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Moroccan Kaleidoscope

Sep 4

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9/4/2010 12:37 PM  RssIcon

Moroccan Kaleidoscope by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte

If you are looking for a country which features snow covered mountain peaks descending into seemingly endless desert, wide beaches kissed by both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean, the world’s oldest university and the newest super mosque, Berbers and desert tribes, fortified mountain villages with forbidding kasbahs and cosmopolitan cities offering the latest fashions look no further than Morocco.
Unfortunately, my latest trip lasted only four days, but with the exception of the university (Fez) and the super mosque (Casablanca) I covered all of the above wonderful experiences by making Marrakesh my base and then going on day trips to Ouarzazate in the east and Essaouira to the west.
I love to visit places in the world which are defined by contrasts and Morocco is no doubt at the top of the list.
It all started when I landed at Marrakesh airport  in the middle of the night and hailed a taxi to take me to my hotel, the Riad Altair. All I knew was that it was in the Medina, had only six rooms and was one of several riads which had been converted into boutique hotels. My taxi passed though one of the arches in the rose coloured city walls and came to an abrupt stop in a square teeming with people despite the late hour. “We can’t go any further,’ my driver explained with a grin, “we have to walk the rest of the way.”
“But,” I ventured cautiously, “you do know where the hotel is?” “Sure,” he said, grabbed my bag and led the way deeper and deeper into narrower and narrower alleys until he stopped in front of a nondescript wooden door with a brass knocker and no name plate whatsoever.
The door swung open and my jaw nearly dropped with admiration: the most beautiful riad, with tiled floors, a huge chandelier glittering from a two story high ceiling, a fountain whispering underneath and inviting cushioned niches all around the walls greeted my eyes. And I was already confronted with one of Morocco’s mysteries: plain from the outside with unexpected treasures and luxuries on the inside.
Marrakesh’s famous soukhs stimulate all the senses with colourful heaps of spices, hammering craftsmen, shouting vendors and the waft of hundreds of tagines sizzling over charcoal fires not to mention the black veiled Moroccan women in their embroidered djellabahs gliding among them and countless motorscooters and donkey carts in their soft slippers.
French chic, designer boutiques galore and a much more sedate pace rule, by contrast, the area around Place du 16 Novembre.
As far as contrasts are concerned it couldn’t get more impressive than on my next day’s trip to the desert town of Ouarzazate, approx. 200km east of Marrakesh. The road starts pretty harmlessly and straight through Marrakesh’s suburbs, but as soon as the foothills of the Atlas mountains appear on the horizon you better tighten your seatbelt and brace yourself, because you are in for a roller coaster ride of mind boggling proportions. The drive is one of the steepest and most winding in Morocco, leading through the Draa valley and the Tichka gorge over stretches of road which seem suspended from the sky with sheer drops on both sides. Some bends are so tight that you can only marvel how coaches who negotiate the same route from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate manage to get around them without plunging into the bottomless depth. But they do and so did my driver, a Berber with obviously an innate feeling for the mountains, home to the Berber people, who didn’t bother much with slowing down or even having both hands on the steering wheel. The stunning sight of the soaring mountains and the deep valley, covered with clumps of pink oleander until the height of 2000 m at the peak prohibits vegetation is reward enough. Fortified mountain villages such as the heritage listed Ait Ben Haddou with their red kasbahs are glued to the cliffs or spread out in the valley below and herds of sheep and goats are guarded by shepherds who would have looked exactly the same hundreds of years ago.
Then there comes the descent into the plateau where Ouarzazate is located, a town also known as the ‘Gateway to the Desert’. And again, contrast rules. Dominating the old part of the town stands the Kashba of Taourit, a UNESCO world heritage monument which one can take hours to wander about in.
On the other hand, Ouarzazate is famous as a film making center. Such classics as Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars and Gladiator have been shot in part in and around Ouarzazate and the movie industry is still going strong. There is a cinematography museum to visit as well as the studios, but I opted for the Hotel Berbere Palace to enjoy some R&R at the Olympic sized pool which you can use by buying a day pass which also includes a light lunch and a soft drink and, more importantly to wander around the hotel’s gardens and lobby and to look at the many original props which were used in movies and which are exhibited in the hotel.
Taking heart from Caesar and other movie heroes, I was ready to face the Atlas- crossing journey back to Marrakesh----in the dark!
The next day couldn’t have been more laid back than a visit to the coastal town of Essaouira. Not for nothing was the place a favourite hang out of Bob Marley and Jimmy Hendrix and somewhat fading hippie charm is still much in evidence. Houses here are not rose coloured but white and blue and the wide curving beach invites to sunbathing or windsurfing, followed by fresh fish grilled over charcoal in tiny shacks. The shops in the medina offer more artefacts and paintings than those of Marrakesh.
A true kaleidoscope of impressions which left me with a single wish: a prolonged return visit.  

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