Morocco: Hamam hospitality

By Kirsty Heron

A Muslim family walk among the ruins of the grand mosque in Rabat, Morocco, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1700s. Photo / Kirsty Heron
A Muslim family walk among the ruins of the grand mosque in Rabat, Morocco, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the 1700s. Photo / Kirsty Heron

Arriving in the hamam - the Moroccan equivalent of a Turkish bath - I found myself the only blonde in a room full of Moroccan women.

I was feeling conspicuous as I stripped off but was soon made to feel welcome when a lady remarked on how my childbearing hips would be of great benefit for producing her grandchildren.

This sparked a discussion on what attributes the local women were looking for in their future daughters-in-law and, from what I could pick up with my rusty French, there were some refreshingly modern ideas, such as a good education, mixed with some age-old prerequisites such as width of the hips.

Hamams are a wonderful chance to talk to the women behind the masks - which are part of such an intensely Islamic society - with the bonus of being able to scrub off the travel dust at the same time.

I took the opportunity to frequent several hamams on my journey through Morocco because for me, encounters with the ordinary people formed the most enduring memories.

Travelling with an expert bilingual guide and taking opportunities to meet with locals provides a further insight into the culture of this fascinating and diverse country.

An important part of that culture is Islam which is the religion of about 90 per cent of Moroccans. Instead of just reading about the pillars of Islam, you can experience them first hand, and see how rituals such as daily prayers and giving to the poor are an integral part of their lives.

But Morocco's history goes back far beyond the arrival of Islam, it is the result of a mingling of successive waves of conquerors, each of whom contributed their own architecture, culture and genes.

The oldest inhabitants of Morocco are the Berber people, who still make up about 35 per cent of the population. Then came the Romans who came to control much of present day Morocco. The most influential invaders, the Arabs, arrived in 683 and ruled Morocco for 1200 years, bringing with them the tide of Islam.

In the 19th century, France invaded Morocco and it wasn't until 1956 that the country was able to win its independence.

Throughout the country there are reminders of Morocco's history, ranging from vast Roman ruins at Volubilis and Portuguese forts at Essaouira, or in clothing from traditional Islamic veils, to modern western dress, and from the common djellaba and fantastic slippers favoured by Moroccan men, to the colourful shawls and jewellery worn by Berber women.

Morocco is also extraordinarily diverse geographically.

You can experience one end of the scale with a trek into the High Atlas Mountains, walking from village to village with a team of guides, cooks, porters and their mules, which allows a more in-depth look into the lives of the Berber people.

Trekkers are invited into their homes, staying in local villages or under canvas, experiencing the legendary hospitality of the Berbers as they open their hamams to visitors and ply them with mint tea, couscous and tagines.

The culmination of the mountainous side of Morocco is an ascent of snow-capped Mt Toubkal, the highest mountain in Northern Africa, which requires a a 3am start in the pitch black and freezing cold.

The singing and whistling of the cheerful Moroccan support team soon deals with any misgivings about the early start and once the sun is up there are magnificent views to enjoy at every turn.

At the other geographic extreme is a camel ride in the Sahara desert.

The Sahara is full of mesmerising shapes and colours, always fascinating, but seen most dramatically if you climb the highest dune around to watch the sunrise.

The bleakness of the desert makes a stunning contrast to the rich oasis villages full of palm trees where life continues to exist as it has for centuries.

The cities are equally diverse.

You can wander the Medina in Fes, one of the largest enduring medieval cities in the world, which is like walking back into the eighth century.

Fes has become the cultural and religious centre of Morocco and has retained a distinctly Arab identity.

There are no cars allowed in the ancient alleyways of the medina, just donkeys and carts, and they combine with the colours and aromas of the olive and spice stores, communal bakeries and mysterious perfume shops, to create an extraordinary atmosphere.

The markets in both Fes and Marrakech are intoxicating, and you can easily spend many an hour searching for the perfect mementos to take home.

There's everything from intricate mosaics and pottery, wonderful carpets of all colours and sizes, wrought iron masterpieces and unique silver jewellery, to name just a few of the treats Morocco has in store. For those who enjoy photography (or shopping) these marketplaces make you feel like a kid in a candy store.

In complete contrast is the delightful, laidback peninsula town of Essaouira. With its Greek-like whitewashed walls and its mixture of Portuguese, French and Berber fortifications, it has a different flavour to the rest of the country.

The combination of bikini-clad women on the beach and mosques in the town sums up just how diverse - and tolerant - Morocco really is.

It really does have something for everyone with its incredible architecture, stunning scenery, great food, fantastic shopping, warm and welcoming locals, mountains, deserts and beaches; it assaults your senses and keeps you hungry for more.

INFORMATION

Visas: New Zealanders do not need a visa to enter Morocco.

Getting there: Emirates has airfares Auckland to Casablanca return.

Getting around: World Expeditions has a 16-day touring trip called Morocco Explorer with departures in April and September for $3790 ex Casablanca. If you like to stretch your legs then the 20-day Morocco Adventure follows the same itinerary, but includes a seven-day trek in the Atlas mountains.

Kirsty Heron is marketing manager for World Expeditions in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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