THE TRAVEL BUG EPISODE 28: Magical Morocco

The Travel Bug

It’s been a while since our last Travel Bug post but Ash is back with this 3-part mini series. We travel alongside our good friend right through the heart of Morocco via Kuala Lumpur and discover the allure of the country, its culture and people. 

Without further ado..


The Magic of Morocco, part 1

Morocco has always been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember; however, I did not find the time or opportunity to visit this exotic destination. Imagine my surprise when a mutual friend of a work colleague mentioned at lunch a couple of months ago, that he had inherited a house in Marrakesh, which he was happy to provide to any of four of us if we were ever headed that way.

Separately, he invited me to travel with him in September. Accepting his gracious offer, I started researching and planning my trip and arranging a tourist visa. (This is not normally required for most countries). I had visions of the Sahara Desert, camels, colourful carpets and handicraft associated with Morocco, not to mention Humphrey Bogart and delightful Casablanca.

After I had booked my flights to Casablanca and got my visa from the Moroccan Consulate in Canberra, I found that my “friend” and travel companion was no longer responding to emails or phone calls. This left me with little choice but to proceed on my own. I booked a hotel in Marrakesh on the internet, in addition to the three other ancient Imperial cities I was planning to visit. On hindsight, I owe it to him for making my trip to Morocco a reality.

Kuala Lumpur

In the wee hours of the morning of Monday 26 th September, I flew from Kuala Lumpur to Casablanca on Emirates with a two and half hour stopover in Dubai. My plan was to go directly to the capital city of Rabat from Casablanca by train the same day. After an uneventful flight, I found myself at the Immigration counter in Casablanca airport and realised the linguistic challenge I was about to face. Most communication in Morocco is either in Arabic or French, with a smattering of English.

It suddenly dawned on me that I had not booked a hotel for my first night in Morocco! I had over looked the fact that I was travelling westwards and was arriving the same day as my departure even though it was a 16-hour trip. I decided to stick to my original plan and show up at my hotel in Rabat, in the hope of getting a room for an extra night, rather than spend the first night in busy Casablanca. 

The views from my window on the one hour train ride to Rabat reminded me of the arid landscape I had witnessed just the previous week when I was travelling in India. After a short taxi ride from Rabat train station, I was at my hotel just outside the walls of the historic old city (Medina). The hotel seemed to be popular with business people from other Moroccan cities and neighbouring countries. It was mid-30 degrees centigrade when I first checked-in and I waited until it was cooler before venturing into the crowded and colourful Medina for my first taste of the local markets (souks). The markets had everything for everyone with vendors cajoling passers-by to buy their wares – clothes, shoes, jewellery, food items (cooked and uncooked), carpets, spare parts, etc. The hustle and bustle of the markets was punctuated by the calls to prayer broadcast from a picturesque minaret down the main lane way.

Rabat

At breakfast in the hotel’s roof top restaurant, I chatted with a young Chinese businessman who had been sent by his company to explore business opportunities in motor vehicle distribution in the main cities of Morocco. He had been to a few sights close to the hotel which he thought were worth visiting. I followed up on his suggestion by walking down to Kasbah les Oudais (11 th century Fortress) and the Andalusian Gardens which were a short distance away from the hotel.

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Fountain at Kasbah

The morning air was cool with a sea breeze that was gradually warming up as I walked along the river bank (Bou Regreg) with the buildings in the city of Sale, across the river from Rabat, shimmering in the sun.

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View of Sale

Along the way, I explored the “Thieves Market” and shops that specialised in making highly decorative front doors, which seem to be a national obsession in Morocco.

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Sample of decorative door

I made my way to the Hassan Tower and Mausoleum of Mohammad V tourist complex. The square housing these monuments was crowded with tourists, both local and foreign. Begun in 1195, the red sandstone Hassan Tower was intended to be the largest minaret for the largest mosque that remains unfinished. Its design was used for the Koutoubia mosque In Marrakesh and the Giralda of Seville in Al Andalus (Spain).

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Hassan tower

 

Opposite the tower is the mausoleum which contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons. The historic building is considered a masterpiece of modern Alaouite architecture, with its white silhouette, topped by a typical green tiled roof, green being the colour of Islam.

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Guard outside mausoleum

I found that Rabat has a good public transport system that includes trams. Feeling a bit tired from all the walking, I decided to use the tram to get across the river to Sale to explore its sights which included the Grand Mosque, Madrasa and the souks. The superb Merenid artistry (in zellige tile work and carved wood panels) dating from 14 th century is on display in the Madrasa (Islamic school). The “guardian” of the complex gave a quick tour and explanation and extended his hand out for a tip.

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Courtyard of Madrasa

Lunch consisted of a sandwich (Moroccan bread, hard on the outside and soft inside) with a filling of deep-fried fish, eggplant and pepper that was washed down with a yoghurt drink. On my return to the hotel for a siesta, I found myself on the wrong tram and ended up with an unplanned city tour that included Agadir and the city’s University and outer suburbs.

In the evening, I walked down to the Medina for the last time as I was leaving for Tangier the next day, stopping for a drink of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice made by a woman covered from head to foot in a black robe. The crowd in the souk appeared to be thinner than the previous night and more subdued. It was getting late and some of the vendors had started packing up their stalls.

As the hotel does not serve any meals apart from breakfast, I opted to have a light meal at a local restaurant: some form of chickpea soup with Moroccan bread.

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Moroccan bread

I then went back to the hotel for a well-earned rest. 

Rabat to Tangier

Before leaving the hotel, I met a young Gambian woman at breakfast. She too was exploring business opportunities for car dealerships in Rabat. There must be a huge untapped market for cars here, I thought, although the traffic on the roads would suggest otherwise. I jumped into a “petit taxi” (mini-taxi) and headed for the train station for the next leg of my journey to the port city of Tangier. The train was air-conditioned and had comfortable seats even though I was travelling 2nd class. My fellow passenger in the compartment was a Moroccan man who was working in the hotel business in Madrid and was visiting his family. He reminded me that Spain is only a short ferry ride from Tangier.

After four hours, we pulled into Tangier train station. Two surprises awaited me here: firstly, Tangier city centre station was being redeveloped and there was a huge hole in the ground separating the end of the platform and the main station building. Fortunately, a small path, hidden from public view, had been set aside skirting the fenced-up development that provided access to the main street in front of the station building. Secondly, my anxiety about finding a taxi and negotiating the “right” fare to the hotel (bearing in mind the unpleasant experience in Rabat station where I had massively overpaid as I subsequently found out) was allayed as my hotel was just across the street from the station.

A travel guide describes Tangier in these words:

It was once a glittering and debauched destination for the 1960s literary and artistic set, and still holds an evocative tinge of this racy past, even though it may no longer be the haunt of famed authors and painters”.

After checking into this five-star hotel (booked on travel points) and a short rest, I went for a walk on the promenade that ran along the sea opposite the hotel.

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Promenade

There was a stiff breeze, resulting in occasional mini-sand storms. After a while, I found it distressing when all manner of people had walked up to me, asking for money.

Looking for a money changer (as the Banks were all closed by then), I found myself in the new section of town (nouveau ville). The local currency is the Moroccan dirham (MAD for short) and cannot be obtained outside the country. I also found out earlier in Rabat that most merchants and hotels would not accept a credit card and preferred cash, although prices were often quoted in Euro.

(The hotel cashier in Rabat had insisted on converting the Euro nightly tariff into MAD at a much higher buy rate than that quoted by the local bank).

I continued to walk in the direction of the Kasbah, the highest point in the city, amazed by the crowds at various souks along the way as well as tea houses with large groups of men sipping sweet

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Souk in Tangier

Moroccan tea packed with mint and playing backgammon. 

Eventually it got dark, I grabbed a quick sandwich and a taxi back to the hotel. The taxi driver stopped to pick up additional passengers along the way to share the taxi with me. I could not quite work out this system of sharing a taxi where the main beneficiary appeared to be the driver as he charged separate fares for each of his passengers and I ended up paying the metered fare. By the time I got to the hotel, the temperature had dropped and it was considerably cooler than in Rabat.

Tangier

My original plan was for a day trip to the seaside resort and arty town of Assilah, about 30 minutes away, known for its beaches and famous Medina. Instead, I decided to sleep-in, had a light breakfast and took a taxi to the museum in the Kasbah and a planned walk through the Medina overlooking the sea. The museum housed in the former sultan’s palace of Dar el-Makhzen, was tricky to find in the alleyways and laneways that surrounded it; a group of young school boys offered to show me the way for a fee! The museum traced the history of Tangier from the days of the Carthaginian colonists, Phoenician traders and then Romans through to the advent of Islam with displays of unusual artefacts.

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Kasbah museum

Later, waking through the alleyways, I ran across several groups of Chinese tourists who were visiting Morocco in droves as they no longer needed a visa.

After a delicious “swarma” lunch, at a café at the historic Grand Socco (now known as Place 19 Avril), I took a slow walk to the Tangier American Legation museum near Rue du Portugal. Ironically it was just across from the Jewish cemetery in a residential unit block.

On the way, I passed fruit and vegetable markets that had an abundance of produce, with prices a fraction of what we would pay in a supermarket in Sydney. What caught my attention was the Riffian women in their traditional straw hats with pompons and candy stripped skirts selling their agricultural produce. (Riffian people are a Berber ethnic group who inhabit the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco). 

Riffian women

In the museum, I met a Tasmanian couple who had hopped across from Spain and had been on the road for more than two months. On my way out, I bought some walnuts and almonds and took a taxi back to the hotel for afternoon tea.

Finding a beer in an orthodox Islamic country can be a challenge. I felt like a beer that evening but found it hard to find a place where you could get one without too much hassle. I finally found a club that had a bar that served alcohol. After one beer, I left the near empty club as the risk of damaging my hearing was high given the sound system was running rampant, with no one in charge. I then nipped down the road and had a seafood pizza for dinner.

Tangier to Chefchaoen

The next morning, after a quick coffee, I checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the local bus station for my trip to the mountain resort town of Chefchaoen known for its powdery blue painted streets. All the signage at the station was in Arabic and I had to ask for the right bus, which only departed when it was almost full rather than any scheduled departure time. I had a seat in the front row, immediately behind the bus driver and was soon joined by a local guy who appeared to be in his early twenties. As soon as the bus took off, he unexpectedly pulled out his mobile phone and played Muslim prayers (after all it was Friday!) that could be heard at the back of the bus. After a brief stopover in Tetoun (nice clean airy town surrounded by beautiful mountains), we arrived in Chefchaoen bus station at about noon.

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View of Tetoun

The station was at the bottom of a steep hill that led to the town centre about 1.6km away. It was far too hot to walk uphill, so I took a petit taxi (which turned out to be a private car driven by an enterprising local out to make a fast buck). He dropped me just outside the Medina entrance as motor vehicles are not allowed inside, leaving with me with little choice but to drag my luggage uphill for the 10-15 minute walk to my hotel. (Most of the hotels I had booked on the internet are located inside the Medina of the cities I visited).


The Travel Bug

This Travel Bug is a collaboration with Ash, a long-time friend and culture fan who is always up for discovering old worlds and their people. I live a little through his stories and I hope that you do too!

On a side note, our old travelling supernova Dave is back on wanderlust warpath once again and is currently on a one way ticket to Asia. He has no idea how long this trip will last – but that’s part of the magic!  

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