A Conversation With Travel Writer James Bainbridge
1. James, you have travelled all over the world. What do you find most compelling about the Moroccan culture and people?
Morocco is not only my favourite travel destination – it’s where my travel-writing career began. Ten years ago, I crossed the High Atlas and Sahara at the beginning of a life-changing overland journey to Timbuktu. What keeps drawing me back is the uniquely Moroccan combination of sublime mountains, rolling Saharan dunes, mindboggling medinas and warm Berber people. Oh, and the hearty, bubbling tagines of course. There’s something particularly alluring about Morocco’s mix of peaceful countryside, relaxing hangouts and frenetic, sense-assaulting cities. Last November, researching southern Morocco and the Western Sahara for Lonely Planet, I was struck by the harmonious aesthetics of the landscape and people. In whitewashed coastal medinas and beneath mudbrick kasbahs in the granite foothills, folk clad in turquoise and white robes breeze along under bright Saharan skies.
2. You co-authored the latest Lonely Planet guide to Morocco, published in August. How has Morocco changed since your first visit?
Morocco is modernising remarkably quickly. I’ll never forget climbing off the ferry from Spain on my first visit to Tangier in 2002. A customs official tried to sell me something to smoke before I had walked ten metres on Moroccan soil! It was a seedy city, with hustlers and echoes of its decadent past in the decaying medina. Returning in 2006, I found a very different place: roads were being improved, walls painted, the hustlers run out of town. A Japanese tourist sat undisturbed in a doorway sketching a medina passage; the new train station was a sparkling colossus. The tourist tzar behind the transformation has had a similar effect on Marrakesh, creating a safe, pleasant city for tourists without losing any magic from the Djemaa el-Fna. The wonderful thing is that, for all this progress, life continues as it has for centuries in mountain villages and souq stalls.
3. What are your best recommendations for food, culture and shopping in Marrakesh?
The Djemaa el-Fna, with its sunset shows and surrounding medina, is the best place to start. The square’s acrobats and storytellers, astrologers and snake-charmers are continuing a millennium-old tradition.
Marrakesh’s innovative artisans are mixing modern and traditional, with results such as Kif-Kif’s rings with swappable felt baubles and handbags made of recycled T-shirts. Browse the central souqs, drink mint tea and spend with smiley shopkeepers offering a pleasant shopping experience; and look out for boutiques selling items from local cooperatives at fixed prices. You can get clothes tailor-made if you have a couple of days to play with.
4. Any final suggestions for travelers visiting Morocco?
If you have any friends getting married, buy them a Berber wedding rug. It’s a cool gift, comprised of two small rugs joined by their tassles. On their wedding night, the newly-weds cut the tassles and place a rug on either side of the bed.
As for eating, follow your nose to the nearest saffron- and argan-flavoured tagine!