Morocco: The Marrakesh Express

November 1999


There was only one realistic option open to me to get from Tunis, in Tunisia, to Casablanca, in Morocco; that was to fly. The borders with Algeria were closed to tourists so crossing by land was impossible and the sea option would of taken too long sailing back and forward between Europe. Before the civil war started in Algeria during the early 1990's it was possible to travel by train on the Trans Maghreb Express from Tunis to Casablanca via Algiers; this service has been suspended until further notice. In more peaceful times this would have been my chosen method of transport, but as things stood today I had to board a Tunis Air flight for the two and a half hour flight to Casablanca. Flying over Algeria the countryside looked no different to that of Tunisia and Morocco, you could see the villages and farms, the fields being cultivated. What you could not see was the war and the fear. It's strange how these invisible boundaries can create a no go area.

We landed at Casablanca's Mohammed V International Airport to rapturous applause from the other passengers. I still don't understand this practice, usually while flying on Developing World Airlines, of applauding after touching down on the runway. Did I miss an announcement from the pilot of some potential disaster we managed to avoid? The time was 10.15 so I didn't have to rush into the city to find a hotel for the night. I could take my time and relax. There was a direct rail link to the city about 30km to the northwest, which avoided having to haggle with any taxi drivers. My arrival in Casablanca was definitely one of the more hassle free arrivals I have experienced. The train took 35 minutes to reach the Casa-Port station. After my recent stays at of the youth hostels in Tunisia I thought I'd check out the youth hostel in the medina, especially as the budget hotels listed in my guidebook seemed very unappealing and were situated in the dodgy areas downtown. As soon as I stepped out of the Casa-Port station my backpack became a beacon for every hustler in town to offer their 'services'. I kindly refused and managed to shake most of them off walking along Boulevard des Almohades, the medina walls on one side and the port on the other. The youth hostel was well signposted and was just inside the second gate along this road about half a kilometre from the railway station in Place de l'Amiral Philibert, a compact shady square just inside the gate.

In 1830 Casablanca was no more than a village with a population under 1000 living in the medina. It was at this time that the French occupied neighbouring Algeria and European interest in Morocco increased. During the 1800's French and Spanish colonies were set up along the coast and European merchants began trading in Casablanca. The huge expansion of Casablanca into a major port and economic centre did not occur until 1912 after the declaration of the French protectorate. The country was divided in two with the Spanish sphere of influence to the north and the French to the south. Today Casablanca has a population of 3 million and is Morocco's largest city. The old medina is a tiny enclave surrounded by the port and the new city constructed largely by the French, featuring wide boulevards and 1930's architecture. This history gave the city a very European feel, which was also matched by the population; men wearing smart business suits and women wearing designer dresses. If it were not for the Hassan II mosque towering over the city you would be hard pressed to think that you were in a Muslim country. Every now and then though, you were reminded when an old man in traditional dress would shuffle past you in a crowd.

There's not an awful lot to do or see in the city, except visiting the Hassan II Mosque of course. During the afternoon I wandered through the rabbit warren of streets in the medina, where I was constantly pestered by hustlers trying to sell hashish and on to the new city. I had to send some emails after only finding one Internet café in Tunisia. I wasn't having much luck here either and finally ended up in the business suite at the Meridian hotel, with prices to match. I walked back along the port back past the medina to the Hassan II Mosque that sits on a headland jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. The mosque is an impressive sight and so are the statistics. It is the second largest religious monument in the world, after Mecca; it can hold 25,000 worshippers inside the mosque, complete with a retractable roof, and another 80,000 in the esplanades surrounding it; it took 6000 craftsmen five years to build and cost about US$800 million; it has the tallest minaret in the world standing at 210m and was completed in 1993. Walking up to the mosque felt more like going to a large sports stadium with signs directing traffic to various underground car parks. The esplanade was very peaceful, away from the traffic, the ocean waves crashing against the rocks and families strolling around. I spent some time sitting on the sea wall watching life go by thinking of what to do tomorrow before returning to the hostel.

By the time I had returned to the hostel in the late afternoon quite a few other travellers had checked in. It seemed that half of us had just arrived in the country and the other half were on their way out. It was a good opportunity to get some on the road travel advice. In my conversations two towns kept cropping up as good places to visit, which were both popular with travellers. One was Essaouira, on the coast north of Agadir and the other was Chefchaounen in the Rif Mountains. The majority of people were only stopping in Casablanca for one night and Marrakesh seemed to be the most popular next destination. I too had decided that I would take the morning train to Marrakesh tomorrow and if there was something I had missed in Casablanca I would have time to see it when I returned to catch my flight back to Tunis after my trip around the country.

The next morning, after a noisy nights sleep in a dormitory room at the hostel, I walked back up the road to the station. To get to Marrakesh I would have to first take a local train to the main station in Casablanca, Casa-Voyageurs and pick up the Marrakesh Express there. I'm sorry but I would be lying if I said I was not humming that Crosby Stills Nash and Young song; it's funny how a train ride can be immortalised in song, now here I was doing that trip. On the platform at the Casa-Voyageurs station I bumped into Frank, from Denmark and a Japanese lad, whose name escapes me now, who were also at the hostel last night. We boarded the train and travelled together to Marrakesh a journey of about four hours. The train wound its way out through the suburbs of Casablanca; slum dwellings lined the side of the track in places. Even though these shacks were only made of corrugated iron some had a satellite dish stuck in a bucket of concrete on the roof. Poverty looked rife in these slums with little sanitation and these satellite dishes just looked so out of place. Once out of the city the train crossed the plains south of Casablanca. The scenery became monotonous after a while, just endless ploughed fields stretching as far as you could see to the rolling hills in the distance. I dozed off to the steady rhythm of the train rattling along the tracks.

The train pulled into the station at Marrakesh in the early afternoon. At first we were not sure whether this was Marrakesh or just a suburb as it looked as though we were a long way from the city centre. In fact the station is just to the west of the Ville Nouvelle and the medina is east of this new city. We decided to walk to the medina where we planned to stay, as outside the station it was a chaotic scene of people scrambling for taxis laden down with their luggage. It was a hot and sunny day, the walk to the medina was longer than we thought and we were soon regretting our decision not to fight for a taxi at the station. Navigation through the city was easy as the Ville Nouvelle was laid out in the traditional French style of wide long tree lined boulevards; at least we were not getting lost. We entered the medina surrounded by the old city walls through the Bab Larissa on Avenue Mohammed V. After walking nearly 4 km from the station we arrived at the Hotel Ali on Rue de Moulay Ismail opposite the Place de Foucald, a small leafy square. The main square of the medina the Place Djemaa el-Fna was just a couple of hundred metres to the north. Alongside the Place de Foucald was a horse and carriage stand, a popular form of transport around the city for mostly tourists, but locals alike. Towards the south of us the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque towered over the old city. The Hotel Ali was busy and I think we were lucky to get a room for three that night. It must have been one of the most popular hotels in town; everyone was staying there from budget travellers like us to large tour groups. We split the cost of our triple room on the second floor and paid 40 Dirham each. This was excellent value for an en-suite room with our own balcony. The hotel was kept spotlessly clean and would definitely be my recommendation if you found yourself in Marrakesh.

There was a terrace on the roof with panoramic views across the city. The city appeared to be surrounded by mountains on three sides The High Atlas Mountains stretching away to the east, the peaks already capped with snow. To the north you could look down on the Place Djemaa el-Fna, the square famous for its nighttime food stalls and traditional entertainment. The square was relatively quiet compared to the evening, the juice sellers around the edge of the square were doing a brisk business and the snake charmers were doing their best to scare the tourists. Most of the activity was along the north side of the square, where a steady stream of people, both locals and tourists were making their way into and out of the labyrinth of streets in the souqs. The old buildings in the medina and the old city walls were all ochre coloured giving Marrakesh a distinctive look. The city had a distinctive African feel to it, very different to the more cosmopolitan European Casablanca I had left that morning.

The Almoravid sultan Youssef bin Tachfin founded Marrakesh in 1062 AD. It was the Muslim Spanish craftsmen who built the first urbane buildings in an Andalusian style. In 1147 the city was destroyed when captured by the Almohads. The Andalusian craftsmen again rebuilt the city that became the capital of the Almohad Empire until its collapse in 1269. The new rulers, the Merenids moved the capital north to Fes and Marrakesh went into decline. It was not until the 16th century that Marrakesh again became the capital, this time of the Saadian Empire. During the intervening period the Portuguese tried to capture the city in 1515. The Alawites succeeded the Saadians and the capital was again moved north, this time to Meknes. Modern day Marrakesh is largely the result of the building work carried out by the French during the protectorate period, when the Ville Nouvelle was constructed to the west of the medina and the medina itself was restored. Tourism has been the key to modern day Marrakesh's prosperity; the city is now the fourth largest in Morocco with a population of 1.5 million and is on everyone's list of cities to visit while in Morocco. The city is positioned at a crossroads connecting the north with the south and the coastal plains to the deserts past the High Atlas Mountains. It is also an important trading centre for merchants from the plains and from further away in the High Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert.

I went for a stroll that afternoon into the bustling souqs, dodging the snake charmers and their cobras in the Place Djemaa el-Fna. It could be easy to get lost in the teeming souqs, which were mostly covered blocking out the sun and your only hope of successful navigation. At first every street looked the same, crowds of energetic consumers haggling with persistent shopkeepers. Down these streets men on bicycles or mopeds would weave their way through the crowds travelling no faster than those on foot. Every now and then the flow of traffic would grind to a halt, as a cart laden down with goods would make its slow progress through the souq. At prominent positions along the streets and at junctions the cities less fortunate residents, mostly the old and disabled, would quietly stand begging. After walking for about an hour or so, probably mostly in circles, I began to get my bearings. I identified the main streets running roughly north, south and the smaller side streets leading off these. The side streets could be recognised from the goods they were selling. One street would be full of fabric shops, another pottery and another brassware. I eventually emerged out of the souqs at what I thought would be Place Djemaa el-Fna but found myself in a street somewhere to the west. Taking my bearings from the tall minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque in the distance I walked back to the Hotel Ali to meet up with Frank and the Japanese traveller.

That evening the three of us went to the Place Djemaa el-Fna to eat out at one of the food-stalls. Since my walk around the medina that afternoon the square had been transformed. Bright kerosene lamps hung from the orange juice stalls around the perimeter and row upon row of food-stalls had been set up covering almost half the square. Smoke from all the cooking drifted lazily across the square in the warm evening breeze. The square had really come alive now the sun had set. Entertainers had set up their pitches; these included acrobats, fire-eaters, storytellers and musicians; each attracting a jostling crowd around them fighting to get a view of the action. After one act finished the crowd would quickly migrate to the next entertainer setting up. The snake charmers were still there doing a brisk business scaring more tourists who were arriving by the busload all evening. We walked around the food-stalls to see what was cooking. Some of the stalls didn't look that appetizing with a large pot boiling animal heads, others with a mountain of snails on offer to the more adventurous diner. Others just served soups but the majority had a wide menu serving freshly grilled meats, couscous, salads, bread and chips. The salads and meats were prominently displayed around the stalls lit up by the bright lamps hanging above.

Every stall we passed the owner would shout at us to come over and sit down. One of his workers would run out with a laminated menu that had seen better days, shouting items off the menu and their respective prices. We eventually succumbed and sat down to a meal of grilled meat, sausages, salad and bread. The guys working on this stall were totally mad and watching them trying to attract business from passers by was entertainment in itself. We sat there ordering more dishes until we had eaten our full. When we had finished our meal a beggar would politely tap our shoulder and then look at the scraps left on our plates. He would take these scraps around the back of the stall to finish them off. Other young girls would come past and scrape your leftovers into a carrier bag and walk off. No food was ever wasted and everyone in the city, from those with money to those with nothing, never went hungry. We decided that a cup of fresh mint tea would finish off the evening nicely and headed to the popular Argana café to the north of the square. They had a large tiered terrace on the roof overlooking the square. Eventually we found a seat and the mint tea was delivered. Below us we could watch the tumultuous activity in the square continue through the fog of smoke illuminated by hundreds of kerosene lamps and lights powered by portable generators.

I spent another day in the city, it was the definitely the kind of city where you found yourself just wanting to immerse yourself in the activity and the drama of every day life. Frank left that morning on a tour of the Kasbahs to the east of the mountains arranged at the hotel, as he was only in the country for a week. The next day I planned to go to Essaouira and the Japanese traveller was going to take the train back to Tangiers to catch the ferry to Spain.

Continue reading this journey: The coast to the mountains