June 1, 2011

A Chance to Travel: Morocco—What a Surprise!

By: Judge Thomas C. Warren (Ret.)

As the Royal Air Maroc jet liner arrives in Casablanca at dawn in the mist, I of course lean over to Mary Ann and ask her if she thinks Humphrey Bogart will be on the dark tarmac waiting to greet us. I have never been able to think about Casablanca without my mind clicking on the classic movie of the same name. Well, we didn’t see Humphrey or Ingrid, but we did have to walk onto the tarmac as there were no jetways, as sometimes happens in third-world countries.

Morocco comes onto the travel radar because I have always had a wish to visit, so Mary Ann got the trip as a birthday present. It was surely never on her radar! We don’t usually travel using an escorted tour, but this was an experiment using Gate1Travel, which is an economy tour company, advertised heavily in Budget Travel magazine (www.gate1travel.com). Besides, I wasn’t quite ready to drive in an African country where all the signs were in Arabic or French. We climb on the tour bus knowing no one, but are ready for the experience.

We had not been on a tour since nearly a decade ago, when we were on church-sponsored trips to Israel, Turkey, and Italy, where we knew everyone. And then comes the first surprise. Morocco is green for goodness’ sake! Preconceptions can be dangerous, and I thought we were going to be in a lot of desert. Au contraire! It is explained by our guide that Morocco has built many dams in the Middle Atlas mountains creating both electricity and reservoirs. This allowed for irrigated farming for most of the country north of Marrakech, thus all the green, orchards, vineyards, ranches, and small farms.

Gate to the Rabat Medina

Our first city was Rabat, the nation’s capital. Another great surprise. It was historically built by the French and is full of wide boulevards, beautiful white government buildings, and the old medina surrounded by a still standing brick wall and original city gates. After settling in our hotel, we start walking and exploring and come upon the souk (market). What a great way to start learning of the culture of Morocco. The next day on a city tour of Rabat we visit King Mohammed VI’s palace, fully expecting him to come out and greet our group, but he must have been tied up with kingly business. The city is spending a lot of money developing its waterfront with parks, condos, shopping, and related improvements. It will be fun to visit again in a few years. All of these changes are overlooking the medina and the Kasbah (the fort overlooking the Atlantic and the river).

All Our Tour Friends

Joining a group of 40 odd other travelers presents a great opportunity to meet and enjoy new friends. We had a great time with court employees from Bermuda, an independent professional photographer and his wife who is a transportation consultant from Boston, the photo editor of Forbes magazine, a lady contractor from New Jersey, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago, a doctor from Atlanta, and many more. What was interesting was that the group was relatively young, well-traveled, and not a lot of senior travelers. Our guide, Ibrahim, was a real gem, and a very proud citizen of Morocco and all it has to offer. He was very descriptive of all that the king has done for the country since ascending the throne in 1999. Since the trip in February 2011, it has been interesting to watch the events in the North Africa countries, including the very peaceful demonstrations in Morocco. We had several people on our tour who had been diverted from a trip to Tunisia because of the revolution there.

Belak

Departing Rabat, we discovered that Morocco has excellent four-lane divided tollways over the entire length of the country. We travelled though the ancient (and university town) of Meknes and onto the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis before our final stop in Fes. The old city of Fes is one of those unique places in the world that you can never forget, kind of like going to the Cappadocia region of Turkey. When entering the narrow corridors of the souks of the Medina, the tour group is aided with a couple more minders to make sure no one gets separated. If you get separated, you could very likely still be there!

All of the walkways through the Medina are so narrow that the only way to get supplies and merchandise in and out is by burro train. When the burros come rushing through, you hear the call of “belak, belak,” meaning (I think) “attention” or “move over,” as the burros have the right of way. You better spread yourself against the wall as you sure don’t want one of the burros brushing you, otherwise you will spend hours getting the smell off of you. All three sections of Fes are interesting in their own way, with the city surrounded by mountains.

The Marrakech Souks

Leaving Fes, we spent a full day traveling the eastern valleys and mountain areas of the Middle Atlas range on our southerly way to Marrakech. In this high country, visitors appreciate the cattle and sheep ranches and the strong agricultural nature of Morocco. Fifty percent of the Moroccan citizens work in agriculture. To encourage this, the country imposes no taxes on farm workers. As we neared Marrakech, the terrain started to flatten out and become more arid but with the views south to the High Atlas. Marrakesh is a flat city with the old Medina surrounded by very upscale neighborhoods of apartments, condos, and commercial areas.

Marrakech has been discovered by Europeans, who have cheap flights and have bought second homes and enjoy the skiing in the High Atlas. South of the city and toward the ocean you get into the desert areas and beach resort cities of the country. Exploring the city, both by tour and independently, was great fun. The souks (craft and native shopping areas) in the old Medina inside the walls and gates was a shopper’s paradise, especially for a craft nut like Mary Ann. We even ventured in and out of the souks on our own, but often I felt like I should leave a crumb trail! The central square where the famous night market is held is a “happening” place day or night.

The conclusion of our journey was a drive back to Casablanca which we toured to visit what must be the world’s largest mosque and the hustle and bustle of a large commercial city. We even went by Rick’s Place, but again, we missed Humphrey and Ingrid. Bummer! 

Thomas C. Warren (t.ma.warren@verizon.net) is a retired judge from Chelan County District Court in Wenatchee, Washington, and is active in the ABA Senior Lawyers Division and Judicial Division.