Morocco, many years later

So many things in my life remind me of my grandfather and take me back to the times when I was young and living with him and Granny.

Coming to Morocco, for instance, immediately took me back to 1980 and the cruise we did together to Gibraltar and Morocco, aboard the Portuguese ship Funchal.

It was during Easter holidays and the cruise would last for a week. We first stopped in Gibraltar where I took the usual photo with the monkeys, and then we proceeded to Tangiers – a city I didn’t like, finding it too dirty and the people unfriendly – and to Casablanca. By contrast I found Casablanca a very nice city, quite “European”; but still very much enjoyed the visit to the old quarters with our guide Mustapha, who was very nice and with whom I talked a lot, asking many questions as I have always been of a very curious nature.

While the ship was in Casablanca there were two possible excursions: a half day trip to Rabat, the capital city of Morocco, and a whole day one to Marrakesh, defined as a very exotic city. Maybe because of that – Granddad was always a bit suspicious of things too exotic – or rather because it didn’t require so much time, we decided to go to Rabat and I must say I enjoyed it very much. But the fact that I had missed Marrakesh always remained with me, especially when throughout my life I kept hearing many praises.

We took many photos during that trip and I keep one of Granny and Granddad, taken at a Moroccan market and looking so incredibly young! – still in their early sixties – in my living room and whenever I look at it I remember those incredible days we spent together and their generosity as they always gave us the opportunity to have the most wonderful holidays.

So when last week I knew I would be coming to Marrakesh it was as if I had been waiting all these years to come to this city – it simply had to be.

We were part of a large group if some 25 people, most of which we have known fairly well for some time. Everyone was in a lively mood and as the plane approached the airport I was fascinated by the city I saw below – very uniform square terraced low buildings all in a pinkish colour, that I later learned to be the colour of Marrakesh, as the original buildings used to be made of clay.

We stayed at the magnificent hotel “La Mamounia“, a veritable institution in Marrakesh and one I had heard about many times. And I must say it totally lived up to the expectations – in fact it exceeded them. Even if larger and grander, it reminded of my beloved Savoy and again of how my grandparents took us there every August for what we would always consider the best holidays of our lives.

Again and again small details reminded me of Granddad. When I was brought a cup (rather a small glass) of the delicious Moroccan mint tea, I immediately thought of an episode we always teased him about: as we were walking through the Casablanca medina there was this old toothless man who was sitting at his door smoking and drinking from a small glass; curious as ever, Granddad asked our guide what it was, and somehow the man understood and immediately handed the glass to Granddad inviting him to taste his drink. At first Granddad, who was the most fastidious man alive backed away in disgust, but as Mustapha warned him his refusal would seriously offend the old man, he grudgingly took the glass and had a sip of what Mustapha later explained was mint tea, the traditional Moroccan drink.

The old man was smiling happily as a Granddad handed the glass back to him and thanked him “merci, merci” and as we walked away he told us the tea was actually quite good, but we teased him about sharing the glass with a man he had never seen in his life and whose cleanliness clearly left much to be desired. But in the end Granddad took it with a great sense of humour and he would be the first to laugh whenever we remembered that episode.

After that I became a fan of mint tea as we all tasted it if course during the rest of our stay. And, unsurprisingly, this week, every time I sat down to enjoy a glass at La Mamounia my thoughts would go back to that day of more than thirty years ago, when I first came across mint tea, although in very different circumstances.

Now on my way back to Lisbon I remember Morocco, in this case Marrakesh, as a place of stark contrasts: the luxury of “La Mamounia” and the restaurants we ate at; the amazing atmosphere of Jemaa el Fnaa square in the evening with snake charmers, stalls selling all kinds of food you could possibly imagine, from olives to snails, sweets and fruit and vegetables, carpets and trinkets, and so on and so on, the narrow streets of the souks and the old medina, dimly lit and looking sinister at some places; the hundreds of motorcycles passing us at incredible speed, carrying families – the father driving, the veiled mother holding a baby, all of them without a helmet ( apparently it is mandatory by law but not enforced) – or women drivers wearing a veil under a helmet ( so strange!); the sexy belly dancers, and the lavish food – of which the spicy salads are undoubtedly the best part of a delicious, tasty gastronomy!

I never heard the five am call to the morning prayer, unlike Nuno and several of our companions, but on the first afternoon, when I was reading on our room’s balcony over the luxuriant garden, I was feeling so relaxed, hearing only the birds singing, and suddenly I heard the sound of the calling – it was like I was in another world, ages away from ours, dangerous yet peaceful, frightening yet appealing, rich and poor, modern and ancient, but incredibly exotic and fascinating. A world of deep contrasts, yet as generous as that smiling old man who one day shared his mint tea with a passing by European tourist, and who would always be remembered as the welcoming face of this incredible country, Morocco.