Get to Know Magical Morocco While Traveling from Casablanca to Marrakesh

In preparing for our trip to Morocco, I wanted to learn as much about the country and the two cities we would visit to fully prepare for our journey. My only image of Casablanca was from the 1942 movie, which I quickly learned was filmed entirely on a Hollywood movie set. Even the movie’s cafe (Rick’s Cafe) was a fictional place in the movie, but has since been duplicated as a real tourist stop in Casablanca. So, here’s lookin’ at you kid…

Sunrise over Casablanca from our ship
Sunrise over Casablanca from our ship

About 3 weeks before we were to visit Morocco, the country had been hit with terrible flooding, and I had some concern that our trip to the interior city of Marrakesh may be canceled as a result. Luckily, our trip was still on, as this was our 2nd attempt to visit Africa, after our 1st attempt fell short earlier in 2014 due to bad winds not allowing our ship to dock in Tunis.

Our cruise ship left from Barcelona Spain on December 26th, 2014.  We had a day at sea, and then arrived in Casablanca on the morning of December 28th, where our excursion was to Marrakesh.
Our cruise ship left from Barcelona Spain on December 26th, 2014. We had a day at sea, and then arrived in Casablanca on the morning of December 28th, where our excursion was to Marrakesh.

Quick Moroccan Facts:

  • Located in the northwest corner of Africa bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, the countries of Algeria & Mauritania, and the Western Sahara.
  • Capital is the city of Rabat. Largest city is Casablanca (population 3.4 million)
  • The full Arabic name is al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah (المملكة المغربية) translates to “Kingdom of the West” (i.e., the most western Arab kingdom)
  • The English name “Morocco” originates from the Spanish and Portuguese names “Marruecos” and “Marrocos”
  • Land Area is about 172,000 square miles (roughly the size of North & South Carolina + Georgia + Virginia in the US)
  • Population is about 33 million (roughly the same as the same referenced 4 states)
  • Early prehistoric settlers from 200,000 to 90,000 BC followed by Berber tribes within northern Africa, Phoenicians from the Mediterranean, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Portuguese, Spanish, & French.
  • Independence from France in the 1950s and today Morocco has a democratic government ruled by the current King Mohammed VI
  • 5th largest economy in Africa & ranked #1 in quality of life for African countries
  • Industries are mining, construction, textiles, and tourism with 10% unemployment
  • Official languages: Arabic, Berber, and French
  • Population is 99% Islam & 1% Christian/Other
  • Interesting fact: Morocco was the first country to recognize the new independent United States in 1777.

With the facts out of the way, I personally had a stereotype about Morocco that the country was a desert area and that most modern conveniences were not present. And, like most stereotypes, I was COMPLETELY wrong! The area around Casablanca is in a very fertile region of Morocco. Just outside of the city are large, flat stretches of very green land with various crops being grown. The highways we traveled were extremely modern and in very nice conditions (I would dare say better than a lot of places in the States). And, in both Casablanca and Marrakesh, the common site of construction areas and cranes are visible everywhere, which demonstrates a growing economy in the region.

And busting my stereotype of Morocco as being nothing but desert, for 2 hours from Casablanca are very green, fertile farm lands
And busting my stereotype of Morocco as being nothing but desert, for 2 hours from Casablanca are very green, fertile farm lands

However, with this being said, the further inland we drove to Marrakesh, the scenery slowly does change to a more arid experience as the lush green fields give way to brown, dry landscapes. If we would have kept driving further south, we would have eventually come upon the Western Sahara Desert with its rolling sand dunes, the likes of which everyone thinks of regarding the deserts of northern Africa.

The only "desert" area we saw started about an hour away from Marrekesh as the land became more arid.  About another hour south of Marrakesh we would have entered the Sahara Desert....but, maybe next time ;)
The only “desert” area we saw started about an hour away from Marrekesh as the land became more arid. About another hour south of Marrakesh we would have entered the Sahara Desert….but, maybe next time 😉

In starting out our drive, the area around the port in Casablanca is very nice, as most cruise ports are with lots of palm trees, tourist shops, and cafes. As you drive through the city, most of the buildings in Casablanca are tall and made from cement that are dingy aged, whitewashed structures situated very close together. Traffic becomes more congested with all the modern cars, yellow Mercedes taxis, buses, and random mopeds flowing in different directions of the city.

Casablanca near the cruise port is beautiful.  Tall whitewashed buildings with palm trees.
Casablanca near the cruise port is beautiful. Tall whitewashed buildings with palm trees.
My OCD in me loves how the palm trees are in straight lines :)
My OCD in me loves how the palm trees are in straight lines 🙂

After about 15 minutes, you start to leave the city behind and venture out into the Moroccan countryside filled with flat green farm lands between the Atlas Mountains in the interior to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the tall apartment and office buildings are replaced by small farming villages. The cars are replaced with donkeys pulling small trailers with random large, green John Deere tractors here and there. You can sense the clash of the old farming systems with some of the modern technologies with the tractors and irrigation systems seen.

Away from Casablanca, the "modern" way of life is replaced with the way life has been for hundreds of years
Away from Casablanca, the “modern” way of life is replaced with the way life has been for hundreds of years

Our road to Marrakesh was an extremely well maintained 4-lane toll highway that I did not see one pothole or any roadside debris along the way. There are several large gas stations (like we are accustomed to in the US) and rest areas along the way to stop as needed.

Very modern roads...in better shape than most in the US that I have driven
Very modern roads…in better shape than most in the US that I have driven
Similar gas stations like we would see in the US with shops inside
Similar gas stations like we would see in the US with shops inside
Ever wonder how "Coca-Cola" is spelled in Arabic?
Ever wonder how “Coca-Cola” is spelled in Arabic?

It is a 3 hour drive to Marrakesh, and 2 hours outside of Casablanca, the landscape begins to change as we approached the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The green is replaced by brown. Tractors are replaced by donkeys in the field. The villages are fewer and farther between. But the one constant was the mid-day traffic continuing to travel to and from Casablanca.

Our drive from Casablanca to Marrakesh (the French spelling is Marrakech)
Our drive from Casablanca to Marrakesh (the French spelling is Marrakech)

After 3 hours, we began to enter the ‘new town’ section of Marrakesh with its hotels, restaurants, shops, and soccer stadium. All the structures here were built within the last 10 years with a tremendous amount of construction still underway. The building materials were concrete that had a brownish-red hue to match the surrounding landscape. The first indication that Marrakesh is a tourist destination were the camels and the signs saying ‘Camel Rides’ that were found around the palace area.

In the "new section" of Marrakesh we found the tourist attraction of camel rides through the parks
In the “new section” of Marrakesh we found the tourist attraction of camel rides through the parks

Our first stop in Marrakesh was to visit the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Koutoubia Mosque).  Here is where I quickly learned that if you take a picture of a person in costume that they will want 1 Euro. The mosque was very beautiful. The weather was simply gorgeous for the end of December with clear skies, temperatures in the high 60s and no humidity. After spending about an hour here admiring the splendor of the mosque with its intricate detailed mosaics we left to go have lunch.

We toured the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Koutoubia Mosque) built in the 1100s. The minaret (prayer tower) is 253 feet high.
We toured the largest mosque in Marrakesh (Koutoubia Mosque) built in the 1100s. The minaret (prayer tower) is 253 feet high.
Inside the mosque we toured the various prayer rooms. Unlike Christian churches, there are no pictures of religious scenes or Mohammed. But rather there are very orinate mosaics made of small tiles that makes each of the various rooms seem so peaceful with their bright, vibrant colors.
Inside the mosque we toured the various prayer rooms. Unlike Christian churches, there are no pictures of religious scenes or Mohammed. But rather there are very orinate mosaics made of small tiles that makes each of the various rooms seem so peaceful with their bright, vibrant colors.
The mosaic tiles in the ceiling are works of art in that the pattern and color have so much detail in them.
The mosaic tiles in the ceiling are works of art in that the pattern and color have so much detail in them.
One of the meeting rooms had an unique skylight type opening that allowed the sunlight to brighten the mosaic tiles in the room.
One of the meeting rooms had an unique skylight type opening that allowed the sunlight to brighten the mosaic tiles in the room.
Each room has a different mosaic pattern. Rooms were split for men and women originally, but today they are no longer split.
Each room has a different mosaic pattern. Rooms were split for men and women originally, but today they are no longer split.
Most of the mosaic tiles were inlaid in the ceiling, but in some of the areas above the open-air windows, mosaics were placed as well to catch the light from the sun
Most of the mosaic tiles were inlaid in the ceiling, but in some of the areas above the open-air windows, mosaics were placed as well to catch the light from the sun
I am 6'4" tall and standing in the doorway into one of the prayer rooms, but notice the size of the door on my side, which is closed in the evenings.
I am 6’4″ tall and standing in the doorway into one of the prayer rooms, but notice the size of the door on my side, which is closed in the evenings.

IMG_4659_edited-1

The only trees in Morocco it seems are palm trees.  Here's a shot with the palm trees and the moon.
The only trees in Morocco it seems are palm trees. Here’s a shot with the palm trees and the moon.
The Medina of Marrakesh is surround by a city wall that stretches 12 miles around the old Medina, and was built in the 1100s. The wall stands about 20 feet high and there are 20 gates and 200 towers along the wall. The interesting thing here with this picture are the 3 stork nests on top of the walls.
The Medina of Marrakesh is surround by a city wall that stretches 12 miles around the old Medina, and was built in the 1100s. The wall stands about 20 feet high and there are 20 gates and 200 towers along the wall. The interesting thing here with this picture are the 3 stork nests on top of the walls.

Our Guide took us to a restaurant for our lunch. To tell you where this was would be a lie, because there were so many twists and turns in the streets that it is very easy to get lost. We were treated to a very festive, traditional Moroccan lunch. Three men using different guitars, drums, and shakers played Moroccan music while dancers and belly dancers went by all the tables. The food was served in what we would call in the States as ‘family style’. We did not order from a menu, and different courses were brought out to us: salad, then grilled chicken with various vegetable (carrots, potatoes, onions), and couscous. Then, the server asked if we were ready for dessert? Our dessert were plates of fresh Clementine’s….so fresh, in fact, that they still had leaves sticking off the tops. These had to be the sweetest, best tasting oranges/Clementine’s ever!! Talk about a ‘healthy’ dessert!!

During lunch, our entertainment were these men playing guitars and drums with women belly dancers going around the table. Uh, I did not take any pix of the belly dancers...I guess I was being mesmerized (HAHA)
During lunch, our entertainment were these men playing guitars and drums with women belly dancers going around the table. Uh, I did not take any pix of the belly dancers…I guess I was being mesmerized (HAHA)
We had a typical Moroccan lunch. The food was served what we in the southern US would call "family style", where you did not order from a menu and the food was brought out in large plates to share with the table. The lunch was a salad, grilled chicken vegetables (potatoes & carrots), bread and couscous. Our dessert were very sweet oranges.
We had a typical Moroccan lunch. The food was served what we in the southern US would call “family style”, where you did not order from a menu and the food was brought out in large plates to share with the table. The lunch was a salad, grilled chicken vegetables (potatoes & carrots), bread and couscous. Our dessert were very sweet oranges.
Taking a break at lunch
Taking a break at lunch

After lunch, our next stop was to the old section (Medina) of Marrakesh to experience the ‘true’ Marrakesh. To Westerners, the marketplace of the Souks can be very intimidating as various merchants selling their food, crafts, and items will approach you to buy from them. There is a lot of competition between all of the merchants so they do their best to get your attention and to make you look at their stuff. If you are not use to this, it comes across as being very pushy or aggressive in getting your attention. However, a firm ‘NO’ and continuing to walk past will work. Even though we feel this as being ‘rude’ this is just how you make it through the market.

The skies were absolutely blue and this made the "orange" in the trees just pop in color
The skies were absolutely blue and this made the “orange” in the trees just pop in color
Like most towns in Europe & North Africa, there is a "new" and an "old" section of the town. In North Africa, the "old" town section is called the "Medina", and this is a view of a traffic circle just outside of the Medina.
Like most towns in Europe & North Africa, there is a “new” and an “old” section of the town. In North Africa, the “old” town section is called the “Medina”, and this is a view of a traffic circle just outside of the Medina.
With my background in Supply Chain & Logisitics...I found this sight very interesting to see.
With my background in Supply Chain & Logisitics…I found this sight very interesting to see.
There are a lot of cars, buses, and mopeds in the city....but, the old reliable way of travel still exists here.
There are a lot of cars, buses, and mopeds in the city….but, the old reliable way of travel still exists here.
Walking the streets in the Medina, there are various stands where people are selling fresh fruits and vegatables.
Walking the streets in the Medina, there are various stands where people are selling fresh fruits and vegatables.
Or selling carpets. Beautiful Moroccan silk and wool carpets with very intricate patterns are everywhere.
Or selling carpets. Beautiful Moroccan silk and wool carpets with very intricate patterns are everywhere.
And, talk about "fresh" oranges....can they get any fresher than this with the tree leaves still attached and green? BTW, these were the sweetest tasting oranges we have ever had!!
And, talk about “fresh” oranges….can they get any fresher than this with the tree leaves still attached and green? BTW, these were the sweetest tasting oranges we have ever had!!
More vegatables, this time banannas being sold
More vegetables, this time bananas being sold

But, if you are interested in buying something….the saying goes…if you touch it, you will buy it, meaning the merchant will make every single attempt to sell to you what you touched or something else in their store. “My friend, I make you the best offer here!”. In Morocco, and especially in the Souks, bargaining is expected. So, if you do want to buy something, when the merchant gives their price, offer 50% of their price and settle at about 30% less than the original offer. The local currency is the Moroccan Dirham (1 Dirham is about 10 Euros or 8 US Dollars). If a merchant states a price in Euros or Dollars, just beware of what the current exchange rate is to make sure you are not being taken advantage of.

We had to attend the carpet demonstration as they explained how they were made and showed us all the various types they had. But, we learned from our trip in Turkey to not show any interest or we would be hounded after the demonstration by salesmen.
We had to attend the carpet demonstration as they explained how they were made and showed us all the various types they had. But, we learned from our trip in Turkey to not show any interest or we would be hounded after the demonstration by salesmen.
Our next demonstration was in an oil and spice shop. Morocco is known for its various oils and spices that many cosmetic companies seek their ingredients to make their very expensive products. We were given samples of different oils and spices for medical, cooking, and cosmetic purposes. I had low expectations with this demonstration, but found it quite interesting
Our next demonstration was in an oil and spice shop. Morocco is known for its various oils and spices that many cosmetic companies seek their ingredients to make their very expensive products. We were given samples of different oils and spices for medical, cooking, and cosmetic purposes. I had low expectations with this demonstration, but found it quite interesting

And, the markets are just like we have seen on TV and in the movies. Narrow walkways around old, stone buildings. Back room shops off the main walking paths. Our guide took us to a leather store that in no way could anyone find this place unless you had been there countless times before. It is a very crowded area, with so many vivid colors and smells coming from the spice stands. Truly, it is an experience walking through these areas.

After lunch, we walked to the Souk which is an open-air market. And, the one in Marrakesh is the largest in North Africa. The closer we walked the more sounds of people and music became louder. — at Marrakech.
We walked to the Souk which is an open-air market. And, the one in Marrakesh is the largest in North Africa. The closer we walked the more sounds of people and music became louder.
Not only were the sounds and smells wonderful, but the colors were vivid also....who knew that nuts could be so colorful?
Not only were the sounds and smells wonderful, but the colors were vivid also….who knew that nuts could be so colorful?
What to do with all the oranges? Make refreshing orange juice drinks.
What to do with all the oranges? Make refreshing orange juice drinks.

In Marrakesh there is a very large market square area, where street performers with their dancing monkeys, snake charmers and handlers, dancers, etc attract hundreds of people to watch and partake. Here, the recommendation is to take pictures with a zoom lens in order to take pictures without being asked to give 1 Euro. This is one way they make extra money, but if you are like me and want to take a hundred pictures, this really can become a hassle. But, when you do want to take the picture of the performer you just watched, then the courtesy is to pay (but this is similar in most tourist areas I have been around the world).

The streets are crowded, and "rich" Americans and Europeans stick out and are sought after by the merchants....and pickpockets (so be mindful of your belongings).
The streets are crowded, and “rich” Americans and Europeans stick out and are sought after by the merchants….and pickpockets (so be mindful of your belongings).
In the Souk, the streets are very narrow and go back and forth. People are selling leather, crafts, clothes, carpets, spices, food, etc....and with so many stands, there is a lot of competition. As a result, the merchants come across as being very aggressive in trying to make a sale. But, a firm "NO!" and keep walking is perfectly acceptable.
In the Souk, the streets are very narrow and go back and forth. People are selling leather, crafts, clothes, carpets, spices, food, etc….and with so many stands, there is a lot of competition. As a result, the merchants come across as being very aggressive in trying to make a sale. But, a firm “NO!” and keep walking is perfectly acceptable.
But, if you do want to buy something, bargaining is expected. When the merchant offers a price, you come back at 50% and usually settle at 30% less than what the original price was.
But, if you do want to buy something, bargaining is expected. When the merchant offers a price, you come back at 50% and usually settle at 30% less than what the original price was.

Also, if you have seen the American television show ‘The Amazing Race’, this last season (2014), Marrakesh was one of their stops along the race. We saw the area where the food stands are and the area where the Moroccan carpets are hung, both which were activities performed on the show. But, from our experience and the number of people present, this show must be filmed very early in the morning and under controlled conditions because there are people everywhere!

But, there are deals to be made for some great things if you are interested. Also, if you 'touch something' you basically 'bought it' because the merchant sees that you are interested and will follow you throughout the store to make a sale...."You, my friend, I make you the best offer in Morocco."
But, there are deals to be made for some great things if you are interested. Also, if you ‘touch something’ you basically ‘bought it’ because the merchant sees that you are interested and will follow you throughout the store to make a sale….”You, my friend, I make you the best offer in Morocco.”

After about 2 hours spent in Marrakesh walking the Souks in the Medina, attending demonstrations at a Moroccan carpet store and an oil & spice store; it was time to start our 3 hour drive back to Casablanca for our cruise departure at 10pm that night. We had a very, very long day.

We were told to be ‘travelers’ and not ‘tourists’ on this stop, meaning to expect to be out of our comfort zone. And, this advice worked, as we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Morocco and our experience that was magical.

5 Replies to “Get to Know Magical Morocco While Traveling from Casablanca to Marrakesh”

      1. We were on the same ship! The Spirit is a nice ship, even though it is one of NCL’s oldest, it was recently refurbished. The excursion we took was called “Magical Marrakech”, and it was a 10 hour trip roundtrip. We were in Marrakech about 5 hours. All of the blog posts here from January were from our trip. Enjoy yours!

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      2. Yes that is the one we are thinking of booking. We were wondering how much time did you actually get at market to wonder. It seems they take you to lunch and the place and tombs as well so we are concerned about actual time at market. We called NCL to inquire and they said 20 mins…that does not seem like long for such a big market. Also were the monkeys and snakes out during the day?

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