I got my first glimpse of Africa as we began our final descent into Casablanca’s Mohammed V International Airport. I noticed the vibrant green land, the huge sky and the immensely tall clouds like I had never seen before.
The airport was crowded, loud and hectic and there didn’t appear to be any order at all. As soon as we got through passport control we hopped in a taxi to take us to the main train station. We hadn’t heard good things about Casablanca as far as tourism goes, so we decided to continue on an hour north and spend the night in Rabat, Morocco’s capital and UNESCO World Heritage Site. We could have waited 45 minutes and taken one train to the main station and then another on to Rabat, but we had had a very long travel day so decided to take a taxi. There are two types of taxis in Morocco – petit taxis for short trips in town and grand taxis for long distances. We got into one of the dozens of grand taxis waiting outside of the airport, a late 70s Mercedes diesel sedan, painted red with no seatbelts. We paid a hefty 300dh, but it was one of those moments where you have to splurge to save your sanity. The ride was long and I had no idea which direction we were traveling or how long it would take us to arrive at our destination. Traffic is notoriously bad in Morocco, especially in Casablanca, and we got stuck in a few traffic jams on the way. Hard rain was falling from the sky and all of the windows were fogged up. It was disorienting and I had had the feeling that is all too common while traveling, not knowing where you are, having no concept of time, having to trust in strangers and just know that you will get there eventually.
We made it to the train station in the nick of time and bought two first class tickets for 110 dirham (dh), about $15 CAD. Morocco is a fantastic country for DIYers as travel by bus and train is very cheap and comfortable. The day had been long, full of travel and not enough food. I faded fast as soon as I sat down. I tried to catch up on writing in my journal to prevent myself from falling asleep. Ali, the owner of the riad we were staying at, met us at the train station. Getting picked up is very helpful and almost essential in any city in Morocco if you’re staying in the old medina.
I felt terrible the next morning and was only able to choke down a tiny piece of dry toast at breakfast. We only had a few hours to explore Rabat before we had to catch a bus further north to Chefchaouen, so I threw a couple of extra pieces in my bag along with some of the tangerines that were in our room. As we left the riad for the morning, the owner, Ali, said “You’re lucky, it’s shiny today” with a big, warm smile on his face. He was right – the sky was bright blue and the sun was shining.
Rabat’s medina is small and easy to digest for first timers. The streets are wide, the buildings are low and it felt very open. The buildings were painted white and it was not crowded with locals or tourists. It is certainly not the exotic looking Aladdin fantasy that some people have when imagining Morocco. Looking back now, starting our trip off there was a wise choice as we got to dip our toes into the Moroccan experience a little bit before diving in to the chaotic mazes of Fes and Marrakech. We wound our way through the medina, past stalls with people selling clothes and dates and olives and spices, piles of raw meat and various hooves. As we got closer to the water, it devolved from brick and mortar businesses to old men crouching on blankets beside their prized items for sale – random old books in Arabic, French and English, various household items, small appliances and other odds and ends that look like they’ve been sitting in someone’s basement since the 70s. Where did they ever get all of this, and who ever buys it?
We followed the map Ali gave us, looking at the boats and men fishing on the windy riverfront. I pulled one tangerine after another out of my purse and ate them as we continued to follow the Bou Regreg, amazed after each bite at their sweetness and how much they tasted like cake.
We came upon the first major landmark, the Hassan Tower, an unusual example of an unfinished mosque and its minaret. Construction began in the late 12th century and was never completed, leaving behind half of the sandstone minaret and hundreds of incomplete columns. We went into the Mausoleum of Mohammed V next door and gazed down onto the former King’s marble tomb, dozens of Moroccan flags lining the room and a cross-legged reader of the Koran tucked into the corner.
One thing I always find amazing on my travels is seeing Roman ruins scattered about and realizing how utterly vast that empire truly was. After the mausoleum, we took a 10dh taxi ride to the ancient ruins of Chellah. These ruins are unique because there are not only ancient Roman ruins on the site, but the later ruins of a necropolis and Islamic ruins from the 14th century. It is a quiet and calm green space where you can wander through at your own pace and take it all in. There is a viewing platform where you can get a very good idea of what the old Roman site looked like, and then you can go down and walk amongst it yourself. The Islamic ruins are much more intact than the Roman ruins, which were mostly foundations and parts of statues. The quirkiest thing about Chellah is all of the storks that have taken over. If you don’t know about them in advance, the first thing you notice is the sounds they make. You start to glance around, trying to figure out where it came from. Then you look up and see these huge long-necked birds in their massive nests, perched on top of old archways or a 500-year-old minaret. I was mesmerized watching these great birds throw their heads so far back it looked like their skinny necks would snap right off.
After a few pleasant hours in Rabat, we boarded a CTM bus for Chefchaouen. The four and a half hour trip went quickly. I spent most of the time alternating between reading and gazing out the window into a world I had never experienced – farmers tending to their crops by hand and with the assistance of donkeys, gas stations along the highway with nothing else around that came equipped with their own mosque and BBQ, fresh, raw meat hanging by hooks outside, and not much else.
For more photos from my Morocco trip, click here.