Morocco: The rose of Sahara Morocco’s mystical medinas and more

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Morocco, a mystical place where dreams are made of. Camel-trek through the sands of the Sahara in Erg Chebbi, Merzouga. Walk through the ancient kasbah (citadel) in Ait Benhaddou, and be part of the movie set of “Gladiator” and “Lawrence of Arabia” in Ouarzazate. Enjoy the cool spring water along the Dades Gorge as you dine on a sumptuous tajine (meat stew cooked in the eponymous earthenware pot) and couscous (steamed wheat granules) meal, washing it down with whiskey berbere (hot non-alcoholic halal mint tea), flanked on both sides by towering cliffs. In Marrakech, experience a trek around the medina at Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, and have dinner at twilight when the mood turns carnival-like. Exotic and yet tantalizing are the sights and sounds of Morocco.

Arriving in Fez, we were greeted by our multilingual tour guides to bring us around Morocco in their four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle to start our journey. Fez, the larger of the two medinas, is the world’s largest living medieval Islamic city, where the Palais Royale, one of the many palaces of the king is located. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has bestowed World Heritage status on this imperial city of Fez, which is surrounded by high walls with several historic city gates.

Traveling through remote mountains, passing stretches of dry land, there are oases of life: orchards of yellow dates, palm groves, argan trees and rose gardens. Men work miracles amidst the desert. Livelihood comes from the soil even from extremes of weather wrought by the scorching sand and the extreme cold.

Morocco is a country rich in natural wonders, from its mountains and valleys to its sea. Moroccan people–Berbers, Arabs, and Saharawi people–remain closely connected to the environment. The traditions are continued in the artisanal berber carpet weaving, argan and rose oil processing, date fruit cooperatives and the spice trading in the medinas.

We reach the Erg Chebbi Dunes. These are located in the Sahara Desert, which starts from the little town of Merzouga. Rising to a height of 50 meters, the most special feature of the Erg Chebbi dunes are its beautiful and unique orange colored sand.

The camel trek starts with a change of clothes. Our Berber guide dons on us turbans to protect our hair and face from the wind and dust, and a blue kaftan worn by the nomads called a gandora to protect our clothes before we ride our camels. You feel the shifting sand under the camel’s feet as you take that bumpy ride towards the Berber tent, to experience the life of a Nomad, even for just a night. To enjoy a dinner of chicken tajine and harira (tomato and lentil soup), washing it down with whiskey berbere, all prepared by our guide. Walking barefoot on the cool sand to get water from a well under the moonlight was unforgettable. Sleeping under a blanket of a thousand stars and to watch the sunrise on top of a sand dune was an incredible experience. The beauty of the sand dunes is in its ridges formed by the wind blowing against the sand, creating different patterns.

Leaving the Sahara, we travel on to the middle and High Atlas, through the valleys, as we pass through rose country. El Kelaa M’gouna is where rose water, essential for clear complexions, is made. Every May, the rose is celebrated in a three-day festival. Traveling onwards, we reach Dades Gorge. Situated on the remote east side of the High Atlas mountains, it has a natural spring flowing through it and is flanked on both sides by carved out cliff-sided canyons through the mountains. “The Kasbah of the Rocks” is a mystical landscape of dark red eroded volcanic rocks. In a corner of the Gorge, the kasbah is marked by Café Meguirne, a quaint hotel and restaurant that serves the most sumptuous chicken tajine with olives and lemon that I had ever tasted. The kasbah blends in well with the rocks and is a peaceful place to relax. We reach the High Atlas, the highest point, at the mountain road called Col Du Tichka (Pass of Pasture). At an altitude 2260 meters above sea level, it is a popular destination for trekkers.

Ouarzazate, nicknamed “The Door of the Desert,” is also known as the “Hollywood of Africa” for the many movies that have made this their location. “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Mummy,” “The Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Babel” and “Game of Thrones” were all filmed here. There are group tours to visit the Atlas Film Studios, one of the largest movie studios in the world. Nearby, is Ait Benhaddou, an ancient fortified city made of high mud brick walls that contains six kasbahs and a small number of homes have been preserved as a UNESCO World heritage site.

Marrakech is ancient and yet more cosmopolitan with a great French influence. We visited the Jardin de Majorelle of Yves Saint Laurent, a twelve acre botanical garden designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s when Morocco was a protectorate of France. It was his masterpiece. The special shade of cobalt blue which he used extensively in the villa and the garden is named after him, Majorelle Blue.

The Majorelle Garden nestles a beautiful bright blue colored Art Deco villa amidst a collection of exotic plants from the four corners of the earth flourishing among the ornamental lakes. There stands a monument for Yves Saint Laurent in the garden he loved. When he died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the Majorelle Garden.

Visit the souks (markets) in the medina. Wonder around the endless maze of souks to check out carpets and textiles, leather shoes, bags and poufs, the tanneries, argan oil and rose water, spices like saffron and cumin for cooking tajine, cotton clothing, kaftans and turbans, blankets and woolen hats, moroccan lamps, bargain hunt for jewelry and scout for souvenirs to bring home. Going through the different souks, you will find treasures hidden in every nook and cranny in the winding streets of the medina.

Stay in a riad (traditional Moroccan house with interior garden) and be amazed at what you will find beyond that small door on the wall. As the door opens, be amazed by the welcoming sight of an interior garden, an atrium, sometimes with a pool where the weary traveler can take a relaxing soak. The rooms are facing a central courtyard, usually built with the Moorish style, adorned with tadelakt plaster and beautifully patterned zellige tiles. Meals are usually served in the central open court, where every room faces into.

The oldest and largest university in Morocco, Medersa Ben Youssef, founded in the 14th century, then enlarged in the 16th, was an Islamic college. Entering the Medersa through a long, cool passageway leads through a large courtyard, with a central shallow pool. It is surrounded by carved cedar archways, stucco work and colorful zellige tiles. At the far side of the courtyard, is a domed prayer hall made of intricately carved marble. The arched prayer room indicates the direction of Mecca. On the second floor, facing the courtyard, are situated the teachers rooms and the small windowless student dormitories, clustered around small internal light wells. It is now preserved as a historical site.

The Djemaa El-Fna is the square and marketplace in the medina quarter of Marrakech. During the day, it remains as a marketplace, with stalls selling spices, and orange juice. There are snake charmers entertaining the tourists and captors with chained orangutans charging for photos taken with tourists. Horse carriages traverse the square transporting tourists around the area. As twilight sets in, and night falls, there is a transformation in the square that becomes more carnival like. It becomes more populated as food stalls, musicians, dancers, story tellers, and peddlers of traditional medicines begin to set up and the crowds of people increase. End your day sipping your “whiskey berbere” and soaking in the pool of your Riad. The experience, the dream , the journey will forever be with you, waiting to be renewed and relived the next time you come back to enjoy the mysticism of Morocco.

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