Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017
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Under the Moroccan sun

Souks, serpents and steam baths spice up a visit to the land of Arabian nights

We approached Agadir on air that mimicked the ground beneath us. After gliding through a cloudless sky over gently undulating landscape of northern Morocco, we traced the rougher topography of the Atlas Mountains in sympathetic stumbles and bumps, as if traipsing over the hummocky surface on a donkey cart.

And then, without even realizing that the bumps had become solid, we had landed in the busy resort and fishing port of Agadir.

The inherent North Africanness, ancient patina, ubiquitous perfume of flowers and tumbling cadence of Arabic have all mercifully survived efforts to make European and North American visitors feel comfortable. But multilingual signs, restaurant names, menus and cabaret titles reflect the city's economic engine: there are two million visitors here annually.

The welcome mat is as truly Moroccan as afternoon mint tea or a stranger, hand on heart, murmuring "Salaam" as he passes you on the street. In city, hamlet or desert, that simple gesture left me feeling that I was truly welcome.

The group I was travelling with decided that our first excursion would be to Agadir's fishing harbour. The largest sardine port in the world, it holds boisterous fish auctions five days a week (except Thursday and Sunday). Auctioneers clamber onto shaky piles of fish crates, arms waving to the music of whistles and shouts. This semaphore, understandable only to gum-booted fishermen, enables tonnes of fresh sardines, mackerel, skate, sole and eel to change hands.

Adjacent to the auction hall is the busy harbour, packed with rusty, smoky fishing vessels. The ships, often at sea for months at a time off the Moroccan and Mauritanian coasts, are rafted together in a logjam of metal and wood. Amid the noises and smells, a barefoot lad held up a pointy-snouted gar while his sister offered a plate of grilled sardines, a delicious hint of the curious street cuisine to come.

Take me to the Kasbah
On the way to the ruins atop Cap Ghir hill, I paid 10 dirhams to photograph a boy holding a newborn kid goat while the guide chided me to hurry up. There was little of the Kasbah left to see, and we wondered why we were up there. Once inside the old gate, however, our guide balanced, Errol Flynn style, on the crumbling wall and, with a grand proprietary sweep of his arm, informed us that Agadir had not always been as we saw it now.

Once known as Santa Cruz de Cap de Gué when it was a Portuguese trading post, Agadir received its current name (meaning "fortified refuge") in 1541 from Sultan Mohammed ech Cheick who had reclaimed the city from the Europeans.

The only remnant of old Santa Cruz is the Kasbah and fort on the summit of Cap Ghir hill from which we now viewed the port, the city and beaches beyond. In 1760, Agadir was eclipsed by Essouira, 120 kilometres to the north, ushering in two centuries of decline for the once bustling city.

By the mid-20th century, Agadir had started reinventing itself as an international tourist destination when disaster struck. A little before midnight on February 29, 1960, a 10-second earthquake and its ensuing tsunami destroyed most of the city, killing 15,000 people. The devastated area, clearly visible from our observation point, has been preserved as a memorial to the victims. Modern Agadir, now a thriving tourist resort, lies three kilometres to the south of the original site.

A day trip to the medieval city of Taroudant, 80 kilometres away, offered a welcome respite from the beach-resort culture. Touted as "Marrakech's grandmother," it was once the seat of the Saadi dynasty. Forty years ago, Taroudant turned its 19th-century Kasbah into a four-star hotel. Sumptuous gardens and a restaurant were grafted onto the 16th-century city wall.

We stopped for lunch under a cascade of hibiscus and bougainvillea then sauntered through the afternoon by visiting jewellery and carpet merchants. Refreshed by mint tea, we headed west again to the Atlantic, past argan groves, famous for their oil -- rich in essential fatty acides and long used by Berbers -- and their fabled tree-climbing goats.

We spent our last evening in Agadir, in the basement of the Hotel Sahara, enjoying a fine 10-piece traditional orchestra. It was immediately clear that this was not your average tourist fare. We later discovered that the hotel had laid on this entertainment for a visiting group of Saudis.

 

Gardens of Delight
We were unprepared for the comparative grandeur of Marrakech, the capital of southern Morocco, which nestles at the foot of the dramatic High Atlas range. The city, once contained within protective walls, now boasts grand hotels, mosques and palaces that sprawl amidst flowers, palms and bustling boulevards.

We began our tour at the soothing Menara Garden for a contemplative moment in this peaceful retreat where orange and olive plantations encircle an artificial lake.

We continued to the Majorelle Garden, a sumptuous plantation in the north of the city. Founded in 1924 by French painter and plant collector Jacques Majorelle, its garden and studio buildings were first opened to the public in 1947. Trees and shrubs from all over the world are planted so densely that only an African sun could sustain them. I was moved by the simple, deep blue buildings nestling among cacti, palms and bamboo, cradling still pools of lotus, lilies and reeds.

We visited the Saadi Tombs, an ornate cluster of burial structures which had been forgotten for centuries, hidden behind walls and trees. Rediscovered only in 1917, the immaculately preserved and elaborate tombs present a unique glimpse into the lavish customs that accompanied ancient nobles to the afterlife.

Late afternoon found us mixing with jugglers, drummers and snake charmers in the fabled Djemma el-Fna square. As the light began to dim, the orange juice stands closed and generator-powered lights were turned on. Within minutes, a huge assortment of food stands appeared. Gas-powered kitchens and counters displaying meat, fish and vegetable dishes were set up next to tables and benches. Appetizing aromas filled the air, enticing the crowd to dine on creatures from the sea and animal organs that would never cross a North American take-out counter.

One stall displayed platters of boiled sheep's heads. In a mischievous challenge to my digestive system, I thought I would try one. When else would I get the chance? Besides the whole experience might make a good yarn later.

I sat, cheek by jowl, with other diners in the murky bustle, and found that the harira soup, the entire sheep's head and ghoriba pastry with mint tea were to die for -- though I crossed my fingers that this would not literally be the case.

After losing my way in one of the teeming souks which abut the square, I made it back to the Djemma el-Fna in time to brave two cobras coiled around my neck for a photo I trust my kids will accept as evidence of my manliness.

Spirited chatter was spilling from the bus door when I met up with my group. It turned out that every one of them had tried a sheep's head! Asked what I had for dinner, I brandished the photo of the snake. My friends were aghast. I left them in daunted silence, deciding not to correct their mistaken impression.

Serpents and Horses
As an eater of serpents, I acquired hero status. My counsel was sought on what to do next and, rising to the task, I suggested we find a hammam (public steam bath) to refresh ourselves. The idea received an enthusiastic response from all except one crusty chap, whose idea of a bath did not include being led into a steamy dungeon half-naked and scraped with a loofah by a man. Our guide found the nearest hammam and we headed off to enjoy one of Morocco's simplest and most delightful experiences.

On our last evening in Marrakech we drove to a Moroccan theme park on the edge of town. The name of the establishment, Chez Ali, was a dead giveaway, but we resigned ourselves to the experience.

We were shepherded along walkways, parapets and galleries for several hundred yards. On our left were 30 or more large, elaborate tents, each of which sheltered comfortable dining facilities for up to 50 people. We were served a multitude of courses, including harira, tajine, mechoui and couscous, while musicians and dance troupes from every corner of Morocco moved from tent to tent. The pace of the evening was expertly choreographed, the celebrations peaking just as the final mint tea and pastry were served.

After a short lull, we were led outside into the warm evening to sit by a huge, illuminated arena. Demonstrations of horsemanship, musketry, cavalry charges and other feats of desert derring-do were put on. The din and smoke of rifle fire, the thunder of hooves and the whoops of horsemen cracked the night air, drawing delighted applause. It was a spectacular finale not only to the evening, but to our visit to Morocco.

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