8 hours in casablanca

Casablanca. The very name transports one back to 1942 and the black and white American romantic drama set in World War II. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the film was an unprecedented success like no other before. Who has not heard of Casablanca? And Rick’s Café?

But did you know that not a single scene in the movie was actually filmed on location. Casablanca was shot entirely at Warner Bros. Studio in California. There never was any Rick’s Café in Casablanca, back then, either. The one that stands now near Hassan II Mosque is a recreated version of the one in the film, built much later. It doesn’t really matter though, for through the movie Casablanca, Casablanca the city on which the film was based became a household name globally.

Most travellers zip past Casablanca onto the more exotic destinations Morocco has to offer. Compared to the cultural charms of the royal cities of Fes, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat, Casablanca comes in as a poor second. When it is rugged nature that tugs your heartstrings, what does a commercial port-city by the Atlantic Ocean have to offer?

Lots. Continue reading

discover ancient roman volubilis through a self-guided walk

There is a reason I travel solo. I tend to get lost when I travel. No, not physically. That would be impossible in today’s day and age with Google Maps and diligent service providers busy at work with their mobile phone tracking systems to keep you connected. What I mean is I get lost in the experience. I lose track of time. Which is great for me, but, have come to realize, is not so great for others. 😀

This post is about one such lost-in-the-experience day I spent at a place called Volubilis in northern Morocco, in the foothills of Mount Zerhoun. And how you too, if you wish [that is], could lose yourself in its magic!

Volubilis was a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire. Though dating back to the 3d Century BC and occupied till the 11th Century AD, its hey-day lasted from 44 – 285 AD when it was capital of the Roman province Mauretania Tingitana.

It was a wealthy town—fertile grain and olive oil-producing lands surrounded it—and its 20,000 Romanised Amazigh inhabitants lived in fancy villas lining broad avenues. Today, the archaeological site is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Continue reading

the forgotten kasbahs and ksars of morocco’s high atlas mountains


[Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs]

A high-pitched Amazigh love song is playing on a loop in the car stereo. Abdul, my cab driver decides to give it company with deft dance moves from behind the steering wheel even as he swings the car around hairpin bends. He does not speak English. I don’t speak Arabic, Amazigh or French. We are high up in the High Atlas Mountains in Southern Morocco.

Should we crash down the rock face would anyone be able to trace us, I ask him with hand signs. He signals I should not worry, and grins. These mountains are his home. I tell myself I should be afraid. Instead, I have a huge smile plastered on my face as well.

Oh, how I love these blood-red, barren mountains spread all around us, till as far as the eye can see! Majestic, mysterious, and millions of years old. There is no other sign of life under the ultramarine blue sky, except for our car and glimpses of a green oasis which ribbons its way in the plunging valley below.

I am on my way to Telouet, a crumbling mud-brick Kasbah [palace] 5,900 feet high up in the mountains. I had chanced upon the name when reading up for my Morocco trip and though outside the tourist circuit, I just knew I had to visit it. Continue reading

travel diaries: hiking through the todra gorge

There are two choices for the hiker at Todra Gorge. You can either go up, scaling the burnt orange limestone crumbling cliffs of the High Atlas Mountains, higher with every step, or carry on along the canyon floor into its bowels, deeper ahead. Both have their own perks. A bit like life itself.

Since most people tend to climb up, and I like to do things a tad differently, I decided to walk on straight. It was a long walk. Some four-and-a-half-hours long.

I started at the most visited and dramatic section, a 10-meter-wide chasm shared by both river and road, and penned in with towering perpendicular cliffs 160 metres tall. Stretched over a length of 600 metres, the tourist crowds usually do their U-turn here and go back.

But should one venture on, the unfolding of the cliffs into craggy piles of rock up to 400 metres high that line a desolate sun-baked concrete road is surreal and unreal rolled into one. The only sound I could here as I trudged on alone under the ultramarine blue sky was the chirping of birds. They seemed almost glad for my company. Continue reading

photo essay: in search of the sahara desert

A sea of endless, sweeping, sand dunes which change colour in tandem with the sun. A night sky bristling with stars brighter than diamonds. The pin-drop silence that only nature can muster. Aah, the immensity of life and being part of it one-on-one!

Camping under a silver full moon in the Sahara Desert was the reason I travelled to Morocco last November. It was something I had fantasized about since as long as I could remember. It was the reason my heart thumped a little harder and my goose bumps rose a wee bit higher whilst I packed for my three-week trip. Yes, I knew there were going to be lots of other wonderful experiences, but this, this was special.

In my ignorance I expected to simply walk into the bone-dry fringes of the Sahara Desert which fell inside Morocco’s borders, once I left Fes. Wrong.

My journey of 470 kilometres took me through European-styled pristine and chilly hill-stations to 360-million-year-old fossil land choc-o-bloc with ammonites, trilobites, and orthoceras. I met proud, independent, solitary Amazigh nomads in their bare tents in the Middle Atlas and broke into giggles with schoolgirls at Rissani, once the ancient gold-trading centre of Sijilmasa. Continue reading

36 hours in essaouira, where europe meets africa

The year is 1765. The place: A windy bay in Western Morocco. Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah, Morocco’s Sultan, has come up with the idea of building a fortified port-city by the sea to strengthen trade ties with Europe and the New World.

But with a difference. He decides to commission a Frenchman, Theodore Cornut to build it, using French military architectural elements. The city is populated with Africans, Amazighs, Arabs, and Europeans. A colony of Moroccan Jews are especially brought in to carry out the trade. And, thus, Essaouira meaning “the beautifully designed” is born. Continue reading