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Travel & Holiday

Hustle & bustle in Morocco

After you fend off the touts, there is much to see and do at seven destinations from Marrakech to Fez
The Straits Times - May 8, 2012
By: Nicholas Yong
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Hustle & bustle in Morocco The Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca's most significant landmark, which can hold 25,000 worshippers. -- ST PHOTOS: NICHOLAS YONG

Most people come back from a vacation reminiscing about the food, the sights, the culture and the people. In my case, the first thing that comes to mind about Morocco is the touts.

Over the years, I have been subject to their tender mercies in China, India and the Middle East. The hustlers of Morocco were quick to introduce themselves to this Singaporean, too, during an eight-day journey last month that took in seven destinations.

My journey began in Marrakech, which is seated at the foot of the High Atlas, the highest mountain range in North Africa.

And it is where touts try to catch my attention with a literal recitation of anything vaguely Asian: 'Konichiwa, sayonara, ni hao.'

I am called Jackie Chan more than once and one even comes up with the priceless greeting: 'Hello, Sadako.' Evidently, he is unaware that the antagonist in the cult horror movie Ring is a woman, not to mention Japanese.

Passers-by also come up to me several times and bow with their hands clasped together while giggling hysterically. This low-level harassment, while mildly amusing at first, quickly begins to grate.

More annoying than the racial stereotyping are the tactics of hustlers. Strangers, including children, offer to show the way to your destination, then ask for money. One motorbike-bound hustler, who tails my car for several kilometres in the ancient imperial city of Fez, even kicks the door angrily when his services are rejected.

All of this is tempered by the knowledge that the average monthly household income in Morocco in 2009 was 5,300 dirhams (S$803) while the unemployment rate last year was more than 9 per cent, in a country of 36 million.

But as my travelling companion and I drive up the coast from Marrakech to Casablanca to the capital Rabat to Fez, the harassment steadily dies down and the sights of Morocco beckon.

And there is much to see, starting with Djemaa el Fna, the marketplace and square founded in the 11th century that is the centrepiece of the winding, twisting alleyways of the Medina quarter in Marrakech.

From sunset each day, it is buzzing and literally smoking with storytellers, vendors selling barbecued meats, fruit juices and snail soup, snake charmers and, bizarrely, even random men selling piles of human teeth. Motorbikes and electric scooters also constantly weave through the marketplace, sometimes missing pedestrians by centimetres.

From Marrakech, we take a day trip to the magnificent Ait Benhaddou, an 11th-century fortified city and Unesco World Heritage Site, where numerous movies such as Kingdom Of Heaven (2005) and Prince Of Persia (2010) have been filmed.

Walking through the kasbah, a middle-aged Berber (the dominant ethnic group in Morocco) beckons my travelling companion and I into his old red mudbrick home, which can be toured for 10 dirhams. At first wary of yet another hustler, we quickly realise there is something special about him.

He points to a framed pass on the wall at the entrance of his home: It seems he was a member of the production crew on Gladiator (2000), which had key scenes filmed in Ait Benhaddou. The enterprising man has even retained many of the props from the movie, putting them on show in a special room.

As he leads us through his home, he constantly repeats in his limited English: 'Gladiator. Russell Crowe. Star. Arena.'

The experience would have been perfect if he had bellowed one of Crowe's lines: 'Are you not entertained?'

As we make our way through Morocco, we throw back numerous cups of the ubiquitous mint tea and feast on tajines, or slow-cooked stews, served in earthenware pots.

The culinary highlight for me: a large platter of fish and prawns in Casablanca that costs 120 dirhams, and is tender and crunchy.

The magic of Volubilis

After the frantic ways of Marrakech, the more relaxed pace of Casablanca comes as a welcome relief. Fittingly, we arrive 50 years after the iconic 1942 movie of the same name was released. Casablanca even has a bar named Rick's Cafe, where the movie plays on a continuous loop.

The city's most significant landmark is the Hassan II Mosque. Designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau in 1991, the mosque is located by the sea and can hold 25,000 worshippers. While walking there, a mighty sea breeze almost knocks us off our feet.

But the most magnificent sight of our trip still awaits: the ruins of the Roman town of Volubilis.

Abandoned in the third century, only half of the 40ha site, which includes bakeries, houses and aqueducts, has been excavated.

As we are led through the remarkably wellpreserved ruins by our guide Abdellah, we come to a centuries-old mosaic weathered by age and constant exposure to the elements. While the colours have faded, the story that it tells can still be clearly made out.

"The 12 labours of Hercules," pronounces Abdellah dramatically. In Greek mythology, the demigod Hercules was commanded by the Mycenaean king Eurystheus to carry out 12 tasks in exchange for his freedom.

And more than 2,000 years after the mosaic was constructed, Hercules still looks as majestic as the day he was drawn.

And perhaps it is the magic of Volubilis that makes Abdellah relate its history in a breathless, hodgepodge of English and French. Even after 20 years on the job, he is a bundle of manic energy, running ahead of and around us. At one point, he even makes a tiara out of flowers that he has picked up and anoints a bemused Japanese tourist with it.

One of our last stops is Fez, where we pay 10 dirhams to catch an aerial view of tanneries from a shopkeeper's roof. The owner, who sells leather products, tells us that they are run by a cooperative of 360 families. Some of them have been in the business for generations.

When my friend asks what is used to treat the leather, the owner casually replies: "Pigeon droppings and cow urine." Very eco-friendly but perhaps not the best way to entice customers.

As we drive back to Casablanca to catch a British Midlands International (BMI) flight back to London, Morocco has one last surprise in store for us.

We arrive at the Casablanca airport at 2pm to catch a 4pm flight, only to find that the plane has already taken off. The timing has been changed without any notice and I encounter at least 10 similarly stranded passengers.

BMI and other airlines have no other flights to London that day. But we have a flight from London to catch the following morning. So we jump into a cab to Marrakech - more than 240km away - to catch a flight to London Gatwick that evening.

The total additional cost each: 3,091 dirhams. Later on, I manage to get a full refund from BMI but not without some wrangling.

Thanks for the memories, Morocco. But if any of you call me Sadako again, I shall be most displeased.

GETTING THERE

Several airlines fly to Morocco from Singapore. For example, a return flight to Casablanca on Qatar Airways starts from about $1,700, with a stopover in Doha.

Another option is to fly via London - a Qatar Airways return flight there costs about $1,688, where you can get an Easyjet flight from London Gatwick to Marrakech, one way, for about £90 (S$180).

5 things to do

1: Learn a few basic French phrases and numbers, even though most Moroccans speak some English. This will be useful when bargaining with shopkeepers.

2: Get lost in the winding medinas of Marrakech and Fez. Even if you end up paying a hustler to guide you out, it is all part of the experience.

3: Have a meal at La Taverne Du Dauphin (www.taverne-du-dauphin.com) in Casablanca, which serves great seafood and has been operating since 1960.

4: Take a rooftop view of the tanneries of Fez and be prepared for the pungent smell.

5: Stay in a riad, or traditional house with a central courtyard, and have a home-cooked meal there. These meals are likely to be cheaper and taste better, too.

2 don'ts

1: Lose your cool with hustlers. Be firm, smile and walk away.

2: Speed on the highways. There are many road blocks at random intervals and the traffic police will not hesitate to fine you, as I found out when we were fined 500 dirhams for exceeding the speed limit.

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