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Play it again, Sam

The very word, “Casablanca” used to inspire for me images of a sultry, sexy French Morocco during the war; an ideal sub-tropical setting for the tragic love triangle that featured Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

As I discovered, the real Casablanca couldn’t be further from the truth. A busy and vibrant metropolis on the Atlantic coastline jammed with heaving souks, mobile market sellers and dilapidated taxis snaking their way through the melee, Casablanca does not strike you to be a typical haven for legendary romance. Having subsequently learnt that the film of its namesake was filmed in its entirety at the Warner Brothers studios in Burbank, California, it comes as no surprise.

Nevertheless, Morocco, nestling in the top North Western corner of Africa and just a mere hop over the pond from Europe, is a melting pot of Western and Islamic cultures and tradition. Combining modern, increasingly cosmopolitan tastes and trends, and peppered with a captivating blend of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish tongues, Morocco’s rich sense of empire and history provides the perfect backdrop to compliment the dynamic pace of this nation.

Casablanca is bewildering mix of old and new. Delicate Islamic architecture peeps out amidst an increasingly modern and industrial facade. The city itself was partially remodelled during the French occupation and now features wide, palm lined boulevards, which provide a sharp contrast to the winding narrow streets of the original Arab town, now known as the Old Medina.

Strands of tradition continue to run amongst the mushrooming prevalence of suited office workers. Men dressed in traditional, flowing cloaks (burnouses), fez headwear and pointed leather slippers stride purposefully alongside the suits and sunglasses brigade. Traditional water sellers meander slowly through the crowds, ornately dressed in wide brimmed hats and ringing bells to announce their presence. For a small price you can buy a drink of water, decanted from the animal hide skin bags worn slung over their shoulders. Unfortunately, my sense of adventure had all but evaporated by then, so I stuck to my bottle of Evian.

Casablanca’s chief monument is the Hassan II Mosque, which with a capacity for 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 outside is the second largest mosque in the world after Mecca. Its 210 meter minaret is the tallest in the world and the site has become a major tourist attraction. Designed by a French architect, it features an abundance of mosaics, marble, sculpture, carvings and hand painting; all from materials exclusively derived from Morocco and was built to celebrate the 60th birthday of the former Moroccan King Hassan II.

The souks and markets of Morocco are essential, if sometimes dubious viewing. Fruit and vegetable stalls groan under veritable rainbows of produce. Dried fruits and nuts are carefully labelled and displayed in orderly rows of burlap sacks, as are the plentiful supplies of olives, pimientos and pickles, which glisten like jewels in the sun. Glassy eyed and often mammoth-sized fish and crustaceans, morning fresh from Casablanca’s busy port lie in beds of ice, and now and then we spot stainless steel basins of live eels splashing around at the vendors’ feet. Live tortoises squirm in crowded boxes, ready to take home and make into soup and rabbits stare forlornly out of their hutches, uncertain of their fate. A glance down the butchery rows reveals live chickens, dead ones and a selection of other meats, and several brightly lit stalls announce the Moroccan taste for horse meat. Faced with such a wild assortment of colours, smells and sounds within this living (and in some cases still breathing) open air supermarket and, it is hard not to stand gawping in the aisles and getting underfoot of the locals who hurry purposefully through, picking up the ingredients for dinner that evening.

Handicrafts are the other staple of Moroccan markets and souks, with an equally bewildering array of carpets, pottery, jewellery, brassware and woodwork on prominent display at all times. Most striking is the leather ware, locally known as maroquinerie. Handmade luggage, shoes, hats and toys are given pride of place, and I myself bought several pairs of beautifully soft hand stitched leather slippers. With regard to bargaining, try to give as good as you get. In most cases do not accept the first price given; bartering is generally carried out in good humour, and despite being joshed that you have personally bankrupted their establishment, you’ll find you’ve made a friend for life and a magnificent purchase after just a few minutes of strenuous patter.
Prior to my arrival in Morocco, I had been told by several people that Moroccan food, although satisfactory, was nothing really to write home about. Admittedly, I was slightly surprised at how limited the menus were in some of the places we dined (but that’s probably just a consequence of my being spoiled rotten for choice in London), but it has to be said that what was on offer was pretty tasty. The national dish is tagine – both the name of a vegetable and lamb (or chicken) casserole (cooked with a choice of herbs and other variations) and the earthenware pot in which it is cooked and served. Couscous (finely ground semolina), often dressed with sultanas and other dried fruits is the standard accompaniment to the tagine, as are side salads and brochettes; which are similar to kebabs. The main gastronomic highpoint for me was the seafood in Casablanca. Being a port city, seafood is available in glorious, fresh abundance. Grilled grouper, John Dory, red snapper, langoustines, my personal favourite the delectable seafood bastilla (a dish of baked layers of thin pastry stuffed with grouper, shrimp, mushrooms and vermicelli)  and dish upon dish of oysters were a mouth-watering treat at almost criminally low prices, as were the wide selection of aperitifs and other beverages. Alcohol is not banned in Morocco, but in order to have a drink, you must make sure that you are on the inside premises of the bar or restaurant you are in, as it is illegal to drink in public places – and that includes at any outside tables.

Although Moroccan desserts are not traditionally served at the end of a meal, those with a sweet tooth will without doubt find themselves on cloud nine. Fragranced water, honey, anise and cinnamon are just some of the glorious and rather glamorous ingredients used in Moroccan sweets. Most street cafes and market vendors have fresh trays of pastries filled with chocolate sauce, almonds and fruit on offer, driving you almost to distraction with their tantalizing smells. Many Moroccans take a decidedly Parisian approach to breakfast, combining these tempting pastries and sweets with steaming cups of sweet hot chocolate. Eager to ditch the diet, this quickly became a practice I was more than happy to indulge in, after all, When in Rome, as the adage goes…

Hoping for a reprieve from the hubbub of Casablanca, a peaceful three-hour train journey past the snow capped Atlas Mountains to Marrakech seemed to be the ideal solution.

Marrakech railway station deposits you on to the main thoroughfare, the Avenue Hassan II which leads directly to the Place Djemma el-Fna – a large market square at the heart of the old city. The square, bordered by numerous souks is a hive of constant activity; by day market sellers set up stalls or lay squares of fabric to display their wares. The potential for unusual souvenirs such as stuffed iguanas or trays of false teeth is ample and particularly tempting against the backdrop of whirling performances by snake charmers, jugglers and magicians. Natural medicines, hand made jewellery and leather handicrafts are also on show, and should you get peckish or thirsty, there are mobile tea vendors serving sweet mint thirst quenchers and snails still in their shells sold with a toothpick that make for a handy snack on the run. As evening falls, these curios make way for clattering, smoking food stalls where you simply pull up a stool to experience one of the liveliest models of al fresco dining under a cloak of stars.

As the heat and constant bustle of Marrakech began to wear us down, we were revitalized with a trip to the Jardin Majorelle.

An oasis of calm, the jewel-like Jardin Majorelle (which is now owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent) is a veritable Garden of Eden sprouting in the midst of a chaotic city. The gardens were created by French artist Louis Majorelle during the 1920s and cover roughly two acres. An art deco painter and amateur botanist, Majorelle lovingly tended hundreds of species of plants and painted the walls and plant pots in a soothing array of dusty reds, cool blues and calming greens. A stroll amongst the lush foliage, whisps of bougainvillea, cactuses, and palm trees is as welcome and soothing as a long cool glass of water. Majorelle’s studio still stands and houses a small museum of Islamic art which also features rugs, pottery and paintings and drawings he produced during his time in Morocco.

An hour’s train journey from Casablanca will find you in Rabat, the coastal capital of Morocco which embodies a happy medium between the extremes of Casablanca and Marrakech.

Benefiting from the cooler sea air of the Atlantic Ocean and altogether less crowded and chaotic, we found we were better able to explore the souks and markets with a minimum of hassle. For the cost of a few pastries, two women set to work decorating my hands with the red henna dye traditionally used for brides on their wedding day, which I proudly displayed for weeks after we had returned to London, before they eventually faded away.

The Kasbah des Oudaias, which sits in a prominent position on a hill high over the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the most striking sights in Rabat, but my most memorable experience by far was the afternoon I spent visiting the ancient Roman city of Chellah.

An archaeology museum – said to be the finest in Morocco, is housed within the walls of this small city, as well as structural remains left by the Romans themselves. Stepping through the gates, your first impression is that you have wandered into a secret garden; fig, olive, orange and banana trees grow in tangled abundance on both sides of the central path which slopes gently downwards towards the remains of a mosque and tombs. Within this site are the tombs of local venerated saints and a small walled pool, home to several of eels lurking in the murky water, which are said to be a symbol of fertility and are visited and fed by childless women.

In the highest branches of almost every tree lie vast birds’ nests. Storks perch serenely in the branches, feeding their babies and gliding gracefully from roost to roost. Atop the minaret by the remains of the mosque sits the largest nest of them all, dominated by a similarly prominently sized bird.

The presence of so many birds, and the curious, dreamy peacefulness exuded by them created a spellbinding ambience. The astonishing stillness was broken only by the crack of thunder and the ensuing rainstorm, which drenched the gardens and chased us into the ruins for shelter.

A sense of tranquillity washed over us as we stared over the bottom wall of the city, wiping the raindrops from our faces and gazing at the endless expanse of the North African plains which spread out past the city walls.
We had come to Morocco not quite knowing what to expect, and yet in just a week we felt we had experienced the full gamut of what the country had to offer. Hectic and vibrant, yet serene and tranquil in equal measures; Morocco had swept us up into its arms and carried us on a picturesque route from one end of its spectrum to the other. The henna designs on my hands may have only lasted a few weeks, but Morocco itself will be imprinted on my consciousness for good.

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