The Final Stretch in Marrakech

morocco-march-2009-541Saturday, March 28.

Call it a case of last day lethargy, but I don’t really have a lot planned, nor do I want to. I’m tired, actually.

We saw the Djemaa el-Fna the night before, and I’m on the fence about returning. The only two things of interest to me today is (a) visiting the Majorelle Gardens and (b) trying to get in touch with my friend from work, who’s supposed to be in Marrakech with her fiancé for a family function. It would be nice to see them before I return home.

Home. That’s the other thing on my mind.

It’s not the destination that’s making me anxious. It’s the journey to the airport. How in the sweet hell I’m going to get from Marrakech to Casablanca? I haven’t even begun to steel myself for the long, god-awful flight itinerary back to Toronto. 

Before leaving for that morning’s outing, I see Will in the front lobby and explain my dilemma, which he offers to help me with. He phones around until he finds someone who thinks he can take me in a private van for 900 DH (currently about $127 CAD). He’s just awaiting confirmation.

It’s friggin’ steep. But not a choice I’m turning down at this point since my only other options are :

(a) missing the group dinner, taking the 9 p.m. train out of Marrakech, and sleeping on the floor of the Casablanca train station or airport overnight, or

(b) taking the 5 a.m. train Sunday morning , arriving at the airport around 8:30 a.m., and risk missing my flight. 

I also use Will’s laptop to try contacting my friend. She hasn’t been on Facebook for a few days now (duh – would YOU be?) so I’m unsure of what to do. At a tour-mate’s suggestion, I leave an e-mail, plus messages on her wall (and her fiancé’s as well) and hope for the best.

After, a group of us – consisting of Alex, Nikki, Grace, Amelia, Liz, Nonnie, Colin and myself – decide to start our day by walking over to the Majorelle Gardens.

Unlike last night, today feels MUCH cooler, and it’s slightly windy. I’m wearing my sandals, thinking it would be warm – but my toes are freezing.

After about 30 – 40 minutes (including a couple of stops), we finally reach the gardens.

Backstory: The gardens wemorocco-march-2009-559re designed by a French expatriate artist, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s, when Morocco was still a French protectorate.

The garden was opened to the public in 1947, and in 1980, the late Yves Saint-Laurent and an associate took over ownership.

(You can also visit the official Web site here for more information on Majorelle and the gardens.)

It’s really hard to guess how lush it is from the outer wall of the complex. From the minute we enter, there’s lush greenery – palms, flowers and plants – everywhere … especially cacti and other types of succulent plants.

Also everywhere: the shade of bold, blue paint used on the various structures in the garden – like doors, clay pots and the base of some fountains – named Majorelle blue, after the artist. 

morocco-march-2009-549There’s also a memorial to YSL in the gardens. (When he died, he apparently had his ashes scattered here.)

The little tile plaque leaning against the base of the memorial’s pillar says “silence” in English/French and Arabic.

We’ve only been in the gardens about 10 minutes when it starts raining. Again. Luckily I was smart enough to bring my trusty baby blue rainjacket.

Strangely enough, despite us folks getting wet, the rain seems to make everything in the gardens look even prettier.

Upon leaving, we split up. Nikki, Amelia, Alex, Grace and Colin all opt for heading down to the market straightaway. Nonnie and I take a taxi back to the hotel so we can change into warmer clothes and drier shoes.

Back at the hotel waiting for Nonnie, Will fills me in on the private taxi situation. Essentially the 900 DH offer has evaporated, and another offer – for 1,500 DH (about $210 CAD) – has taken its place. I’m incredulous, and a bit discouraged at the prospect of forking over THAT much money. He’s also checked for other options by plane and train. None. He says he’ll keep trying.

Nonnie and I set out by foot to the Djemaa el Fna. Of course, it’s NOW stopped raining and has gotten warmer than when we arrived a half-hour earlier.

morocco-march-2009-5771We also get lost when we get really close to the square. 

Somehow we end up around the outer wall and have to take the scenic route (by which I mean travelling alongside huge, high metal roadway guardrails, on strips of concrete one could barely call a pedestrian sidewalk) until we hit the Koutoubia Mosque (pictured at right).

The mosque is the largest in Marrakech. The minaret is said to have been used as the model for the Giralda in Seville, which I visited almost two years ago.

By the time we reach the square, all I can think about is my rumbling, empty stomach. Forget the market! We end up going to one of the rootop restaurants overlooking the square.

morocco-march-2009-580The service is slow, but I don’t mind.  While we wait, we watch the tourists, the snake charmers and other performers below.

After lunch, we return to ground level. We pass by one of the street performers, watching briefly. Wandering towards the entrance to the souks, Nonnie’s accosted within seconds. She’s looking for a little trolley to transport all the things she’s bought, but no dice.

Minutes later, we run into the others inside the souks. Nikki and Grace are sealing the deal on some jewellery they’ve bought; poor Alex has unfortunately been accosted by a local guy, leaving her quite fed up with the Marrakech experience; and I think in sometime in the space of the seven minutes we’ve been here, Nonnie manages to barter for yet another pair of shoes.

As for myself, I end up buying a pair of cushion covers. I get Nonnie’s assessment before I start the bartering process. While not entirely happy with the price, I at least hold my ground, raising my price in increments. It’s better than past barters I’ve made.

The group elects to meet near the post office ’round 3:30 p.m. to plan their next move. I opt to break away and hang out near the Koutoubia Mosque in hopes my friend and her fiance receive my Facebook message and can meet me.

I give it a half-hour before giving up. As I’m crossng the street, I see the others, who I thought had left at least 20 minutes earlier.

The girls hop in a cab; Colin, Nonnie and I venture down the street and discover a cyberpark. No, not wi-fi. I’m talking internet kiosks set up around the park grounds for public use. Call me weird, but I’ve never seen anything like it back home.

We do eventually find an internet centre, where Nonnie logs on to arrange her accommodation in southern Spain for the next day. I check my Facebook and – as luck has it – catch up with my friend’s fiancé via Facebook Chat. Turns out they’ve had a busy morning, checking out of the really shady riad they booked and finding a safer, less dodgy one. So sadly, our paths do not cross. 

We grab a taxi to the train station near our hotel so Nonnie and Colin can book their tickets for Tangier.

When we return to the hotel, I find out the issue with the private transfer has been resolved – Will manages to find someone who can take me to Marrakesh for 1,000 DH. Relieved, I chill in my room, relaxing into the pillows on my bed as I watch the back half of an American  movie with subtitles.

By the time we assemble in the hotel bar before dinner, it starts raining AGAIN. And it’s a downpour.

Will can’t find any petit taxis for us to hire, so he’s forced to arrange a minivan with the shadiest, most difficult driver we’ve come across in the two weeks we’ve been here.

Not only does he make us pay 200 DH upfront, he kicks up the HUGEST stink when we ask him (even with translation help from Alex) if we can stop off at an off-license place – near the restaurant, no less! – to buy some alcohol along with us for our meal.

Granted, he warns us (though not very nicely) that it’s closed, and it is -by the time he manoeuvres through traffic. But on top of his ridiculous behaviour, he demands another 20 DH. (What?)

We get our revenge in the end. As we’re piling out of the van, a middle-aged guy walks up to the driver’s side of the van and starts talking to him, probably about hiring his services.

We just turn and walk away from the van.

(To anyone thinking of travelling in Marrakech: If  you have to hire a van service and can’t avoid using Sté Transport Tahanaout, at least steer clear of a driver called Haj Lahcen. Yes, I’m calling him out, because he’s an ASSHOLE and he had the gall to give us his business cards … as IF.) 

morocco-march-2009-585Once out of the rain, the restaurant we’re at for our goodbye group dinner is quite nice, if more French-influenced than Moroccan.

I pore over the menu and order one last harira for the road (I can only eat about half of it), along with some pasta.

We make a gelati stop after dinner for the younger half of the group  and say our final goodbyes to Sally, Cathy and Nonnie, who head back to the hotel.

The rest of us walk down to this restaurant/bar, Comptoir Darna, for a drink. It’s pretty upscale compared to where we’ve been so far. I suddenly feel grossly underdressed. And the prices for drinks seem to match.

morocco-march-2009-588We stand, clustered close to the bar, and stay long enough to see the establishment’s other big draw – its bellydancers.

I don’t know what impresses me more – the fact these women can get their to hips gyrate while standing on the backs of armchairs, never mind on solid ground …

Or the loud, syncopated clapping of the male staff members in time to the music. (The similarity in rhythm to flamenco music strikes me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two styles are distant cousins.)

We walk back to the hotel, spending some of our remaining time together just hanging in the darkened lobby.

THIS is when Colin finally decides to whip out the whiskey he’s kept closed during the trip, for a goodbye swig.

I wish my mates a final goodbye in the elevator ride up to our rooms, and begin the task of packing just before midnight. 

I finish packing just after 1 a.m., grabbing about an hour and 15 minutes “sleep” before changing and leaving my hotel room for the last time …

A Two-Town Kind of Day

Monday, March 16.

I sleep somewhat soundly until about 4:30 in the morning, when I’m awakened by noisy water and toilet pipes, and other things that go bump early in the morning.

For about the next hour, I’m irrationally convinced someone’s trying to break into our room, and I’m constantly checking my belongings in the dark. 

Morning brings a return to reason and a light continental breakfast – which includes yogurt. (I’m secretly happy for this – before leaving, a friend advised me to eat yogurt every day to help my stomach adjust to the food.)

I also get a chance to talk with some of my tour-mates, including Alex, our late arrival from London. As it turns out, she’s also a big adherent of breakfast, and we bond over this.

After breakfast, we pack up our bags and store them behind the reception desk. We have just enough time to pay a visit to the Hassan II Mosque – one of only two mosques non-Muslims are allowed to visit, in the entire country.

morocco-march-2009-004It’s a good thing I got such a spectactular view of the minaret as the plane approached the airport the day before. The “mist” that rolled in the previous evening has completely obscured the top of it.

As we make our way around towards the entrance, one of the boys sitting around nearby makes eye contact with Nikki, the lone New Zealander on our trip, and smiles, trying to chat her up in Moroccan Arabic. It’s already begun, I think to myself.

I think one of us notes this to her, and she rolls her eyes in recognition of what we mean. It’s all forgotten when we get to the front entrance, though.

The night before, our tour leader had instructed us to find the pregnant female tour guide, because she was apparently very good. No such luck – we get a man instead, and are hurriedly pushed towards the ticket office to purchase our tickets for the tour.

Inside, we’re told to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carry with us through the huge worship hall.

The craftmanship is ridiculous. Every corner, wall, and ceiling panel is intricately designed. While the guide rattles off facts, numbers and measurements, I’m just trying to capture as much of the architectural beauty with my camera – if not to truly do it justice, then just to prove I was a witness to its greatness.

We move from one end of it to the other, and then out and downstairs into the area where worshippers perform their ablutions beforehand, and then a brief peek into the hammams. (I can’t remember off-hand whether or not they’re actually still used.) I love the shapes, the colour and design of the tiles – everything.

We return to the hotel, reconvene with our group and then head to the train station, where we take a (relatively) short trip to our next destination – the nation’s capital, Rabat.

Rabat’s sun and cloudless blue skies are a stark contrast tomorocco-march-2009-045 the gloominess we’ve just left. We store our bags at a local hotel just off the main strip. Our trip leader – named Will – starts to direct us towards the neatly maincured promenade in the middle of the street, but is told not to go there – the king’s in town.

So we’re forced to cross the street and stick to the sidewalk – and get our introduction to Moroccan traffic.

We hit a nearby pastry shop to pick up some things for the lunch we’re going to have later on. The shop – whose name I think is actually called Le Comedie – has some of the prettiest pastries, desserts and breads I think I’ve ever seen or smelled. I settle some sort of flaky pastry with meat, a piece of fresh bread and an irrestible chocolate sweet called a Montecristo.

One of my tour-mates – an American named Sally – buys a pastilla – a lovely pastry filled with chicken (or sometimes pigeon), almonds, and cinnamon, along with other things I can’t remember – and dusted with what I’m pretty sure is icing sugar. She lets me have a bite – and I’m in heaven.

We also stop at a small market nearby. While some people purchase some fruit, Alex and I agree to buy some olives – red and two types of green ones.

Will then takes the group down a series of quaint little sidestreets; I’m vaguely reminded of  Granada.

We arrive at this place that kind of looks like an old fort … we enter and walk until we arrive at this patio-styled, restaurant-y sort of place where we sit down to eat our purchases. A waiter arrives and offers us drinks and sweets. Some people opt not to because they don’t want to spend the money. I, however, cannot resist.

Poor Nikki is again targeted, this time by a very persistent young woman offering her a henna tattoo. Even when she says no, the henna girl continues badgering her, until our trip leader shoos her away in Arabic.

Following lunch, we’re free to look around the old fortress grounds  – part of which has a really pretty view overlooking the water. Following this, we split up to explore the city until it’s time to meet back at the hotel at 4:45 that afternoon.

morocco-march-2009-061A group of us – Liz, myself, Colin (the lone man on the tour), Nikki, two Aussies, Grace and Amelia and Alex – head over to the souks. The group eventually breaks down further when the younger members of the group stop to look at camel leather bracelets and the slightly older members wander along further.

Liz, Colin and I eventually keep walking, turning corner after corner and momentarily stalling at the odd stand, until we wander out of the souk and around what appears to be the newer part of the town.

We end up going to a nearby park and chilling out on a park bench for a while. We just sit in the shade and talk. Colin occasionally consults his guide book for information about things.

At about four o’clock, I hear the call to prayer for the first time on my trip. A friend of mine who went to Morocco about 10 years ago described the sound as “sexy”. I think it’s both beautiful and haunting.

But I don’t hear just one. Two more calls to prayer start up within about 30 seconds of one another – so for about two or three minutes, it sounds like the muezzins are either on an audio delay – or competing with each other.

After about 40 minutes, the three of us decide to start making our way back. But we get lost, walking street after street, trying to find the main drag and not finding anything remotely resembling it.

Colin consults the map in his guidebook a couple of times. The street we’re on isn’t even on the map. We ask someone for directions and get a not-so-distinct answer. Time is ticking away, and Colin suggests – in a slightly panicked voice – that we should maybe try getting a taxi.

We don’t, and keep walking. We come across a policeman and ask for directions. I try and translate what he says (thank goodness I know my numbers!), and then keep onward. I don’t know how or when, but about two minutes before we’re supposed to be at the hotel, we finally hit Mohammed V – and eventually the hotel.

We board the train to Meknes at about 5:30 p.m. It is PACKED. Some people find seats in cars almost right away; a bunch of us have to stand in the small open area – practically on top of our luggage (or maybe that’s just me) for a couple of stops.

I’m nervous. Besides the dude I saw in one car giving people the finger as we we were boarding, the thought of trying to talk to Moroccans – given my nonexistent Arabic and mediocre French skills – worries me. I’m bracing for hostility.

Nonnie, one of my older tour-mates from Australia, and I get couple spaces in a nearby car, about two stops into our trip. For a few moments, no one in our says anything – we’re looking at each other, at the other people and then briefly away.

But then this one young guy sporting a suit starts talking to us in English, asking where we’re from, etc. It turns out he’s from Malaysia. He’s really nice.

Then this really pretty Moroccan girl (wearing a headscarf) sitting next to him chimes in, albeit in a combination of broken English (and my poor French). I also try acting as translator for Nonnie, who owns a French phrasebook but doesn’t know a lick of French, so that she’s included in the “conversation”.

We find out the pretty girl lives near Meknes, but she – and another woman sitting next to me – are originally from Agadir, a coastal town just south of Essaouira (where we’ll go later on in our trip). She speaks of how it’s the same size as Essaouira, but very pretty and known for argan oil and (thuya) wood sculptures. She add that we should that we should try and stop there on our travels.

My fear of conversation dissolves just in time for her to leave the train at a town called Kenitra. There are two other girls sitting in our train car, but my French isn’t good enough to carry on a full conversation with them. So other than the odd question from one of the girls, they keep to themselves, talking about shopping and whatnot (from what little I could decipher).

When the train pulls into Meknes, it’s twilight. The light in our car is broken, so we sit in darkness.

Our hotel is, thankfully, less than five minutes by foot. After checking in and dropping off our things, we head to dinner at this place our tour leader Will found accidentally on a previous occasion (he’d been looking for a restaurant he’d been to before, but it had closed down).

We sit outside on the patio in our jackets, sweaters and fleeces, shivering. At one point during dinner, Will is sitting at one end of the table while he’s left his cigarettes at the other. I absently turn to look in time to see this kid (probably no older than 11), make his way up to the table, snatch the pack of smokes and take off down the street with his buddies. (The staff find out and buy Will a new pack of Marlboros.)

Following dinner (and the theft), a few of us stop in at a local bar for some drinks. The clientele are all men, except for the female bartender smoking behind the bar. Nikki goes upstairs to save some seats for us while we order our beers.

When we make our way upstairs with our drinks, poor Nikki’s been cornered by a lone Moroccan dude who won’t leave her alone and – despite her vocal protests – insists on buying her a drink, pulling out a huge wad of dirhams as if to prove he can afford it.

Even when the rest of us form a circle with our chairs and effectively block him out, he refuses to leave –  pretending to talk on his cell phone and surrepitiously taking pictures and then pretending he isn’t when we call him on it. I’m really annoyed and am ready to bust some heads. (Okay, maybe not, but I’m ready to take my own camera and start snapping unwanted pictures of him to get him to piss off.)

He eventually leaves, but only because closing time is called only a couple of minutes later.

Ah, Meknes. What an introduction.

The Train to Füssen

August 7th …

I don’t have to get up early, but I do anyway, to see Lauren off. It’ll be quite strange having a whole room to myself, albeit for only a few more hours. I’m most nervous about finding my way over to my next hostel – my brain’s been on auto-pilot for the last 10 days.

As my acquaintances assemble by the front door, a young couple apparently tries taking a taxi van meant for my mates.  From what I can tell, the taxi driver basically yells at them to get out of the van; they do so quite reluctantly. The driver proceeds to get out of the van, has some choice words with the guy, and gives him a shove (I suspect the dude said something not-so-nice to him). The woman – wearing something more appropriate for a club than for outside a hotel at 7:20 a.m. – tries defusing the situation. But Taxi Guy’s clearly incensed. Somehow the situation dissipates.

After saying goodbye to Lauren and my other tour-mates, I rub my eyes and figure out what to do with myself.  

I change, shower, check the internet terminal to see if it’s free – tour-mate Kelly from New Zealand (one of the few remaining) is checking work e-mails and trying to find accommodation for the next night. I wait a little while longer, then check out what’s for breakfast in the “dining room.” I opt instead to return to my room and scrounge around in my backpack for a strategically-packed granola bar (one of many).

I return back downstairs to see if the terminal’s free, and run into Randy coming downstairs with his belongings. He’s going to his next hotel – a Hilton, no less – and then plans to take the train to the south of Bavaria. Apparently there are two castles, one of which belonged to King Ludwig II and was featured in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and he bought a tour ticket to see both.

I voice an interest in also wanting to go; he says if Kelly (who’s still on the Internet) and I want to go with him, he’s going to catch a train at 9:51 a.m. from the central train station to Füssen, Germany, which is the nearest stop to the castles.

We hurriedly agree to meet and he takes off.

Upon discussing further, Kelly and I decide not to rush, since both of us still have to figure out where our respective accommodations are. And besides, haven’t we already spent 10 days rushing from place to place?

We leave together sometime after 9 a.m., the sun already beating down on us. We find the metro, and take some time figuring out our respective routes, as well as what time later trains leave for Füssen, then split up, promising to e-mail each other about when to meet up.

I reach my hostel surprisingly quickly, only to find out the room won’t be ready until 3 p.m. I store my bag in the luggage room in the basement, then wait for a free internet terminal and e-mail Kelly. We were going to try and board the 10:51 train; we agree instead to meet by the train ticket booths by 11:15 so we can catch the 11:51 train.

I kill some time in the main lobby before walking over to the metro, and taking it to the main station (I get there early). I pick a spot and I wait. And wait. And wait.

At 11:46, when I debate whether to go by myself or go back to the hostel, Kelly shows up. We bolt for the train station.

Trying to figure out what tickets to buy from the automated machines is stressful, as we don’t understand the system, and we have about four minutes to buy our tickets, and board the train. But how Kelly figures it out for us to board with about two minutes to spare, is still beyond me.

Once we stop panting from all the running, we settle in for the trip. Kelly was nice enough to get lunch for both of us – something resembling pizza or pizza-bread; whatever – at this point, I don’t care – and some lovely pastries.

We take in the scenery and try and get whatever breeze we can, as the train car is boiling hot.

Here’s where a seemingly simple trip gets complicated. We both fall asleep because we’re so tired. We’re awoken by the man checking tickets, who says first in German, then in English, “Last stop.”

Bleary-eyed, we get off the train and wander around … only to discover we didn’t go to Füssen. We have, in fact, have ended up in the town of Memmingen, the western-most town in the state of Bavaria, which sits near the border with the state of Baden-Württemberg

Of course, we don’t know any of this until we go to the station’s ticket office, where the man at the desk shows us Memmingen on a small map. He also informs us we should have transferred roughly an hour east of where we are, in the town of Buchloe. I’m slightly annoyed, but soon smiling and shaking my head with Kelly at our misadventure. We grab some pop and pastry, and then walk back to Memmingen station to wait another 40 minutes for the train going in the opposite direction.

We reach Füssen three and half hours later, taking in the scenery – and finally getting a fantastic view of the mountains as we pull into the station. We wait for the bus, then decide to cab it to the ticket information centre for Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. We can still see the former, but the latter will be closed by the time we get there. So we get tickets for Hohenschwangau Castle and then decide to go the whole hog and take a horse-drawn carriage to the base of the castle.

The tour itself was only okay, but the inside – all the ornate fixtures and decorations – was ridiculous. It’s too bad I couldn’t take any pictures. Even if I did, they probably wouldn’t have done it justice.

By the end of the tour, it’s started raining a bit. We take a chance and walk over to the other castle to get a look. It takes about 40 minutes, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s a bit of a climb – the way up is steeper than what we’ve been used to during the trip. But just being out in the fresh air, taking in where we are, makes the walk well-worth it.

We then decide to cap off our visit by walking up and around to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), from which you get the best views of Neuschwanstein Castle.

The upward hike takes another half-hour or so. The bridge itself when we get to it, is ridiculously high. And for two women of the Commonwealth who are skittish about heights, that’s a big friggin’ deal.

We inch arross the bridge, snap some pictures of the castle (which really is something in its own right), and go back across, trying NOT to look down. We go back on it a second time, since Kelly figures we can’t come ALL this way not to take pictures of ourselves on the bridge. (If I had a full bladder, I would’ve peed myself right there from sheer nervousness.)

We make the steep ascent back down, take a cab back to Füssen, where again, we cut it even closer trying to catch the train back to Munich. But make it we did, about three or so hours later.

Wow. What an adventure. But it’s almost over – one more day in Munich.