Three Cities of Morocco
Morocco has been likened both to an island - for it is isolated by three seas: the Atlantic, Mediterranean and the sand sea of the Sahara - and a desert palm for it is rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe.
The Muslim Kingdom of Morocco certainly has an exoticsm all of its own, created by the conflicting influences that have washed against this northwestern corner of Africa. Whatever your experience of the latin temper of southern Europeans, the heady lifestyle of Morocco is more dramatic. From the moment you land adaventure assails you. In simple transactions, like buying a kilo of oranges, there is unexpected drama, humour and competitive gamesmanship. The sun is always shining somewhere in Morocco, and from March to October it is difficult to avoid. Travelling is cheap and easy. You can fly, drive, take the train, or share the tempo of local life by packing into a communal taxi or bus.
It is not only the sites of Morocco but the also the everyday way of life that lingers in the memory: breakfasts of aromatic coffee, croissants and freshly squeezed orange juice, the heady odour of virgin olive oil: and in the markets stand shiny pyramids of fruit, vegetables, olives, dates and nuts which are so fresh and pure that they seem like a new species altogether.
This guide concentrates on the chief glory of Morocco. This is the vast storehouse of architecture, culture, history, cuisine and craftsmanship preserved in the Imperial Cities.
The sunbaked walls, gardens, covered markets and magical open square of Marrakech have almost become a worldwide totem for exotic elegance. The city, fringed with palm, orange and olive groves is set against the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas. If it hardly needs an introduction, it is yet a city for which you most definetly need a guidebook in order to track down the markets, museums and palace-like restaurants that are tucked away down side streets. Immediately south from the city half a dozen valleys allow access into the mountains, either for a cool lunch or a week long climb amongst peaks, waterfalls and barbary apes.
Fez, just a day's drive north across the Tadla plain, is bewitchingly other. While Marrakech is a recognizably African city, especially in terms of space and colour, Fez is a triumphant citadel of Arabic and Islamic culture. It is one the worlds miraculous survivals, an almost complete medieval city which still maintains its ancient guild system of crafts. To walk its narrow streets, to smell, to taste and feel your way through the tanneries, shrines, theological courtyards and bazaars is as close to time travel as a mortal can get. Cupped in a bowl of low hills this labrythine city has been likened to an ossified prayer.
Meknes, which sits on the western side of the fertile plain of Saiss, just an hour away from Fez, was turned into an Imperial capital in the 17th century. Though not so famous, rich or ancient as its neighbour, the scale of the Imperial city: its vast gates, cisterns, stables and walls seemingly even exceed the imagination of Piranesi. To the north of Meknes lie the ruins of Volubulis, the inland capital of Morocco during the Roman Empire. The views from the capitol, basilica and triumphal arch frame an Arcadia (that includes the sanctuary of Moulay Idriss) though it is the intact mosaic floors of a dozen villas that makes the site exceptional.
Rabat lies on the coast overlooking the banks of the Oued Bou Regreg river. It is a city of multiple identities with its 12th century gates and towers, elegant 17th century old town onto which has been added the embassies and ministries of a modern political capital not to mention its medieval walled neighbour of Salé on the other bank of the river. The tempo of life in Rabat is much calmer though in terms of cultural monuments it is just as rich as Fez, Meknes and Marrakech. Make certain that you give yourself time for a fish lunch or at least a mint tea cooled by the ocean breeze, though there are a number of small beach resorts out from the city to both the north and the south. The great commercial 20th century city of Casablanca has never been a historic cultural centre though the late King did his best to reverse this with the construction of the monumental Mosque of Hassan II. This, one of the eight wonders of the modern world combine with the organisational reality of Casablanca's international airport, to attract visitors to the city.
Although the history, enviroment and architecture of Morocco's great cities are extraordinarily diverse, ultimately it is its people that prove most fascinating. In any one Moroccan there may lurk a turbulent and diverse ancestry: of slaves brought across the Saharan wastes to serve as concubines or warriors: of Andalucian refugees who came from the ancient Moorish cities of southern Spain, and of Bedouin Arabs from the tribes that fought their way along the North African shore. All these people have mingled with the indigenous Berbers, who have continously occupied the land since the Stone Age. The new young ruler of Morocco, King Mohammed VI, shares these infleunces as well as being a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammed.
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by Barnaby Rogerson