English is rarely spoken in Morocco, and I was concerned that the language barrier might create problems. Determined to go anyway, I boarded a flight for Casablanca. Immigration formalities were brief, and soon I caught a train waiting right in the terminal. In 30 minutes I reached the city and moments later stood with a printout of my Internet booking at the reception of Ibis Moussafir, the hotel next door to the train station. So far it was easy going all the way.
After a good night's sleep, I was ready to explore the city made legendary by the classic film Casablanca. To start, I went to a nearby bank to exchange traveler's checks into dirham, the local currency. It was difficult to explain what I wanted, but at last, I came across a bank employee who knew a little English. He told me to go to the bank's main branch and, on my request, scribbled the bank address in Arabic on a piece of paper. This paper served as a gate pass, and I was directed from one block to another till I reached my goal in two hours or so. The long walk to the bank gave me a look at the city center.
Downtown was fairly impressive with lively, tree-lined boulevards and white buildings. People wore smart business suits, designer dresses and sunglasses. Seldom did I see anyone wearing the national dress: jellaba, a loose-fitting, hooded robe with full sleeves.
At the edge of the Atlantic ocean, the Hassan II Mosque, with its 200-meter-high minaret, rises over the city like an enormous ship. It's prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 of the faithful and the esplanade 80,000 more. As I strolled the esplanade, engulfed in the sounds of ocean waves crashing against the rocks, I framed in memory the first lingering image of my journey to Morocco.
Having researched and planned my trip well I had found a number of options for traveling within Morocco. I could choose from comfortable and fast trains, an efficient bus network, or a system of share taxis that link one town to another. Now it was time to get a move on. What follows are some of the most memorable moments of my 40-day journey.
I boarded a train for the 230-km trip to Meknès and reached there in about three hours. The approach to Meknès was a delightful scene of lush green olive and citrus groves covering the surrounding hills.
All old Moroccan cities like Meknès have an ancient market (medina). Here in the tiny shops and stalls lined with wares daily life follows a centuries-old pattern. Merchant and shopper haggle over all manner of goods often over a glass of hot mint tea. I stayed two days at Meknès following my usual habit of wandering and absorbing exotic sights and sounds.
Then I took a train 60 kms east to Fez, Morocco's oldest imperial city where I discovered a city of three parts. Dating to the 8th century, Fez al-Bali (old Fez) and its ancient medina is a seething labyrinth of sloping and winding alleys, all surrounded by magnificent walls and gates. All sorts of arts, crafts, and industries intermingle here, from gritty tanneries to lavishly adorned mosques and medersas (schools). Easily identified by its green and white minarets, the El Sahri Medersa seemed to be literally overflowing with decorative artworks.
Also surrounded by walls, Fez al-Jedid dates from the 13th century and is distinguished by the 200-acre grounds of Dar el-Makhzen (Royal Palace) and the Bou Jeloud gardens.
Ville Nouvelle is the French-built administrative center with buildings reminiscent of Marseille or Nice and, I found, is blessed with spots for wood-fired oven pizzas and decent pasta dishes.
I remained four days in Fez and had a good view of the city from several surrounding hills at different times. In broad daylight I got an impression of an ocean of flat roofs punctuated by soaring minarets set in a gentle succession of terraces following both sides of the valley. At dawn the light climbed up the flanks of the hills and at dusk the sun flooded the cascades of roofs and cupolas with ochre-red light.
In Fez I met Mike, an American tourist who had been in Morocco many times in the past. I joined him on a trip to Ketama, a town about 200 km away in the Rif mountains. The approach was very scenic, the valley sides being terraced with kif (hashish) growth, sanobar firs, and cedar forests as far as eyes could see. The landscape reminded me of southern Spain – only 70 km away across the Straits of Gibraltar.
We left the taxi at Ketama and walked for two kilometers to meet one of Mike's friends, Elbrazi. He greeted Mike with several quick kisses on both cheeks then led us inside his house. A boy came in with a pitcher of hot water in his right hand and a basin in the left hand to start the hand-washing ceremony. Mint tea came next followed by a traditional Moroccan dish, tajine with couscous – semolina topped with meat and vegetables, steamed in an earthen pot, and served sizzling. The dinner ended with sweet pastries drenched in nuts and honey. Afterwards, Elbrazi and Mike had a fiesta smoking marijuana (kif). For the next two days, eating and smoking rituals were repeated three times a day until Mike got sick and realized it was time to move.
Our next destination was Chaouen, a town 1,500 meters (5,000 feet) above sea level famed for whitewashed houses, narrow blue-painted lanes, blue doors, little iron-cast balconies, and its very Spanish-like plaza. It was a pretty laid-back place. Many hippies with long hair and pale complexion smoked hash openly in the cafés and on motel balconies. Since I avoid smoked-filled places, I stayed separately in a nice hotel on the outskirts of the town.
On my own again, I boarded a night-bus for the 700-km journey southwest to Marrakesh. I had a reservation for Hotel Ali, a very friendly place. I remained there for four days paying only $20 a day for a clean air-conditioned room with half-board and free e-mail facilities.
The hotel was quite near to Jemaa el Fna, the square famous for its night-time food stalls and traditional entertainment. A buffet dinner was served on the rooftop, and I had dinner while enjoying the view. One after another, acetylene flames sprang to life illuminating a thousand and one lanterns in Jemaa el Fna as people flocked to the square to mingle with jugglers, acrobats, snake charmers, and magicians. Overhead stars twinkled, and the moon came out to play its part in this magical Moroccan scene.
Mornings I was awakened by the prayer-call from the 70-meter high minaret of Koutoubia, the spiritual beacon of Marrakesh. It was a good time to see the sunrise and also have a long walk.
Marrakesh has its share of architectural attractions and shopping bazaars, but by this time I preferred to go looking for the peace and quiet of a garden.
With a city map in hand I would approach a passerby and put my forefinger on the spot I wanted to visit, which got me a lengthy explanation in Arabic and a directionally pointed finger. I only cared for the direction and moved on until, nonplused again, I had to repeat the process.
I spent one full day locating the Majorelle Garden, but my effort was rewarded with a blissful few hours in this creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle. It had an abundance of giant bamboo, yucca, papyrus, palm, cypress, and amazing cacti with their natural colors artfully contrasted against the vivid blue facade of the villa.
I also spent several lovely hours at the Menara Garden.Located just out of town to the southwest, it is stunningly set with a reflective pool and the towering Atlas Mountains in the background.
Leaving Marrakesh behind, I aimed for the rugged scenery and outpost towns of the High Atlas mountains. I stayed for one day at Ourazazat (were-za-zat), a former French garrison about 294 km southeast of Marrakesh. Of interest here was a studio where Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, and Kundan, an India film, were partially shot. Nearby Aït Benhaddou was a village made up of several small fortresses.
From Ourazazat I took a bus to Boumalne where I joined one of the "grand" taxis going to Dadès Valley gorge about 50 miles away.
Following a serpentine road passing by picturesque villages, the taxi ascended as the valley got breathtakingly narrow and rocks encroached closer on either side.
I asked the driver to drop me at hotel Berber de la Montagne which was perched hardly 30 meters beyond the 310-meter-high cliffs. It was a nice place to relax and was surprisingly inexpensive at just $20 including a sumptuous breakfast and dinner. I rested here for two days enjoying the beauty of the gorge and watching the rocks changing colors with the movement of the sun.
I returned to the main road and took a bus 387 km southeast with the intention of seeing some genuine Saharan sand dunes at Merzouga. At Rissani, about 35 km from Merzouga, I decided to take a break and while looking for a hotel I ran into a guy named Abdul, a resident of Merzouga who convinced me to shelve my plan and accompany him.
In Merzouga I felt a sense of timelessness in the still and silent desert. In the evening, Abdul took me on a village tour. We watched traditional folkloric dance and listened to Berber drum music and songs. At a roadside café we had a bowl of soup and a loaf of bread straight from the oven. That night, I slept in a traditional Berber tent made of camel hair, with hand-woven rugs, cotton pillows and cushions strewn on the floor – a wonderful setting evoking images of the Arabian Nights.
Next evening Abdul brought a camel and ordered it to sit down while I jumped on its saddle. Without warning, I lurched forward toward the ground then rose several feet into the air as the camel stood up and started walking. Initially, I felt awkward but soon adjusted to the slow rhythm. After about 3 hours, we arrived at a campsite in the middle of sand dunes towering about 120-meters high. We slept on the sand beneath stars flickering in the clear desert sky.
After that unforgettable experience I went on to Tinerhir, a green oasis in a lush valley surrounded by mountains.
While I as checking in at the Hotel Al Houda the receptionist happened to mention Imilchil, saying "If it were mid-September, there is no place on the earth like Imilchil." I had already heard of that town's Fête des Fiancés – the annual marriage-market where the women do the choosing. Intrigued, I decided to have a look at the place, but it was 110 km away, up in the High Atlas with no direct public transport. Luckily, I found a van, with 21 passengers, going to Aït Hani, a village about 45 km along, and the driver agreed to take me on to Imilchil for $75 after dropping off his other passengers.
On the way, the van passed by Todra Gorge, yet another of Morocco's spectacular natural wonders. Steep and narrow with a swift river running between 300-meter-high cliffs, this dramatically rising gateway to the High Atlas Mountains occasionally gave me a glimpse of sand dunes far away in the Sahara.
About 10 km before Imilchil town, the van passed by a deserted village, which is said to come alive during the Marriage Festival. I envisioned aspiring young ladies with purple scarves approaching me and murmuring with sweet voices, "You have captured my liver." In Berber culture it's the liver, not the heart that is considered to be the location of true love.
Imilchil consisted of windowless red-mud houses, the same color as the surrounding hills. Being at an altitude of 2,600 meters the temperature was pleasantly cool there. I managed to find a room with clean woolen blankets for only $7. A free breakfast in the morning was a windfall. I wished I could stay until September to try my luck in the marriage market, but it was simply not possible. Instead, I fixed my mind on my next destination, Cascades d'Ouzoud via Beni Melal.
Sharing a taxi with a Belgian couple, I reached Ouzoud in about three hours. I stayed in a hotel near enough to hear the pleasant sound of falling water and, after some rest, I went looking for the source. I found a dazzling 100-meter-high waterfall colorfully flanked by red-rock cliffs and bright green shrubs. Staircases and paths reached the bottom where the falling torrent formed a pool large enough for swimming or even rowing a little boat. I sat at the edge in the glimmer of a rainbow sipping tea while enjoying the awesome view and the added amusement of desert monkeys begging for handouts.
From Ouzoud, I journeyed 470 km, descending from mountainous country to Essaouira, a beautiful port town on the Atlantic coast. I stayed at a hotel near the sea. Known for strong winds, Essaouira is a surfer's paradise, but I was content to stroll and observe the activities around its fortified harbor. One fine morning, I went out and found that I was all alone except for some seagulls and cats. I watched the strong waves beating the fortress walls and fishing boats returning with a trail of scavenging birds. It was a pleasing sight indeed.
On day 40 – August 4th – I returned to Casablanca having covered some 5,600 km (3,500 miles) and around US$2,000 lighter in pocket. I had one leftover must-do on my program before flying home to Pakistan. I had yet to try a hammam, a public bath. During my previous stay in the same city, I had marked one, Hammam Ziani, and went straight for it. For about $5 an attendant soaped, scrubbed, massaged, and rinsed away the desert sand and travel grime, leaving me refreshed but with all of my memories intact. I was also rather pleased with myself for not letting worries about a "language barrier" keep me from visiting this wonder-filled country.