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It was my mom who introduced me to the idea of visiting Morocco. She hasn’t been there herself, but she expressed a strong desire to go there during one of her future Summer trips. “Morocco, Morocco, Morocco”, I would hear her talking about this country constantly and that is how I ended up buying my tickets to Morocco, even earlier than her.
Since I have spent all my vacation days for 2015, I was looking for a long-weekend trip – combining a weekend with one of the upcoming holidays. So when I came upon an inexpensive airfare with Iberia for the Catholic Christmas, I booked it in a heartbeat.
Arriving to Morocco
I took a red-eye flight from New York to Madrid with a two-hour layover, arriving around 7 in the morning, and then connecting to a second flight directly to Casablanca. While we were flying over Morocco, I was very excited about the fact that I was finally in Africa! I have been to quite a few countries before Morocco, located on four other continents (North and South America, Europe, and Asia), but this was my first time landing on this new continental plate.
From above, Morocco looks like a scarcely populated, mostly dry, brown and green colored land. It is well-known for its vast deserts and beautiful mountains, in addition to its exotic culture.
Casablanca is home to one of the major airports in Morocco, located on a 45-minutes drive from the main city center.
Fortunately, the line to the passport control was not too long, and the availability of the free wifi in the airport made the time go by very quickly.
When I left the airport, I was greeted by a long line of taxis. Since I read earlier that you have to negotiate the price of the trip before actually accepting one, I kept that in mind when I was walking to the first driver that I was pointed to. To my great relief, he spoke a bit of English, and named a reasonable price, which I gladly accepted.
My first impression of Casablanca was that it looked like a completely modern, even a somewhat “Western” looking city. Filled with a lot of people rushing about their business; clean, cobble-stone streets, and contemporary architecture, it looked nothing like what I pictured it to be in my head.
Only later did I find out that Casablanca is considered to be the “economic” capital of Morocco, while Rabat is the “political”, Fes is the “Islamic”, and Marrakesh is the “touristic” capitals. And believe me, they all look and act the part!
The first thing I did upon arriving to Casablanca was to check-in to my pre-booked hotel. I was staying at the Hotel Barceló Casablanca, which has amazing views over the gorgeous Hassan II Mosque, the most famous sight in the city, and a good location.
However, since you cannot open a window in your room, it is filled with a terrible smell that comes from the humidity in the bathroom and the lack of proper ventilation. This pervasive smell gave me a very bad headache and I honestly couldn’t stand being in that room. I hate to say, there is practically nothing one could do about it, except maybe… break a window, or change the hotels.
View of the beautiful Hassan II Mosque from my window
Since I had to bring work with me, I spent the first day in my hotel room working remotely. And because of a terrible jet lag, I did not feel like going out later in the evening, especially since it got dark very quickly.
Waking up in Casablanca
I woke up early the next morning, feeling rested and full of energy, ready to explore Morocco. After having my breakfast, I went down to the lobby to wait for my pre-booked private driver. I found a great deal on GetYourGuide.com earlier – a private driver with a car for only about $130, available for an entire day. Since I only had two full days to spend in Morocco, this option was perfect, giving me a lot of flexibility, and saving time by having a local driver at my disposal. I was planning to spend a few hours visiting the major sights in Casablanca, and then drive to Rabat, leaving Marrakesh for tomorrow.
About 15 minutes past 9, I asked the hotel receptionist to call the local tour company to find out why was the driver running late. The receptionist called but there was no answer. Five minutes later the receptionist called again. Ten minutes later he called again. Nobody was picking up the phone! We tried to google the company by the email provided on the voucher ([email protected]), but nothing came up on the internet.
Then I decided to call Get Your Guide to see if they could get in touch with their local vendor. After they tried contacting the vendor, and receiving no response as well, they said that they could not help me. But, of course, they would be happy to reimburse the money paid for these ‘tours’… within the next 2-3 weeks. Gee, thanks. That is so convenient.
After this whole ordeal, the hotel receptionist offered to find me another driver, since I was not quite ready to proceed on my own and I agreed. Don’t get me wrong, I (almost) always prefer to explore all the destinations alone on foot, however this time I was too tempted by the idea of having my own (inexpensive) private driver and having the freedom to explore several cities in one day. (Lesson learned: it’s about time for me to get my own driver’s license!)
The new driver arrived in 10 minutes, was very nice and professional, and spoke perfect English. The only thing is… for one day of his services, I had to pay him almost double what I paid for the original tour.
We headed to Rabat first thing in the morning. Rabat, is the official capital of Morocco, and it’s a very nice, small, cozy, and ancient city, full of gorgeous Arabic architecture, beautiful mosques, and nice parks. You can get to Rabat from Casablanca, by a quick 1-hour drive.
It was about 10:30 in the morning when we reached Rabat. We decided to make a quick coffee stop before we set off on our exploration. My driver, Youssef, knew a good, local place that we went to. Morocco is very well-known for its leisurely tea time breaks, where one is offered a variety of delicious sweets accompanied by mint tea. But, since it was still morning – I decided to skip the tea and go for a cappuccino.
My biggest memory from this uneventful coffee stop, was seating outside, enjoying my hot drink and a small conversation with Youssef, surrounded by… hundreds of bees. The bees in Morocco do not look like the typical black and yellow striped bees, that I was used to seeing in Europe. For one thing, they are almost completely black, they are fluffy, and are much bigger in size. And so I spent the entire coffee break trying not to get stung.
We then drove to Chellah Necropolic, a magnificent, historic burial site filled with ruins that date back to the Roman times. Chellah Necropolis is located in the oldest part of Rabat, just outside its beautiful city walls. We spent about an hour exploring this interesting sight, which offers incredible panoramic views over the surrounding the area.
Next, we made a quick photo stop at the breathtaking Royal Palace, and then drove to the city center, to explore the Medina, the central market (Marché central), Bab Oudaïa (a 12th century gate), Mausoleum of Mohamed V, the Hassan tower, and other incredible landmarks. Since Rabat is quite a small city, most of the major sights are located in a close, walking distance from each other.
One of the most memorable spots in Rabat is the Kasbah of the Udayas – a little charming district, a so-called ‘medieval citadel’, filled with a number of interesting blue and white homes, a rooftop, and a cute cafe – that offer a very nice panorama over the river, and Salé, a small city opposite Rabat.
Women in Morocco
In the late afternoon we decided to drive back to Casablanca to finally start exploring some of its amazing sights. Since the traffic was at it’s worse, it took us almost two hours to get back to our destination. While we were stuck in traffic, Youssef has told a number of interesting things about his country.
It turns out, that the current King, Mohammed VI of Morocco, is married to… a ‘commoner’ – an ordinary woman that he met at his university. They met, fell in love, and got married. It is a true Cinderella story, that happens only in books and movies, and once in a rarest while – in the real life as well. The new Queen is also breathtakingly beautiful – google her pictures, if you don’t believe me.
So what did that event meant to the citizens of Morocco, and to the women in particular? Well, for once women’s role and status in Morocco has been elevated to incredible heights. They can now own a house, drive, even drink alcohol (of course not while driving), and dress up however they want. And heck, they can even file for divorce if they have to, and… they have the right to approve (or deny!) their husband’s second, third and fourth marriage. If you didn’t know it yet – Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, if he can afford to support them all.
Women in Morocco, have an unbelievable respect now – by Islamic standards, that is. If a man does something wrong to a woman, he will get punished for that. How many arabic countries can you think of that have achieved this level of basic gender equality?
Sunset in Casablanca
We finally reached Casablanca at about 4pm in the afternoon. We headed straight to Hassan II Mosque, the most important and visible landmark of the city. It turns out, this gorgeous mosque is actually the largest in Morocco, it’s minaret is 210 meters tall. You can go inside the mosque with a guided tour only. They let in anyone regardless of his or hers religious beliefs.
After the mosque, we drove and walked around the city, exploring some of its most famous and fabulous locations. Casablanca is a much bigger city, compared to that of Rabat. However, it is also a very walkable city, and you can easily and safely explore it on foot.
When the darkness fell on the city, I asked Youssef to drop me off at any local cafe, so I could get some dinner. I didn’t have anything to eat since the morning and I was starving at that point. Youssef said that he knows a very good, local place that he will take me to, and that he will also wait for me while I eat, to drop me off at my hotel after I finish. He kindly declined my offer to dine with me since he was saving himself for a big dinner with his family.
Once I sat down at a table, I was approached by a very lively and articulate waiter who handed me the menu, but quickly told me that he knows ‘exactly what I want’. “We have a special dish today, made of seafood – some shrimps, mussels, crabs, and other delicious fish”, he insisted. I looked over the menu, which had a big variety of dishes, and quite inexpensive prices, and agreed to his choice. I was simply too tired to make my own decision. And, I love seafood.
He then served me with some amazing mint tea, while I waited for my meal patiently.
Finally the food arrived… but to my big surprise, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Having heard before that Moroccan food is fantastic, I was hoping for some good, fresh fish, and this “special” dish tasted like… last year’s snow. I ate some of it, and then asked for the check. And this is when things got really interesting.
The waiter arrived and told me to pay him 400 Moroccan Dirhams, which is equivalent to about $40 USD. I looked at him in utter disbelief, and asked him: “Are you sure that this is the correct cost?”. “Yes”, he said, “400 Dirhams”, and “No, we don’t accept any credit cards”. I handed him the money, adding extra for the tip, and stormed off the restaurant.
I found my driver, Youssef, seating in the front and drinking tea. “Do you know what just happened?”, I asked him upon seeing him. “I paid 400 Dirhams, for a plate of seafood and one mint tea.” And then I realized that… the waiter did not even let me see the check. He just named a price, like if we were dealing at a local bazaar or something.
When he heard this, Youssef stormed back into the restaurant and started searching for the manager. What happened next was like a scene from a movie. A few employees gathered, including the manager and Youssef and all started screaming at each other at the same time, in local arabic. And then abruptly the manager asked me to repeat to him the waiter’s words. “How much did he tell you to pay?”.
I though for a moment that he was going to kill me, and I even stumbled with my response at first. In the meantime the ‘poor’ waiter was making big hand gestures and explaining something to them that sounded like he told me to pay him… twice less and the rest was… the tip.
After a few minutes of this Moroccan drama, I was ready to run as fast, and as far away as I could. At the end, the manager told the waiter to give me back half of the payment, and to apologize for what happened. I was shocked.
When we left, Youssef started apologizing, telling me that he knows this place very well, and that this has never happened before. Apparently, the waiter was a new guy that they just hired and that they would be letting him go. I felt bad for a moment for this guy, but then I felt even worse about this whole situation – I mean who appreciates getting cheated, especially so bluntly?
Since I had some time to prepare for the next day once I arrived back to my hotel, I decided to take an early train to Marrakesh. I took a taxi when it was still dark, and arrived to the train station around 6:30am. I bought my ticket right at the train station and 20 minutes later I was boarding a nice coach. The one-way journey from Casablanca to Marrakesh takes about 3 hours as the train passes through some amazing landscapes.
I arrived to Marrakesh around 10 in the morning, and with the help of the Google map, found my way to the center on foot.
The first site that I reached was the beautiful Bab Agnou, a beautiful structure dating back to the 12th century. As I walked around, taking hundreds of pictures, I was approached by a very intelligent and humble looking man, who offered to give me a walking tour of the city. Since I’m always up to learn more about any destination that I’m visiting, I surely agreed.
We started our walk from Bab Agnou and quickly reached the beautiful and chaotic central market (Djemaa el Fna), where many of the colorful, local souks are located. From there we navigated our way to the absolutely stunning Bahia Palace, and spent about an hour exploring this magical place.
The gorgeous architecture of the Bahia Palace
After the Bahia Palace, we walked through the numerous souks, filled with all kinds of goods that one might desire. From pillows, to silverware, to shoes, clothes, jewelry, and hundreds of spices, one will never leave this place without buying something. And many will end up buying an extra suitcase. Which are also conveniently sold here.
We then stopped by for lunch at a nice local place which was located at the top floor of a building facing the chaotic and vibrant Djemaa el Fna – the central market square.
I asked my guide to order some of the popular, local dishes so I could taste the ‘real’ Moroccan food. The meal arrived a moment later, full of the amazing odors that define Morocco. And believe me, once you try these delicious bites, you won’t confuse them for anything in the World.
After lunch, we made our way to the historic Ibn Youssef Medersa, a legendary old school that used to teach Koran. Since the school is no longer in use, it was converted to a museum, and it’s one of the most important landmarks in Marrakesh. The school used to host a number of male students, which lived in the tiny, windowless rooms, mainly located on the second floor of the premise.
You will have a chance to peak into these, now abandoned, completely empty, and somewhat eerie rooms. The building itself is also hauntingly beautiful – the years and the layers of history, and the labyrinth of these claustrophobic quarters left its visible mark, for a perceptive eye to take note.
After the school we strolled around the town, taking in the smells and the sounds of this exquisite place. At one point, my guide asked me if I needed to buy any local “medicine” for ailments of any kind. I told him that my mother has recently had trouble falling asleep. “Oh, I know just the place!” he replied, and led me to a local ‘pharmacist’.
It quickly turned out that the Moroccan pharmacists can sell you pretty much anything – from a liquid orange perfume to a… dead mouse, and other ungodly things that are aparently used for… black magic. It was creepy to even look at these things (not pictured here). But this is the country where practically everyone believes in the existence of jinns, I reminded myself. And at that moment I was very happy that I had my copy of the Caliph’s House traveling with me.
At around 5pm my guide walked me to my railroad station, where I boarded a train back to Casablanca. I was very tired, content and a bit sad at the same time to leave this city, as there’s just so much to explore. I wished I could stay longer.
Back to the Airport
The next morning, I packed my suitcase and went down to the lobby to get some help catching a cab to the airport. “The airport?”, the hotel’s receptionist repeated. “Yep, the airport, where the planes are”, and I tried to make a ‘flying’ hand gesture.
A few minutes later, I was in the taxi looking at some random pictures on my phone, when the driver suddenly pulled up next to a grim looking building, right in the middle of the city, turned to me, and with a hand motion towards the building, said: “The airport!”. I stared at the building blankly, looked back at the driver, and told him: “No, no, I need the airport.”. “Oui, the airport!”, the driver insisted.
I don’t remember exactly how did I manage to explain to him that this was not the “airport” that I needed, but he did eventually say: “Ohhh” followed by some French words, and then took off. But that wasn’t the end of it.
A few minutes later we stopped by another taxi. My driver quickly ran out of the car to speak to its driver. They nodded to each other, and then my suitcase and I were transferred to the second car. After the switch, the original driver approached me and asked for a payment. Not really understanding what was going on, I gave him the money and sat in the back of the car hoping that this time we will make it to the actual airport, without any surprising detours.
The second taxi driver spoke some English and was happy to chat with me through the whole drive. Thankfully, he delivered me to the actual airport some 40 minutes later – right on time.
Inside the airport was just another scene of chaos. The flight gates on the monitor did not really correspond to the actual gate numbers. The flights on the monitors at the gates kept changing every few minutes or so. There were hordes of passengers taking all the available seats including the floor space by the walls. I looked at it all without a slightest hint of annoyance, since at this very moment I learned to accept Morocco the way it is – crazy, chaotic, and beautiful, and I can’t tell you enough how much I can’t wait to come back!
All Photo Copyrights © Daria Silter