Morocco and roll

Morocco and roll

Morocco is a land so intrinsically beautiful and rich with heritage that the moment you step foot on it you feel completely transported to another time and place.”

So says the Moroccan tourist board, whose hard-sell needs to be stronger than ever given that a disturbing number of 21st century terrorists hail from the North African nation, writes Barnaby Smith.

They also must gloss over the many unattractive elements of Tangier, Morocco’s northern-most city and port for ferries going to and from Algericas, Spain. To travel to Morocco this way through the Strait of Gibraltar, leaving European shores for the frenzied life of Africa remains one of the most Romantic and symbolic adventures you can have.

If only the destination matched the promise. Tangier is an infested, dirty town where crime proliferates and bogus ‘guides’ await to smilingly show you round the souks and medina, before aggressively demanding money and leaving you stranded in the windy back alleys.

ut it does have some charm. In 1923, Tangier was made an international zone, that is, governed by a legislative assembly of 26 foreign governments. The bustling multiculturalism attracted writers such as William Burroughs, Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams.

Tangier was restored to Moroccan rule when the country gained independence from France and Spain in 1956. The legacy of its former self is strong in that the town is a hotbed of vagrants, drug-addicts and swindlers. Exciting stuff, but after an afternoon there, south is the only way to go.

“Bugs and pigs and chickens call/Animal carpet wall to wall” sings Graham Nash on Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Marrakesh Express, and, unbelievably, that is exactly what a ride down to Marrakech from Tangier is like. This is especially if you can’t speak French properly (guilty), so ask for the wrong type of ticket and end up in third class trying to squirm your way into some kind of comfortable position on wooden benches, amongst, yes, the likes of chickens and goats.

For a more luxurious journey, ask for a couchette for the ten-hour ride. But be sure to be awake at dawn, as sunrise brings the very best out of Morocco’s desolate brown landscape.

While Marrakech suffers mildly from the same problems as Tangier, it is an electric city. The maze of souks provides an insight into Morocco in its medieval days, while pulsating and furious human activity brings the Marrakech night alive.

The hub of everything is the Djemnaa-El-Fna, a large square in the centre of town packed with exotic foods, snake charmers, storytellers, musicians and healers. This world famous bazaar has become one of the centrepieces of most travellers’ calendar, and is such a mishmash of colour and variety that it symbolises this eclectic nation itself.

Elsewhere in Marrakech are some bona fide architectural wonders. The red stone Koutoubia Mosque towers over Marrakech’s skyline — though this is not difficult, surrounded as it is with the humble low-lying souks and houses. Completed in 1199, the mosque and its vicinity was given a major spring-clean in the 90s, and now enjoys impressive gardens, a large plaza and even floodlights.

The Dar-Si-Said museum is also something to see. This extravagantly decorated palace homes all manner of carpets, clothes and jewellery.

Moroccans know what western tourists want — a taste of the exotic culture and customs of their country, and to feel like they are in Arabian Nights. They also know that most young westerners who visit their land like drugs, and will actively hassle those who look like they might like to sample the local kif (hashish).

If you do indulge be aware that dealers in Morocco are often dodgy sorts, the potency of hashish here is considerably greater than that on the streets of London and the penalty for possession is usually ten years in prison. Moroccan prison!

Marrakech makes an excellent base from which to explore Morocco’s remoter charms. A four-hour bus ride to the west will take you to the Atlantic coast and the lovely town of Essaouira. Jimi Hendrix used to hang out here in the 60s, no doubt attracted by kif, but also the crystal clear waters and beautiful harbour.

This is a fishing town, so there are many restaurants selling seafood of varying price and quality, while a trip to the busy fish market will offer a chance to witness the good-natured sense of community of the locals.

Essaouira is also surrounded by spectacular red stone city walls, and is generally a place offering tranquil respite from the unending activity of Morocco’s larger towns.

South-east of Marrakech is the gateway to the Sahara. Yes the Sahara. The unspectacular town of Ouarzazate is the last major settlement before the Berber country that is the desert engulfs you.

To visit even the outskirts of the Sahara is essential in a visit to Morocco, and they are easily arranged through travel companies and hotels in Marrakech. Riding a camel through the dunes in a sandstorm to a tent where Berbers cook you the national dish of tajine, before spending several hours staring at the lightshow in the sky (there are, literally, half a dozen shooting stars every minute), ticks every box for cliché, but is a majestic experience nonetheless.

After this, all that Tangier can throw at you on your way back to Europe doesn’t seem to matter, especially if on your way back north you get the chance to look in at the Atlas Mountains. These are breathtaking, and populated with remote little communities living simply, ostensibly cut off from the world.

Interesting fact: the Atlas Mountains were originally part of the Alleghenian orogeny, formed when America and Africa collided – creating peaks even higher than today’s Himalayas – a very long time ago indeed. The Atlas Mountains are its remains, as are the Appalachian Mountains in the US.

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Travel 10799 4 Much Ado about… Stratford 2006-04-11 00:00:00.000 Stratford-upon-Avon is synonymous with a brand of English tourism devoted to adding redundant ‘E’s to the words ‘Old’ and ‘Shop’, and forcing cream teas down visitors’ throats, writes Laura Fergusson.

As the town of Shakespeare’s birth, Stratford-upon-Avon is inevitably over-marketed and every house with the most tenuous connection to the Bard has been restored and opened to the public.

Of principal interest are Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna and her doctor husband — the house contains an overview of renaissance medicine; Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s birthplace. Although there is little tangible record of Shakespeare’s life outside the plays, the houses, and the insight they give into 16th century life, they are historically interesting in their own right, and there is a certain thrill to be gained from inhabiting Shakespeare’s childhood rooms.

However a better reason to visit Stratford is to see the plays themselves. The Royal Shakespeare Company is based here, and the plays are performed in three theatres. The Swan was rebuilt in 1932 in imitation of an Elizabethan playhouse, resulting in perhaps the closest experience to that of Shakespeare’s original audiences other than London’s Globe (although 21st century audiences are by all accounts conspicuously better behaved). The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is the largest of the three, and encompasses a fairly comprehensive Shakespeare shop, while The Other Place is modern and intimate.

2006 is the 400th anniversary of the first performance of Macbeth. Given that Shakespeare wrote 36 other plays this seems a slightly arbitrary date to commemorate, especially as in just ten years it will be the 400th anniversary of his death. Anyway, the RSC have chosen this year to launch the first ever production of all 37 plays at the same event, The Complete Works Festival.

This festival runs from 23 April (the date of Shakespeare’s birth and death), until April 2007, and includes 23 productions by the RSC, 14 by other UK theatre groups and 17 by companies from overseas. Ten of these will be in languages other than English, accompanied by surtitles. Highlights of the first few months include a South African Hamlet and a German Othello, as well as four RSC productions in repertory.

The weekend of 22-23 April sees the launch of the festival, with literary debates, workshops on acting, directing and stage fighting and a launch party of live music and fireworks. So if you want to see a Stratford that’s more champagne than clotted cream, now is the time to do it.

For more info on The Complete Works Festival see www.rsccompleteworks.co.uk.

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Australian Times

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