Friday, January 6, 2012

The Perfect Trip


Executive summary by Darmansjah

Head off on your Moroccan trip armed with our guide to the country’s mountains, coast, desert and cities, and you’ll return home with tales to last 1,001 nights (magic carpet purchase optional), by Alison Bing

Djemma el-Fna is abuzz with activity; by day, storytellers, snake-charmers, belly dancers and orange-juice sellers vie for attention, and as night falls it becomes one of the world’s largest food-stall markets.

Marrakesh, Best For Street Life

Pity the sunset in Marrakesh. Tonight it attempts its best tricks, turning the Koutoubia minaret to solid gold and kissing the city’s pink mud-brick ramparts untill they blush crimson. But just like every other night for 1,000 years, the setting sun is upstaged by the spectacle already in progress in the Djemma el-Fna.

In the lopsided square, 100 chef fire up makeshifts grills and stir vats of steaming snails. Belly-cancers wink behind gossamer veils that hide manly stubble. Someone’s grandmother leaps into the melee to flag down a horse-drawn taxi. Mid-song, a Gnawa musician leads a backflip within inches of a speeding red socooter. Int the midst of it all, a donkey bearing bundles of mint staunchly refuses to budge.

Welcome to the main stage of Moroccan halqa (street theatre), where the show has continued since Marrakesh was a medieval trading post, and public executions earned the Djemaa el-Fna the title Assembly of the Dead. By 10am each day the Djemaa sets the scene, with canopied orange-juice carts and apothecaries who prescribe ostrich eggs for strength an walnut root for social anxiety. Around noon, henna artists find a moment of calm to plonk down stools and draw intricate temporary tattoos freehand.

Yet the show doesn’t peak until shadows fall and Gnawa musicians start playing their metal qarqaba (castanets), duff (hand drums) and twanging three-stringed ginbri (bass). Once the beat kicks in, the place begins to jump, often literally: tranported by the music, men leap through the air.

‘Everything changes here, yet nothing ever changes,’ says Gnawa musician Ibrahim el-Ghatouani. ‘For 13 years, I performed at Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. No-one could jump as high as me; the pay was good. But I missed my family, and when I came back, my place was waiting for me in the Djemaa el-Fna,’

he’s got the point: other cities have their moments, but only Marrakesh puts on a show that makes tap-dancing mice in a castle seem like an opening act. The reviews are hard to beat. On the strenght of tis halqa performances, Unesco has named Djemaa el-Fna a World Heritage site for culture.

Where To Stay Marrakesh
Midrange, A short stroll from Djemaa el-Fna, Riad Chi-Chi is an oasis of calm in the heart of the Marrakesh souqs. Five lifty, cream-coloured rooms ovelook a sunwashed courtyard, and there are sunbeds on the terrace, too (from US$90, including breakfast,

Top End, if the medina gets too much, Les Deux Tours in the palmeraie area of Marrakesh is the perfect retreat. Rooms with private balconies are set in secret gardens and its hamman spa is legendary (from US$245, including breakfast,

Futher information,

 Musicians take their place in busy Djemaa el-Fna 

Things hot up in the square as stallholder cook and display dishes.

Essaouira, Best For Coastal Retreats

Essaouira is 2,5 hour by car or coach from Marrakesh. Three coaches a day depart from the Supratours headquarters, just west of the train station.

Be getaways don’t usually feature stone ramparts – unless of course you happen to be a Barbary pirate in Essouira, in which case they’re handy for spotting the English Armada coming to steal sugar. From the 16th century, the port serviced European nobility’s cravings for cake, and the whitewashed fortificationss harboured unimaginable treasures in sugar and spice.

Tastes have changed, as has Essaouira. Each morning, fleets of cobalt blue boats still head out from port, scattering across a vast Atalantic horizon – but now the daily haul is seabass, not sugar. The city’s main citadel today houses a contemporary art gallery, Galerie Borj, and the city’s southern gats open onto a stretch of sandy beach. Where pirates once lurked, kite surfes pass daydreamers in flowing ghandouras (traditional indigo-hued garments).

Essaouira’s grand archways and wide streets were designed by French architect and POW Theodore Cornut. Legend has it htaat Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah was so impressed by his design for the city, that Cornut was granted his freedom. Sunny boulevards are lined with whitewashed buildings – blank canvases interrupted only by blue window frames and awnings.

Inside cupboard-sized shops, shelves are stacked with jars of ochre and purple poweder. The yellow powders are saffronspice blends to make Essouira’s signature fish tagine, but mysterious purple pigment is what first made Essouira’s reputation, some 2,000 years ago. Murex violet from the nearby Iles Purpuraires (Purple Islands) was the envy of Roman emperors, who bought it to dye their imperial togas, and for centuries artisans guarded the secret to extracting the valuable pigment from murex snail shells.

Today, local artis Souad Attabi makes no secret of the sources for her abstract paintings depicting Berber talismans, hung at the Bab Sebaa Gallery. ‘For my work, I use henna and spices – they have a long history here, but offer fresh possibilities in painting,’ she says. Now that its glory days as the North African spice port are past, Attabi says her hometown is free to harbour big ideas. ‘Essaouira is full of meaningful pauses, empty spaces that invite the mind to wander.’

moroccan pastry seller

Further information for surfing lessons and rentals.

Where To Stay in Essaouira
Midrange; once the home of an imam (leader in the islamic faith), Dar Liouba lies in the heard of the medina. The rooms all lead off a central spiral staircase and are decorated in Essaouira’s trademark cobalt blue and white (from US$81;

Top End; L’Heure Bleue, formerly the residence of Moroccan nobility, has been beautifully restored; rooms look onto a central courtyard where breakfast and afternoon mint tea is served adn there’s rooftop pool (fromUS$405;

High Atlas Mountains

Best For Walking

 The mud-brick village of Tizi n Mzik blends in to the surrounding mountains in the Imlil valley

The high Atlas is four hours by taxi or hire car from Essouira.

At 4,163 metres, Jebel Toubkal looks mighty intimidating from afar, a violent act of geology fronted by a forbidding stone for. From the 19th century until Morocco won its independence from France in 1956, the local Glaoui clan ruled the High Atlas from this foothill stronghold, often ruthlessly. Woe betide Marrakesh-bound traders who used High Atlas mountain passes without paying their dues to this family of mountain toll-keepers: goods and freedom could be forfeit to the Glaoui.

But upon arrival in the village if Imlil, the hightest of the High Atlas mountains seems to soften. Terraces are notched into Jebel Toubkal’s base, and tender shoots sprout from vegetables plots. Cherry and apple orchards line whispering mountain creeks, which suddenly burst into waterfalls on exposed rock faces. The dreaded Glaoui Kasbah du Toubkal is now an upscale, eco-friendly hotel.

Footpaths wind gently upward to the Berber hamlet of Tamatert, wedged snugly between teo stern rock faces. A trail zigzags among low-slung houses made of pise (clay mixed with straw). Footballers all appear to be on the same team, chasing a ball down a sloped dusty pitch; a sheep on a nearby rooftop bleats a neighbourly hello.

From here, goats and trekkers climb onto Jebel Toubkal’s hunched shoulders, which are freckled with pine trees planted in a reforestation intiative. A closer look reveals flowering shurbs lining the rugged passes. Knowledgeable local guides point out wild herbs: verbena, mint, rosemary, marjoram, sage, thyme, and absinthe.

‘All these herbs are native to the High Atlas, and they serve medicinal purposes passed down by Berber families through generations,’ explains Rachida Mouch, advisor to the local Dar Taliba Berber botany project. ‘We’re trying to capture all those uses, beyond the obvious muscle balms and cold treatments. There’s so much to learn from these mountains. The closer you look at them, the more it broadens your horizons.’

Where To Stay in High Atlas
Midrange; stone stepas lead to candleit, wood-beamed guestrooms at Douar Samra. Donkey deliver your luggage and aperitifs bountiful dinners (fromUS$120 half-board,

Top End; a Berber-English partnership transformed historic for tKasbah du Toubkal into a welcoming retreat with panoramic views and its own hammam and knowdledgable mountain guides (fromUS$180, including breakfast;

Skoura Oasis

Best For Desert Life

Six hours by car from Imill, the hitching post for trekkers

By the time caravans laden with gold, sugar and spice reached Skoura, the camels were gasping. For enturies, this palm-sheltered oasis was the goal of two-month journeys across the desolate Sahara from Timbuktu. Here, blue-robed Tuareg traders offloaded their caravans, while Middle Atlas mountaineers packed it onto mules and headed north through the mountains to Fez.

Elegant mud-brick towers were built to store goods and house wealthy merchants, the most famous being the 17th-century Kasbah Amridil, whic appears on Morocco’s 50-dirham note as an emblem of desert trade. But although mud kasbahs dot the horizon. Skoura’s  defining feature remain tis Unesco-protected palm groves.

‘Traders come and go here just as they have for centuries, but the palms remain,’ says Mohamed Elkasbaoui, director of The Skoura Cultural Centre’s initiative to preserve local palm groves. ‘They make life in the desert possible.’ Walking the oasis in a palm-front sun hat, you can see what he means. Date harvesters climb swaying palms to cut the fruit; mud-bricks drying in the sun are reinforced with durable palm fibres; grandparents wait for schollchildren in the shade of plamfringed roofs. Food, shelter and comfort all stem from these slender yet towering trees.

The spice traders are long gone from Skoura, but this green oasis remains a sight for sun-dazed eyes. The 15-mile patchwork of carefully tended garden plots are watered by an ingenious, centuries-old khattara (irrigation system). The markets overflow with ripe desert produce, such as tomatoes and pomegranates, and when they close for the day and the palms cast shadows across the road, no-one seems in a hurry to leave. Life goes on as usual elsewhere, but here it remains a wonder

Where To Stay in Skoura Oasis
Midrange; Overlooking Skoura’s palmery, Chez Talout offers two mud-brick guesthouses: one with simple, sunny rooms, the other with a pool and air-conditioning (from US$81;

Sawadi is an oasis within an oasis, with nine acres of walled organic gardens, a pool, and three-course organic feast. After local tours by bicyle, unwind with a hot hammam and a glass of white wine (from US$95 half-board;


Best For Traditional Artisans

Fez is three hours by plane from Ouarzazate (near skoura) via Casablanca with Royal Air Maroc, or about 300 miles (six hours) by car.

In many Moroccan cities, the target souq customer is a shopaholic genie. Who else needs so many belly-dance costumes, shiny brass lamps and Day-Glo magic carpets? Not so in Fez, where entire Medina streets are devoted to thread. One kiosk does a booming trade in metallic purple braid for women’s kaftans; another specialises in pure white cotton for men’s djellabas. What about wool? Ah , that’s in  different souq. 

Fez is often likened to a maze, but it’s as organised as any art supply sote, catering to the city’s legendary artisans hammer the final touches into masterworks from another era: silver tea services, gold filigree crowns, brass-studded bridal thrones.

 morocco pottery

Ambitious artisans have long flocked to Fez to make their reputations in a medina fondouq, a courtyard complex with workshops and rental balcony rooms. In the woodworkers’ souq, a fondouq dating from 1711 has undergone a six-year renovation to become the Nejjarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. Here, ornate 13th-century Kufic carvings from Fez’s venerable Kairaouine mosque are displayed along with carved kohl 9mascara) botles.

meeting in the market
Fez past meets Fez future at Art naji, where zellij puzzlework mosaic and Fassi blue and white ceramics are fired in kilns burning olive stones, and maalems (master artisans) apprentice for 10 years to train the steady hand and creative eye necessary for freehand design. Ata maalems’ work stations, modernity and tradition coincide: action shots of Barcelona footballers hang alongside the king’s portrait, while abstract balck-and-white Berber platters sit alongside classic Arabesque tagines.

‘My grandparents started this pottery, but my father became a maalem and built its reputation,’ says Badria Fakhari, standing in her family’s showroom. ‘Now my brohter and I run the business. We’re very proud of restoring mosaics on public fountains in Fez; that’s our heritage. But maalems need creative freedom; that’s how traditions advance.’
 brass for sale in place as-seffarine

Fakhari breaks off to say goodbye to a Spanish student who’s spending a week at Art Naji as an apprentice ceramist. But if mastery takes a decade, what can she possibly learn in a week? ‘She’s learning how to see possibilities,’ replies Fakhari. She’s right, of course. Even a brief trip to Morocco broadens the field of vision, revealing a past worth reconsidering and a future that can always use extra finesse.

Where To Stay in Fez
Midrange; Located amid Fez’s most storied mounments, seven-century-old Dar Seffarine was abandoned before architect Alaa and his wife, kate, restored its zellij, pillared courtyard, and wood ceillings. The couple host dinners for guests )from US$120, including breakfast;

TopEnd; Buitl as a family palace in 1915 by Sidi Mohamed El Abbad, a famous judge and astrologer, La Maison Bleue has 13 rooms, all decorated with local tiles, traditional rugs and furniture (from US$205, including breakfast;

Make It Happen, Morocco
A trip to Morocco can transport you to another world – one with beautiful mountain landscapes, laid-back coastal retreats and lively sqouqs. Whether you choose to go it alone, or use tour operators or guides, we can help you plan your perfect trip.

Getting there; fly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to London or Madrid and take a connecting flight on Royal Air Maroc ( or Ryanair ( to Marrakesh’s Menara Airport.

Getting Around
Cover the High Atlas and Skoura Oasis by car – try Hertz (from US$75). Supratours runs buses from Marrakesh to Essouira (from US$13; book at their office next to Marrakesh train station), and Fez can be reached by train (7 hours; or plane (from 3 hours).

Further Reading
Try Lonely Planet’s Morocco,Marrakesh Encounter,and Fez Encounter guides.

The final world
‘Colored cottons hang in the air/Charming cobras in the square/Striped djellebas we can wear at home/Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakesh Express’ Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Marrakesh Express.

More On Marrakesh, see the best Marrakesh from a carriage

Do; Jardin Majorelle Desert meets deco at painter Jacques Majorelle’s cactus garden and 1924 cobalt –blue villa, lovingly restored by Yves Saint laurent and gifted to the city of Marrakesh (gardens US$5, museum US$2.50;; 8am-5.30pm).

Eat; Mechoui Alley, step up to the tile counter across from the olive souq to request lamb pit-roasted until it shimmies off the bone. Enjoy with bread and cumin provided, and olives from neighbouring stalls (meals from US$5 Bargain!; east side, Souq Ablueh, 11am-2pm).

More On Fez

From tanneries to souqs, start exploring Fez here

Do;Batha Museum Housed in a 19th-century summer palace, this museum of Fassi arts and crafts has detailed embroidery and classic blue pottery dating from the 14th century (US$1,60; Palce du Batha; 8am-12pm, 3pm-6pm Wed-Mon).

Eat, La Maison Bleue; Find out why Fez is famous for cous cous and pastry at one of the city’s top tables, located on a riad roof terrace. Make a gourmet day of it: follow lunch with an aromatic hammam and predicure with amelou (argan-nut butter) or combine dinner with a cooking class (lunch from US$35, class & dinner from US$117;

Your questions Answered
Is It Safe To Drive In Morocco? Moroccan roads notoriously winding, especially in mountains and medinas – so patience, a reliable map (such as Michelin’s Morocco map) and a sense of direction are key. If manoeuvring hairpin bend doesn’t soudn like a holiday to you, take alternate transport (see Getting Around) or hire a driver who speaks English.
Do I Need A Guide? Given the right spirit, Moroccan hospitality, and the company of fellow visitors, navigating Morocco makes an excellent adventure. You’ll get better deals when you explore souqs without guides, since merchants don’t have to pay guides commissions. If you want to focus on views rather than maps, hire a licensed local guide; consult the tour operators and or guesthouses listed left, and expected to pay US$33 per half day.

Your Trip Mapped Out
Take in the memerising madness of Djemaa el-Fna, then retreat to the coast in Essaouira before trekking in the High Atlas and observing artistic traditions in Fez

Best for street life; be prepared to lose all sense of direction in Marrakesh, with its mazellke medinas and ation-packed main square, Djemaa el-Fna.

Best for coastal retreats; for a more laid-back pace, head to the fortified coastal town of Essaouria (dubbed wind city of africa), popular with surfers and artist alike.

High Atlas Mountain
Best for walking; trek in the high atlas for an exhilarating experience. Admire rugged wildlife and villages that appear to have grown out of the mountains.

Skoura Oasis
Best for desert life; meet traditional Tuareg people and marvel at mudbrick palaces in the Skoura Oasis, once the goal of traders trekking through the Sahara.

Best for traditional artisans; finish your trip in Fez, the spiritual and cultural centre of Morocco. This imperial city is the home to artisans who still use centuries-old techniques.

No comments:

Post a Comment