UNDER COOL MOROCCAN SKIES by Glenn A. Baker

MarrakechMorocco 52

It was that line in Crosby Stills & Nash’s Marrakesh Express about being “under cool Morrocan skies” that marked my expectations. I’d been warned to avoid the train itself but the evening breeze, well, that didn’t seem too much to expect. 

And there it was, swirling around Casablanca airport, which is as close to the city of Bogie’n’Bergman, of Rick’s Cafe, as I would get. Dismissed as dreary and corporate by even those who reside there, it seems that Morrocan visitors rarely see it. No sooner are you out of the car park, breeze in your hair, than you’re whipping along a wide motorway to Rabat, just an hour away.

When you think about it, and I did, few relatively small countries have so many cities that can be brought immediately to mind, even by those who may not have been there. Casablanca, Marrakech, Fes, Tangier, Rabat, Melilla all roll off the tongue easily.  It could have something to do with the fact that, since the counter-cultural upheaval of the 1960s, Morocco has loomed large as an exotic destination, a place that you should have found your way to if only to be a bona-fide global citizen. The rock gods of the time, Rolling Stones and Hendrix, came to commune with high-flying traditional musicians and hash sellers and set in train a hippie trail that still exerts a certain pull.

MarrakechMorocco 10

There’s always been something enticing in the proximity of this North African nation, just there on the far side of Gibralter’s rock, sharing the same sea as Spain, France, Italy and Greece. It could be anything you wanted it to be. The Mediterranean at the top, the Sahara at the bottom, the Atlantic on one side, forbidding Algeria on the other. In the middle, magnificent, evocative landscapes that could be in Continental Europe.  Traditional Berber and Islamic on one hand, French-tongued cosmopolitan on the other.

The allure remains potent – a generation of young women now know it as one of the principal locations of the second Sex In The City film. There is yet to be a permanent monument erected to Sarah Jessica Parker and comrades but, when Orson Welles made Othello in the harbour city of Essaouira, the locals honoured him with a park surrounding a bust set in a monument. Sixty years on, it can be said to have seen better days, with his sculptured face splashed with a bucket of wet cement….but, hey, it was initial thought that counted.

Unless you’re heading well north to Tangier, the former International Zone where spies rubbed shoulders with flower children, there is a natural trajectory to be followed from Rabat – inland to Fes then back west and descending south to Marrakech and on to the vigorously sea-swept ports of Essaouira and Agadir, Bouncing up against the magnificent High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains, possibly en route to rolling Saharan dunes. Throughout, well lubricated by cups of steaming mint tea, a ceaseless Moroccan motif of medinas (walled cities within cities), souks (tumultuous markets), riads (intimate oasis-type hotels, usually tucked away anonymously down slender passageways) and meals taken at footpath grills out front of butchers providing cuts to order.

FesMorocco 44

Rabat has all the business bustle of a capital, with major hotel chains and swish offices drawing that end of the market but it’s also where there’s a chance of catching the young king joining locals at outdoor prayers and where, perched atop a cliff with sweeping views of river and ocean, you’ll find the twelfth century Kasbah Les Oudamas, garnished with carved arches that came, along with the tranquil winding streets full of spruce blue and white painted houses, with Muslim immigrants from nearby Spain.

You can let this serve as a mood-setter, an introduction to million-strong Fes, a couple of easy hours’ drive away; though nothing quite prepares you for that 1200-year-old World Heritage-listed maze. Were there nothing else, Fes would be reason alone to go to Morocco. Evoking Jerusalem on one hand and Venice on the other, it is the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city and the largest contiguous car-free urban area. Hurl yourself in one end and presume you’ll eventually come out another all the better for it, having spent time among bakers, donkey handlers, scholars, singers, scribes, confectioners and craftsmen of myriad shade. Minarets alongside satellite dishes. Musicians only just heard above the din of copper beaters. A true feast for the senses.

On a hill outside the old city early in the morning, hide traders pile pelts atop small horses and trundle away. Later in the day, many of these pelts will have found their way to the Chouwara Tanneries, the oldest complex of curing and dying vats in the world. From surrounding vantage points (usually leather shops), you can watch the exacting ancient trade carried on by descendents of its founders. Just as essential a view is the one had from the balcony of the seductive Palais Faraj hotel, a remodeled traditional house of rich traders and power brokers. If breakfast is taken better anywhere else, I did not come upon it.

Morocco road 17

Marrakech is more brash, more accustomed to (and in some ways less tolerant of) tourists. As modern as it is historical, it has – along with offices, skyscrapers and trendy suburbs with boutiques, gelati bars and expensive apartments – an enveloping, labyrinthine medina, expert padlock and musical instrument makers, universities, and a famous centre square inhabited by snakes, monkeys and their handlers by day and busy food stalls (snails steamed in their shells being one specialty) at night. As everywhere else in Morocco, teeming piles of sweet oranges sit alongside juicing machines and thirsty queues.  Proving almost as popular is Argan oil, ground from local nuts and used – depending on the roasting level – for hair care and bread dipping. On the road to the coast, past trees inhabited by goats (with some assistance from herders), there are Argan factories receiving busloads of visitors, many negotiating for further supplies by mail order. Once, they came for substances you smoked but at least they still come.

One is reminded of the initial enticement in a tiny threadbare village on the outskirts of the Phonecian-originated Essaouira, the most essential destination on the Atlantic seaboard. Though the couple of Hendrix-themed bars would suggest something more grandiose, the late guitarist spent a few days there in 1969, chilling out without a guitar but with a little help from his friends.

While one is inclined to think that it must have been quite a place then, the sea port itself is quite a place now – as picturesque a boat-jammed fishing harbour as you’re likely to find in Africa. Whipped rather energetically by winds that have stopped it from become too overrun by mainstream tourism (Agadir picks up the sun-seekers), Essaouira has a rugged, briney, gritty tone and layered mystique of a once-vital commerce link (between Timbuktu and Europe) and fortified garrison town that has retained much of its charm. Painters ply their trade, flogging their canvases under ramparts still dotted with canons, the one where Welles dangled Iago in a cage over crashing waves in that Othello production all those years ago.

EssaouiraMorocco03

Once a French protectorate, its design is courtesy of the man who laid out Brittany’s Saint-Malo port though beyond the arresting harbour is the ancient array of medina, souk, lazas, cafes and aromatic fish markets that is pure Morocco. Blue is such powerful motif that this may be the only place on the planet where the Coca Cola signage is in that shade. UNESCO plonked the whole thing onto its World Heritage Listing in 2001.

Just as Fes hosts an annual sacred music festival which has offered such performers as Ben Harper and Norah Jones, Essaouira claims two world-renowned music events – the Gnaoua and World Music Festival and the Festival des Andalousies Atlantiques. The bluesy, rhythmic and hypnotic Gnaoua is to Morocco what reggae is to Jamaica and many of the loyal foreign visitors are drawn to Essaouira for its creative streak. My eye caught a Led Zeppelin portrait in the foyer of one of the many richly-appointed but encouragingly inexpensive hotels and riads in the town. Snatches of sound swirled through the winding streets, as did compelling characters inextricably intertwined with the place. As ethereal as it is exotic.

As shrieking seagulls swooped, grills sizzled, artists interpreted and the sun sunk over the walls where a couple of thousand troops once oversaw trade in gold, ivory, salt and feathers for the sake of an orderly empire, there was no small amount of joy once again on my part to be under those cool Moroccan skies.

MarrakechMorocco 38

Glenn flew to Morocco via Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways. He was exposed to the delights of the country by Morocco By Prior Arrangement.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of the fabulous Get Up & Go magazine – http://www.getupandgo.com.au

©2014 Glenn A. Baker. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.

 

Advertisements

BASIL AND BEAN GO TO AFRICA by John Borthwick

MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED OR COPIED

I had a train ride in Africa — through a country where the street signs still say Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse and Zeppelinstrasse. As one woman told me, “In Namibia we still speak the Kaiser’s tongue — not like up there in Deutschland now where foreign influence has so much polluted the language.”

Ochre deserts to the right, the deep Atlantic blue to the left, we trundled north on our tourist train. This was its inaugural trip and the bar car was home to a crew, including foreign journalists, who might have come from a camp remake of Murder on the Orient Express.

A hyperactive British reporter – think Mr Bean on speed, with the added wickedness of speech – was winding up the train’s equally highly-strung tour guide – think Basil Fawlty goes to Africa. Young Bean, witty, weird and at heart still a very naughty English schoolboy, had his sights set on young Hanna, a Rubenesque, blond German journalist. Basil of Africa, fortyish, angular and anguished, had his eye on her too. Meanwhile, Hanna’s colleague, Ulrike from Erotikfuhrer magazine (the title evoked images of Hitler in fishnet stockings) was attracting the attentions of the train’s Afrikaner wildlife guide.

Before arriving, all I knew about the country was that Kaiser Wilhelm’s Colonial Reich held sway in Deutsch-Südwestafrika for 30 years from 1884. After the Germans were expelled during World War I, this became a South African protectorate. True to form, white Pretoria overstayed its invitation by decades, protecting the hell out of the place, which just happened to be fabulously rich in diamonds. In 1990 South-West Africa finally gained its independence and a new name, Namibia.

Tensions in the train’s bar car rose. Hanna, as clever as she was curvaceous, delighted in dropping double entendres before both Bean and Basil. Meanwhile, the train had four mini-buses which were rolled off for excursions. Bean further enraged Basil by commandeering one and, as a Londoner perfectly unaccustomed to driving on desert sand drifts, promptly rolled and totalled it. Hanna smiled winningly at both of them, and then had dinner with me. A train is, if nothing else, a rumour on rails. Although I retired solo to my blameless bunk, reports of our soiree saw me added to Basil’s “daggers” list — which Bean thought even jollier fun. “Let’s wind up old Basil again,” was his favourite battle cry.

MAY NOT BE REPRODUCED OR COPIED

We reached the ghost town of Kolmanskop on the edge of the diamond-studded desert known as the Forbidden Territory. A community of 1300 Germans and Afrikaners once thrived here. Amid the encroaching dunes, we found their old social club, complete with a skittle alley, wooden balls and ninepins. The windowless, two-story mansion of the mine’s chief engineer stood nearby like a sand-blasted skeleton of the Bates Motel in Psycho.

Jack the Chef, too, had his eyes on Ulrike and not, as they say, on his fries. The distracted result was that his “out of Africa” cuisine increasingly became a gastronomic massacre. Pate of biltong (dried meat jerky) would accompany an offering of oryx or antelope — both of which look far better loping across a plain than demised on a plate, even if lathered with Jack’s “secret sauce.” “It’s like eating a game park with cranberry sauce,” lamented Bean, loudly. When served “tongue” (of which animal we never knew), a woman from Florida announced to the dining car, “I can’t eat that — you never know what it might have licked.”

We rolled on to Ludertiz, a sunny fishing port that looks like Bavaria-by-the-Beach. Here we were joined by Markus, a dour Namibian accountant who had been press-ganged into the role of barman. He could not accept that anyone — especially a tourist, or worse, a journalist — ought to be trusted to volunteer a correct cabin number for a bar tab. Undeterred, the wildlife guide — Bean had nicknamed him “Rolf the Ranger” — was straining to impress Ms Erotikfuhrer. His lines sounded like Karen Blixen badly rescripted by Wilbur Smith: “Let me tell you about my Hereros [a Namibian tribe] on my farm …” At which, much of the bar crew winced, as did Rolf’s wife who was darkly observing it all.

Our sometimes ship of fools of the desert moved further north to the pretty seaside town of Swakopmund, which might be a suburb from 19th century Hamburg. It was here that an elderly German woman informed me that she and her kind were preserving the Kaiser’s “pure” Deutsch tongue. Cupola domes and widows-walks crown Swakopmund’s elegant Belle Epoque buildings and everything is in good repair. In fact, Namibia is sometimes known as “the Switzerland of Africa” because of its wealth, cleanliness and rule of law. If only Switzerland had a coast like this and strudel like Swakopmund’s it could aspire to be the Namibia of Europe.

With Basil of Africa fuming at Bean on Speed, Hanna smouldering at them both, and Rolf angling for Ulrike, things were getting messy. It all hit the punkah on what became known as the Night of the Wrong Wives when Hanna enjoyed one too many cocktails with Bean and one too few with Basil.

Sulking Basil attempted to have Bean put off the train. Bean mugged, “No! There are lions out there. Tigers! Dingos!” Hanna intervened, batting her eyelashes and whispering some delectable promise — though never to be delivered — in Basil’s ear. He was torn, but Bean was reprieved. Instead, Markus the suspicious barman was relieved of his duties — no explanation was ever offered — and the bar ambience improved mightily, as did it the flow of drinks. So much so that at two a.m, Rolf’s wife stormed into the bar car and emptied the great white hunter’s drink over his head and that of the adjacent Ulrike to boot.

©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.