Number one was the people. It’s not often that the people impress us most of all, but in Morocco, people were open, friendly, helpful, talkative and welcoming. Just walking through a market, four or five people would say “welCOME”, this likely being the only English they knew. On the trains, on the streets, in the restaurants, people talk to you. If you stand still long enough, they will offer you a glass of tea.
Through the Victory Gate in Volubilis, 2300 BC
Pollution is horrendous. Black diesel fumes cloud Casablanca, and everyone coughs. Sanitation is not a priority. Bathrooms in general are to be avoided where they exist at all, which isn’t often, except in the best restaurants and hotels.The pollution in Marrakech was so bad you could practically swish it around, and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains were essentially invisible. At dusk, headlights made visibility worse, as the light hit the smog. We never sat outside at cafes, it was that bad.
We stayed in Casablanca, geographically centered for day trips to the other locales. Casablanca is a hardworking commercial city, not dependent on tourism, except in the Medina, where a thousand small vendors sell mass produced trinkets. They walk beside you, start up a conversation in Arabic, French or English, and guide you into their stores, or the store of a friend, depending on what you answer. Everything is negotiable, and that’s a great part of the game.
Our hotel was the Royal Mansour, the best in town, a roaring twenties, elegant, pleasant and comfortable place to base, two blocks from a train station, two blocks from the Medina, three blocks from the food market. Also three blocks from the Tourist Office, which is well worth skipping. (There’s actually nothing there, other than a couple of staff who might be able to answer you if they got off the phone.) Our view was overlooking the medina, the market center of every town, directly at the giant Hassan II mosque, which looks different all day long. Had we come a few years earlier, the rooftops probably would have been charming. As it is, satellite dishes covered the view like clover flowers. Only not as pretty.
Click any image to see it full size.
Casablanca: view from the Royal Mansour at sunset, and at noon.
The guide books have far more information than the tourist office, but they are also quite wrong. The real action in Casa is in the Quartier des Habbous, not the medina, as the guides focus on for every locale. The medinas all have the same wares all over the country, but Habbous is where Casablancans shop. Block after block of market, spreading out as far as the eye can see (not especially far in Casa) and in all directions. At the top of the hill is the Royal Palace, and the modern medina the French built in the 50s, in the romanticized image of Morocco. Very pleasant, but all the same souvenirs. The real market below is filled with spices piled into perfect pyramids two feet high, endless, fragrant barrels of all kinds of olives, bakeries, clothing stands – one stop shopping if you live there. Huge, huge energy, dense crowds, narrow spaces available for passage – it’s where the real Morocco is.
The other area the guidebooks ignore is the commercial center. We found the best bakeries on rue 11 janvier, a downtown thoroughfare that gets shut down to vehicle traffic for several periods on Fridays, as people bring out their prayer mats and worship as close to the imam as possible, spreading out in all directions (but the stores remain open). Religious Muslims pray five times a day, and the muezzins exhort them to prayers from loudspeakers in the mosque towers all over town, sounding for all the world like simultaneous air raid sirens.
As long as we’re on guidebook inadequacies, let me say the Moroccan Dirham is worth 8.3 to the dollar. We worked with banks, stores, and street money changers, and they all had the same rate. No extra fees, no ripoffs, just a straight trade. And exchange is available all over the town. I wish that information was more widely available.
Casablanca, Quartier des Habbous: Olives and spices galore.
One last slam at the guidebooks – the restaurants. All wrong. Here’s the real story. It’s really difficult to find Moroccan restaurants in Casablanca! You have to work at it. The restauranrts are French, Italian, pizza, and cafes. If you want Moroccan, go to Imichil (27, rue Vizir Tazi, off boulevard Hassan II). From the grimy street, there is only a solid wooden door and a tiny, unlit sign. But the door opens into a dazzling brass and silver palace, structured like a small Manhattan eatery, with a second floor loft. Even the ceiling is a metallic spectacle. And the food was great. Number two for Moroccan was Restaurant des Fleurs, (boulevard Forces des Armees Royales) which happened to be right across from our hotel. For tourists, Basmane (the only one with a website) is number one, on the ultra hip Corniche strip. The food is fine, but the Moroccan atmosphere is clearly overdone for the tourist, and it appeared the whole strip was like that. Fake Chic. We always prefer the places the natives appreciate. We were also most pleasantly surprised by Casa’s only Indian restaurant, India Palace, (23 rue Ahmed Al Moqri, off boulevard Anfa in Quartier Racine) with huge tables, and a fabulous décor featuring a metal peacock, whose tail consumed an entire wall, about 15 feet high. They really work hard on the décor at better restaurants. They clearly want the experience to be memorable, and they succeed. It was a continual adventure. If you want to meet locals, Taverne du Dauphin, (boulevard Houphet Boigny) facing out from the Medina, is a seafood restaurant with communal tables. The Royal Mansour’s restaurants were also spectacular, a 33 foot atrium ceiling in one, and a desert tent with comfy low couches in the other. Excellent Moroccan dishes there as well, with impeccable service to boot. None of these were listed in our books or in my internet research. Dinner begins no earlier than 8 PM.
Casablanca is a port city, and you would think it would be breezy and damp. In fact, it is winter, and it should be cool and damp. But we were blessed with a solid two weeks of sunshine, no breeze, and temperatures touching 70 every day. Global warming, you know. Very pleasant, but it meant the pollution was even worse than normal. The noise level is also quite amazing, to the point of having to keep our window closed to get any sleep.
Casa’s little red taxis run all night, and are an inexpensive way to get around. Most trips cost less than three dollars, and often less. There is no place for luggage in these subcompacts, so they all have a square wooden platform on the roof for bags. Interestingly, every city has its own color of Petit Taxi. Red in Casa, light blue in Rabat, bright blue in Meknes, beige in Marrakech… Cool. For longer trips, large white Mercedes Grand Taxis will take you for several times the price.
This year, the big winter holidays (Eid al Adha) fell three weeks early, on New Year’s weekend, making it the biggest travel time of the year for Moroccans. This led us to unexpected adventures. Part of Eid’s tradition is having to slaughter a sheep, and the medina was full of them. People were carting them, walking them, dragging them and occasionally carrying them home. You could see them in the back of cars all over town. Then on the first full day, when the city fell silent (and the pollution abated!), you could hear them Baa-ing from apartments as you walked the empty streets. Never had that experience before! The next day was gory, as blood-splattered men in white aprons went from apartment to apartment, doing the dirty work. Children then take the sheep’s horns and burn them to a crisp in the streets, making for a rather unpleasant atmosphere on an otherwise quiet day.
Eid also made the train system groan under the strain. On our trip to Meknes, we had to stand for an hour until we got seats – ten of us in a compartment for eight, with the inevitable baby that had to be passed around and amused. Unlike American mothers, who pack at least one extra bag for life support, Moroccan mothers carry the baby, period. Instead of endless colorful plastic toys, Moroccans distract children by snapping their fingers, with the same undependable results. (Speaking of babies, the DW Rule held throughout the trip: On any extended trip, if there is a screaming baby on board, it will be within two rows of me. True story.) The train stations typically do not identify themselves, so you have to judge your station by the amount of time the schedule indicated – adjusted for the hour and a half the train was late in the first place. First class was no improvement over second, except the seats were cloth instead of fake leather. Same compartment structure, same terrible bathrooms, and legroom was essentially zero in both classes. Usually, there was only one first class car, and about ten second class cars.
Marrakech is well inland, at the base of the Atlas Mountains, which we could not really see for the pollution. The photo in the guidebooks is much better. It’s a real tourist trap, with modern hotels, clubs and boulevards. It’s the Miami of Morocco, where all the stars of French cinema, comedy and music build their getaway palaces. We hired a Petit Taxi for the day, and got the tour of the ramparts, various sections of the medina, a couple of artisan co-ops (there are supposed to be 40,000 artisans working in the medina), the famous Bab Aganou Gate. The guide book gave the impression the railway station was right across from the medina, but that was way off. The medina itself is the size of a city, with 5000 vendors. It would take a week to walk once you got there, and frankly, we were getting medina’d out. Same stuff everywhere.
So, on to Meknes, a lovely mountaintop city where despite the same horrendous diesel, the air was pretty clear. The medina vendors in Meknes are loud, louder than anywhere, hawking their wares forcefully. But the real reason we went to Meknes was because it is the gateway to Volubilis.
Volubilis is a 2300 year old town, the ruins of which are available to all to walk around and climb in and out of. This is not just the ruins of some Roman temple from 150 AD, like you find in western Europe. This is 2300 BC you are traipsing through like you lived there. Beautifully positioned at the base of the mountains, overlooking a lush valley, Volubilis is a truly inspiring afternoon. Perfectly quiet. Perfectly clear. We couldn’t stay to sunset (we had to catch the last train back) but the sun was clearly heading for a spectacular setting through the temple columns and the gateway arch. On the way back, a Moroccan soldier struck up a conversation in the compartment, and talked to me for three hours. If I feigned sleep, he nudged my arm. He told us where to go and what to see, his hobby of cooking and researching traditional Moroccan cuisine, and how he would like to set up a website for it. I told him how and we compared notes on the world. Imagine that in North America.
The only other experience of ours that comes close is Bali, where everyone smiled and was eager to help. The influence of Islam was clear, but the teenagers in the middle class sections were like any western kids. Fourteen year old girls jammed the multiplex by the ocean, all wearing skintight jeans, short jackets, and long dark hair. No veils there. In the older parts of town, there was much more traditional dress, for both men and women.
Casablanca Medina Spices
"Snow capped Atlas Mountains" behind Marrackech
Where Poinsettias grow on trees
Water Seller and friend.
800 year old Bab Aganou, Marrakech
Clock tower at Casablanca Medina on Eid,
with pollution visibly receding.
Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, an hour by train north along the coast from Casablanca. Graceful, relatively clean and obviously wealthier than any other city we saw. The stunning Kasbah (fortress) at the top of the hill overlooking the Atlantic and river mouth is all done in blue and white, from its Portuguese period. 3000 people actually live there, plying its cobblestone network of alleys. The Andalusian gardens provided our first encounter with poinsettia trees. A disproportionate number of our best photos came from our day in Rabat.
So Morocco is a wide mixture of grit, grime, ancient, old and modern. It is hard to live in Morocco; our hats go off to those who do. It was real work for us to learn it and experience it. And more than well worth it. Another tremendous trip. Our first to Africa, and more to come, InchAllah.
Volubilis: Massive birds' nests over ancient columns