Morocco: From the medinas to the mountains

The afternoon sun shines on the arches of The afternoon sun shines on the arches of the Basilica, the main administrative building in the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, near Meknes, Morocco. (March 8, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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'Watch out!" I shouted. The scooter with the hyperactive exhaust system had narrowly missed grazing my husband. Only seconds before, I'd flattened myself against a stall to escape a passing moped.

A stroll through the medina of Marrakech keeps you fully alert to what's coming your way. The thoroughfares are so crazily crowded that you have to laugh. Every few seconds, you're forced to get out of the way of a motorcycle or a bicycle. Moments of paralysis occur when a hand-pushed cart carrying goods to a shop meets another carrying bricks or long pipes.

Morocco's medinas -- the old, walled parts of the country's cities -- all have distinct characters, but a quality they share is timelessness. We sampled several of these cities, as Edith Wharton had in 1917. According to her book "In Morocco," the Moroccan city has no age, "since its seemingly immutable shape is forever crumbling and being renewed on the old lines."

STARTING IN MARRAKECH

Marrakech's medina revolves around the Jemaa el-Fna. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the "square" is a public space like no other. Once used for public executions, it's huge, and its shape can be described only as a spiky amoeba. Blocks of shops stick out into it; you go around corners, and new spaces open up.

We'd opted to stay close to the Jemaa el-Fna. Taxis can get into the square but no farther, and we would never have found our way to Riad Itrane if the owners hadn't dispatched someone to lead us there. "Riad" means garden, but in Morocco it has come to mean a traditional city house with at least one interior gardenlike courtyard. Many have now been converted into guesthouses of a gentler and more colorful kind than hotels.

After dark, the Jemaa el-Fna is lively with acrobats, musicians and pop-up restaurants serving tagine, a stewlike dish traditionally cooked in a special earthenware pot. At a long communal table, we ate an inexpensive, if not delectable, dish of overcooked vegetables on a bed of couscous. After dinner, we were urged by other restaurateurs to sample their cooking.

"You're so skinny, you could eat two more meals," was a standard line.

THE MAZES OF FES

After three delightful days, we made our way to Fes by train. The huge medina of Fes, called Fes el-Bali, is said to be the best preserved medieval town in the Arab world and another UNESCO World Heritage site. The souk's steep, narrow, sunless passages are not for the claustrophobic, and you must be prepared to duck and weave if you want to break the logjam of people and donkey carts.

At the heart of Fes el-Bali is the Kairaouine Mosque, one of the largest in Africa. As is true of nearly every other mosque in Morocco, non-Muslims cannot enter it but may only glance in through open doorways.

The medina is home to small-scale capitalism, and any transaction generates a commission for a number of salesmen and touts. An urchin escorted us to a showroom in a dark alley where we halfheartedly haggled for a small kilim, or rug. We finally agreed on a price -- probably paying too much.

We escaped the hustle by climbing several flights of stairs to a restaurant with a rooftop terrace. The traditional harira soup served with a side of dates and shebbakiya (sesame cookies fried and then drenched in honey) was deeply satisfying after our hectic time below.

INTO THE MOUNTAINS

Marrakech and Fes are just two of the four traditional capitals of Morocco, the others being Rabat and Meknès, and those and many other cities have their old medinas. On this trip we visited Tangier by the sea, Taroudant in the far south, and a place we hadn't heard of -- Chefchaouen.

You can get to Chefchaouen by bus from Tangier or Tétouan, leaving a valley to climb a mountainside. Above the city is the double peak that gives the city its name, which means "two goat horns."

You can't get seriously lost in this medina, because it's only half a mile long. And you soon learn that it's threaded by a main way that runs along the upper wall, from which smaller openings twist down to the tree-shaded public space along the lower wall above the river. This has to be one of the most pleasant of all "squares." One side is bounded by the mosque, to which the congregation climbs up a long staircase. On the other sides are open-air restaurants, where you may be entertained at your table by a musician with tribal garb and a native fiddle.

The riad in which we stayed was another little domestic maze. Our room on the roof had a wooden ceiling worthy of a church. Outside it, we had breakfast on a blue-washed balcony, from which we looked down across the jumble of the medina as the sun began to climb over the two-horned mountain and touch it.

If you go

- Visas are not required for American travelers visiting Morocco for less than 90 days.

- The Arab Spring of 2010-2011 scared tourists away from North Africa, although the Moroccan kingdom is one of the few countries that escaped upheaval. Still, the U.S. State Department recommends that Americans in Morocco remain alert to the security situation and avoid political demonstrations. Visitors can join the Smart Traveler Enrollment program (step.state.gov/step) to receive updates on travel warnings, alerts and other info. There is a Smart Traveler app available for the iPhone and Android.

- The currency in Morocco is the dirham. At press time the exchange rate was 8.55 dirhams to the U.S. dollar.

What to do

- Jemaa el-Fna. Once used for public executions, this strange, irregular and wonderful space is the heart of Marrakech. At night, the colorful and chaotic square is transformed into a massive outdoor dining room with musicians and other entertainers.

- Fes el-Bali. You'll be perpetually lost in this huge, busy, mazelike medina. Founded in the ninth century, the UNESCO World Heritage site is completely pedestrianized.

- Chefchaouen medina. Highlights include Uta-el-Hammam Square, lined with sidewalk cafes, the Great Mosque with an unusual octagonal tower and the casbah.

For more information

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visitmorocco.com

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