Morocco, Part Four: Atlas Mountains, Marrakech and Casablanca

Astride the High Atlas Mountains in Morocco

My last Morocco entry was on Kelaa M’Gouna, aka the Rose Valley. After that, Lu and I basically had two more full days in the country. We took a bus through the Atlas Mountains and arrived in Marrakech in the evening, spent the next day there, and went to Casablanca for the night before flying out the next morning. We really crammed a lot into seven days, moving from Casablanca to Fes to the Sahara to Kelaa M’Gouna to Marrakech and back to Casablanca. It was thrilling but exhausting. We also had two connections on our way back, and returned to New York on a weekday, and had to be at work the next day. It probably took us a full week just to recover.

If I had to do it over again, I’d have hired a local guide to drive us around the country. Normally I don’t mind the adventure and discovery that comes with figuring shit out on your own, but in the case of Morocco, and in the case of traveling with my wife, I think a little more insider knowledge and structure would have helped. At our hotel in the Sahara, we met two English ladies who were traveling together but with a guide. They said it was a great way to travel because he’ll stop anywhere and anytime you ask, he knew the good places to shop and often had relationships with various businesses, he could fend off any persistent touts, and he knew and shared details on just about anything – history, culture, nature, etc. – things you might not even think to ask about but were excited to learn. The next time Lu and I visit a non-European country that’s not English/Spanish/Portuguese speaking, i.e. just about anywhere in Asia, the Middle East or Africa, we’re going to hire a guide for at least part of the trip.

Anyway, after relaxing and forgetting our troubles in Kelaa M’Gouna, Luciana and I asked Briham, the manager at Kasbah Itran where we were staying, if he could arrange a bus to Marrakech for us. The bus he arranged was definitely not from one of those French-owned lines – no air conditioning, old seats, funky Moroccan-style curtains, and maybe one other foreigner besides us. We didn’t mind doing as the Romans do, however, and we enjoyed the comparative minor disorder of people sitting in the aisles and shouting at each other in apparent everyday conversation. The real thrill came when the bus wound through the narrow highway that wrapped around the mighty High Atlas Mountains. Anyone who’s ever taken a mountain bus ride knows what I’m talking about; the trip down is especially palm sweat-inducing, especially when traffic has backed up into a kind of impromptu caravan, and the driver is riding the brakes on each turn like John Bonham pounding the bass drum. (Right?) The landscape was absolutely gorgeous, sufficiently so to take one’s mind off the possibility of a landslide death plummet: Red, yellow, and green bedrock, cascading waterfalls, roaming mountain goats, and tiny villages in lush valleys where the townsfolk were out doing laundry in a gentle mountain stream.

The Marrakech Express

At the end of the six hour bus ride, we arrived in Marrakech around 7 pm, and phoned the riad we’d booked the night before. That led to a confusing set of directions to the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, just outside Marrakech’s medina. The medina had wider lanes than the one in Fes, but was a hot mess nonetheless; we had to meander through a wedding procession and around a fistfight at one point before turning into a dark alley/tunnel and then down a darker and quieter one before arriving at the doorstep of our riad – which of course was beautiful and relaxing inside. (I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the riad, and I have no receipt or record.)

Our riad was through that door!

The next day we spent chasing my wife’s wedding ring, which consumed a good portion of our time. But we did walk the lanes of the medina, and Jemaa el-Fnaa, which may be crowded and touristy but is wondrously steeped in old world craziness. Snake charmers, juice merchants, dancers, medicine men, and chained Barbary apes all vie for your attention and money as you wander about, stimulated by every color, scent, and sound. My wife held one of the chained monkeys, which promptly began to unzip her backpack and peek inside (well-trained, eh?). Cinematic and historic, Jmaa el-Fnaa square is one of the must-sees of Morocco.

(Sadly on April 28, 2011, a couple of weeks after we were there, a bomb exploded in the square, killing 17 people and injuring 25.)

For a break from the hustle and bustle of the medina and souk area, be sure to check out the Jardin Majorelle, a fantastic botanical garden in the French district. Designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 30s, it is one of the most colorful and astounding botanical gardens I have visited. An adjacent cafe features a relaxing atmosphere, delicious food and tea, fragrant orange blossoms, and jets of watery mist to keep everything, plants and people (and the friendly stray cats that roam about) refreshed.

Jardin Majorelle

Luciana and I had an evening train back to Casablanca, so we waited at train station late in the afternoon and even sampled the local McDonald’s. (Change of pace, I guess.) That evening we arrived in Casablanca to spend the night before our morning flight at Hotel Guynemer. My Lonely Planet guide gave Guynemer an “Our Pick” marking, but I can’t believe it was for any reason other than as an historical curiosity. The place wasn’t an out-and-out dump, but it was clearly one of those formerly grand hotels that has been in a slow but marked decline for decades. You know the type: Inside there is an attitude of some kind of luxury and old-world charm, but you get the feeling that the people working there haven’t visited another hotel, or even stepped outside, in years. The room was musty, the bathroom was mildewy, the shower drain backed up, and the bed sucked. To add to the sad display, lights in the hallways and staircases went off automatically after a few minutes, and could only be turned on by pushing the buttons at the end of the hallways (no motion detection). Yet you could barely see the buttons once the lights were off. It was downright dangerous; you could be walking downstairs and suddenly find it nearly pitch black. The location was slightly sketchy and noisy at night. Normally noise doesn’t bother me so much, but together with the other shortcomings of Guynemer, it added up to a rough night’s sleep. As a place to flop for the night it’s okay, but even if I were a budget backpacker I think I’d avoid this place.

In any case we eventually fell asleep and took a cab to the airport the next morning, homeward bound. Our Moroccan odyssey had concluded, and it was definitely a whirlwind. Like I said, next time we’ll hire a guide….and keep our wedding rings on our fingers.

Previous posts on Morocco:

Kelaa M’Gouna

The Sahara Desert

Fes

The Missing Ring of the Sahara, Part 1

The Missing Ring of the Sahara, Part 2

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3 Responses to Morocco, Part Four: Atlas Mountains, Marrakech and Casablanca

  1. Wow, this is great! I’ve only spent one day in Morocco–took the ferry over to Tangier from Spain–and would love to go back and spend more time seeing the rest of the country.

  2. Thanks for reading – I am glad you liked. Yes definitely go back!

  3. dreamgolive says:

    Hi there, thanks for visiting my blog and “liking” my post. I remember spending a great morning at Jardin Majorelle, and wandering around and getting lost in Marrakesh.. come to think of it, I can’t remember the name of the riad where I stayed! 🙂

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