Located at the north tip of Africa, Morocco is a country of stark desert, high mountain ranges and richly cultured cities. Known as the ‘great’ desert city of Morocco, Marrakech lies 60 miles from the coast, next to Morocco’s towering Atlas Mountain Range. The city itself is a fusion of Africa, Europe and the Islamic world, divided between the Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the 20th Century and Medina, home to the souk markets and the famous central square, Jemaa el Fna. The Berbers founded the city in the late eleventh century. Later, the sultan Ali Ben Youssef set about surrounding the city with 16km of high mud walls to protect the inhabitants of the Medina (the old city).
KT Comer takes a horse drawn carriage to Koutoubia Mosque, which marks the western edge of the old walled city and stays in the Hotel Central Palace. An old riad (townhouse) located in Medina, the hotel offers budget luxury and wonderful views over the city for only $20 a night. The next day she descends on the markets of the souk to sample the thousands of stalls and myriad of handmade goods found there. Spread over a mile, the souk has remained the centre of life in Marrakech since its inception in the twelfth century. A maze of streets and alleyways stretching north from the main square, the souk offers a glittering display of all the traditional arts and regional crafts of Morocco – just remember to haggle!
Crammed with performers and food stalls, the Jemma el Fna is where all the action happens. The centre is filled by a random and changing assortment of snake charmers, storytellers acrobats, clowns, dancers and so on. Add to this the variety of food on offer and you realise just how special the square is – so much so that UNESCO has made it a World Heritage Site. KT then makes it over to the Jewish cemetery in the Mellah, the Jewish quarter, which lies at the south-eastern edge of the Medina. Waves of Jewish settlers arrived in Morocco in the first millennium BC. The Jews and Muslims lived side by side up until 1948 when the establishment of Israel saw the Jewish community shrink from 20,000 to just over a thousand. To find what makes Moroccan leather so special, Megan McCormick visits a skin auction where farmers bring the skins to sell to tanners who pass them on to the leather workers.
KT moves onto a ‘hammam’, a communal bath and a meeting point for women in the day and men at night. Here she is also treated to some traditional Berber healing music. As if all this wasn’t relaxing enough, an oasis awaits KT’s arrival; the Majorelle Gardens are the perfect antidote to the madness of the souks. Created in the 1920s by Jaques Majorelle, the gardens fell into decline until their current owner, Yves Saint-Laurent, their current owner, restored them to their resplendent former glory. Back in the Medina, KT heads for the daily carpet auction that takes place each day after the third call to prayer at about 5pm. Feeding off the creativity and energy of the souk, many artists and architects bought up some of the old town houses in the Medina, which had fallen into disrepair. KT visits one riad (townhouse) completely hidden from the world complete with its own tranquil garden and fountain.
KT’s last night is spent at Marrakech’s Folklore Festival. Among the evening’s festivities is the performance of traditional Moroccan musicians and artists who carry on through the night with their African neighbours. Marrakech, it seems, is one of the few cities where the modern world sits alongside authentic living traditions.
Bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman, Dubai is the one of the worlds youngest and cosmopolitan of cities in the world. The city is built on either side of the Dubai Creek with its commercial centre, Deira, on one side and Bur Dubai, the residential and beachfront area on the other.
Our traveller, Megan McCormick, goes downtown to the docks on the Creek, where the majority of trade is done between Iran and Dubai. Because Dubai is a trade free zone, a lot of money is made by re-exporting goods. Dubai is also known for its tax free gold. Megan takes a riverboat to the gold souk of Deira where she tries on some exquisite jewellery. If gold doesn’t your fancy, you can venture into the spice souk for some alternative retail therapy.
Dubai combines both the old and the new in the most extraordinary way. Megan travels to the Bastakia Quarter which used to be a small settlement nestled along a sandy creek. Some of the most striking architecture can be found along Jumeira beach. The most iconic building in the area has to be the Burj Al Arab. At 320 metres high, this self styled 7 star palace is the tallest hotel in the world. Sitting on its own island, the hotel has 1000 sq metres of gold leaf and is a temple to high-class kitsch. Each one of the 202 suites has its own butler too!
Megan pauses for a moment to catch her breath before lunching at the hotels exclusive restaurant and going for a splash at the local water park. A representative for the area also explains to Megan a new development underway for the more affluent clients; the Palm Project is probably even more ambitious than the Burj Al Arab. It will be a luxury community built on reclaimed land in the shape of a palm tree, with hotels, shops and villas. Dubai has over 34 shopping malls, so Megan tries on an ‘abaya’, the traditional dress for Arabic women at one of the area’s most popular shopping malls. Although it’s part of one of the more liberal Islamic countries, Dubai still takes its religion seriously. Ramadan is a good opportunity to experience religious tradition and experience the breaking of the fast. Megan talks to Taha who explains what Ramadan means to him.
Day four and Megan takes a trip out of the city to Abu Dhabi. Like Dubai, Abu Dhabi was once a remote and rather uninteresting place. Now however, the city is the business centre of the oil rich Gulf. The city also has some of the best golf courses in the world. If golf’s not you’re thing you can go dune bashing in off-road vehicles over huge sand dunes or experience the traditional sport of falconry, practised by the Bedouins over many generations.
Megan delves a little deeper into the culture of UAE and discovers the ‘Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding‘ which gives regular tours of the Jumeira Mosque. Megan notes that the faith and tradition of Islam lives hand in hand with the pressures of modern commercialism and that the people are not afraid to enjoy themselves. Once a year, during the Dubai shopping festival, the Global Village comes to town. Megan buys a lottery ticket in the hope of winning $300,000 and takes a ride on a crazy fairground ride and rounds off her trip by watching a spectacular fireworks display.
Places Mentioned - Morocco, United Arab EmiratesShare the series
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