Marrakech & Casablanca, Morocco

January 8, 2019
by Christina

We arrived at the Marrakech Menara Airport and got through customs and immigration without incident. Once through, we went to exchange money for Moroccan dirham. The strange thing about dirham is that it is a closed currency; it is illegal to take dirham out of Morocco, so it is not possible to change money before arriving in the country. Dan found a tip that said to visit the currency exchanges in the departures area to get a better rate, which was straightforward to get to, and did offer a better rate than at arrivals.

The airport itself was very beautiful and well signed, so it was easy for us to walk out to the bus stop and board the Number 19 bus into town. It’s a short ride, and we got off the bus near Koutoubia Mosque and walked the remaining ~2 km to For You Hostel Marrakech in the Kasbah.

For You is weirdly related to its neighbor Red Castle. They are in adjacent buildings and run by the same staff, but you book, check in, and pay independently. They are connected via their roof terraces only, and the included breakfast is served out of the kitchen in Red Castle. I got the impression that Red Castle was cheaper with more tightly packed dorms (they had more patrons), but I didn’t bother to look it up.

Once we were checked in to the hostel, we began our week long love affair with street food. Fortunately, the training that our stomachs received in Latin America and Southeast Asia held, and we didn’t get sick despite eating from any and every cart we came across. That first night we got a plate of food that would quickly become familiar: a mix of rice, noodles, eggs, beets, olives, some kind of mystery pink substance that was maybe meat (?) with hot sauce, a side of cheese, and tea. For the cost of about $1 USD.

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The next day we took a walk around and saw the famous Jemaa El-Fna market, which is a huge open space packed with food, fruit, juice, and stuff vendors. Though, as we learned over the course of the week, it’s much more active at night. It’s high on the list of tourist spots in Marrakech, and even Nomadic Matt waxes poetic about it.

The snake charmers at El-Fna are for real, out there with cobras basking in the sun. They are only out during the day, probably because the snakes can’t hack the cold. While most of the snakes were sluggish and just got occasionally herded back to their places with sticks, some of them were kept in place with big rocks on the end of their tails, which seemed rather cruel to me.

From Jemaa El-Fna we took a walk to get a closer look at Koutoubia Mosque. which we had glimpsed the night before. The stones to the side of the mosque were very interesting, but I wasn’t able to figure out what they were.

At a small hole-in-the wall restaurant nearby, we got the sandwich and fries version of the rice/noodle/egg/etc dish we had had the night before, called bocadius on the menu. Just up the street from there was a shop selling juices, sweets, pizzas and sandwiches, where we accidentally ordered milk (thinking it was a yogurt drink), and a pastry.

There we also saw another patron drinking a juice smoothie that was a mix of dates and avocado. Date smoothies were very common at the plentiful juice shops around Marrakech, and delicious, as was the avocado-date mix, something we will definitely be making home. There were also many carts dedicated to pomegranate juice, which was really good.

Another day we spent a while wandering about the souks. These are markets selling food, spices, clothes, souvenirs, and leather goods. We found the prices of items to be about the same cost as what we would expect in the United States, but of course the atmosphere is unlike anything you would find stateside. Mostly we just enjoyed wandering the narrow winding alleyways stuffed full of colorful items.

With the cost of street food being so inexpensive, we spent a lot of the week hunting down interesting foods and tasty food carts. Mint tea is also very popular in Morocco, more so than coffee, though eventually we figured out that the men wandering around with giant teapots were selling Berber coffee, which is a delicious, highly-sweetened, spiced coffee. We also enjoyed a lot of bean and lentil soups, accompanied with tea and bread.

Other notables included the yogurt vendor who was only out in the evening, selling fruit-flavored yogurt in un-labeled plastic water bottles, and the other evening-only vendor with a cart selling fried onion and merguez sausage sandwiches, which we really loved.

On New Year’s eve we went for a run and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. While we were out running we encounter a young girl running and pacing herself carefully with her watch, while what appeared to be her parents and brother tracked alongside her on a moped. Why it was a whole-family affair I don’t know, but I admired her determination. Unfortunately these highs were accompanied with a low: some of the worst street harassment I have received on the entire trip, in the form of a pack of tween/teenage boys yelling obscenities in broken English. I might have been frightened if I were alone, but Dan was with me and there were other people around. It wasn’t enough to ruin my day, but it was a bummer. Le sigh.

That evening we went to ring in the New Year at Jemaa El-Fna, which was absolutely packed with people. Some of the people at the hostel had been afraid to go out because of the crowd, but we didn’t have any problems. Interestingly, the atmosphere was very festive, but we didn’t hear anyone cheering at midnight.

On the way home from the square, we noticed a pair of storks sleeping in their giant nest on top of one of the buildings. Those things are gigantic, and they are all over the city.

On New Year’s Day we got to catch up with a friend! Chamini, who we got to visit twice in the UK during our travels, had planned a trip to Morocco for the New Year. She was with a group, but had a bit of time to break away. We went for cake and juice, and then took walk around the neighborhood.

That afternoon, I treated myself to a visit at a hammam, which is the traditional Moroccan bathhouse, with origins in the ancient Roman empire. If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know I adore bathing culture, and I got to experience it in South Korea, Japan, and Hungary.

A traditional hammam in Morocco is separated by gender and involves a lot of steam and a thorough scrubbing by a third party. I was reading up on it, and many people’s description of the scrubbing process is absolutely terrifying. I wanted to go to a local hammam versus one of the fancy spas-for-tourists, and I was delighted to be told by one of the hostel staff that a local one existed just around the corner.

Based on this article, which I found the most useful in my researching, I took my own  soaps, scrub towel and drying towel. In addition to my hair soaps, I purchased and brought the traditional black soap made from olive oil. Unfortunately I didn’t get any of my own photos, so these are borrowed from others around the web. It is sold in giant vats mostly at spice vendors. I had to ask what it was, because I never would have guessed soap. But it is a must for hammam; it is what is used for scrubbing and cleaning the body.

I paid at the door for entrance, as well as the fee for the scrubbing. I used what little broken French I had, and thankfully the cashier had a little English as well. I also needed money to pay the bag-check lady to keep my things. In total the entry fee, bag check, and payment for the scrubbing was 67 dirham, or roughly $7 USD.

A woman inside, clad in traditional garb including a head scarf, asked in French if I was there for hammam. I said yes, undressed, and gave my things to the bag check lady, excepting my soaps and towels. What I failed to bring were shower shoes, and a loaner pair was found for me. I went into the bath proper to find a lot of people had also brought a mat to sit on and their own buckets, which I did not have. Also notable was that while a lot my reading lead me to believe that underwear was worn while bathing in hammam, most of the other (all female in this area) patrons were fully nude. The whole space was marble with high ceilings, and there was a lot of chatter as well as kids running around and playing.

I was wandering around for a bit, confused, when a large woman wearing only a pair of pink underwear called out to me. It took me a moment to realize that the was the scrubbing administrator that I had met in the dressing room. She had a loaner mat for me to lie on, and a scrub mitt (she didn’t want to use my scrub towel). She had me lie down on the mat on the floor, and proceeded to use the olive soap and hot water to aggressively scrub my whole body, exfoliating me so thoroughly that the dead skin pilled up in clumps. While it was intense, for the most part I wouldn’t call it painful. Once that was done, she washed my hair and used my scrub towel to wash my face. Finally, she dried me off, both my hair and body.

From my American perspective, it was kind of wildly intimate to have this stranger handling me in this manner, including the face washing and drying, which made me feel rather child-like in her matronly hands. It was a little intense, but as a bathing and bathing culture enthusiast, I really enjoyed the experience. It felt good during and after. Despite obviously being the only foreigner at the hammam, everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and we made it work despite a massive language barrier (the scrubber and I both barely spoke a little French, and it was the only language we had in common).

The next morning we had our last breakfast and left For You Hostel to take a bus from Marrakech to Casablanca. There is a also a train, which is supposed to be more comfortable, but didn’t really generate much of a time savings and was slightly more expensive. Dan did the research and determined that the CTM bus was a good option. Unfortunately we walked to this bus station, where they sell CTM tickets, but discovered that the bus doesn’t actually depart from that location. To catch the bus we would have had to take a taxi to the departure point.

Penny-pinchers that we are, we walked to the actual CTM departure location where we bought tickets on site for the next departure for Casablanca, a little later than originally intended owing the confusion. The ride was about three and a half hours and uneventful, depositing us here.

Casablanca being our last destination on our long journey, and with us feeling rather travel weary, we elected to splurge and rent a small one-bedroom apartment there through AirBnB. We walked another ~2.5 km to get there (located roughly here), where our host met us and showed us the apartment. To our relief, it was beautiful and as-advertised. I enjoyed doing a fair amount of cooking there during our week long stay.

On our walk to the apartment we had seen several small ice cream shops, advertising 3 scoops with topping for 10 dirham (~$1 USD), which seemed too good to be true. Over the course of the week, we tried out several ice cream shops along that strip. Not all of the flavors were great, but some were. With the toppings and the great price, we happily ate quite a bit of ice cream that week.

We also had the goal of trying out traditional Moroccan tajine, which are named after the ceramic dishes they are prepared in. They consist of a flat bottomed dish with a deep lip, and a cone shaped lid. They are filled with meats and vegetables, and placed over a charcoal fire to cook. We tried one at a sort of sit-down cafe, and weren’t very excited about it. Then we found another vendor on a busy shopping street that was well-trafficked by locals, and absolutely fell in love. Tajines are delicious.

And the merguez sandwiches that we had tried in Marrakech were on offer by many vendors, and we made a point to eat as many of them as possible. Our preferred vendors typically ended up being the carts, with little plastic tables and chairs nearby to sit, rather than sit-down cafes. This style of street food (cart plus little tables/chairs) was very similar to a lot of the street food we ate in Southeast Asia, except in Morocco they had Western style chairs and taller tables, whereas their Asian counterparts either offered low tables and stools, or simply a mat on the ground.

Food aside, the big tourist landmark to see in Casablanca is the Hassan II mosque, which is the largest mosque in Africa, and the 5th largest in the world. It’s very popular, so showing up early to line up and buy tickets to the tour time you want is advisable. The ticket office is located in a building adjacent to the Mosque, and the tour leaves from there as well.

The architecture of the building is beautiful, both inside and out, and one of the amazing features of the building is that the roof over the main worship area is retractable, which is an engineering feat of epic proportions.

During the tour we got to see the main worship area and various points of interest inside of it. One of the features of the space is that the men are separated from the women during worship, with the women adjourning to an upstairs portion with sort-of slatted walls, so that they can see out, but not be seen. Then we went below to see the bathing areas, where worshipers cleanse themselves before services.

As science nerds, one of the additional allures of the Hassan II Mosque was that it has a green laser at the top of its minaret which is turned on at night, pointing the way towards Mecca. We made a point to peer at the mosque at night from the stairwell of our apartment building, and even went back during the evening, but we weren’t able to see the laser. Looking at photos posted online, it seemed that the laser probably wasn’t working, which honestly, is no big surprise. Lasers are huge divas.

Here is a photo of the laser that someone else was able to capture.

Before visiting Morocco, Dan had never seen the film Casablanca. So we made a point to watch it, and that’s how Dan saw Casablanca in Casablanca. There is also a Looney Tunes spoof called Carrotblanca, which we enjoyed, and honestly, Pepe Le Pew as Captain Renault is one of the best casting choices I can imagine, for characters that have both not aged well. (Black and white Looney Tunes sketch by Douglas MacCarthy)

And some enterprising soul has created a Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, in the theme of the film. It is a incredibly beautiful and well-appointed tourist trap with obscenely expensive drinks in a place where alcohol already comes at a premium. I hauled Dan there out of curiosity, and in celebration of the end-of-journey and watching the film, but honestly, it wasn’t worth it. It beautiful, that’s true, but if it hadn’t be called Rick’s Cafe, I never would have drawn the parallel; it has some features/accessories that fit the era, but none of the large, open floor plan that the cafe in the film had. And honestly, the martini I got was nothing special, but I had to get gin at what was supposed to be a gin joint, eh? Maybe the food is good, but at those prices, we weren’t biting.

Rick’s Cafe is also located next to the Ancient Medina of Casablanca. This is the part of Casablanca that still has all the narrow-windy streets made ages ago without cars in mind, all behind a tall perimeter wall. There was lots of shopping to be done there, both inside and just outside the wall, with vendors selling everything from clothes, household items, and electronics, to vegetables, meats, breads, and spices. It felt a lot like the Medina/Kasbah in Marrakech, and we did a little belated Christmas shopping in preparation for our return home.

And on a list of touristy things that is uniquely our own, Dan found a velodrome! The Stade Velodrome was evidently destined to be torn down and replaced with a new facility, but it hadn’t been torn down yet, and it was possible to ride there. However, it was really challenging to find a place to rent a bicycle. Bicycle rentals are just not a thing in Casablanca. Dan was finally able to track down a guest house nearby, called Carré Français de Casablanca, that rented bicycles to guests and was willing to rent one to a non-guest. I took a turn or two around the velodrome as well. For Dan this was his 4th continent where he rode in a velodrome, including Mexico City, Medellín, and Beijing, with the goal being to ride on every continent. Though Antarctica may prove a bit of a challenge…

Then, just like that, it was our last night in Casablanca, meaning our 19 month long trip had come to an end! We went out to eat our last few merguez sandwiches, had a final ice cream, and then back to the apartment to pack up. Then it was an early morning the next day to begin our long transit home.

My next post will be a photo-essay of our journey home, which involved five airports, four flights, and almost 48 hours of travel… because that’s what happens when you use award miles! Stay tuned, and find out why Heathrow Airport is my least favorite airport in the world!

Also, a note, even though the journey has come to an end, we here at Wott Could Go Wrong will still be producing content for a while.

 

 

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