Saturday, January 31, 2009

Marrakesh Express

My first stop in Morocco proper was Essaouira, a historic port town 200km north of Agadir. As I approached along the winding coastal road the landscape reminded me of the eastern Mediterranean (from southern Turkey through to Jerusalem): olive groves, rocky fields, crisp colours, especially the bright green of recently sprouted grass and leaves. Essaouira is an early example of something that I have come to loathe: the planned town. But since it was planned before the inception of motorised transport it's fantastically compact and full of character. A few main roads cut through the town whilst tight, dogleg alleyways radiate away to form little mazes and dead-ends that are fun to explore. The buildings, with their uniformly whitewashed walls and bright blue doors and window frames, also form a harmonious whole and afford plenty of opportunities for the amateur hack (me) to take snaps of everyday vignettes and catch brief glimpses through open doorways of tiled courtyards and domesticity. It being a port Essaouira is more cosmopolitan than its comperes, but even I was a little stunned to see, in a Muslim country, women in miniskirts lounging in doorways during one of my lost ramblings. It took me a while to realise that I had stumbled upon the red light district (how innocent am I?).

Essaouira is famous throughout Morocco (and even the world, for people who are interested in such things) as being the home of Gnaoua music, a genre of spiritual music (although Gnaoua incorporates esoteric and mystical elements like Sufism, as well) that is thought to have originated from the mixing of (black) African and Arabic traditions. I didn't really know much of this to begin with, but whilst ambling aimlessly this middle-aged local, who smelt distinctly of pot and alcohol, struck up a conversation, mentioned that he made musical instruments and offered to show me some. I had nothing better to do and so tagged along. He led me down a few alleyways before ducking into a low door and into his small home that he shared with his mother. His room was rather small and dingy, with a low table and a half-empty bottle of (local) wine. He pulled out his home-made bass - although it looked to me like something they used to make on Blue Peter I have since learnt that it was in fact the real deal - and jumped into some Gnaoua jamming. I'm no connoisseur, but I quite liked it (for a sample of gnaoua check out this site, or just do a simple search on YouTube).

From Essaouira it was on to Marrakesh, the final destination of my trip. As the bus headed eastwards and upwards the snowy peaks of the High Atlas became visible to the south, its jagged spine running parallel to the road and reminding me that it's winter back in Europe, and apparently one of the coldest in recent history, a reality I am not relishing. But until then I am planning to make the most of my time in the Red City (I've been trying, without success, to find a list of cities associated with particular colours: Jodhpur and blue, Jaisalmer and gold, Aberdeen and grey, Toulouse and rose, Jaipur and pink - there could be a book in there somewhere). The old city, or Medina, has survived the ages pretty much intact which gives it a special character. And it's no stale, preserved museum piece either, but a vibrant, living, chaotic jumble that is immediately endearing. The centrepiece of the city, both literally and figuratively is the Djemaa El Fna, a giant, irregular square (almost certainly the largest in Africa). The square itself is rather unremarkable, but what makes it unique is what goes on there: traditional storytellers, acrobats, musicians, snake-charmers, soothsayers, henna tattooists, dancers, purveyors of fetishes and traditional remedies, and tarot readers all congregate during the day and well into the evening. What's particularly satisfying is that they aren't there for the tourists but for the local population (because quite frankly I don't think the average tourist has any idea what the wizened Berber ladies with the funny cards are saying) and we, as visitors, are being allowed a glimpse into their world. In the evening over a hundred food stalls set up shop selling everything from your standard Moroccan fare (couscous with something) to the less expected (rather tasty snails).

Ho-hum, I would like to write more but it's 11pm and my plane leaves tomorrow morning and I need to pack. The next you hear from me I should be back in the "real world".

1 comment:

Shammickite said...

I've been following your travels and adventures and i wish I was a s brave as you! I must admit, I haven't read every single word but I'm going to go back and re-read everything. You are such an adventurer!