Morocco Deja Vu
Apr 10, 2007
David Rich 1100 Words
8 Moroccan Dirham=$1
M O R O C C O D E J A V U
I thought I'd been there and done that, but now I know it's literally impossible to have conclusively done anything. A dozen years later Morocco was emphatically not the same country where I'd wintered in '95-96. Instead of a beggar's paradise crammed with touts eager to harass all and sundry foreigners, Morocco had morphed into Europe south with no beggars or touts on offer, fortunately without Europe's stunningly inflated price tags.
In the 90s, during a three year trip through Europe and environs, I'd piloted an RV over practically every road in Morocco. By 2007 the RV invasion had turned into a tidal wave with over 100,000 entering Morocco every year, leaving contemporary Bobs and Bings scant road room to cram in an extra Hedy or two. The formerly free-camping cliffs north of Agadir had been turned into world class resorts to match the Mexican, Spanish and French Rivieras. And Agadir, way south on the Atlantic coast, had been rebuilt into a first world city with matching amenities, shopping malls to make super-Walmarts look anemic, a far cry from the dusty Agadir I recalled from 1995. But I understand memory may be the second thing to go.
The best parts of Morocco remained unchanged, except to have become comparatively better. Thus Marrakech stumbles blithely along as a premier destination. A few years ago Marrakech's city fathers narrowly failed to turn the main square, Place Djemaa el-Fna--a medieval pageantry of snake charmers, fancily bedangled water men, iffy games of elusive skill, orange juice mega-stands, herbal pharmacies, luxurious fast-food carts, and the freneticism of a hundred circuses attended by a billion trillion tourists--into a municipal parking lot. Marrakech without its central square would be nothing more than another sprawling Moroccan city. Even the fascinating labyrinth of its secretive souqs (especially the candy souq) would fail to rescue Marrakech from oblivion should the fifty ring carnival of its central square deform into a parking lot. Good on the city fathers, who must have been heavily onto Rif kif to even consider slandering Place Djemaa el-Fna into a parking lot.
One of the best reasons to visit Marrakech is its propinquity to the visually prominent high Atlas Mountains, easy access to great trekking and the highest peak, Mt. Toubkal, at 4167 meters (almost 14,000 feet). I crammed into the back of a shared taxi for almost two hours, arriving at the Imlil trailhead, raring to go. The first hour of going was in drizzle, the second in rain, and the next two in snow. The halfway refuge was snowed in and a somewhat chilly; mid-April is apparently a tad early in the climbing season.
Next morning I strapped on crampons to tackle the snow and ice fields for the assault on the summit, which was somehow accomplished without permanent frostbite, trundling back down to the refuge and trusty mule-porters by lunchtime. The trek was gorgeous, but I can sincerely suggest a more intelligent departure, perhaps in July or August.
Essaouira and Chefchouen are Morocco's most fabulous burgs, old walled towns of human proportion, easily walkable for hours on end, where getting lost makes no never mind. These are my cloistered favorites, offering ancient fortresses, or Kasbahs, fanciful walls, gorgeously painted alleys and shops, and ambience by the bushel, enough to bring out the romantic in even such as me.
Essaouira is perched on the alternatively raging and tranquil Atlantic like a rare bird of paradise, guarded on its ramparts by ancient Portuguese cannons, fringed south by a ten kilometer sweep of pristine beach, and bordered with a photogenic fishing fleet replete with colorful nets, brightly painted dories, and swooping gulls, every panorama accented by castle tops and rooftop restaurants with bird's eye views. Narrow lanes open unexpectedly onto fish markets where adjoining restaurants will grill your favorite choice, next to pointy piles of colorful Moroccan spices, and kitschy crafts from the breadth of the land: brilliantly colored goat-skin lamps of sinuous shape, craftily inlaid daggers, swords and bellows, Berber carpets, anything leather from shoes to whips, a rainbow of candies, mint tea and espresso, indescribable ceramics, dates and olives, a cacophony dating from the sixth century B.C.E.
Don't miss the dunes of the Sahara near Zagora (big well-photographed sign in the town center saying, 52 Days to Timbouktou) or Merzuega. I did Zagora last time and Merzuega this time, staying in the same hotel as Hillary Clinton, the Kasbah Timbouktou, reputedly the Monica room, which sits adjacent to a sprawling vista of colorful dunes and a tourist-camel-loading operation. Take the few-hour sunset camel ride for spaced out dunes shots and the approximate limit of comfort on a camel. The overnight sojourn features sand boarding down a 300 meter (1000 foot) dune for the teenagers in us all.
Shift gears in the Rif Mountains, their spiritual capitol the miniscule color-packed hill-town of Chefchouen where most every house, walk, and alley is washed alternatively white and in shades of blue from lavender to violet. The photos are superb and the town folk laidback and friendly, with bargain restaurants and hotels offering brilliant views everywhere. A few days investment of time will guarantee you'll want to go back sometime again, though you've theoretically been there and done that.
When you go: You can fly to Casablanca from anywhere in Europe or North America for less than $1000 roundtrip.
The recently restored Kasbah du Toubkal, high on a hill above Imlil, was featured in Newsweek Magazine's International Edition in April 2007; eyeballing it on the way by I can suggest its mere $200 a night appears reasonable for a luxurious double with full board, probably enough to make a rational person skip drizzle, rain, snow and crampons. The fabulous Riads of Morocco are far more atmospheric and posh than comparably priced hotels. In Marrakech try the Riad Omar on the walking street a couple of blocks south of Djemaa el-Fna, incredibly tiled doubles $40 to 50. Atmospheric and conveniently located doubles in Essaouira and Chefchouen range from $25 to 50. In Chefchouen I recommend the Hotel Rif from $30 double and the Hotel Madrid for a tad more. The so-called Monica room in the Kasbah Timbouktou in Merzuega cost $50 with full breakfast and dinner buffet, a bargain though lacking in-room cigars (see www.xalucamaadid.com). Sunset camel rides cost $20 with overnighters only $30.
Moroccan cuisine is among the world's best featuring tender mouth-watering tajines of chicken, fish and assorted meats for between $5 and 10. A three course meal at a lovely restaurant in any Moroccan city will average $9, excluding drinks (alcohol is pricey, with a tiny 25cl beer averaging $3). Incredible restaurants in Chefchouen include the Salon Aladin with colorful décor and views, and the Restaurant Tissemlal in the redoubtable Casa Hassan.