In Morocco you’ll find the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the intimidating sands of the Sahara, fabulous Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches, medieval medinas, snake charmers in Marrakech and discos in Tangier; it’s a strange and fascinating mix.
Tangier still has that whiff of old scandal but it’s not the intimidating place it’s often painted and its Europe meets North Africa mix is well worth a stopover.
Tangier railway station is a modern and gleaming white structure; I had been expecting, even hoping for something a bit tawdry or run down but it was smart and efficient.
Moroccan first class carriages are surprisingly comfortable and the countryside on route to Fez is attractive, lush and fertile with the Middle Atlas Mountains making a dramatic backdrop.
However, what you invariably get with a first class ticket, when departing most termini, is a railway conman. They’re usually middle-aged, smartly dressed, with a newspaper but no luggage. I met four different guys on five train journeys so they’re pretty widespread. They often claim to work for the railway, they are always over friendly and keen to know your travel plans and hotel details
Chat, but don’t share any personal info or you’ll be on the receiving end of a follow-up conman before long. They quickly move on to the next carriage when they realise they’ve been rumbled.
Our riad in the ninth century medina is classically Moroccan – palatial courtyards with running water and spectacular rooftop views, but all hidden behind a small door off an innocuous alleyway.
The most amazing thing about Fez is that it’s a living medieval city with a thriving life of its own that’s centuries old, no wonder it has UNESCO World Heritage Status. There’s a new part of Fez town but the separate old walled city is an enthralling maze of bustling alleyways where the residents go about their traditional business rather than catering for tourists.
The medina is the oldest preserved medieval city in the world, utterly mesmerising – tiny shops selling everything, cobblers, tinsmiths, a camels head in a butchers, women carrying dough to the communal bakery. Children are running everywhere, there’s the wafting smell of coffee, fruit, spices with the occasional reek from the tannery and regularly the wailing call to prays.
Old and new constantly collide – a man riding a donkey was chatting on a mobile phone and the chaotically jumbled skyline is dotted with both satellite dishes and minarets.
There is fabulous food to be had, venues are basic but a hard to find roof top place well worth looking for is Bouanania on Talaa Kbira in the Selaline district. I would avoid the nearby Chez Thami, recommended by Lonely Planet, unless you want to eat with a restaurant full of people clutching fat guidebooks and i-Pads. I did eat their once and the food is good, it’s just that the ambience has been ruined by its Lonely Planet promotion.
Fez is one of the most fascinating city’s I’ve been to and one that’s definitely on my return-to list.
I had to change trains in Casablanca for Marrakech and the journey south became increasingly barren as we were approaching the edge of the Sahara.
Marrakech, the end of my journey and it’s a world away from Fez. It’s Morocco’s tourist hotspot and don’t all the locals know it. The roads within the walled medina are choked with traffic, a taxi costs whatever they can get away with charging. The price of everything has to be clarified and negotiated before purchase – but that’s all part of the experience.
Moroccan’s are friendly and helpful people but the basic rule is don’t trust anyone who is over-friendly when approaching you – ordinary locals don’t do this.
As dusk falls Marrakech’s most famous square, Djemaa el-Fna, really livens up, dozens of chefs arrive with mobile grills, benches, trestle tables and lights. Each one has a tout to snare new diners but they often have an amusing patter, so it’s a rare example of when being badgered is a bit of fun.
An eating experience here is an absolute must but it is mass tourist catering, and although it’s OK, it was the poorest quality food I’d had in Morocco. A little restaurant away from the square is likely to have better and cheaper food but maybe not such a memorable experience.
As tourists flock in to the square, so do the entertainers – musicians, storytellers, acrobats, snake charmers, men with monkeys and naturally pickpockets. People dressed in national costumes and the water-sellers in their fringed hats and brass cups are chasing tourist photo opportunities and can turn a bit nasty if you don’t tip them enough.
For me Marrakech was a disappointment, it was just too touristy, and Djemaa el-Fna was more a theme park than anything authentic. What spoilt it was the incredible authenticity of Fez. What I should have done was go to Marrakech first, where I would have been impressed, and then be subsequently blown away by Fez.