Morocco Part 3: Marrakech & Casablanca
This post covers the final leg of our Moroccan adventure. We visited Marrakech and Casablanca, taking in the sites and vibes of these two very different cities. It was a terrific way to end our exploration of this beautiful and fascinating country.
What We Did
Day 128 (11/27/16): This was our first full day in Marrakech. When we awoke, it was raining heavily. But not to be deterred from seeing the city, we braved the weather and headed out to see Marrakech’s two most famous palaces: Palais de la Bahia and Palais el Badii. The first was a more modern palace, with typical Moorish detailing, tiles, and riads. We spent about an hour wandering through its expansive rooms, courtyards, gardens, and halls all for $1.00. The second palace, only a three minute walk from the first, is a much older palace (from the 15th century) currently in ruins. The enormous courtyard in the center complete with gardens and pools is a sight to behold, still, and I was fascinated by the maze of underground tunnels used to move servants and slaves around the grounds. The Moroccan government is currently working on restoring this palace (and removing the large number of storks who have taken to nesting on its walls), but even in its current state you can get a good idea of how lavish and expansive it was in its glory days. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch before wandering into the medina for some shopping. Katie and I purchased some clothing, Adam got a travel chess set, and the four of us got leather bracelets. Haggling was kind of fun, and overall things were fairly cheap. After we blew some cash, we headed back to apartment, and Katie and I got ready to go to a traditional hammam, or bath house, while the boys prepared themselves for the Bengals game on NFL Ticket. When we returned from the hammam, Dar El Bacha, Adam and I ventured out to get dinner to bring back, and we spent the evening relaxing.
Day 129 (11/28/16): After a slow start in the morning, we headed out to see the Ben Youseff Madrasa, which served as a university in the city and is known for its intricate architectural details. Before we arrived at the school, we got lunch on a terrace overlooking the city. After several pictures at the university, we decided the next place to go was the Jardin Majorelle, the #1 rated attraction on trip advisor. We walked 45 minutes out of the medina and into the new town to reach its famous walls, and spent the next hour or so touring its perfectly landscaped paths, looking at the rare plants and bright blue buildings, fountains, and patios. After leaving, we found a shop that sold alcohol, and decided to purchase a slab of beer and get a cab back to our apartment. We put the beer in the fridge to chill and headed back out into the medina to get some last-minute souvenirs. After wading through some pushy salesmen, we finally found a nice man selling scarves at a reasonable price. Katie and I each bought one, and the owner showed us how to tie it like a true Berber. We returned to the apartment and spent the evening sporting our Berber headscarves and playing euchre.
Day 130 (11/29/16): We awoke, packed, and left our apartment, heading for the train station. The train station, itself, was a sight to see, having been remodeled by the government in recent years. We bought out tickets, got lunch, and hung around outside for a couple hours before boarding our train for Casablanca, our final stop on our tour of Morocco. After arriving and settling into our apartment, we decided to seek out food for dinner. We found an awesome Asian/sushi restaurant called O’lichi and feasted on sushi for the first time in four months. We returned to the apartment after purchasing some stuff for breakfast and then spent the evening relaxing and watching Netflix.
Day 131 (11/30/16): We set out this morning with only two objectives: 1) to visit the Hassan II Mosque, and 2) to have lunch at Rick’s Café. We decided to start with the mosque. It is the only mosque we found in the country that will allow non-Islamic people inside for a tour. After about a 30-minute walk from our place, the mosque was in sight. As the largest mosque in the country, it was truly enormous with a minaret towering 60 stories tall. We wandered aimlessly around the outside, until we finally found an information desk that told us the next tour was not until 2:00 p.m. Since it was only noon, we decided to change up our plans and head to Rick’s Café for lunch before the tour. The girls, and Katie in particular, were super excited about this part, as we are both big fans of the movie, Casablanca. Although it was developed specifically for tourists, we still found our lunch to be most enjoyable, and we appreciated the effort the owners out into making it as close to the movie as possible (from the waiter’s costumes, to the piano in the center, to its location, right beside the Moroccan naval base). The menu is a little expensive, but has lot of both traditional and international options, and the food and service were spectacular. After stuffing ourselves, we returned to the mosque, located the ticket office, and began our tour. The prayer room in particular, capable of holding up to 25,000 worshippers and complete with beautifully hand decorated retractable roof, was an awe-inspiring sight. The tour lasted approximately 45 minutes, after which we sat outside enjoying the nice weather and taking more pictures. We finally decided to walk back to the apartment where we relaxed and enjoyed a home-made steak dinner before packing our things once again for our next adventure.
What We Learned
- As a follow-up to the food comment in the prior post, I would like to add that if you have been eating the traditional cuisine for a while, your body may adjust to it. And what I mean by this is that the tagines are all very healthy, being composed primarily of whole vegetables and organic produce and herbs sourced locally. Therefore, when you see a KFC in Marrakech and decide you would like nothing more than to stuff your face with fried chicken and french fries, you may end up almost shitting your pants. Believe me, I speak from experience. Consider yourself warned.
- A short visit to Casablanca should be on your list when travelling to Morocco, if only just to see the Hassan II Mosque. It is an incredible site, both inside and out. I never could have imagined the intricate detailing and sheer scale if the place, especially since it was built in a mere six years. That being said, securing entry into the mosque did not go as smoothly as we thought it would, and I thought anyone planning to go could benefit from learning from our errors. First, in order to enter the mosque, your arms and knees must be covered (this was the part we had no problems with since we had been in the country for a while and were used to this kind of modest dress code). Second, during the off-season at least, there are only tours operating at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. We could not find this information online. Therefore, it may be beneficial to either call them or to pay a visit to the tourist information kiosk on the traffic circle in front of the mosque (look for where the tour busses are parked) prior to turning up for your tour. We used the information kiosk and found them to be very helpful. Third, the entry point to purchase tickets is incredibly hard to find, and the people working at the mosque, at least for us, were very little help at locating it (although you may have a better time of it if you speak Arabic or French). You can enter down the stairs behind the last arch in the left when looking at the mosque (the stairs seemingly descend going away from the mosque itself). However, the entrance will be roped off and there will be a man standing outside of it until about 15 minutes before the tour begins, so don’t try and get tickets early. They seem to take groups of any size and offer tours in several languages (English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Arabic were ones I remember), so I wouldn’t worry about having to wait. And fourth, the tour itself is fairly expensive for Morocco at 120 MAD or roughly $12 per person, but the price is reduced by half with a valid student ID (a fact I wish I had known earlier). However, the heftier price is well worth it, and also somewhat understandable considering the mosque takes a crew 200 people daily to clean and maintain it, and your ticket price goes directly to supporting these efforts.
- Going to the Hammam Dar El-Bacha in Marrakech was a truly authentic Moroccan experience that Katie and I had during this trip. While there are several “hammams” in Marrakech, many are more like luxury spas meant primarily for tourists or wealthy citizens to indulge themselves. The Hammam Dar El-Bacha was nothing like that. It is an unassuming place you would walk right by if you weren’t looking for it. You wind down a hallway and meet an older lady sitting by some baggage shelves. You give her the 10 dr ($1.00) fee per person it costs to enter and can also buy some homemade black olive oil soap from her. She gives you each a bucket with a small pail inside and sends you on your way. This is a really old place that has been used by locals forever, and that is what you will find here: locals. We were the only tourists in the place, and I can maybe see why. The experience is not like what you typically get in western cultures. The hammam is a series of three large brick rooms, that honestly look like they have seen better days. You take your bucket to one of the water spouts (they have taps of hot and cold water to get the temperature you desire), and fill it to your liking. Most of the women like REALLY hot water, which makes the entire place steam up. Then, you take your bucket, find a spot to sit on the tile floor, and begin washing, along with several other half naked women. While the soap smells and feels kind of funny, the place is a little dingy, and you may feel a bit awkward waiting in line to fill your bucket with your boobs hanging out, this place has a terrific vibe. This is truly a place where the women of the city can come to relax, bathe, and socialize. Being primarily Muslim, the women spend most of their lives completely covered up. In here, they can let it all out. They can enjoy the steam and heat of the water and the company of their friends. Many also take turns rubbing each other down using ribbed gloves meant to help sluff off dead skin. Katie and I stumbled through the process, no doubt looking ridiculous, but were met with incredible kindness. Several of the ladies took the time to help us figure everything out, despite not being able to speak English. We were met with smiles, rather than stares. One woman even gifted us with an orange to split while we were waiting to get changed, seeming happy to welcome us to their sanctuary. It is something I would recommend if you have an open mind and you want to do something truly authentic.
- Playing euchre while donning our new headscarves was a lot of fun for me. In general, I just love the opportunity to sit around with my temporary nomad family, play games, and talk.