underwhelming. The El Badi Palace, funded by the Portuguese, is impressive in size and houses the Marrakech Folklore Festival, which, sadly, we've arrived too late in the year for.

The magic of Marrakech and Morocco as a whole lies not so much in individual sites, but in its overall vibe and vintage colours, which are specific to the country and won't be seen anywhere else in the Arab world.

While our day trip to the coastal city of Essaouira is an ad-hoc plan to seek respite from the heat, it ends up being a highlight of our Moroccan journey.

On the way out, we see Marrakech's old, colonial railway station, itself a work of art.

A four-hour bus ride from Marrakech, Essaouira makes for a great day trip, which is more than enough time to see a tiny medina with only a handful of boutique hotels.

The bus stops right in front of a small military castle, from where we wander into a narrow series of white walls lined with vendors, old arches, dilapidated castle walls, blue windowsills and more colourful carpets. In contrast to Marrakech's peach tint, Essaouira's charm lies in its white shades. It's also 10 degrees cooler. We reach a fortress built by the Portuguese, who were among the many European powers that attempted to conquer the coastal haven, many in vain.

A guide who shows us around for about Dh25 tells us that Essaouira is a Unesco World Heritage Site that has caught the fancy of many a famous face, from Winston Churchill to Yusuf Islam. Several filmmakers, including Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott and Orson Welles, have captured Essaouira's photogenic surroundings and nostalgic aura within their cinematic works.

The small town on the Atlantic coast is filled with European military architecture. The sea line is juxtaposed by old cannons and walls, which we rest along for hours, watching flocks of white birds and the waves. At the farthest point of the coastline, tourists marvel at an old castle, which adds to the dramatic historic charisma of the seaside - and the quality of our photos. Along the old fortress, we find artwork dotting the old passages and herbs in wooden barrels.

We return to Marrakech at dusk and head for the Atlas Mountains, also a short bus ride away.

We stay in a kasbah (a citadel) with a panoramic view of the mountains. The area is worth a hike, though vegetation in Morocco is less abundant and alluring than in, say, Europe.

The mountains are also home to scores of French tourists whose properties we see in the distance. We can also see the ice-capped mountains from wherever we stand, a feature I'm told that is visible no matter what the season.

The main reason for the impeccable continuity of charm in both Essaouira and Marrakech and their surrounding areas is the absence of even a hint of modernisation. There's no vertical revolution or fast-food restaurants in sight, helping us to experience a time warp more effectively than in many other historic strongholds. It's primitive ­perfection.

salsayed@thenational.ae

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Published: March 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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