By Michael Tilley
“Nighty night,” with that, my roommate inserts his orange ear-plugs, dons his night shade, hops into bed and promptly starts snoring. At 9:30 I think that is just a bit too early to go to sleep, unless you’re 6, while he’s more like 60. So I’m left feeling guilty having the light on to read my paperback or else having to find somewhere else in the hotel where it’s both warm and light enough for me. That’s one of the problems of an Explore holiday, no matter where you go in the world (though there’s now the option to book a single room on most trips). Apart from his questionable habits of hitting the sack early, my roommate for the fourteen nights in Morocco was O.K. Our routines meshed â€“ I was an evening devotee of the shower, while he preferred his ablutions in the morning. With the hotels we stayed in that meant I got the hot showers, while at best his were lukewarm.
Explore says it is their policy “to use small, locally owned hotels so it is the local people who benefit.” I found in Meknes that it was the mosquitoes who derived considerable enjoyment from my stay at the hotel Majestic, though I do not know who owns them. That policy also led to the farcical situation in another hotel of three of us imitating ‘Wee Willy Winky’ as we made our way to bed at 10:20 with candles lighting our way from restaurant to bedroom since the hotel owner had turned off his generator, presumably as part of his effort to preserve the planet from global warming. It certainly didn’t contribute to any warmth in the bedroom in this hotel, the Yasmina, at the Todra Gorge.
|Sun over the Desert|
The other main reason for choosing this organised tour was the trip through the ‘Valley Of The Thousand Kasbahs.’
I suppose I may have the wrong idea of what constitutes a kasbah, but I thought it was a fortress and palace combined. Our tour of Rabat with a local guide suggested to me that it was a fortified city when we explored the Kasbah des Oudayas. On that basis, I saw one and not a thousand kasbahs during our trip through the valley, and then we didn’t even stop to take a photo.
There is a kasbah at Ouarzazate and we did stop there for a photo session, even if the evening sun was shining into the cameras. The tourist authorities recognised this was something special since they provided flood-lighting. I’d hoped to get an evening photo, but, unfortunately our local hotel was 2 kilometres outside Ouarzazate with an unlit road to walk along. Call me a coward, but I didn’t fancy negotiating that at night, especially across a bridge where my opponents were Moroccan lorry drivers, so I never got my floodlit shot.
We all did get shots of Ait Benhaddou, a real kasbah. Real, because it is, and real since it’s situated off the main highway. It’s so picturesque; it’s been used as the site for several movies. That was a particularly worthwhile experience as we arrived in early morning when no-one else was around and the rays of the newly-risen sun were lighting up the village.
Although the itinerary does not say there are any kasbahs between Ouarzazate and Essaouira on the Atlantic coast, the journey through the Atlas mountains is really spectacular: worth at least five minutes of video from the coach window. Our travel through the mountains was on a coach, as it was for the whole of the journey, with a tour guide, driver and driver’s assistant. With only twenty of us in the group there was the opportunity for each of us to have a window seat.
Essaouira is reputedly a wind-surfers paradise. It is also a walled-city and offers the photographer several opportunities from the North Bastion and the Skala du Port as well as providing sunsets from the beach. There’s the chance to haggle, or not, since the town is laid-back and prices are far better than in Marrakesh or Fes.
A one word answer to the question ‘Why should I visit Morocco?’ is ‘Marrakesh’. It hasn’t got it all, but it has the Djemaa el Fna, and, with that, it doesn’t need anything else. Just make sure your wallet or purse is securely stashed away when you visit the square of snake-charmers, fortune tellers, acrobats, magic potion vendors. It really only comes alive by night when stalls start selling food, but, unfortunately, not only do you have to avoid pick-pockets but crazed moped and car drivers at any time of day or night.
The area north of the square is where you can buy olives or handbags in any colour you like. There are so many stalls selling exactly the same things in a maze of alleyways that you wonder how they all make a profit. Fes has similar alleyways, but, with the advantage of colour coded routes through the warren.
That’s the only thing that Fes offers over Marrakesh, apart from views over the tanneries: Dantes’ inferno in smell. However, Marrakesh provides some lovely gardens and the beauties of the Bahia Palace and Saadian Tombs. The best Fes can do is to offer medersas, but Marrakesh offers its own in a similar style.
Casablanca provided Explore with the sales ploy to give us the opportunity to visit the King Hassan II Mosque, at a cost. I’d seen mosques for free in Turkey so didn’t see why I should pay to visit another.
Rabat lingers in my mind since it had one of the king’s 52 palaces. It also had a market area easy to explore as well as the Kasbah des Oudayas. Chellah is on the outskirts of the city and gives the chance to photograph nesting storks as well as decrepit tombs.
Meknes was once an imperial capital, but the guided tour of the city studiously avoided any of those places a tourist might want to see. The mnemonic is Meknes, Majestic, mosquitoes.
Volubilis was the chance to see the most far-flung western outpost of the Roman Empire: remarkably well-preserved, with many beautiful mosaics and only 90 minutes scarcely enough to do it justice.
Surprisingly, I voluntarily spent two nights of my life in Erfoud. It has some of the characteristics of a border town including a complete absence of any restaurants you’d choose to eat in. The best ‘The Rough Guide’ can suggest is to climb one of the man-made spoil-tips near the town and look down on. I’d suggest the best view is the one from any bus leaving it.
So, would I suggest anyone should visit Morocco?
Firstly, lager addicts need not apply.
Secondly, any devotees of ancient architecture would be disappointed.
Thirdly, those who don’t like bargaining are going to be ripped-off.
For the sun without the sangria, Morocco offers the perfect destination.