As per usual my pal James and I were rushed in getting to the airport, meaning we didn’t have a chance to get changed before we departed from Spain. Arriving in Casablanca in just a singlet and shorts, the looks from the locals were so disapproving I resorted to getting changed into more conservative clothing while on the train. Our train to Marrakech was so full we began the trip by sitting in the corridor perched on our bags. We arrived in Marrakech about 1am; therefore we were pretty exhausted and couldn’t wait to get to our hostel (“WakaWaka” €4.50/night, unlimited Turkish tea, shisha, roof terraces, located in the Old Town – 10/10). First we had to deal with a taxi driver who didn’t drop us off at the right place, meaning we had to navigate the rabbit-warren Old Town by ourselves; thankfully a kind man showed us the way (and surprisingly didn’t ask us for any money – which we didn’t realise the significance of at the time).
The next day we enjoyed a scrumptious breakfast of fresh croissants and roti, before heading into town. We had no trouble finding the ‘Big Square’ because every single local we came across volunteered the information, without us even asking. Somewhat cunningly a young boy steered us in the direction of a tannery where we were greeted by an old man who welcomed us both with a bunch of mint. He proceeded to give us a tour around the tannery (with smells so putrid the mint was definitely a necessity not an accessory!) in broken French/English before taking us to a shop where we couldn’t escape for almost an hour. To the shop-owner’s dismay we finally escaped without buying anything, but we were not to escape our ‘tour guide’ who chased us down the street demanding money. We decided to scope out the palace and gardens to escape the heat; the palace was very exposed (and more resembled an excavation site) and a ‘friendly’ man informed us the gardens were closed before leading us back through the Jewish Quarter into what ‘coincidentally’ appeared to be his son’s shop. We bought a ticket to visit the Mosque, but then found out we weren’t allowed to enter because we weren’t Muslim!
The Big Square in Marrakech was definitely a highlight. With countless food stalls, vendors selling freshly squeezed orange juice for 40c a pop, ladies drawing henna, snake-charmers and monkey men it had an incredible atmosphere and we spent a good deal of time there. Branching off the square were a number of ‘souks’ – streets filled with little shops selling all things Moroccan; clothing, crafts, food (although the fruit and vegetables were always rotting from the heat) and endless opportunities for bartering practice. My first experience was a complete flop; James had to go back and buy my pants for me, but second time lucky and I came away with a headscarf. “Maybe later alligator” became our token response to all the invites coaxing us into various shops.
The windsurfing capital, and a common holidaying spot for Moroccans this little seaside town reminded me of a very run down Santorini (Greece). It felt very third world; however it was still rather beautiful. The bus was sold out so we had to take an ‘excursion bus’ which made about a million stops on the way (turning what was supposed to be a 2 hour trip into a 4 hour one). The best stop by far was the goats in the trees. We had restricted time there so were we relieved there wasn’t too much to do in Essaouira apart from explore the Medina (i.e. the Old Town centre) and take a leisurely stroll along the beach.
Organised through the hostel (most hostels will offer it) we paid €70 for what was going to be the most amazing three days of my life. A 6.45am start saw James and I picked up from WakaWaka and led to a mini-bus, where we met the rest of our extremely culturally diverse group: a bunch of Germans, two Australians, an American, a Dutchie, an Italian, two Austrians, a Spanish, three Koreans, an Argentine, two Brazilians (Hugo and Bernard), and of course, us two Kiwis. All aboard the party bus captained by Mohammed – our Moroccan driver for the trip. The next three days included an insane amount of (dangerous?!) driving through incredibly windy roads, and unbelievable temperatures – we had to keep the windows shut to prevent the heat from outside getting in. Mohammed was a ruthless driver; always on his phone, he would overtake everything, anywhere! James had to move from the front seat because he would rather not know ‘when we were about to die’.
We made numerous stops; lots of old, authentic villages, including Village Ait Ben Haddou – which is where Gladiator was filmed, as well as parts of the Game of Thrones. We stopped at a carpet making factory, a canyon where we could paddle with the locals, and a farm with fields of alfalfa and donkeys. Breakfast and dinners were supplied in the price that we paid, meaning we only had to buy lunch; unfortunately all the places we stopped at for lunch were always really expensive (probably commission based) which meant James and I would share; which was fine as the tagines/cous cous/kofta were too heavy to stomach in the heat of the day. A lot of Lemon Fanta was consumed across our time in Morocco – it was often colder than the water, and definitely more energising than ice-cream.
The first night we stayed in a hotel halfway to the Sahara Desert. We shared a room with the two Brazilians, and had a great time; wherever the Brazilians tended to be, so was the party. Another early start saw us on the road again, making more stops throughout the day. It was incredible watching the landscape change as we got closer and closer to the Desert. At about 5pm we arrived outside a big building; we were surrounded by sand dunes, greenery was scarce and about 20 camels were sitting impatiently in a line, waiting for us. We rode our camels for about 60 minutes before stopping and climbing a sand dune to watch the sunset. Our camp was set up nearby – everyone dragged their mattresses outside and we all slept under the stars, accompanied by loads of manky cats with really big ears. For dinner, some local tribe members cooked us a huge feast, before playing us some Berber music on their drums.
A 4am start was on the cards, however we ended up ‘sleeping in’ until 6am. We made our way back to camp to begin the long journey home. Unfortunately no one had told us that we could have gone straight to Fez from the Sahara; unfortunately we had to go all the way back to Marrakech before catching a 7 hour train the next day. During the bus ride home, the other side of the bus started ‘raining’. We concluded it was the air-conditioning, meaning we had to suffer in the heat for a few hours as we drove. It didn’t stop ‘raining’, so Mohammed stopped the bus to investigate the situation – turns out it was just someone’s drink-bottle leaking all over everybody! A wonderful trip; a once in a lifetime experience, shared with some incredible people.
It seems ironic that I could go from one of my favourite cities in the world, to the city that I liked the least the whole time I was away, in the space of a few short days. But that is exactly what happened. James and I caught a 7 hour train from Marrakech to Fez; in the heat of the day, with no ventilation; even the locals were sweating up a storm. With our only food being a bag of chips, that we had to give away when a little girl started crying and pointing at them, we arrived tired, frustrated and with short fuses. The last straw was when we got off the train and a man kept following us, hounding us for tours, accommodation, advice, and money. In the end we jumped into a taxi just to escape him, and James insisted the taxi driver stop right outside our hostel door. We wanted to go to Chefchouen, but the finishing of Ramadan meant lots of the Moroccans were going on holiday, causing so many of the buses to be sold out. We couldn’t go that day, so we had to buy tickets for the ‘local bus’ to leave the next morning. That night we reunited with some of the Sahara group for a lovely dinner on a rooftop terrace. The next day we explored the medina, however unlike Marrakech there was no Big Square, meaning we had no final destination. It was hot, smelly, dirty and crowded and after a few hours we had had enough, heading back to the hostel for a siesta. Neither of us was overwhelmed by Fez, and both of us were looking forward to Chefchouen the next day. We stayed at Funky Fez – which was a good hostel, located on the edge of the Medina (meaning taxis can drive to it), with a cool rooftop terrace and delicious food.
Probably the worst bus trip I have ever endured; over-crowded, ridiculously hot and terrible driving was a disastrous combination; and for those of you who know me well would already know I’m not the greatest traveller at the best of times. Five hours later we were dropped in a village 10km from Chefchouen, where we were greeted by five men sitting in what we think was a grand taxi, who invited us in and took us on a crazy ride into Chefchouen. I was virtually sitting on the gear box with my arm around a Moroccan man, while James was crammed into the back seat with three other guys. I was secretly pleased to arrive in one piece, although it was nice to have air flow for a change.
Commonly referred to as Chouen, the entire city was painted blue (to repel mosquitoes apparently) and it was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Nestled below the mountains, with marijuana farms all around, the city was quaint, people were less pushy, and the vibe was just so much more relaxed than anywhere we’d been. The owner of our guest house (Riad Baraka – very central, welcoming, clean and cheap) warned us that we had better go and get our return bus tickets as soon as possible (we were flying out of Fez in two days’ time) and to my utter dismay the only seats available were on a bus that left at 11 am the next morning. Our time there was thus short and sweet; we walked to the nearby waterfall where locals were swimming in filthy water; we climbed up to the city walls which gave us beautiful views of Chefchouen, and then we wandered down to the main square for dinner. We awoke early the next morning to maximise our time; we went back to the waterfall and climbed the hill on the other side to the Spanish mosque. James spotted dogs that were barking at us; we paused, and then all of a sudden “RUN!!!” I had never been so scared in my life. About four dogs were chasing us down the side of this rocky hill; I was sure I was going to fall flat on my face. I contemplated climbing a tree, but followed James’ lead and picked up rocks instead. Adrenaline pumping we escaped and made our way back to the main square for our last Moroccan breakfast. Our bus back to Fez was delayed an hour (leaving us sitting in the sun for an hour longer) however when we got back to Fez we had dinner at the hostel (local speciality: chicken pastilla – chicken, walnuts, almonds and cinnamon in a pastry shell) before heading up to a roof-top bar to enjoy our last night travelling together.
Pursuant to the hostel guy’s advice, we got to Fez airport two hours early (meaning an abnormally early start) which was a complete waste of time as it was honestly no bigger than a little domestic airport back home. Our taxi was 200MAD, and we were reminded of our near-death experience (haha) the day before as stray dogs chased the taxi out of the medina. We landed in London bright and early, and had a wonderful day there before bidding our final farewells for a few months.