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Moroccan memories: Travels through the North African country yield much more than desert sands

Three Americans ride camels in the fading sunlight through the Saharan dunes.
By Dan Webster For The Spokesman-Review

At one point in Michael Curtiz’s 1942 film “Casablanca,” nightclub owner Rick Blaine is asked what drew him to the Moroccan city.

“My health,” he replies. “I came to Casablanca for the waters.”

“The waters?” his friend Captain Renault says. “What waters? We’re in the desert?”

“I was misinformed,” Rick says.

I thought of that scene as I sat in the back seat of a car that was giving my wife and me a tour of the real-life Casablanca’s scenic waterfront.

It was our last full day in Morocco, and as rain pelted the car’s windows, the easterly winds whipping water off the nearby Atlantic Ocean, I remember thinking that Rick hadn’t been misinformed at all.

I can’t say the same, though, for the movie’s screenwriters.

True, Morocco is largely a desert country. But during our two-and-a- half-week visit in early October, as we traveled through most of the North African country’s 1,200-mile length, we discovered that Morocco consists of far more than sand. It boasts vast mountain ranges, cities teeming with verdant gardens amid their millions of inhabitants and even a 1,100-mile-long coastline.

So along with walking through the medinas (the walled-off old city centers) of Tangier, Fes (pronounced Fez) and Marrakesh, we climbed the streets of the fabled Blue City of Chefchaouen, were waved off by guards at the royal palace in the capital city of Rabat, stood beneath the imposing 160-meter-tall walls of the Todgha Gorge that cuts through the High Atlas Mountains, rode camels under a night sky to a Berber camp at the edge of the Sahara Desert and watched the sun set from the terrace of our rented room in the beach town of Essaouira.

And we did much more, as well, most of which would be too lengthy to cover in a single newspaper article. Traveling through Morocco would be for many people the trip of a lifetime, worthy of a book-length narrative. So I’ll try to be concise.

First, let me say that our whole trip was a triumph of scheduling. My wife had arranged everything in advance. And what we discovered is that while you can travel through Morocco on the cheap (rail and bus travel are far less expensive than what you’ll encounter in Western Europe), you also can go the deluxe route with private guides the whole way.

We opted for something in between, staying mostly at midrange but stylish riads (a traditional Moroccan building with an interior garden). Other than one train journey from Rabat to Tangier, we hired private drivers. The new Moroccan fast train is as good as any we’ve traveled on in Europe, and private drivers cost no more than renting your own car.

But enough of bare facts. Travel, at least for us, is much more than a recitation of mere details or a list of places visited: It’s the shaping of memorable moments.

Such as when we stood on the heights of the Mediterranean city of Tangier, looking north through the midmorning fog to Gibraltar and the coast of Spain. And afterward when we walked through Tangier’s medina, past the house that American playwright Tennessee Williams once rented and the square that inspired his 1953 play “Camino Real.”

Or the moments we spent navigating the maze of streets, steep and narrow and numbering in the thousands, that make up the Fes medina. At virtually every corner in walkways that house the various souks (or open markets), we would be approached by eager merchants. Just to survive the encounters with some sense of good humor, I learned to say with restrained politeness, “No, merci,” French being the country’s second language after Arabic.

While the medina in Marrakesh was easier to navigate, the city’s main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, flowed over at night with a surge of humanity. Marrakesh’s fabled Secret Garden provided us a break from the crowds, though, and the Berber Museum in Le Jardin Majorelle thrilled us with its depiction of a desert night sky.

And then there were the meals we enjoyed, including the vegetables and meats we ate throughout our trip from tangines (traditional Moroccan clay cooking pots), but particularly one night in Fes under a harvest moon. Virtually every riad set out immense breakfast spreads, and I fell in love with the sweet mint tea that our hosts poured in cups from pots held head high.

Memories, too, emanate from the people you meet, such as the friendly Tangier shop owner who’d studied English literature in college and whose favorite writer was Ernest Hemingway. Or the young American honeymoon couple from Cincinnati who shared our three-day tour of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara dunes.

Also memorable was our camp amid those dunes and the Berber musicians who played for us late into the night. And the group of Greek tourists who danced to that music around an open campfire until I thought they would drop from exhaustion.

I particularly recall the restaurant owner whom we met on the road to Chefchaouen, a Belgian native who spoke six languages, including perfect English. I asked: Why did he come to Morocco? “For a change,” he answered. I mostly recall that his café au lait was the best I drank the whole trip.

And then there are the small travel moments worth celebrating. Such as my attempting to make a dinner reservation in broken French. And then arriving at what I hoped was the agreed time to find the waiter waiting for us, smiling as he shepherded us to the perfect rooftop table overlooking Chefchaouen’s main square.

Or of the small purchases we made – a small rug, a bracelet, a pair of earrings – and fooling ourselves into thinking that we’d driven a hard bargain and gotten a good price. (As one driver later told us, no Moroccan merchant is ever going to sell anything for less than what he thinks it’s worth.)

But since many of our own personal life memories involve movies, we were definitely excited to visit the Cinema Studio Atlas, which sits just outside the inland city of Ouarzazate. The area should be familiar to most movie fans as it has served over the decades as the shooting site of such movies as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Star Wars” (1977), “The Mummy” and “Gladiator.”

But maybe the most cinematic moment for us came on our penultimate night in Morocco when we ate a late-night dinner at Casablanca’s world-famous Rick’s Café. Though it trades on the classic movie’s reputation, Rick’s Café is actually an upscale restaurant that offers a surprisingly good dining experience.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that our server, Idris, resembled Peter Lorre. Unlike Lorre’s “Casablanca” character Ugarte, though, Idris exhibited exquisite manners. He was quick both to fill our wine glasses (alcohol being a rarity in Morocco) and to oversee delivery of our multiple courses.

I was only slightly disappointed that he never asked to see our letters of transit.

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