samedi 24 novembre 2012


THE TAOURIRT CASBAH Approaching from the Boumalen road for Dadès, near to Ouarzazate is the casbah of Taourirt, a name that combines the Arab and Berber languages, meaning "hill fortress" - a structure that is of particular interest both for its fine architecture and its perfect integration into the environmental setting. Originally the residence of the pasha of Marrakesh and a symbol of the feudal period of the lords of Atlas, it consists of buildings that had a mainly military function and developed into a fortified city criss-crossed by numerous alleyways. There is a magnificient view from the terrace of the casbah. across to the mountains and the lake created by the Mansour ed- Dahbi dam, as far as the oases and enchanting Draa Valley.

mercredi 19 octobre 2011

Authentic Morocco

For westerners, Morocco holds an immediate and enduring fascination. Though just an hour's ride on the ferry from Spain, it seems at once very far from Europe, with a culture Islamic and deeply traditional that is almost wholly unfamiliar. Throughout the country, despite the years of French and Spanish colonial rule and the presence of modern and cosmopolitan cities like Rabat or Casablanca , a more distant past constantly makes its presence felt. Fes, perhaps the most beautiful of all Arab cities, maintains a life still rooted in medieval time, when a Moroccan empire stretched from Senegal to northern Spain; while in the mountains of the Atlas and the Rif, it is still possible to draw up tribal maps of the Berber population. As a backdrop to all this, the country's physical make-up is also extraordinary: from a Mediterranean coast, through four mountain ranges, to the empty sand and scrub of the Sahara.
All of which makes travel in Morocco an intense and rewarding -if not always easy -experience. Certainly, there can be problems in coming to terms with your privileged position as tourist in a nation that, for the most part, would regard such activities as those of another world. And the northern Morocco cities especially have a reputation for hustlers: self appointed guides whose eagerness to offers their services -and whose attitude to tourists as being a justifiable source of income (and to women as something much worse) -can be hard to ideal with. If you find this to be too much of a struggle, then it would probably be better to keep to low-key resorts like Essaouira or Asilah, or to the more cosmopolitan holiday destination of Agadir, built very much in the image of its Spanish counterparts, or even a packaged sightseeing tour.
But you'd miss a lot that way. Morocco is at its best well away from such trappings. A week's hiking in the Atlas; a journey through the southern oases or into the pre-Sahara; or leisured strolls around Tangier, Fes or Marrakesh -once you adapt to a different way of life, all your time will be well spend. And it is difficult for any traveller to go for long without running into Morocco's equally powerful tradition of hospitality, generosity and openness. This is a country people return to again and again.

mardi 18 octobre 2011


Marrakech-"Morocco City",as early travellers called it -has always been something of a pleasure city,a marketplace where the southern tribesmen and Berber villagers bring in their goods, spend their money and find enter-trainment. For visitor it's an enduring fantasy - a city of immense beauty low, red and tentlike before a great shaft of montains-and immediately exciting. At the heart of it all is a square,Djemaa El Fna, really no more than an open space in the centre of the city, but the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting cir-cles of onlookers and comedians. However many times you return there, it remains compelling. So, too, do the city's architectural attractions: the immense, still basins of the Agdal and Menara gardens, the delicate Granada-style carving of the saadian tombs and, above all the Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa.
Unlike Fes, for so long its rival as the nation's capital, the city exists very much in the present. After Casablanca, Marrakesh is Morocco's second largest city and its population continues to rise. It has a thriving industrial area which reflects the rich farmlands of the Haouz plain which surround it: notably flour mills, breweries and canning factories. And it remains the most important market and administrative centre of southern Morocco. None of this is to suggest an easy prosperity-there is heavy unemployment here, as throughout the country, and intense poverty, too -but a stay in Marrakesh leaves you with a vivid impression of life and activity. And for once this doesn't apply exclusively to the new city, Gueliz; the Medina, substantially in ruins at the beginning of this century, was rebuilt and expanded during the years of French rule and retains no less significant a role in the modern city.
The Koutoubia excepted, Marrakesh is not a place of great monuments. Its beauty and attraction lie in the general atmosphere and spectacular location -with the magnificent peaks of the Atlas rising right up behind the city, towering through the heat haze of summer or shimmering white of winter. the feel, as much as anything, is a product of this. Marrakech has Berber rather than Arab origins, having developed as the metropolis of Atlas tribes-Maghrebis from the plains, Saharan nomads and former slaves from Africa beyond the desert, Sudan, Senegal and the ancient Kingdom of Timbuktu. All of these strands shaped the city's souks and its way of life, and in the crowds and performers in Djemaa El Fna, they can still occasionally seem distinct.
For most travellers, Marrakesh is the first experience of the south and-despite the inevitable 'false' guides and hustlers-of its generally more relaxed atmosphere and attitudes. Marrakchis are renowend for their warmth and sociability, their humour and directness-all qualities that (superficially, at least) can seem absent among the Fassis. there is, at any rate, a conspicuously more laid-back feel than anywhere in the north, with women, for example, having a greater degree of freedom and public presence, often riding mopeds around on the streets. And compared to Fes, Marrakesh is much less homogenous and cohesive. The city is more a conglomeration of villages than an urban community, with quarters formed and maintained by successive generations of migrants from the countryside.

lundi 17 octobre 2011

The Djameaa El Fna

there's nowhere in Morocco like the Dejemaa El Fna - no place that so effortlessly involves you and keeps you coming back. By day it's basically a market, with a few snake charmers, storytellers and an occasional troupe of acrobats. In the evening it becomes a whole carnival of musicians, clowns and street entertainers. when you arrive in Marrakesh, and after you've found a room, come out here and you'll soon be immersed in the ritual: wandering round, squatting amid the circles of onlookers, giving a dirham or two as your contribution. If you want a respite, you can move over to the rooftop terraces of the Café de France or the Restaurant Argana to gaze over the square and admire the frame of the koutoubia.
what you are part of is a strange process. Some say that tourism is now vital ti the Djemaa's survival, yet apart from the snake charmers, monkey handlers and water vendors (all of whom live by posing for photographs), there's little that has compromised itself for the west. In many ways it actually seems the opposite . Most of the people gathered into circles round the performers are Moroccans - Berbers from the villages and lots of kids.There is no way that any tourist is going to have a tooth pulled by one of the dentists here, no matter how neat the piles of molars displayed on their square of carpet. Nor are you likely to use the scribes or street barbers or , above all, understand the convoluted tales of the storytellers, round whom are gathered perhaps the most animated, all-male crowds in the square.
Nothing of this, though, matters very much.There is a fascination in the remedies of the herb doctors, with their bizarre concoction spread out before them. There are performers, too, whose appeal is universal. The Jemaa Elfna square's acrobats, itinerants from Tazeroualt, have for years supplied the European circuses - though they are perhaps never so spectacular as here, thrust forward into multiple somersaults and contortions in the late afternoon heat. There are child boxers and sad-looking trained monkeys, clowns and chleuh boy dancers - their routines, to the climactic jarring of cymbals, totally sexual (and traditionally an invitation to clients).
And finally, the Djemaa's enduring sound - the dozens of musicians playing all kinds of instruments. late at night, when only a few people are left in the square, you encounter individual players, plucking away at their ginbris, the skin-covered two-or three-string guitars.Earlier in the evening, there are full groups: the Aissaoua, playing oboe-like ghaitahs next to the snake charmers; the Andalucian-style groups, with their ouds and violins; and the back Gnaoua, trance-healers who beat out hour-long hypnotic rhythms with iron clanging hammers and pound tall drums with long curved sticks.
if you get interested in the music there are two small sections on opposite sides of the square where stall sell recorded cassettes : one is near the entrance to the souks and the other is on the corner with the recently pedestrianized Rue Bab Agnaou. Most of these are by Egyptian or Algerian Rai bands, the pop music that dominates Morocco radio, but if you ask they'll play you Berber music from the Atlas, classic Fassi pieces, or even Gnaoua music - which sounds even stranger on tape, cut off only by the end of the one side and starting off almost identically on the other. These stalls apart, and those of the nut roasters, whose massive braziers line the immediate entrance to the potter's souk, the market activities of the Djemaa are mostly pretty mundane.

dimanche 16 octobre 2011

The Koutoubia

the absence of any architectural feature on Djemaa El Fna - which even today seems like a haphazard clearing -serves to emphasize the drama of the Koutoubia Minaret, the focus of any approach to the city. Nearly seventy metres high and visible for miles on a clear morning, this is the oldest of the three great Almohad towers (the others remaining are the tour hassan in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville)and the most complete.its proportions-a 1:5 ratio of width to height -established the classic Moroccan design. Its scale, rising from the low city buildings and the plains to the north, is extraordinary, the more so the longer you stay and the more familiar its sight becomes.
Completed by Sultan Yacoub El Mansour (1184-99), Work on the minaret probably began shortly after the Almohad conquest of the city, around 1150. It displays many of the features that were to become widespread in Moroccan architecture - the wide band of ceramic inlay near the top, the pyramid-shaped, castellated merlons rising above it, the use of darj w ktarf and other motifs -and it also established the alternation of patterning on different faces. Here, the top floor is similar on each of the sides but the lower two are almost eccentric in their variety; the most interesting is perhaps the middle niche on the southeast face, a semicircle of small lobed arches, which was to become the dominant decorative feature of Almohad gates.
If you look hard, you will notice that at around this point,the stones of the main body of the tower become slightly smaller. This seems odd today but originally the whole minaret would have been covered with plaster and its tiers of decoration painted. To see just how much this can change the whole effect - and, to most tastes, lessen much of its beauty - take a look at the Kasbah mosque (by the saadain Tombs) which has been carefully but completely restored in this manner.
there have been plans over the years to do the same with the Koutoubia and the local press have recently been running a number of articles on various schemes, possibly involving a restoration of the whole mosque area. To date, however, the only parts of the structure that have been renovated are the three gilt balls made of copper at the summit.These are the subject of numerous legends, mostly of supernatural intervention to keep away the thieves.They are thought originally to have been made of gold and were possibly the gift of the wife of Yacoub El Mansour, presented as a penance for breaking her fast for three hours during Ramadan.
Currently,the tower itself is encased in scaffolding, the purpose of which is not yet clear. At the same time ,archeologists are excavating the precincts of the mosque,possibly to verify that the original mosque, which predates the tower, had to be rebuilt to correct its alignment with Mecca.
Alongside the mosque, and close to Av.Mohammed V, is the tomb of Fatima Zohra, now in white koubba. She was the daughter of a seventeenth-century religious leader and tradition has it that she was a women by day and a white dove by night; consequently children dedicated to her,even today, never eat pigeons.

jeudi 9 juin 2011

The Lower Medina : the Royal palace, Saadian Tombs and Mellah

Staying in Marrakesh even for a few days, you begin to sense the different appearance and life of its various Medina quarters, and nowhere more so than in the shift from north to south, from the area to the north of Djemaa El Fna and that to the south of it. At the southern extremity ( a kind of stem to the mushroom shape of the city walls) is Dar El Makhzen, the royal palace. To its west stretches the old inner citadel of the Kasbah; to the east, the Mellah, once the largest Jewish ghetto in Morocco; while rambling to the north of it is a series of mansions and palaces built for the nineteenth-cen-tury elite.
All in all, it's an interesting area to wander round, though you inevitably spend time trying to figure out the sudden and apparently arbitrary appearance of ramparts and enclosures. And there are two obvious focal points, not to be missed : the Saadian Tombs, preserved in the shadow of the Kasbah mosque, and El Badi, the ruined palace of Ahmed El Mansour.

The Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes

Rue Amesfah runs for around 150m north of the intersection with Rue Baroudienne before reaching the junction of Rue Assouel (to the east) and Rue Bab Taghzout (to the west). Following Rue Bab Taghzout, you pass another fondouk, opposite a small recessed fountain known as Chrob ou Chouf ("drink and admire"), and around 500m further down, the old city gate of Bab Taghzout. This marked the limits of the original Almoravid Medina, and continued to do so into the eighteenth century, when Sultan Mohammed Abdallah extended the walls to enclose the quarter and the Zaouia of Sidi Bel Abbes.
Sidi Bel Abbes was born in Ceuta in 1130. As a marabout and a prolific performer of miracles, particularly giving sight to the blind, he is the most important of Marrakesh's seven saints, and his zaouia, a kind of monastic cult centre, has traditionally wielded very great influence and power, often at odds with that of the sultan and providing a refuge for political dissidents.
The present buildings, entry to which is strictly forbidden to non-Muslims, date largely from a reconstruction by Moulay Ismail, an act that was probably inspired more by political motivation than piety. you can see something of the complex and its activities from outside the official boundary - do not, however, try to pass through the long central corridor. The zaouia has prospered over the centuries; in 1875, it was said to possess property to the value of £200,000 and serves as a great almshouse and asylum.
It still owns much of the quarter to the north and continues its educational and charitable work, distributing food each evening to the blind.
The tomb of Sidi Bel Abbes is in the nearby Sidi Marouk cemetery and can, for a small fee, be visited by non-Muslims; look for the white koubba with the light green dome. A couple of blocks to the southwest, there is a smaller, though again significant zaouia dedicated to Sidi Mohammed ben Slimane, a Saadian marabout and another of Marrakesh's seven saints.

West to Bab Doukkala : Dar El Glaoui
A third alternative from Ben Youssef is to head west towards Bab Doukkala. This route, once you've found your way down through Souk Haddadine to Rue Bab Doukkala, is a sizeable thoroughfare and very straightforward to follow. Midway, you pass the Dar El Glaoui, the old place of the Pasha of Marrakesh and a place of legendary exoticism throughout the first half of this century . Part of it is nowadays occupied by the Ministry of Culture; visitors are allowed in at the discretion of the caretaker, but there's little to see. The main section of the place remains private.