Having never visited Morocco or even Africa, I was very excited at the prospect in mid November 2005.
As soon as I boarded the Royal Air Maroc plane at London Heathrow on a late Saturday afternoon I was in another world. Announcements and signage in English French and Arabic. Moroccan stile cuisine and hospitality.
On arrival at the Aeroport Mohammed V after showing you passport several times I was soon on the motorway to Casablanca that is the principal city of the country (but not the capital). It seemed rather like being in France – autoroute signage, A French chain owned DIY store, but not so once the taxi had entered Casablanca itself. Here there were people walking out in front of cars, cars just about avoiding other ones and I was\very pleased I was not actually doing the driving, particularly with the lack of seat belts (or even one that worked!).
There is a great French influence in the country – it was ruled by the French and Spanish till 1956 and a lot of architecture new and old is very much of the French influence and even the Post boxes are the same shape and yellow colour as in France.
November is probably not the best time of year to visit the country, particularly if you don’t want to get wet. The rainy season is from October to November and April to May. On my second day I took the train from Casablanca to Rabat the capital. There is a very efficient and inexpensive rail network that is mainly in the north of the country.
Unfortunately just before arriving at the station in Rabat the heavens opened. They had done on the previous day as I explored Casablanca, but the visit to Rabat only lasted just over an hour, because this wasn’t rain, it was flash floods and the roads suddenly took on the appearance of rivers. So much for exploring Rabat.
The day before in Casablanca was much more successful. I had spent a while reading a popular traveler's guide book that helped me understand more about the culture and people. I was not too surprised with offers by people wanting to help, show and ask for money. Men holding hands as they walked along or kissing when they met (like a guard greeting one his passengers) was part of normal life, it happened because they were friends, not a sexual relationship as would be thought of in the west. I also knew that I had to be careful taking photos as many women are not happy about this.
The city has the Mosquee Hassan II a spectacular site, that is built with a glass floor on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The minaret is the tallest in the world — 200 hundred meters high. The roof also opens and shuts.
Unlike a lot of European countries where taxis are modern vehicles, in Morocco you will find the large “Grand” taxis that normally travel with as many people legally possible going from town to city and are usually a Mercedes of the 1980s era that will be a certain colour depending on the town or city they are based in. Each town will also have its own coloured “Petit Taxi”. Theses are normally Peugeots and Fiats (colour coded for each town or city) that most likely started life in the 1980’ and 1990s in Europe and were exported south to start a new lease of life as a passenger carrying vehicle for four.
Moving onto Marrakesh ( known as Marrakech locally) by train proved to be very interesting. Paying the additional amount for first class at least guaranteed a comfortable seat, although my limited experience in second class did not prove to have any discomfort. The landscape changes with more and more “dryer fields”, even cacti being cultivated in places and farmers using ploughs pulled by horses or donkeys. You can see Atlas Mountains in the distance as you come into Marrakesh. Many people decide to stay in the "Ville Nouvelle" where you will find the western style hotels and even villa complexes a few miles out where you are enclosed from the outside “real” world. I was staying in a small Riad in the centre off the Djemaa el Fna – the large city centre square in the Medina.
A Riad is a type of Guest House that is normally built round a patio garden. Normally some of the rooms are open plan to the elements and there is not so much rain there as nearer the coast. The experience of reaching the destination was varied. A petit taxi to the edge of the Djemaa el Fna and then because taxi are not allowed in after midday you have to hire a porter and cart.
The square is full of mobile restaurants, traders, snake charmers and appears to be very much alive most hours of the day.
There are also several panoramic cafés where you can get a superb view day or night of the surrounding scene including the Koutoubia Mosque . If you want to sit there and have a beer or glass of wine think again. Morocco is an Islamic nation so alcohol drinking is not a high priority. Although wine and beer are produced in the country, many cafes and restaurants would only serve light drinks (Coke, orange, mineral water, coffee etc) or the national. drink -mint tea. You certainly would not have a problem in the hotels in the "Ville Nouvelle".
The food is generally excellent and very reasonable as well. The traditional Moroccan — Tajine (A steam cooked meat stew) and couscous were tried.
The country has great contrasts of wealth and poverty. There are numerous developments being built as holiday homes near to Marrakesh and the three hour drive back to Casablanca to take the plane back home took in the new prosperous areas and past little “shanty”town areas of small buildings with corrugated iron roofs held down with boulders and each having a satellite dish. The taxi driver made a couple of stops to buy cigarettes. By the side of the road someone would come out with either packets or split packets. On each occasion the driver bought 2 cigarettes.
Jobs are very important, the host at the Riad said that a waiter in a restaurant cannot afford to make mistakes. He knows that there is another million of unemployed people waiting to take the job. There are numerous police about. Normally going around in fours or more. They man roadblocks at the entrances and exits to most towns. This is probably high security or could be giving the employed force more to do.
If you are going there on holiday make sure that you spend your Dirhams before you get to the airport. You won’t be able to change themback in the departures area or spend them on drink or tobacco at the Duty Free – they only accept euros.
The country is large – about the of California USA, there is a lot to see, I would like to visit other cities like Tangier and Fes. Even though it rained in Casablanca and Rabat it was hot dry and sunny in Marrakesh and the last night of 17 degrees centigrade on the roof of the Riad was quite a contrast to 24 hours later back in the south of England that was undergoing one of the first cold spells of the winter.