1. Morocco: Marrakech, Fes, and Ouzoud


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Published: December 21st 2016
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Holding the enviable position of No.3 in Tripadvisor's “Top 25 Destinations for 2016”, Marrakech had been high on our list to visit. We decided to take advantage of some cheap (Ryanair) flights from London Stansted to travel first to Morocco, then via Spain, to our final destination of Latin America.

Our journey began in style, with an all-nighter in the 24-hour cafe at Liverpool Street, after some farewell drinks with our brothers. We took the first bus to Stansted at around 4am for our early morning flight to Marrakech.

In total, we spent a week in Morocco, staying in Marrakech and Fes, although we also passed through Rabat and Tangier, and visited Ouzoud.

Being just a half-hour ferry ride from Europe, and with some independent travel information available on the internet, we didn’t expect too much of a challenge travelling around Morocco. We booked a few hostels for our stay, hoping to arrange transport as we went along. We didn’t take a guidebook, although we soon found this to be an error!

We were really impressed with the train network, which on all counts scores better than National Rail. That is, they didn't call a national emergency when it was sunny or windy, and we even saw some leaves on the track (as well as toilet mess but we won't go there). In fact, our trains sped along nicely and even managed to arrive earlier than scheduled from both the 7 and 4.5 hour journeys that we made between Marrakesh, Fes and Rabat.

Buses are always crashing in Morocco, we were advised by Mohammed, our friendly hostel manager. Added to that, he told us that our luggage would not be safe. However, we were forced to take a local bus between Rabat and Tangier when all trains travelling that route were cancelled (although give them their due: there was a royal wedding, traffic, and a fire on the line... and all excuses turned out to be true!)

We felt defeated arriving into Rabat train station, finding out there were no trains to Tangier that day (after all, we had woken up at 5.30 to get the first train). It was then that Smail was sent to us. Smail Ghazali, was a diamond in the rough. A minor celebrity; an Arabic author, he was taking a holiday to meet some friends in Tangier. Like us, he also wanted to move quickly. With Smail by our side, we caught a taxi to the ADO bus garage (all buses fully booked) bartered with the “grand-taxi” drivers (too expensive), then resolved to take the local bus.

It felt highly unlikely that before that day, any other tourist had ever passed through this bus station. It was quite a daunting experience to say the least. Besandalled toothless men in hooded robes grabbed at our luggage, shady characters crusted in filth stared us down, many other limbless people begged for money. It was a raw and saddening experience and an insight into some of the poverty which is not so obvious in the centre of town.

Smail lent us the money to purchase the bus ticket, before we headed out to an ATM. Embarrassingly we didn't have enough cash left, as we had been expecting to take the train. Smail was the complete opposite of many others we came across in Morocco; he didn’t want to accept our contribution for the taxi we shared, tried to pay for our drinks when we stopped at a café, and I am pretty sure he gave the local bus driver some security money to keep our backpacks safe in the hold. Even when we arrived in Tangier, as green tourists, Smail helped us flag down a taxi in the madness. There were thousands of people everywhere, and it would have been impossible alone.

We managed to get our taxi to the correct port, and our onwards ferry into the south of Spain. Result! It was with immense gratitude that we waved goodbye to Smail and we hope to see him again someday.

Generally, we found that Morocco hasn't really opened up for independent travel in the way that you are able to experience across Latin America, Asia, or Europe. They are missing a trick here. The country has a lot to offer, but the lack of information or help available for independent travellers we found difficult.

It seems that most tourism is still focused around 5* all-inclusive resorts. Hostels were very “local” and felt more like family-owned houses renting out spare rooms. This was on the whole a good thing; we met some interesting people this way, and really enjoyed talking with them and learning more about Morocco.

Marrakech and Fes

Marrakech and Fes, like most other cities in Morocco, have a distinctly separate old and new town. We found both cities very similar, although Fes felt less dusty, and more modern.

Neither were as expected. There’s no denying they’re colourful and photogenic places (did you know that every city in Morocco has a different coloured taxi, like a mascot?) but once the photos are taken, what is there actually to do?

Outside of the Bahia Palace (which is essentially a single storey riad set around a large courtyard) there are not really a lot of places of interest to see in the centre of Marrakech, and we felt the same about Fes. The food options did not live up to expectations - apart from the night market in Jemaa el-Fnaa, during the day, most restaurants tended to sell the typical selection of pizza-pasta-panini-burger, not delicious tagines, grilled meats, and couscous dishes we had been looking forward to. I guess for some reason they think this is what tourists are looking for. We stayed both in the medinas, and new towns, and found this was the case in both areas. However, food was very cheap at around £3-5 for a meal in many restaurants.

Both cities have some glitzy gastronomic restaurants and nightclubs outside of town, we looked at some of these on the internet but decided against visiting as we wouldn’t really be getting an authentic experience and couldn’t see the point in paying a (massive) premium for western imitations. There is even a Pacha nightclub in Fes!

Alcohol is pretty much non-existent (absent, if you are staying in a hotel which doesn’t serve it) as it is illegal to sell or drink alcohol anywhere in view of a mosque (and there are a lot of mosques). We were able to enjoy a beer when we arrived to our hotel in Fes, although at around £5 for a bottle it was around the same price as a meal. We went on a search the following day to see if we could find any supermarkets selling beer - there wasn’t even any stocked in Carrefour! We eventually found out that there was a separate shop called the “Cave” which was part of Carrefour, although it is extremely discreet, underground and out of view. We felt ashamed to ask for directions! We wrapped our solitary bottle of wine out of sight through fear of drawing attention on the way back to the hotel. We knew that alcohol wouldn't be sold everywhere, but we weren't expecting it to be as difficult as this.

We felt uneasy at times, usually in the medinas where there are a lot of shady characters hanging around. We also felt intimidated by sellers who grabbed and pulled us, and changed their attitudes very quickly when we declined and tried to move on.

There has been a large influx of immigrants from Senegal and other western African countries, particularly in Fes’s new town. At every traffic junction hordes of youths took the opportunity to put their arms through windows into cars to beg. We even saw a group taking the chance to try to open a car door! The taxi driver told us that this is becoming a big problem, with theft and other crime on the rise. There is now a large police presence around the new town in Fes but it still didn’t feel particularly safe to walk down the main pedestrian street. Looking at the photos of tree-lined boulevards, you wouldn't imagine this.

We noticed a big difference between the new and old towns in both cities. New towns were a lot glossier, cleaner, with less litter or loiterers. In the medinas there was a lot of dirt and filth both outdoors and indoors; inside hostels, homes etc. (which is strange, as there are many cleaners who seem to be working long hours). No one ever seems to flush the toilet (anywhere), and the general approach to food hygiene is also lacking. Though not the fault of the locals, with the mix of poor sanitation along with market trades and many horse and carts in temperatures up to 50 degrees centigrade, it can be quite pungent in places.

One good thing about Marrakech is the orange juice; this is available everywhere, and sellers swarm the entire of the main squares. We drank it every day, so cheap and so good!

Ouzoud

We took a day trip to Ouzoud waterfall from Marrakech. This is the second highest waterfall in Africa. It was impressive, with around 600 steps leading down from the town into the valley.

On each side of the steps are artisan craft stalls, with bunting zig-zagging overhead, giving the area a hippy feel. There were a few campsites, and lots of young locals come to holiday here.

We were lucky to see some monkeys as we were leaving.

It was a really beautiful setting, as long as you don’t look too closely. There were some people washing clothes and urinating in the water amongst the swimmers. There were piles of washed-up litter gathering on the banks. The natural beauty suppresses the human damage, however. We find it curious that these things are never mentioned in guide books on the internet, or even by other travellers. Something I saw recently highlighted this:

http://www.dw.com/en/honest-travel-posters-show-dark-side-of-tourism/g-19488346

On the way to Ouzoud in the minibus, and on our various train journeys, we passed through hundreds of miles of empty desert, dotted here and there with local villages, and kasbahs. The vastness of the barren land is immense.

Final Thoughts

Whilst our time spent in Morocco was limited, it left deep impressions. Marrakech is often up there with contenders such as Istanbul, sparring for the big titles. However, we felt that it is really punching above its weight. For us, it didn’t compare in any way to Istanbul, or any of the other places within the “Top 25 Destinations for 2016” that we have visited. Perhaps we missed something, but we were underwhelmed.

Tourism does not seem to have been embraced unanimously, with the way in which we were regarded varying greatly. Some people were really friendly and wanted to chat, although there were many who were not. We tried to be respectful; in our choice of clothing, in visiting local restaurants and cafes, in staying in more traditional home-stay accommodation, by communicating only in French, and trying to talk to the locals as much as possible, but this was not always reciprocated. We were not the only ones on the receiving end of hostility, and observed that the locals are extremely fiery, even in social situations. We also witnessed varying degrees of humanity, with some poor people giving scraps to stray kittens, whist other chained monkeys to posts to make money.

Due to the time of year (and consistent temperatures of around 46 degrees), we were unable to do some of the things we had wanted to, including going off road and spending time in the desert at a bedouin camp, visiting kasbahs, and local villages. Perhaps we would have had a much better experience if we had rented a car and done this independently.

We probably would have also had a completely different experience if we were on a 5* package tour, where everything was organised for us, and we were safeguarded from the day-to-day hassle of being a tourist in Morocco.

On reflection, we recognise that the highlights do exist, but there is also a darker side. The glossy photos, the advertised cherry-picked shots, do not fully reflect the whole experience.


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26th December 2016

Morocco
We loved our time in Morocco and your blog brought back pleasant memories.
4th January 2017

Thank you
Thanks for getting in touch, it's great to know that we have reminded you of good times :) We would definitely return to Morocco in the future, and perhaps do things a little differently!

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