Category Archives: Morocco

Travelogue Morocco 4: Marrakech

24-26 April 2013

With 489km to cover, we had to be up and out early, hitting the road at 07h20. Breakfast was the same disappointing affair as the previous day – boiled eggs and chocolate croissant (separately), brightened only by the superlative OJ (very sour and authentic, but not pulpy) and excellent hot chocolate (made entirely with hot milk).

Since we have a full sized bus for just 17 people, there is more than enough room for everyone to stretch out, so it’s not too bad for the long haul. Quite soon most people were napping, so it was quite peaceful to watch the countryside pass by.

For a country of 35-odd million people, I’m not sure where everybody is. You can go for miles and miles without seeing sign of a human. Or animal for that matter. And Fes being one of the biggest cities at 1,5 million people seems to end too soon after city centre for credibility (although at least we did see more of what we consider traditional Morrocan architecture, which provided a level of smug contentedness).

The “highway” is by no means what we’re used to and very picturesque. Although predominantly single lane either side, the allocations are generous – and everyone seems to crawl evenly so we weren’t ever stuck wanting to overtake. The tarring is consistently perfect and they (the French I presume) were meticulous to the point of obsession with lining the road with double rows of trees either side. We’re told that most are cedars, which are protected (probably because of the obscene amounts they use for those gargantuan doors and gates).

It’s remarkable to see how well established and maintained the infrastructure is even in the smallest towns. Double lanes standard in city centres (not a whiff of a pothole); wide pavements tiled with elegant and decorative paving stones with neat and generous flower and tree gardens embedded; at least 1 showy traffic circle with manicured gardens, fountains and/or statues even in the smallest town; clear of litter and debris, with the odd streetsweeper spotted sweeping the gutters like life depends on it. It’s like the Moroccans are better at being European than the Europeans! … Except for the Arabic on the street signs and a disproportionate representation of green roof tiles (apparently a tribute being a well-associated Muslim colour).

Our first pitstop was in the University and ski resort town of Ilfane. It’s a private and pricey university, twinned with Georgetown University in Washington. The town is nestled into one of the Middle Atlas Mountain slopes and besides being renowned for skiing (getting snow up to 1m deep in town), it’s also known as the Little Switzerland of Morocco, having been built by the French in the 1930s with A-frame chalets and beautiful little cabins. It is gorgeous – and certainly worth an investigation for a cheap ski holiday!

We rolled into Marrakech at about 18h30 and checked into our hotel – a luxurious resort with gorgeous lobby with marble floors and enormous chandelier suspended from a triple volume section in the centre that hinted at the floors above. Automated doors led to a generous terrace with wonderfully extravagant swimming pools, welcome in the hotter drier climate than that from which we’d just come.

We had an hour before dinner to check in and make ourselves comfortable in our rooms, which turned out to be superb – and a welcome break from our bus!

The hotel dinner was excellent, including mash potatoes (my best!), roast turkey in lemon and herb gravy, a beef goulash type dish (Moroccan-style of course) and incredible creme caramel for dessert. Of course, the buffet offered far more than that, but it was these few simplicities that hit the spot and sated.

We’d planned to catch the 20h30 hotel shuttle to the famed Marrakech souk, but were dismayed when the bus filled before our eyes and the 4 of us were left standing on the pavement watching a busful of people disappear toward town!

Luckily, we’re not easily disheartened and we simply flagged down a taxi and negotiated a R50 return fare – and ended up regretting bothering with the shuttle at all, when our own steam was so convenient, cheap and easy. We agreed for the taxi driver to meet us at the designated spot (a KFC, definitely to be revisited for mealtime purposes later!) and hit the market with much excitement.

The market was chaos! Starting with the main square, with loads of entertainment, snake-charmers, drum circles and so on, there were literally thousands of people wandering around, soaking in the atmosphere. There was no way that the 4 of us would manage to maneuver together through the crowds in the dark, so we split up to shop. In the 6 square kilometres of shopping area on offer!

Mother and I picked an aisle and immersed. It was quite overwhelming so we decided to set the pace, researching and price-comparing in order to be ready for real action and quality purchasing the next day. Mother also did her fair share of Cinderella’ing, trying on every pair of bright yellow slippers she could get her hands (well, feet) on… And getting more and more depressed as each one was either too big or too small (or not yellow enough).

Time passed all too quickly and we were soon communed at the KFC, fruitless shopping trip behind us, but optimism that our prudence would stand us in good stead the next day. And optimism that our great hotel dinner might be a prelude to a great breakfast buffet.

Sadly, breakfast was far from greatness. While there was a revival with scrambled eggs and they added a pancake station, there was no french bread to make Vietnam sandwiches with – and still no bacon or bangers! Now very sorely missed!

Still, we were fed and watered and ready to go on the city tour when the coach arrived to fetch us. The tour started with the Mosque (of course) and Koutoubia minoret. All the Moroccan minorets are square, as is this one with its 3 x 18 carat balls of descending sizes on a spire atop the dome, and a 1kg ball of solid gold to top it all off.

The opulence continued at the Bab Agnar Gates, the most beautiful of the gates with cut stone arranged in clean, regular lines around the arch, floral decorations and calligraphy adorning the cornerstone and frame panels. This gate was famed for where the Berbers brought their fruit liquor (40% proof) down from the mountains to sell in the medina.

Then into the kasbah (fortress) and on to the royal residence. A maudlin visit to the Saadian mausoleum for 16th century rulers. Traditionally, the dead weren’t embalmed, and were buried lying on their side facing Mecca. As was customary, they would always separate kings, princes and queens, burying important people in the centre quad.

We entered the Bahia Palais, which became a tourist sight in 1956 alongside Moroccan Independence (you can only see about a quarter of it though, because the king still uses the suites when he’s in town). The palace took 17 years to build – 1893 to 1900 – and was reserved for the first of the 4 official wives to bear a son. He also had 24 concubines (bought or given as gifts, aged 13-14 years old who at 35 become cleaners) to complete the harem. The palace covers 8 hectares, 4 of riad and 4 of rooms and buildings, all with tiles in natural mineral or vegetable colours. The walls are incredibly thick and other measures have been taken (like doors within doors) to insulate from searing summer heat and freezing winters.

We wound around, being shown this and that, including the leather works and steelworks (where business is largely conducted as in olden times – and the welders don’t cover their eyes and wear flipflops!) – and being taken into what we suspect are the ‘kickback’ stores, where guides get commission on sales generated from the guests they bring in. The most interesting of these was the pharmacy/spice shop combo, where they tried to flog us (over-priced) everything from “35 spice” to cumin to arnica to Argan oil to mint tea. Of course, Mother wasn’t falling for that and “went to the loo”, returning with a gorgeous big leather overnight bag! She’d snuck out and down the road to haggle a bargain with the leather man! 😀

Can’t really blame her. Knowing the El-Jamaal Fna Souks cover 6 square kilometres of shopping, means that if you miss the opportunity to buy there and then, you may very well not be able to find your way back to that store. We’d learned this the hard way at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul last year! …And we were quite committed to committing when it came to the day’s shopping. We methodically ticked off the items on the list that we’d plotted and planned over the duration of the trip, added some new ones and bargained and bought like we were on a trolley dash!

Still, we seemed to be out-shopped by Monique (a short plump half of a middle-aged couple) from Brussels, who doesn’t seem to be able to resist any peddlar who walks up to her (and who doesn’t bargain). We laughed when we met back at the bus and there was Monique with a Moroccan cotton shirt (not even close to her size) slung on her back, 2 mens leather belts fastened around the waist, bangles up to her elbow, bulging shopping bags clutched in her henna’ed hands, husband in newly acquired silly hat in tow.

There was an hour to freshen up and then it was back in the bus and off to the Fantasia cultural evening. We ended up sitting with our Saffa friends and the Canadian couple from Ontario; much easier company than the Lebanese and Belgian couples we’d shared the awkward lunch with en route to Rabat.

Dinner was a bit weird. Started with soup, plated at the table. Seemed to be what I’ve seen (imaginatively) described as “Moroccan”, ie a hearty consistency with barley, chickpeas and veg. Not quite sure if it had meat or not. As has become customary, we asked for butter or olive oil to have with our bread. As is customary, they said they’d get it and never did. They don’t do ice either, which is annoying. It’s so subgrade drinking Coca-Cola – or wine for that matter – without ice. It’s really the simple things that make you appreciate home!

The next course was even more odd, because it was so unexpected. The waitress delivered a platter with half a sheep on it. Literally. We got the entire right side of a sheep between the 6 of us! Just plopped on the table without instruction, carving utensils or any sort of accompaniment. No garnish, starch or veg! We hacked at the poor beast, each serving ourselves using our own knives and forks. Such a pity, because so much must have been wasted – and it was very tasty.

If we thought it was odd, the Canadians were horrified. They *really* didn’t know how to operate this course. The wife picked a bit at their end of the sheep and was visibly unimpressed. When asked, they said the lamb was a bit dry and, seeing as our end was very succulent, I suggested she try the shank. She didn’t know what it was, so I told her it’s the bit that looks like a drumstick. She pulled on the leg bone, which came out clean (the lamb was that tender!) and she placed it gingerly on her plate, looking at it puzzled as to why I’d suggest it. Glad to clarify that I really meant the knob of meat around the top of the bone, it was very rewarding to see how much they enjoyed the meat when they eventually recovered it. It all made better sense later when the couple told us they’d met when they worked at McDonald’s…

When the table was cleared, another server delivered the next course. Chicken and veg with couscous. Another mountain of food! It was a bit dry so we made a plan and nabbed an extra bowl of the hearty soup to use as gravy. An excellent plan!

Dessert was (yet another) bowl of fruit. Just fruit. Costa chopped up and apple, which we passed around. I did the same with an orange. There seems to be no middle ground in Morocco – either obscene amounts of baked goods or dull and boring whole fruits. These people really need to embrace an elegant simplicity like ice-cream and chocolate sauce!

The whole way through dinner, we had entertainment brought to us. Groups of musicians and dancers from the various Moroccan tribes. They have a very different idea of tempo and rhythm to ours, to be sure! We specifically enjoyed an odd little hand-flicking dance that the first lot did, which looked like they were trying to dry a fresh manicure. It was also unusual that their “dancers” clearly weren’t recruited based on looks or age, nor were they the usual scantily clad belly-dancer types but rather draped in quite excessive layers of cloth and carrying a tune seemed optional for their “singers”. The beat was carried by handheld drums and/or tambourines and one tiny wrinkled old tambourinist seemed to take a shine to Mother, doing a bizarre Arrested Development chicken dance, alternating banging the tambourine in her ear and leering and jeering at her with contorted facial expression. By the time the group moved on (with Chicken Dancer continuously turning back and throwing parting shots in our direction), Jolande, Diane and I had tears streaming down our face from laughter! Such a pity that their partners had missed all the fun, having pleaded “smoke break” (despite neither being smokers) as the troupe approached, tired from being cajoled into getting up and dancing with the entertainers. Might have been a different story if they had been the slinky sexy belly-dancers! 😉

After dinner, we moved to sit on the concrete grandstands facing the centre quad to watch the belly-dancing show (in the conventional sense and outfit) and horse displays. The equestrian elements were divided into 2 types, the traditional warlike charging and tricks and balancing acts by skilled horseman on horseback; dismounting and remounting, running alongside and remounting and twisting and slipping around the horse like it was a gymnastics prop! The charging was a bit more disturbing, with the riders in flowing robes and turbans, frothing the horses up to quite a pace and then skidding on the brakes and shooting their rifles in the air (crackers not bullets). The real thing must’ve been quite fearsome… But it can’t be fun for those horses having to endure that every night.

All the entertainers came out and paraded around the field a bit in a sort of closing ceremony and then the night was called a close and the bus took us back to the hotel.

Having a later night than we have been, it was nice to have no plans for the morning so we could sleep in. We met our Saffas at 9 for breakfast and were ready well in time for the 10 o’clock shuttle into the market for a last whip around.

We didn’t buy (much) and the highlight was ending off with the much-craved KFC. I tried the Big Filler, which is chicken strips with cheese, ham (surprisingly; first pork we’ve seen in Morocco), garnish and ranch dressing. Served with McD’s style chips and Mirinda… met ys! Very delicious!

A shuttle back to the hotel and we’re packed and ready to move out. Back to Casablanca this arvie and then homeward bound tomorrow!

Travelogue Morocco 3: Fes

23 April 2013

On first impression, Fes is a big hustle-and-bustle city, with an active pavement cafe culture (men only) and wall-to-wall restaurants and apartment blocks (all in dire need of a coat of paint). It’s as neat and tidy as the rest of the Moroccan cities we’ve seen – exemplary road maintenance conditions, free of litter and lots of attention paid to lining and adorning the streets with trees, shrubs, flowers and park benches. In the main avenues in the area where the hotels are, there are 3 lanes for traffic in either direction with the equivalent 6 lanes of gardens and walkways for an island and similar amounts on either side for tiled pavement terraces in front of the shops. Lots of people around, enjoying their city.

Fes has about 1,15 million people and is located between Rif and Middle Atlas mountains, so is rich and fertile because it gets water from both sides. Fes el-Bali is old city (from 9th century) with a labyrinth of 9400 narrow streets, while Fes el-Jedid is new city (from 13th century). El-Bali has the first university in the world, started by a woman from Tunisia. Our tour guide pointed all this out from our vantage point where the tour commenced, that had panoramic views that gave a stunning perspective to the day’s itinerary.

We started our tour with the 7 gates of the Royal Palace. This is the residential palace, which is an 82 hectare estate where the King lives when he’s in Fes. Originally, when the King decided to move to Fes and they therefore needed to build a Palace, it wouldn’t fit into the Old City (Bali) so they just started building the new city (Jedid) to accommodate. The 7 gates are enormous keyhole arches with bronzed doors. They still clean the bronze doors the old school way, with tomatoes and vinegar, the marble columns with lemon.

Moving off from the square onto the side street heralded our entrance to the Jewish Quarter, a bit of a misnomer these days since there are no longer any Jewish people living there (there was a mass emigration after WWII to Israel and the few remaining Jews live in the new city). This quarter has always been a prosperous trading area, starting off selling salt, now known for gold. Luckily for our guide, group and us it was still too early for many shops to be open, so our memories will have to be photos not trinkets and we didn’t hold the group back with our would-be shopping, as had become customary.

We’d been prepared that this was to be an entire day on foot as the entire medina is pedestrian and donkey-cart only. We walked down to the road and entered by the Blue Gate. This meant our induction to the medina was through a butchery and fishery row. It was a bit of a shock to the system, with the strong smells from the narrow covered walkways lined with open butcheries and on-counter meat displays, including some stomach-turners like severed animal heads and live chickens, rabbits and turtles still in cages with their impending fate all too clear.
A few roads down, by stark contrast, we visited the Qu’ranic School. It’s central quadrangle is lined with very detailed mosaics and carvings, with Qu’ran verses (hardly surprisingly) on every surface, mostly stucco of plaster, alabaster, marble and ceramics. The school holds about 80 students at a time, who live at the school for complete immersion in their Qu’ran education, and impressively the school still operates business-as-usual in this 600 year old building, with very few restorations having been required.

Next was the brass shop, selling brass plates with painstakingly tapped engraving and traditional Berber camelbone inlays, Moroccan lamps, pewter teapots. This store posed no danger; clearly not our category!

Winding through the twisty turny roads, you pass few windows (as mentioned in Casablanca, it was customary for windows to face internal central terraces) so it was a pleasure to be allowed entrance to a Riad to see one of the upmarket houses. A riad is a house with garden while a dar is just a house. Most of the houses of the time were built 2 or 3 stories high. The bottom floor was lined with mosaics on the walls and marble on the floor to keep it cool; in winter the family moves upstairs, which is made from wood to keep it warmer with the rising warm air.

The houses are all very close together, some alleys and passageways so low / narrow / dark that it’s hard to imagine that people live there – and to comprehend that these people can’t move furniture in or out so tradesmen have to take supplies in and build their stuff inside!

It really is a different world and such a different life. So odd to see little little children walking purposefully on their way to who knows where, somehow recognising their way in what seems to be a complete maze to us. We walked past a school and it’s so foreign to see a campus that doesn’t have a blade of grass or even much natural lighting for that matter. We passed a group of teenagers on a bend in the walkway, huddled around a boombox, which would be perfectly normal for teenagers anywhere in the world, but seems so out of place here – and must get quite monotonous for them compared to the limitless entertainment options their counterparts in other parts of the world have!

Of course there is still a lot of influence of religion and tradition and there seem to be a disproportionate number of roads, workshops and stores dedicated to the seemingly complex courtship and marriage demands. Specialised tailors creating fabrics, garb, handmade lace and sequins. Sublime bordering on the ridiculous with the puffed and adorned couches and bedazzled stretchers for the event. Pots, crockery and eventware for sale or for rental. And my favourite, the jewellery, including the 18 carat gold jewel-encrusted belt that the would-be groom presents to the potential bride as part of her dowry – that has every man silently hoping to court a skinny and every mom fattening up her daughter in anticipation of the impending nuptials!

We had a late but traditional multi-course lunch, learning from the previous day and teaming up with the Saffa couple, the American friends and the Canadian girl to share a couple of set menus. We opted for the chicken tagine, couscous with chicken and veg and a side order of kefta (spiced meatballs with tomato and egg) and, as anticipated, were still filled up by the baskets of flat bread, mese starter of sweet carrots, cauliflower, olives, rice, aubergine etc. My highlight was making a schwarma sort of thing with the kefta and flatbread… And avoiding the fresh melon dessert.

It was an exhausting day, packed with culture and ritual lessons (in English, French and Spanish every time nogal) and aft er being shown how to make brass engraved plates, twill silk, dye fabric, make carpets, tan leather, weave agave silk fabric, chip tiles, lay mosaics… we were FYI’ed out for the day! And of course knowing better than to buy wares from these tourist traps, we still remain relatively empty-handed!

We did muster the energy to jump off the tour bus at the main road in town to explore a bit and found that while the city is as vibey and lovely as it appeared from the bus, there’s not a hell of a lot to do. It’s all restaurants and cafes that line the main street, but the cafes are largely male-only (by tradition, not dictate) and the restaurants all empty (we’ve read in a few places that Moroccans don’t have a culture of eating out – suppose the women at home have to have something to do, so they must cook… And bake for fun). We have dinners at the hotel included in the package we bought, so that was out, but we found a delighful cafe and had some delicious and super-fresh confectioneries with cappuccini and the like (I of course don’t drink them, but Mother says they’re strong but wonderful).

We wanted to be back at the hotel to photograph the sunset (7pm) from the rooftop terrace (Jolande is quite an avid photographer), but were disappointed to find that the lay of the hotel on the lower side of the slope in the shadow of the hotel between us and the main drag meant there was little attraction in sunset photography. Jolande has said she’ll aim to do a sunrise shoot instead, but seeing as that’s 5h40 tomorrow morning, I’m thinking she can just give us feedback… And I’ll pinch the pics off Facebook! 😀

Travelogue Morocco 2: Vasubilis – Maknes

22 April 2013

Today’s journey takes us 234km cross country from Rabat to Fez via Maknes. While a seemingly short distance in home terms, there is lots to see in Moroccan ones.

There are 35 million people in Morocco, with mixed heritage from all the various invasions. The dominant local tribes are the Berbers in the High Atlas mountains (medium-sized, white-skinned, round-faced farmers), Zayan in the Middle Atlas mountains (tall, skinny, white skin, black hair and eyes, nomad shepherds) and Chluh people in the Rif Mountains in the South (tall, strong, blonde with blue/green eyes). We had expected darker, more “African” looking people, so were surprised to hear that the first black people came from Ghana only in 11th century, from Niger and Mali in 15th century and then later from Sudan.

En route to Maknes, in the Rif Mountains, we stopped at Volubilis to see the Roman ruins from the 3rd century BC to AD 40. Archaeologists have uncovered what was a wonderous complex spanning hectares and hectares down a hillside and into the valley. As was convention, the town was surrounded by a stone wall and there were 6 gates allowing access and exit to the countryside beyond.

The complex was inhabited by some very rich Romans, counting 50 large houses of as much as 17-20,000 square feet each! Seems a bit excessive for families of 6-8 people, but they had decadent entertainment areas and tens of servants to contain within their compound.

The town shows how thoroughly Romanised then-Mauretania was from the public buildings and sophisticated townhouses. They were a relatively advanced civilisation with a sophisticated aquaduct system, central public watering stations, oil press, washing facilities and lutrines (unisex), with all the usual indulgent mosaic floors, larger than large arches, fountains, swimming pools, columns and statues. It’s remarkable that the mosaics have lasted almost 1,000 years – and you can still clearly see all the artwork depicting Greek and Roman mythology, symbols and patterns.

Like all the open air sights we visited in Turkey last year, it’s refreshing to be able to walk around these pieces of history freely – and to see that there is no graffiti or damage inflicted by disrespectful tourists.

Peckish from our walking and exploring (although not starving thanks to the brunch pitstop at the bakery with all its fresh delights) we were perfectly happy with the next item on the agenda: lunch at Palais Terrab in Maknes. Until we got there. It was yet another big crowded and rushed dining hall, where people were herded to tables to be forgotten, drinks took ages and food was served seemingly at the convenience of the busy harassed-looking waitrons.

A bread basket was already on the table, sans butter as is apparently the norm. Of course, Mother hunted some down and the flat loaf turned out to be very soft and tasty. Meanwhile, a salad platter was served; a big plate of beetroot, chickpeas, sweet carrots, cucumber, rice and olives. I added some chickpeas to my buttered bread and was ok with that.

The waiters had taken our tagine orders when we sat down and we’d opted to share a lemon chicken one but when, 45 minutes later, everyone else at the table had eaten theirs and ours still hadn’t arrived, our Saffa friends shared theirs with us and we turned ours away when it eventually came. We were then served biscuits and mint tea (which the waiters serve with much showmanship, pouring from a teapot a full arm’s length above a tray of tea glasses). We’d been short-changed the Briwate though, which was the highlight I’d been waiting for (because they look like samoosas, which I adore!) all hour and a half we’d been stuck in the restaurant! They brought them and it was worth the wait – sweet mincemeat in deep-fried pastry (like a samoosa and also triangular), with castor sugar sprinkled on the outside. It was supposed to be a starter, but actually worked better as a dessert. Needless to say, after the shoddy service, they didn’t charge us for our meal either!

Back on the bus, we hit the road to Meknes, a traditional Moroccan medina (town enclosed by ramparts), protected by stretches of walls totaling 40km. We entered by one of the several elegant gates, the Bab el-Khemis or Thursday Gate, so named because this used to be the entrance to the weekly market. The Bab el-Berdaine is said to be the most magnificent, but Bab el-Khemis seems to do alright for itself judging by all the posers and photographers!

We were taken to the old stables, which were quite imposing with very high ceilings above rows and rows of arches. The horses were tied 2 a side to each of the arch pillars and it was designed in such a way that wherever you stood, you’d get a good vantage point down the aisles in front of you as well as the diagonals, making it easier to control such a big stableful.

Of course, all these horses must be fed and Meknes is close to the Middle Atlas mountains, so horses are very important for them. The Berber horse is favoured to Arabians as it is taller and so better suited to the terrain, but eats more as well. We toured the granary appended to the stable that housed all the grains and hay to feed that lot.

On our way out, we made a stop at the Bab Mansour gate, arguably the finest gate in Morocco (so we’re told). It was commissioned by Sultan Moulay Ismail in 1673 when building the kasbah, but he never got to see its completion (although his son made sure this happened). We got a quick photo of that magnificence and opted rather to spend our allotted 15 minutes doing a whip around the market directly opposite the gate.

The Place el-Hedime (Square of Ruins) links the medina and the kasbah and provides a congregation place for business, entertainment and socialising. It’s a noisy buzz of eastern music, shishas, cafes and peddlars selling their wares from stalls or displayed on mats in the square itself. We didn’t make it past the first stall and I ended up with 2 mini tagines for table condiments and Mother with a lovely leather wallet (not bad for R40 all in all!).

As unbelievable as it sounds, we’ve only spent R250 between us since we left home – including shopping and bakery exploits! Wait until tomorrow and the markets in Fes though! 😉

Travelogue Morocco 1: Casablanca – Rabat

19-21 April 2013

Given the success of our Girls Getaway to Turkey for Mother’s 60th last year, it seemed only fitting to test another exotic destination for this year’s birthday. Morocco was on both our lists and a very manageable week-long package serendipitously sealed the deal and soon we were up, up and away to breakfast in Dubai, lunch over Italy and dinner in Casablanca!

While the flights and transits were smooth, our induction to Morocco started with a bit of a bumpy ride. It had been a long haul with 2 eight hour flights and then a wait at the airport while our group collected their luggage and communed. But a short taxi ride later and we were at our digs, Business Hotel Casablanca. What a joyously simple pleasure to have a shower, get fresh clothes on and brush teeth! Just enough to get us motivated to up and out to spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the city.

We sought a few opinions and placed the route option and landmarks to our intended destination before deciding to forego the trams and head down to the Mosque and beachfront on foot, down the main Avenue. Perhaps a poor choice as this led us to be at the traffic lights where a local on a moped veered up to us and ripped Mother’s gold chain from around her neck. 🙁

There was a policeman stationed across the intersection so we drew his attention and explained – slowly and repeatedly – what had happened. No mean feat with him only speaking Arabic and French and us speaking neither. He did summon some passing policemen on motorbikes (using his whistle) and they sped off in high speed pursuit of a suspect they couldn’t possibly have expected to find. We found out the hard way that there are 2 types of police and we couldn’t just report the theft at the local police station but had to report to the tourist police office in order to make a formal statement (that we’d need for insurance). 3 hours later we had statement in hand, but no intention of commencing sight-seeing in the dark, so the police chauffeured us to the hotel. What the hotel staff must’ve thought when we arrived!

On a happier note, Mother informed me that our dinner was included in the package so we headed to the hotel restaurant to see what that entailed. It was a mystical experience seeing as we didn’t have a language in common with the waitress so there was no explanation of courses / options / processes. First we were set up with a dinner plate with soup plate atop. Next came a big basket of wedges of French loaf. Then there was a wait. Not sure what to do next – since you normally either get served a plate of soup or get sent to fetch soup and plate at buffet – we did nothing. It turned out to be the right call as a steaming tureen of soup was delivered by the dumb waiter (the delivery shoot, not the one who didn’t speak English). We were served lovely creamy butternut soup. With no idea what was to come, we weren’t sure how much to have nor if we should fill up on bread or not!

We finished the soup, our plates were cleared, no further clues given and we just sat and waited. Minutes later we were served baked fish with thermidor sauce, a wedge of potato bake, gratinated veg and half of the smallest baked potato you’ve ever seen, done in foil and everything but served cold. It was a delicious meal, topped off with a lemon meringue style wedge but with a liquidy meringue not the peaks as we’re accustomed.

After a long sleep that outperformed refreshing all the way to invigorating, we were in good spirits and re-ethused to start our Moroccan adventure.

Breakfast was the predictable affair with a range of breads, cold meats, cheeses, eggs, olives and garnishes and we made short work of preparing delicious Vietnam-style baguette sandwiches. Vanilla yoghurt and orange juice to top it off and we were ready to hop on the bus for our tour – the Imperial tour of the palace towns of Morocco (Rabat, Fez and Meknes) starting in Casablanca and ending in Marrakesh.

But first to fetch the rest of our group – totalling 17 people including French, Canadian, Argentinian and Brazilian alongside us and another couple from Constantia Kloof – from their hotels, all of which seemed to be along the same main road, Avenue D’Enfa.

Casablanca isn’t what you’d expect – the cliche keyhole window frames and curly-swirly metalwork. From just the short journey to fetch the other tourists, the French influence in the city is apparent; wide avenues with manicured centre islands dotted with pretty antique-looking twin streetlights that look like they’d be better suited to paraffin lamps and horse-drawn carriages than to electric lights and this flow of traffic. All road names are in French; traffic signage in Arabic and French. But there is also the medina with small shops in narrow, winding streets. Such a stark contrast!

Anfa, the original name for the city, had modest beginnings in the 7th century as a small Berber settlement, with a cluster of white block houses (think Mykonos). The town held some interest as a port by the Portuguese in the 15th century and the Spanish in the 18th century, inheriting along with it the new name Casablanca, ie “white house” – or Dar el-Beida in Arabic. This first quarter still lives and breathes, just in front of Atlantic, with all the houses still white as they have always been.

In the 20th century, Casablanca became a French Protectorate (1912-1956) and it was with this inception that the 40 year town-planning project began, primarily modernising the port, expanding with highrise buildings and of course adding the tree-lined avenues and French gardens that still beautify the city today.

Fez was originally the capital of Morocco, which was then transferred to Rabat in 1920, wanting to make a port but the sea wasn’t deep enough. So, with such burgeoning prospects, Casablanca became the capital and the economic commercial centre, with town revolving around the Place de Nations Unies – which until 1920 was still only a market place with snake-charmers, and now is arcades of brasserie terraces looked on by art-deco apartment blocks with wrought-iron balconies and carved stucco – and Mohammed V Square, the administrative heart of Casablanca. Where Casablanca in 1920 was no more than a few thousand inhabitants living in the old medina, the city now houses 6 million people, accounts for 75% of trade and uses 51% of energy in the country.

Arab’s League Park (Casablanca’s “green lung”) makes up for lack of parks in town planning and new factories are built outside of the city because it suffers from bad pollution because of lack of greenery. They seem to have made up for the lack of parks with trees lining most streets (very uniformly all in neat boxes), with flower boxes wherever possible, even lining the tram lines. This suits my overactive sense of symmetry perfectly and I think it looks wonderful!

We will also be on the look-out for the Argan tree, which we are told is native to Morocco (also known as the “goat tree” because goats climb it to eat the fruit) and used for its oils as constituent in many and varied products.

Our first alight from the bus was to visit the Old Quarter, where we were shown the Roman influence, with no windows facing the road in favour of opening to central courtyards, and the Spanish influence adorning the archways.

Then it was to the first of the 2 palaces restored by King Hassan II, son of King Mohammed V. This is the residence where the King stays when he is in town (he lives in Rabat) and it’s a proper old school regal Palace, complete with imposing high walls, mammoth doors in cedar covered in bronze with alabaster adornments either side. According to Muslim dictate, there are no animals or people in the decorations, just Qu’ran versus. The artworks and artisans come from Fez, known to be best for these.

By stark contrast, the next stop on the agenda was the central market. We were pre-warned that this was market as in fruit and veg, not as in goods and keepsakes (which is our preference and goes by the name “souk”). It was a ripe affair, with altogether too many strong smells competing in a crowded and noisy place, featuring an open fish market and skinned animals strung from their feet – among other noxious delicacies. Still, Mother (ever the dedicated and talented shopper) found something to buy and she was very chuffed with finding a small rattan weave basket with leather base and zip top section among the otherwise very ordinary wares at the basket seller stall, which would function very nicely as an unusual handbag.

Out of there and back on the bus, we were transferred to the Mosque of Hassan II, which we hadn’t gotten to the previous evening. The 2nd biggest religious building in the world, after the mosque in Mecca, it covers 9 hectares, 2/3 of which is built over the sea, and has the highest minoret in the world at 210m (taking 1,000 workers 7 years to build, 24/7), with 2 laser beams shining (over 30km) toward Mecca. There is capacity in the covered area for 25,000 people and in the open area for 80,000 people! It has a fixed roof over some sections and over another a retractable roof that can be opened in 3 minutes. It is the only mosque that’s open to non-Muslims. The whole complex is really impressive, accentuated by the beautiful ocean backdrop.

Done with ooo’ing and aaah’ing at the architecture, we used the last half hour to hunt for the famous Amood Bakery. Across the road from the mosque is a collection of official-looking buildings, all with the greenest grass and prettiest bright and colourful pavement gardens and islands. But, straight after that the buildings revert to shabby, once-white flat roof blocks with a smattering of cafes. We’d tried to venture into one, but it was a bit awkward with a male-only clientele who gawked at us. The cafes were all about the coffee and nothing about the baked goods, so not what we were after anyway.

No mind, we persevered a few blocks, taking some detours as would-be hosts lured us into their stores despite our clear instructions warning we weren’t looking for lunch. Down a side-road to a kebab shop, through a pizzeria, round past a tagine takeaway and we broke free and found exactly what we were looking for – a tucked away simple patisserie! We bought a cream-filled, chocolate covered croissant to share along with an OJ and a custard slice to take back to share with our Saffa friends (who’d said they had the best slice ever the evening before). The croissant was so good that we went back into the bakery and topped up with 2 chocolate brownies (1 with nuts and 1 without). The whole bakery shopping trip had cost less than R20!

Leaving the mosque, we took a scenic beach road drive to where we were due to lunch. We passed Anfa – a residential area with wide palm-treed avenues, mansion homes, terraces and pool decks that made it feel like Beverly Hills!

The theme continued to the beachfront promenade where the bus stopped. The Boulevard de la Corniche looks like the Miami beach scenes from shows like Dexter, wide pavements with tall palm trees, lots of pavement cafes and white buildings headered with bold neon names. But that’s where the comparisons end. The frequenters look (and dress) very differently.

We’d taken a wander up the promenade to assess what there was to see and do, wanting to make the most of our lunch break. When we realised that there was little else to the area besides eateries and hotels, we were able to fulfil a desire created earlier in the day when we’d been told of the McDonald’s McFondue burger. We cleverly shared one (a cheese burger housed in a square ciabatta drenched in fondue-style cheese) with ranch style wedge chips and Croquette Fromage (cheesy chilli bites). Very yum!

Done with lunch, we walked up the other side of the promenade, past the private beach clubs on the sea side and more cafes and restaurants on the left. It was funny to see more “La vache qui ri” signage marking vendors than the Coca-Cola signs that brand the rest of the world!

It was soon the end of the lunch break and we headed back to the bus for the short hop to Rabat.

“Facing the Atlantic Ocean, Rabat is an attractive city of domes and minarets, sweeping terraces, wide avenues and green spaces. It is markedly more pleasant than some other Moroccan cities and is also undergoing fundamental change”.

Rabat is the political and administrative capital of Morocco, has the biggest university and is 2nd biggest city in the country after Casablanca. It is across the Wadi Bou Regreg (river) from its ancient rival, Sale, a city so named because the Romans used to make salt from its waters.

We entered the city through the Old City walls, which were built in the 12th century… Although most of the architecture immediately on the inside is from 1920s.

Down Hassan 5th Avenue past the red Parliament buildings to the Royal Palace. Built by same King who built Palace in Casablanca. Quite an impressive regal affair with a long, wide driveway with evenly placed trees, with topiarised trees cut square in line with the edge of the pavement to give the impression of a floating hedge.

The Residential section of the Palace is protected by Royal Guard, Police, Army and Gendarme. They’re a bit more casual than elsewhere, with a few leaning on posts and all unperturbed at our picture taking (which is expressly forbidden by other palace guards). The Palace doesn’t look as you’d expect. Not fort-like and Arabian. More like a casino that’s big and impressive but loosely themed, mostly cream walls with green accents with the odd keyhole door and mosaic stucco for effect. Lots more terraced gardens, rows of trees, pretty flower borders (we’ve decided they’re Geraniums) and waterless fountains.

Done with current royals, we headed to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, built on the ruins of the unfinished mosque from the 18th century. The mosque was being built when in 1755 the Earthquake of Lisbon hit, toppling the columns that had been erected and only leaving the incomplete minoret standing (at 40m when it was planned to be 80). It was never rebuilt because Rabat was no longer the capital. As part of the Mausoleum build, the area was cleared and columns rebuilt using the original stones that were part of the still-remaining debris. The square was paved with big stone tiles and serves as an outdoor overflow for the mosque next to the mausoleum. The whole complex features the river and view of Sale on the one side and the remaining ruins of the original wall on the other, which have been gated and serve to secure the area.

Next we were off the rock the Kasbah of Rabat. More aligned with our expectations, the entrance is a grand red sand walled fort, multiple stories with an imposing arch entrance.

Once inside the Kasbah it starts with quaint narrow cobbled roads with tiny closet-like shops behind traditional arches and wooden doors, peddling curios, leather goods and ceramics. Further down the road, we veered off into a labyrinth of windy up-and-down cobbled pathways, little more than a metre wide in most places, walls all white and blue with little wooden doorways dotted here and there, sometimes up a few stairs or recessed into a corner. Apparently people live here. Not sure where they shop, where they park their cars or how they get their groceries back and forth… But it is awesome!

After a brief issue over re-grouping, our guide managed to herd us all back to the bus to drop us at the relevant hotel. Ours is called the Rihab, which inspired it as the punchline in whether or not we wanted to go there. After a long day, though, it was “yes, yes, yes” and it was good to call it a day and have some downtime.