Wednesday 13 July
Another trip to the Marseilles airport – we boarded a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. The idea of visiting Morocco came about from a book I listed to recently called “the Flame of the Resistance’, about a woman from the southern states of the US, who went to New York to make it as a singer/dancer but couldn’t make it there so went to Paris. There she became a sensation in the nightlife scene. During her time in Paris, she became friendly with a couple of ex-Navy Commanders, both from well-heeled families, one called Dunbar and the other Fleming. Both worked for British Intelligence. When the war came along, now living at Chateau des Milandes, situated just north of Toulouse, she worked as a spy with the French Resistance, helping downed Allied pilots to escape from France. Eventually she had to escape herself because the Gestapo was on to her, first to Spain, and then establishing herself in Morocco, which was then under the rule of the French, who’d signed a deal with the Nazis. There, from both Casablanca and Marrakech, she supplied information to the Allies, especially in regard to Operation Torch, where a combined US and British Invasion of Morocco took place.
Landing in Casablanca we had a bit of trouble finding the driver that the hotel had sent to pick us up, but after a few phone calls to the hotel we located him and proceeded in a very comfortable car for the journey to the Hotel Casablanca. This Art Deco style hotel has rooms leading off a square atrium with a massive chandelier hanging in the middle from the fifth floor – I was sorely tempted to leap out to it and slide down.
Thursday 14 July
We had a lazy start to the day, enjoying the hotel breakfast (Sylvia especially enjoyed the variety of cakes on offer) and appreciating the fabulous Art Deco decor in the hotel.
We had booked a driver to show us around Casablanca. First we headed to the Quartier Habous, which is an area several hundred years old with lots of quaint stone buildings and many archways. Unlike in some countries the shopkeepers were very polite. When we said no, they said ‘enjoy your stay in Morocco’ with none of the hassle we have experienced in other parts of the world.
Next we headed to the Sqala restaurant situated behind an old fortress with muzzle-loaded canons still on display. As we walked in there were rows of tagines on each side, sitting over troughs filled with hot embers. Looking through the menu, just about everything that had meat in it was bloody lamb shanks. As a child, being raised on a number of farms, when we killed a sheep for house mutton we fed the shanks to the dogs. I ordered a lamb tagine, which turned up with a bloody shank in it and it didn’t taste any good cooked that way either (although Sylvia enjoyed it). We enjoyed a wander through the streets behind the restaurant.
After lunch we drove to the city’s main mosque, Hassan II. Opened in 1993, 10,000 labourers and 6,000 craftsmen built it over a period of six years. It’s the third largest mosque in the world. After we bought our ticket we were grouped together with other English speakers and a guide with a straw hat and his sunglasses on backwards, who spoke 7-8 languages, proceeded to tell us that underneath the large area we were walking on was parking for 4000 cars. During Ramadan, some 80,000 people kneel ont he carpets laid out on this area and another 25,000 pray inside the mosque. We entered the mosque through one of the many titanium clad doors, through into the main foyer where we removed our shoes and put them into the little bag we were given. The hall is about 200m long and about 100m long with concrete mezzanines clad in hand-carved cedar with piles going some 60m into the sea-bed and columns extending up to the 65m high roof clad in marble and hand carved stucco, made with granite dust and egg whites. Water flows down troughs through the centre of the mosque. We strolled down to the end facing Mecca with its red lines on the carpet to ensure everyone is lined up properly. The guide pointed out a portion of the ceiling, some 3,000 sq. meters that opens up to let air in as it can get a bit stuffy with 25,000 people in there. He also pointed out a large chair where the teacher sits. Then we headed into the minaret which is some 200m tall, where we descended some steps that took us into the washrooms downstairs. With some 400 fountains, this is where the worshippers come to clean themselves before prayer.
I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the vastness of this place and the photographs don’t do it justice. It is an all-year round active mosque where people come to pray at various times of the day and tourists are fitted in at various times in between.
The mosque visit over we jumped in the car and we headed south along the coast (the Corniche) giving us a good idea of the expanse of this city of some 3 million people. All the way along there were thousands of people bathing in the warm waters of the Atlantic and a continuous number of bars, restaurants and takeaway joints, with the drive finishing at the enormous Morocco Mall. It was quite interesting to see the colours in the city with child care centres and junior schools painted in bright colours. Bougainvillea grew in a variety of colours in both manicured and un manicured hedges around the city.
Like most large cities in the world there is a massive amount of construction going on. Lots of the older parts of the city are in Art Deco style from the 30’s and 40’s.
On returning to the hotel we enjoyed a very good massage before settling in for an early night.
Friday 15 July
We rose early to another fantastic breakfast. At 8am we were on the road again with our driver, heading southeast to Marrakech, which has changed considerably since the 1940’s. Now a two-lane highway, as good as any European road, with a speed limit of 120kph links the two cities. As we headed away from the city we noticed huge areas that had been cultivated though nothing is yet growing. Periodically there would be a mob of sheep, goats and cattle with their herder close by, often sitting under a tree in the shade. The odd donkey dragged a cart around the place. The hay had been cut and stacked, mostly in neat stacks, often covered with canvas or plastic. The further south we went the more arid the land became – it still appeared that every bit of land that could be cultivated had been although there was still no sign of anything growing. There was a large tractor in one place towing a large tank of water. A few fields had people working in them but we couldn’t tell from the car exactly what they were doing.
Leaving Casablanca it was a cool 26 degrees. Jut over two hours later arriving in Marrakech it was well over 30. Our driver dropped us at a cafe just outside the Medina (old city), near to the Bahia Palace. After a coffee, we headed into the palace, which with its tiled walls and floors and no furniture appeared more like a massive bath-house than a palace, albeit ornate. In one of the rooms a man sat carving mosaic tiles with a little hammer.
After touring through the many rooms in the palace, and, after a bit of negotiation we caught a horse and cart. This took us on a good look around the Medina, past the Royal place areas and the Koutoubia gardens to the main Jamma el Fna square. This square was much quieter than we had expected but there was still a lot of activity with music playing and snake charmers charming. After stepping off the carriage the first person to approach us was a bloody snake charmer who insisted on putting a water snake around my neck and getting Sylvia to take photos. Of course at the end of that he wanted money… he had a number of snakes there including a cobra, a few bavard vipers and several pythons. I asked him if they removed the fangs and he said no – that’s not good for them. We throw them in a sack and pour water on them and that keeps them nice and calm!
Moving on from there we passed many other stalls avoiding the henna artists and people trying to get us to take photos with their monkeys. We climbed some stairs to a terrace cafe where we enjoyed lunch and a drink with a view over the square.
After lunch we carried on out of the square and into the Medina with many of the stalls closing up for the Friday prayers. Wanting to explore some of the time alley-like streets we headed into a narrow passageway and had only gone 30-40 metres when a guy stopped me and said it’s closed. We later worked out this means it’s a dead end. He insisted we should head in the other direction to see the Berber markets as they stay open on Fridays. He took us back onto the Main Street and was pointing us in the direction when ‘broken leg’ went past sitting on a motorcycle without the engine running, using his left leg to push it along like a scooter. The man stopped ‘broken leg’ and told us to follow him to the Berber markets. We followed him for some time, twisting and turning through small alleys and streets.
I noticed several men walking along with small rugs on their heads. I thought that was a good way to keep the sun off their heads as it was getting quite warm. Shortly we rounded a corner to find a whole lot of men praying on their little rugs on straw mats on the street – they were prayer mats they had been carrying. No one seemed to mind as we continued along past them. There were literally hundred and hundreds of men praying on the streets surrounding the mosque which was obviously fill to overflowing.
At this point, ‘Broken leg’ abandoned his motorbike and took us to see Bab Debagh (The Tannery Gate). Then he said, come on and I’ll show you a tannery. A couple more alleys later and he introduces ‘Smooth Dude’, with his slicked back hair and bunches of mint which he crushes up and gives to each of us to eliminate the stench of the tannery. ‘Smooth Dude’ guided us around the tannery explaining how the Berber people come down from the mountains. Some tan the skins, some make cloth from the hair and in this area there were hundreds of little ponds covered in rugs and skins where the tanning process was taking place. Lots of little locked rooms stood around the tannery. The door was ajar in one, which ‘Smooth Dude’ led us into, where a man was stripping the hair off a camel skin. The tour over and ‘Smooth Dude’ led us around the corner and into a shop, saying something (probably ‘here’s some more suckers for you’) to the proprietor. We were taken to one room and shown leather pouffs made of different types of hide. He explained that in the summer they keep their winter clothes in them and vice versa. Next stop was the rug room where a man laid out rug after rug at the instruction of our super salesman. Eventually we saw one made of camel hair that we both liked and, after some negotiation and some pretty hefty wrapping, super salesman was a bit richer and we were a bit poorer. We rang the driver who met us outside the Bab Debagh.
The above photo is how the tanneries look at a different time of year.
Next stop was the Yves Saint Laurent museum. Apparently he hung out here a bit in his early days. It had a range of garments and materials made famous by YSL but unfortunately no pictures were allowed, which was pointed out to me by the security guard as I raised the camera.
As we left town at about 3:30 in the afternoon, the outside temperature was showing as 44.5 degrees. It cooled considerably as we headed northwest back to Casablanca, where it was a comfortable 22 degrees when we arrived.
We spent the evening sitting on the balcony overlooking the pool enjoying a pizza and a glass of wine.
Saturday 16 July
At 8am our driver was waiting ready to take us northeast this time to the city of Fes. We headed about 100kms up the coast to Rabat before heading inland. The country in this part of Morocco is a lot more arable. The whole ~300km journey consisted of nice arable farmland and big forests of olive trees, some up to 10km long. (Too big to be olive groves). There’s also lots of horticulture in this part of the country, very different to the arid land to the south.
Arriving in Fes we drove down the Main Street with it’s wide median adorned with palm trees, water features and large green walkways. Soldiers armed with assault rifles were dotted along the avenue, something we hadn’t seen anywhere else. Perhaps someone important was coming to town?
We were dropped off at the Blue Gate and headed into the Medina. As we walked through the gate we were approached by about half a dozen people holding up cards and offering to be our guide. We politely declined, except for one particularly persistent bloke that I had to impolitely decline. Lined with shops this, I presume, the main alley meandered downhill. After exploring a few side streets we stopped at Cafe Clock, which was well down a narrow alley, opening out into what was once a courtyard with a large set of trumpets suspended in the middle. This place is famous for its camel burgers but it was too early for lunch so we climbed the narrow stairways, with arms brushing each side, to the level below the top where we enjoyed a cup of coffee. Then we wandered up to the roof for its amazing views over the Medina. The staff were really friendly.
Back on the main alley, we continued our downward journey and were stopped by a man with a donkey who wanted us to take his photo. I took the photo, smiled at him and continued walking. Sylvia then noticed he was following us and asking for money. I was a bit over that trick having learned the lesson from Snake Charmer. We ducked down a few side-alleys to avoid him, declining numerous offers of visits to a tannery.
Eventually we came across the metalwork area with numerous shops selling brass, silver and copper ware.Soon we were seated in a shop where Sylvia purchased a copper tray and a copper, silver and brass teapot.
We continued to wander the alleys heading for the nearest gate, Bab Rcif. A young man approached us offering to show us the way back to the Gate. Sylvia made it quite clear to him that we didn’t want to pay him any money and that we were very happy wandering on our own. We went up and down alleys, around in circles, up and down more steps and then he explained he was taking us to the Blue Gate. Eventually we left him, but not until he had demanded money because he had helped us. The old tourist con didn’t work this time… we held our ground and headed to the Ruined Garden Restaurant where we enjoyed a nice lunch.
Looking at the map we were very close to the Blue Gate so we arranged for our driver to meet us there. When we got into the car the temperature was showing 42.5 degrees!
We headed back out through the town aiming for Meknes, one of Morocco’s old imperial cities, on the way back to Casablanca. As we made our way towards the old town we passed several areas walled off with embattlement type walls. Arriving at the Medina we found, disappointingly, that the whole thing was closed and under reconstruction. Once again the mighty tourist dollar is reflected in the reconstruction of these historic cities.I am sure in a few years it will be a stunning place to visit.
We relaxed in the back of the car as the driver took us back to the oasis of our hotel. It was interesting to see along the way that there are whole towns being built along the way with hundreds of buildings, many painted in the bright colours so present in this part of the world, that don’t yet look to be inhabited. Our driver for the three days was excellent – a very polite and considerate driver, consistently cruising along at 125 mph in his very comfortable Merc. This made for a very comfortable trip for us.
Back at the hotel we enjoyed another excellent massage.
Sunday 17 July
We enjoyed a relaxing breakfast before checking around midday out and heading to the airport for our return flight to Marseilles. Hotel Casablanca made for an excellent stay with fantastic staff and outstanding service.
Overall we have found the people in Morocco to be very friendly and welcoming and in general terms apart from a few exceptions have been very polite and courteous. It has been a really great place to visit – Sylvia in particular has been entranced by all the different doors.