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Travel to Casablanca

 
 

Casablanca to Fez

1 December 2014

Adrian Mourby recalls a solitary Moroccan road trip from Casablanca through the Atlas Mountains to Fez

Essaouira means “the beautifully designed small fortress” in Arabic, and indeed it is lovely. Orson Welles filmed his version of Othello in this town, with its whitewashed walls, on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Cat Stevens hung out on the beach in the 1960s. After a four-and-a-half hour drive down from Casablanca, I too was ready to relax. 

I’d taken the long route down the coast, past the modern harbours of the 16th century ports of El-Jadida, Oualidia and Safi, sometimes driving parallel to the crashing waves of the Atlantic, sometimes weaving inland. Now it was time to park up and rest. I passed a dilapidated plaque to Orson Welles as I inspected the old Portuguese canons, while on the seafront fishermen were cooking and selling the day’s catch. The smell was heavenly, as was the smell of Essaouira’s workshops, where marquetry boxes are made from fragrant thuya wood. 

That spring evening I took a walk out to Café du Village, an unremarkable low concrete block facing the sea where the owner, Houssine, assures people that Jimi Hendrix used to sit and talk with him. “What did you talk about?” I asked in my schoolboy French, but Houssine just laughed and pointed to his picture of Jimi. When my meal was over he asked me in French if I would return tomorrow. “Naturellement,” I assured him. 

On my way back into town I found several more cafés with a claim on M’sieu Hendrix. They’re as ubiquitous as the Parisian bars where Hemingway drank. I felt bad about lying to Houssine, and that night I worried about the scope and size of my journey. The big idea had been to travel over the High and Middle Atlas Mountains and see something of the ‘real’ Morocco. Getting down to Essaouira had been easy. 

Tomorrow’s leg was inland across the Marrakech Plain, but the real adventure would only begin after that, over the mountains to Ouarzazate, and finally north into the royal city of Fez. Those place names had conjured up images of long camel trains and noisy spice markets, but reality so far was just my flashy red hire car and roads I did not know. The next morning I took the wide road from Essaouira to Marrakech, passing lorries, little Berber men on motorbikes and a few merchants making their way to market on donkeys. 

One convoy of three was transporting baskets full of discarded packing webbing strips. I wound down the window and asked the merchants where they would sell this load, but their French was as bad as mine. We found no common ground. Entering the city I came across a remarkable sight: Marrakech’s own Theatre Royale, an extraordinary new construction, one part Italian opera house and the other an open-air semi-circular theatre in 18th century French style. 

When I called in to ask about what was being performed I met Julien Amicel, director of the Dar Al-Ma’mûn Foundation, who loves the building but is sad to see it so empty. “Every year there is the Marrakech Festival Of Laughter,” he told me, “but that’s all. This place is beautiful, but because of security worries the authorities regularly refuse projects we propose.”

Words and images: Adrian Mourby 


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