Or Dar El Beida in Arabic, means ‘white house’ – a reference to the low-rise white-painted buildings that cover the landscape. But it’s a much-changed landscape today. The biggest city in Morocco is the busiest port in North Africa, a techno city decorated with hoardings advertising Samsung, Galaxy, Zara and Uniqlo…
Markets in Morocco
But a short drive from the centre of the glitz and you’ll find a Morocco of old – an enormous bustling market where traders sell purple prickly pears to aid digestion, absinthe for warming tea in winter, hot doughnuts, roasted chickpeas to snack on, fresh bread, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, live chickens with their feet tied sitting quietly, huge covered tents where old men had their beards trimmed – just don’t try and take a photo; few want their face to ‘go around the world’.
Hassan II mosque
The only mosque built on the water and its minaret is the tallest in the world; it’s also, as is traditional and unique to Morocco, square.
A couple of hours from Casablanca is the little seaside town of Oualidia where, bizarrely, you’ll find some of the biggest, freshest oysters. Bizarre, since Moroccans are super-cautious about eating food that isn’t cooked. But oysters are a favourite with the French, and they introduced them during the period when Morocco was a French Protectorate, from 1912 until ’56. The resort is a busy one, popular with Moroccan travellers who prefer to feast on fresh sardines or tagines; they’re cooked on open charcoal fires at street-side cafés. During Ramadan food is much simpler: steaming bowls of Harira – soup made with stock, tomatoes, noodles and chickpeas – are instantly filling and very wholesome.
A tagine can be cooked with very little attention, leaving you to get on with whatever else you have to do: place the meat (lamb, chicken) on the bottom of the tagine with a little oil and brown for 30 minutes; add onions and carrots and cook for another hour, adding water when necessary. Finally top with sliced potatoes and cook for another hour and a half. Throw a few olives in half an hour before serving.
Two hours from Marrakech lies the pretty seaside town of Essaouira and after all the bustle, it’s the perfect place to relax. It was something of a hippy hangout in the ’60s, with its long beaches, mild climate. Since 1998, Gnaoua Festival has been held in June. Dubbed the ‘Moroccan Woodstock’, the festival is a celebration of World Music.
Visit the Chouara Tannery, which is reputed to be over 1,000 years old. The skins – cow, sheep, goat – are first dipped in deep stone vats of quicklime, to strip off any remnants of fat and hair. The skins are softened in vats of dilute pigeon poo. Finally the skins are immersed in the rainbow-coloured dying vats. Tanners jump in the vats, ‘treading’ the skins to keep them under. On the way to the vats, visitors pass through an enormous warehouse. Here they can buy the beautiful shoes, slippers, and coats created from this far-less beautiful process.
Drink plenty of Berber whisky (otherwise known as mint tea). It’s served everywhere and usually, very sweet, and skilfully from a great height.
If you prefer something a little stronger, head for Meknes and the Domaine de la Zouina winery where the excellent Volubilia wines are made. Especially good is the vin gris, a pale rosé, which goes wonderfully well with those oysters…
Those with a robust constitution visit the ubiquitous hammam. None of that wifty scrub with a slightly scratchy mitt here… Moroccan hammams are hardcore. I felt quite faint having been scoured, literally, with what felt like a pumice stone (I kid not). Then I was doused in scalding water (I cried out at this point). Delicate flowers with fat wallets head instead for the 5-star La Mamounia for a gentler and infinitely more luxurious experience.
Visit the huge open-air market, with its snake-charmers and musicians, and the covered souk, where every sense is stimulated. Traders push past with overflowing carts of fresh mint or oranges crying what sounds like ‘Barak, barak’ (and certainly means ‘Move out of the way’). Stalls of bright jewel-coloured fruits stand beside towers of olives of every size and colour. Pink, green or black, flavoured with lemon, garlic or chilli. The scent of fresh herbs and spices mingles with smoky grills where kebabs are being served. An unmissable oasis close by is the Majorelle Garden created by artist Jacques Majorelle. The artist gave his name to the garden and the intense electric blue colour that he used to decorate it. An onsite Museum of the Berbers offers a fascinating insight into the culture, music and clothes of the nomadic peoples.
Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the Jardin Majorelle in 1980, saving it from the prospect of being demolished and replaced with a hotel.
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