Djemma El Fna Square.
Algeciras, the duty-free port where we boarded the car ferry left and the two-hour trip across the Mediterranean, skirting the rocky island of Gibraltar and docking at the thimble-size corner of Spain left in Northern Africa. Once landed we proceeded to settle in at a nicely appointed campground located just outside the exotic city of Fez. The anticipation, the wondering what awaited us the next day in this completely unknown nation and culture absorbed every moment as we settled down for the night, writes our travel editor Al Auger. (#Travel, #Siliconeer, @Siliconeer, #Fez, #Morocco, #WorldTraveler)
It was in this unexpectedly seductive country, where we became engaged in so many truly unforgettable experiences that would never be encountered anywhere in “our” world. After days of touring the wonders of Fez, we heard of a “swimming hole” south of Fez so beautiful, so romantic, one would never want to leave.
Thus the original plan of 2-3 days turned into a surreal five weeks and a complete circle south across the Atlas mountain range to the edge of the Sahara desert where we found the paradise called Source de Menske du Bleu. It is a natural spring that flows from an underground pool in the middle of a lush oasis that feeds the Menske de Bleu river. The startlingly blue pool shimmered with flickers of light as it gushes to the surface. The walls are lined with colorful blue tile and stones from the region. The water is warm and the spring draws travelers from all over Europe and North Africa.
Feeling somewhat courageous one day, we followed a barely visible gravel and sand road out to the Sahara desert. The landscape was one vast panorama of huge sand dunes. Sand as far as the eye could see, under a withering sun. Rounding a large sand dune we found ourselves staring at a deserted Foreign Legion fort. It was small and apparently a simple border guard post. Everything was covered with a monotonous brown coating of sand, in time it will be a sand dune just like the rest of the desert. We could understand why only the unwanted would join and be barracked in such primitive outposts.
Visions of Gary Cooper and Valentino mingled with roaring hordes of Arabs on valiant steeds cresting the surrounding dunes. What we really were primitive and imprisoned world the quasi-renegade Legionnaires coped.
There were troughs for washing up, large bare rooms that probably housed bunk beds and dilapidated outhouses sat a few yards away. Walking through the bare and collapsing rooms one’s imagination could not be held check as it took flight as half-uniformed men in sweat-stained kepis sitting around playing cards, drinking beer and making unseemly remarks about their superiors. All the while, Bedouins in flowing colorful robes with long-barreled rifles in their hands were moving up behind the protective sand dunes. It was time for Gary Cooper and Brian Donlevy.
A few miles north of Menske du Bleu is the ancient town of Ksar es Souk where we discovered marketplace that turned back our time clock by generations. Fresh fruits and vegetables filled the many stalls; fresh chickens hung from the ceilings and below were large pans of ice for the so many types of fish. Other stalls sold exotic dishes, delicious freshly baked bread and iced tea. Water sellers in their brilliant outfits had discovered there is more profit posing for tourists’ point-and-shoot cameras than selling water. One charged a negotiated $3 to take his picture.
From there we continued west, back over the Atlas to Marrakech, Rabat, Meknes and Fez. The world famous Djemma el-Fna in the huge square in Marrakech is everything you’ve heard about it so much more. During the day it is electric with the profusion of beggars, the different stalls filled to overflowing with just about everything from rugs to matches. For refreshments there are resplendent tea sellers, wonderful small native restaurant serving tasty Moroccan dishes such as couscous, marvelous soups and pastries. In the narrow streets surrounding this giant souk the cry “Balek!, Balek!” warns you to make room for the never-ending parade of heavily laden donkeys.
At night the square is blanketed by a black sky filled with brilliant stars as the true exotica of Morocco comes to life. A purple night becomes a square overpowered with the perfumes from the dense forests of flowers and plants. Amidst the pungent aroma of open-air stands selling tasty treats the story tellers begin lighting their lamp. Nights on the Djema el-Fna square are nights of pure enchantment.
As the butane lights burst into life, you’re surrounded snake charmers, magicians, jugglers and acrobats, plying specialty for your entertainment and money. But it is the fascinating story tellers who are the stars of this unbelievable panorama. A tradition that has been going on for thousands of years. Over there is a story teller of children’s tales. Behind me a narrator is keeping his listeners enthralled with yarns of legendary and mythical heroes. Another is creating the magic of the Koran. Oral history and fables that have been told over and over again in squares such as this in this most ancient of countries.
It’s musical theatre, the rhythm accentuated by the backbeat of the rapt audience. The children “ooh” and aah” as the master lifts his voice at a point of excitement. Adventure is all too obvious as the spinner of legends reaches the point of derring-do. It’s as if Hercules or Rambo had donned a djellaba. The oral history of this ancient land was being spread throughout the square. Whether it was a more heroic story, or possibly a message from the Koran that told of people who stood up against tyranny, even the possibility of a love story, this very old ritual will continue through time.
This is where we met Mohammed, who promised, in broken English, “No money fee, m’sieur. I need help to my English. I am at your service to prevent you losing yourself in the Medina (old town).” Needless to say the narrow, winding alley were daunting. So off we went with Mohammed in charge. Do I need tell you he proved to be a charming and knowledgeable guide, but also seemed to know where every rug, jewelry and knick-knack shop was located? Mohammed diplomatically maneuvered us into them all.
But our travel experiences held us in good stead as we left the Medina with no purchases and a less than charming Mohammed. We knew full well, the prices were inflated to pay Mohammed’s commission. We thanked Mohammed and waited patiently for the “hit.” Sure enough, he considered $5 a nominal fee as for his “…excellent service as our personal guide.” At first we acted with angst as his original offer had no charge. But, we relented and left Mohammed (who spoke excellent English) with $3.
It was a strange feeling of sadness as we left Morocco filled to overflowing with stories far beyond these. Sitting on the deck of the ferry heading back to Algeciras I wasn’t even sure the word “leaving” was proper. Those exotic days with Danielle, The Source de Menske du Bleu, the ghostly Foreign Legion fort, meeting the people, bargaining over sweet glasses of tea for some amber, none of these, and all the others, will ever leave me.