Monday, May 25, 2009


In late April and early May, I fulfilled a longtime dream to visit Morocco. My parents met there in 1953-54 and through my father's old photos and my mom's colorful stories of "French Morocco" I gained an enthusiasm for its exotic appeal.

My friend John and I spent about 10 days traveling in the western portion of the country. In retrospect I wish we'd explored the mountains as they're great for trekking, but we opted to stay in cities to better appreciate the energy of daily life. We flew from Rome to Barcelona and landed first in Marrakech. Essaouira, Rabat and Tangier followed and each city definitely possessed distinctive character. The whole trip (about 10 days) was relatively inexpensive, and I suppose we each spent about €600, including all meals, lodging and travel. It's very inexpensive to eat in Morocco, with large meals costing the equivalent of about
5-10, but there's not a tremendous variety on the menus. Riads—tranquil respite from the chaos of the streets—are also pretty cheap, and for the most part we stayed in these converted houses with inner courtyards and gardens instead of hotels.

Marrakech was fascinating. It's a pretty smelly place—lots of piss-soaked streets—but the people were extremely warm and hospitable. We stayed at a nice Riad in the Medina, and it was very inexpensive and nicely furnished, with beautifully carved plaster ceilings in the room. The souks and Djemaa el Fna square were teeming with life and it was truly an amazing place to be from dusk until dark. The mounting energy is brought to a crescendo by drums and horns in the early evening and I can only compare it to waiting for a thunderstorm to begin. By the time the sun sets the whole square is absolutely electric, with music and smoke filling the sky and crowds of people sharing meals at huge steel tables spread across the enormous square.
Acrobats, snake charmers, belly dancers, the works.

Someone's always pestering you to buy something and they're very eager to take you for a fool when it comes to bargaining, but if you have a sense of humor you'll really enjoy it. It DOES grind you down, however, and I'm glad we started—rather than ended—there. We got lost in the souks at night and that was a bit scary, as people were coming out of some pretty dark and smelly places to hound us for money or "guide" us to where we needed to go. Beauty in Marrakech is in details, rather than in the big picture. Colors and textures and the remarkable plaster carving in architectural moulding, etc. is really impressive. We spent an afternoon at the Bahia Palace—really nice. One evening, we took a great run along the outside of the old city walls, with the sun setting over the olive groves and thousands of swallows careening around us.

Essaouira was a nice switch—lots of whitewashed walls and some great views of the sea. Again, we were in a nice Riad in the Medina. The food was excellent in several places although there's not a lot of variety in most restaurants. The ubiquitous mint tea, tajines and couscous were the fare on almost every menu, along with some simple but unimpressive pizzas. Unfortunately, John got pretty sick with an intestinal infection here and had to get antibiotics from a local doctor, so he was out of commission much of the time. You have to be pretty careful what you eat or drink in these places, (including the coffee, a lukewarm cup of which is what may have dogged John). While John and I consumed almost exactly the same meals, I wasn't affected for some reason. We had a pleasant time watching a soccer game on the very windy beach among a group of local men, walking in the medina and exploring the ramparts which were used as the setting for Orson Welles' Othello. Despite the elegance of our riad the maze of streets around our building smelled a lot like raw sewage, and there was significant poverty right next door—places with no electricity or running water. Still, the people were very gentle and warm and I was impressed by how content they seemed despite their hardship.

Rabat was an elegant city and I was so happy to arrive there after so many years of romantic imagination. It's a much more European place with some of the most impressive Art Deco architecture I have seen—stylized in reductive ways by Islamic motifs. In my parents' day it must have been stunning, as it has exceptionally refined and consistent architecture, resulting in a truly unusual and very nicely laid out urban environment. The best part of Rabat for me was the kasbah, which has a gorgeous Andalusian garden and museum inside, along with some beautiful, cobalt blue dwellings. The museums in Morocco are underfunded, so they don't compare to the contrived grandeur of western Europe, but they're extremely inexpensive and worth a look. I liked Rabat a lot, both for sentimental reasons and as a fascinating city whose cross-cultural history is evidenced in its buildings, food and language.

Tangier was an immense disappointment, and I won't waste too much energy recounting the unpleasant encounters we had there, most of which were tied to our demoralizing stay in a riad run by fundamentalist whackos. It's an extremely dirty city with every other person offering us drugs through toothless grins and urine-steeped pants. We stayed two days there and while the scenery along the shore was visually pleasant, it smelled like shit with the runoff from sewers, which we could see cascading into the ocean as we explored the coast. Despite this cruddy ending, we had a fantastic trip—more educative than relaxing, but everything I expected and more. I have absolutely no regrets and returned home exhausted and still buzzing from the cacophony of a strange land.

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