Morocco's most exotic city beguiles

BY MAX PUDNEY
Last updated 11:26 10/11/2009

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In the light of the setting sun, everything is pink: the buildings, the soil and in the distance, a backdrop of the Atlas mountains, which carry a mantle of snow.

Marrakesh is a city of a million people where donkey carts vie with Mercedes and BMWs. The ancient medina with its dimly lit souks - winding passages enclosed by sun- baked mud walls - is the great drawcard for the tourists.

The Jemaa el Fna is an enormous central square housing the Koutoubia Mosque, its minaret a landmark for Muslim and tourist alike. The Jemaa el Fna attracts visitors by the thousands. They come to see its snake charmers, fortune tellers and veiled, kohl-eyed women selling bangles to ward off the evil eye. There is food, hot and cold, to suit all tastes, and while the atmosphere may be intoxicating, the beverages are not, Morocco being a Muslim country.

Evening is the most exciting time. Stalls are set up, lamps glow around the square, the heady scent of herbs and spices permeates the warm air as smoke from the barbecues rises in clouds. Food in great variety and at reasonable prices is often served by a singing waiter, adding to the carnival atmosphere. Young men race through crowds on motorbikes, missing the dazed-looking visitors by inches, while pickpockets operate among the masses, so I'm told.

In the modern part of Marrakesh, wide tree-lined boulevards lead to modern hotels; there are rose beds and flower gardens. Shopping offers the full array of exotic labels but mostly tourists find it more exciting to wander through the souks where even the latest fashions seem to find their way into the labyrinth of dingy passages.

The vendors expect the buyer to bargain and most people enjoy the friendly banter, often coming away with something they consider a cheap buy. However, it is unusual for the stallholders to lose out, so after the tiny cups of mint tea and the sweet talk, just check the number of noughts on your credit-card slip.

Sitting at a streetside cafe, watching the world go by, you will be surprised when the waiter offers you only tea, coffee or soft drinks. Locally brewed beer and wine can be bought at supermarkets and hotels and high-class restaurants serve alcohol. Local cafes can be basic with no written menus - the owner will tell you what to eat.

Arabic and French are widely spoken, though most taxi drivers, shopkeepers and people dealing with tourists speak English. The main race in Morocco is Berber and the word "Inshallah" ("God willing") will be heard many times.

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While the country is full of photo opportunities, the local people will not always want to be your subject. Some will be offended, particularly in the countryside, while others, especially children, will expect money for their "services".

Occasionally touts will attach themselves to you as self-appointed guides. They are usually very persistent and if you do accept the offer of assistance you will find they guide you to the shops or cafes where they get a handout from the owner. Marrakesh, being in the desert area, has a comfortable dry heat, although the temperatures in the northern summer can become oppressive. The best time to visit is during their autumn when the temperature of 32 degrees celsius feels more like 27C.

Morocco beyond Marrakesh is as various and beguiling. Essaouira, a Portugese settlement formerly known as Mogador, is on the Atlantic Barbary coast and has ideal windsurfing conditions. The houses here are painted white and blue, giving it a light airy feel and a restful atmosphere which has attracted European painters and musicians. Essaouira has a thriving fishing port with a large fleet of sardine boats. The quayside is often a hive of industry with boats unloading their catch, nets laid out for repair and seafood cooking on open grills.

We took a taxi for the 350- kilometre return journey, an air- conditioned Mercedes. The driver took us to see the argan trees (Argania spinosa), unique to Morocco. Its fruit is similar to the olive and is pressed for its oil, a labour- intensive process. Goats climb the stumpy argan trees to nibble at the leaves. That, together with the young women endlessly cracking the argan nuts between two stones, was quite an amazing sight.

The city has a range of accommodation, from budget to "top end". The current exchange rate for the kiwi is about six dirhams, so mid-range hotels offer a double bed and breakfast for about $125.

In Marrakesh a seven-day holiday will disappear in a flash, leaving you with a vow to return - Inshallah.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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