After a relatively short flight from Belgium, we arrived in
what felt like another world Tuesday afternoon. On landing at the Casablanca
airport, even the simple task of getting Moroccan cash proved to be a 30 minute
challenge laced with clueless “information” desks and broken ATMs. We spent the
first night in Casablanca, wanting to at least see what the modern heart of the
country looked like before exploring more traditional areas. The city is
basically a product of European colonialism, with the population growing from
just 10,000 in the late 19th century to about 5 million today.
Having been planned and built from scratch over the past hundred years, the
city looks very different from its ancient counterparts elsewhere in the country
with wide boulevards, tram systems and square apartment blocks. However, at
street level the city is as vibrant as anywhere else in the country. Cafes are
packed with (almost exclusively) men of all ages sipping coffee after work and
the streets are filled with young people socializing around small restaurants.
There are local’s bars as well, but they seemed to be secretive little
establishments with no windows looking in. The park in front of our hotel was
mostly occupied by women and their children; in some cases the husband was
there as well. We did not have time to get outside our inner city neighborhood
but our one night walking around and sitting in the park was enough to tell us
we weren’t in Belgium anymore.
The next morning we arrived at the train station bound for Marrakech. It was already hot and there was not a cloud in the sky. We got there fifteen minutes early, got a spot in the shade, and waited. And waited. After waiting some more, the train rolled in looking ready to burst with flesh pressed tight against windows. Realizing that this meant our four hour train ride would be spent standing inside the clown car under direct sunlight and intense heat, I started to panic a little. Why again didn’t we spend the extra $10 on first class tickets? This hesitation gave all of the Moroccans the chance they needed to crowd around the doorways in front of us so tightly that the arriving passengers had trouble getting out. After much pushing and squeezing, we finally stepped into the train and were lucky enough to stake out a place to put our backpacks and stand near the window. The ride turned out somewhat better than my claustrophobic and heat stroked expectations, as there was just enough air conditioning and we were only single-file in the three foot wide hallway. After a couple hours we even got a place to sit.
We ultimately took three long intercity rides on Moroccan trains and the system really isn’t bad. Our first experience was our worst and as long as you plan for up to an hour of delay you’ll get where you’re going just fine. The train stations in Marrakech, Fes and Tangier are actually very modern and the extra $7-$15 for a first class ticket goes a long way.
On arriving in Marrakech, we had the new challenge of finding our riad (a Moroccan style B&B) in the maze of the medina. The medina is the medieval city of multi-story buildings with streets so narrow that from above it probably looks like a big lump of cheese with hundreds of little cuts in it. Needless to say, cars are not allowed. The cab driver dropped us off at the edge of the medina and pointed us in the right direction. Thankfully my good friend Google Maps with GPS led us to within a few hundred feet of the place before we finally allowed one of the “friendly” locals to show us the way. There is a certain group of people in tourist-heavy cities like Marrakech and Fes that supplement their living by attaching themselves to foreigners and asking for a tip at some point. This middle-aged gentleman took us into what could only be described as a tunnel off the real street and, after a slit of open sky appeared above, around a few twists and turns. At one point we saw a piece of cardboard holding the raw intestines of some animal placed in front of someone’s door and started to wonder where we were going. Sure enough, we arrived at the right address, knocked on the door, and were let in. We were a little worried at this point about the quality of our riad. We walked into the dark entryway and to the left opened up a sunlit paradise complete with a fountain, flowery vines on the walls and gorgeous Moroccan patterns throughout. Riad Magie d’Orient was beautiful and the owners / employees couldn’t have been better. Ezlan, the woman who first greeted us, was especially wonderful and befriended Carla despite the language barrier.
After settling in we went for a walk in the medina looking for dinner. Most of the Marrakech medina is one giant marketplace, packed with stalls specializing in goods as varied as olives, spices, kid’s clothes, chess boards, scarves, bowls, dresses and rugs. Curiously there was not much in the way of electronics, which added to the authentic atmosphere. The quickest glance at a stall’s products is an open invitation for the proprietor to walk up and tell you all about what you looked at and everything else he sells. Most shop owners speak surprisingly good English but aren’t too familiar with the word “no.” If there is one thing Moroccans are not, it is lazy. We ate at a great little restaurant where we had our first tagine and some merguez sausage for maybe $15 all-in. After dinner we relaxed in the beautiful courtyard, happy to be in a quiet place.
The next day I started feeling under the weather after breakfast and made my way back to bed. Later we went out into the medina again where Carla bought some beautiful scarves. The baking heat sent me back to the riad while Carla got a nice hammam massage. That night I was feeling a little better and we walked to the open square of the medina which was filled with food stalls. This was a truly unique scene, with thousands of people milling around a square that had been empty that day and all types of food being served from snails to sausage to plump sheep’s brains.
Friday morning we found our (first class) seats on the train to Fes and settled in for the 7+ hour journey. The Moroccan countryside is very beautiful, much like California, and I was very glad we decided to travel around the country by train. We found our riad in Fes after only a little trouble and were again surprised by the beauty of the courtyard and how amazingly helpful the staff was. Jalal, who seemed to run the place, spoke perfect English with a British accent and sat us down for a 30 minute geography lesson on the city over tea. We walked around the medina that afternoon (supposedly the largest preserved medieval city in the world) and found it to be much more local and residential than Marrakech, which was mostly markets. There are said to be over 400,000 people living in the Fes medina, making it a large city before counting the 1.5 million additional residents outside the medina.
Saturday we decided to spring for a driving tour around Fes, going up into the Berber region in the Atlas Mountains. Our guide was very friendly and eager to tell us about his family on the drive. I’m glad we weren’t at the wheel because Moroccan drivers are easily the craziest drivers I’ve ever seen (our guide included). We learned and were reminded several times that a two lane road actually can support three cars side by side (one going the other way) as long as they’re close enough for the drivers to give each other a high-five with a bent elbow.
Despite rainy and windy weather, we got to see much more of the mountainous countryside and got some great views at several scenic overlooks. At one such viewpoint, the guide had lent us his umbrella but it turned inside out in the wind. We tried to fix it for a couple minutes but it was done for. Before I could say anything, he grabbed the umbrella and pitched it as far as he could over the cliff. We found it to be a very interesting cultural difference—while some Americans or western Europeans might throw garbage off a scenic cliff I doubt many would do so while leading a tour. It’s unfortunate because we did see a lot of litter along railroads and highways that would have been much more beautiful without it. Later that afternoon we drove up to Parc Nationale d’Ifrane and saw some figures moving in the trees. As we got closer they turned out to be a group of at least 25 monkeys running around and swinging through the trees. We were thrilled to find such a large group of wild monkeys and took way too many pictures. After a few minutes, it became clear that these monkeys lived off of handouts from visitors which the park condoned. While this might not be the best way to support endangered wildlife, we joined in and gave them some bread so we could interact with them.
That night we went back to the restaurant recommended by our riad and had yet another awesome tagine. We were off to Tangier the next morning en route to Spain. We found Tangier to be a very interesting beach city that is clearly Moroccan (most of the women on the beach were fully covered including head scarves) but was also influenced by its proximity to Europe. The view from the beach is beautiful and we were glad to have a few extra hours there. By the time we got on the ferry we knew we would miss Morocco but were also very ready to be back in Europe. It was a great six days and we learned a ton about a country we hadn’t thought about much before, but the beaches of southern Spain were sounding pretty good. The food, the friendly people, the beautiful countryside, and the truly foreign feel of Morocco will definitely stick with us for years.
// eurotrip to date: 5 flights, 1 bus, 5 trains, 5 countries