Week 18 – Morocco (Tangier & Casablanca)

Turns out I don’t fit in Morocco either ūüė¶ this time it was the bathroom doorway at our hotel in Tangier. I slammed the top of my head so hard into the door jamb that I fell backwards into the bathroom with Anna hearing my whimper from the other side of the floor. I am worried about the long term effects from repeatedly bashing my head into things. My memory doesn’t seem to be as sharp as it once was. I thought it was due to my brain being underutilised since I haven’t worked in 4.5 months, but perhaps it really is from bashing my head about. Oh well, luckily we have this blog so I can remember the trip. Anyway… the week that was.

Our journey to Morocco was relatively easy with a 3hr coach ride from Seville to Tarifa and then a 45 min ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier. It was quite bizarre sitting in the ferry terminal at Tarifa and being able to see Morocco just across the water. Even though the two countries are so close on our arrival it was apparent that they’re worlds away. Our accommodation was walking distance from the ferry terminal just inside the old medina and as soon as we left the ferry terminal we were inundated with offers of taxis and tours. The medina is the old town area typically fortified and perched on a hill with buildings crammed in creating a series of tight laneways curling off in every direction. We had a map loaded on my phone to help us navigate through the maze but every time we stopped to look at the map we had adults and children wanting to navigate us to the hotel, for a large tip of course. Fortunately our hotel had a series of navigation signs which meant that managed to find our way and avoided harassment.

The hotel was an old guest house with tiny rooms, but at only AUD33 a night including breakfast, it was great value. Considering our daily spend in Spain was significantly above our average we figured that Morocco provided an opportunity to balance the ledger. Venturing out into the medina on the first day was quite an experience as certain parts of the medina were alive with market vendors selling apparel and food. We managed to navigate the laneways with ease noting that all you need to know is the general direction you’re heading and you’ll find it eventually. Either that or you’ll hit the edge of the medina and you can turn around and try again. We explored a good chunk of Tangier all on foot especially around the medina, through the new town and along the beach. Unfortunately the beach is right next to the port so even though the weather was screaming for a dip, the beach isn’t clean enough for swimming. The other thing here is cats… there are feral cats everywhere. They’re fine as they aren’t aggressive but the things are lounging around everywhere. Dirty cats.

One thing that’s quite disappointing is that it’s Ramadan at the moment. We knew that before coming, but we didn’t really have an option to delay our visit. It seems to totally change the vibe of cities as everyone is much more sedate during the day to conserve energy. Almost all of the restaurants/cafes are closed during the day and the ones that are open typically have men sitting at the tables chatting but definitely not eating or drinking. It doesn’t really create a welcoming atmosphere to sit and have a coffee or some food. It has provided a good excuse to be cheap and just have fruit for lunch. The other downside is that at sunset most people go to pray and then they can eat, but we’ve been warned to stay off the streets at that time because vagrants could use the quiet streets to their advantage. We ventured to some nearby restaurants for dinner but no cross city adventures.

Anna isn’t as surprised with Morocco as I am and I guess that’s because she spent 6 months in the UAE. Things like the not-so-harmonious calls to prayer that blare over the crackly PA systems at random intervals of the day, or the way that the guys stare at Anna in a very creepy way. Admittedly blonde females are a rarity here, but I think they need to learn that the creepy stare isn’t going to win any hearts. The dramatic change that Ramadan brings doesn’t seem to surprise Anna too much either. One thing that you might notice about this week is the lack of pictures. We have been out and seen things, but flashing around an expensive camera in this environment doesn’t feel like the smartest¬†option.

The train to Casablanca was much more comfortable than I expected as I thought they would be like the packed trains in Sri Lanka, but they were more like the Italian trains with compartments of six seats. The trip was quite pleasant until we hit the brakes suddenly with the horn blaring continuously. As the train progressively slowed Anna noticed a mob of sheep running off to the right, and then we heard what sounded like gravel flicking up into the underside of the train. It turns out that they were some of the slower sheep in the mob that the train cleaned up. The train was stopped for a few minutes while they’ll checked to make sure that it was only sheep and then we continued on our way.

The night before coming to Casablanca we watched the movie because we thought it would be cool to see what it looked like back then so we could compare to how it looks now. It was pretty easy to see that the movie was a complete studio recording with cardboard city skylines and mostly internal shots. It seems that the external sets were modelled off small towns like Tangier, not larger cities like Casablanca. At the time of WWII there were already tall office buildings here. The hotel we’re staying at used to be the Moroccan headquarters of Shell and was built in 1934. It was a major landmark of Casablanca at that time and then in WWII the building was requisitioned by the USA for military operations. The building is quite elegant and it seems like a significant amount of money was spent restoring the hotel about 15 years ago but not much since. That’s fine by us… makes it more affordable!

Casablanca continues to be the economic capital of Morocco and is very much still a working city. We’re staying in the downtown area which is close to the main town centre and the medina. We’ve covered even more of Casablanca by foot with our highest stepcount reaching 32,000 in one day. We’re still trying to beat our 36,000 step record set in Waikiki, but I’m not worried… we’ve got plenty of time left on our trip. The epic journey took us to Hassan II mosque which is the largest mosque in Morocco and third largest in the world. The mosque is quite busy with Ramadan but we were still able to score a tour inside. The amazing part is that it only took 6 years to build, with construction starting in 1986. That sounds like a long time but the structure is not only huge, but it has very ornate details with marble carvings and mosaics. There’s even a roof that electronically slides open like the Rod Laver tennis centre in Melbourne, the only difference it that this one can open/close in 3 minutes! We were fortunate enough to see it opening and it’s amazing to see the roof move so quickly in complete silence.

We walked along the more exclusive beachside communities of Casablanca featuring nice private estates and hotels like the Four Seasons, heavily guarded by soldiers with machine guns. There’s a large amount of development happening along the water edge being a combination of commercial and residential and it looks like it could be aimed towards the expats. We’ve also noticed other developments that look like they’ve been abandoned halfway through… perhaps it’s GFC related and foreign investment dried up. Given the proximity to Europe and the abundance of cheap labour, you’d think there is a market here for beachside 5 star resorts. I dare say Europeans heading abroad on holidays has probably slowed since GFC though. There’s definitely plans for expansion, as evidenced by the tram to the beach which leads you through vacant suburbs with roads and paths just waiting for the buildings.

Yesterday’s adventure was probably our funniest day in Morocco so far. We decided that we’d go to Morocco Mall which is the largest mall in Africa¬†with an¬†imax cinema that screens movies in English. We did some research and noted that the mall was open until 10pm, so we thought we’d catch the tram to the beach around 2pm, walk the 45 mins along the shore to the mall, and go to the 4:30pm movie session. It also made sense because I have some t shirts that need replacing so some time at the shops would be beneficial. Here’s what went wrong:
1. We arrived at the imax to buy tickets and luckily Anna thought to check that it would be with english dialogue… nope, english only on Mondays and Thursdays (French dialogue with Arabic subtitles otherwise). No big deal it just meant that we had an extra 2 hours to kill.
2. At 5:30pm the roller doors all came down and the lights off. Turns out that because of Ramadan the shops were closed from 5:30pm until 9:30pm but then stay open until 12:30am. That meant that we had just over 2 hours in the vacant shopping centre waiting for sunset.
3. As sunset approached the foodcourt became more busy but we didn’t see many places opening. Turns out that most places don’t open for the month of Ramadan, so it was mostly the western fast-food chains that were open.

But it wasn’t a complete disaster… we didn’t stick around for the 9:30pm reopening of the stores but we did find some outdoor restaurants that were serving Iftar set menus, which is essentially a post-fasting feast. It was reasonably priced and we were the only tourists there so it felt like we had a very genuine Moroccan experience. It was definitely a full day’s worth of food though… we were so full.

In the next week we’ll be doing the tourist circuit of Morocco going to Fez, Rabat and Marrakech. It should be good fun.

A la prochaine (French is much easier than Arabic!),


Meal of the Week
We found a little place called Salon Bleu which had a terrace with views over Tangier beach and the city. They also had some traditional Moroccan dishes, so we thought it would be perfect for our last dinner in Tangier.

Fail of the Week
Our visit to Salon Bleu was actually our second attempt. The first time, we were walking up the hill and had almost reached the entrance when a middle aged Moroccan man walked down to us and asked us where we were heading. We pointed to the restaurant and he responded “we’re closed today but we’ve got another restaurant with the same views, just follow me”. It wasn’t too far away and he showed us in and seated us. Then after we looked through the menu he came and pulled me aside. Then he asked me for a tip for showing us the way to this place. At first I was confused because I thought that this restaurant was his as well, but then I realised that he was just a tout who gets a cut from the restaurant for bringing is there. I gave him a tip since the restaurant looked pretty good and he helped us find an alternative. The funny thing was, when we returned back to the hotel we looked it up and the Salon Bleu was actually open, he just conned us. Lesson learned… don’t be fooled by good english and a trusting face!

Tangier sunset (view from the restaurant we were brought to while trying to go to Salon Bleu)

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