Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Visiting Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and the Sahara desert

Over the past month I have been travelling around Morocco. My friend Fatima arrived on 4th and I spent a few days showing her around the city, going to Melilla la Vieja (the old town), visiting Museo Etnográfico de las Culturas Amazigh y Sefardí and Museo de Arqueología e Historia de Melilla (Ethnographic Museum of Cultures and Sephardic Amazigh and Museum of Archaeology and History of Melilla), cafes and ice cream parlours, the beach bar, sunbathing and swimming in the sea. Fatima is Muslim so we went to a service in the central mosque, which was a really interesting experience. There are yellow buoys that are quite far out in the sea and it was my aim to swim to it and back before I went, which Fatima did. When Maria was here she bought me a rubber ring and a ball, so we had fun with those as well.

Central mosque

Panoramic shot from Melilla la Vieja

Jellyfish remains!

As I have been to Fes so many times and didn't particularly enjoy the last time, I said that we can go to any city (within reason) except Fes or Meknes. I really wanted to go to the west coast where some of the biggest cities are, so we decided to spend 2 days in Casablanca and 1 day in Rabat. I was really keen to buy tickets for the train hotel, as I had been on the 6 hour train journey to and from Fes 8 times and I preferred to sleep rather than sit through that again. For a slightly more expensive price of 450 dirham (£35, but still not that expensive in European terms) we got a single from Nador to Rabat (I didn't want to go from Beni Nsar, just over the border, because it doesn't have a ticket office and I was unsure about buying the bed (couchette) tickets).

We left at 19:25 and arrived in Casablanca (Casa Voyageurs) at 6:15. I liked the train hotel because they gave us a pack of things we might need, knocked on door to wake us up and brought us pastries, tea and coffee for breakfast. When we arrived obviously it was quite early and most things were closed. We sat at a cafe and contemplated what we would do for the day and ended up getting on the tram in what we hoped was the right direction. I had never been on a tram except for those ones at some airports, so it was a nice experience for me. I had done some research beforehand, so I had some idea of where the hotel (Hôtel Central) was and the things we could do. However, we got a bit confused because our hotel was inside the medina. We got off at Place des Nations Unies and didn't realise that our hotel was close-by on the other side of the medina. We then got back on the tram and headed towards the beach. We got on the wrong side of the tram and Fatima warned me that you can't run across the track, but I was ignorant and thought it wouldn't matter so much in Morocco, as the transport safety regulations hardly seem strict. I ran across and Fatima was right, because I got told off.

The train's survival pack!

Old medina clock tower

Eventually we made it to the beach, although the tram was quite slow. One trip only cost 7 dirham (50p). I felt bad because I suggested that we go to the beach and Fatima had to carry her heavy bag around all morning. We went onto the beach and Fatima went horseback riding for 10 dirham (70p). We walked down the beach and there was some kind of clean up, which Morocco really needs to be honest. It is a beautiful country but it has a really bad litter problem! There was some kind of festival going on for the volunteers and some people were playing drums. We sat by the beach and ate our packed lunch before walking back in the same direction. Fatima noticed a surf school at the beach. I had always wanted to try surfing, but had never had the opportunity or it had been too expensive. We went to ask about the price and it was 100 dirham (£7) for 90 minutes. The coach made a few inappropriate comments, I was wearing a beige wetsuit that made me look a lot like the Michelin man, I didn't manage to kneel, let alone stand up and I choked on sea water a few times but other than that it was great and a thrilling experience! 

We then went in search of the famous Hassan II Mosque, the largest in Morocco and 7th largest in the world. After Fatima asking several people for directions, searching for a bus and failing and getting in a taxi, we finally found it. I have to say it was the biggest and most impressive mosque we had ever seen. It was 120 dirham (£9) to enter, which was pretty expensive, but worth it. Unfortunately we were running late so missed a large part of the tour and the tour guide rapidly spewed out loads of almost incomprehensible facts when Fatima asked him to bring us up to speed at the end. I wasn't too bothered about the facts anyway, as admiring the architecture itself was enough for me.

After that we were pretty exhausted, so we got a taxi and finally found the hotel, had a rest and went to have dinner at a posh restaurant. We went to a cafe/bar (alcohol is prohibited by Islam, as is pork, so both are difficult to find in Morocco) and I had some Moroccan tea and my first taste of shisha, which only cost about £4! I had apple flavour and it made me very happy and sleepy. Fatima told me sometimes they put cannabis in it, so I may have smoked some, but I wasn't aware of it! It's safe to say I slept very well that night!

The next day we headed to the Morocco mall, the largest shopping centre in Africa, as a girl at the surf school had suggested it to Fatima. It was full of expensive western designer shops, but we mainly went because it has an aquarium where a lift goes through it. However, sadly the aquarium was closed so we enjoyed a crepe and browsed the shops that were way out of our price range. In Morocco, everybody assumes you're really wealthy if you're a tourist, but the reality is that some of the Moroccan artisans probably earn even more than my immediate family does. It seems like they have this unrealistic perception of Europe as a land of perfection, which it most certainly isn't. We then went for a long walk back along the beach and came across a small village on some rocks. 

We had a walk through the medina and then went back to the hotel and Fatima wanted to go to a Hamman (a Turkish bath) because she has a bad back. We went on a really long taxi ride, which was scary because the driver didn't know where it was and was using his phone whilst driving. Most taxi rides in Morocco are a bit unnerving, especially when they try and cram in about 7 people. Eventually we found it and I was hoping for a pedicure because my foot has had problems since I worked at Wetherspoon last summer (I need to go to the doctor when I get home), but they weren't doing them at that time. I didn't really like the idea of being naked and having a full body massage, so I decided to sit this one out, but Fatima said it was a really interesting and strange experience and that she felt very cleansed. Fatima is from Gambia and spoke the same language as the many Senegalese immigrants in Casablanca, so we ended up eating at a Senegalese restaurant in the evening.

The next day we left the hotel, caught the tram back to the station and headed to Rabat for the day. The train journey was only about an hour and cost 35 dirham (£2.50). I had also researched Rabat and had some maps saved on my phone. That, along with Fatima's confidence approaching people meant we were able to navigate our way around quite well. We had a quick lunch in a cafe and headed towards the medina, which was quite small and modern. Casablanca was more of a business town and wasn't that touristy and Rabat was even less touristy because it is the capital and has a lot of embassies.

Moroccan parliament

We were looking for a cafe near the beach that Wikitravel recommended (I started using it this year for researching what to do in the cities I went to) and we ended up at Kasbah of the Udayas, an old fortress. There we met a guide who showed us around. The kasbah had blue walls and the views were stunning. The day was warm, but the sky was quite cloudy and grey, so my photos aren't as good as they could have been on another day. He took us to see women making Berber rugs (which I have seen several times now!). We finally found the cafe where we had some shockingly expensive pastries for 35 dirham (£2.50, a lot of money by Moroccan standards). I'm pretty sure I've been in a bakery before where you can get them for 5 dirham (35p)!

The guide then offered to take us on a '10 minute' walk to the Hassan Tower, the minaret of an incomplete mosque. This ended up taking something like 30 minutes. My feet had been hurting before the tour, but at this point they felt crippled and I felt like I might pass out from the heat. We saw the Hassan mosque and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The guide told us that most things with a Moroccan flag on are probably something political. A man wearing some kind of traditional outfit offered us water, which he poured from camel leather bags into brass cups. I was parched so I had some. Fatima loved it, but I just thought it tasted like old water!

Hassan mosque

Hassan Tower

Mausoleum of Mohammed V

The guide then took us back to the train station and on the way we came across a cathedral, which surprised me because Morocco is a Muslim country. We enjoyed a meal in a posh restaurant (by Moroccan standards, a meal that costs £8 is probably posh!) and free wifi in a cafe before admiring the beautiful sunset and catching the 20:48 train back to Beni Nsar port. The 6 hour train journey to that I had been on to Fes was nothing compared to the journeys to Casablanca and Marrakech! However, having a comfortable bed in a private cabin and good company to enjoy it with made all the difference. It was kind of like a sleepover!

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre

Fatima left in the morning on 12th June and Jess arrived in the evening the next day, so I had 2 days to recuperate. However, my bad foot was in a really bad state and I was worried about walking. Jess and I had been researching and booked a 2 day and 1 night desert tour from Marrakech online. I had a few days chilling with Jess and we caught the 19:43 train on 15th, with the beds as I had done the week before. As the journey was longer, we paid 530 dirham (£37) this time. The train hotel supervisor even recognised me from the previous week and probably thought I was completely crazy! Unfortunately, we had to change at Casablanca at 6:15 to get the 6:50 train which was supposed to reach Marrakech at 10:00. However, it was delayed and we didn't arrive in Marrakech until about 10:30. The company with whom we had booked the tour had agreed to meet us at the train station at 10:00 and take us to our hotel. I felt bad that we were late and I was worried that they wouldn't turn up, but a man called Abdul did.

He drove us to Hotel Aday, which was conveniently in the centre of the medina, although down a small side street that even Abdul found difficult to find. We paid for half of the desert tour as a deposit and he left. I have to admit I was a little nervous about whether he would reappear for the tour the next day so I took a photo of the number plate of the car. This wasn't personal, but you have to be careful in Morocco because a lot of people try to scam tourists.  We went to explore the medina and Place Jemaâ El-Fna, the famous square in the middle. I hadn't had the energy to research much about it, but I think we were both tired anyway. We found a tour bus, but it was around £10 for the whole day, so we just took the map and decided to walk about ourselves and see where we ended up.

We visited Bahia Palace, which cost 10 dirham (70p) and wasn't really a palace, but gardens and nice architecture. Then we spent ages trying to find El Badi, a ruined palace, until we ended up talking to a local who told us most of the attractions had now closed for the day. However, we did find Bab Agnaou, one of the nineteen gates of Marrakech. We ended up relaxing in some gardens near the Koutoubia Mosque before we decided to go back to the hotel and have an early night. Unfortunately our room was right next to reception, which was really noisy, so we didn't get to sleep as early as we had hoped. However, the twin room only cost us 7 euros (£5.60) each and the rest of the hotel was decent, so I can hardly complain!

Place Jemaâ El-Fna


Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace

Bab Agnaou

Koutoubia Mosque

Place Jemaâ El-Fna

The next day we got up at 7:00 because Abdul was supposed to be collecting us at 7:30. As he was bit late I was worried he wouldn't turn up, but everything was ok in the end. We started our long trip towards Zagora in a private jeep type car, which was very spacious and comfortable. We went through the Atlas and High Atlas mountain range and the views were spectacular. We made many stops to take some photos, grab a mint tea and avoid people who were persistently trying to sell us things. Abdul had an iPod and we listened to music whilst driving - he was very good at choosing music which complemented the mood and scenery!

Berber village

Our first main stop was Aït Benhaddou, a fortified city and UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its kasbahs (Islamic villages with a fortress), at which many films have been shot. We explored for a few hours and didn't get a tour guide because our funds were running a bit low. My feet were still hurting and it was a scorching 35 degrees, so I'm glad were didn't walk for too long, because that was about as much as I could take. Actually we spent a lot of the tour inside the car, but I didn't mind because I could still take photos, admire the view and rest my poor foot, which had now developed new blisters on top of old blisters. I think I need to invest in a good pair of walking shoes at some point in the near future!

As we continued driving towards the desert, it became hotter and it was interesting to see the gradual transition as the vegetation disappeared. We went straight through the city of Zagora and Abdul dropped us off at the outskirts with some other tourists at about 19:00. We then got on the camels for a 90 minute trek into the desert and Abdul stayed in a hotel in Zagora. Getting on the camel was easy because they bend down at the knees so you don't have to climb up. However, they get up and down by moving either their front or back legs first, so at some point you'll be hanging diagonally! It was also quite scary going up and down hills, especially as camels seem a lot higher than horses. I really liked my camel because it seemed quite peaceful and looked at the camera curiously whenever I took a photo. However, the same could not be said for Jess' camel, who kept trying to run and turn around and as I was behind my camel had to do emergency stops. Mine had to be put in front because hers was misbehaving!

We arrived at the dunes at about 20:30. For some reason I was expecting a pop up tent and sleeping bag, but we had our own tent with sturdy frames and even beds inside them! Each tent had 4 beds, but we had one tent to ourself. After witnessing the sunset and talking to other people from France, Ecuador, the UK and Ireland it was time for dinner. Tables and chairs were set up in one of the tents and we were served soup, tagine and fruit. It seemed very strange to have this kind of luxury in the desert. After dinner the locals played us some music with drums and singing and some people danced around the camp fire. The stars were very clear and I saw 3 shootings stars, which was the first time I had ever seen one! We went to bed at about 23:00 because we had an early morning the next day.

We woke up at about 6:00 to see the sunrise, which was stunning. We then had bread, butter and mint tea for breakfast before camel trekking back to Zagora to meet Abdul. When we approached the camels, all of them were on their knees except mine, which was lying on its side. At first I thought it was dead, but then it got up so I guess it was just having a nice rest. I was concerned about the treatment of the camels before we went, but they seem to have had plenty of time to rest, they looked well-fed and groomed and if one of them was having some kind of problem, the drivers rearranged the order to make it more comfortable for them, for example when Jess' camel misbehaved. After all that time of camel trekking, my thighs were hurting considerably, which made it even more difficult to walk without looking stupid!

My camel having a rest (not dead)!

We left Zagora at 8:00 and drove back the same way we had came, which wasn't particularly interesting. However, it was a good opportunity to rest and sleep, although I felt like I might miss something whilst sleeping. I'm not scared of heights, but I'm scared of being on the edge of something high if it doesn't feel particularly safe, which could be said for the roads going through the mountains and the Moroccan style of driving. On the way we didn't stop at Ouarzazate, so we did on the way back. Ouarzazate is is a noted film-making location (for example, Gladiator was filmed there) and has film studios. We a few rest stops and I was surprised that many places, even cafes and restaurants, charged people a small amount to use the toilets. I had never seen this in Morocco, so perhaps this is just something aimed at 'wealthy' tourists. The price for most toilets was 1 dirham (7p) so it's not exactly worth complaining about. We arrived at Marrakech station at 17:00, giving us a few hours before our train departed. The desert trip cost us 180 euros (£145) each, which was a considerable amount of money, especially after the hotel owner said we could have got one for cheaper. However, it was really nice to have a private car (we kept seeing the other tourists on the way back and the huge buses didn't look like much fun), it was reassuring to book online in advance and Abdul was really knowledgeable, so I'd say that it was worth it.

Unfortunately I hadn't been so attentive when planning the train journey back and there was no carriage with beds. We decided to get first class instead, which at 358 dirham (£25) saved us some money, but it was quite noisy and cramped so we didn't get much sleep. I felt especially bad for Jess, because we arrived back in Melilla on 19th at 11:00 and her flight was at 19:00 and she didn't get back until the early hours of the next day. I feel like I have seen most of the main cities in Morocco now and I think it will be a while before I consider going back again!

I really enjoyed travelling with Fatima and Jess. I feel so lucky to have friends who wanted to come and visit me and I feel that I've grown closer to them both. Everybody is different, but I feel like we have many similarities when we travel. None of us really like using our time and money to buy loads of souvenirs. Both Fatima and Jess are also very patient and understand that when travelling, it is inevitable that things sometimes go wrong. They also enjoy being spontaneous as well. I love to be spontaneous but I like to plan a few things so that I don't miss out on what's important. They were both also very flexible and considerate of my opinions and my suffering foot. I'm happy that I've found some travelling buddies, because sometimes I feel like I'm the only person around that has loads of wanderlust! Recently I've felt that studying has taken over my life and that I don't have many hobbies. It's now that I've realised that travelling is my hobby! It's what I work towards and save my money for.

On Saturday night it was the gay pride. I was expecting there to be a big march, but it was just a small show that went on for a couple of hours. On Monday night it was las Hogueras de San Juan (The Bonfires of Saint John), which is basically like a big bonfire night. There was an incredible structure (which I stupidly didn't take a decent photo of before it was burnt) on the beach. I had no idea what was going on until I was wondering down the promenade and saw the emergency services and the roads being closed! It gets burnt at midnight, at which point a firework display starts. I was lucky enough to witness this from the balcony of another English teacher's flat, which was close to the beach. Traditionally, you write bad memories down on paper and burn them (which we did do) and then jump over bonfires and run into the ocean for good luck (which we didn't do). In most of the big Spanish cities there's a huge party, but in Melilla it isn't so big. I'm glad that I've been around to experience most of the main Spanish festivals. June has probably been my best and busiest month and I can't believe it's gone so quickly!

Before burning

During burning


Recently the weather has been a bit stormy, but I really enjoy it because it reminds me of England. I actually kind of miss the rain, although I probably won't say that when I get back! Last month the flat flooded due to some problem upstairs. Water was running down the stairs, into the flat and onto the street, it was crazy! Some neighbours across the road helped us to clean it all up, so I went over to give them a belated box of chocolates to show my appreciation of their help, as most people would do in that situation. The water flow has been a bit strange since, but it still works fine. That's sorted and I've also cleaned the whole flat and finished packing, as next Monday I'm flying back to England, which I'm really looking forward to, although I think it will be quite strange. Now I have the rest of the week to relax, spend time at the beach and say goodbye to people. Last night my friend Ana made a really nice vegetarian meal and I'm sure I'll get up to some other antics over the weekend.

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