MARRAKESH & CASSABLANCA
I found myself awe-struck by the complete change of scenery only 3 hours south by air from London.
Africa – only 3 hours away from London
Morocco is a lovely country I have fallen in love with. Only 3 hours away from London, it is a world apart from life I am accustomed to. Morocco is a country where it has one foot in the west and the other in Arab / Moroccan culture. The people speak Arabic, with many speaking French as a second language. The Berber language is also spoken by the Berber people ( I am no expert but I believe from what I read that people of Berber origin inhabit Northern Africa (Morocco, Tunisa, Algeria). The people I encountered in my travels were very friendly and I felt safe in Morocco – tourism is a key industry for them.
lost in the souks
Airport & Immigration: I went there in July 2019. It is easy to fly into Marrakech airport (RAK – airport code) and cheap flights are available using skyscanner.com . The airport seems new, not overcrowded , clean and has clean toilets and facilities. I flew British Airways, it was rather disappointing as BA have gone downhill in my view – they charge premium prices yet the aircraft look tired , no in-flight entertainment , and limited food range that you have to buy. But the BA staff were great and friendly. Upon landing, as you enter the airport at Marrakech you have to pick up immigration cards that are are available to pickup from racks against the wall. My tip, carry a ballpoint pen as there were none available to fill up these forms. Anyway, when you line up to go through immigration, the officers keep the card you fill up (which details things like your passport number, address where you are going to and so forth,
Money: You cannot bring in the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) which is a closed currency but you can easily exchange your US Dollars, British Pounds and Euros for the MAD at the airport in Marrakech. I saw two big foreign exchanges just after passing through immigration and collecting your suitcases. The rates are good compared to what is outside in the town so I cashed a small sum of British pounds to get me to my hotel and last me a day or so, £1 = 11.** MAD approx
Mobile Phones / SIM Cards: For 20 Euros, you can buy a local tourist sim card from INWI that gave 10G data and I think an hours talk time. As soon as you collect your suitcase, you will see 3 kiosks from all three Moroccan mobile carriers staffed by young girls. Orange, INWI, and Maroc Telecom. TIP, buy from INWI because the girls will activate the sim for you while you wait (if you don’t know Arabic/French or want to avoid the hassle) and also credit your SIM card with phone credit there and then and you are good to go. Orange and Maroc Telecom couldn’t do that – instead you can get a sim from them but then you will need to go into town and buy some top up from somewhere and then figure out how to activate it. I went with INWI and was happy with the coverage in Marrakech, Atlas mountain areas and to Cassablanca.
I stayed in a hotel called a RIADH (classic Morrocan style home) in the main town centre (booked through www.hotels.com ), which the locals call Jema El Fna (pronounced Gemma-el-Fenna). This place is the where the old market is – lanes and lanes of narrow streets lined with shops selling all sorts of stuff from clothing to trinkets. I loved it. Cars are not allowed in but scooters and motorbikes zoom through carrying men and women and families through these lanes, mixed with tourists and shoppers. Anyway, you will get lost in there as I did, so do follow your hotel guidance on how to reach the hotel if choosing to live in this market souk area. The alternative is to live in accommodation outside Jema El Fna in the newer part of the city.
TIP: Be careful of people trying to be helpful and pretending to show you how to find the hotel or shop you are after. Most will demand money in Euros afterwards and plenty of scammers abound – if you are really lost, look for a sweet shop and buy yourself a bottle of water or something, then ask the shopkeeper for directions and walk there yourself. It worked for me.
Haggling: Nothing is fixed price : ) Shopkeepers are used to foreign tourists and so if you ask for a price, and if they say 100 MAD for example, most likely you can get that for 40 MAD or less. I always convert everything into £ in my head and work out how much I would pay for the same item back home from ebay for example. Then I go lower and offer a price which is a bargain to you. Be prepared to politely walk away – I found that 90% of the time I was called back and given the item at my price. Be polite and friendly – they are just trying to make a living – some tourists pay up silly money so the shopkeepers can’t be blamed for trying. To give you an example, I wanted a pure leather, high quality hand made satchel /man-bag – shopkeeper wanted 600 MAD (£60) . I got it for £30 . I also wanted a metal bracelet with an embedded stone – shopkeeper wanted 350 MAD , I offered 50 MAD. He laughed and said impossible, its is handcrafted etc etc, last price 200. I told him I had finished my budget , and said goodbye and left the shop. He came out and said 100 MAD. I paid 90 MAD : )
FOOD & WATER: Whenever I travel, I always stick to bottled water for drinking and brushing my teeth. Last thing I want is to catch a stomach bug (been there, done that, in Bangladesh) and so far I have been fine. Lots of food places abound but they all seemed to charg stupid tourist prices, like 15 Euros for this and that, I managed to find some cheap local places where you can eat a slap up meal for £6 . Basically they are in the main square in Jema El Fna which comes alive in the evenings and the seating may look tatty but the food wont be. You can get a meat Tagine for 2 (and eat it all yourself) for 60 MAD – bread is thrown in too. I would recommend “La Snack Place” No. 34 – link here. Aweseome food, giant menu.
Day Trip by Train
Casablanca is a city north-west of Marakech and is only 2 hr 40 min away by train ( operated by ONCF which the state operator) and I did that as a day trip , leaving Marrakech at about 8AM. From Jema El Fna (the old town square in Marrakech) to the train station costs 70 MAD by taxi at that early time although I paid 50 MAD 2 days earlier.
A return train ticket to Casablanca costs £16 return by 2nd class or £30 by first class which has air-conditioned compartments. I travelled by the latter as it guarantees a designated seat. To book a first class ticket I did that 2 days prior to travel so I was sure of getting a seat. My return train journey was the same day departing 1730hrs
The Casablanca station stop is called Casa Voyages and is a modern rail terminal with Mcdonalds, Starbucks and some other shops. The toilets are modern and were clean. Everything in Casablanca is white in colour, a stark contrast to the pink/reddish city of Marrakech. The city is has no real touristy feel to it as it is a very big, busy city, hustle and bustle everywhere.
Taxis charge more than in Marrakech and it cost me 80 MAD to get from the station to the 3 largest mosque in the world (Hassan II Mosque) and the largest in Africa. Designed by a French architect using the best materials in Morocco available, it’s interior is a place of beauty and craftmanship. There is a 10 ton titanium door which i found rather fascinating as the material is used in modern aircraft as it is ultra strong and light – I was advised that Morocco has titanium mines. You have to pay for a guided tour of the mosque which takes place at set times so google their official website for information.
From there I went to the Habbous Market by taxi (80 MAD) and wandered around till it was time to head back to the train station. The market and city lacked the charm of the souks and city of Marrakech but it was different, and that is what travel is all about. The photos below are from Casa Voyages station on the return journey to Marrakech.