The magic begins at dusk
Reading time 10 min
We have to admit that the largest square in the Maghreb, the famous Djemaa el Fna, did not leave us with a particular impression at first glance. We arrived there in late October afternoon, passing through a labyrinth of alleys of Marrakech medina in which the straw-covered streets of the souk (the commercial part of the medina), stalls laden with goods, creates just a magical play of light and shadow. Get used to the beautiful Mediterranean squares surrounded by high palaces of rich façades, we looked for a similar environment in vain. Only a few buildings rose above the level of the horizon of this large flat surface.
So we sat on the terrace on the restaurant’s first floor opposite the medina entrance and, barely taking off the shoulder several tons of heavy photographic equipment, ordered a mint tea. And then it started! In moments, while the first stalls began to turn on the lighting, mainly in the form of a series of ordinary bulbs hanged on the wire, they would immediately be wrapped in the smoke of the grills they illuminate. Tables overloaded with food seemed to sprout out of nowhere. After ten, fifteen minutes, while Marrakech slowly plunged into a warm evening, the previous scene became unrecognizable.
The most magnificent example of Muslim architecture in Morocco is a fascinating mosque in Casablanca named Hassan II after his death. By size, it is in fifth place in the Islamic world, just behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina. It has the tallest minaret in the world.
Everything has received a completely different dimension, from the snake tamers, which a moment ago were unsuccessfully trying to wrap their drugged six-foot pets around my neck, and the sellers of water in vivid costumes. Also, belly dancers in harem pants, surrounded by the hordes of guards who make sure that every triggered photo from the rows of numerous viewers immediately gets charged. And about musicians on traditional instruments, whose music for lengthy listening is devastating for every little more refined western ear, we do not even mention. The barely unbelievable transformation from this former prosaic bus station in place from Oriental fairy tale, full of exotic smells and sounds!
Morocco is sought-after today, Marrakech especially. Our guide Mohtar, a polyglot who speaks to the tourist groups during a visit to the Moroccan royal towns in seven languages (Russian Yes, Chinese not yet, but soon), sometimes even simultaneously. He was proud to show us who of the world celebrities recently bought which palace in the suburbs. It’s like half Hollywood is relaxing from a hard life at Beverly Hills right in Marrakech.
Just ten years ago, to us, the low-cost Globetrotters, Morocco looked unreachable. While in some destinations such as Malta, Greece, or Turkey, we could spend ten days paying less than half of the average salary, we could only dream of Morocco. Simply, it was too expensive. Today, when we all complain about the difficult times, if you buy a ticket in advance, you can fly to Morocco with a low-budget airline from several European cities for about twenty euros. The Moroccan airline Royal Air Maroc under its aide also has a low-cost company – Atlas Blue. The pilot of this company, former Jugoslav Airlines pilot, Captain Biberčić, who was sitting with a copilot, young Moroccan, allowed me during the flight Milan-Marrakech to visit him in the Airbus 320 cockpit. He talked about his life in Morocco and how the prejudice he had upon arrival there scattered very quickly.
There are remarkable diverse fates of Northern African countries in their postcolonial period. Algeria, a country that lies between the two most liberal Muslim African States due to the radical Islamism that dominates the last decades, is dangerous and inadvisable to foreigners. Gaddafi’s Libya has only recently opened up for foreign tourists in recent years. Tunisia has been most advanced thanks primarily to Habib Bourghibi, a long-standing pro-Western oriented president who was forced to step down from power after he tried to radically cut the influence of religion on politics with reforms, which transformed this former French colony.
Hassan II, long-standing (ruled 38 years) Moroccan Sovereign, has balanced more or less successful between the pro-Western orientation and Islamism, even though human rights for his reigns existed only on paper. The neighboring states resented his connection with Israel and America. He set the foundations of the market economy and introduced a multi-party, only in North Africa countries, albeit more or less of a formal character. He also survived two assassins, one of which is when he was intercepted during a flight in a Presidential Boeing 727 by five fighters which pilots were renegades of his aviation. The coup in the air failed, so it was the last flight in the life of the five in question.
The most magnificent example of Muslim architecture in Morocco is a fascinating mosque in Casablanca named Hassan II after his death. By size, it is in fifth place in the Islamic world, just behind the mosques in Mecca and Medina. It has the tallest minaret in the world. And is built on the coast. While watching from the deck of a cruise ship, it looks like a ship. Six thousand top Moroccan artists and artisans have been working on its decoration using the highest quality materials. Since this is one of the few mosques several times a day I can visit non-Muslims, I enjoyed passing through enormous spaces where the religious ceremonies sometimes expensive up to 105,000 (not a mistake) of the believer.
Since this is one of the few mosques that several times a day can also visit non-Muslims, I enjoyed passing the vast spaces, which during religious ceremonies sometimes gather up to 105,000 (not a mistake) worshippers. And you should see a complex of underground pools it has which, like the entire interior of the mosque, is made of marble!
The residents of Morocco are the native Berbers that newcomers, Arabs, after the 7th century converted to the Muslim religion, but today both live in harmony, and the few mullahs are considered to be direct descendants of the prophet Muhammad. It is a very influential and numerically small Jewish community with a thousand-year tradition.
A classic tour of the royal cities also took us to the one that caught our attention the most as we read about and looked at Morocco photos. And indeed, Fez, the former capital, the Muslim holy city, the city with the oldest university in the world, will not disappoint you. One of his two medinas is under UNESCO protection, and today it is considered the utmost urban space in the world without the presence of a vehicle.
The advice we can give to curious travelers and tourists is quite simple and of paramount importance: never enter this medina alone, even during the day (Medina Fes El Bali has more than 200,000 inhabitants). Except, of course, if you speak and read Arabic. Street names and all other inscriptions are exclusively in Arabic. The likelihood of finding the exit from that giant maze of the alley almost does not exist! Let a reliable guide lead you to the famous balcony, from where you can see the square with the enormous color reservoirs in which the skin is dyed (one of the most recognizable motives in Morocco’s photographs).
And let him then guide you through the parts of the medina which are today the same as five hundred and more years ago (the only exception is that electricity has been introduced). In both cases, you will feel a scent that is probably nowhere else in the world in that intensity. The first scent is from leather and color. The other of the absence of any sewerage system, except for the medieval – the streets!
And while we are at with valuable advice, the chance of traveling Morocco and stay healthy stomach if you eat Moroccan food is minimal! That will confirm every experienced tourist guide in the country. Their spices are a bit too strong for our European nutrition habits. Therefore, at least the first few days, be careful. In every better hotel at the buffet, you will find daily a few dishes prepared in a European way, such as pizza or spaghetti. And everyone knows, drink only purchased bottled water, preferably in glass (sometimes it is possible to find the French water Evian).
And the story about the inevitable bargaining, which in Arab countries is a national sport, actually a play. In the sea of kitsch at a rural Berber fair, we found a lovely wooden sculpture. Says the seller: “One Hundred Dirham.” We smile at that, answering: “Ten Dirham.” The man at first stiffened like his wisdom teeth were growing up. So he bent down, almost fell. And then began in nearly weeping voice – that we would destroy him, he will go bankrupt, he has children, that can not show up in front of his wife (the mother-in-law did not mention, but she is certainly in the game), that he paid much more for this sculpture in the procurement. We move on, and he follows us: “Seventy dirhams.” We smiled at him and speeded up a bit. He ran after us: “Fifty.” To make a long story short, in half an hour, we were at eighteen! And one more thing, he told us we were dangerous players. It made us think – are we of Berber origin?
The southern part of the country, towards the border with Mauritania, is a part of Morocco that you will certainly not visit. The life of Europeans there is worth about as much as in Algeria (meaning almost nothing). The inhabitants of Western Sahara Sahrawi, mainly nomads, for decades have wanted to separate from Morocco. Because of their fight (their liberation front is called Polisario), the area is very unsafe. Politically and legally, it is a gray area that is almost non-existent for the rest of the world. Since this zone is rich in ores, and there is also oil, it will not be easy for them to gain independence.
You must visit
- Tangier – European-Looking Moroccan City
- Fez – The Old Maghreb City (the former capital)
- Marrakech – Bustling City (Square Djemaa el Fna)
- Casablanca – fascinating Mosque Hassan II
- Sahara Desert
- Chefchaouen – “blue city”
- High Atlas – trekking
Today’s Moroccan King Muhammad IV has stated that he will not allow a single grain of sand to be taken away from that part of his beloved kingdom. But that accessible part of that Mediterranean-oceanic state on the western edge of the Sahara (the Maghreb means “where the sun sets”) is so enchanting and fascinating that you must give yourself ten days of wandering Morocco at least once in your life. You can choose from countless magical locations, wander the kasbahs on the high slopes of the Atlas Mountains.
In winter, dress well and, if you ski, be sure to bring your ski equipment because you may find half a meter of snow, the highest peak in Morocco is more than 4000 m. You can sleep in a tent next to nomads in Saharan oases or walk the sandy beaches around Casablanca bathed in ocean aerosol from the wind and waves. You can spend afternoons in a warm hammam or, with the inevitable mint tea, indulge in the bustle of crowded medina and street theater called a bargain.
And for the end something important – treat yourself to at least one night in one of the luxury five-star palaces-hotels such as La Mamounia in Marrakech, for example. Trust me, you will not forget that one and only 1001 night for the rest of your life.
TEXT & PHOTO- Voljen Grbac