I had enjoyed the setting sun and the light of Dubai from the Club Lounge of the Intercontinental Hotel Festival City. It was about 22:00, and time to I collect my luggage from the hotel’s storeroom. The bellman helped me to load the staff car. I thanked him, tipped him, and expressed how much I enjoyed Dubai and my stay at his hotel. Safely in the car, we sped off for the short drive to the Dubai International Airport. I had arrived in Dubai late at night and I was departing late at night. However, this time, I was flying on Turkish Airlines, which was a distinct improvement over Air China.
My driver took me to the most convenient spot for me to enter the airport and to reach my check-in counter. One of the problems of flying internationally on foreign airlines was that I was not permitted to do pre-check-in. However, I was, at least, allowed to pre-select my seat. My flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until 02:00. By the time I traversed the security checkpoints, I had almost 3 hours before departure. Yet, I wasn’t able to check-in until 2 hours prior to my flight. Thus, I was stuck with a cart load of luggage that curtailed my exploring of the ultra-modern Dubai airport until I could rid myself of the bags. Waiting for the opening of the airline counter, I found a perfect place to people watch. This airport was an excellent location for enjoying one of my favorite traveling hobbies. Dubai was a true international crossroads that provided me with the opportunity to watch the interactions of Asians and Europeans and witness how each culture endured the stress of travel.
Before I knew it, people going to Istanbul began lining up at the Turkish Airline counter. Traveling business class, I went to a much shorter que, where I was first to be processed. Having been able to check my luggage all the way to Casablanca, I went to the Dubai Business Class Lounge, where there was a broad selection of entrées, desserts, and snacks. Leather lounge chairs made it a totally comfortable place to wait for my flight. My only concern was falling asleep and missing the flight to Istanbul. I mentioned my concern to one of the waiters and he agreed to make sure that I was awake in time.
The waiter came through and I was awakened in plenty of time to make my flight. Boarding the Boeing 777 aircraft was effortless and, soon, we were airborne. While the cuisine in Turkish Business Class in renowned, I decided to forgo the delicious meal served at 03:00 and chose sleep during the 5-hour flight. About an hour prior to landing, the flight attendant woke me, offering a full breakfast. However, I simply had coffee, juice, fruit, and yogurt. I had been to the Istanbul Airport a few years earlier. I knew there would be much better offerings at the Turkish lounge and I had about a 6-hour layover there.
The Turkish airport seemed to be much more crowded and chaotic than what I had remembered. It seemed the influx of refugees from other parts of the war-torn Middle East as well as the increased security concerns resulting from the terrorist attack at this airport a few years earlier, had greatly modified the airport’s atmosphere. Once in the main terminal, I located a Starbucks and found a coffee mug to add to my collection. Heading to the Turkish Airline Lounge, I was grateful that it was in the same location. However, several things had changed since my previous visit. The lounge was the best airport lounge that I had ever visited! It was a multi-level lounge that seemed larger than the whole Bhutan Airport Terminal. The lounge facilities included storage lockers, showers, sleeping facilities, a business center, a quiet area, several areas with recliners and lounge chairs, and one area, where someone was playing a grand piano! It had a full bar service that provided free drinks from top-shelf spirits. The quantity and quality were impressive, even if I didn’t drink alcohol! There were several food stations, including one that served a full breakfast with omelets to order! In another area was a dessert section that would put any Las Vegas buffet to shame.
The impression I had during my last visit was that I could easily live in this lounge. I still had that impression. The only difference was that during my previous visit, I was on my first circumnavigation of the globe, where I flew the entire journey first class using my airline miles. At that time, the lounge was strictly restricted to only first-class passengers. This created a much less crowded, more spacious venue. However, since that time, many airlines, including Turkish Air, have reduced or eliminated their first-class services and expanded their business class. In doing that, Turkish Air opened this and other lounges to the business class passenger. This has made the lounge much more crowded and affected the ambiance. However, it was still the best lounge I have ever visited! If you had 6 hours to spend at the Istanbul Airport, this was the place to do it!
All too soon, it was time to gather my carry-on baggage from the storage locker and leave the delightful comfort of the lounge for the chaotic, confusing milieu of the main terminal. Unfortunately, my departure gate was at the opposite end of the huge, crowded terminal. Furthermore, the gate was on a lower level of the terminal, a location I finally discovered after several backtracks. In addition, instead of having a ramp that connected directly between the terminal and the Boeing 777, we had to take a bus to the plane and schlep our carry-on bags up the stairs. It wasn’t as effortless as the Dubai boarding. Business class was almost empty. A young lady, who was an information technologies consultant from Ankara, Turkey, sat next to me. We had a delightful conversation during the 5-hour flight to Casablanca.
We departed Istanbul about 11:30 and proceeded down the Eastern Mediterranean in a southwesterly direction. Passing over the country of Greece, I recalled the reconnaissance missions that I flew out of Athens from 1979 – 81. We also crossed parts of Southern Italy, where we continued over the Mediterranean Sea until we reached the coast of North Africa in the vicinity of Libya. It was a beautifully clear day and I could see ships sailing in both directions on the Med. The Mediterranean Sea was the same color of blue as I remembered. If you want to know what I am talking about, take a look at the blue on the flag of Greece. The Med is the same color! Having had more than my share of great food in the lounge, I passed on lunch and spent my time looking out the window, reflecting on previous experiences in this region, and talking with the young I. T. consultant who gave me many suggestions concerning Casablanca and Marrakesh. I appreciated her suggestions, particularly the warnings about pickpockets. Aside from Kathmandu, Morocco was the first country that I visited where this criminal element appeared to be a concern.
We arrived at Casablanca, Morocco on time. For me, this was country number 105! Immigration and customs were not a problem since Morocco did not require a Visa for visits less than 90 days. Because I was only going to be there for 5 days, my entry wasn’t a problem. The customs checkpoint was non-existent. Thus, I rapidly exited the airport and began looking for the familiar, wonderful sign that said, “Welcome, James Thomas.” I searched and searched to no avail! Realizing a potential fare, the cabbies and shysters began circling me like vultures around a wounded animal. I retreated back into the terminal to determine what went wrong! To my embarrassment and frustration. I realized that I had mistakenly scheduled my pick-up for the day that I had checked out of my hotel. I had checked out on the 29th. However, my flight left on the 30th. Thus, my driver was going through the same searching experiences as I, but only on the previous day. When I finally reached my hotel and checked my e-mails, a message from Viator Tours expressing their concerns was waiting for me. I had no one to blame but myself. Even checking and rechecking didn’t prevent this error.
Realizing my situation, I asked an airport official for the best way to get to my hotel that was located in downtown Casablanca. He directed me to a cab stand and told me to take the next cab in line. He urged me not to take any other cabs. He also told me what the fare should be and to make sure that the price was agreed upon before I entered the cab. The airport official also suggested that I put my wallet in my front pocket while staying here. It was obvious that we were operating under different rules and conditions in Morocco. I wasn’t getting a good first impression of my 105th country.
I went to the first cab in line that was able to carry all of my luggage. The cars were bigger than Kathmandu, but we weren’t talking Lincoln Town cars. Yet, I still had to sit in the front seat. Having agreed upon the price, I showed my driver the exact address of my hotel and he claimed that he knew exactly where it was. Wrong! It was a 40-minute drive into Casablanca on a clean, modern 4-lane highway. As we approached the center of the city, I noticed many recognizable businesses. There was IKEA, McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, and of course, Starbucks. At that point, I asked my driver if Casablanca was observing Ramadan. He said yes, but to a lesser degree than other Muslim countries.
My first impression of Casablanca was that it was a city trying to be modern and similar to cities in Turkey and Greece. The areas on the outskirts of the city were filled with numerous construction sites that added to the heavy traffic. Once in the city, I began to suspect that my driver hadn’t been totally honest about knowing the location of my hotel. I sensed that we were driving around in circles. Requesting my hotel’s address again, confirmed my suspicion that he didn’t know where to go. Of course, it seemed that cars in Casablanca didn’t have MapQuest. Finally swallowing his pride, the cab driver asked for directions and was told that we were nowhere near my hotel. Thinking that he now knew where to go, we proceeded to the Hyatt Hotel. WRONG! At least the doorman at the Hyatt knew where the Sheraton Casablanca Hotel was and directed us to its location, about a mile away. The good news was that I had already agreed on the price of the cab ride. Also, I got an impromptu tour of the City of Casablanca.
Unfortunately, there were no IHG Hotels in Casablanca. Thus, I had to resort to my secondary choice, the Sheraton Casablanca which was part of the Marriott – Starwood Group. The hotel was located near the old town of Casablanca and within close proximity to the bazaar and train station. There were 3 guards stationed at the entrance to the hotel. It may have been a 5-star hotel at one time. However, it was in desperate need of an upgrade and refurbishing. The room was clean, but the furniture was well worn and the desk chair was broken and had to be replaced. It was a disappointment and I vowed that if I ever returned to Casablanca and there still wasn’t an IHG property, the Hyatt Hotel would get my business.
While Rabat is the Capital of Morocco, Casablanca is Morocco’s chief sea port with one of the largest artificial ports in the world. Many Moroccan and international companies have their headquarters in Casablanca, making this city one of the largest financial centers on the continent of Africa. Prior to 1912, it was a French protectorate, but it is now a Constitutional Monarchy. However, the two primary languages are Arabic and French. It is the most populace city in the country with a current population of over 3,625,000 people who live in an area of 80 sq. miles.
I purposely scheduled my next day as a free day to allow my recovery after the flight from Dubai. This gave me the opportunity to do some exploring on my own. A visit to Casablanca had been on my bucket list, essentially, because of the classic movie of the same name. It is always high on any list of best movies ever made. If you haven’t seen the movie, the next few paragraphs may well be meaningless to you. However, bear with me and maybe, after this, you will watch this classic. Prior to visiting Casablanca, I had done some research on the city. I found that there actually was a Rick’s Café, the primary setting for scenes in the
movie. Taking a cab to Rick’s, I found that it was open for lunch. The outside of the café didn’t look like Rick’s in the movie. However, what did I expect? The whole story was fiction! The inside had a lovely restaurant with a bar at one end. The black and white checkered floor lined with palm trees created an appropriate imaginary setting for that period in time.
The whole concept was the brain child of Kathy Krieger, an American expatriate from Oregon who was a former U. S. Department of State employee stationed at the U. S. Embassy in Casablanca. I had a delicious lunch of pasta and salmon. Ramadan didn’t seem to apply at Rick’s…of course not. After my lunch, I asked if I could meet Kathy. She came to my table. My first question was, “How many people have said to you, “I wish I had thought of this idea?” She laughed and said, “Many!” Kathy wanted to create something that demonstrated, “true American values.” In order to gain financing, she sought out her friends from around the world whom she referred to as “the usual suspects.” In fact, her company is called “The Usual Suspects.” Those unfamiliar with the movie Casablanca may not see the significance in this name. Her intent was to create not just a restaurant and bar, but a “tourism-themed project.” I would say that she has truly succeeded in her efforts.
After our short, but delightfully informative meeting, Kathy asked one of her staff members to give me a
tour of the entire restaurant. She told her employee to make sure that he showed me the lounge upstairs. Upon entering the lounge, I noticed a covered roulette table. I just couldn’t resist saying in a loud voice, “I’m shocked! There’s been gambling here!” Another iconic line from that classic movie. At one end of the lounge were several leather chairs and couches that created a warm, inviting atmosphere. Centered in the book case was a large TV with the movie, “Casablanca,” being continuously played on a loop. At the other end of the lounge was a bar. The lounge wasn’t open at that moment. However, later that evening, my guide said the place would be jumping with live entertainment provided by, of course, a piano player. A lady jazz singer would also perform.
During the tour, I was permitted to take many pictures of the outside of Rick’s with my Nikon. However, photos inside the restaurant and lounge were only permitted with cell phones. I was glad that I had brought mine and eagerly took pictures of the restaurant and lounge. I had sat at what I referred to as the Ingrid Bergman table which was located next to “Sam’s” piano. My guide became my photographer and tried to get me in every photo. The whole tour was delightful and I thanked both my guide with a tip and Kathy for her gracious hospitality. If you are a fan of the movie and visit Casablanca, I would highly recommend Rick’s Café. It is a fun excursion into nostalgic fantasy, which also includes great food. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, I would still recommend Rick’s Café. However, I have to ask, “Why not see the movie first?”
I took another cab to the hotel, where upon arrival, the cabbie tried to overcharge me. This was resolved by the hotel guards who permitted me to pay a fair price and sent the cabbie on his way. It seemed that problems like this were a common occurrence in Casablanca. The remainder of the day was spent at the hotel checking my e-mails. Since I had a great meal at Rick’s, I wasn’t very hungry. Besides, because of Ramadan, dinner wouldn’t be served until 8:00 PM. Furthermore, the hotel only served a buffet that didn’t look all that appealing. Passing on dinner, I got a good night’s sleep that made up for the previous day.
After an excellent breakfast, that was served on the third floor to avoid issues with Ramadan, I met my guide who would take me on an all-day city tour. The tour took me to the main Mosque in Casablanca, a drive along the lovely coastline, a brief tour of the city, and a tour of the city’s Bazaar. It all seemed a bit
rushed. Furthermore, the tour did not discuss the Casablanca Conference that occurred between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill in 1943. The conference planned the allied strategy for the next phase of WWII. Stemming from the conference came the term, “Unconditional Surrender.” Unfortunately, my guide was neither aware of its existence, nor its significance. I chose not to press the issue.
The tour ended with an extended visit to a carpet merchant. The high-pressure tactics made me feel like I had been set up. I told my guide that I had paid for a tour of Casablanca and not a visit to a rug merchant. He realized my displeasure, apologized, and departed. The driver returned me to my hotel and told me that he would pick me up for my tour to and of Marrakesh at 8:30 AM. I asked if I would have the same guide and he told me no. I praised Allah! My driver’s name was Zarif and he was great! However, I was disappointed with the tour guide. It is understood that guides have certain vendors that they favor. However, this was ridiculous. The lack of photos from my tour of Casablanca is indicative of the poor quality of the tour.
Zarif was right on time and I was grateful for the comfortable Mercedes that he was driving. We made
our way out of the city for the almost 3-hour, 137-mile drive south to Marrakesh. Thinking of the famous Beatles song, “On the Road to Marrakesh,” I really don’t think they had this 4-lane toll road, on which we were traveling, in mind. The road signs were in Arabic and French and void of English. As the city of Casablanca faded behind us, we entered into beautiful farm country where goat herds were grazing and wheat was growing. The scenery was actually quite beautiful and reminded me of the gentle rolling hills of Iowa with its vast farm fields of wheat, fertile soil, and fruit orchards. One main difference was that there were more donkeys than tractors in these fields and much of the wheat appeared to be harvested by hand. However, there was the occasional combine that brought farming into the 21st century. I even saw a couple of John Deere tractors. I also saw many dairy farms, too. Just like in Iowa, there was an abundance of road construction.
Along the way, I noticed an electric rail line that went from Casablanca to Marrakesh. However, this was a lovely drive through the country. While on the road, I saw that women had the right to drive automobiles, but still wore their bourkas. About the second hour, I noticed Zarif starting to doze off. I strongly suggested that we stop at the next rest station and walk around a bit. Being a practicing Muslim, he refused my offer of coffee due to his observance of Ramadan. I chose to respect his beliefs and didn’t order any either. The walk and fresh air did us both good and we made it safely to Marrakesh.
Our entry into Marrakesh was greeted with the appearance of a Pepsi bottling plant and several car dealerships, including Porsche, Citroen, and Land Rover. Instantly, I knew Marrakesh was different from Casablanca. In addition to wider streets, the buildings were more modern, attractive, and seemed to be constructed of a red clay. The air seemed cleaner, too. We passed a huge, modern mall and a stand where they were offering camel rides like they offer pony rides in America. I had heard that Marrakesh has a strong focus on tourism and I immediately sensed that. It was a lovely city whose population of 839,296 made it the fourth largest city in Morocco.
Zarif stopped and called our local guide, Mehdi, to determine our rendezvous point. Soon we met Mehdi who explained our tour itinerary. Our tour of Marrakesh would include visits to the Mjorelle Garden, the
Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret, the Bahia Palace, the old town of Marrakesh, and the Grand Bazaar, whose numerous stalls contained all kinds of interesting leather crafts, wood crafts, clothing, spices, and souvenirs. The last stop on the tour was the Jemaa el-Fraa Square, which actually was a UNESCO World Heritage Site! This busy, carnival-like square was known for its storytellers, singers with their traditional gnawa Moroccan music, acrobats, monkey-tamers, and of course, the famous snake charmers. There, you could get as close to a king cobra as you desired, within reason.
While the Mjorelle Garden may have been beautiful in the proper season, many of the flowers had wilted due to the heat and weren’t very photogenic. Our next stop was the Bahia Palace. This nineteenth century estate was a monument to the country’s cultural heritage and extravagance. The beautiful, mosaic ceilings, ornately carved doorways, and magnificent paintings were a photographer’s delight. Even the colorful floors were a visual feast. I have included some photographs of the priceless works of art that adorned the palace.
Entering the old town of Marrakesh, I was struck by the colorful old buildings. But what really caught my attention were two storks who built their nest on top of a dormant chimney. They must have had eggs in the nest, because they never left their home the entire time we were in the area. The gigantic wall at the other end of the old city was the entrance into the Grand Bazaar.
While not as massive and complex as the famous Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, this famous souk was considered to be the biggest and best in Morocco. Walking through the maze of shops and stalls that sold everything from grapefruit to gold, I realized that I could have spent my entire tour day in this Islamic shopping
center. Doing a rapid walk through due to the lack of time, my attention was drawn to a young man operating a lathe, carving a piece of wood, and using his big toe to guide the knife. I marveled at the skill of this artisan and was totally amazed that he still had all of his toes! I stood there transfixed as he made marvelous creations ranging from wooden utensils to unique and intricate puzzle boxes. I couldn’t resist using my bargaining skills to purchase two wooden puzzles that could easily be considered works of art. I have included a picture of the artist at the lathe, holding my two purchases. This really was the most fascinating
part of the day’s tour.
It was getting late in the day and we still had almost a 3-hour or more drive back to Casablanca, depending on traffic We did make a quick stop at a rug merchant. However, I think Zarif had tipped off Medhi about my previous day’s experience. Thus, our visit to that shop was brief with no pressure at all! Our last stop in Marrakesh was to say farewell and thank you for a wonderful tour. Our drive back to Casablanca took us past the same mid-western looking farmland that we had passed earlier that day. As we approached the city, the rush hour traffic jam appeared as predicted. I didn’t arrive back at my hotel until nearly 7:00 PM. I thanked Zarif for a wonderful day of touring and his safe driving. It was a good day! And, after a burger in the hotel bar after the end of the day’s Ramadan fasting, sleep came quickly.
For the next day, I had purposely left my schedule free to tie up loose ends, sort through the unnecessary “stuff” acquired during a month’s travel, check e-mails, and to pack the most effective and efficient way possible. I did leave the hotel for one more important mission. I found that there was a Starbucks at the Casablanca Train Station, a twenty-minute walk from my hotel. I was disappointed that there weren’t any mugs specifically for Casablanca nor Marrakesh. The only mug available was a generic mug for Morocco. That would have to do. With mug in hand, I returned to the hotel where I had late checkout.
My flight back to America departed at 01:30 AM the following morning. I would fly to San Francisco via Frankfurt, Germany. Since I didn’t plan to depart for the airport until 9:30 PM, the hotel graciously permitted me to stay in their smoke-free club lounge until my time of departure. Unfortunately, the hotel didn’t offer any staff cars for transport to the airport. Everyone had to take a cab. Even though the price was set, there was one final Casablanca hassle over the cab fare from the hotel to the airport. It was a fitting way to end my stay in Casablanca.
My last segment in this travelogue series will cover my flights to San Francisco, via Germany, and on to Las Vegas to complete my third around-the-world journey. I will also do a recap of this entire trip and provide additional photos that were not previously included in my other stories.
I hope you enjoyed this travelogue on Morocco. Please let me know if you have any comments or questions.