Days: 457-459 (25 September 2015 – 27 September 2015)
Total distance travelled: 122,672.5 kilometres (76,194.07 miles)
In a couple of hours time we’d be touching down in Casablanca, my first time on the African continent.
There were a range of thoughts working their way in and out of my head at this point.
Do we go through immigration here, or at our final destination (which was Marrakesh)?
Hey the Pyrenees sure look cool from here (and the same again when the Atlas Mountains became visible)!
Sure, there was also just some general excitement, but most prominent, was Africa.
That would be the 1982 hit song Africa from Toto!
Sure, even when it did actually reference this mighty continent it was seemingly referring to sub-Saharan Africa, but that mattered not to my mind at that point.
It was singing Africa, and it was to Africa we were headed.
For this journey to North-West Africa, we thought who better to fly us than Royal Air Maroc?
Okay, so that’s complete bullshit! We chose them because they were the cheapest option from London, and given the age and condition of the Boeing 737 in which we were sat, I’d guess that anybody other than say Air Libya would’ve been a wiser choice!
Still, we made it, completed our first leg of the journey and touched down in Casablanca.
Here we discovered we wouldn’t go through immigration until Marrakesh, but nor would we have access to an ATM (cash point) or money changer, meaning we were sat in a pretty spartan terminal, with one sole cafe and not a cent we could spend there!
At least our connection wasn’t delayed…
So some hours after first touching down, we had our first taste of the Moroccan air from the other side of immigration, and you know what, it didn’t taste any different.
We were staying at the same hotel from which our tour would depart, and as such, a courtesy pick-up awaited meaning it wasn’t long before we were checking in and ending what felt a pretty long day.
Morning greeted us with bright sunshine and some decent heat given the early hour, a time at which we’d agreed to meet downstairs for our buffet breakfast (this really was luxury for a pair of backpackers like ourselves).
As expected, there was no bacon in this buffet, but it didn’t stop us from feeding on a variety of fruits, pancakes, scrambled eggs, breads (amusingly, I accidentally served my eggs on sugared bread), spiced beans and a really delicious soup.
There were juices aplenty, and plenty of that sweet and minty Moroccan tea.
Plenty was drunk, and there’d be plenty more in the coming days.
We’d deliberately arrived earlier than our tour, initially hopeful of participating in a Moroccan cooking school, however this plan was scuppered before we’d even arrived.
This was the tail end of the Eid al-Adha celebration, here known as the ‘Festival of the Lamb’.
What this meant, was that much was closed, including the cooking schools we’d pursued, so we instead set upon amusing ourselves with a day in Marrakesh.
Not so hard surely, and a short walk from our hotel sat the city’s largest mosque, the Koutoubia Mosque.
The mosque itself was impressive, and the surrounding gardens nice, but the water features… I’m not sure when the last time the fountains flowed and the ponds were full (fair enough, this is a dry country), but why build them in the first place!?
Apparently they’re the sort of thing that will be filled and used when the king comes to visit… makes perfect sense, doesn’t it.
All of this sits very close to the Jamaa el Fna square, a hub which is itself a bustling souk, but from which runs a myriad of laneways leading far and wide to the old city’s many other marketplaces.
Despite its close proximity, we still managed to miss it, although it’s not like we were actually headed there.
Instead, we saw a narrow alleyway, and follow it we did.
There was none of the hustle and bustle one might have expected. In fact many of the streets were completely deserted.
But I guess it was an opportunity to see the city at a time when most tourists don’t, not too dissimilar to my first ever day abroad half a dozen years ago (oh how time flies and circumstances change).
Eventually we did even make our way to Jamaa el Fna, however there really wasn’t all that much going on.
We cringed at some poor monkeys chained up, their owners ready to pry a few Moroccan dinars from tourists for the chance at a photo.
Snake charmers attempted to do the same, but in truth with the hot day and small crowds, their efforts were half hearted at best (which was a relief, as animal exploitation is not something that ever interests us).
Instead, we decided to up the C’s (that’s vitamin C’s) with a freshly squeezed juice, a bit of a pre-game affair before we decided to indulge in some lunch.
With much of the souk closed, we’d seen no street vendors, so we were reduced to finding a restaurant where it was meat on a stick (skewers) all round.
With the town asleep, we too gave in to the lack of stimulus and made our way back to the hotel, ready to meet and dine with our tour group that evening.
We were a mixed bag this troupe who’d be gallivanting around the country for the next couple of weeks. A combination of English, Canadians and Australians of varying ages and walks of life, and over dinner we also sampled our first Moroccan beers.
The tour proper was set to kick off the following morning with us hitting the road to Casablanca, then on to Rabat, or so we thought…
Suddenly, due to popular demand (for the tour, not for any change of plans) we found the tour groups would be split into two, the other group following the original schedule, whilst our group would linger in Marrakesh a day longer, before hitting the road.
Suddenly, our group was now exploring the same hood we’d wandered the day before!
There was a marginally higher level of activity on this day, but only I must stress the word marginal. Truly, there wasn’t a lot more going on.
Talk about being a pain in the proverbial!
Still, there was nothing for it, but to make the best of it and do our best to get to know our new companions… although this was a task made more difficult by one of our travelling party’s decision to forego the walk, and instead drink wine by the pool!
We snaked our way through a few new areas, as well as a few very familiar ones, still reveling in the photogenic nature of our surrounds (well, it was only our second day in North Africa).
Eventually, after watching a few failed haggle attempts by our group, we were lead to a few mosques (it embarrasses me to say, I have no idea what it was called, but reading Arabic has never been my strength).
That aside, the place was beautiful.
No longer actually a functioning mosque (of which there is only one which will allow non-Islamic visitors in the whole country, the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca), it was an incredibly beautiful building.
Having visited so many churches during our travels, it was immediately apparent to us the simple beauty of this mosque (and mosques in general).
Where the various Christian faiths try to exalt the various martyrs and saints of their particulars churches, branches or even countries, the mosque is instead a piece of beautiful art.
Allowances were made for us to wander around, ascend to the upper level as well where we could peer over balconies and into cells where students once studied the Quran (or Koran, whichever you prefer).
True, there are students here no more, however it is still a revered place for Muslims, although the sanctity soon felt shattered as a large, raucous group of round thirty souls piled in through the narrow entrance.
We took our cue and departed, another lunch near the souk followed by a dinner with our new group of friends rounded out the day, before we’d depart following breakfast in the morning.
* Our flights from London Gatwick to Marrakesh (via Casablanca) with Royal Air Maroc cost us £88.09 per person.
* Our 15 night Morocco tour was booked through On-the-go travel, and usually costs around $2229 per person (I say usually, as we did not pay. This was a treat from Sarah’s mum).