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    Morocco, kingdom full of diverse culture

    11 Feb 2018

    Morocco! The very name can conjure up the smell of spices, or the sights of carpets, leather, bright ceramics, or blue-tinged houses crowding hillsides above sandy, stony valleys.

    And most of that is true.

    Spices are certainly a major part of Moroccan life. The spice shops with their colourful baskets of cardamom, turmeric, cumin, marjoram, paprika (spicy and sweet), star anise and many, many more, plus chunks of cinnamon bark, baskets of tea flavours from traditional mint to what looked more like pot pourri than a tisane, dominate the souks.

    New Zealand’s customs restrictions made it easy to resist the salesmen touting their wares, but the smells and sight of so many raw spices was heady and exciting to any cook!

    And then there are the olives, great barrels of black, green, red and white olives, sliced olives, olives in harissa and olives in herbs; a huge range of dates of all types and sizes; strings of figs; barrel loads of oranges, huge, tasty and juicy; pomegranates; and of course mandarins, simply the best I’ve ever eaten.

    The Moroccans believe many of Hercules’ 12 labours took place in their country, and the legend is that the golden apples he retrieved were actually Morocco’s mandarins.

    Our three weeks in Morocco were originally focused around visiting the wonderful Roman ruins of Volubilis, just north east of Fez and Meknes, where some of the best and most numerous floor mosaics were still in place and in reasonably good condition. However, we began in the capital Rabat, a public servant’s city, with lovely wide streets and large public buildings under restoration.

    A gentle introduction

    It was a gentle introduction to the country from the comfort of an airbnb apartment just two blocks from the large Medina (ancient-walled city) and adjoining Kasbah (castle and/or fortified quarters).

    Rabat’s small Archaeological Museum housed beautiful bronzes and several gorgeous marble statues from Volubilis, which was the home of the North African King Juba II and his wife Selene (daughter of Cleopatra and Mark Antony), whom the Romans appointed as their Governors when establishing the Roman province of Mauretania. It also has its own Roman ruins, the Roman city of Sala Colonia and the Merenid (13th and 14th century rulers) necropolis of Chellah, south of the city.

    Only a quarter of the Roman city has been excavated to date, but there are also the 14th century towers and defensive walls that stand today, alongside the Islamic complex of tombs.

    We visited nearby Casablanca using the very efficient train system. This section appeared well used, but over the wider network north to Tangier and south east to Marrakech we only saw one train in our two weeks travelling around.

    Morocco is a land of contrasts — from their sophisticated French and Moorish heritage in the cities of Rabat, Casablanca, Tangier, Fez and Marrakech, to the smaller towns where life is very simple and agriculturally-based.

    Their food ranges from French boulangeries with mouth-watering pastries and breads, to sweet Moorish pasties and sweets piled high in the souk.

    The architecture is amazing, from the French resident-general Hubert Lyautey’s planned design with architect Henri Prost that gives Casablanca a faded Art Deco glory, the grandeur of the Islamic heritage of walled cities, their ramparts completely intact in most places, the Moorish influences in green courtyards with fountains and coolness behind incredibly-decorated doorways, amazing zellij (ceramic-tiled mosaics), mosques and minarets beautifully decorated and clearly the centre of their communities, to the smaller villages of mud houses piled in on one another.

    Wooden ploughs

    We saw people ploughing their fields with simple wooden ploughs, donkeys straddled with the traditional panniers laden with produce, people, wood (and certainly marijuana up in the Rif mountains), and even in cities like Casablanca and Tangier a donkey and cart or a carriage could pull up alongside you at the lights!

    And, in parts of the country, the donkey appeared to be the main transport option — for both people and goods.

    We spent a couple of days at Essaouira on the Atlantic Coast, a pretty seaside resort as well as a busy fishing town.

    The medina is well worth exploring. It has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site because it is a prime example of European 18th century military architecture in North Africa. It has a mellow atmosphere with winding streets, white-washed houses and marvellous heavy wooden doors.

    We saw craftspeople at work in the streets — making the intricate inlaid wooden furniture, carpet weavers, artists, and of course the women grinding the split, lightly-toasted kernels of the Argan tree that is native to the area.

    Argan oil is used in cooking and has a lovely nutty flavour.

    Health-wise, it is said to rival olive oil, but of course it’s famously used in cosmetics after passing through the goats that climb up into the trees to eat the berries.

    All over Morocco, we saw the women’s collectives that harvest, prepare and market this precious oil. My daughter and granddaughter swear by it for hair condition!

    We rented a car for two weeks and drove north to Tangier, stopping to find several Roman ruins along the way. The drive across from Tangier to Spain’s patch of land at Ceuta is a magnificent drive – with the Spanish coast close by for much of the way. Having stood on Gibraltar looking across, I did want to stand on the other pillar of Hercules!

    The driving wasn’t too bad once you get used to driving a manual car on the right! A huge investment is being made in their motorways connecting major cities. These were tolled, but it wasn’t expensive, and when you want to speed through to your next destination it is helpful to have that option. They were the ‘A’ roads. We spent most of our time on the ‘N’ roads, the provincial roads which were of a mixed condition! But given the geology of the country and its rurally-based population, we were impressed by the network and had no trouble.

    Atlas Mountains

    We drove through the Atlas Mountains from Fez to Erg Chebbi, the huge sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara Desert, through the Ziz Gorges.

    The countryside is breathtaking, with switchbacks, fractured ancient rocks, huge escarpments, buttes and mesas galore to satisfy my husband, and the roads are pretty good too.

    Tagines and couscous are synonymous with Morocco. In the north, Rabat included, couscous was only available for Friday lunch, their holy day and thus worthy of a well-prepared feast, which required a siesta afterwards. We ate at a rest stop on the side of the motorway and it was one of the most delicious meals we ate in Morocco! The couscous, traditionally prepared, was plump and round and each grain held the flavours beautifully. A far cry from the three-minute packaged stuff we get here!

    The sight of tagines cooking, each on their own brazier, heralded a true Moroccan meal. It meant first in had the choice of tagine, the lamb, prunes and apricot tagine always went first, and if you were too late for your meal, you often had only the vegetable tagine left, which wasn’t too much of a trial, they were all delicious! My favourite was chicken with preserved lemons and olives, especially if there were potatoes included with the vegetables that absorbed the lemon flavours.

    I did buy a tagine for a few dollars from a roadside stall, but unfortunately the top didn’t make it back to New Zealand in one piece in my luggage.

    Morocco is a fascinating country, with fabulous food, fantastic architecture, a long and interesting history and, best of all, wonderfully kind and welcoming people.


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