Morocco's mediaeval medinas

Last updated 05:00 14/05/2010

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Lee Atkinson gets more than she bargains for as she spends up in the souks of Morocco's mediaeval medinas.

You've got to love a sales pitch that includes a marriage proposal. "You buy this carpet, we give you husband," is the quick-as-lightning response to my friend's plea that she cannot afford the beautiful but expensive Berber rug laid out before her because she has "no husband to pay for it". Quickly followed by "you give us plastic, we give you art. See how lucky you are!" Who can resist? She certainly couldn't.

The carpet sellers of Morocco are legendary for their powers of persuasion and, with or without the obligatory glass of mint tea, it's almost impossible not to succumb to the sales pitch and the carpet's charm, despite your best intentions.

If you can somehow, magically, detach yourself from the encounter you'll be treated to an hour or so of performance art that is better than any street theatre.

Shopping for carpets, or anything for that matter, in the souks (markets) of Fez, Rabat or Marrakesh is an extreme sport. A tiny hesitation outside a shop's doorway, or even the slyest sideways glance at a shiny bauble or silk slipper will set the shopkeeper quivering with excitement and the certain knowledge that he has you hooked. Enter the shop at your peril - it is virtually impossible and highly improbable you will exit empty-handed.

You can buy just about anything you've ever wanted, or are likely to, in the souks of Morocco's mediaeval medinas, or old walled towns. Silken slippers called babouches, black tin lanterns with softly glowing coloured glass, tassels and kaftans and brightly coloured ceramics, scarves and hooded jellabas, leather poufs, Berber carpets, gold jewellery and silver teapots. Move away from the tourist-thronged main streets and you'll find the local souks, where old women haggle over the price of vegetables, swarms of bees hover above displays of sweet pistachio-studded pastries drenched in honey, live chickens squawk in cages waiting to be weighed and cats prowl underneath the counters of cubby-size butcher shops festooned with tongues and lungs, sheep and camel heads, complete with their horns and hair.

Spice souks display their red and yellow seasonings in perfect pyramids, fruits stalls groan under the weight of mountains of dried dates and young men try to entice passers-by with a staggering array of marinated olives. In the perfume souk walls are lined with large old-fashioned glass bottles of sweet smelling oils and tin drums are overflowing with sticky black goo, the traditional black soap used in the public bath houses, or hammams.

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Through it all weave donkeys and mules laden with heavy sacks of grain, crates of fruit or piles of leather skins, women on pushbikes, young boys pushing two-wheeled trolleys and men of all ages on motorbikes weave, too. He or she who hesitates is indeed lost, or at least overrun.

Stepping into a Moroccan medina is a journey back in time, a glimpse of what life was like in the middle ages, because in essence, not much has changed since then in these winding alleyways and labyrinthine laneways so narrow that two people must turn sideways to pass one another. When the French took control in the early 20th century, they decreed that no new building be carried out in the ancient fortified cities, known as medinas.

They built their "villes nouvelle" of modern multi-storied buildings on boulevards outside the old city walls. While this meant that the locals who stayed in the overcrowded historic centres were largely forced to live without mod cons like private bathrooms, decent plumbing and adequate electricity, it preserved the ancient cities, ensuring they remained car-free and intact and as exasperatingly unnavigable as ever.

Legend has it that they were designed in such a narrow and maze-like way in order to confuse and slow down invaders - although I suspect it is more likely to be a strategy to keep prospective shoppers in the souk for longer.

Ancient crafts are still carried out in the traditional way, in places such as the tanneries in Fez, where sinewy men wade knee-deep in vast vats of evil-smelling dyes, rank with ammonia from urine and pigeon droppings, red with crushed poppies, bright yellow from saffron or orange from henna, the coloured hides left to dry on rooftops.

Turn a corner and you find a tranquil and much more pleasant-smelling woodworker's foundouq - a courtyard complex where the artisans work downstairs and travellers of ancient transcontinental caravan routes once rented rooms upstairs; duck down a dark alley and you'll stumble across the blacksmith's souk, the air vibrating with the sounds of hundreds of clanging hammers and ringing metal; next door will be a mosque or maybe a crumbling medersa, its courtyard lined with intricate carved wooden panels, beautiful white plasterwork and vibrant mosaic tiles that surely must have distracted the students who once studied law and philosophy in these glorious buildings.

A warm, red glow at the end of an otherwise pitch-black tunnel leads to a communal bakery, where boys deliver their mothers' dough to be baked and, usually next door, sharing the same wood-fired furnace, will be the hammam or bath house.

Getting lost is a certainty, becoming overwhelmed by the crowds and the noise is highly likely and paying more than you intended for something you never knew you really wanted is an inevitability; however, the medinas of Morocco have an addictive and bewitching charm like no other shopping centre on earth.

Trip notes

Getting there

Etihad flies to Casablanca from Sydney three times a week, via Abu Dhabi. Fares start about $1800 return. www.etihadairways.com.

Where to stay

The Hotel Batha is inside the medina in Fez, has a lovely pool and bar and great value hotel-style rooms for about $50 a person, +212 35 741077.

Moroccan-styled en suite rooms at the Riad Lalla Khiti in Marrakesh range from $90-$165, +212 (0) 24 44 27 39; www.riadlallakhiti.com/en/accueil.php.

In Casablanca the Diwan Casablanca Hotel & Spa offers good-sized rooms close to the city centre for about $130, +212 (0) 22 44 65 14, hoteldiwancasablanca.com.

Getting around

Peregrine Adventures has 12-day tours that visit all three cities and cost $2195, 1300 854 500, peregrineadventures.com.

Further information

www.visitmorocco.com.

THREE MEDINAS

1 The World Heritage-listed Fez medina is the world's largest, with 600,000 residents, 9402 streets, 158 mosques and 44 bakeries.

2 The medina in Marrakesh is smaller but the souk is bigger and more navigable than Fez. The focal point is the huge Djemaa el-Fna square.

3 The Casablanca medina and souk is small, has a good produce section and tiny shops selling the country's most delicious pastries.

- Sun-Herald

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