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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Morocco offers a surreal mix of old and new

by Daniel Drolet in The Vancouver Sun

FEZ, Morocco - In alleyways barely as wide as my outstretched arms, the city's bustle pushes past me in waves -- giggling schoolchildren chasing each other, veiled women on their way to market, wizened old men in traditional djellabas walking hand-in-hand, Moroccan style, and chatting.

Every minute or two, weary donkeys laden with cargo trot past, their masters yelling "Balik! Balik!" as a warning to get out of the way. I sometimes have to push myself flat against the walls of the houses to let them pass.

Thin shades pulled overtop of these labyrinthine alleyways keep out most of the sharp North African sun and create a dark, dappled place where the scent of orange blossoms mingles with the acrid smell of ammonia. Somewhere nearby, in a cubbyhole off the street, there is a schoolroom, and I can hear the angelic voices of children chanting their lessons. The sound of it is as sweet as honey.

For a moment I am disoriented, unsure not only of where I am, but also -- more strangely -- of when I am. Is this the 21st century?

A man talking on a cellphone walks past. I am not in the 13th century after all. I am in the medina of Fez, the ancient capital of Morocco. And Fez, like all of Morocco, is a strange mix of new and old, modern and traditional, cellphones and donkeys.

It's a mix the Moroccan government wants more Canadians to see. About 32,000 of us visited the country last year, says Abdelghani Ragala, Canadian director of the Moroccan National Tourist Office in Montreal. From Canada, the road to Morocco usually starts in Montreal. Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights from Montreal to Casablanca -- the only direct Canadian air connection to Africa. (There are also excellent connections through Paris.)

As my plane lands at Casablanca's Mohammed V Airport, I am struck that from the air, Morocco looks like Alberta: wide, fertile plains framed in the distance by the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas mountains. That Albertan impression remains as I travel the north of the country.

There are ski resorts in the High Atlas, and cool cedar forests with alpine architecture in the Middle Atlas, and broad plains elsewhere. The expressway between Fez and Rabat, the capital, is as modern as any Canadian highway.

Morocco is a California-sized country with a population equal to that of Canada. But unlike Canada, about half the population is rural. And most of the people are concentrated in the fertile area north of the High Atlas.

Northern Morocco is green and bountiful: In the markets I see strawberries lusher than any I had ever seen, along with oranges, artichokes and green peas in their pods, every manner of fresh herb, beans and grains, dates and apricots, nuts and figs, and mounds of spices.

Morocco's peoples are a mix of Arab and Berber, with black Africans in the south and smatterings of Jews and Christians. But it is an overwhelmingly Muslim and many mornings I woke up to the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to early prayer.

But if the country looks like Alberta, it sounds like Quebec: French is universally used as a second language after Arabic, and virtually all signs are in both Arabic and French. The French connection dates from France's protectorate over Morocco from 1912 to 1956 and it remains strong.

For anyone visiting Morocco, there are three main attractions: the Sahara Desert in the south, the beaches near Agadir on the Atlantic, and the great cities of the north -- the imperial cities, as they are called here.

I was on a week-long tour of the imperial cities that took me to Marrakech, Fez, Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca. It was a circle tour of more than 1,500 kilometres, done in a group, with a guide and organized through a Montreal-based company. A number of tour companies offer similar visits. While it certainly is possible to travel on one's own, I would never in a million years have been able to find my way around the medinas -- the old Muslim quarters -- without a guide. The medinas are daunting mazes -- and the most fascinating things I saw.

The medina of Fez is the most amazing of all. Now a World Heritage Site, it is 1,200 years old and feels it. The buildings are too tightly packed for motorized transport. You visit on foot, and commerce moves on the backs of donkeys.

The most amazing of all the craft shops of Fez is the city's tannery. After being given branches of mint to wave under our noses for the smell, we are led up a narrow set of stairs to a shop full of leather goods. At the back of the shop is a balcony, and from the balcony is the most amazing sight.

At our feet, two storeys below, is a large open space filled with what look like dozens of over-sized children's paint pots. Each pot is filled with a liquid, and barelegged men stomp on hides in the liquids as if they are stomping on grapes. Some liquids are coloured, to dye the hides. Others are white. These, we are told, are filled with pigeon droppings. The ammonia from the droppings gets the hair off the hides. It also contributes largely to the smells wafting up.

On nearby roofs, other men spread the newly tanned leathers to dry. The sight is truly from another century.

As we leave the balcony, we pass back through the shop where all manner of leather goods are being sold. Would we like to buy something?

Moroccans are a commercial people, always intent, it seems, on selling, selling, selling. And at each craft shop we visit, we are urged to buy, buy, buy.

It is all part of the experience, but it is not always pleasant. That's because shopping is different in Morocco than Canada. With few exceptions, nothing wears a price tag. Every purchase is negotiated -- often at length. If you so much as glance at goods in a shop, you may be approached and asked to come in. In some cases, I was grabbed by the arm in the street and literally dragged toward a shop.

If you want the crafts without the hassle, most major cities have what is called an Ensemble Artisanal -- an "official" crafts store -- where the approach is more North American. And if you find the medinas too disorienting, most cities also have a European quarter with wide, car-filled streets and sidewalk cafes and tearooms selling a delightful assortment of pastries.

We ended our trip in fabled Marrakech, where all the buildings old and new are in the city's trademark ochre colour.

At day's end, we made our way to Jemaa el Fna Square, the heart of the city.

Imagine a market run by the Cirque du Soleil and you will begin to get an idea of Jemaa el Fna: Snake charmers, fortune tellers, monkeys and musicians share space with row upon row of open-air kiosks selling every kind of food imaginable, from boiled snails to roast lamb. And people! Everywhere, a crush of humanity, sightseers and locals, mixing in a roiling, jostling melange.

IF YOU GO

- Getting there: I flew Royal Air Maroc, which has regularly scheduled non-stop flights from Montreal to Casablanca several times a week. The flight lasts about 71/2 hours. For information, visit www.royalairmaroc.com/ or see a travel agent.

- Finding a tour: Call the Moroccan tourist office in Montreal at 514- 842-8112 or visit a travel agency. Expect a basic two-week tour -- one week in the imperial cities and the other on the beach -- to cost between $2,000 and $2,500 per person, which includes your flight and most meals.

But tour costs vary tremendously depending on what you do, when you go and what kind of accommodation you want.

- Money: The dirham, Morocco's currency, is not internationally traded so you can't change money here before you go. The easiest thing to do is use ATMs, of which there are plenty. Or you can change Canadian cash or travellers' cheques at banks and many hotels.

- Weather: Hot and dry, particularly in the summer. But it can also be cooler than you'd think, so bring something warm. And there is rain in winter.

- Dress: In the imperial cities, you will see people wearing a mix of western and traditional garb. Shorts are generally acceptable in tourist areas, but remember that this is a Muslim country.

- Accommodation: Major cities have European-style hotels. But if you want something more authentic look for a riad, a small hotel usually established in an old, renovated house.

- Language: Arabic is the official language, and French is widely used. English is common in major tourist areas.

- More: Consult the multilingual government website http://tourismmorocco.ca/ or call the Moroccan National Tourist Office in Montreal at 514-842-8112.

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