Travelmag Banner

Mazed By Morocco

The Middle Atlas

“A toilet, a toilet, my kingdom for a toilet! What the hell, a hole in the ground will do!”

There was some nervousness as we all got on the bus. Our departure was delayed by sudden disappearances, but we eventually got away. We were destined for the Todra Gorges and the “Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs.” I had been looking forward to this drive, but it wasn’t an easy ride. The bus was forced to make a number of unscheduled stops. Shelly was looking greener and greener. When we stopped at Tinejdad (a morning tea stop) almost the whole bus stampeded to the toilet. As we wound our way up into the mountains the scenery became more and more dramatic. The ground was a rich yellow colour, rocky and jagged, but every few miles there suddenly appeared a great gorge in the earth filled with lush greenery – oases. The stark contrast between desert and oasis, death and life was amazing. Dotted throughout this region were thousands of villages, many fortified, without electricity, miles from anywhere, and living a lifestyle that had not changed in millenia. After rising over the mountains, we descended into one of the gorges, past the mud brick villages and palm groves until suddenly we rounded a corner and found ourselves inside the Todra Gorge. The road was nothing more than a bare track and the bus had to ford a small stream. At the end of the gorge, two hotels were tucked under the overhanging cliff. Mohammed announced we would be here for two hours.

Two hours! There really wasn’t much to do in Todra Gorge except wander around the gorge or eat. Considering that many of our group were now sick, neither option sounded particularly inviting. Again there was the rush to the toilet. Shelly and I waited until the rush had passed. Shelly was very unwell now and could neither eat, nor stomach any other activity. Almost everyone else sat down to eat lunch under a berber tent (it was very picturesque). Shelly had water. I had a coffee. About half a dozen other people also didn’t eat. After a while we decided to have a wander. We took the obligatory photos and then Shelly headed back to the tent. She was done. Being in somewhat better condition, I took a walk with a few of the girls to the outskirts of the village further down the gorge. Two hours was way too long to sit around at Todra Gorge, unless you had the time to hike up into the hills (not much of that going on). We were all relieved when the time came to leave. The bus had to wind its way back along the same route it had come.

We stopped at the roadside overlooking a magnificent oasis just outside the gorge. Aggressive hawkers grabbed at us when we got off the coach to take photos. One boy demanded 10 dirham from me after I took a photo of the view. ‘Why?”, I asked him. “For the foto.”, he replied as if he owned the view. I brushed him away, but he was persistent. “Give me money!”, he demanded repeatedly. “No.”, I repeated just as often. “What is this No?”, he asked. Ohh, you know what no means, I thought. A larger boy came over and demanded I pay the younger boy, but I had taken my photos and ignored them both. Shelly had slept uneasily on the bus. She stirred as we pulled away from the oasis. “Did you get a good photo?”, she asked. “Of course.”, I replied. It was a good photo too, maybe even worth 10 dirham.

I slept on and off for while. We stopped at cafe, craft and fossil shop standing alone at the roadside. Once again there was the rush to the toilet. Inside the shop were lots of interesting things, but we didn’t end up buying anything. Shelly was too ill to concentrate on shopping, and I, being a man, and knowing my wife well would not risk making a purchase for fear of hearing the dread words, “You bought THAT?” Oooo, women can be sooooo cold.

About 5 o’clock we arrived in Ouarzazete, one of Morocco’s up and coming resort destinations. We stayed at a kind of holiday resort, something akin to the type you find in Bali. Semi detached units scattered with gardens, a bar and a pool. Mohammed kindly announced tonight was a free night to do whatever we wanted. Hooray! But again, we were situated on the outskirts of town. I had a quick wander around the neighbourhood, but there was nothing to see or do. Our hotel was surrounded by other similar hotels, almost all unfinished. This was a frontier suburb, pushing civilisation into the unknown, and beyond this street of hotels was only desert. As dusk began to fall I thought it better to return to our hotel. Well, it was now almost 6. Dinner was at 7.30. How to kill the remaining time? Shelly had rushed to bed. She would not leave it until 7.30 the next morning (excusing toilet visits). Having been locked out of our bungalow, and not wanting to wake Shell, I joined a small group at the pool. For the first time we had access to a decent bar and despite my stomach I managed to polish off a number of Moroccan beers (much better than the wine!). We chatted about the trip and our various other travels, as travellers do. By the time dinner came around, there were notable absences from our table. Six people didn’t make dinner, including our Tour Manager Jason, but only four of them were absent because of illness. Two were having sex while their room was empty.

Dinner was soup and roast chicken. The bread was good, at least that was what most people ended up eating. It wasn’t that the food was bad, it was simply that half the people couldn’t eat. Big Phil and Rebecca the Hypochondriac both took one look at the food and departed to be sick. At least it stopped Rebecca from talking! God she could talk!

It’s funny how quickly bowel movements can become a topic of conversation amongst any group of travellers. Solutions, cures, diagnosis were offered over the dinner table. People asked each other how they were feeling, where it hurt, are you gassy, etc, etc? It was at least reassuring to not be alone in discomfort. While Shelly was very ill, I had recovered pretty well. It still amazed me how many times you could go to the toilet, even after not eating for 24 hours. At least it wasn’t a desperate, must dash to the toilet NOW, kinda illness. Although, I must admit that by the second night it felt as though the big man of Fes had snuck into my room in the night and given my arse an extra special workover. Not very nice!

After dinner a band played very bad covers of western pop songs. Mohammed was very excited and was encouraging many of the girls to dance. But for me it was a bit much, and the music was so loud you couldn’t talk, so I headed off to bed. On the way I fell in with a girl from Sydney named Alex. At only 19, little Alex was the baby of the group. Immediately before this tour she had stepped off the 46 day Ultimate European (a very wonderful tour if I may say so myself). Alex’s tour had been interrupted by the earthquake in Izmir in Turkey. Their bus was on the road to Istanbul when the earthquake struck. Although Istanbul was not affected, the bus was turned around and they stayed in Cannakale (Gallipoli) for three days. Istanbul is one of the most wonderful cities in the world. Cannakale is somewhere you pass though on your way to somewhere else. It was not a good trade off and a major disappointment to all the people on the tour. Such is the life of a traveller!

We ended up sitting on the steps of my bungalow and talking for several hours. Other people drifted in and out. Some came and sat with us, some passed by. All in all a little group developed and we had an evening of pleasant conversation. By 9.30 the band had packed up and gone to bed. Unfortunately for Mohammed he hadn’t managed to score, and he told the few remaining girls at the bar that we were “a sad group.” Oh yeah, but it’s pretty hard to be happy when your arse is falling out. We called it a night about 11.30 – our latest night out in Morocco!

The next morning we were treated to a breakfast of pancakes and sun dried croissants. I heard that all the croissants that weren’t eaten at breakfast are crushed up and used as road base. They were that hard! Again Shelly chose not to eat. As I took the bags out to the coach, Shelly bumped into Jason, our Tour Manager, looking a little pale and worse for wear. He said, “You know, I was really looking forward to coming to Morocco. Now I can’t wait to see the back of it!”

Happier days

We drove past the Ouarzazate film studios on our way into the High Atlas mountains. Mock Egyptian statues, obelisks and a pyramid towered over the plain, with the mountains as a scenic backdrop. Morocco stands in for Egypt in many films, most recently “The Mummy”. “Laurence of Arabia” and “The Sheltering Sky” were also filmed here. Disappointingly, we missed seeing the kasbah, which apparently is the highlight of Ouarzazate.

As we drove towards the distant mountains Mohammed regaled us with facts about his country. Most people fell instantly asleep, as he had a very melodic and soothing voice. He also had a distracting habit of waking up the snoozing bus to point out items that were totally mundane. “Look everybody. To the right you can see the date palms. There are 12 million date palms in Morocco. Most grow in the south. We call these palmeries, which means a grove of palms. From the palms we get dates. If you look carefully you can see the dates. See. There are many dates. It is a very important crop.” And so on and so on. Then, to be sure we didn’t miss anything he would point out every palm grove we passed for the next hour.

It sounds like I am being a spiteful little bastard, doesn’t it. But it’s not true, Mohammed was a very good guide and he provided lots of information about Morocco, and Islam, and I always listened to everything he said.

On the drive to Ouarzazate he talked alot about Islam and Morocco’s place in the Islamic world. Morocco has freedom of religion, and is a very liberal country – relatively speaking. Women do not have to wear the veil, but in the country, where life is more traditional, most do. There were many strange contradictions in dress standards in Morocco. On our last night in Casablanca we had a drink in the bar of our hotel. Across from us was a Moroccan couple, obviously very wealthy. He was wearing a suit. She was wearing a black veil, the kind that ties around the front under the chin, completely obscuring her neck and shoulders. But she was also wearing a black shiffon top that was completely see through, revealing her black lace bra. Can’t show your hair in public, but revealing your tits is alright!

Mohammed was a modern Moroccan, and was proud of the freedom his country enjoyed, especially compared to Saudi Arabia or Tunisia (which I thought was a strange comparison as Tunisia is on a par with Morocco in the “western tourism” stakes. Tunisia is marketed as having the best beaches in the Mediterranean, and Germans and the French flock their each year. Perhaps he meant Algeria? Every Moroccan we spoke to hated the Algerians).

But Mohammed also embodied that contradiction that we westerners see in Muslims. For despite his “western” outlook – freedom of choice, equality of women, drinking of alcohol – he firmly admired the Saudi system of justice. Mohammed felt crime in Morocco was escalating, especially around tourist areas. He believed a return to sharia law was the only way to restore order. The sharia is the Islamic traditional law – eye for an eye, etc. Thieves should have their hands chopped off. It was a startling and brave confession to make on a bus full of westerners, and it certainly woke everyone up. He obviously felt he had to justify this belief and he went into a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of implementing sharia law. We discussed this later while sitting on the step to my bungalow in Ouarzazate. Most people we quite shocked, and it seemed to reinforce the general view that Islam and Arabs were barbarous and cruel. In hindsight though, this viewpoint is not so shocking. Consider the reaction to rising crime in Australia (for all you Australians). Aren’t we always hearing calls for the return of the death penalty? For the cane? For flogging? Hang a few people as a warning. That will stop murders. Cut off a few hands. That will stop thieves. It is a typical reactionary response to a modern crisis, that is why it will never work in practice.

After a time we began an ascent into the High Atlas mountains – the highest in Morocco. Gone was the flat and featureless plain, with its sparse population. More people lived in the mountains. It may have seemed a precarious existence – no electricity, few comforts, horrendous transport problems – but many people had chosen to live there. Most of the people were berbers. Villages clustered up and down the mountain sides, along the valleys, even on the cliff tops. The houses were made of mud, rectangular and appeared dirt poor. Unlike their counterparts on the plain, there were no satelitte dishes up here! Gone too were the kasbahs that featured in every plains village. Perhaps people felt safe enough in the mountains to do away with fortifications. Perhaps they were simply too hard to build. The road became increasingly winding, and progress became increasingly slow. We stopped at a little lookout for a rest. The trip was coming to an end and we still had not bought any souveniers. We spent a lot of time in the enormous shop, which sold fossils, woodwork, ceramics and jewellery. After much negotiation we walked out with two huge glazed bowls. We were pretty happy with the price. The salesman accepted our second offer, which made us instantly think we had paid too much (yep, we did!). But still…. Then we pushed on. We drove through the Tiz-n-Ticka pass, one of the highest passes in Morocco. The view was terrific but we did not stop. It was all downhill from here, but the nature of the mountains had changed. Now there were hairpin turns along sheer drops every 500 metres. The road narrowed to virtually a single lane. Everyone went quite. But our driver was excellent, and kept us on the road. At one point we passed an observation post on the point of a cliff. We could not work out what they were doing there. About 30 minutes later we were stopped by a flagman holding up all traffic. Ahead road workers were repairing a segment of road, then another sheer hairpin turn. We sat there waiting for sometime. Then, as we looked around, we realised what the observation post was for. It was situated on a the crest of a mountain that was now way over to our right. From that vantage point the observers could see around the other side of the mountain were we were stopped. They were spotting for traffic coming up the other way, and letting the flagman know when it was safe to let vehicles pass.

Maybe it was the thin atmosphere, or the sharply winding roads, or the lack of food, but as we descended Shelly began to grow paler and paler. She closed her eyes and held on to the seat in front of her. My poor darling was having such a shitty time in Morocco! Nothing seemed to go right.

After a while we stopped at another lookout and enjoyed the view. Shelly walked around and got some fresh air, then it was back on the bus. We were lower down now, and the roads were wider and our driver was getting a bit over-excited, going faster and faster. This, of course, didn’t help young Shelly one iota – but she kept it together until we touched down on the plain.


“We’re on the road to Marrakesh, on the road to Marrakesh, all aboard that train,….” Crosby Stills and Nash.

The red city of Marrakesh sits on the plain at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains in the south of Morocco. One of the great Imperial cities, former capital, and the place after which Morocco gets its name – Marrakesh = Maroc = Morocco. A legendary, exotic city. Every building in the city is red – or more accurately, pink – except the opera house, which is yellow. I love Marrakesh. The jewel of Morocco – the best and most interesting city. In some respects this is because we left the tour at Marrakesh and had the time to enjoy it at our own pace. While almost everyone else was on a plane home the moment they finished the tour, Shelly and I had four extra days in Morocco. This was as much the result of poor planning on our part, than any intention to stay and explore. We mixed up our travel dates! If we’d had to spend our remaining four days in Casablanca, where the tour ends, we would have been very unhappy campers. Casablanca is, well, not really anything at all. Marrakesh suddenly appeared our of nowhere, which is odd considering it is in the middle of a vast flat plain. Suddenly we were on the outskirts. We detoured through new apartment blocks, then through an ancient wall enclosing a vast and disorderly garden. From the other side of the garden/park we could see a view that is on a thousand postcards – Marrakesh’s ancient city walls, palm trees, and the High Atlas Mountains – what a perspective! But we weren’t given much of a chance to enjoy it. We drove on around the outskirts of the old city and back into the new. The new is as non-descript as any city in Morocco, except that it is all red/pink.

We parked the bus on the edge of the city by the Bab Agnaou, we disembarked and walked to the Sa’adian tombs. The sixteenth century Sa’ada dynasty ruled Morocco from Marrakesh. Like the Merenids of Rabat, they buried their sultans in a fortified temple complex in the middle of town. After the last Sa’adian’s died out, their tomb was closed up and in the fullness of time was completely forgotten. In 1917, after the French seized control of Morocco, pilots conducting an aerial survey of the city spotted the strange enclosure within the city. The French governor, General Lyautey, was a keen archaeologist, and he hurried to the spot with his engineers. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find any trace of the site from the ground and had to resort to enquiring with the locals – who also knew nothing. Eventually, they smashed their way through some old houses and an ancient wall and lo!

Having been sealed up for so long and forgotten, the elegant artwork, mosaics and sculpture was completely undamaged, as if sealed in a time capsule. Now they are a major tourist attraction. As in Rabat, the tombs themselves were small and insignificant. Little more than a mosaic slab on the ground, but the mosques that were built to enclose them were fabulously sculpted and ornate. We did the quick walk around the pleasant garden, then we were off.

Across the street we were taken to a “berber supermarket.” Please read “tourist trap.” Inside they sold a variety of cooking spices, herbal and folk remedies and other oddities. They catered for everything from bad skin to premature ejaculation (a really popular one, I can tell you!). The American girls went to town when they were offered a herbal mixture guaranteed to help you lose weight. Our guide then warned us to be careful with the mixture as it was a diuretic. Phil and I looked at one another and understood exactly how that “remedy” was supposed to work. The American girls had not suffered the shits like the rest of us, so it was rather amusing to think they were about to give it to themselves voluntarily. This was good fun, but considering we only had half a day in Marrakesh, it wasn’t a good use of our time. Towards the end, when the happy shoppers were negotiating their sales with the single cashier, I left and wandered around the nearby shops. Unlike the shopkeepers in the previous Moroccan cities we had visited, the Marrakeshi shopkeepers were persistent and annoying. In surveys conducted by the Moroccan government, over 90% of tourists surveyed said they would never return to Marrakesh, and cited hassling shopkeepers and hawkers and their principal frustration. The government was so shocked by this finding that efforts were made to clamp down on hawkers.

After the shopping was completed, we were whisked over to the Djemma el-fna – the place of executions – the huge market square that is the heart of Marrakesh. Here everthing congregates. It is a pagent, a festival of the senses. The square is actually the shape of a reversed L. The first part of the square is bordered by a main road at its bottom end, and the enormous covered market – the bazaar – at its top. Running around the top end are hundreds of juice stalls. For 2.5 dirham (about 25 cents) you can buy a refreshing glass of icey cold orange juice. At first we were wary – what about the water they must use for ice? Is it clean? Is it drinkable? Then we thought about our situation – we already had the shits, and it was damned hot in the square. We drowned our thirst with many glasses of juice over the coming days, and nothing – nothing – is more refreshing than an icey cold glass of freshly squeezed orange juice on a hot day!

Within the ring created by the juice stalls all manner of strange characters gather. Brightly coloured water sellers in their elaborate costumes, snake charmers, jugglers, storytellers, magicians, henna artists, all swarm through the crowds plying their trades. As soon as she stepped from the bus Shelly was pounced on by a couple of berber girls offering to paint her hands with henna, one pulling this way, one pulling that way. We had to fight our way into the crowd, but once we had reached the centre of the square we were left alone – the girls concentrate along the road edge to catch the tourists as they step from the buses. For a short while we watched a snake charmer coaxing a cobra out of a basket. I paid one fellow ten dirham for a photo and crouched down by the man and his cobra (you have to pay if you take a photo, if you don’t someone will grab your camera and smash it). Before I knew it the other fellow had grabbed two more snakes and dropped them around my neck. I must admit I was a little surprised. After Shelly took the photo I went to give the snakes back to the owner, but he held my hand and asked, “Deutsch?” “No, Australian.” Ahhh, he nodded. “English, yes.” Near enough. He then held the snakes to my hand and went into an elaborate good luck blessing. Of course, when he had finished he asked for 100 dirham for his blessing. As an added incentive he held the snakes tightly around my neck. “No.”, I said, and gave him 20 dirham. It was more than enough, he nodded and thanked me and removed the snakes and wished me “welcome to Morocco.”

Shelly and I knew exactly where we were going – the bazaar. We were going shopping! So after a quick look around we made a beeline to the main entrance. We obviously looked like we knew what we were doing as we picked up a few stragglers along the way – Gary from England, who was looking for a leather jacket, and Laurence (a girl) from Canada who was looking to get away from being hassled. The markets were great, filled with all the goodies you normally expect from a bazaar – lots of handicrafts – leather, ceramic, woodwork, metal work, carpets, food stalls, olives olives olives, strange exotic pets. We were after ceramics. We followed Gary into a few jacket shops, as he wasn’t too confident, either with what he wanted, or how much he wanted to pay. He was also a big boy, and getting a jacket to fit wasn’t easy. We went into about 10 shops before we decided to go our own way. Being a Canadian, Laurence could translate French for Gary, so they didn’t do too badly. In the end he bought the first jacket he looked at in the first store he visited.

Shelly and I had a great time buying up ceramics, of which Morocco produces some excellent work. We bought three huge bowls for the same price we paid for two in the Atlas Mountains – oh well. We also bought a big tajine dish and a huge variety of other items. Our hand luggage felt like it was weighed down with cement! We had to meet the bus at 8, to take us back to the hotel to get changed for our last dinner together. The “fantasia” dinner was an option, and while very good, very few of us were keen to go. No one wanted to eat. Everyone was tired. We had all paid up front at the beginning of the tour. Jason had tried to get our money back, but it was a hopeless cause, as the Moroccan’s had never heard of refunds. It was a case of go, or lose your money. As we started to make our way out of the bazaar, I came across a fossil shop. I had a quick browse and was impressed at some of the specimens on display. The owner engaged me in a conversation about the fossils, how he supplied museum quality specimens around the world, etc etc. I informed him I was only an amatuer collector and didn’t have that kind of money to spend. Then he asked me, if I could have anything in his shop what would it be? That’s how it starts people, these salesmen are very clever! I liked a very large trilobite, and also a large fish (it was about a foot long). “How much would you offer for these?”, he asked. I told him no, I would not be able to afford it. “They are outside my price range.” But he was persistant. “We are just talking. You don’t have to buy. You tell me how much, and I will see if I can help you.” I kept avoiding the issue (never be the first to state a price) and apologising that I didn’t want to offend him by offering a lower price than they were worth. Eventually, he told me he wanted about 6000 dirham for both. Of course, what did I expect? I apologised for wasting his time. But no, he took my arm. Have a seat. Shelly was sitting outside (she needed some air) and he went and got her a stool. “let us have some tea!”, my new friend said. I looked at my watch. It was 7.45 and we were still deep in the bazaar. We really had to go. “Sorry, I must go to catch a bus.” But there was no escaping… and our friend no concept of ‘pressed for time’.

To cut a long story short, I walked out with a large fossil fish for about 1200 dirham. It was a damn good buy. It was a pity we were so rushed for time, I would have liked to have sat in the shop, having a mint tea, negotiating – it was fun. Later that evening, we went to the “Fantasia” dinner, which is really a Moroccan version of Disney Land. It was completely over the top, with an artificial kasbah, palace, a “Dome of the Rock” and berber tents. Simply amazing. We were escorted though various tribal/cultural groups all singing and dancing etc etc. We were seated in a sumptuous tent. The initial service was good, but our waiter spoke absolutely no english. Everyone at our table was sick and only two of us actually ate – which was pretty good for the two of us! They did the best kofta tajine, but again the cous cous was rather plain. I tried to order more drinks later in the evening, but the waiter simply couldn’t understand what I wanted, so it was a real dry night. After dinner there was an impressive display of andalusion trick riding, parades, berbers on camels firing old muskets into the air, and belly dancing. It was all good fun.

As we drove back to the hotel that night, I got up and made a little speech at the front of the bus, thanking Jason, Mohammed, Ahmed and Rashid and wishing everyone the best for the rest of their trip. Shelly and I were getting off the bus at Marrakesh. We really hadn’t had enough time to get attached to anyone in seven days, and when the bus pulled in to the hotel everyone just wandered off to bed. When we got up the next morning the bus had gone, and we never saw anyone ever again.

We spent the remaining two days taking it easy. Lazing by the pool, wandering back and forth into the city, visiting the bazaar (again and again and doing more and more shopping), wandering along the ancient city walls. We visited the Koutoubia Mosque, the tallest in Marrakesh and the counterpart to the Tour Hassan in Rabat. But we didn’t see any of the palaces, as they were always closed when we walked past. Pity. We had planned to visit the La Mamounia Hotel, Winston Churchill’s favourite hotel. It is a very colonial hotel, where you need to dress well to get in. It has a fine collection of Winston’s paintings too. But again, it just seemed too much effort to get dressed up in the heat.

On our last night we went into the square for dinner. About sundown, all the performers disappear and a hundred little food stalls are set up offering everything from snails, lambs brains, kebabs and fish. We had kebabs. It was a good cheap meal, with chips and salad, and we didn’t die of food poisoning. After we had done one last circuit of the bazaar we stopped for an orange juice. I was accosted by a pretty little girl trying to beg a dirham. She was well dressed and obviously didn’t need the money. Cheapskate that I am, I refused. She was a precocious little performer, alternately batting her eyelids seductively, blowing kisses, pretending to cry, pulling on my arm. I finally shook her off as we made our way through the crowd, but I admired her persistence. I wondered what she would become when she grew up? An actor? Or a prostitute? It was a sad thought. The former would be better, but opportunity would probably mean the latter. We are lucky to live in a country where opportunity abounds.

Back at the hotel we began the ominous task of packing our bags. We were now carrying about three tons of ceramics – and none of it small stuff! – iron candlestick holders, two carpets and a hole pile of sundry other shit. It was scary. It was also impossible to carry. We were in trouble.

Casablanca: “Play it again, Sam.”

Humphrey Bogart never said “Play it again, Sam.” and he never went to Casablanca. When we were back home telling people we were going to Morocco and were confronted with that look that said, “huhh? what? where?” we said, “you know, Casablanca.” They would all go “ahhh, yes. I see.” and still have no idea where it was. But it sounds exotic. Unfortunately, the real place doesn’t live up to the exotic mental image. Casablanca was a creation of the French. They needed an Atlantic ocean port. So they built one on the site of a tiny white walled kasbah – the white castle. As a port it is one of the busiest in the region. What’s more impressive is that it is all artificial. There is no natural harbour. The wild Atlantic is kept at bay by enormous man made sea walls. When we stepped from the train station we were off the map contained in my Lonely Planet guide. Struggling under the enormous weight of our bags we marched out across the carpark into the hotel directly across the street. It was expensive and Shelly wasn’t keen. I couldn’t have cared less! We dropped our bags and headed into town.

If we could find it that is!! Morocco has an identity crisis. Many streets still have signs dating back to the French occupation – named after famous frogs. Since independence these streets have been renamed after Moroccans – such as the ubiquitous Mohammed V and Hassan II. In reality the streets signs say one thing, the map says another and… well… we were lost. We later found out that the side of town near the trainstation was pretty much a red district. It was sunday however, and no one was working. At any rate Casablanca is bland, dirty and not particularly interesting.

We eventually reached United Nations Square at the heart of town and entered the medina. It was small and full of markets, but there was nothing particularly inspiring on sale. We wandered through the residential area; grimy and unwelcoming, like Tangier; before arriving at the harbour. From the harbour we walked along the coast road until we reached THE single tourist attraction Casablanca has to offer – the Hassan II Mosque – the second largest religious building in the world.

And which is the largest religious building in the world, I hear you ask? Choose from the list below:

a) St Peters Cathedral in Rome

b) St Pauls Cathedral in London

c) Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

d) The K’abah in Mecca

e) The Taj Mahal in India

f) The Registan in Uzbekistan

A tip – one of these is not a religious building and has been thrown in to confuse you!

As far as buildings go the Hassan II Mosque isn’t really that attractive. It could be described as an enormous square block of coloured marble sitting on a man made pier jutting provocatively into the Atlantic. When you first see it you think, hmmm, it’s big, but not really that big. And then you walk, and walk, and walk and keep on walking and all the time it doesn’t seem to get any closer. Then you realise just how big it really is. It can apparently contain all of the above listed buildings (bar one) inside it – individually of course! In total it can hold about 100,000 worshippers inside, and outside on the surrounding pavillions. The roof slides open to let in the sun. The enormous minaret, set at a 45% angle to the rest of the building looks like a windowless, mosaic covered skyscraper. No expense was spared on the construction, which was completed in 1993. Moroccans paid for it with taxes and private subscription. They are immensely proud of their achievement. We arrived at a time when the Mosque was closed to visitors. We stood by the open doors and gazed in at the columns and carved woodwork and mosaics. It was grand. We sat by the sea wall and watched the waves pound against the foundations. Some brave (insane) souls were body surfing in the huge swells. But our gaze was drawn again and again to the enormous building towering over us.And that was it really. We wandered back to the hotel. Had a dreadful night sleep – we were right behind the train station remember. We caught the early morning train to the airport, and flew back to London. It was all over. We kicked around Oxford for three days and caught up with some friends. Then it was homeward bound. I am still amazed at how we managed to get all our hand luggage on the plane!

So, to the big question, the ultimate assessment of any journey – would we go back to Morocco again. I’d have to say yes. I was an interesting place, but I wouldn’t bother doing a tour. It’s easy enough to travel around on your own. It would be helpful to know a bit of French, but not essential. I would definitely spend more time in Marrakesh and Fes, and in the kasbahs of the Atlas. I would also visit some of the coastal cities, like Agadir and Essaoiria (or however it is spelt). It would also be good not to get sick, but hey… that can happen anywhere.

Then again, there are so many other places in the world that we have never been………

The answer to the above question is: The K’abah in Mecca. The Taj Mahal is not a religious building. It is a mausoleum.


   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines