The second leg of our tour of Morocco continued with a gruelling seven hour taxi ride from the south up to Meknes. In Morocco they have two types of taxis. Petit taxis for the cities and grand taxis for longer journeys. Most of these big taxis are clapped-out old Mercedes that they seem to believe can seat seven in comfort. They can’t. Even a trip with just five of us was tough. Nothing of the luxury from the prime of these Mercedes’ lifetime remains. But at least the roads were half decent most of the way.
Meknes was one of the most pleasant towns in which we stayed, being smaller and more low-key (i.e. less hassle) than the more traditional tourist stops such as Marrakech. We were lucky that the nearest mosque to our riad had a call to prayer sang beautifully in the early morning. It certainly made a difference to the awful racket most of the others make. Meknes has the prerequisite souk and central square, plus a number of other sights of interest, including the Moulay Ismail mausoleum and old stables which were completely empty of any artefacts. You would expect them to at least make replicas of things if the originals had perished! But instead, we paid to walk around a dark, cavernous building.
By this point I had contracted some kind of illness, so I had to force myself to do things when I wanted to stay in bed. On the way to the stables we encountered a young lady in a dark passageway. She shook my hand, but then appeared to be touting for ‘business’ which I politely declined, attempting to let go of her hand but releasing all apart from one finger, which she grasped tightly. It took all of what little strength I had to extricate my digit successfully; a kind of weird pull-my-finger type scenario, but without the fart accompaniment.
Nearby to Meknes is the impressive UNESCO World Heritage site of Volubilis. There were a couple of square miles of Roman ruins to wander around but, yet again, very little in the way of explanations, except for some badly faded plaques. Still well worth visitng though, for the sights alone.
After a couple of relaxing days in Meknes we headed off for a brief overnight stay in Morocco’s largest city, Casablanca. There was little time to look around the city, so we checked in to our hotel, another Lonely Planet recommendation. It looked like something from a Quentin Tarrantino film – broken and soiled furniture in the reception, a pungent smell emanating from the communal toilet and a dirty shower in the corner of our room… plus what appeared to be a blood spatter on the door. Thanks again Lonely Planet! In a nearby bar we were served at our table by an old lady with a full goatee beard. Big Boy claimed not to have noticed the beard. It left me wondering what exactly he’s woken up next to in the past. Safe to say it’s probably not fair to judge Casablanca for our brief experience there as it can’t possibly be that bad!
The next stop was the charming seaside town, and apparent seagull colony, of Essaouira. The old town has a chilled-out ambience with a market encircled by mediaeval ramparts. The beach is large and would be worth visiting in the summer to take advantage of the constant sea breeze and was still pleasant to stroll along, even in early January.
But unfortunately time was pressing, so we couldn’t stay long in Essaouira as we wanted to see in the new year in the party town of Agadir, further south. Many travellers to Morocco avoid Agadir as it’s not want they wanted on a cultural visit. But for us it was a perfect tonic to end the trip with it’s large beach and buzzing nightlife. At least that’s what we thought…
It may host superclubs in the hotels and some impressive smaller venues close to the beach, but we made the mistake of arriving too late and, not knowing where to go, wasting an hour or two in taxis discovering that we needed tickets for every place we found. As Big Boy increasingly took on the attributes of the Incredible Hulk (you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry), we eventually admitted defeat, having grown tired of explaining our desperation to taxi drivers before having to negotiate the fare down from an extortionate rate. Every bloody time. As a last resort we went back to our hotel to ask for advice, but to no avail. We spent the last half hour of 2011 in the hotel lobby before heading off to bed.
Overall the tour of Morocco was an interesting trip, although one with no amazing high points, but plenty of pleasant experiences and culturally unique sights. They still have some way to go it seems with their level of service to tourists, expecting us to put up with freezing cold accommodation on our desert trip and leaving us to amuse ourselves in the evenings. Plus stealing our change when we paid for it! Little did they know that we would end our trip back in Marrakech and pay them a visit…
Top tips for visiting Morocco: avoid pizza at all costs (it is terrible, just wrong), always try to have small change (they always seem surprised and complain if you try to pay with larger denominations), negotiate hard with everyone, even the ‘fixed price’ shops (they still try to rip you off, but just have a slightly lower starting price). Oh, and don’t book a tour with Mami Tours (sub-standard tour and they stole our money).