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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Baby Makes News In Morocco

The Times, 21 April 2007

Baby makes news in Morocco

Journalist John Simpson is charmed by the warm reception given to his young son in Morocco

By John Simpson

It will all be gone soon, said my father, gloomily. We were in Morocco, watching a snake-charmer in a fez coaxing a cobra out of a basket. Near by was a fire-eater. A monkey wearing traditional clothes, like the people around him, jumped on to a wall.

They'll sweep all this away, my father went on. He didn't hold with them - the tidiers-up, the modernisers, the rebuilders. He preferred the cobras and the fezes.

That was in 1962, when I was 18. I never went back to Morocco. I assumed that he had been right, and that globalisation had done its work there. No doubt there would still be lots of beautiful old buildings, but they would have been taken over by artists and clothes designers. No more smells, no more dark corners, no more slightly dubious tea-houses.

But 45 long years later, I found myself walking through the markets in the medina, or old city, of Fez with my 13-month-old son Rafe on my shoulders and my wife Dee beside me. And to my delight I found that nothing really had changed at all. The traditional garments, the traditional food-stuffs and entertainments, were all there still. So were the public baths, the mosques, and the theological schools, with a hum of piety drifting out of them as the students recited the Koran. In the life of a country with a cultural tapestry as rich as Morocco?s, 45 years represents the blinking of an eye.

Fez is the oldest of Morocco's great cities, and perhaps the most interesting. The Arabic spoken here is often said to be the best in North Africa. Its women are renowned for their beauty and skill, the cuisine is the best in Morocco, and it is the intellectual heart of the country. It is also stunningly beautiful. The steep little lanes, the charming blind alleys, the shops ablaze with light, the piled-up fruit and vegetables, the grand architecture, make it a heady, exciting, intoxicating experience. Your nose is assaulted by the stinking tanneries, and your feet are constantly threatened by the donkeys pushing past you.

Fez is tight and narrow and medieval, and bursting at the seams. I don?t suppose it has changed much in a thousand years. And it is safe.

Rafe was enchanted. He had never experienced such a range of sensory experiences in his short life. Children and teenagers stopped us to stroke his hair or kiss their fingertips and press them to his cheeks. Elderly people would ask if they could hold him. They could; he loved the attention. Throughout the Arab world, babies get special treatment, but in Morocco there's a particular sweetness and gentleness.

Fez has fitted naturally into the boutique hotel fashion. The guesthouse where we were staying had been beautifully converted from two traditional houses. Our room was cool and charming, and in the dining-room the couscous, when it arrived in its tajine, was one of the best dishes I have eaten, anywhere on earth.

We left our hotel, and Fez itself, with a genuine pang; but in Marrakesh something very different was waiting for us. We were staying 25km (15 miles) outside the city, in what had been a tiny Berber village made of pise, the pink mud of the area. The Atlas mountains, snow-covered, took on precisely the same colour every morning and evening.

Here too, our hotel's conversion had been beautifully done: our rooms were traditionally furnished, with an open wood fire against the chill of night.

Marrakesh was half an hour away by taxi. I had assumed that it must have been taken over by Europeans and Americans. I couldn't have been more wrong. There are certainly plenty of tourists, and far more Westerners have made their homes there than in Fez. But Marrakesh has managed to keep its character, its sense of itself, in a way my father, nearly 50 years before, had assumed would be impossible.

The Djemaa el-Fna, the enormous square at the heart of the city, is, I now realise, one of the great entertainment places of the world. But the magic of it is that it is intended for Moroccans. Westerners just hang around the edges of the crowds that gather round the musicians or storytellers, envying the excitement of the locals.

Once again, Rafe was an entertainment in his own right. He looked on quizzically as the snake charmers draped adders and vipers and cobras round my neck; he waved at the story tellers, who waved back enthusiastically in mid-tale.

But the best time came at dusk. Vast pillars of smoke went up from the dozens of food stalls in the square, and the smells that rose with them were irresistible. The local authorities police these stalls carefully, and the standards of cleanliness are high. So we sat down and had a quick meal, sharing it with him: fish and chicken and vegetables. Our waiters ignored the other diners and collected round Rafe, holding him and offering him food. He presided over them benignly, and when he laughed they all applauded.

Darkness fell. We said goodbye and hurried off through the dense, happy crowds. It had been an unforgettably lovely day; and the best thing about it was to see how wrong I had been about Morocco.

John Simpson and family travelled to Fez and Marrakesh with The Best of Morocco (0845 0264588, www.realmorocco.com).