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Morocco—and an ode to life in the Pink City, and beyond.

August 23, 2010

Browsing the internet a while ago, on the Matador Network, I found a photo essay that transported me to Morocco’s Pink City. Marrakesh. And to the “blue city.” Essaouira. And I quite enjoyed going back to places I’ve been to, seeing images I’ve seen with my own eyes. Fortunate eyes.

And then there are the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. Places that I still owe to myself to visit.

And I had to share it. Not only because of the stunning images… But also because Exploring Morocco’s Pink City and Beyond provides a charming insight into Moroccan life.

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Marrakesh is one of Morocco’s oldest and most alluring cities. Despite the constant influx of tourists, the city has maintained an exotic Old World atmosphere – particularly within the ancient medina, where map-toting tourists attempt to navigate the labyrinthine streets and locals go about their daily business as they’ve been doing for centuries.

Bikes and cars are common in Marrakesh (prepare for a fair bit of pollution) but the donkey is still a ubiquitous form of transport, especially in the dusty medina where it’s used to pull heavy loads through the notoriously narrow streets.

Another common sight in the medina are… kids! The family unit is cherished by Moroccans and  the streets also serve as a children playground, often for boisterous gaes of soccer such as this.

A large part of Marrakesh’s exoticism are the abundance of old traditions and customs that are kept alive. Here a vendor sells groceries direct from a hand cart.

Traditional artisan skills such as weaving, metalwork, pottery, bread baking, and carpentry are all very much alive in Marrakesh. In fact, the medina has its own “artisan quarter” where you can watch these craftsmen at work.

Morocco is a Muslim country. Several times a day the familiar sound of the muezzin (call to prayer) sails through the air and devotees swarm to the many mosques (sitting outside if they are full), or simply kneel and bow their heads toward Mecca wherever they happen to be.

A trip to Marrakesh is not complete without a visit to the souks. This intimate warren of pathways is comprised of shops often no taller and wider that the people inside them, who hawk everything from silverware to oriental carpets, pointy “baboush,” replica desiger handbags, and love potions. Be prepared for lots of haggling – Monty Python style.

The souks are intensely atmospheric. Packed tight with locals and tourists, they are a whirlwind of motion, smells (good and bad), and patchwork roofs that create compelling chiaroscuros when the sunlight filters through.

Though Marrakesh doesn’t hold an abundance of cultural highlights compared to other cities, there are several places well worth visiting. One is the beautiful Ben Youssef Medersa – the city’s oldest Koranic school – which was closed down in the 60’s but refurbished and reopened to the public in the ’80s.

During the day, Marrakesh’s main square, the Djemma el Fna, is a busy and fairly modern hub for shoppers, traders, and tourists touts (snake charmers, water bearers, acrobatic dancers). Come nighttime, the place transforms into the largest open-air barbecue in the world, as the air fills with smoke and locals and visitors sit next to each other to chow on everything from harira soup to seafood.

Sometimes the heat and hassle of the Pink City can get too much. Fortunately, there are a number of easy and accessible escapes routes. One of the most popular trips is up to the Atlas Mountains, just an hour or two’s drive from Marrakesh. The cool peaks provide beautiful respite from the chaos of the medina, and are full of Berber villages and superb walking routes.

And if you thought life in the city was authentic and traditional – life in the mountains is often more so.

Non meat eaters needn’t worry, though – even mountainside cafes have access to vegetables.

Another possible day trip from the city is to Essaouira, a small, charming fishing town on the coast. It has good tourist infrastructure, and its distinctive white and blue medina is today a UNESCO heritage site. The seafood here, as you’d expect, is especially tasty.

Those looking for a more dramatic adventure can book a safari out to the Sahara. It’s possible to spend the night (or more) in traditional bivouac tents, climb sand dunes, and drive around marveling at the vast expanse of sand and nothingness. Now and again the barren landscape is punctuated by nomadic shepherds like this hardy Berber lady.

We also came across these Berber children, who were happy to receive our gifts of jewellery and biscuits in exchange for a photograph. The didn’t pause too long given the encroaching rainstorm.

Personally, I can’t get over the contrast in the expression of their eyes.

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All photos by Paul Sullivan. Original article can be found here.

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