Rock 'n' Roll Tours
David Simmons' travelling notes as heard on Rockola


Morocco - MTM Marrakech, and Essaouira

 

I was recently invited to MTM, which stands for Moroccan Travel Market. This first-ever international tourism exhibition took place, not in Rabat the capital as one might expect, but in Marrakech, currently the country's No. 1 destination for domestic and foreign visitors. Its objective - to help boost visitors to Morocco to 10 million a year by 2010.

MTM, although new, succeeded in bringing together over 200 exhibitors - travel operators, hotels, tourist organizations, banks and other investors - from all over Morocco, plus stand-holders from other North African countries like Tunisia; Cameroon and Senegal; Spain, the Middle East, India and as far afield as Madagascar.

The venue was a purpose-built village of white marquees on open ground covering 12,000 square metres, strategically placed between the Old City and the New. Just under 7,000 attendees from many countries mingled with Moroccan travel trade professionals, all welcomed by lines of dancing and singing tribesmen and women from various parts of Morocco.

Marrakech has mushroomed since I was last there in the early 80s. Then it felt like a frontier town: a staging post between North African urban living and the vast unknown beyond, with the Atlas mountains to the East... and to the South, what looked and felt like a desert nothingness that would continue until you reach "the other side", and West African countries like Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. Back then Marrakech had no new suburbs, just the Medina or old city.

And the centre of the Medina, then as now, is the Djemaa El Fna, supposedly the largest square in Africa. During the day you'll see orange juice stalls, water sellers in colourful costumes, and snake charmers. In the evening, the square fills with dozens of food-stalls (right), and locals and tourists crowd in for an al fresco supper. My favourite - superb fish and chips from an unassuming little stall in the centre.

But Marrakech today is far more than strolling musicians, snake charmers and water-sellers.

The Guéliz district to the west of the Medina is the New Town, with its broad avenues, modern hotels, tall office and apartment blocks, smart boulevard cafés, and nightclubs offering sophisticated entertainment like the "Folies de Marrakech" (left), the brainchild of Claude Thomas who has gathered and tutored local youngsters and turned them into professional performers.

 

And the driving force and principal sponsor of MTM itelf is Karim Rahal (right), the dynamic president of the Rahal Group, Morocco's premier catering service, whose clients include the King, HM Mohammed VI. At one of several excellent gala nights, way outside Marrakech in gleaming new facilities, Rahal hosted a dinner and entertainment evening for well over a thousand, which metamorphosed into an enormous birthday party (he turned 51 during the MTM), with him reluctantly but competently singing a Moroccan song, and dancing on stage.

But this man has his serious side. He has an MSc in telecommunications and, reading up on the company on the plane coming home, I was amazed to discover how the Rahal Group has, for example, catered to presidents and royalty in several countries, including organizing a top-notch bash in the Sahara that involved helicopters, countless trucks, chefs, waiters, marquee erectors, and even drilling equipment to bore a well-hole and provide the event with its own supply of pure drinking water!

 

During the Market, I met Adrian Croft on the Banyan Tree/Angsana stand, and stayed a night at one of their riads in the Old City - a recent development in Marrakech accommodations.

Formerly private homes, these are now small, quiet, exquisitely furnished boutique hotels tucked away down tiny alleyways in the Medina, with usually no more than a handful of rooms off a traditonal courtyard with its own pool (left).

Especially suitable for honeymoons or exotic but tranquil three-day getaways, a riad stay buys you beautiful surroundings and superb service. See their selection of Marrakech properties here or visit their main website at www.angsana.com.

 

Back at the MTM, the lady on the left was on the Essaouira stand, demonstrating the painstakingly slow but centuries-old way of making argan oil. The argan tree is almost unique to South-West Morocco, and its fruit contain a stone which itself contains seeds.

Having gently roasted the seeds in the frying pan, here she is grinding them to a paste, with a little water, in what is effectively a small stone mill. Her home town Essaouira is a whitewashed place on the Atlantic coast, a three-hour bus ride due west of Marrakech.

After the heady bustle and noise of the city, old and new, a couple of days by the seaside seemed like a refreshing change. So Mrs S. and I hopped on a bus and made our way to the sea. And what a treat it was.

 

Essaouira is a knock-out place, and this is not an exaggeration. It's an outstanding seaside resort. A fortified town from the late 1700s, originally called Mogador, it's wonderfully relaxed and relaxing. Walled and peaceful, it is virtually bereft of traffic: the only four-wheeled vehicle I saw was a slow-moving police car. Everybody walks.

There are views of the sea over the rocks; a harbour and busy fishing port; miles of sandy beaches to its south; Spanish cannons on the sea walls; a delightful square with cafés; loads of little hotels, and plenty of places to eat. We checked in at the Hotel Souiri on rue Al-Attarine.

As I'd made her take the bumpy but cheaper bus from Marrakech, I felt sorry for Mrs. S. (left, in the square) and let her pick our room. To get her own back, she chose the most expensive. It was £15.00 a night for two, including breakfast. We stayed for two nights but could have happily stayed there for a week. We plumped for a side room with no view but it was quiet than rooms over the main street. And the hotel is less than ten minutes walk from virtually anywhere in town.

 

 

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