THE TRAVEL BUG EPISODE 30: Fes to Marrakesh

The Travel Bug

We pick our Moroccan adventure with Ash fresh after he has lent his willing ear and provided consoling words in our last post (and we sure hope that ended up well).

This is the final post with Ash…for now. I’m sure we’ll come together again for another series soon.

And so without further ado..

Fes to Marrakesh

Early the next morning I left the hotel to get to the train station for my seven-hour trip to Marrakesh. I decided to get first class tickets to ensure I had a seat for this relatively long journey. After getting tickets on the next direct train, I had a wait of just over an hour and a half. I walked across from the station to a local café for breakfast, keeping a watchful eye on my luggage. Later when I boarded the train, I found that I shared a compartment with two German women tourists and a Moroccan-French IT teacher. We enjoyed each other’s company and exchange travel experiences, in addition to discussions on Moroccan politics and how the monarchy was holding back social and political change. I noticed that the vacant seats in our compartment had a high turnover of occupants, some from 2nd class carriages to others who did not have any tickets at all. Enforcement of the train travel rules by the ticket checker was clearly missing! 

As we approached Marrakesh, the weather unexpectedly turned for the worse; there were heavy winds and torrential rain which became a storm as we pulled into the station. My travel companion offered to give me a lift in his car, which he had parked near the station, dropping me off part way to my Riad in the Medina (which is closed to motorised traffic).  Getting a taxi for the rest of the way proved to be a challenge, given the bad weather and heavy traffic. 

Getting to the Riad in Marrakesh Medina shall always remain an experience I would rather not remember. Not only was the Riad hard to find, almost everyone I asked either did not know where it was or offered to “guide” me for 10 euros, paid upfront. The rain had slowed down to a light drizzle when I eventually found it. It was well worth the effort: it was a small family run hotel in a private location, down a quiet side lane, with tastefully decorated bedrooms and traditionally styled bathrooms. It was also a short stroll to the Djemma el-Fna, the city’s main square popular with both locals and tourists.

I couldn’t wait to explore the giant square which has been called the greatest “open air theatre” where anything goes.  

Djemma el-Fna by night

By day as I was to find out the next day, it is full of entertainers, snake charmers, fortune tellers, medicine men, tooth pullers and other attractions. But by dusk, as I entered the square, it had become one gigantic open air dining area full of eating stalls lit by gas lanterns, punctuated with various side shows, amidst the plumes of cooking smoke and smells. It is fertile ground for pickpockets and scam artists and almost everyone who has been here had a story to tell.

Before retiring for the night, I wanted to have a “hammam” (bath house) experience, having noticed one used by locals that were walking distance from the hotel. I bought the required scrub mit and black soap at the souk and went in for a full scrub and body massage. As it was aimed at foreigners, language difficulties and poor facilities meant the experience was well short of my expectations.  (Perhaps I should have opted for the much more expensive private hammams designed purely for foreign tourists, with optional extra services on the side.)

Marrakesh, day 1

Breakfast the next morning was taken in the court-yard of the Riad; a beautiful and tranquil setting. After a quick shower, I walked through the Djemma square to experience the day time performances; the square was nothing like the night before. I decided to follow a tourist walk recommended by a popular guide book which took me past the Koutoubia mosque, various souks, to the Mouassine fountain and then onto Ali ben Youseff Mederasa and the Musee de Marrakesh.

The entryway to the Medersa, carries the inscription: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded” certainly lives up to reality. 

It had beautifully carved Atlas cedar cupolas and wooden-lattice screen balconies, while the courtyard displayed multi-coloured zellij walls, stucco archways, cedar windows, and a marble mihrab.

On the way back to the Riad for a siesta, I stopped for a local lunch of Moroccan bread with freshly fried fish and spicy tomato sauce, which appeared to be also popular with some adventurous Asian tourists.   

My fried fish lunch

As I walked past the different souks, all the scenes I witnessed seemed to be vaguely familiar as if I had been there before (even though this was my first trip to Morocco). It made me reflect on the possibility that perhaps I had lived a past life as an Arab trader.

My other insights were: every available free space was turned into a souk and Moroccans made the world’s best salesmen. 

Day 2

After breakfast, I went off to the local bus station to buy tickets for the final leg of my Moroccan odyssey: Ouarzazate (“city without noise”) which lies on the edge of the desert, on a plateau south of the High Atlas Mountains. It used to be a cross road for African traders headed north to Europe and a military outpost during the French Occupation but now is the staging point for tours across the Draa Valley and into the Sahara. It is also a well-known location for international film making studios; apart from Lawrence of Arabia and The Mummy, parts of the TV series, Game of Thrones were also shot here.

After I secured tickets for next day’s 3 pm bus, I decided to visit fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent’s gift to the people of Marrakesh: Jardin Majorelle (gardens) and the electric blue villa which houses the Berber museum.   

There were long ticket lines: one for foreign tourists who pay double the rate and a shorter line for Moroccans and residents. The gardens were mainly devoted to various cacti, palms and bamboo and a shady reprieve from the heat of the city. I took the local bus back to the Djemma square for lunch where I met a Japanese woman on her annual trip of sourcing local handicraft for her store in Kobe, Japan. Nice one here, mixing business with pleasure as she seemed to enjoy Moroccan food.

I was anxious to get back to the Riad as I had asked one of the kitchen staff to buy me a reliable tajin to take back for my sister. As I was travelling with a small suitcase, this was a challenge. The item was not only heavy but fragile (as it was made of clay) and I had to invest in additional packaging to make it suitable for transportation. I wasn’t aware then of the security issues, it would raise in the local airport. 

Marrakesh to Ouarzazate

As I was not leaving until early afternoon, I decided to check out the nearby sights of the Bahia Palace and Saadiah Tombs. Only a small number of the 150 rooms in the Palace are open to the public. It took the better part of an hour to explore these rooms, especially the harem, admiring the floor to ceiling decorations and the vast court yard and gardens. 

Shots of interior of Bahia Palace

The inside

The tombs were only discovered in 1917 and are accessible from a small passage near the Kasbah Mosque. Saadian Sultan Ahmed who died in 1603 spared no expense in building his Italian marble tomb. All other tombs are overshadowed by his mother’s mausoleum in the courtyard, with its carved poetic, but weathered blessings and vigilantly guarded to this day by “spirits in the form of stray cats, mostly black”. 

Part of Saadian tombs

At 3 pm, I boarded the Supratour bus for my 4-hour trip over the Atlas Mountain range to Ouarzazate, a distance of about 200km and crossing the Tizi n’Tichka Pass at an altitude of 2260 meters. I gazed at the spectacular views from my window at the ever-changing landscape, from desert scrub to alpine forest and then barren rocks and low mountains which had a magical quality when it started to rain.

Highway up the Atlas Mountains

The guy sitting next to me threw up with motion sickness and I was glad that I had chosen the security of a reliable bus company for this particular trip, noticing the evidence of less experienced drivers alongside the highway. Despite a stop of more than half an hour in a small village in the High Atlas Mountains, we pulled into town at around 7:45 pm. I walked up to my hotel which was about two blocks away. The receptionist was grumpy and appeared unhappy that I had got a “good deal on the internet”, insisting that I paid cash upfront in euro or MAD at an inflated exchange rate. What a welcome! It was Saturday night but there wasn’t much to do in this small town except to have a meal of couscous, shower and hit the sack.

Ouarzazate, day 1 

The next morning after an early breakfast, I made my way to the local taxi stand with the intention of visiting Zagora, the desert outpost (with the iconic sign of Timbuktu 52 days) where a regional souk is held on Sundays. It was a shared taxi service and all 6 seats in the vehicle had to be occupied before the driver left the rank.  I was the third passenger and got in and waited. After more than an hour, the driver still had only 4 passengers. It was 10:30 am when I decided to hop out. The logistics didn’t make sense: a 3-hour trip plus the challenge of finding my way back.

I explored alternate ways of getting to Zagora without success as most of the local travel agencies were still not open for business. (On the internet, I had been quoted an unrealistic sum for a private tour as a solo traveller).  I decided to take a stroll through this caramel coloured oasis set against a blue African sky; to explore its sights, with the aim of getting to the majestic Taourit Kasbah and Museum. The weekly Sunday market was just getting started as I walked past and noticed several museums along the way were shut for the weekend. I stopped at several handicraft shops to admire the range of goods. An enterprising shopkeeper engaged me with his stories and invited me to sit down for some mint tea. He spoke English well and his well-stocked shop had unique antiques from different parts of the country and the African continent. I felt morally obliged to buy something, settling on an antique Berber rug which he offered for what appeared to me to be a princely sum. I offered him a fraction of the asking price and left.

Views from the Taourit Kasbah

The sun was blazing hot as I got to the complex housing the Taourit Kasbah and local handicraft souks. The 300-room Kasbah originally built in the 19th century was a backdrop for a number of movies (Gladiator, Prince of Persia) and had UNESCO funding to restore parts of the inner sanctum. There is maze of stairways to the top where there is a prayer room with an original ceiling. A group of “guides” offered their services for ten times the cost of entry which I declined and was mocked for.  (photo 40:5614

After the Kasbah, I walked through the Berber village alongside and ended up buying a beautiful gold coloured silk blanket after speaking with the weaver.

In the evening, I walked down to the town centre and square for dinner and to buy some souvenirs.

Ouarzazate, day 2

This was my last full day in Ouarzazate as I was flying off to Casablanca the next day. I was beginning to feel the tiring effects of my journey through Morocco and was looking forward to getting home. However, I kept thinking about the Berber rug that I had not bought the day earlier (as I did not have enough money with me then). I headed back to my friendly shopkeeper and after extensive haggling, we agreed on a price for the rug and I looked for a bank to change money. I think he had the better part of the deal.

In the evening, I enjoyed a cup of English tea with milk at a local restaurant after having made finalised arrangements for a taxi pick-up from my hotel to the airport early next morning.

Ouarzazate to Casablanca

The taxi was on time although the hotel failed to deliver on its promise of an early breakfast. On arrival at the airport, the taxi driver demanded double the rate I had agreed to with his wife the previous day. I had to pay up and headed into the terminal for my check-in. Whilst waiting in the departure lounge, I was called up by security to empty my checked-in a suitcase as the X-ray scanner has identified a suspicious object inside. It was the base of the tajin! The small airport had no refreshment facilities as I longed for a cup of coffee. Whilst the flight took off on time, I was disappointed that no refreshments were served on the hour-long flight.

Upon arrival in Casablanca, I grabbed a coffee and waited patiently for the next five hours for my international flight to Dubai and onto to Kuala Lumpur.

There was much I had learned from this trip both about the country and myself.

The next travel bug will hopefully be with either wandering Dave or culture-king Ash who are both in some part of the world again (I last saw Dave posting pics in Portugal and I know Ash is up in Malaysia somewhere). 

I’ll be travelling to Byron Bay myself in July for another Splendour in the Grass special but I’m hoping that one of the guys will beat me to that post. 

Take care all and I hope this post has given you a good reason to wander somewhere special.

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