Escapade to Morocco

Before I moved to Spain I promised myself that I would use my relocation as an opportunity to visit Morocco, over the Easter holiday I took this opportunity. Having been forced to adjust to a Spanish salary my trip was going to be in true traveller spirit, on a cheap budget, luxuries would only be found in the places I visited and the adventures that I would go on.

 

My journey began at Granada bus station where I took a rail replacement service to Antequerra before transferring onto a train route that passed by the scenic Los Alcornocales national park before I was deposited in Algeciras, a rather dull and rough port town. I walked into the ferry port and after some time boarded my ferry service to Tangier Med Port. The ferry journey was brief but Tangier Med port is inconveniently located 50km from Tangier where I would stay the night. I had read about a white coach service that left from outside the port on the main road. I followed some Spanish campers, suspecting they were heading for the budget bus, out of the port and to the main road. It was at this point that I was approached by a couple of weather-worn Moroccan men who tried to sell me some cannabis resin (that looked distinctly like compacted mud), I had been in the country for less than ten minutes. Resisting their poor sales technique, but welcoming their information that this was indeed the bus stop, I waited. My luck was in and the rather ramshackle coach arrived. I got on board sat down, watched everyone pay their fare and felt confused because the bus conductor hadn’t ask me for any money, I wasn’t sure if the Spanish campers had paid for me or if it was included in the ferry ticket.

After trekking from the bus station, via the train station to buy a ticket for Marrakech, to the medina and avoiding the mild hassling of questionable souls on the waterfront I quickly discovered my hostel for the night. I was welcomed by Abdul, the receptionist, who swiftly checked me in and made me some fresh mint tea. I had a nap, my journey had begun at six o’clock in the morning.

Waking to an empty room I felt hunger pangs and I headed out through the medina in search of nourishment. I found myself in Place du 9 Avril 1947, a central square where people seemed to gather to chew the cud. Looking lost it was here that I heard someone shout my name. Not quite believing it I swivelled round, seeing no familiar faces. My name rang out a second time and this is when I saw Abdul, the receptionist from the hostel. He asked me what I was doing and when I said looking for food he kindly offered to take me to a place he knew and maybe to grab a drink later.

As we walked back into the medina it became apparent that Abdul knew everyone, the traders, the cafe owners and so on, we didn’t walk ten metres without being greeted by someone. We went through the tight alleys to a place I would never have found on my own. At this innocuous restaurant I had a feast for virtually nothing. Chicken samosas with a sweet dusting, Moroccan ‘khobz’ bread with dips, chicken tagine and a desert of fresh strawberries and oranges dusted with cinnamon. Following my feast we went to a local hideout called One Bar above the medina on the hill, inside was a tiny smokey bar decorated with a variety of silly English platitudes and maths problems but full of atmosphere and chat. This was certainly not the reserved side of Morocco where alcohol is scarce and where women are only seen with parents or husbands. There was group of attractive girls dressed for a night out as they would be in Paris or Berlin, the final day of the six nations was on a small screen in the corner and the waiters and Abdul spoke with loose tongues. Despite my tiredness I was already losing the misguided imagery that I had conjured up while waiting for the holiday to come round.

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The following day I was up early to catch an early train to Marrakech. Feeling typically frugal I walked the thirty minute route to the train station and took up my first class seat (only a fraction more than second class and a guaranteed reserved seat). The train was scheduled to leave at around 8 a.m. but we remained in the station for three hours as the line was repaired at some point further down the line. Information was sparse and I only found out was going on by talking to some gentlemen on the platform, however after having been dropped off in the chaotic bus station yesterday I was at least comforted by the relaxed nature of the train station.

When the train eventually left we crawled along slightly inland from the coast to Rabat and then to Casablanca where I would have to change. This initial train journey,although slow, and interspersed with frequent stoppages in the middle of nowhere was quite interesting. The landscape was unfamiliar and my eyes wandered across the plains at the often well-tended agricultural landscape. I found it quite strange that there seemed to be fields but no physical boundaries to prevent livestock (goats and some odd cows) from roaming. This meant that every herd was attended to by a farmer or young child and an accompanying dog, often sat twiddling their thumbs in the middle of nowhere. It looked awfully lonely yet incredibly peaceful.

Travelling through towns brought occasional passengers, one town appeared to have a donkey and cart taxi service that ferried customers from the remote station to the distant town, other towns brought kids throwing stones at the train.

The change in Casablanca was a nightmare, predictably I had missed my connecting train but arrived at a convenient time to board another service. My reserved seat ticket was predictably now an unreserved one but despite a bit of shuffling I managed to acquire myself another first class seat, which was a relief as it was peak time in Casablanca and second class was a horror show that my travel weary body wanted no part of.

I arrived in Marrakech late, around eleven p.m. a mere fifteen hour journey. I walked out of the train station and negotiated a reasonable fair with a frail old man in an aged taxi on the main road that stood out amongst the more modern ones that were queued up in the rank behind me. We made it unscathed, although there was a close call,  to my riad on the edge of the medina. I checked in and passed out.

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The previous evening I had hoped to explore Marrakech at night but my late arrival prevented this and so I faced a crammed day in Marrakech before the next days trip to Essaouira. With this in mind I was quite displeased to be woken at 5 a.m. by the call to prayer, my bedroom window being opposite a local mosque. If you had shouted in my ear from six inches it wouldn’t have been as loud as the hoarse chords of the imam and his hacking cough that he also seemed happy to subject the community to. Ten minutes later sleep was allowed to resume.

After a heavy breakfast I set off into the medina. As I walked toward the centre I was engulfed by people some opening their businesses, others ferrying leather hides stacked onto hand carts dragged by donkeys and many more opening their doors to fragrant spice stalls and handmade leather goods shops.

The first notable landmark I stumbled upon was the Ben Youssef Madrasa a now vacated ex-Islamic College. The courtyard was grand, the tiling and decorative walls impressive and the numerous rooms upstairs for classes were small and intimate. You couldn’t imagine more than a few people (and very short people) in each at a time. A gaggle of guided tourists signalled it was time to leave and I took to the streets.

 

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In both mid-morning and mid-afternoon I spent time in the Palais el Bahia and the Palais el Badii. These experiences of both a rather complete and a rather destroyed palace were enlivened by the Marrakech Bienniale which was running from February through March. I enjoyed several art exhibitions highlighting some of the most creative and ethnically diverse work that I had seen in a long-time. At the Palais el Badii I was also able to visit the temporary home of MMP+ (Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visaul Arts) which had an enlightening exhibition titled the Darkening Process, which was well worth checking out as well as enjoying the view from the palace terasse across the ochre coloured rooftops of the old centre.

My art musings were gapped by lunchtime in the main square, Jemaa el Fna. I had a delicious beef tagine with figs and walnuts as a brief respite from the intense narrow streets and the hawkers, traders and scammers. Later I visited the cool Riad dar Charifa where you can enjoy a little luxury, rifle through some coffee table books and sip on some mint tea.

My evening was spent buying bus tickets for Essaouira and a wander around the rather more modern and less dynamic Gueliz area. It was a little glitzy and I wished I had headed back into the medina.

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It turns out that the call to prayer happens every morning at 5 a.m. in Marrakech, after another disturbed night of sleep I checked out and walked to the train/bus station and boarded an on time bus to Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. The weather forecast was predicted to be changeable and cool but was apparently worse over the desert so I had decided to head to the coast for some R&R.

 

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After I arrived at my spacious and light Riad I went for a walk around the small coastal town and its harbour. The weather was squally and chilly but in between brief showers I perused the goods offered by the hawkers and traders in the souks and medina. The most interesting area was down by the harbour, medium-sized fishing trawlers were being repaired in dry-docks and numerous smaller fishing boats, decorated with swathes of sky-blue boobed in the water. On the harbour walls there was an open-air fishing market selling everything from small mackerel to large eels and sharks. The fish was ordered and filleted on site and as I watched one particularly gruesome filleting I was approached by the customer, a young French-Moroccan chap who explained how much he loved returning to his hometown to buy the fish on the harbour walls. The harbour was small but alive and it was engrossing to walk around the harbour, climb atop the harbour walls and watch the tradesmen and women at work.

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Tired from mornings travel and afternoon’s harbour, souk and medina explorations I went in the search of food. I stumbled upon a small Moroccan restaurant, La Tolerance, on a side street off the main arterial passageway. A kindly man who had the appearance of a slightly more portly Rafael Benitez, ushered me in and as I was ordering suggested the house speciality of camel tagine. I took his advice and fortunately didn’t regret it,a new culinary dish for me and a rather delicious one. To completely fill my belly I had a massive crepe from a street vendor that was filled with Nutella. In fact this would be come my go to street-food dish for the remainder of the trip. Addictive.

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On my final day in Essaouira I was greeted by heavy showers in the morning which meant a morning of sleep. I checked the forecast and saw a gap in the afternoon of clear spells and as soon as the skies let up I went for an adventure along the beach. The beach from Essaouira stretches as far as the eye can see, heading generally south I evaded a spattering of hawkers touting camel and horse rides along the beach and headed away from civilization towards the dunes passing the occasional kite-surfer. In the dunes I found an abandoned fort that was being reclaimed by the dunes and inhabited by small squirrels. Further inland is the village of Dihabit, rather abandoned and quiet and populated mostly by stray dogs, it is however famous for being the temporary home of Bob Marley and there are a few landmarks attributed to his memory in particular a rather gaudy cafe where the owners were heavily leaning on his legacy.

In the evening I ate at Mega Loft a live-music and dining venue near the bastion and ramparts of the town’s coastal defences. I had a deliciously cooked fillet steak and a beer for less than 10 euros accompanied by an excellent vocalist’s melodies and of course a crepe on the way home.

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The next day I took the bus back to Marrakech and then a connecting train service to Rabat, the journey went smoothly and it was good to see the Moroccan landscape in this area on a clear day, the coastal fields and hills nearer Tangier were wildly different to the much more barren landscape in this region and there was a much more stereotypical feel to the vistas and household architecture of small cubed mud buildings. Due to late booking I only found affordable accommodation in Sale, a city separate from Rabat on the other side of the the Bou Regreg river estuary.

Sale was greatly different to Rabat in that it was much more of a working city, the old-walled section, within which I stayed, was full of life and trade, people working on the narrow streets selling vegetables, spices and fresh livestock, ready to be slain for the customer’s orders. I felt very out of place here, not uncomfortable- people were friendly and even talkative, inquisitive as to who I was and why I was staying in Sale, where else I had visited etc… They had no interest in me as a source of income as they were not involved in the tourism industry, this was all focused across the mouth of the river in Rabat. It was very refreshing to see people as they were everyday and have a genuine feel for city life in Morocco.

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In spite of Sale’s traditional charm it has little on offer of outstanding cultural history or attractions beyond its character. On the morning of my full day I inadvisably walked to Chellah, a collection of Roman ruins perched on a hill overlooking the wetlands to the East. From Sale this was probably a metro ride but I walked nonetheless, however I did not encounter many surprises enroute, only busy roads and traffic. Chellah itself was quite impressive, mostly rebuilt overtime but the grounds were nice and the storks nesting on top of the ruins gave it a unique feel, likely to be shooed away or discouraged in other historical sites.

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After my morning at Chellah I failed miserably to gain entry to the Royal Palace and had to make do with a trip to the Mohammed VI museum of contemporary art which was very enjoyable despite it being quite the task to find the right door to enter the building… A selection of very creative pieces by Moroccan artists awaited inside and a whiled away an hour or so.

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After getting my art fix I made my way down to the medina where I got an amazing sandwich for a mere 9 dirhams at the southern end of the medina. Before this my appetite had been swelled by a rather odd wait in the street as an over-spilling mosque held afternoon prayer. I could have shuffled past along the edge of the street but it seemed quite rude and it was also quite the experience to witness so many men of faith taking the timeout of their day to visit the mosque and shutting down the streets to cars and traders alike.

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My afternoon was filled with exploration around the kasbah area and along the beachfront before I headed home with tired legs and  a touch of sunburn. A man with a broken chicken chaser invited me out for a drink of whisky in Sale after we walked through the whole of the medina discussing our days but I politely declined as I had an appointment at Les Deus Palais in Rabat to watch some International footballand have a few beers. The bar/restaurant was quite a surprise as I had encountered little in Tangier, Marrakech and Essaouira of sundown glamour and drink but this place was busy, filled with young people all drinking,laughing and unfortunately smoking, there were several groups of women who felt free enough to indulge in a cocktail with no fear of accostment by rather more conservative Muslims and I felt a little more quizzical about the contradictions between religion and general life in Morocco.

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My last day was spent mostly on the return train to Tangier, it was at this point that I realised that train conductors never asked women for their tickets, only men. Observations aside the journey back was relaxing and my stay that evening at the homely Baytalice hostel provided enough sleep for me to feel fresh enough the following morning to make the long train(delayed)/ferry(thankfully delayed)/train/bus journey back to Granada. My final evening before I began that journey was spent searching for cheap food in the town square (including mandatory Nutella crepe) and watching an organised fight between two boys around the age of eleven, a crowd gathered, a strange old man hyped the fight to the crowd of men and the two boys engaged in four rounds of boxing, it was bizarre to say the least.

I finished writing this blog post today, a shade over four months since I visited Morocco. It’s hard to explain why I have been unmotivated to complete it, partially because there was a lot to write and also because to some extent I can’t decide if I actually enjoyed my trip. I always felt restless, on the move and conflicted about the places that I visited. I do however know that I absorbed a lot in a short time, not just about culture in Morocco but also about the people. It was a valuable experience and one that has been unique to all my other experiences over the last six years, will I return to Morocco? I’m not so sure.

 

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