Highlights: Morocco

Bab Boulejoud

Bab Boulejoud, Fes

I’ve been reading Paul Bowles. It is a cliché. I like books about doomed expatriates done in by the complexities of exotic lands: The Alexandria Quartet, The Comedians, Under the Volcano. Bowles is most famous for The Sheltering Sky, but I am reading a later novel, Let It Come Down, written a few years before the riots that ignited the drive for Morocco’s independence.

I am feeling guilty about it, though. The book describes Moroccans as greedy and mean. Only the foreigners come off worse. I sense disapproval from the locals if they see me reading it by the pool or on the terrace.

The Bowles novel ends badly for its protagonist. I’ve come out much better. Not even the Air France strike that scuttled my plans at the beginning could stop me from seeing this journey through. Now the strike has been settled, and I’ll be on my way home from this land of the ever-resilient street cat.

Erg Chebbi

Erg Chebbi

You can gauge a lot about Morocco from the state of its cats. It’s a hard-knock life for them in the food souks of Meknes and Fes, a little healthier but testy in the more open tourist streets of Marrakech, and positively pampered when resident at a riad or better guest house.

In Morocco, cities are nearly always dualities: an ancient medina of ramparts, narrow stone lanes, and manic souks; a nouveau colonial city with roots planted firmly in France. Take it further, and Morocco has three facets, with a culture that swings among Berber (Africa), French (Europe), and Arab (Asia/Middle East).

Painting

Marrakech Museum

The upside of this cross-cultural blend is French pastry, Moroccan tea — maybe the world’s finest drink — the golden Sahara, and real-as-Joe-Strummer rocking kasbahs. The trains work, the plumbing is better than expected, and the lodgings are comfortable, even at the budget places. Yes, the souks are crowded, crazy, and not my thing, but you’ll find something you like there.

Favorites: The desert at Erg Chebbi, now the coolest place I’ve ever been. The High Atlas and Ourika Valley. The Jemaa el-Fna at night. Medersas throughout the country and the palaces of Marrakech. The Marrakech Museum, Dar Si Saad, and the Musees Bois and Batha in Fes. The Hassan II Mosque. Terraces, gardens, and courtyards.

Least favorite: Tanneries, people offering directions, tour groups in palaces, long overnight bus rides, train station taxi drivers, and Air France pilots.

Places I stayed: The wondrous Riad al Ma in Meknes, Dar Bouania in Fes, Kasbah Mohayut in Merzouga, the stately Le Gallia in Marrakech, and a Berber tent somewhere on Erg Chebbi.

Things I ate: An immaculate beef tajine at Kasbah Mohayut; various meat, vegetable, and rice dishes in the Sahara; a glorious chicken tajine with almonds at Al-Mounia in Casablanca, with a dessert of oranges with cinnamon. A first-night chicken tajine at Riad al Ma. A last-night chicken couscous and hahira soup at L’Ecole in Casablanca. Pastilla on a rooftop terrace in Fes. An assortment of desserts at the Clock Cafe in Fes.

Majorelle Gardens

Majorelle Gardens, Marrakech

People I met: The Japanese kids on the bus to Merzouga, Driss the restaurant tout in Fes, the two Aminas and the Interior Designer at Riad al Ma, Mr. Said at Dar Bouania, and the grand gentleman who manages Le Gallia. My desert companions. Vim and his friend from the Netherlands, who I met on an Ourika Valley excursion.

Thing I’ll miss most: Moroccan tea.

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