‘How do you like my new Fes?’ asks Jerry patting the hat on his melon. Only forty Dirham and he’s grinning like a shot fox. A dozen of us collect closely. We’re in the Medina or old city and New Jersey Jerry; ever-blaring, ever-egotistic and forty-something is taking pleasure from the tasselled headdress- and his own voice. ‘Yes, Jerry it’s great,’ we chorus. Absalom is our guide. Wearing his Muslim robes elegantly, and with snowy hair and trimmed beard he looks alarmingly like Kenny Rogers. He silences the Gatlin boy with, ‘Yes Jerry, it suits you perfectly.’ Through the dust and noise we lean nearer. ‘You are wearing the Fes of a young boy. Recently circumcised.’
With 350,000 people, 10,000 indistinguishable streets and 320 Mosques, the Medina is astonishing. Reaching its zenith in the 13th–14th centuries, the medieval monuments, madrasas (schools), fondouks (hotels), palaces, markets, residences and fountains are utterly engaging. About half the size of an Australian suburb, UNESCO declared it a World Monument in 1981. By morning’s end I am drained by the unbroken attack on my eyes and nose, ears and brain.
Attempting to engage me, one impish boy chirped, ‘Hello mister.’ I ignored him. ‘Hola. Bonjour,’ he continued. ‘Ciao. GutenTag. Aloha. Konnichiwa.’ I laughed. Konnichiwa. In a particular light I guess I appear Japanese. He reminded me of the carpet-seller in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar who, sensing I’d rejected every rug- buying opportunity, edged up to me and smirked, ‘Is it now time to talk about carpet?’
In Marrakech we’re steered into an apothecaries’ souk or pharmaceutical market. Spices, roots and aromatic plants for cooking, magic and pills cram the shelving in kaleidoscopic chains of little jars. The apothecary talks about the local herbs and their various uses. We enjoy listening but of course should have known what was coming. The lecture concludes, a corps of zipping assistants gives everyone a plastic bag and the Big Sell begins.
The apothecary repeats his catalogue whilst the helpers briskly dispense the concoctions. Our entourage includes Americans, Dutch and New Zealanders of every age and attitude and twenty minutes later not a medical secret remains amongst us. ‘These jars contain a potion to combat abdominal dryness,’ he announces and up fly some hands, their owners eager to spend and lubricate. Enchanted containers are urgently thrust at the grateful. He hollers, ‘Next is the haemorrhoid relief cream!’ More hands. ‘Who’d like the Moroccan herbal Viagra?’ I sit tighter on my palms. Never have I become so unintentionally informed about the private rashes, oozings and inflammations of strangers. It was like a nutrimetics party but without the collapsing paper plates of sausage rolls.
Beasts current and cooked, domesticated and dangerous were a mesmerizing aspect of our trip. The Jemaa el Fna or Place of the Dead is the gigantic square in Marrakech which functions as an al fresco circus. Street performers compete for our coins with yelling shoe-shiners and insistent henna tattooists whilst loops of snake charmers rhythmically sway with their hooded cobras. Given that she’s a biology teacher I selflessly sent Kerry among the reptiles as I captured photos and videos from an artistic distance.
And suddenly a snake was writhing around my neck and a lithe wrangler rubbed its anaconda-like girth against my forehead. ‘It is good for fertility,’ he declared. I squeaked, ‘Mine or the snake’s?’
Monkeys (few self-pleasuring!) sprung about the teeming square too whilst stalls groaned with meats and dishes of arresting aromas. Curiously wry rows of boiled camel-heads were Plat du jour but disappointingly we’ve been off them lately. Rooster idolatry is popular on Portuguese china, shirts, towels, hats; indeed everything! Heading along the Atlantic coast road from Tangiers I glanced down to the sundrenched shore and what did I spy? A jaunty row of trotting chickens! Have you ever seen wild hens pushing into the breeze, bouncing along the sand? It was so unexpected yet so childishly familiar and funny that it became an African highlight. Beach chooks! Even now I can see my documentary advertised in the TV guide-
BBC 2- Sunday 8pm
Tonight Mikey Randall goes in search
of Tangier’s mystical beach chickens.
Despite the coach being guarded whilst we slept in our Tangier hotel (up the esplanade from Celine Dion Café; your heartburn will go on) it occurs at midnight. We are oblivious. From our giant ferry we witness customs police beating and kicking would-be illegal immigrants. They hide down by the waterline- frantic to flee Africa’s poverty for the nirvana that is Europe.
A rolling Atlantic swell surrenders to Gibraltar’s gentler waters. Then in Spain we drive a hundred Andalucian miles and alight at a restaurant whilst Juao, our Portuguese driver, re-fuels. He hears a noise from under the bus. Two continents and an ocean later, a small stowaway escapes; having clung perilously to the undercarriage for fourteen dark hours. He slides into the countryside like a phantom.
The jagged rush of surprises makes travelling addictive. Toledo, indeed, is quite holy and El Greco’s 1586 masterpiece, The Burial of the Count Orgaz adorns a wall within the modest Church of San Tomé. The painting is marvellous but it is also startling that we could saunter in and admire a magnum opus without a wardrobe-sized guard pointing his Uzi at us. If it were displayed in a London or Paris gallery I’d probably shave three times getting to the ticket window.
It was curious to feel homesick in Morocco with its mosques and confronting hardship and intoxicating town markets. Introduced from Australia last century, Eucalyptus trees appeared like old friends and combined with the sparse terrain to suggest the River Murray landscape back in South Australia. I love being amazed when travelling.
I had few expectations for the Portuguese capital but found it wonderful. Prior to visiting Europe my favourite world city was San Francisco and Lisbon often reminded me of its hilly charms and marine vistas. Two colossal structures cross the glimmering Tagus River; the Ponte 25 de Abril commemorates the 1974 Revolution and is strikingly like the Golden Gate; the planet’s most fetching suspension bridge. At over seventeen kilometres; we entered Lisbon on Ponte Vasco da Gama, Europe’s largest and probably the biggest bastard of a bridge that I’ll experience.
In an age when Barcelona, Kuala Lumpur and Florence are serviced by airports hours from their CBD it is remarkable that Lisbon’s is downtown; reflecting that last century the metropolis grew exponentially. The equivalent of Heathrow being in Hyde Park; it was compelling and somewhat menacing- post 9/11 to watch planes climbing and landing near skyscrapers. We loved wandering about historic Alfama and seeing the mighty Monument to the Discoveries before learning that although the world is a village chip-shop one should never order Italian dishes in a Portuguese Indian restaurant.
Seville burst into my Top Ten with a bullet and is illustrious for much; orange-trees lining the charming boulevards, the resting place of Columbus and of course, bullfighting. During summer the Sevillians stroll past the cigar factory immortalised in Carmen to the Plaza del Toros de la Real Maestranza and given that it nudged 54 degrees in August 2003 some sip Cruzcampo beer!
Many stories are relayed of brave bulls. An ancient matador told me the obscure tale of an old bull and a young bull. One lazy afternoon they were gazing down at a field of attractive heifers. The young bull shouts, ‘Let’s run down and shag a few cows!’ The old bull quietly replies, ‘No. Let’s walk down and do the lot.’
Michael and Kerry