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Iguanas and Peacocks

The first, and only, time I ever saw ‘Road to Morocco’, supposedly the best ‘Road’ movie that Hope, Crosby and Lamour ever made, was when I was ten or eleven. All I remember is the plucky trio racing on horseback across desert dunes.

That image comes back as we land in Agadir courtesy of Thomas Cook and join the minibus to Marrakech: the first stop on a journey to Fez.
There are only five of us for Marrakech. The others are a group of four Chinese who look bewildered, as if they’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere.
No dunes in sight but, as the song goes, ‘We’re off on the Road to Morocco, ……’.

The first part of the 300km journey is slow. There are road works and we are stuck behind a stream of lorries. Their loads are stacked so high, it seems that they must capsize as we round even the slightest bend. The route climbs in zig-zags from the coast through rocky hills up to a plateau where we make better time.

Casa Voyageurs

Half way, we stop for a tea and comfort break at a roadside café. Across the road is a shop full of honey from the High Atlas Mountains. The Chinese are shocked when they learn that Marrakech is still two hours away.

From here on the landscape is flat and barren with mountains in the far distance. At last, there are the wide streets of Marrakech’s ville nouvelle, lined with ochre-washed apartments and office blocks. I am delivered to the Hotel Oudaya: the Chinese are staying somewhere else.

The place to go in Marrakech is the Djemaa El Fna, the great square filled with jugglers, fortune-tellers, story-tellers, scribes, drummers, snake-charmers, medicine-men and orange-juice wagons. You can sit in one of the many cafes which border the square and watch the pageant.

Marrakech souk

To the north of Djemaa El Fna are the souks, a complex of lanes with narrow passages branching off in all directions. The packed stalls and kiosks have everything you would expect and more; carpets, jewellery, pointy slippers, djebellas, silver thrones, spices, leather bags, iguanas and peacocks. It is shaded, cool and free from hassle.

South of Djemaa El Fna is the Medina, a more pragmatic commercial area. Nothing exotic here, but plenty of pots and pans, carburettors and gear boxes.

To the east of the Medina is the Bahia Palace. Built in the 1880s by Grand Vizier Bou Ahmed, gardens and shady courtyards link public rooms and private apartments for the Vizier’s wives and many concubines. Colourful mosaics cover the ceilings.

The Oudaya offers a trip to Ouarzazate where sand dunes might be found but it’s very expensive. A more economical alternative might be to take a bus from the CTM office around the corner and arrange your own accommodation.

There isn’t that much time in a 14-night package, so I decide to give Ouarzazate a miss and continue on to Casablanca and Fez by train. I catch a petit taxi to the railway station to pick up a time-table and plan the next stage of the journey.

The 0900 express from Marrakech to Casablanca leaves dead on time. Morocco’s ONCF (Office National de Chemins de Fers) is a clone of the French railway system, SNCF (Societe National de Chemins de Fers). Apart from the colour scheme, the trains look the same. Station design is the same. Even that ding-dong chime which precedes station announcements is familiar.

Gare de Casablanca

The First Class compartment is air-conditioned, the seat is reserved and a refreshment trolley passes by every half hour. All the comforts and amazingly cheap: the three-hour trip has cost only £7.40.
At first, stoney desert flicks by the window but, as we get closer to the coast this changes to wheat fields and olive groves. We arrive at Casablanca’s Voyageurs Station exactly at 1210 as promised. I duck into the tunnel to Platform 3 to catch the local going south to El Jadida.
The local is more relaxed. We meander through more wheat fields and olive trees with occasional glimpses of the sea. The driver stops at an abandoned halt so that he and the guard can share a cigarette. Twenty minutes late we pull into El Jadida station. It’s the end of the line and no onward connexion is at risk so nobody minds.

The final destination today is the little resort of Sidi Bouzid a few kilometres south of El Jadida. The petit taxi from El Jadida station isn’t allowed to operate outside the town so I am dropped off at the grand taxi  rank.
It takes about ten minutes to get to the Club Hacienda in Sidi Bouzid. The place is shabby and uncared-for but the comfortable apartment has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting-dining room and a fully fitted kitchen for only £27 a night.

Sidi Bouzid has a 1950’s French bourgeois feel about it: one expects Monsieur Hulot to pop around the corner at any minute. It’s off-season and a bit sad, the concessions shuttered, the swimming pools and fountains dry. The Promenade is cold and windy even in mid-May. Not the place to get the sun-tan I had hoped for. It comes alive with surfers in August and September.

On the beach, two disreputable characters jingling bunches of keys offer a villa for £17 a night. Tempting, but I am moving on.

Citerne in the cite portugaise

El Jadida is a pretty town with a 16th Century fortified ‘Cite Portugaise’. Inside the walls there are narrow streets, ramparts and the famous ‘Citerne’ where water for the fortress was once stored. Orson Welles shot scenes of his film, ‘Othello’ there in 1949.

Two nights in Sidi Bouzid is enough and it’s time to get going. Changing trains in Casablanca again, we go by way of Rabat (the Capital), Kenitra and Meknes. The line curves in an enormous half-circle, across rivers, skirting forests of cork oak and eucalyptus inhabited by white storks and black kites.

Four hours and twenty minutes from Casablanca we arrive in the furnace heat of Fez.

The Hotel Batha, ideally positioned at the edge of the Old City has the perfect room with demi-pension for £27.

It is simple, twin-bedded and air-conditioned with separate loo. The bathroom has a sunken tub, but that is where simplicity ends. A charming window seat overlooks the busy square, everywhere there are gorgeous green tiles and each spare piece of woodwork is decorated with traditional, hand-painted Moroccan designs.

The next day is Friday: the souks are closed. Reception suggests a visit to Volubilis, the Roman ruins some 50km north-west of Fez.

Abdu and his Mercedes taxi get me there in less than an hour, past lakes and gentle hills with fields of barley, wheat and chick pea. It’s harvest time and the landscape is dotted with bright red machinery. Olive groves and orchards of orange trees line the road.

The 40 hectare World Heritage site of Volubilis is baking under the morning sun. Abdu has seen it all before and dives for shelter under the striped umbrellas of the café.

The ruins are unlike anything you may have seen before. Volubilis was the most remote city of the Empire and inhabited until the 18th Century although the Berbers chased out the last of the Romans 1800 years ago. Walls and columns topped by nesting storks still stand. Mosaic floors are everywhere. Sadly, the original colours have faded in the sun.

No more than an hour is manageable in this heat and I join Abdu in the shade. We decide to have lunch in Meknes, once the home of the Moroccan Sultans. The King has his favourite palace in Meknes. On this Friday afternoon, it is a quiet, subdued city with grand buildings. It is as like Fez as Hove is to Brighton.

On Saturday, the Fez souks are open again. Plunging in is like travelling centuries back in time. It’s a maze of steep, narrow lanes. The houses almost touch overhead. There are strange smells and a colourful bustle of people and delivery donkeys. It is dark and exciting, a more mysterious and medieval version of the Marrakech souks.

Old city, Fes

It may have had a bad reputation in the past, but now the whole experience is delightfully hassle-free. Occasionally a trader may invite inspection of a hideous, twisty lampshade or a crudely-painted pot. Disengage with a smile, a polite salam alaikum (Peace be with you) and move on.

It is not difficult to find the way around the Old City. There are plenty of ‘You are here’ maps on the walls. Different colour-coded routes are well sign-posted. There’s lots more to see and it’s worth another visit tomorrow.

But now, the Mellah. This is the Old Jewish Quarter to the west. Here is where the locals do their shopping. Hardly a tourist and so hassle-free you have to beg traders to pay attention – quite like home, really. This is the place for gold and silver. Designs are traditional. Huge golden belts and necklaces studded with semi-precious stones to be worn at marathon wedding celebrations, but no bargains.

From the Mellah, walk through back streets towards the Old City and stop for lunch at the Café La Noria. Enjoy the cool, quiet courtyard, shaded by vines and brightly coloured umbrellas. They do a fantastic Salade Marocaine and a decent cup of tea.

Sunday in the souks. Many shops are closed. Moroccans have the best of both worlds: the Muslim Holy Day and le weekend. There’s still much to explore. For the dye pits don’t bother with a map, just follow your nose. Pools of colour in the huge courtyard, looking just as they must have done for eons. The dyers are hard at work splashing skins into tanks of deep red, ochre and maroon.

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