The first leg of our travel to Morocco took us on an Air France flight from the Washington, DC, area to Paris, France.We were to transfer to another flight there that would get us to Casablanca. We would then be taken by road from the airport to Rabat.
Unfortunately, the air traffic controllers had decided to go on strike in France on the day of our arrival in Paris and the number of flights departing the airport had been reduced. (We had been warned about this by the airline earlier, but had no choice about the date of departure from Washington, DC, because of the tour date.) Fortunately, our flight to Casablanca was not cancelled. There also appeared to be no delay in the scheduled time of departure of that flight. It was only after we had boarded the plane and sat in our seats for a while that we were told that there was a two hour delay in the flight, and that they had known about the delay all along. They had boarded us just in case a slot opened up earlier that would allow us to depart before the two hours were up. We ended up sitting in the plane at the gate for almost 3 hours! Passengers began to get more and more irate as time passed but the flight attendants somehow kept their cool. There was a big cheer of relief as we finally departed the gate soon after the clearance was obtained and the announcement was made. (Interestingly enough, there was one passenger who was missing from a seat near us at the time of takeoff. We found out later that she had taken up occupancy in the business class section of the aircraft while we were on the ground. She was sent back to steerage after the flight took off.)
A large percentage of the passengers on the plane were tourists. Many of them seemed to be from the US. Quite a few of us tourists were traveling with the same tour company – Gate1 Travels.
The entry process in Casablanca went off without a hitch, except for a slight delay in finding our baggage carousel because of poor signage. The Gate1 representatives were there to greet us as we exited the airport in spite of the delay. They separated the folks going on three different Gate1 tours so that they could be sent to the correct hotel to meet up with the rest of their tour group.
And then we were on the bus to Rabat. Along the way, we got our first impressions of Morocco. They seemed to have a good highway system. The road that we were on was a toll road.There were housing developments along the roadside,and a lot of unoccupied buildings,some with obvious signs of unfinished construction.
There were signs of some poorer neighborhoods, with ramshackle shacks, and also areas of trash, beside the highway – indicating that there was scope for further development.
The sign for a McDonalds restaurant beside the highway caught me by surprise.
There was a dinner organized for our tour group that evening, and the few us who were on this delayed flight were late for this. They waited for us, and postponed the introduction of the tour to the next day. We met Youssef Afallah, our tour manager, for the first time. Drinks and dinner were enjoyed and we were stuffed. I had my first taste of one of the local beers. It is called, appropriately, Casablanca! We found out that there would be 41 people on this tour. It was quite a large group! (Youssef told me later that the largest group he had managed before this was in the low thirties.)
We were tired because of the red-eye flight the previous night. We were supposed to wake up early the next day for breakfast, but slept late. No worries! Fresh squeezed orange juice and great espresso coffee got us going. I did get this picture of our first Moroccan sunrise from our room before we left for breakfast.
We were staying at the Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses hotel – luxurious accommodations beyond belief to me! They had a nice property that we explored a little bit the two mornings we were there.
Tour introductions were supposed to start at 8:30am after breakfast. Youssef kicked things off. The young man seemed to have things well in hand. He handled the big group deftly, and with a sense of humor. A lot of patience is needed when dealing with such a big and diverse group.
During this session, we found out that there were a few people on the tour who had not yet received their luggage. This was the first opportunity for us to notice Youssef’s endearing ability to take care of each and every one of us individually, and in a very smooth way. He had the most caring personality. Not only that, he answered each of our questions, no matter how silly they may have seemed to him – without any signs of condescension, and with infinite patience. I cannot recollect him forgetting to execute on something that he had promised to do for us some time in the future. I did not see him visibly lose his patience with any one of us. We even saw him go out of his way on many occasions to help us, without hesitation, sometimes even seemingly loosing his infinite patience with the people involved outside of the tour group in order to make sure our issue was resolved.
In the case of the missing luggage, most of the missing bags were expected to arrive at Casablanca airport that evening, and he made arrangements for the people involved to be able to take a taxi to the airport in the evening after the tours to get their luggage, and to return to the hotel. There was one couple that did not get their luggage until a few days later, in Fes. Youssef kept on top of that problem until the luggage was delivered, even making arrangements for a taxi driver in Fes to take the affected people to the airport in Fes to retrieve their luggage and then return to the hotel. He also had a contact in the industry who tracked the missing bags to Fes once they arrived in Casablanca.
We boarded our tour bus, the one that we were going to be using for the next 15 days, after our introductory meeting. We met our driver for the tour, Youssef (the second!?), and helper, Rashid, for the first time.
Youssef gave us an introduction to the history and the peoples of Morocco during the drive to the places we were to visit in town. I will talk about some of what I learnt later. The information was repeated a few times during the later days of the tour, and hopefully I remember it correctly. A similar description of Rabat followed as we approached our first destination in town. Rabat is the capital of Morocco. It is one of the four Imperial Cities of the country. The others are Fes, Marrakech, and Meknes. Youssef is from Meknes, near Fes!
The first stop was at the casbah. In general, casbah means a fortified area. This casbah is in fact a fort.
From the upper level of the casbah,one was able to get a good view of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.People live in the casbah.Since this is a tourist destination, there are a few small stalls along the way, most featuring local artisans or artists, catering to the visitors. This was also our first introduction to the fact that most of the pets in the town were cats!They were everywhere!
The next stop was at the Mohammed V Mausoleum and Hassan Tower esplanade. This tourist destination includes an unfinished mosque. You can see the changing of the guard in one of the pictures below. They are present at both entrances to the complex. We noticed that the horses were brown on one side of the complex and white on the other side.
The next stop was at the king’s palace. The bus was parked at a mosque that is nearby. We walked to the palace from there. This is a picture of the mosque taken as we were returning to our bus.The facilities at the mosque were used first.This was the first of our many daily experiences with what Youssef called “The Happy Room”. This subject might be worth a diversion in some future blog, but now I must plow on!
In general, we were not allowed to get too close to the palace.
Note that the king has many palaces located all over the country.
The final stop in the morning was at the Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.There was some compelling art work on display, but we did not have too much time to linger.
Lunch was in a restaurant beside the river that flows through town. This was the first time we got to mingle and chat with some of our fellow travelers.
We got a view of Zaha Hahid‘s opera house on a few occasions as we were driving through town. This was the only clear picture I was able to get of the landmark.
There is another new landmark coming up not too far from the opera house. The Mohammed VI tower (also called the Bank of Africa tower) will be the tallest building in Africa when it is complete. I got a good picture of this place the next morning as we were leaving for Tangier.We drove past the medina in Rabat. Medinas in Morocco are walled old towns where people live. There are usually a lot of narrow alleyways and small shops there. They are fascinating places to visit. We are not stopping at this one, but we will be visiting the famous one in Fes along the way. For the time being, I had to satisfy myself with pictures of the wall of the medina taken from our bus.Those look like satellite TV dishes!
My impressions of Rabat include the fact that it is very clean and well laid out. There are big parks with greenery and trees everywhere. There are public places for people to mingle and participate in sports and other activities. There are people outside, all over town, indulging in social activities. There are roundabouts (traffic circles) everywhere to manage the intersections. Things look organized.
Youssef mentioned that the King wants to use Rabat as an example city for other big cities to follow to transform themselves. A goal is to make them more attractive to visitors, and to also improve the quality of life of people living there. Another random observation – there is more of an official uniformed presence on the streets than we are used to in the US. There are different kinds of police with different colored uniforms. There are also rules against taking pictures of the police. I noticed that the security guards (not the police) wear black suits everywhere they are present.
The areas that we visited in Rabat felt quite modern, dare I say westernized, although I suspect that the inside of the city’s medina is likely to be quite different.
Later in the evening, after the official tour for the day was over, just to get out of the hotel, we took a walk with another couple who were more familiar with the area near the hotel. I had thought that the hotel was located far away from the city, but a short walk on a road over a hill brought us to a commercial section of town. We went to a very modern mall. The place was packed with people. There was some entertainment being provided by a band in one of the locations. A crowd had gathered.We picked up some food items from a massive market in the lower level of the mall. Day turned into night as we departed the mall. We stopped for gelato on the way back. It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel. I had picked up a sandwich for dinner from the food court in the mall. They had both a McDonalds and a Burger King. Heck, I think I even sighted a Dominos Pizza across the food court! I wanted no part of American fast food that evening! I picked up a chicken sandwich from a local establishment (that could have been part of a local chain) – to consume after we returned to our hotel room. It was yummy and filling!
We are starting early tomorrow morning and headed for Tangier in the north.
BTW, the time difference between Moroccan time and Eastern Daylight time in the US is 5 hours. It took us a couple of days to adjust to this time difference.
You can find the next blog in this sequence here.