Monday, January 08, 2007

Travel Writing about Morocco - Part 14

From Spain to Marrakech - A non-express tour through the Moorish past and present

Phil Marty a staff reporter with the Chicago Tribune has a generally interesting and personal view of his trip from Spain to Morocco. It was first published January 7, 2007. Here is an edited extract.

Morocco sits at the northwest tip of the African continent, stretching within just 9 miles of Europe. But, as our train between Rabat and Marrakech passes a dusty, ancient looking village that seems as if it could crumble in an instant, I think that culturally, the country and Spain, its nearest neighbor on the Continent, might as well be 9,000 miles apart.

Step off the ferry in Tangier, Morocco, and you might at first think you're still in Algeciras, Spain, where the ferry left an hour and a half ago. Though you'll see a few locals in the port wearing the traditional garb of long, flowing djellaba and perhaps a tight-fitting cap for men and a head covering for women, most are running around in jeans, sweaters or shirts, cell phones pasted to their ears.

But sample the medinas and souks of Tangier, Fez, Rabat or Marrakech, or travel through the countryside, and you'll be stepping back 200, 300, 700 years into time.

Meanwhile, back in westernized Spain, there are hints, too, of a much earlier time--when the Moors of Morocco ruled for more than 700 years and left their mark before being driven out in 1492, the year Columbus discovered our homeland and almost 300 years before it would officially become our homeland.

The Moorish imprint can be found in the Mediterranean port city of Malaga, whose Alcazaba fortress dates back 1,000 years. And in the pueblos blancos, the so-called white villages west of Malaga named for their neat-looking whitewashed buildings that hint of their Moorish roots.

My wife, Bonnie, and I explored the ancient and contemporary sides of both countries in early November 2005--on foot and by train and minibus--on a budget tour called "Moorish Spain to Marrakech." For less than a thousand dollars apiece (meals and air not included), we and our group of 12 others--mostly middle-aged, mostly British, spent more than a week traveling by train from city to city in both Spain and Morocco; then, as a group and on our own we explored. We wandered the souks of Tangier, Fez and Marrakech, where we found narrow, bustling, mazelike alleyways crammed with people, donkeys and motorbikes; and merchants offering heaps of pungent spices and hundreds of brightly colored scarves, live chickens and hanging slabs of meat, fragrant loaves of bread and exotic music instruments.

We saw snake charmers nonchalantly charming sinister-looking cobras. Tried to avoid breathing through our noses as we watched workmen, knee-deep in stone vats of brilliant dyes of all hues, wrestling around hides in the rank-smelling tanneries of Fez.

We sat at outdoor tables, scarfing down tapas and beer, while enjoying the parade of families out for a Sunday walk and talk in the whitewashed Spanish village of Grazalema.

We enjoyed talk and tagines in a multitude of Moroccan restaurants.

And, in my case, made the acquaintance of a Moroccan doctor who spoke only Arabic and French, but who, thanks to a lot of hand gestures and a couple of prescriptions, helped me get over a troublesome bout of turista.

Turista and all, it was a trip for the memory books.

White villages, mostly leftovers from the days of the Moors, are one of Spain's tourist treasures, and a pleasant place to spend a Sunday morning, wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, admiring the conglomeration of sparkling white buildings and exchanging holas with the occasional local.

First up was Ronda, the most-visited of the white villages. (Early "visitors" included Christian armies that drove the Moors from the city and the continent in the late 15th Century, marking it as one of the last Moorish holdouts.)

From a defensive standpoint, it's easy to see why the Moors liked Ronda's location, straddling a hundreds-of-feet-deep gorge northwest of Malaga. That gorge separates the medieval portion of the town from the new (relatively speaking) part of town, and is one of the things that keeps tourists' cameras clicking. That and the windy cobblestone streets lined with interesting restaurants and shops filled with cured whole hams and local crafts.

On that minibus trip to the white villages, the switchbacky road from Grazalema to Zahara de la Sierra left me thinking Rocky Mountains, though not as lofty, and a hike from the town square up a steep, rugged path to the old Moorish castle overlooking Zahara just whetted the appetite for what we all were anxious to get to--Morocco.

Medina. Souk. The words have an exotic sound to them.

And the scene is indeed exotic as the crowd pulses and flows outside the arched entry to Tangier's medina. Our local guide, Ben, points out a group of men sitting on the ground near the arch, a variety of tools lying next to them. "They're plumbers," he says, "waiting for someone who needs their services."

Inside the medina--or old city--one of the first things I notice is the variety of intriguing-looking doors of all shapes, sizes, colors and textures, some leading to shops but many the entries to the houses of the medina's residents. These doors are something we'll see again and again as we wander the medinas of other cities.

Viewed from the air, the buildings, many whitewashed and many hundreds of years old, must look like a honeycomb as they link together, with narrow alleyways branching off in no particular pattern.

On the wider main street, we stop briefly at a small storefront that holds a sewing school. Its students are women who don't have a husband or family to support them in this male-dominated Islamic society.

We've been cautioned that it's OK to take street shots with our cameras, but we always should ask before taking pictures of individuals. But the owner sees my camera and gestures for me to come in the school and take photos. One of the students, though, obviously has other opinions and turns her head away.

Down the street I stop to grab a photo of an interesting door. A young man talking with friends nearby says jokingly, "That's my door. That will be a thousand dollars."

Ben takes us off the main drag and into the maze of alleyways that are the medina. We pause at a small hump-shaped whitewashed building that has smoke drifting from its chimney. We look down a few steps into the building and see a flour-splotched work area and a man pulling a large tray of golden-brown rolls from a wood-fired oven. It's a bakery.

I give the man a questioning look and hold up my camera. He nods and patiently stands there with the pan of rolls while I take photos.

A visit to a herbalist's expansive and modern shop inside a large building is interesting, though I can't help but think I'm watching the TV Spice Shopping Network. The proprietor holds up a container of a spice or oil, tells us the fantastic special price, then, trying to entice us into a buying frenzy counts, "One, two, three . . . it's gone. Next up is . . ."

More interesting, though, are the pushcarts, stalls and little shops that make up the souk, where locals stand elbow to elbow with tourists to shop for and buy everything from jeans laid out on a blanket in the street to batteries to tortoises in cages.

The sun had just peeked over the horizon the next morning shortly before 7 as our train--headed for Fez--pulled into the village of Tleta Rissana. On the outskirts we saw people in traditional garb gathered in small groups talking. A few campfires burned. Horses and donkeys with panniers grazed. It looked like a market in the making.

About an hour later, at the village of Sook el Arba, we sleepily looked out the window of our First-Class compartment to see children walking to school.

Heading out of Sidi Kasem, the terrain suddenly turned hilly and we saw a settlement of houses that looked to be made of rocks and mud, built into the side of a hill. Seeing the fragile dwellings, I couldn't help but think of photos from earthquake sites showing similar buildings reduced to rubble.

By 10:30 we were in Fez, and within a few hours I was thinking about that old conundrum, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"

In our case it was the egg. In spite of their seemingly helter-skelter appearance, souks actually are organized--fabrics here, spices there. Then, tucked in among the people- and donkey-clogged alleyways, we came to an area where various merchants offered crates and crates of eggs. Not much farther on--the smell announced it first--were the purveyors of live chickens, chicken being a popular ingredient in Moroccan cuisine.

Though we saw only a fraction of them, Fez's medina, according to our local guide Azzdine, contains roughly 83,000 shops. And it's not just the tourists and the locals who shop in the old city, which dates from the 9th Century. People from all over the city of nearly a million risk getting lost in the labyrinth because they don't have to pay the 17 percent VAT that's assessed outside the medina.

That night I, and another member of our group, was felled by turista. Before the trip was over, it'd get two more of us. Mine wiped out the second day in Fez, the following day in Rabat and included a memorable train ride from Fez to Rabat involving a toilet that was just a seat above and the train tracks below.

'Nuff said, except for a big "shukran" to non-English-speaking Dr. Khalid Ammur and the non-English-speaking pharmacist who filled my two prescriptions in Rabat.

You can read the full article here: From Spain to Marrakech

Earlier Travel Writing stories:

Travel Writing Thirteen.
Travel Writing Twelve.
Travel Writing Eleven.
Travel Writing Ten.
Travel Writing Nine
Travel writing eight
Travel writing Seven
Travel Writing Six
Travel Writing Five
Travel Writing Four
Travel Writing Three
Travel Writing Two
Travel Writing One


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