Ar Saifuddin Ahmad, Vice President of Zone B Arcasia and Past President of Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia (PAM) recently took time off to travel to tick off his bucket list of must visit places
Year-end is a time to travel for most of us – especially those with families as it coincides with the long Christmas/ New Year holidays. Two of my three sons who are working in New Zealand were back for their Christmas holidays but unfortunately, my eldest couldn’t take long leave to spend the holidays with us. My wife and I normally choose to holiday at a place where the weather is cooler – away from the scorching hot sun here.
Having a hectic schedule this year, I left it to my wife to decide on the holiday destination options. Finally, Morocco was chosen. While she looked into the itinerary, my part of the involvement just revolved around the cost confirmation. Family vacation is strictly for the family although my two sons are practically adults themselves. The family doesn’t share the same interest as I do, so I normally compromise so that the holiday doesn’t turn out to be an architectural visit to their dismay!
Morocco was decided upon as we heard so much about “the place where the sun sets in the West” in Morocco Al Maghrib. This is a sovereign state located in the Maghrib region of North Africa which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea to the North and Atlantic Ocean to the West.
Prior to this trip, I had only set foot in South Africa and my wife, to Egypt. So, this visit which stretched 11 days from Christmas Eve 2019 to January 3, 2020 excluding flight time comprised a private tour which was an eye opener for the four of us. We arrived in Casablanca on a Christmas Eve afternoon and stayed overnight at a service hotel. We were picked by out driver/ guide Mustafa who was with us throughout our tour. The late afternoon and evening was spent just exploring the neighborhood as we were all tired from the long flight and transit.
On Christmas day, Mustafa fetched us in the morning to start our journey on this Morocco tour. Marakesh in Central Morocco was our first destination, located to the north of the vfoothills of the snowcapped Atlas Mountains. The journey passed through the interesting Moroccan countryside and we were all fascinated by the diverse and beautiful landscape and made a few stops along the way. Architecture Bearing Andalusian Aesthetics
Marrakesh is a major city and there are many madrasas and mosques that bear Andalusian influences. The red walls of the city and various buildings constructed in red sandstones have given the city the nickname of “Red City”.
The city is very popular with the French. In fact, many French celebrities have bought properties here including fashion moguls Yves Saint Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier. There is the YSL museum there too but unfortunately, we were not able to visit due to the timing of the visiting hours. However, we managed to visit Le Jardin Majorelle or Majorelle Garden next door that include a memorial of Yves Saint Laurent and what a beautiful garden it was!
There’s also a Barber Museum, bookstore and café. And, nothing is complete without visiting the biggest night market in Africa – the Jemaa el Fna Square and there are 18 souks in Marrakesh selling pottery, copperware, leather and other crafts –a haven for shoppers of crafts. Incindetally, Jemaa el Fna which is a sight to behold at night with its throng of people and varied cuisine has been part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. My youngest surprised me back at the hotel when he showed me a plate with the caricature and word architect displayed in French. How sweet!
We spent two nights in Marrakesh and the other places that we visited are Dar el Bacha, Bahia Palace and El Badia Place. From Marrakesh, we headed to Ouarzazate (pronouncd as Warzazat) – also nicknamed as “the door of the desert”. Ouarzazate is situated at an elevation of 1,160 metres in the middle of a bare plateau, south of the High Atlas Mountains while to the south of the town, is the desert. We stopped at the fortified village of Art Benhaddou West of the city which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After that, we crossed the high Atlas Mountain where we had the opportunity to stop and take photographs – given its breahtaking panoramic views. Ouarzazate is also noted for being a soughtafter film making location. We visited the Atlas Cinema Studio where such films as Lawrence of Arabia. The living Daughters, Kingdom of Heaven were shot. The night and morning temperatures there can dip to a single digit! Happily, we were snugly taken care of for the night in a nice cosy hotel called Cote Sud.
The very next morning, we were driven through Rose Valley to get to the Dade Gorges for some beautiful views and of course photograph taking time. We continued the drive to Todra Gorges and walked through the Canyon before proceeding to the Merzouga Desert. I would say this is the most adventurous part of the whole tour with us camel trekking over the golden sand dunes and catching the sun setting before arriving at the luxury camp in the desert. Despite the cold temperature, we enjoyed the delicious dinner and later indulged in a spot of Berber music entertaining us under the beautiful night sky. Sheer bliss!
The morning after saw us waking up early to watch the sunrise. After an early breakfast, we continued our journey to Merzouga. My wife and second son continued by camel while my youngest and I were driven in a four- wheel drive! We then continued our journey driven by Mustafa to Ziz Valley to take in another panoramic view of the area before proceeding to Erchidia Dam and across the Tizi N Taighont pass to get to the Azron forest where we stopped to feed the primates; which reminded me of feeding the monkeys at the Botanical Gardens in Penang!
It was a long interesting journey. Finally, by evening time, we reached the city of Meknes and stayed at Riad Mama H&K. Meknes is an impressive city designed in Spanish Moorish style and surrounded by high walls with great doors where the harmonious blending of the Islamic and European styles of the 17th century Maghreb are still evident today. The Riad we stayed at is part of the old city which is characterised by its narrow lanes. We continued exploring the city and taking a stroll to see the famous gate of Baba Mansour, the royal stables and Basia Swans.
Visiting the Mecca of The West & The Athens of Africa [rml_read_more]
Mustafa subsequently fetched us and we continued on our journey to the city of Fez. Along the journey, we stopped over to visit the Roman ruins site of Volubilis. Fes is a city tucked in northern inland Morocco. It is surrounded by high grounds and the old city is penetrated by the River of Fez flowing from the west to east. The city largely comprise two old medina quarters – Fes el Bali and Fes Jdid, plus the modern urban area of Ville Nouvelle. There, we stayed at the modern area. The medina of Fez is listed as a World Heritage Site. It is believed to be one of the world’s largest urban pedestrian zones. This city is named as the “Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa”. There, we visited the Royal Palace doors, Jewish quarter, Madrasah Boh Aanania, ceramic factory and the strong-smelling Tannery. Luckily I had my Vicks inhaler but the fresh mint leaves fragrance didn’t help to get rid of the strong smell!! Our New Year was celebrated at the villa where we stayed but unfortunately, there were no fireworks!!.
On New Year’s Day, we continued on our tour to the Blue City of Chefchaouen; also known as Chaouen. It is noted for its buildings in shades of blue. Chefchaouen is a popular tourist destination because of its proximity to Tangier and the Spanish enclave of Ceuta. One distinction possessed by Chefchaouen is its blue-rinsed houses and buildings.
Chefchaouen is a popular shopping destination as well as it offers many native handicrafts that are not available elsewhere in Morocco, such as wool garments and woven blankets. The goat cheese native to the area is also popular with tourists. Chefchaouen’s blue walls are a popular subject of interest. There are several theories as to why walls were painted blue. One popular theory is that the blue hue keeps mosquitos away while another states that the Jews introduced the blue shade when they took refuge here from Hitler in the 1930s. The colour blue is said to symbolise the sky and heavens, and thus serve as a reminder to lead a spiritual life. However, according to some locals, the walls were mandated to be painted blue simply to attract tourists at some point in the 1970s.
From Chefchaouen we were originally supposed to visit Rabat but we changed our mind and visited Tangier instead. It is a city north western Morocco coast at the western entrance of the Strait of Gibraltar where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Spartel. Tangier was a nexus of many cultures and destination of many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessman spent overnight here. Visited Grand Socco, Souk Barra, Souk Dakhel and Kasbah View Point. Drop by legendary café; Café Bab once famous for royalties and film stars and Café Hafa overlooking the ocean. Next day on way to Casablanca, stop over at Cape Spartel and Assilah city.
Finally we are back to Casablanca. Here the main attraction is Hassan II mosque designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau. Situated on a promontory on the Atlantic Ocean, a site to behold. The mosque has room for 25,000 worshippers inside and further 80,000 in the courtyard. Its minaret is the world tallest at 210 meters (690ft). We still have a few hours left before our departures back to KL via Doha. Enough of Medina and Souks, we visited a modern mall, Morocco Mall for a change. Nothing spectacular but a nice change. I must say and agreed by my family that this private tour to Morocco is one of the best we had beside Turkey some years ago. Going on a private tour had its advantages as we can change our plans and at our own time. Having a good driver guide helps a lot. The last few days we had enough of Tajine and grilled meat and ended in a Chinese restaurant!