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A little tour of Morroco by Returned Volunteer Richard Alleman
A little tour of Morroco by Returned Volunteer Richard Alleman
A little tour of Morroco by Returned Volunteer Richard Alleman
A little tour of Morroco by Returned Volunteer Richard Alleman
A Little Tour of Morocco
Back in the late 1960s, I lived in Morocco for two years. I was 21 years old when I arrived as a Peace Corps Volunteer, raring to teach English at a lycée deep in the Marrakesh medina. It was an incredible time--filled with exotic food and sights, emotional highs and lows, big philosophical questions and small reality bites like constantly being broke (we were paid $115 a month, which even in those days, even in Morocco, didn't go very far). Ultimately, it was two years in which I did a great deal of growing up. After my tour of duty, I returned several times to this country that had become a second home to me, but by the mid-1970s I stopped. There were simply too many other places in the world that I wanted to see. Happily, in the last 20 years, I have been privileged to see and write about many of those places, so when the opportunity came up for a return visit to Morocco last fall, I figured it was high time. It would be sort of like seeing an old lover after many years. Would the spark still be there? Would the affair be rekindled? I was about to see.
The first time I saw Casablanca, I came in on a bus from Marrakesh. I had been in Morocco for about a month and the teaching wasn't going very well and I was homesick--not just for the U.S. but for some of my best Peace Corps friends, who had been assigned jobs in the country's largest city. What first struck me about Casablanca was how French it was. And no wonder--since the city had been master-planned by the French as a model colonial metropolis during the period (1912-1956) when Morocco was a French "protectorate" (read colony). With its grand boulevards and rond-points, its pretty parks and art-deco villas, its sidewalk cafés and fashionably-dressed locals, Casablanca was hardly exotic--but after a month in Marrakesh, which in those dayswas, I was craving things Western. My first night I stayed in a little downtown hotel with a cage elevator. The next morning my friends met me and we had cafés au lait and croissants at Le Petit Poucet, where St. Exupéry hung out in the1930s. That night we went to a discothèque. The whole weekend I pretended I was in Paris.
Today, you don't go to Casablanca to pretend you're in Paris. You go because it's where the Royal Air Maroc flight from New York lands. But many travelers, hungering for the fantasy North Africa of Paul Bowles novels and Hollywood movies, bypass Casa entirely and immediately change planes for Marrakesh or Fez or Tangier. I, however, long to see the big white colonial town for old times sake. Never mind that on the ride in from the airport I hardly recognize anything. The old two-lane road is now a freeway; where once there were only fields and farms, posh walled estates with Moorish-moderne great houses and multiple satellite dishes have sprung up. Closer to town, I spot a brand-new shopping mall, also with a Moorish architectural theme.
As we penetrate the center of the city, things start looking more familiar: the great ivory Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (now a school), the the Place des Nations Unis with its huge fountain, the bustling Place Mohammed V, and the landmark Royal Mansour hotel. Built in 1952, this182-room hotel has kept up with the times and today offers the usual luxuries--concierge floor, CNN, health club--as well as some unexpected ones like a traditional Moroccan hamam (steam bath), which is an ideal way to fight off (or give into) jet lag. My own way of dealing with jet lag after an overnight flight is to take a two-hour nap as soon as I check into my hotel, and then plunge right into sight-seeing.
Casablanca has never been known for its tourist attractions--but as I look out the window of my hotel room, I see something that may change all that. Shimmering like a great beige mirage at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean is the mounmental new Hassan II Mosque. Built by Morocco's King Hassan in a bid for immortality (he will be buried here) and as a bulwark against Muslim fundamentalism, this colossal religious complex was begun in 1986 and officially opened in August of 1993. Said to represent the work of some 10,000 craftsmen and an investment of over $1 billion (much of it financed by contributions from the Moroccan people), the mosque can hold 80,000 worshippers at one time; only the grand mosque at Mecca is larger. For travelers, the best news is that, unlike almost all of Morocco's other mosques, which are off limits to non-Muslims, the Hassan II offers guided tours to anyone willing to pay the $12 entrance fee.
It is well worth the money. It's not every day--especially in the late 20th century--that someone builds something on the scale of the Taj Mahal. Arriving for the tour, I expect the guide to be some turbaned imam. Instead we are met by a thoroughly modern Moroccan in an Armani-knockoff jacket, pressed jeans, and mirrored aviator sunglasses. Despite the fact that he seems to be in a world-class hurry, I manage to catch the highlights of his rapid-fire, heavily-accented English. In many ways, the mosque is the ultimate showcase of traditional Moroccan decorative arts and craftsmanship. In room after room, hall after hall, stairwell after stairwell, you are dazzled by the sculpted columns and archways, the mosaic tiled walls, the painted ceilings and domes, the delicately chiselled woodwork. Almost as impressive are all the high-tech touches: the enormous brass gate that rises electronically, the secretly heated marble floors, the Grand Hyatt-like glass service elevator that shoots up the side of the 200-meter minaret (the tallest on earth), which is topped with a laser beamed toward Mecca. Most spectacular of all is the gigantic coffered cieling of the main prayer hall, which in fair weather can be opened to the sky. "Just like the Super Dome," our guide jokes.
After the tour, I attempt to travel 25 years back in time with a stop at Le Petit Poucet for a late lunch. Alas, the restaurant section is closed and the bar seems to have turned into a smoky hangout for hustlers. So much for St. Exupéry. I have much better luck at Golden China, a pretty Vietnamese/Chinese place in an old European quarter called the Marif. The crowd in the narrow dining room reflects Casablanca's cosmopolitan population: well-heeled Moroccans at one table, French at another, an Asian couple, even a group of young Americans, who may well Peace Corps volunteers. The delicate spring rolls--served with bib lettuce, fresh mint, corriander--are as good as any I've ever had. As are the crunchy/gooey rice noodles (à la fucanaise) with squid, tiny shrimp, and mushrooms. At Golden China I also discover the uncomplicated Moroccan white wine Coquillage, not unlike the Greek Domestica, which goes well with this light lunch and which I will order frequently throughout this trip.
A light lunch is appropriate this first afternoon in Morocco, because dinner at Le Douira, the Moroccan restaurant back at the Royal Mansour, is another story. Magnificent inlaid and brightly painted doors lead to this jewell of a dining room--with mosaic walls, sofa-like banquettes, embroidered table cloths, brass-and-glass lanterns. The meal begins with braewats, small pastry envelopes filled with meat and fish. These are followed by an embarassment of cooked salads: eggplant, tomato and green pepper, carrots with orange, carrots with rosewater, sweet onions with almonds, even lamb brain. These are best when eaten with a hunk of mealy Moroccan bread and accompained by one of Morocco's light, not quite rosé, gris (grey) wines. The main courses are a trio oftajines (stews), served in earthenware pots with conical lids. One is lamb with prunes and olives--very sweet. Another is chicken with lemons and olives--whioh is both sweet and tart. Best of all is the fish tajine--with tomatoes, olives, and onions. Throughout this feast, an old man in a white djellaba comes round with a pitcher of rosewater and a silver basin so that we can wash our hands between courses. The grand finale is the dessert, bisteeya au lait. Traditionallybisteeya is a special-occasion pigeon pie, made with layers of phyllo pastry and topped with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and ground almonds. This unusual bisteeya dessert is a minimalist version of the dish--a phyllo, cinnamon, sugar, and almond concoction that you smother with milk and orange water. "God, even the food has changed!" I note in my journal, once back in my room and unable to sleep, thanks to this gargantuan meal as well as the excitement of being back.
The drive from Casablanca to Fez is not Morocco's most scenic. Basically beach towns up until Rabat, the capital, where you head inland and travel across a rich agricultural area of vineyards, orchards, olive groves, and low white Berber farms with cactus fences and huge haystacks that look like Cotswolds cottages. I have hired a car and driver for this trip, although the road is quite good, so it would have been easy to do it myself in a rental car. But then I wouldn't have met Brahim Laabroussi, the friendly Fassi who not only drives with a steady hand but who provides just the right amount of commentary. And silence.
At Meknes, one of Morocco's four Imperial cities (the others are Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh), we stop for lunch at a place called Metropole; it is not particularly memorable, except for the harira, a hearty Moroccan soup traditionally used to break the day of fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Made of lamb, lentils, tomatoes, onion, and spices, this particularharira is wonderfully tangy, thanks to lots of lemon juice and fresh coriander. Afterwards, Brahim and I make a quick swing around town, hitting major sights such as the ruins of the royal stables, where the Sultan Moulay Ismael, who reigned from 1672 to 1727, is said to have quartered some12,000 horses. From Brahim, I also learn that the stables were used as a location forThe Jewel of the Nile., one of many films, including the infamous Ishtar , with Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, that Brahim has worked on as a driver. Brahim obviously wants to work on more films, because he is the consumate diplomat when questioned about the off-screen antics of the aforementioned actors.
Meknes's most famous attraction is the Bab el Mansour, a spectacular gateway, also built by Moulay Ismael, faced with green-and-white ceramics. I would love to get out of the car for a closer look, but the square is swarming with teenage Moroccans in attack-guide mode and Brahim advises against it.
There's no problem getting out at Volubilis, however. Set in hilly, Tuscan-like countryside about 35 kilometers from Meknes, this is one of Morocco's most beguiling spots. The ruins of a Roman colonial outpost that thrived between the first century B.C. and third century A.D., Volubilis in its heyday had a population of 15,000. After the Romans left, Latinized Berbers stayed on until the Arab invasion of Morocco in the seventh century. After that, the city was pretty much abandoned. Today it has been restored just enough to let your imagination fill in the blanks. I spend an hour or so wandering in and out of its temples, courtyards, gardens, and private homes, many with sections of mosiac floors still intact. Afterwards, I cap my time travels with a glass of hot mint tea--the sugary Moroccan national drink--on the terrace of the café at the main entrance. The view of Volubulis, its columns glowing in the sunset, is magical. I almost don't want to continue on to Fez.
Because I lived in Marrakesh, I was never Fez's biggest fan. It was the classic north/south rivalry: Arab Fez was like San Francisco--older, more cultured, smug; whereas Berber Marrakesh was Los Angeles--younger, less polished, more laid-back. On this visit, however, I am determined to see Fez with an unbiased eye. I am also excited by the prospect of finally staying in the legendary Palais Jamaï hotel. Built as a pleasure palace at the end of the eighteenth century by a wealthy Fassi family, the Palais Jamaï today encompasses the original palace (which houses the hotel's Moroccan restaurant and its most spectacular suites), multi-level Andalusian gardens, and a moddern wing of some100 rooms and suites built in 1969.
Alas, the Palais Jamaï has seen better days. I encounter all sorts of little problems--soiled carpets, a saggy bed, seriously scratched woodwork in my room (although there are rumors of a major renovation sometime soon). And bigger ones--the slightly surly management refuses to turn on the central air conditioning on the first night of my stay, despite the fact that it's sweltering outside. On the other hand, even in its current less-than-stellar state, the Palais Jamaï still has the power to seduce--with its tiled fountains, its jasmine-scented gardens, and its breezy pool patio, which is a particularly romantic spot for before- and after-dinner drinks. What really makes the Palais Jamaï unique is its dream location on the edge of the Fez medina. Staying here, you become a participant in the rhythms of the ancient Arab city. You go to sleep entranced by its softly lit beige buildings and by the drums and chanting of a nearby wedding celebration--and you wake up (too early!) to the mournful sunrise calls of virtually a thousand and one muezzin. All things considered, you wouldn't want to stay anywhere else.
And you certainly wouldn't want to dine anywhere else, because the Palais Jamaï has arguably the best Moroccan restaurant in town. The setting of Al Fasia is a series of small rooms, laiden with red carpets and separated by the usual Moorish arches and carved columns. Andalusian musicians in white robes provide the score for your meal. I start off with a properbisteeya. I have forgotten how good this dish can be--the combination of succulent dark pigeon meat, chopped eggs, and crunchy layers of sugar- and cinnamon-sprinkled phyllo. When the poulet aux citrons (chicken with preserved lemons) tajine comes around, I can no longer resist the temptation to throw away my fork and dig into it with the fingers of my right hand, which is the traditional way to eat Arab food. Not quite so traditional is the local Cabernet Medaillon ($22), a hearty red that goes well with all this earthy fare. I call it a night with a light dessert: couscous with butter, sugar, milk, and cinnamon, which, I'm told, also makes a great breakfast.
Next morning, I'm ready to take on the medina. Brahim, however, doesn't do walking tours, so he hands me off to an official guide known as Momo the Berber. A good-looking guy in a white djellaba, the standard garb of all official guides these days, Momo speaks G.I. English, has been to the U.S. numerous times (he has brothers in the travel and the restaurant business there), and is full of cross-cultural humor, such as "watch your wallet--just like taking the subway."
Except for the coin phones, the Fez medina appears to have changed little in the last 20 years. Of course, in many ways, it has changed little in the last 200 hundred years. It is still a collage of exotic sights, sounds, and smells, the last ranging from cedar wood and fresh mint to donkey dung. No cars can negotiate its narrow streets, but that doesn't mean that pedestrians have it easy. We are constantly dodging tour groups, donkeys, and old men pulling carts. There are still the spice sellers, the herbalists, the mounds of olives, the pastel blocks of nougat. Momo and I nip into an ancient caravansary, still in use as a flop house; we check out a stinking tannery, holding sprigs of fresh mint to our noses to masque the smell; we enter the fourteenth-century Attarine Medersa (school), peek in at the ninth-century Karouine Univesity, the oldest in the world, now a mosque.
We wind up at a good restaurant for lunch--the Palais Tijani, within a private medina mansion. Here, the star starters are more European than Moroccan: warm lentils vinaigrette, exceptionally good cole slaw and potato salad. For my main course, I try the Friday (the Muslim holy day) special: a seven-vegetable couscous, which is made with lamb and, according to my count, eight veggies: cabbage, carrots, zucchini, potatoes, turnips, chick peas, onions, and tomatoes. Dessert is a fresh pomegranate and a bowl of tiny green mandarines, which look like limes but taste and act like tangerines. I stuff several of them in my jacket pocket for future snacks.
After lunch, Momo has programmed one final and inevitable stop into our medina tour. Indeed, sooner or later, all Moroccan guides lead you to a spot like Maison Mabruka. The ritual is always the same: the charming proprietor, the tacit understanding that you're really only just looking, even as several assistants appear from out of nowhere and start unravelling carpets at your feet. Soon they're taking on a life of their own, these cool kilims, elegant Rabatis, fine Fassis, and shaggy Glaouis. How can you resist this "Berber Picasso"? the shopkeeper demands. After all, you're not just buying a rug, "you're making an investment that will last 200 years! Money you can only spend--this lasts forever! When you are back home with your rug, you will write me a letter and thank me." You try to stick to your guns and reiterate that you weren't really planning on buying a rug this particular afternoon. The mint tea has arrived by now--and the pitch heats up: "The beautiful things in life we don't always buy when we are prepared. We only live once. Opportunities like this do not come every day." And so it goes--before you know it, you've bought not one but two rugs, which you are told you won't have to pay customs on because they are handicrafts. But when you arrive at Kennedy, you find that you owe the U.S. government several hundred dollars. So the letter you write back to Maison Mabruka is not necessarily a thank-you note.
The drive from Fez to Marrakesh is a long one. For us it will be even longer, since we plan to get off the main road about 100 kilometers south of Fez for a scenic swing through the Middle Atlas Mountains. At first I question the wisdom of this detour, since the back road initially offers only barren, rock-studded hills in the way of scenery. But then the cedar forests begin, and--can it be?/yes, it is!--a fluffy grey Barbary ape is loping about in a green glade. And next thing I know, we are looking at two dozen or so of these little creatures in full frolic. At another point on what is now virtually a private mountain road, we pass a Berber family on the move with seven horses loaded down with blankets, tents, carpets, and cooking utensils. Later we stop for mint tea in the sunshine at a spotless café on the shores of Lake Aguelmane Azigza. Our only company is the modern Berber couple who run the place, their little son, and a shepherd boy tending a big herd of sheep and goats.
Brahim is happy when we leave the Middle Atlas and its hairpin turns behind. "No more mountains--just straight!" he says, as we fly to our next stop, the big farming town of Beni Mellal. I once had a wonderful lunch here at a restaurant called the Auberge du Vieux Moulin. It was run by a French couple and I still remember the country pâté, which they made on the premises. By some miracle, the place is still in business--but the French couple has long since departed--possibly from this earth. The current owners haven't messed with the decor, however--still the same wood-paneled walls and print wall paper. The only problem is that they haven't done much in the way of maintenance either, so it all looks like some old auntie's house that got stuck in another decade. The surprise is that lunch--hors d'oeuvres variés (no pâté), grilled chicken, and pommes frites--isn't all that bad. Still, in hindsight, it would have been better to have set out from Fez with a box lunch, which we could have enjoyed at some wonderful clearing in the cedar forest.
We arrive in Marrakesh at sunset--the same time of day that I first arrived here a quarter of a century ago. I was on a train from Rabat --and the landscape out the compartment window had been too scruffy for too long. But then came that first palm tree; and then there were two, four, and before I knew it, we were in the middle of a virtual forest of palm trees. Finally, we came upon the rose-colored buildings of the town itself, glowing like some MGM mirage in the setting sun. It was better than any movie.
Marrakesh in the late sixties was a relatively small city, popular as a winter resort with knowing French and British tourists, and a required stop on the itinerary of any self-respecting hippie. There were three hotels to speak of back then--and a few pensions. You got hassled a little in the medina, but nothing you couldn't handle. Wow, have things changed! The palm trees are still here--as are the rose-colored buildings. But now there are something like 10,000 hotel rooms; there are condos; there are masses of tour busses; there are traffic jams! Did I really live here? More than anywhere else, Marrakesh makes it clear that you really can't go home again.
So when I check into La Mamounia, I forget about how this used to be a gracious, slightly old-fashioned, $30-a-night hotel. Instead, I will enjoy it in all its nouveau, $350-a-night-and-up splendor. Looking like a Hollywood art director's idea of a1930s ocean liner, today's Mamounia is a glitzy mix of art-deco and Moorish design themes. And like an ocean liner, the hotel offers enough diversions to fill a five-day crossing. There seem to be endless places to sit down and/or hang out--lobbies, verandahs, nooks and crannies. This great ship of a hotel has five restaurants, five bars, a discothèque, casino, fitness center, swimming pool, squash, tennis. Probably the best place to hang out here, however, is in your bedroom, where the luxuries range from the three-sheeted bed to a bedside control panel that does practically everything short of giving you a massage. And from your balcony, you look out on the Atlas Mountains, orange and olive groves, and some of the most beautiful hotel gardens on earth. At night, I leave the balcony doors open to let in the moonlight and the sounds of fountains, birds, and early-morning roosters.
The great disappointment is dinner in the hotel's glamorous Marrakesh L'Impériale restaurant. The hyped description from the hotel brochure--"international haute cuisine for fine gourmets"-- should have warned me, but the Radio City Music Hall grandeur of the room--fat columns of inlaid wood, twenty-foot-plus ceilings, draperies for days--got the better of me. The lamb, ordered medium rare, doesn't come that way--and tastes a little gamey; the vegetables are a little bland. The rouget is a little overcooked. And, help!, is that really a gypsy trio headed my way? I would have been better off in the hotel's Moroccan restaurant or having "cuisine bourgeoise" (brochure copy again) on the terrace of its unpretentious café La Calèche.
The next day, I fare better at La Rôtisserie de la Paix. in Marrakesh's new town. Here, in a large garden, popular with expatriate Marrakshis back home on holiday with their kids and their cellular phones, I have a simple lunch of green salad, pommes frites, and brochettes--lamb, sausage, and kefta (cumin-spiced ground beef). I haven't had this meal in over 20 years, but when the waiter doesn't bring me any dry cumin or harissa (hot sauce), I know instinctively that something is missing. A brochette without these condiments is not a brochette. The waiter quickly complies.
The major sightseeing attractions of Marrakesh are still the same: the lovely Menara, Agdal, and Majorelle Gardens; the Palmarie--with 100,000 palm trees (and almost as many posh new villas these days); the Place Djmaa el Fna--with its story-tellers, snake charmers, and fast-food stalls. What has changed are the sheer numbers of tourists vying to see these sights as well as the Saadian Tombs, the El Bahia Palace, and the very good Dar Si Said Museum, with a knock-out collection of antique caftans, Berber jewelry and carpets. What has also changed are the nationalities of the tourists themselves. The Japanese are coming in droves (Brahim has added Japanese to his résumé); and, of more political significance, so are the Isrealis. Two decades ago, the idea of Israeli tour groups in this Arab country was unthinkable. Today, however, I hear a surprising amount of Hebrew being spoken. In a hopeful development, Morocco and Israel now have consular relations (check) and Israelis, many with Moroccan roots, are starting to vacation here in growing numbers.
This leads me to ask my local Marrakesh guide, Aziz, about the current status of Morocco's once large and prosperous Jewish community? When I lived here, that community numbered about 60,000, although many Jews, unsure about the future, were in the process of emigrating to Israel, France, and North America. As we pass through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter in the Marrakesh medina, I ask if any Jews still live in Marrakesh. Aziz says that most of the remaining Jewish community is centered in Casablanca and Rabat (the King's finance minister is a Moroccan Jew as is the country's minister of tourism). But not all. Aziz then leads me down a quiet street in the Mellah, eventually stopping in front of a low wooden door. He knocks and an old man in a white djellaba and white skull cap opens it. Aziz says something to him in Arabic, and the old man invites us inside. It is a typical Moroccan house with a series of rooms on two levels set around a square courtyard open to the sky. A little girl comes up to us and smiles; "Bonjour!" An old lady shoots a suspicioius look down from the second floor, as we pass through a dark corridor and come to another door. Using the big key that's tied around his waist, the old man opens the door and turns on the lights to reveal a tiny Sephardic synogogue. He handsyamulkes to Aziz and myself, which we put on before going inside this spotless space with blue walls, a few rows of chairs, a rear balcony for women, the ark with the Torah, and an oil lamp hanging nearby. This little synagogue could be anywhere in the world--but it's in Morocco. And the lamp is still burning. I'm not Jewish, but I am moved to say a prayer. I then sign a guest register, leave a small contribution, and make my way back outside. The old lady looks down as we leave; this time she smiles and waves, "Au revoir." "Shalom!" I answer back. The little girl smiles as well. "Shaloms" all around.
The small city of Taroudant lies across the High Atlas mountains some 225 kilometers southwest of Marrakesh. I have never been here. When I lived in Marrakesh, I never had that much of an urge to visit, since the town was considered a smaller version of Marrakesh, and in those days Marrakesh was already small enough for my tastes. The other thing I knew about Taroudant was that the legendary heiress and vagabond Barbara Hutton used to spend several months here each winter, holed up with an entorage at an extraordinary hotel: La Gazelle d'Or.
Ms. Hutton certainly knew a good thing, because there isn't much not to like about the Gazelle d'Or. From the moment you drive up through its bamboo allée and come upon its low stone buildings, green lawns, and lavish gardens, you know you have landed in an enchanting place. And if you've just crossed the Atlas Mountains via the frightening, albeit beautiful, 7000-foot (2093 meters; check exact height in feet) Tizi-n-Test Pass, you are ready for the peace and quiet that this pocket of paradise promises.
The rooms--in bougainvillaea-dripping cottages--are cozy and womb-like, with corner fireplaces, stencilled walls, and fresh roses everywhere. French doors lead to a pretty patio, where you have breakfast, while across the way gardeners are busy clipping the day's supply of roses, and where one of the hotel's various cats may join you at table. If you feel like being active, you can play tennis, swim, ride horseback, pursue falconry (a nod to the many British aristocrats and wannabes who vacation here), or simply stroll the gardens.
The main activity at La Gazelle d'Or is dining. The luncheon buffet, served by the swimming pool, offers some of the best food yet on this journey: endless Moroccan salads--from the usual eggplant dip to a cold designer cous-cous with tomatoes and green and yellow peppers; surprising tajines--one with beef-stuffed zucchinis and turnips, another all lentils; and some stand-out desserts--especially the wonderfully rich banana/coconut tarte and the wonderfully light fruit salad of apples, melon, and pomegranates.
With all this, who can think about dinner? But dinner--in the hotel's round fantasy Berber tent of a dining room--is another high point that shows off the crossover talents of chef name-TK, who manages to effortlessly mix Moroccan and French culinary traditions. For an appetizer, there arebraewats aux epinards, which have exceptionally fine crusts and are thick with fresh spinach. And for a main course, I have the best tajine of the week: a luscious combination of beef and fennel. A selection of cheeses follows, as does a green salad, and ultimately at pastry tulipe of toasted almond ice cream topped with a sprig of fresh mint.
Outside the walls of La Gazelle d'Or, there's much to be said for Taroudant itself. This mini-Marrakesh has one of the most laid-back medinas in Morocco. Here, shopkeepers pride themselves on their cool: "We don't push--just to look." Here, you can take time to admire the perfect cones of cumin, chili, saffron, and curry heaped in front of every stall in the spice market; you can stop to smell the fresh mint and corriander; you can ogle all the olives. And you can shop for carpets, jewelry, and inlaid wooden boxes at places like Aladin Treasure and get good prices with minimal bargaining. You may also encounter a colorful character named "Le Tigre," a Berber antique dealer who will lead you to his family's Au Coin du Sahara Marocain, which is one of the great junk shops of North Africa. But if you know your Berber jewelry, your antique muskets and daggers, your illuminated Arabic and Hebrew manuscripts, you may well discover a treasure or two here. For me, Taroudant and La Gazelle d'Or are treasures enough.
My little tour of Morocco is drawing to a close. I have decided to spend my final full day here by the sea. Surprisingly, Morocco's Atlantic coast is one of the country's least-appreciated attractions. But I've heard that one beach town, Essouira, is starting to become popular with savvy Europeans. Once Morocco's most important harbour, Essouira still has walls and fortresses built by its sixteenth-century Portuguese occupiers and its eighteenth-century Arab sultan, Mohamed Ben Abdullah. This same sultan also built the present-day medina with the help of a French architect, which may account for the fact that Essouira, with its shadowy alleys and archways, at times feels like the old quarters of Nice or Villefranche or Marseilles.
Essouira's main draws are its small medina and its big beach. The town is not the culinary capital of Morocco, but you can find decent fish at several spots. One of them is Chez Sam. It isn't easy to find, because it's at the far end of the port and because you may encounter a kid who tells you that the open-air stall grilling sardines along the way is Chez Sam. Don't be taken in (I almost was); just keep walking and you will find the shack at the very end of the pier that is the real Chez Sam. Once inside, stick with the grilled poissons entiers --which can be your choice of dorade, grondin, St. Pierre, lambrine [check English], or sea bass. These come with a paella-like mound of rice and peas, grilled tomatos with garlic and parsley, and a mashed potato/carrot combination loaded with corriander. The servings are enormous. The views of fishing boats passing by outside are pleasant. At lunchtime, the best place to dine is at Le Chalet de la Plage, which has a terrace on the beach and a menu similar to that of Chez Sam.
Today, the most fashionable place to stay in Essouira is at Villa Maroc. Created from a series of former private houses in the medina, Villa Maroc offers the rare chance to spend the night in an authentic Arab house. For some, this can be an adventure; for others, it can be a bit off-putting, having to go up and down stairs, passing all sorts of secret nooks and courtyards, only to wind up in a stuffy room with no exterior windows and a lumpy mattress. But no matter how you look at it, the price is right ($55 a night, including breakfast). The alternative is to stay at the Hôtel des Iles, just outside the medina walls. Built in 1949, this 65-room establishment has been well maintained and happily seems to have escaped extensive remodeling. Here, too, the price is right: $65 a night, double.
The Des Iles is where Orson Welles stayed when he used Essouira as the major location for his 1951 film version of Shakespeare's Othello. Today the hotel remembers its famous guest with the Foyer Orson Welles, a tiny wood-paneled bar hung with stills from the movie. Meanwhile Essouira remembers Welles with a small monument in his honor on a lawn outside the medina. Which is more than anyone has done for the great American director and actor in his own country. Score one for Moroccan hospitality.
The rains begin on the drive back to Casablanca, where the next morning I will pick up the plane for New York. The rain fits my mellow mood, as I look out on final views of sea and stone fences and an occasional camel pulling a plow. Closer to Casa, we pass state-of-the-art farms with plastic tents that look like giant catepillars protecting their crops. They're not pretty--but they represent progress. As do all the new arcaded main streets and blocks of townhouses in once dusty roadside villages. I came looking for the Morocco of my youth, but in many ways I've found a new country. Still beautiful, still seductive--but no longer quite so primative or exotic. My old lover has come a long way in 20 years. And so have I. But we still feel comfortable with one another and it's sad to say goodbye.
|By Jack Munson (63-201-154-66.ded.pacbell.net - 126.96.36.199) on Monday, August 29, 2005 - 6:54 pm: Edit Post|
It has been decades. Saw the ads for your Movie Lover's Guides in Playbill. This seemed liked the easiest way to make contact.
|By LahsenAhmam (188.8.131.52) on Friday, March 19, 2010 - 2:20 pm: Edit Post|
I am lahsen Ahmam, a teacher of English in Ouarzazate since 1986. I worked with some Peace Corps volunteers in ouarzazate such as Anne sokolsky, Lou cristillo and others. My teacher of english was carol Converse. She taught me in Goulmima. It turns out that i trained PCVs in rabat and essaouira. I worked for PC Morocco as a language instructor and a cross culture coordinator. We travelled in many parts of morocco with volunteers and trainees. I attended a training in blagovgrad, bulgaria on Cross culture. "Culture matters" was the fruit of what we did there. I always want to keep this tie with all the volunteers that served in Morocco. many names are now in my mind such as Jeff, Nina, Elisha, rachel, paul,etc...We spent with them the best times in mountains and essaouira. But the problem is only very few are still in contact: Two or three. i would invite any PCV that knows me please contact me. I miss all of you.my email is : firstname.lastname@example.org My phone number is 212 661 465 632.