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Day 8: Fez to Marrakesh

Marrakesh, Morocco 
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Man strikes oil in the main square. Other attractions include acrobats, transvestites, snake charmers and dentists.
Michael Palin - SaharaFez and Marrakesh, the two most important cities of old Morocco, lie in the centre of the country, built to guard ancient trade routes through the Atlas Mountains. Modern Morocco has moved to the coast, around the capital Rabat, and Casablanca, the country's biggest city, with a population twice that of the old towns - Tangier, Fez and Marrakesh - put together.

This is why we find ourselves accelerating south by heading west, using the fast motorway system around Meknès, Rabat and Casablanca as the quickest way to get to Marrakesh.

South of Casablanca the main road slims down to a poorly surfaced single carriageway, choked with trucks and buses. Quite suddenly, some 80 miles north of Marrakesh, the landscape undergoes a transformation. Maybe I was asleep and just woke up, but as we pull up out of a dip beneath a railway bridge I notice Morocco has changed colour. The greens and golds of the fertile northern plain have been reduced to a line of pale yellow wattle trees running beside the road. Beyond them, the land is brick-red and bare.

The walls of Marrakesh reflect this red land with a beguiling rosy glow which deepens as the afternoon light fades. Running unbroken for over 6 miles, their towers and battlements throw a spectacular cloak around the city. But if Fez was enclosed, almost hidden away behind it's walls, Marrakesh is bursting out of them. The new town pushes right up close. It's colourful and expansive, with broad avenues and a Las Vegas-like dazzle and swagger. Slab-like resort hotels, with names like Sahara Inn, jostle alongside a brand new opera house. This is an old city desperate to accommodate the modern world.

I'm disappointed. I'd expected something exotic and unpredictable. After all Marrakesh has the most romantic connotations of any city in this romantic country. Perhaps it's because the snow-capped range of mountains that frames the city in every tourist brochure is virtually invisible in the haze. Perhaps it's because almost everyone I've seen so far is white and European like me, or perhaps it's because I feel, on these tidy tree-lined streets, that I could be anywhere.

Then someone suggests the Djemaa el-Fna.

To get to it I have to leave the wide streets and bland resort hotels of the New Town and pass inside the peach-red city walls through the twin arched gates of Bab er Rob and Bab Agnaou.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 8
  • Country/sea: Morocco
  • Place: Marrakesh
  • Book page no: 42

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