In the land of the berbers, Morocco 31.3-17.4.2001

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Part 1: City life

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The French university system offers a generous two weeks of Easter holidays for its students. I had no obligations to celebrate it in the traditional fashion with my family and when Christelle proposed instead an adventure trip to Morocco I was in. I borrowed a 60 liter backpack to fit in my sleeping bag and other hiking gear along with a few t-shirts and took the tramway to Lyon Perrache Saturday afternoon 31.3.2001.
aut_8651.jpg Our group from the left: Mathieu, Magali, Christophe and Christelle. All except Christophe are enrolled in the Eurinsa program at INSA, a special program where only one third of the students are French and the other two thirds come from different European countries. Additionally the French do some of their summer jobs abroad. The whole group liked hiking in the mountains and Magali and Christelle had even lived in Morocco when they were young so I had cool company to travel with.

We had booked seats in a bus because all the cheap places in planes were full already several months earlier. At 17.00 it got on the way, the estimated arrival time being 3.00 Monday morning at Rabat. Reading, playing cards, eating every 4 hours and sleeping as much as we could we zoomed through France and continued in the night in Spain. We even got a new friend Alex, a French student who had also lived earlier at Morocco.
aut_8657.jpg The boat trip from Algeciras to Tanger took about 2.5 hours and we arrived Sunday 19.30 local time (GMT). It was rather windy - we helped someone to stay still when trying to take a picture.

At the shore we went through the customs procedures which were, well, a bit interesting. I have been in stricter controls before, but here we had to sit in the bus watching as the officials were opening random pieces of luggage on the other side.

We were a bit worried where to sleep in Rabat as we noticed we would arrive a few hours in advance, originally we had planned to start our city tour right away. Christelle tried to call his old friend Zakaria and ask if we could sleep at his place (or the garden) but reached only the answering machine. But to the amazement of everyone everything went just smoothly. With the help of two friendly policemen and two taxi drivers we landed into a nice hotel no more than 20 minutes after the bus arrived at the station. 50 dirhams (about 5 euros) for the ride and 140 for a room with beds for all five in the middle of the night - definitely not bad!
aut_8666.jpg Monday morning we had a goal that was especially important for Christelle and Magali, their old apartment. It had since been turned into a lawyers office. When taking the photo of the girls in front of the door the current owner suddenly opened it and invited us in. A precious moment of memories to the two girls.
aut_8664.jpg Christelle finally reached Zakaria and we met ten minutes later in front of the mosque of Hassan. In Morocco it's forbidden for the non-muslims to enter so you are restricted to take photos of the exterior.
aut_8670.jpg Every bigger city in Morocco contains an old part which is called Medina. The Medinas are surrounded by city walls, sometimes several walls from different periods of expansion. These at Rabat date to 17th century.
aut_8673.jpg Zakaria offered to walk with us through Medina, so we navigated together through the labyrinth of narrow streets to the gardens of Oudaïas. We had tea and delicious pastries in its outdoor cafeteria, whose nice view of the ocean makes it a popular place even among the celebrities. In Morocco the tea is most often green tea flavored by fresh mint and a heavy dose of sugar. They do it well, tasty especially for dessert.
aut_8674.jpg We continued still the same afternoon by train towards Marrakech, another city some three hundred kilometers towards the south. Here's a typical view of the countryside.

The train arrived at Marrakech at about 18.00 and we headed to Hotel Farouk where we had made a reservation beforehand. When asking about best prices we were offered a possibility to sleep on the terrace, which turned out to be the roof of the building. It appeared to be pretty clean and the weather was nice too, so we took one double room with toilet and shower and the terrace for three: 240 DH with breakfast included for everybody. Finally all of us except Christelle decided to sleep under the stars.

In the evening we walked to Medina for dinner and our first look at the vast network of small streets with small booths selling just about everything. In the center there's the famous place Jema El Fna. Already in the daytime it is filled with dozens of small booths, each of which is equipped with it's own small generator to power the lights after the daylight is over. In the evening the number of merchants grows up to a few hundred and the rest of the space is taken over by jugglers, groups of musicians and other artists.
aut_8708.jpg Jema El Fna in the daytime.

We had our dinner at the restaurant of hotel Ali situated on the side of Jema El Fna: traditional couscous buffet featuring more than 10 choices and pastries and oranges for dessert. Eat as much as you like for 50 DH. Superb!
aut_8701.jpg Hey, we don't have time to sleep all day! On the terrace you could also do your laundry and it was indeed officially an option in the price list of the hotel.
aut_8706.jpg The alleys in the Medina of Marrakech, souks as they are called, are incredible. Almost every one of them is too narrow for cars but full of people, mopeds and sometimes mules pulling small carriages. Traditional carpets, Pokemon toys, glittering pieces of jewerly and dried fruit are competing of the shelf space. The shops are packed against each other, sometimes on two floors, and a few alleys are mostly covered from sunshine using wood and waste metal. And in one of the darkest of them, there's a modest-looking entrance, 2-3 meters wide like the shops, which leads to - a bank with half dozen desks and all the modern facilities.
aut_8711.jpg After the lunch we made a small sightseeing tour. The royal palace wasn't very interesting from the exterior and we couldn't go inside the outer walls surrounding it, but the big place with palms on the side reminded of the pictures one usually sees of Arabic countries. The tombs of Saadians (in the picture) were worth a visit, featuring a sharp contrast between complicated ornaments and plain stone walls.

It was 16.30 and we hadn't yet reserved our places for the return trip to France. Mathieu and I took a taxi to the CTM office while the others continued to walk in the city. A sticker, a stamp and ballpoint pen markings on both sides of the ticket weren't enough, we still had to walk to a print shop 200 meters away to take two photocopies of each and return to the office. How convenient.

We had already bought some berber style clothing earlier in the day but made still a quick visit to the souks before returning to the hotel, writing the last postcards and going to sleep. Now Magali and I decided to try the beds, Christelle, Christophe and Mathieu slept outside.

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Copyright Arto Ters <> 2001.
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Last update 17.8.2001.