3-21 May, 2000
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Morocco
After a good night's rest in Frankfurt, we had a much more pleasant Lufthansa flight direct to Casablanca, which only took about 2.5 hours.
For many people, mentioning the name Morocco conjures exotic images of a far-away land, with colorful people, desert scenery and mud-red buildings. Morocco has these things, but it also offers a lot more. Summarizing it in a single sentence is really impossible to do. During our three weeks here, we discovered a complex country -- full of intriguing geology, ethnic diversity, beautiful architecture, and stunning natural scenery. Yes, there are mud-red buildings and there are deserts (only a small percentage of the country is actually desert). But there are also tall, vast mountain ranges filled with blossoming alpine meadows and tall pine trees. There are big, modern cities and small, traditional towns. And there are beautiful beaches on the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Morocco is an Islamic country, but it has a very Western-oriented attitude and outlook. French is spoken here as often, or perhaps in the cities even more often, than the official language of Arabic. And the people are some of the kindest, most generous folks you'll ever meet anywhere.
The people are as varied as the country's wild geography. In any city or large town, you might see a young woman dressed in the latest European-style fashion walking hand-in-hand with her traditionally-clad mother, dressed head-to-toe in the national outfit, the jellaba.
But with all this beauty comes a price for the unprepared traveler. In Morocco there exists a hassle factor the likes of which we haven't seen in many other countries. It seems if you are a Westerner, there is somebody on every street corner trying to do his or her best to separate you from your money in any and every way possible. It's not criminal talent and it's not intimidating harassment -- there are just a lot of fast talkers out there, always trying to sell you something. Tourism has been here for a long time, and it shows in some of the larger cities like Marrakech where the old phrase "a fool and his money are soon parted" never rang truer! But for those willing to understand the culture a bit, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big tourist cities, and to step in and savor this unique and beautiful contry, there is a great amount of satisfaction to be had here.
Our introduction to Morocco was the bustling metropolis of Casablanca, the arrival point for the majority of international flights into the country. The International Airport is about 20km (15 miles) outside of the city proper. We went through customs with no problems and paid a taxi to take us to the center of town. We were going to take our chances and try to just show up at one of the hotels recommended by our guidebook, hoping they would have rooms. This being shoulder season in Morocco, we had no problems. Our hotel, the Hotel du Paris, was clean and comfortable and overlooked a pleasant pedestrian area in the center of the city.
Still very jet- lagged, we managed to muster the energy to take a taxi to the grand Hassan II Mosque, the only noteworthy attraction in the otherwise not-so-exciting city. (Sorry all you Bogey fans, it ain't Hollywood -- Casa is a modern, bustling city of commerce with very little to offer the foreign visitor). The mosque sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and is quite large. The second-largest religious monument after Mecca, its marble and granite promenades and 210-meter (600 foot) tall minaret is quite a site to behold. It's a new mosque, finished in 1993 after five years of construction.
At the beautiful Hassan II Mosque
It was at the Hassan II Mosque that we heard the first of what would be many "calls to prayer" from the Mosque's huge minaret. This is a phrase called out in Arabic and broadcast over loudspeakers five times a day, reminding all good Muslims that it's time to face Mecca and pray. (A hint to would-be travelers to the Islamic world: find a hotel far away from any mosques, or you'll find yourself with an automatic alarm clock every day at the crack of dawn as the call to prayer goes out!). The mosque itself can hold 25,000 worshippers, with an additional capacity of 80,000 in the vast surrounding grounds.
The Mosque's 210-meter Minaret
We found Casa to be comfortable in that it wasn't all that different from home -- being a major city, anything we needed was within a few blocks of our hotel. It was also immediately apparent that Jen's french skills would come in handy in this country. Almost everybody here speaks French (a result of the 40 years of the French Protectorate in the first half of the 20th century). It is considered a sign of class and propriety to show off one's command of the French language if you're Moroccan. We knew this would be the case in the big cities, but later we found out that French was prevalent even in the smaller desert outposts, hundreds of kilometers from any big city. Moroccans are masters of language, with many people speaking at least 3 or 4 of them (English isn't one of the more common ones).
Another View Outside the Mosque
We ate dinner and then went to bed. The next day, we had a train to catch to Marrakech, one of Morocco's old Imperial cities.
The next day, we took the Marrakech Express train to (where else?) Marrakech, about a 3.5 hour ride southeast from Casablanca. The train service was modern and comfortable, and an incredible bargain with first-class ticket prices at about $10 US per person!
With a population of 1.5 million, Marrakech is not as small as we thought it would be. It's also crawling with tourists, an unfortunate result of its history as a major tourist destination for over a century now. One of Morocco's old (as in, 1000 years old) Imperial cities, it is nestled in the plains just north of the grand High Atlas mountains. On a clear day, the snowy peaks of the Atlas can be seen over the red ramparts of the Old City's walls.
We found our first hotel choice to be full, but a nice employee of the place was kind enough to take our bags and guide us through the narrow warrens of the Medina (the old city) to a place that wasn't full, the Grand Hotel Taza. The "Grand" hotel had seen better days, but the price was right and the location was good -- in the heart of the medina. We got over the poor plumbing and cheap fixtures soon enough.
We set out to see the "wonders" of the city and found ourselves somewhat disappointed. European tourists crawled everywhere, and hagglers intent on offering their services as guides or trying to get us to their carpet shops bothered us constantly. We walked a few blocks from our hotel to the Djemaa el Fna, the famous city square which by day is nothing more than a huge asphalt area filled with people moving to and fro. But by night, the Djemaa el Fna comes alive, filling with food stalls, orange juice sellers, and all kinds of human performers. On a stroll through the square at night, one might pass snake charmers, acrobats, and storytellers surrounded by watching and listening audiences. And this isn't all for the tourists, either -- around any of the performances, there are as many Moroccans taken in, captivated by the colorful storytellers and the skilled acrobats. We ate a very tasty dinner here in the Djemaa el Fna. For about $3 US per person, we filled ourselves on freshly-cooked brochettes of lamb and kefta (minced spiced lamb meatballs), Moroccan salad (a mixture of tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and spices), and fresh bread.
The Djemaa el Fna by day...
After a couple of days in the city, we began to wonder what all this talk of Moroccan hospitality was all about. Judging from the hassle in the streets, we certainly hadn't felt it yet. Then, things changed quickly.
...and by night, at dinner!
We were walking out of the famous Hotel Mamounia, a Marrakech landmark and widely noted as one of Africa's finest hotels. Winston Churchill used to come here to paint in the beautifully-kept gardens. Not in the budget cards for us this time around. But we could walk through and look around for free, which is just what we did. As we left the beautiful grounds, we met a man named Abduleh who was looking for well-heeled customers to visit his Moroccan antique shop. "Great, another hustler," we thought. But there was something different about this man. His English was perfect, he had a kind and gentle nature about him...an air of honesty we found refreshing in this city full of touts and hustlers. We agreed to come take a look.
We ended up buying a few things (his shop is full of stunning pieces of Berber arts and crafts), but more than that, we made a new friend. We sat in his shop's salon, sipped mint tea and talked for hours. His grandmother brought us an incredibly tasty couscous dish which we ate with him. We met his kind friends and shop helpers, Mohammed and Jalil, who attended to our every need. Suddenly, we understood the meaning of true Moroccan hospitality. We told Abi (his nickname) that we were leaving for the coastal town of Essaouira in the morning, but that we would be back in Marrakech in a few days. He demanded that we come have dinner at his house in the suburbs when we returned; we agreed. Looking forward to our next meeting, hours later we said goodbye to our new friend and returned to our hotel, absolutely shocked by the amount of unquestioned hospitality we received by Abi and his friends.
View of the Souq (market) above Abi's shop
The next day, we were off for a little rest and relaxation away from the craziness of the city. We were headed to Essaouira, a beach town about three hours west of Marrakech.
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