Mystical Morocco an exotic tourist mecca

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Gwen Gibson

From the High Atlas Mountains to the lonesome shifting sands of the Western Sahara, Morocco offers the visitor a labyrinth of stories, dreams, contrasts, mysteries and myths.

But when I talk about my recent trip to this exotic country, friends often ask the same three basic questions. One: Why did you go to North Africa when there was so much turmoil there? Two: How was the food? Three: Aren’t you too old to be riding camels?

Actually, I love the questions as they allow me to expound on the many faces of Morocco as it moves steadily toward democracy.

I travelled throughout Morocco in March with 15 congenial members of the Texas Exes Flying Longhorns, a travel group composed of University of Texas graduates and their spouses or friends.

My roommate for this glorious, but arduous, two-week trip was my good friend, Josephine Sherfy of Austin, a UT graduate. If you must know, we are both octogenarians.

 A (relatively) safe destination

Before starting our journey, we checked with the State Department and copious news sources about conditions in Morocco. Moroccan youth, seeking more democracy, had started a wave of protests on February 20. This resulted in 135 serious injuries, but subsequent protests have seen less violence.

The consensus in March was that Morocco, in the northwest corner of Africa, would weather this “Arab Spring” in relative calm — despite the turmoil in other Arab countries. The optimism stemmed, in part, from the popularity of Morocco’s young king, Mohammed VI, and his recent promises of new reforms.

Reassured, we flew on Royal Air Moroc from New York to Casablanca, where we were met by our tour director, Abdellatif Benharima. A walking Wikipedia, fluent in six languages, Abdel (as he is best known) informed us daily about Morocco’s mystical past and its current politics as he led us to every interesting site a tour group could pack into 14 ten-hour days.

Except for a horse and buggy ride in midtown Marrakech and a camel ride to die for in the Sahara, we traveled daily in the same comfortable bus driven by the same excellent driver.

From the airport, Adbel steered us directly to nearby Rabat, the capital city, where we saw one of Morocco’s most popular tourist sites: the Hassan Tower and the nearby Mausoleum of Mohammed V.

The tower is the unfinished minaret of a mosque meant to be the largest in the Islamic world. Built in the 12th century by Almohad sultan Yacoub al Mansour, it was left unfinished at Mansour’s death.

In sharp contrast is the magnificent mausoleum next door, a white silhouette topped by
a traditional green tiled roof and fronted by mounted royal guards.

The mausoleum was commissioned in 1961 by the late King Hassan II to honor his father, Mohammed V, and completed in 1971.The tombs of Mohammed V, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah lie here today. 

In Rabat, we also toured the grounds of the walled, 17th century Palais Royal and surrounding Andalusia gardens. This is the official royal residence.

But the current king, who has distanced himself from his father, Hassan II, resides in his villa, Les Sablons, just across the river. Mohammed VI does, however, utilize the many other royal palaces that Morocco maintains for the king’s pleasure. 

“M6,” as he is often called, became king in 1999, at age 36, on the death of his father. One of his first reforms was to close the palace harems and free his father’s 40 concubines. He has since granted Moroccan women the right to say “no” to marriage and “yes” to divorce — major feats in this mostly Muslim country.

In 2002, Mohammed VI married Selma Bennani, a “modern” Muslim woman, schooled in the computer sciences, who is often compared to Princess Diana because of her charity work.

Both the king and his wife, now Princess Lalla Salina, are half-Arab and half-Berber, a common heritage in Morocco where Berbers, the country’s original inhabitants, form some 40 percent of the population.

Desert to snow-capped peaks

Our odyssey continued from Rabat to Menkes, Fez, Erfoud, Ouarzazate, Marrakech and Casablanca, plus a dozen remote mountain villages along the way. Even in the poorest villages, most homes have satellite TV. Asked what these natives watch, Abdel said with a straight face, “Desperate Housewives.”

Morocco embraces four high mountain ranges, part of the world’s largest desert. and 2,200 miles of coast line along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. We got a taste of it all.

Once in the dazzling, snow-covered High Atlas Mountains, as our bus parked near a precipitous cliff, Abdel teased: “I don’t think you expected this in Morocco.”

Descending the mountain, we negotiated scores of hairpin turns on the narrow roads built by the French when they occupied Morocco.

It takes a book to describe the many mosques, palaces, kasbahs, souks and other historical sites in this ancient country. Here are a few of the many I would put on a “must-see” list:

  • The Roman ruins of Volubilis, near Menkes. A UNESCO world heritage site, this is the largest of the 17 colonies established by the Romans in Morocco more than 2000 years ago.
  • The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Commissioned by Hassan II and completed in 1993 at a cost of more than $800 million, this magnificent structure, designed by French architect Michel Pinseau, dominates the Casablanca skyline.

Unusually bright and modern, the Hassan II Mosque will accommodate 26,000 worshippers inside and thousands more outside. Some 360 loudspeakers are used during services.

Part of the mosque sits on a platform over the Atlantic.

A few blocks away is one of Morocco’s largest shantytowns — a glaring reminder of the division here between the rich and poor.

  • The huge, bustling medinas of Fez and Marrakech, Morocco’s largest inner cities, where residents still cling to ancient ways — and the ville nouvelles in the suburbs where the well-to-do live in modern, upscale style.
  • The quiet and beautiful Jardin Majorelle in midtown Marrakech. This exotic botanical garden nurtures over 300 plant species. The cobalt blue walls and vases are the signature of Yves Saint Laurent who lived and worked here from 1980 until his death in 2008. His ashes are scattered in the garden.
  • Ifrane, Morocco’s most atypical town. High in the Middle Atlas Mountains, Ifrane is a quaint ski resort town with Swiss chalet style homes set amid cedar and pine groves.

It is also home to the prestigious Al Akhawayn University. Funded by the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, Al Akhawayn is patterned after an American liberal arts university.

We were welcomed everywhere, especially by trades people eager to sell us everything from beads, blankets, scarves and djellabahs to cosmetics made from the oils of the argan tree and guaranteed to restore our lost youth. Josephine and I even drew hugs, smiles and V signs on the day we wore our Obama T-shirts.

Where to eat and sleep

The food at the many restaurants we patronized — to answer question two above — ranged from good to great. As a vegetarian, I was impressed with the variety of vegetables and fruits served with dates, almonds, olives, succulent soups and honey cakes, and the ever present sweet mint tea.

Many dishes are prepared in a tajine, a round clay jar, with fish, meat or vegetables roasted over couscous and topped with rich sauces.

Two of the restaurants we patronized illustrate why Morocco is called a country of contrasts. One, the Dinarjet, is deep in Rabat’s medieval medina and reached through dark, narrow passageways.

But step inside the Dinarjet and you are in another world. Housed in a spacious 17th century house, the restaurant resembles an Andalusia palace with beautiful mosaics and graceful arches. Musicians play soft string instruments while an attentive staff serves you five courses of traditional Moroccan food with appropriate wines.

From an entirely different world is Rick’s Place in Casablanca. Established in 2004 by Kathy Kriger, a former counselor with the American embassy, this seven-year-old restaurant mimics the d├ęcor and architecture of the seductive piano bar at the heart of the 1942 movie Casablanca.

Ironically, the movie was filmed almost exclusively on the Warner Brothers Studios lot in Burbank, Calif., and neither Humphrey Bogart nor Ingrid Bergman nor “Sam,” the pianist, ever set foot in Morocco. But here it sits, Casablanca’s first ever Rick’s Place, serving fresh fish from the Atlantic and — as we can personally attest — packin’ them in.

Accommodations in the six hotels we used were first rate. At the Sofitel Palais Jamai in Fez, where the halls are perfumed daily, we were greeted with roses. At the Kasbah Hotel Xaluca in Erfoud, we were greeted with belly dancers and a local band playing Morocco jazz.

At all six hotels we were greeted with sweet mint tea and warm wash rags. All had swimming pools, television and internet access.

To answer question three: No, I am not too old to ride a camel, nor is Josephine. We proved this by joining our group on a Lawrence of Arabia-type safari across the golden sands of the Sahara.

This wasn’t easy. The African camels (dromedaries) we rode didn’t come with saddles or stirrups — only a blanket and a small bar that served as a rein. Clinging to this we rode into the dunes, stopping at a high point to watch the sunset.

Coming down, I thought one of us would surely somersault over the camel’s nose. But we made it, and thanks to Susan Cook of Houston, a fellow traveler and excellent photographer, we have pictures to prove it.

A fourth question friends frequently ask is: “Would you go back?” My answer is: Yes, in a Morocco minute. I want to visit the places we missed; revisit some of the special sites we did see, and yes — just maybe — ride that camel again.

[Editor’s Note: Scattered incidents of violence have occurred in Morocco since this story was written. Check with the U.S. State Department for any travel advisories before going to Morocco, and consider purchasing trip insurance that allows you to cancel “for any reason” before paying for airfare or a package tour.]

Gwen Gibson, a former Washington journalist whose articles frequently appeared in the early years of the Beacon, is a freelance writer living in Texas.