Only a few years back, a voyage to Morocco necessitated long preparation: servants, guides, animals for riding, camping materials, much time, and therefore great fatigue and heavy expenses. Though the greatest care was taken, comfort, while moving or at rest, was non-existent, and travellers were sometimes exposed to very disagreeable adventures. Things have changed.
We took our trip for a little winter sunshine farther afield this year, and spent some time in Morocco. We divided our time between Marrakesh, north of the High Atlas; Ouarzazate, on the south side; and Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast.
Having flown into Marrakesh’s rather spiffy airport, we spent our first night at the entrance to the Ourika Valley, with a view of the snowy Atlas Mountains in the distance.
When visiting Moslem countries I’ve always enjoyed hearing the adhan, the call to prayer. It was particularly pleasant in the evening cool at Ourika, when the mu’azzins at each mosque in the valley seemed to take turns, to avoid drowning each other out. So the cry of Allahu akbar! came again and again, from different locations in the twilight, each time in a different voice and with a different style.
The next day, we drove (were driven, actually, and thank goodness in retrospect) over the Tizi n’Tichka, the highest pass in the Atlas. The whole northern approach seemed to be one long, continuous roadworks, with steep drop-offs on one side, decorated with the bent remnants of crash barriers, and falling rocks coming down from the other side.
The contrast between the north and south sides of the Atlas is dramatic, with the south lying in the rain-shadow of the mountains. Compare the fertile view above with the one below, taken a little distance east of Ouarzazate:
Ouarzazate itself was a surprise. We had half-expected a sleepy little desert village. It turns out to be a large and prosperous-looking town, full of new buildings, fresh paint and impressive boulevards.
It’s the centre of the Moroccan film industry (“Mollywood”, we were told), and we drove past several sprawling studio lots, which have provided locations for many motion pictures over the years. And just outside town there’s the old fortified village of Aït Benhaddou, which has provided settings for many more:
Then back over the pass to Marrakesh, a town that enjoys two different spellings of its name—in English, Marrakesh; in French, Marrakech.
French is commonly spoken in Morocco, a relic of the French Protectorate period in the early twentieth century. Road signs are bilingual in Arabic and French, which is a blessing if (like me) the Arabic alphabet is a closed book to you. Government buildings also frequently sport a third language, in a third alphabet:
The middle band of writing is in the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet used for Berber languages. Until fairly recently you could be arrested for using Tifinagh in Morocco—but times change, and this sign is outside the police station.
There seems to be some sort of ordinance in Marrakesh that it must live up to its nickname, “The Red City”. Although most buildings are concrete, they’re all painted in shades of ochre and terracotta—the colour of the traditional building material, rammed red earth.
Marrakesh is mad with bustle and crazy driving. Most of the zebra crossing appear to be advisory only—the only way to cross the road is to stride out boldly into the traffic, and hope that motorists will be too embarrassed to actually kill someone at an official crossing place. Even in the narrow streets of the souks, there’s an alarming amount of traffic:
But the souks are fascinating, divided into sections according to trade. The owners seem to vie with each other for the most colourful and symmetrical displays:
From the souk, you stumble out into the sunlight of Jemaa el-Fnaa, a teeming open square lined with even more shops:
In Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can have your fortune told, get a henna tattoo, hold a Barbary macaque, listen to Gnaoua music, and watch the snake
tormenters charmers at work. Oh, and buy a bit of fruit if you’re so inclined.
Nearby, in a street leading down to Koutoubia mosque, horse-drawn carriages are lined up, ready to take tourists on a tour of the city. The horses must be high on actual horse tranquilizers, since they trot along unconcernedly as Marrakeshi drivers shoot past inches from their shoulders. The street smells exactly the way you’d expect, for a cobbled street in which many horses spend a lot of time—it smells jumentous, which is a word meaning “resembling the urine of a horse” I’ve been waiting all my life to use in natural conversation.
Our last visit was to Essaouira, with its rolling Atlantic breakers, colourful old Portuguese harbour, constant winds, and (it would appear) and ordinance requiring white paint on all its buildings.
After frenetic Marrakesh, it was nice to stroll down a street that contained nothing more threatening than the occasional bicycle.
On the wildlife front, we had some interesting bird encounters. There were a lot of urban White Storks, often roosting on top of Morocco’s many mobile-phone-masts-disguised-as-palm-trees:
Or making their gigantic nests on mosque minarets:
They perform an amicable bill-clapping ritual when they’re both on the nest, and our hotel room in Marrakesh used to resound to that curiously soothing sound. Here’s a sample from xeno-canto:
Isn’t that nice?
In the evening, the pretty tingitanus subspecies of House Sparrow would arrive in noisy flocks to settle in the courtyard of our hotel:
In the hour before dusk, the room would fill with a cacophony of social chirping—which would suddenly and intermittently fall silent. Peering into the trees from our window, I quickly spotted the cause:
A male kestrel was sitting in the palm tree outside, occasionally launching attacks on the sparrows as they arrived. At the sight of his wings in the courtyard, the assembled flock would immediately fall silent. I was able to find my way on to the hotel roof, and look down on the fierce little raptor as he went about his business—falconry by proxy.
Finally, there is the vexed matter of goats up trees. There’s no doubt that goats climb trees in Morocco. They do it in pursuit of argan fruit. Here are some, for instance, going about their happy caprine capers:
And on the road to Essaouira, we were flagged down by a little boy who pointed eagerly towards … a tree full of goats. Positively brimming with goats, one would have to say:
While the Boon Companion took photographs. I contemplated the goats. None of them were eating anything. Many were standing at the ends of branches with no foliage at all, facing outwards. And some of them seemed to be standing on tangles of branches that looked … well, platform-like. I let my gaze wander to the other trees in the vicinity. As far as they eye could see, they were uniformly goatless. I let my gaze wander back to “our” conveniently placed roadside tree, where our guide was passing out money to the child and an accompanying adult. Hmmm.
I’m not at all averse to farmers scoring a bit of extra cash from passing tourists. I’m just not entirely convinced that these goats were willing participants in the scheme. To paraphrase Hippy Carnes from The Abyss (1989), I think they may be doin’ it, but they ain’t diggin’ it. (I would like to know how they get them up there, though, and how often the shifts change.)
And then it was time to go home. Where we slipped into Heathrow under the coat-tails of Storm Ciara, and then didn’t see the sun again for a week.