Souks, snakes, mosques and a bit of baking. Graeme Green gets to know the 4 Imperial Cities of Morocco (Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Rabat) on a laidback tour of the country
Ouliya Amurani laughed, as her mother eyed me suspiciously. “My mother thinks this is not your first time,” she explained. She was wrong. Of all the situations I’ve found myself in years of travelling, this was a first: away from the rush and hustle of the souks, in the quiet courtyard of Ouliya’s riad, we were making Moroccan black olive bread.
It turns out, when it comes to kneading dough, I unexpectedly have the skills to pay the bills. “Good,” nodded Ouliya’s mother Layla, as I pummelled and folded the semolina dough.
With little noise beyond the sound of water running in the fountain, the courtyard made a pleasant change from the frenetic pace of Fez’s markets and alleyways. When our dough was ready, we strolled down to the centuries-old communal wood-burning oven where a local man bakes people’s bread for a few dirhams. Our hot Moroccan ‘salads’ were simmering on the stove. A caramel and orange blossom flan was setting in the fridge. Most importantly, our fish tajine - a traditional Moroccan dish - was prepped and slow-cooking in its clay pot.
The essential ingredient in Moroccan cooking isn’t a particular spice, meat or veg, but time. “More time means more flavour,” Ouliya (pictured, above) told me, carrying our warm tray of bread back from the oven. “Tajines take hours to cook. It’s the traditional way: slow. If you cook quickly, afterwards it doesn’t taste so delicious.”
Time is of the essence in Morocco, I quickly learned on an easygoing tour of Morocco’s Imperial Cities, the four cities (Marrakech, Fez, Meknes and Rabat) that have all served as capitals under the seven monarchical dynasties that have ruled the country since the kingdom was first formed and the first capital, Fez, was built in 808. The labyrinthine souks, streets and alleys of the medinas (old cities) are perfect for wandering and, voluntarily and involuntarily, getting lost.
But more than that, I was keen not to rush through, as many travellers do, ticking off the souks and main sights before moving on. Instead, I wanted to take a little longer, get a little deeper under the skin and see behind the scenes of these cities. Ouliya’s huge courtyard, for example, is the kind of thing most travellers not only wouldn’t see, but might not even imagine existed behind the small wooden doors tucked away on the narrow alleyways of Fez.
I started, though, in the ‘Red City’: Marrakech. “For many years, Marrakech was the capital of the whole empire of Morocco,” local guide Seddik Aassim told me as we explored the quiet outskirts of the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the early morning. “The city was founded in 1062 and was so important for trade that foreigners started calling the whole country ‘Marrakech’. The Berber word means ‘Land of God’, but the word ‘Marrakech’ got corrupted and mispronounced in English as ‘Morocco’, which gave the country its name.”
We passed caravanserai, buildings that were, in the 16th century, hotels for caravan traders, then stepped inside a crumbly building with a furnace heating the hammam (steam bath) above. A local man (pictured, above) sat inside and, for a few dirhams, sang played a genbri for people, like us, who dropped in, the traditional 3-string instrument passed down from the African slaves brought to Morocco by the caravan traders.
Further on, we stopped in at the 14th century Ben Youssef Medersa (pictured, below), formerly an Islamic school. All you had to do to be a student here: memorize the Koran well enough to recite it from start to finish.
At the edges of Marrakech’s famous souks, we saw craftsmen working with leather, copper and tin. “Many people aren’t adventurous and stick to the souks next to the main square, which is just the bazaar,” Seddik told me. “Maybe they’re scared. But it’s good to see the artisan quarters here where things are made.”
We wound our way through some of the 6000 stalls selling spices and lamps, carpets and football shirts, leather slippers and live hunting falcons, all the way to the market square of Rahba Lakdima, which was used as a slave market right up until the 1920s.
Over a pot of mint tea in a café overlooking the market, Seddik filled me in on Morocco’s Imperial history. “Morocco’s special for one thing: since the late 8th century, it cut itself off from the Arab Islamic empire which was spreading across North Africa, whose capital was Baghdad, and declared itself independent. Idriss I established Fez as the first capital. For 1200 years, since 788, Morocco’s known itself as an independent country, with it’s own king and it’s own identity. We continue to have a king today, though it’s more democratic. Seven families or dynasties have ruled the country, but it’s still the same monarchy system.”
We made our way across Djemma el-Fna, the largest market square in Africa, careful to avoid stepping on cobras or asps strewn across the ground by snake charmers as we crossed to the 77-metre high minaret of 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, the heart of the city, from which Muslim calls to prayer are sung out each day.
I spent the afternoon exploring alone and got my first taste of being lost in Morocco. “Is this ringing any bells?” I heard an American tourist asking his wife, as I made my way circuitously to the Maison de la Photographie (Photography Museum). “I think we’ve been this way before,” she answered, her voice full of uncertainty.
I wound my way back eventually to Djemma el-Fna, the square previously a site for public executions (it’s name means ‘assembly of the dead’). Incense and smoke from food market grills filled the air, and there was a cacophony of snake charmers’ reedy oboes and thumping drums. Circles gathered to watch street performers, from boxing matches to somersaulting acrobats, and, less, pleasantly, monkeys on chains forced to have their photos taken with tourists who pay a few dirhams.
I headed up to the balcony of Café Glacier and, over more mint tea, took in the massive spectacle from above. A wide open scene filled with thousands of tourists, shoeshine boys, policemen, snake charmers, dancers and market traders, it looked like a ‘Where’s Wally?’ picture come to life.
I saw another side to the city next morning on a philanthropic tour, stopping first at Alnour, a social enterprise in the Lakasour area of the medina, where disadvantaged women (widows, single mothers, disabled…) work as embroiderers. “We’re trying to provide facilities so women can work and be healthy and forget what their hardship is,” assistant manager Saadia Isam told me, as she led me from the main shop to the workroom, where a dozen women sat at sewing machines or hand-stitching garments. “We’re helping women develop skills, to have a more decent living, to be more independent. Morocco’s a very male dependent society.”
There were tears in the workshop, as one of the wheelchair-bound women arrived over an hour late, having been sat by the roadside waiting for a bus that didn’t show up, a sign of the daily problems faced. But mostly here there was a warm, sociable and industrious atmosphere. The project provides more than just jobs. “I’m grateful to the project,” embroiderer Naima Asif, a single woman who looks after her mother and has a paralysed left leg, told me, between stitches. “I’m financially secure, comfortable. I’m also making friends. I feel more active and part of something. Everyone knows everyone here.”
Amal, out in the modern French-built area of Gueliz, outside the walls of the medina, are doing similar work, only this time with food. The association trains vulnerable women, many of them previously living under the poverty line or homeless, in the culinary arts, as chefs or waiting staff, then helps them get jobs in local restaurants and riads. Since opening in November 2013, they’ve helped train 83 women, 76 of which are now employed, with 16 new trainees in place.
Amal’s café is meant to be a training ground; communications manager Oumaima Maijir thanks me for coming to a place where trainees can make mistakes, but I don’t see any. Lunch here is busy with locals and the food is among the best I try in Morocco, including briouats (fried rolls of filo pastry stuffed with cheese and vegetables) and classic Moroccan cous cous, served in a clay pot.
Afterwards, as part of the tour, I go back to the kitchens and sit with volunteer pastry chef Fatima Ezhari as she makes five kilogrammes of dough and mixes almonds, eggs, sugar and orange blossom water for traditional Moroccan pastries Fqas. “It changed my life,” Samira, one of the trainees, helping measure out flour. “The horizon was dark and gloomy. I couldn’t see what I was going to do. I have more chance of getting a job now.”
In no hurry all afternoon, I stroll back to the medina through Marrakech’s modern, and much easier to navigate, French quarter Guéliz, stopping to go to the rooftop of Le Renaissance, the high point in city, for views of Marrakech city and the surrounding Atlas Mountains. Using the minaret if Koutoubia Mosque to guide me back to the medina.
Next morning, I caught the train to Fez (pictured, above). It might be quicker and cheaper to travel by bus or van, but the comfortable 8-hour train’s a more relaxed way to see the countryside, from flat desert scrub to sun-bleached golden grasslands, rising to Mediterranean-esque olive trees and green hills.
Fez was the first Imperial City; it’s been the capital four times, more than any of the other three. The city’s far less visited than Marrakech but provides a more authentic picture of traditional ‘old city’ life. “Here in Fez’s medina, 90 per cent of activity is related to daily life, not tourism. It’s a living working city,” guide Abdul Khalif told me as we set off from Bab Boujloud (the Blue Gate) on a Foodie Tour.
No motor vehicles are allowed inside the old medina, only mules, donkeys and carts, the city described to me by one of my guides in Marrakech as like a “living fossil.” And in terms of navigable streets, it makes Marrakech look like Milton Keynes. “There are more than 9600 small streets and alleyways in the Old City alone. It’s easy to get lost,” Abdul laughed.
On the medina’s busy Rue Talaa Kebira, we checked out stalls selling sticky honey-and-flour pastries chebakia, dates, nuts and olives. Stalls are laid out with sharks, stingrays and sheep’s heads, a local delicacy. I spotted a young girl pinch a couple of almonds as the stall owner, an old bearded man in traditional jellaba (robes) and tarbouche (hat), turned his back to grind her family’s spice order. Catching my eye, she gave me a cheeky grin.
Further along, a camel also caught my eye; he looked like he was smiling, too, which was unlikely, as it’s head was cleanly severed from it’s body and hanging on a hook outside a butcher’s shop (pictured, above).
“Fez is considered not only the religious and spiritual capital of Morocco, but the capital of Moroccan cuisine,” Khalif told me. “Morocco’s food is so diverse, in the sense that Moroccan culture is diverse. You have indigenous Berber, Arabic, French... The country’s been subject to several occupations: the Romans, Venetians… There are influences from southern Spain, from the descendants of slaves from Sub-Saharan Africa, from the Jewish community who’ve been in Morocco for over 2000 years. It’s a blend of all these cultures.”
Deeper into the souks, I spotted my first red Fez on the head of a local man. We passed the doorways to the Mosque Al Qaraouiyine, reportedly the oldest university in the world, built in 859AD, and I poked my head inside (non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter) the ornate ninth century Mausoleum of Idriss I.
In the afternoon, I was happy to take a break from the souks. I followed the flow of human traffic out of the Blue Gate, then wandered where my eye and the moment took me, passing through a peaceful park lined with orange trees. Later, I stumbled upon the striking Royal Palace and circled the walls of the city, entering the medina again as daylight faded and swarms of swallows swirled around the city walls.
I was back in the markets next morning, meeting Ouliya Amurani to shop for vegetables, marlin for our fish tajine and sardines to stuff (another Fez speciality), olives... “It takes time, but I prefer to go every day to the market, so the food is always fresh,” Ouliya explained. If I say so myself, the food we (mainly Ouliya and her mother) prepared at her riad was hearty and incredibly tasty. “Well, of course I think Moroccan food is the best in the world,” Ouliya nodded.
I arrived into Meknes next morning, just an hour’s drive away. The city was the capital just once, but the ambitious, tyrannical Sultan Moulay Ismail made good use of his 55-year reign. “He built the wall, mosques, madrassas, markets…,” local guide Rhodubenane Ahmed, who goes by Benny, told me as we explored. “They call Meknes the ‘Versailles of Morocco’.”
The city’s markets are far more laidback than in Marrakech and Fez, largely indifferent to outsiders. Few tourists actually make time to visit Meknes. “They call tourists here a mirage, because if they come at all, you just see them for a short time and then they disappear,” Benny laughed.
We visited the city’s old underground prisons and Moulay Ismail’s Royal Palace, the grounds now turned into a golf course, then drove out to Heri es-Souani, the Sultan’s gigantic granaries (pictured, below) where he stored grain to feed his 12,000 horses.
In the evening, I hung out on Place el-Hedime. Men sat in cafes on the side streets, smoking and drinking coffee. There are chained monkeys and snake charmers on the square here, too, but its far more laidback than Marrakech. Young children, too young to be in charge of vehicles, drive small electric cars about the square, adding surreal chaotic edge.
But the striking thing here was the lack of foreign tourists; the circles formed around dancers and small bands of musicians with drums and strings are almost all locals, a less touristy take on the open air theatre than Marrakech’s Djemma el-Fna. I stay out, wandering the streets and the square, until daylight fades and calls to prayer sound out across the city.
Rabat was my final stop, a pleasant hour-long train ride away, passing fields of orange trees, cemeteries, towns and huge open air markets. Morocco’s current capital and political centre, Rabat is the country’s second largest city after Casablanca. “It’s been the capital since 1912, the start of the French protectorate or occupation,” guide Aziz Goumi told me.
We headed out to the Chellah, a medieval necropolis going back to the second century, before the time of the Imperial Cities, with ruins from the Romans and Venetians. Storks have made their nests here now. En route to the mausoleum of Independence hero Mohammed 5, Aziz pointed to cranes down in the valley, the construction of a new Opera House, one of the final projects from architect Zaha Hadid.
Later, we took a relaxing walk, like the locals, through the peaceful Andalucian Gardens and up the white and blue streets of the Kasbah Oudaya to a viewpoint overlooking Plage de Rabat, with surfers and SUP-boarders out in the bay trying to catch waves. “I think the main reason the French chose Rabat as the capital was the weather,” Aziz suggested. “Fez and Marrakech are too hot in summer, too cold in winter. It’s also on the coast and a central location for the area they were protecting.” But I think this could be the real reason: Rabat’s the city with the beach.
I spent the evening wandering the old medina, past kids playing football in the back alleys and busy market stalls laid out with shoes or sheep’s heads. Meat skewers and corn cobs smoked on grills. I bought a handful of Makouda (potato cakes) and walked through the crowds, past the fishy-smelling Marche Central and the fountain of Bab el Had gate where locals congregated for the evening.
I had time in the morning for something decidedly old school: a proper shave at a barber’s tiny shop in the medina, to get rid a month’s on-the-road beard. It was quite an experience, being given a shave with a cutthroat razor from a small, short-sighted barber with trembling hands. Who really needs all their blood to stay in their face anyway? At least, there was a huge bottle of alcohol on hand to make the wounds really sing.
Afterwards, I took a walk around the city, past the white towers of Cathedrale Saint-Pierre and up to the Royal Palace, back down via the country’s parliament building on Mohammed 5 Avenue and into the markets close to the coast. As the time came to pick up my bags and head for the airport, I worked my way back through the alleyways of the medina to my hotel with only the most minor ‘detours’. Four Imperial Cities in and I was finally getting the hang of it. More or less.
The author travelled with Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com, 01993 838 420), who arrange tailormade holidays in Morocco, on their 10-day Imperial Cities tour (3 nights Marrakech, 3 in Fez, 1 in Meknes and 2 in Rabat), which includes international flights from London Gatwick to Marrakech and returning from Casablanca, mid-range riads, first class train tickets and breakfasts. It also includes city tours of all four cities, plus a philanthropic tour of Marrakech and a cooking class in Fez.
For more on Morocco, see www.visitmorocco.com
All photos by Graeme Green. For more, see www.graeme-green.com.