Wednesday, December 23, 2009

All women tour groups in Morocco

Colleen Cassar
Colleen Cassar is a practicing artist in assemblage, sculpture, painting, sustainable fashion and jewelry. She lives in Melbourne, Australia. She travels annually to Morocco, facilitating relaxed adventures and invites groups of 6 - 10 women to travel with her. Her friends call her 'the fun whisperer'! The View from Fez invited her to reflect on her Moroccan experiences.


Having just returned from another wonderful trip to Morocco where adventures and treasures always unfold I now take the time to reflect and write about our journey and its highlights.

We arrived in Casablanca, as always, to be met with the warmth and welcome of my friends at Hotel Guynemer. ‘Returning” is a celebrated sentiment in Morocco, taken to heart and a sign of respect and honour of friendship. Like so many of its beautiful traditions and rituals, Morocco and its people never cease to amaze me with open heartedness.

A good nights rest behind us, de-jetlagged, we are ready to prepare for our trip to Fes. Not far from our hotel is the art deco building of Marche Centrale……housing colourful stalls of fresh produce, fish and flowers for sale. We buy figs, plums, nectarines, strawberries, dates and nuts, all plump and fresh for our afternoon snack whilst travelling by train to the ancient city of Fes.

Of course, we had lots of exciting things to look forward to in Fes, traditional sacred music, exploring the maze of 10,000 streets in the ancient medina with my dear girlfriend Hakima, breathtaking architecture and its intricacies, soothing our bodies in the healing hot springs of Moulay Yacoub... But the icing on the cake was our invitation to a local wedding.

We were the guests of honour at my friends wedding and so the days proceedings started with a 12.30pm welcome by friends and family all clad in their kaleidoscopic, djellaba finery. Wearing our western style “Sunday best” we were met with lots of welcoming kisses and were sat down with the bride and groom to a traditional celebratory feast of pastilla, tagine and couscous. After we ate our fill from the many courses of eye pleasing, central dishes we were encouraged to do the customary “lounge about” on ornately brocaded Moroccan lounges and banquettes whilst sipping mint tea and nibbling small delicate pastries. This was to be the “calm before the storm”.

Our relaxation, poste lunch, was broken by the magnificent sound of traditional trumpets and wild, powerful, rhythmic drumming played in the street at the doorway to the home we were in, as if to exorcise any negativity and to herald blessings to the wedding couple and their loving supporters. The musicians entered the small courtyard of the dar and sat amongst the potted palms and citrus trees and played and played and played until we all fell over with exhaustion from the heat of the day and the exaltation we instinctively felt compelled to celebrate on this honoured occasion. The trancelike drumming carried us. We danced with the children, the women, the men. We cried tears of joy and were all very deeply moved by this memorable wedding day.

Chefchaouen - a riot of blue.

Next port of call - Chefchaouen - an ice blue washed village in the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco. Ah, a welcome relief after the busy life of the Fes Medina. Gentle walks, fresh sheep's milk cheese and mountain honey, village life with lots of coloured cloth and carpets, lots of people watching at cafes in the public square and quiet nights on the roof terrace at sunset.

As gentle a scene I am setting, it seemed that a frenzy swept over the women I was travelling with. This was the shopping hub for lots of local cloth, carpets and antiques and the girls did not hold back! On day four in Chefchouen we did a carpet count between seven women…..twenty one carpets. How would we ever embark and disembark the train to Marrakech? Where there is a will there is a way, after all, we were a group of pragmatic, driven Australian women. We planned our strategic attack on the Moroccan train system beautifully, even if it meant that we bought one six-seater carriage just for our luggage. We laughed and laughed and were laughed at...but we made it to Marrakech successfully.

Before our train adventure to Marrakech we had a small interlude at the lagoon village of Moulay Bousselham where seven middle eastern saints lay to rest in white vaulted crypts. This is a town of pilgrimage and many people from all over Morocco come to celebrate annually, drumming and dancing their celebration and reverance to the saints. We settled into our beautiful apartments literally perched on a sand dune overlooking the wild Atlantic Ocean and had lots of quiet time reading, napping in hammocks, writing postcards, walking, cooking together, boating in the lagoon and birdwatching.

On to the madness that is Marrakech. Always offering up a photo opportunity, the famous square of Jemma Elfna was abuzz with snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, musicians, storytellers, orange juice wagons, lotions, potions and small ceramic bowls aglow with frankincense, myrrh, licorice root and rose oil – my all time favourite smell in Morocco.

After meeting with our teacher and shopping for ingredients in the souks with the locals, we cooked up a Moroccan multi-course feast in the beautiful setting and courtyard of a traditional riad tucked in the backstreets of the medina; a full day's culinary encounter, absolutely delicious and shared with fellow travellers from all over the globe.

Feeling the warmth of Marrakech in June (35-40 deg) and after a busy, hot time in the interior of the country what better way to unwind than for a day spa indulgence. For four hours we were steamed, bathed, exfoliated, mud-covered, moisturised, soaked and massaged. We could barely grunt at one another after this blissful experience and so there was nothing left to do but spend the remainder of the day quietly resting before exploring the evening for a new dining experience.

We savoured our last maze-like medina amble on our itinerary by getting delightfully lost and led back out to the square by young boys happy to earn some small change for their efforts. The colours and textures of this medina are a visual artists palette and inspiration. All forms of exotica available for a small price here…..lemon wood scissors, tree resin incense, pink olives, fresh lemon verbena, rosebuds, chameleons, henna tattoos, jellabas, baboosh slippers, beaded tassels, velvet prayer rugs, leather stitched ottomans, turquoise, red coral and silver jewellery, just to name a few.

It was time for us to leave the heat and bustle of Marrakech and seek out the pleasures of the Essaouira Gnaoua Festival on the coast, only a 3 hour bus ride away.

Seaside Essaouira, a strong arts and music community contained in a small city with a very manageable, grid-like medina designed by the French…..a welcome relief from labrynthine streets. Three weeks in, by the time we get to Essaouira, my fellow travellers are very comfortable and confident with the Moroccan way of life. They have seen plenty and experienced diverse countrysides and its people, and so Essaouira is for relaxing and reflection, celebration and dance, introducing my local friends and watching them perform.

Gnaoua musicians

Gnaoua music is used to restore health or good fortune through trance, dance and incantation. During the festival it is not unusual to see people lose themselves in this ritualistic music brought to Essaouira by slaves centuries ago. The ability and willingness of the Moroccans, young and old, to totally surrender to the music is amazing to witness and brings me to the realisation that our dance style in the west can look terribly contrived and without freedom.

I take my responsibility as tour leader very seriously and hit the dance floor. What did Nelson Mandela say in his inaugral speech… .“as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”. One by one, the women in my group indulge themselves to the lure of the Moroccan dance floor, sharing the music with abandon, men, women and children.

After many late nights enjoying the music festival, our last destination on the itinerary was the lagoon village of Oualidia, the last jewel in the crown. Imagine this, large sand dunes, the kings abandoned pleasure palace, swaying eucalypts, a lone arab stallion galloping at the waters edge and lipstick pink fishing boats in the distance. Nothing to do here but enjoy the catch of the day barbecued before our eyes, rest under umbrellas in the gentle sun and contemplate.

All of this beauty is guarded by the white tomb of Sidi Douad which sits on a small cliff nearby. Now, quietly reflecting, we relive the highlights and give thanks for a memorable and intoxicating journey. Savouring the last moments, we really have "roamed like queens"!

For more information on Colleen's tours please check here: All Women Tour to Morocco

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