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31 Jul 2016Last updated
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Maghreb express

From manic medinas to moonlit mosques, Morocco is equal parts pace and grace, as we discover on a train journey from Marrakech to Tangier

By Sachin Rao
Added 14:08 | 19 January 2016
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  • Africa’s first high-speed rail service will run from Tangier to Casablanca via Rabat.

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  • Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square and surrounded by souks, is popular with locals as well as tourists.

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  • The square’s snake charmers are fond of draping serpents over unwary shoulders.

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  • Djemaa el Fna is especially atmospheric at night.

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  • The seaside town of Rabat is a scenic place to break up your rail journey.

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  • Tangier is rough around the edges but its scruffy charm has made it a popular location for Hollywood movies.

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When is a train not a train? When it’s a symbol. The Shinkansen, for instance, is Japan: swift, quiet, precise; the Trans-Siberian Express is Russia: vast, hardy, larger-than-life.

Northbound to the Moroccan port city of Tangier, as I watch camel-herders, small whitewashed towns, flashes of ocean and clusters of palms flick past my carriage window, I ponder what this train reveals of the national character. Easy-going but steady, I reckon; resolute yet eager for change – for soon, this view will be on fast-forward.

Morocco is set to be the home of Africa’s first high-speed rail service, running from Tangier to the country’s largest city, Casablanca, via the capital, Rabat. Eventually, the service will extend all the way to the tourist hotspot of Marrakech, reducing what’s now a 10-hour journey to under three. Though even the first stage won’t be ready for another couple of years yet, there’s no going back; national rail operator ONCF took delivery of the first double-decker TGV-style train sets in 2015.

These ambitious (and expensive) upgrade plans are a symbol of this progressive, lower-middle-income North African nation’s desire to push ahead, and its ability to do so. Morocco is one of the continent’s brighter economic lights, showing remarkable stability amidst what has now otherwise become a regional arc of uprisings and wars.

Travel facts

GO: Emirates flies daily to Casablanca in seven hours for about Dh2,800 return. From here, by rail, Marrakech is about four hours south, while Tangier is about five hours north. Check schedules and fares at www.oncf.ma.
 
STAY: Beautiful resorts outside the bustling cities; ornate riads (converted old houses with central courtyards) right in the thick of things; expansive colonial-era hotels set in leafy suburbs – there are many different ways to experience Morocco. Set in Marrakech’s Palmeraie, a villa at Tigmiza (www.hotel-tigmiza-marrakech.com) is a calming oasis of luxury, while Grand Hotel Villa de France (www.leroyal.com/ghvdf) is a charming peep into the Tangier of old.
 
DO: The medinas of Moroccan cities each have their own unique setting and character; getting lost in their alleyways, nibbling at street food and shopping in souks are musts.
 
Non-Muslims are not allowed inside mosques, such as the Koutoubia in Marrakech, but anyone is free to admire the architecture of their imposing minarets. Tangier’s beach offers camel rides and views of Europe.
 
EAT: Touristy it may be, but the huge night market in Marrakech’s Djemaa el Fna is an incredible sensory and culinary feast. Cosmopolitan Tangier has everything from sushi to tapas, but make sure to leave room for an assortment of local sweets at the popular Patisserie Andalous.

But stable is not dull – oh, no. Morocco’s ancient and evocative cities, with their fascinating blend of Arab, Berber and European heritage, are like vivid pinwheels strung all along the country amidst a carnival of natural beauty, from wild Atlantic coastline to snow-capped mountains to stark deserts.

The soporific serenity of my trundling journey north, periodically halting at semi-deserted platforms quietly baking in the afternoon heat, is a far cry from just a few days ago when I first set foot in Marrakech’s iconic central square.

The Djemaa el Fna is the arrhythmic heart of the city, the entry point into the endless labyrinth of souks, and a vast display of chaotic exoticism – snake charmers, tribesmen, water bearers, donkey carts – that’s an industrial-strength magnet for planeload after budget planeload of European tourists. These camera-toting, shorts-wearing convoys snake through the souks’ covered alleyways, wide-eyed at the incredible array of objects, materials, textures and colours – piles of spices, natural fragrances, glazed tagine pots, metal lamps, jewellery, clothing, paintings, carpets, snack food and a hundred other handicrafts, knick-knacks and consumables.

Mind where you point your camera, though: most of the local women and quite a few men dodge or even sternly block attempts at photography – to be fair, I’d be fed up, too, if my daily life was punctuated by the relentless blinking of a thousand DSLRs. Meanwhile, others – perhaps remembering why the souk exists in the first place – actively corner, coax, cajole or sweet-talk their way into halting passing tourists to extract a purchase. Quoted prices inevitably start high, and despite the elaborate and expected bargaining rituals, only the euro exchange rate saves any tourist face. All the while, persistent local kids offer to guide you, for a fee of course, to the tannery or the best restaurant or the best deal or even just the souk’s exit.

Walking the bylanes beyond the Djemaa el Fna and its souks is rather more relaxing. It’s still full of street traders, their diverse wares crammed into tiny shops, food-sellers unleashing spicy aromas, and swiftly moving hand-pulled carts and buzzing little mopeds you need to athletically dodge.

This is where Marrakech’s locals buy their groceries and eat after a day’s toil. I joined a crowd around a stall where two Sub-Saharan women were doing a brisk trade in harira – a spicy Moroccan soup, served with dates and boiled eggs – at a small fraction of souk prices.

Get further out, leaving the medina entirely, and Marrakech slips into the shiny gown of its colonial heritage, accessorised with the blingy trappings of modernity. These suburbs reflect the sensibilities of four decades of 20th-century French governance, the remnants of the hippie era when Morocco was a popular celebrity haunt, and of course, globalised and connected youth. Wide, palm-lined avenues named after kings old and new bisect gardens set amidst clusters of new apartment blocks, offices and malls, all in the distinctive pale-red hue that has earned Marrakech the tag of the Red City.

The diplomatic quarter of Hivernage, in particular, with its large and expensive houses nestled amidst leafy streets, is a peaceful pocket of elitism that wouldn’t look out of place on the other side of the Mediterranean. I nip into the legendary La Mamounia, a wonderfully indulgent luxury hotel – the papers say David Beckham is in town, celebrating his 40th, and this seems his kind of place. I take my time over a cocktail (at a price that could feed a whole family back in the medina) at a patio bar overlooking the eight-acre gardens, but I don’t spot Posh’n’Becks, only some local one-percenters, an oligarch-type holidaying with his diamond-encrusted wife, and other tourists enjoying an hour or two of calm grandeur.

As dusk falls I return to the Djemaa el Fna, which has transformed into a giant food market. Electric bulbs and cooking fires from a hundred food stalls set the night aglow, with aromatic steam curling through the shafts of light. The hawkers’ piercing cries ring out over the sizzle of meat, and the clank of ladles and spatulas, hooking and reeling in customers from the shuffling crowds. It’s bedlam, but of a particularly delicious variety, as I wind my way through a bowlful of earthy snails, shish kebabs, chicken tagines with lemon and green olives, and discs of bread stuffed with merguez sausage and harissa paste. The 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, just off the Djemaa el Fna, gazes timelessly over the commotion; the four golden orbs on its floodlit minaret are my North Stars as I exit the square and head home, with half the market’s fare in my belly.

The next day I set off from Marrakech’s impressive, high-ceilinged, marble-floored railway station. Plumping for a first-class ticket, worth the higher fare just to beat the heat, I settle into my window seat in a spacious and clean carriage. After a punctual start, the diesel locomotive chugs through a mostly arid landscape, with the odd lake or small village breaking the hilly and sandy continuum. Now and then we halt at nondescript places where no one seems to get on or off. This is the sort of journey best dealt with a nap or a novel, but I stay awake and take it all in; after all, I forsook the sleeper option (or indeed, a flight) so that I could watch Morocco unfurl itself in broad daylight.

Eventually, scattered buildings merge in a forest of roof-mounted dish antennae: Casablanca, a commercial centre stretching for miles. An hour later, a quick train change at the much more compact Rabat. From here on, the Atlantic Ocean flirts with your peripheral vision, its moisture dampening the landscape with green, until palms and crop fields become the norm. Then, finally, with a metallic sigh and a hiss of brakes, we pull into Tangier – to be precise, the small and slightly run-down Morora terminus, while the city’s grander Ville station gets prepped for the high-speed line – before 10 minutes in a battered old Mercedes taxi brings me to my hotel.

Tangier is not pristine and polished, far from it. It is scruffy, louche, insouciant. But it wears this demeanor most naturally, like a rakish man smoking in an alleyway, one foot up against the wall, making eye contact with you just as he flicks the burning stub away and saunters off. Perhaps it’s this attitude that has seen sequences for so many action films, from the Bourne Ultimatum to the latest Bond vehicle, Spectre, shot here. Perhaps it’s its delightfully sleazy past as an International Zone, from 1923 to 1956, and beyond, too, when spies, painters, writers and rockers spent their days in a smoky haze of permissible pleasures. Or perhaps it’s just its fascinating location, balanced as it is on Cape Spartel, at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar; a mere 20km across the water from Spain – tantalisingly close to joining two continents, yet forever resigned to being apart, like an angry lover who will not say sorry.

I’ll tackle the bylanes of the medina with fresh energy tomorrow; for now, I stroll the wide avenues of the more modern parts of the city. The streets are full of shoppers, stepping over and pausing at pavement stalls heaped with branded clothes, sneakers, watches and electronics; wares that, judging by the clamour, may be of slightly suspect legality. Men lounge around in the squares, alongside a battery of old cannon pointing towards the far shores, and on café chairs facing the road as they sip mint tea and draw on sheeshas.

The aromas of meat tagines and fish stews drift in from just-out-of-sight restaurants, lightly brushing your nostrils and then swirling away in the slipstream of two-wheeler heavy traffic that, depending on whether you’re in its path or not, is either careless or carefree.

I retrace my steps and take in the sunset from the terrace of my colonial-era hotel, a lush height above the teeming streets. By the sleight of hand of geography, a rail line, however swift, must terminate here: the fastest locomotive must halt for the invisible line of an intercontinental border and the ocean’s gentle reprimand.

But as the bay darkens and land and sea conjoin, with a few twinkling ship lights the only reminder of liquid separation, the journey beyond seems entirely possible; in such blackness, dreams are born.

By Sachin Rao

By Sachin Rao