photo essay: marrakech, stories told and untold

Marrakech is my last stop as I travel through Morocco.

What could be a better way as well, to end my Moroccan series, than a blog post on the city after which the whole country was once named.

From medieval times right until its independence, Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakech. Till date, in both Persian and Urdu, the word for Morocco is Marrakech.

Whichever nickname you choose to refer to it by—Red City, the Ochre City, or the Daughter of the Desert—Marrakech brims with stories. But a little more than the usual. Some told and recounted again and again through guide books and travellers’ words. Some a little less obvious. Did you know, even the UNESCO-listed status for its vast medieval square, Djemaa el-Fna, is based on its oral traditions of story-telling. 😊

A tradition which goes back a thousand years. To 1070 AD to be exact. Continue reading

top 15 memorable things to do in fes, morocco’s cultural and spiritual capital

Fes.

It was everything I’d imagined it to be, and more.

When travellers claim no journey to Morocco is truly complete without a halt in the Kingdom’s oldest imperial city, it is no hogwash.

Fiercely spiritual and traditional. A centre for learning with the world’s oldest university. Yet fearless when it comes to voicing contradictory ideas.

Here the arts and crafts thrive, unhindered and unadulterated, as they have for 1,200 years. At the peak of the Almohad empire in the 12th Century AD, Fes had 372 mills, 9,082 shops, 47 soap factories, and 188 pottery workshops. But Fes is also politically voracious.

Its nine thousand alleyways are notorious as a place guaranteed to get lost in. Even locals claim they stick to the lanes they are familiar with.

Enigmatic and mysterious, it has secrets it does not divulge to the casual feet and eye. Continue reading

the 5 untold cultural treasures of rabat, morocco’s medieval and modern capital city

I fell in love with Rabat at first sight.

Sophisticated, Mediterranean, with a world-class museum and gallery, Morocco’s capital city is a breath of fresh air in a country otherwise steeped in romantic orientalism. Whitewashed Art Deco buildings vie with an ultramarine blue sky for attention here. Street-side cafes serve delectable tagines and kebabs accompanied with steaming cups of cafe nous nous.

Faced with the exotic wonders of Morocco further ahead, not many travellers break their journey in Rabat. What does a capital city have to offer in comparison to the enigmatic imperial cities of Fez and Marrakesh, and the wild call of the Atlas Mountains and sweeping dunes of the Sahara Desert?

The answer is: A different kind of Moroccan experience. Continue reading

meknes: the story of a bloodthirsty sex-addict sultan and his beloved imperial city

“Green is the sweetest colour; white is a good sign for those appealing to him; but when he is dressed in yellow, all the world trembles and flees his presence, because it is the colour that he chooses on the days of his bloodiest executions.”
~ Dominique Busnot, Histoire Du Regne de Moulay Ismail, Roi de Maroc (1704)

Once upon a time lived a Sultan in Morocco who loved his imperial city called Meknes with every fibre of his being. The 55 years he reigned, the longest by any Moroccan Sultan, were spent building gates, mosques, madrassas, palaces and gardens in it, each more magnificent than the other. When he died, aged 82 in 1727 AD, he had one of the most beautiful mausoleums ever built in the Kingdom made to house his corpse.

A slender man of medium height, a long face and dark skin [his mother was an African slave], he was the 2nd ruler of the Alaouite Kingdom. His name was Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif aka the Warrior King of Morocco.

Apart from Meknes, if there was anything else Moulay Ismail ibn Sharif loved—it was women, and sex. A lot more than the ordinary. Better known as the Sultan who had 10 wives, 500 concubines, and 1,171 children, his 700th son was born just after his death. His 10th wife was an Irishwoman by the name of Mrs. Shaw. He also proposed to his contemporary, Louis XIV’s, daughter. He was quite smitten by her charm and beauty. However, she declined.

The other two things he is still remembered for, nearly three hundred years after his death, are his cruelty and his army of Black Guards. Continue reading

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

8 reasons why hassan II mosque tops the casablanca travel bucket list

This is what the Hassan II Mosque on the shores of the ice-blue Atlantic Ocean in Morocco’s northern coast looked like when I landed up at its doorstep one wintry morning in November. ❤

Can you blame me if my camera and I went a little berserk with joy!

It had rained the previous day. With the sun now out, it was as if the world had been painted afresh and the sky and the sea truly met at “god’s throne.” Wonder what I am talking about? Do read on. Continue reading

the story behind chefchaouen, the blue pearl of the rif mountains

Me to Google in Marrakech: “How to get from Marrakech to Chefchaouen.”

Google’s response: “3-hour train journey to Casablanca and then a 6-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Chefchaouen.” No airport. No train. Just one daily CTM bus. I knew Chefchaouen was kind of remote. But this sounded over the top. If I missed the bus, shucks, I also missed a travel day.

But being in Morocco and not exploring Chefchaouen would be blasphemy. Originally called Chaouen meaning “peaks,” the town was renamed Chefchaouen in 1975 which means “look at the peaks.” And well, I wanted to look at the peaks.

If neither of the names strike a bell, do have a look at the post’s title picture. In all likelihood you would have come across this scene at least once online. It is the most Instagrammed backstreet in Chefchaouen. Along with it, pictures of igloo-blue homes and lanes would also have sprung out to you from travellers’ social media accounts.

Seems unreal to you? In fact, the real thing is bluer, prettier, and even more magical! Continue reading