By Graham Howe

Our journey across Morocco takes us over undulating plains with groves of olive trees and golden wheat-fields to the holy city of Moulay Idriss which clings to the sides of Mount Zerhoun.

A place of pilgrimage, the shrine of the most revered saint (founder of the first imperial dynasty) affords awe-inspiring views of the countryside.

In a timeless setting, heavily laden donkeys carrying bags of produce wait patiently at the taxi rank while the farmers drink coffee and play dominoes at cafés on the square.

In a scene out of a western, we are told that non-Muslims must get out of town before sundown.

After buying sweet pastries, we ride off to the incredible Roman ruins of Volubilis, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The 2 000-year-old city is one of Morocco's main tourist attractions - renowned for its triumphal arch, baths, ancient olive presses, mosaics and mansions.

At sunset we watched storks nesting noisily on the top of all the columns - making novel use of the old Roman ruins.

We wake up to market day in nearby Fez, the oldest of the imperial cities. When Volubilis was bursting at its seams, Idriss decided that Fez would be the new capital.

The year was AD 789. The medina of the "green city" - the spiritual and intellectual heart of Morocco with all its palaces, madrasahs and mosques - was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site to preserve "one of the largest living medieval cities in the world".

Hamed Mikob, today's English-speaking guide, is one of 600 000 residents who live in the warren of 12 000 covered alleys within the medina perched on the hillside.

"Balek!" ("Look out!"), yell the mule drivers, forcing their way through the throng with their heavy loads of hides and market produce.

At one of the 60 mosaic seqqaya (fountains), a mule obstinately refuses to drink despite its owner's prodding - confirming the old saying, "You can take a mule to water but you can't make it drink." A child pickpocket grabs at my empty back pocket and misses his mark.

We meet Nour Driss at a spice shop in the medina that his family have run for three generations.

He shows us a gallery of framed pictures that show him selling rare spices and perfumes to celebrity visitors such as Bill Clinton, Steve McQueen and Elton John.

He dabs sandalwood and cedarwood perfume on our wrists, demonstrates the difference between first-grade and poor-quality saffron - and sells us a bag of fiery red spice to make a fragrant tagine with couscous, the national dish of Morocco.

Making our way beneath the steep covered passages, we reach the beautiful 19th-century Nejjarine funduq - a caravanserai for travelling merchants - which boasts a three-tiered courtyard with elaborately carved balus-trades and stucco ceiling.

At Maison Berbere, Jalil Badrane shows us his family's amazing collection of antique Judaica.

We are entranced by a cornucopia of treasures "spun in gold and silver thread - from the 14th century!"), Passover plates, kutu- bahs (Star of David symbols) and mezuzahs ("lightning rod" boxes attached to doorposts and containing Scriptures to draw good to the household and evil away from it).

Like all the "ancient Berber carpets" in the casbah, everything is for sale.

A merchant with a persuasive sales pitch, Jalil says "everything must go". Some of the holy relics are originals, some are modern replicas and a few objets d'art are obvious fakes.

Furtively finding a forged Georges Braque painting wrapped in brown paper, Jalil says: "What a bargain. Imagine if it is an original." Noting our incredulity, he adds: "Some could be fakes." Well, you don't say...

The collection of religious relics founded by Jalil's grandfather in 1912 has been featured in Le Monde, Time and the New York Times.

Over mint tea in a Kaddish goblet, he relates the history of the Jews who sought refuge in Fez in the 14th century - and earned the sultan's protection by making the exquisite palace gates.

Although many Jews left after the Arab-Israeli wars, a few families remain in the mellah today - looking after the city's ancient cemetery and synagogues.

Expelled from Spain, Jews brought the Andalusian arts to Morocco.

Their legacy is evident in the decorative wrought-iron balconies and windows of the Jewish mellah, and the marquetry and mosaics in the synagogue of Ibn Danan (restored with Unesco funds in 1999).

In the Jewish cemetery, the caretaker showed us the tomb of Solica, a 14 year-old girl executed in 1834 when she refused to convert to Islam.

Next, we followed our nose to the medieval tannery, the heart of the medina. Many tourists hold a nosegay of mint to dispel the odorous brew of pigeon pooh, cow urine, animal oils and sulphuric acid used to cure and soften animal hides.

From an eight-storey eyrie, we watch hundreds of tannery workers trampling and dyeing animal skins in ancient limestone baths the same way they have done for centuries. It is the defining moment of our visit to Morocco, satiating all our senses.

Our guide says the Fassi leather is highly prized for its quality - and that the highest quality leather is known as "moroquinerie".

Yellow (saffron), red (poppies), blue (indigo), orange (henna), ochre (clay) and black (antimony) dyeing vats symbolise the kaleidoscope of colour in the Moroccan landscape. We come to recognise the same spectrum in the exotic mosaics, ceramics, fabrics and cuisine around us.

I buy a pair of saffron babouches: "The king's slippers - made from goat, lamb and camel skin," announces Che-mal, an enthusiastic shoe salesman. I buy black slippers ("Moroccan Nikes!") to accompany my embroidered Berber tunic with funny knee-high pants designed for leaping in the air.

Continuing our journey, we head for Marrakesh, a day's drive south. The road winds through a landscape of wheat-fields, cypress groves and olive groves in the foothills of the Middle Atlas. Roadside stalls sell olives, olive oil and bright red cherries. After the cities, it is good to get into the country.

We come across a women's agricultural co-operative at the roadside. Inside, Berber peasants press the argan nut into a valuable oil used in cosmetic creams by the West's beauty brands.

Apparently, the fruit of the Argania spinosa - grown in a protected Unesco biosphere - is prized for its high vitamin E content. For centuries, locals have used the oil to relieve rheumatism and to make amlou - a divine paste of argon, honey and almonds.

A guide relates the incredible story of how the argon nuts are harvested.

She shows us bizarre pictures of goats climbing high in the tree branches, foraging for the delectable argon nuts.

The old goats do their bit for the rustic argon industry by breaking down the nuts' hard outer shell as they pass through their digestive system.

Next, the women sort through the goats' dung to retrieve the kernels - before toasting, pulping and pressing the oil. After hearing the legend, we skip the edible paste and move on.

An old Sixties song resonates in my head on the "route Marrakech" - "Don't you know I'm riding on the Marrakesh Express?"

Arriving at the gates of the ochre city, we find the Beats and hippies long gone - and a toy train that takes tourists around the souvenir souqs. The ancient oasis for caravans is a modern mecca for tourists.

Set against the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas, Marrakesh sits on the fringe of the desert. Founded during the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century, the fabled capital of the South has mesmerised travellers for centuries.

Entering via a tranquil palmeraie (palm grove) planted with 180 000 palm trees, the 12-kilometre-long mud-brick ramparts lead us to the heart of the old city.

The Lord of the Atlas, the last pasha of Marrakesh, ruled the rebellious south until Morocco won its independence from France in 1956.

Dusk on Jema'a el-Fna, Marrakesh's magical town square, is said to be one of the greatest spectacles in the world.

We join hundreds of people jostling at open-air food stalls which suffuse the desert air with spicy aromas - and are entranced by the hypnotic drumming, strings and singing of Berber musicians.

Illuminated by lamps, the square becomes an open-air medieval stage for acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters, snake charmers, storytellers, fortune-tellers, herbalists and apothecaries, dancing chickens and chained performing monkeys (we could have done without the latter).

On the final day of our imperial tour, the muezzin wakes us early, calling the faithful to prayer from the 70-metre-tall minaret of Koutoubia, one of Morocco's most famous monuments.

We spend the day exploring the opulent palaces, lush gardens with pink marble fountains and mud-brick mosques that define the landscape of the city.

The Palais el-Badi, known as "The Incomparable, one of the most beautiful palaces in the world", is renowned for its marble, marquetry and zellij - the signature mosaics that decorate floors, walls and ceilings throughout Morocco.

We watch children carry unbaked breads in covered trays to the bakers' in the souqs.

"Are you American?" asks a wide-eyed child, disappointed to find out we are only from Afrique du Sud.

An apothecary invites us into his shop where he shows us glass jars filled with arnica oil ("for rheumatism"), oil of orange ("for stress, for the 'nerfs' "), rose cream ("for the skin") and saffron (a catch-all cure for "acne, herpes, spots and infections", he reassures us). But we leave without buying any quack cures for Morocco itself is enough of a balm for the heart and the soul.

Aziz el-Ouane, the last of our guides, explains that Marrakesh means "to walk fast" - and that Morocco is a corruption of the city's name.

He says travellers had to walk fast to make the safety of the city gates before they closed at sunset.

Taking our cue, we trot along in the footsteps of the sultans on a whistle-stop tour of the tombs, palaces, gardens, mosques and medina. I finally get to ride on the Marrakesh Express.

If you go

The author was a guest of Qatar Airways which flies direct from South Africa to Doha with a connecting service to Morocco.

Doha is a global travel hub with onward connections to 63 destinations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Far East. Contact Qatar Airways on 0861-861-868 or 011-523-2928, or check out www.qatarairways.com

Tour operator: Our itinerary was sponsored by Azure Travel, a specialist tour operator for North African and the Middle East based in Johannesburg. Tel: 011-442-8044, email: [email protected] or see www.azuretravel.co.za

Profile: Travellers voted Qatar Airways one of the world's top three five-star airlines in a recent poll.

From check-in to in-flight service, meals and drinks and on-schedule flights and connections, economy class was excellent. The expanding fleet is new, with excellent facilities and good in-flight entertainment in English.

Costs: Eight-day tour of imperial Morocco costs from R5 285 per person (excluding airfares), including half-board accommodation in four-star hotels, transfers, tours, entrance to heritage sites, driver and guide.

Currency: Dirham: 2 = R1,50. The cost of food and beverages is relatively inexpensive: our meal in the casbah cost under R50 per head. Water, beer and wine is more expensive at hotels. Guides expect R125 per half-day and a R20 tip.

Bartering in the Casbah: Leather goods, jewellery and ceramics are cheap. Expect to settle for about 60 percent of the initial asking price for most goods. Be cautious when buying carpets, which range in quality from foreign factory-made to the real thing.

Time difference = two hours behind South Africa

Visas: South African passport-holders require a visa obtainable from the Moroccan consulate in Pretoria via your travel agent.

  • This article was originally published on page 12 of The Star on October 15, 2005