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A Feast for the Senses: A Week Through Morocco from Marrakech to Fez, Meknes, and Tangier

Everyone says it’s like a movie, but it’s not. Hollywood couldn’t make this place up from scratch, this culture, this window into a different era. There’s no director. There’s no script, though you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a bit of choreography going on the way motorbikes weave through the crowds in Marrakech.

No, it’s not a movie. It’s real. The crowded streets, the donkeys, the vestiges of French colonialism — it’s all Morocco. It’s where you find the souks, narrow passageways lined with shops selling everything from art to carpets, scarves, and jewelry.

From Marrakech to Tangier, it’s a feast for the senses. The street food that’s criminally underpriced, the admittedly challenging smell of the tanneries in Fez made up only by the shared wonder of watching an 11th-century tradition continue on a millennia later. Then, Tangier comes at you like a masterpiece painting, drawing you in with its blues, yellows, and weathered whites. No wonder artists and writers have been coming here for decades, soaking in as much inspiration as they can — or settling for good.

It can all be overwhelming for the uninitiated, like getting sucked into a riptide and stranded at sea. But a breath of fresh air is never far away. Find one of the gates around the Medina and escape the cacophony. Spot the oranges around the Koutoubia Mosque of Marrakech, take in the view of Fez at Tombeaux Des Mérinides before mingling with locals at the gardens, or watch fearless kids run around the cliffs on the outskirts of Tangier.

Eventually, the initial shock wears off and soon you’re making your way through the maze without looking down at your phone. By the time you hop on the train, you’re as acclimated as you’re ever going to be. You can relax as the train sweeps through the countryside. The periphery of the desert and Atlas mountains give way to green fields, rivers, and streams, passing by villages and farmers before pulling into the next station.

If you ever truly need a break, there are the riads — old courtyard homes converted into hotels. They rarely stick out on the street, hidden behind otherwise nondescript doors. Inside, it’s a respite with rooftops overlooking the city. The sound of footsteps, motorbikes, chatter — it’s all muffled up here as you regroup and recharge.

Take a nap and wake up to the echo of the call to prayer. Even the non-religious can appreciate the melody behind the theology. Then your eye is pulled away from the mosque and toward the surrounding rooftops. You realize, if aliens are tuning into Earth, they’re listening to Morocco with its, let’s say, five satellites per rooftop minimum. From here, you catch the snapshots of local life not on the tourist trek, like the mother scolding a screaming child while trying to do the laundry.

Eventually, like all trips, it comes to an end. But if you have the option, stay grounded and take the ferry to Spain. Only then can you truly appreciate how close these two very different worlds are.

Read the complete Morocco Travel Guide here.

In Africa/ Travel

Morocco By Train: From Marrakech to Fes and Tangier

Inside Marrakech Train Station

Recently I rode the Moroccan rails from Marrakech to Fes, Fes to Meknes, and finally, Meknes to Tangier. Below I share my experience. Not interested in a story? Scroll to the end for information on train schedules for various popular routes and how to book tickets to ride the train in Morocco.

A line of taxis are waiting outside the station. Some of the drivers have gotten out of their vehicles and are waiting at the exits to offer their services to anyone fresh off the train. I come in through the side entrance, where the taxi dropped me off, and have a 360-look around the station. It’s practically immaculate. The tile floors are shiny and smooth, and the seating area is comfortable enough to pass a few minutes before heading out to the platform.

An electronic sign like any other at a train station hangs over the ticket booths, displaying arrivals and departures in both Arabic and French. The main destinations stick out immediately: Casablanca, Rabat, and Fes. My wife and I arrived early anticipating issues with an unfamiliar station and train system, but it was immediately clear that there was more than enough time to spare. I use that extra time to pop out the front of the station and have a look at the design.

I’m pleased to see that Moroccan train stations, at least this one in Marrakech, have integrated Arabic design. The building is box-shaped and the front looks like the “Babs” or gates into the Medinas you can see all around town.

Marrakech Train Station

After snapping a few photos, I head back in and we decide to make our way to the platform. Two ticket inspectors are at the door leading to the platform, dressed in sharp ONCF uniforms, surrounded by a couple of other employees. They’re chatting in Arabic, interrupting their conversation to wish passengers a nice trip in their native language, French, and English. We hand over our tickets, an older gentleman scans them, hands them back with a smiling nod, and we’re on our way.

I had been previously told that Moroccan trains were far better than Indian, but not quite as nice as German trains with Deutsche Bahn. I suppose if I have to nitpick, Deutsche Bahn’s high-speed line would get my nod, but the level of comfort was apples to apples. I could nap, stare out the window, or read until I inevitably napped again.

Inside a Morocco Train

Our first class cabin featured a clear mix of tourists and locals. I was pleased to see locals at all, fearing that first class might be an even more blatant economic segregator than the name already implies. We ended up in first class only because our ticket provider assured us that the cost (coming from Euros) would be negligibly different from second class. Looking it up after our trip, second class from Marrakech to Fes would cost 206 dirhams ($22 or 18€) or 311 ($34 or 27€) in first class.

We opted to purchase with a ticket provider on the ground not knowing if ticket prices would increase astronomically as the date of travel approached, as is the case in Germany where you can get a high-speed ticket for 50 or so euros traveling across the country with three months planning or spend 300 euros on a last-minute trip. Also, you can only purchase tickets online with a Moroccan issued bank card. Purchasing at the station is also an option, but it appeared to be a full train, so I was happy with our decision to plan ahead. That said, I did peek into second class during a bathroom break. (Sidebar: My only complaint of the Moroccan rail system would be the state of the facilities. It’s astonishing to me what people will do to a bathroom that isn’t theirs. It’s as if the men were taking aim under the influence of alcohol and then slamming the seat into smithereens to signify the end of their business.)

If you do want to save a few dirhams or simply feel a little icky about sitting in first class, second class appeared to be perfectly fine — same as it is throughout Europe. The only difference I could decipher was that there were four seats split by an aisle instead of just three, as was the case in first class. On later trains, we’d be seated in different arrangements — ending our trip to Tangier in an eight-seater compartment with a Moroccan man and painfully shy American woman.

Morocco Train Scenery

However you do it, the lesson should, in any case, be clear — travel by train in Morocco is a treat. Starting in Marrakech, you can see the scenery change from the sprawling construction of the city’s ‘new town’ to the lifeless desert landscapes of Hollywood imagination surrounded by the shrinking Atlas mountains. Splashes of green appear as we trudge along with the occasional smattering of villages. The only people outside appear to be farmers cultivating their land. Every time I pull back the red-orange curtain hanging over my window, I see that the greenery has intensified considerably.

After rambling pass Casablanca (where the station is getting a major overhaul to prepare for Africa’s first high-speed rail line) and capital city Rabat, we go inland and it looks like we’re in a different country altogether. Dark greens resting at the foot of modestly-sized mountains. Perhaps forcing a comparison, I’m reminded of central Italy or even Central America.

The scenery is only marred, or more plainly, ruined in an area around Ain Taoujadte just before Fes. Incomplete buildings (I wonder if they’re developments or bankrupt hotel projects) stand like enlarged tombstones and trash-covered fields as if dumpster trucks stopped trying. Fortunately, this appears to be the exception to the rule as I could hardly focus on my book and pull myself away from the window during our final ride from Meknes to Tangier. Lush countryside gave way to the Atlantic Ocean and the beaches of Asilah before pulling into rapidly expanding Tangier, passing high-speed trains as they made their test runs in hopes of staying on schedule to become Africa’s first high-speed rail line later this summer.

How to Ride the Train in Morocco

Marrakech Train Platform

Riding the train in Morocco is stress-free with a little planning. As I mentioned, you can buy tickets at the station, but it’s smart to purchase in advance, especially if you’re first arriving to Morocco by plane. The train stations are not within walking distance of the Medinas, where most travelers will be staying, so you’d have to plan a taxi trip to the station and back to your riad simply to buy train tickets. Though if you’re taking multiple train trips, you could always buy your departure tickets as you arrive at the station.

I used Marrakech Tickets. They were a no-fuss service, responding quickly to emails, and delivering my tickets to my riad in Marrakech for the entire trip. All I had to do was send my desired train itinerary and they took care of the rest. For six tickets (three train trips, two people each), the total amounted to approximately 1,249 dirhams, 110€ or $137. They add a service fee of 85 dirhams per ticket ($9 or 7.5€). Looking at our invoice, they appeared to only charge the service fee twice — once per traveler for the entire itinerary, amounting to 16.50€ or $21 plus an even smaller Paypal fee ($6.50/5€). Compared to train travel in Europe, especially Germany, this is a steal considering the distance traveled.

Something else to note — they do serve food on the trains. A man (it was always a man) comes through with a small cart offering a variety of chips, sandwiches, and coffee for very modest prices. We had bought snacks ourselves at the train station but decided to take a chance on a chicken sandwich. It was fine for giving us calories to avoid any bouts of hanger and hold us over until our arrival in Fes or Tangier (the long trips where we needed food). Neither my wife or I of us got sick. The larger stations also have fast food stalls if you arrive early. We had a couple of tasty banana-strawberry smoothies while waiting for our train in Meknes.

Below is a chart of estimated travel times of popular routes, like Marrakech to Casablanca or Fes to Tangier. Though the train paused on the track for more than 10 minutes on both long journeys, these delays are worked into the schedule. Both of our long-distance trains arrived either on time or shortly after the posted arrival. You can search additional routes in Arabic and French at ONCF’s website.

Morocco Train Times

Have any other questions about riding the train in Morocco? Leave a comment below.

2 In Africa/ Asia/ Middle East/ Travel

Top 8 Off the Tourist Trek Destinations for 2017

We’ve all heard about what a crummy year 2016 was from Zika to Brexit and Trump to celebrities gone too soon. It got so bad, people were looking back to 2006’s Children of Men as some kind of peek into the future. (Happy New Year! Humanity is sterile.)

Methinks we could all use something to look forward to. Something to get the imagination running and potentially even build a little excitement in our respective lives.

Nothing takes my mind off things more than travel, whether it’s the actual act of travel, planning a trip or simply reading of another’s travels. This works exponentially well if said destination is someplace a bit off the tourist trek. After all, Without A Path is primarily interested in getting to those lesser-traveled corners of the world to hear more stories and expand our worldview. As Alexander von Humboldt said, “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.”

I think the idea behind that quote is more important now than perhaps ever before. With that in mind, we’re offering for the first time a look at the coming year’s top off the tourist trek destinations as decided by travel writers. For this first edition I solicited inquiries from “The Road Less Traveled” Facebook group, which is made up of travelers who participate in the weekly #TRLT twitter chat. These travelers have shown an exceptional interest in expanding their worldview by traveling to and writing about destinations not typically at the top of a tourist’s wish list.

Below are 8 destinations followed by the traveler’s case for following in their footsteps in 2017. Continue Reading →

In Africa/ Asia/ Podcast/ Travel

Budget and Minimalist Travel, Southeast Asia, and Living in Madagascar with Charity Yoro

People have too much stuff. Why do you need all that stuff? Truth is, you don’t. Charity Yoro chats with Joe in San Francisco about her minimalist philosophy for both life and travel. She also shares some of her travels through Southeast Asia, including studying abroad in Thailand and teaching English in South Korea. Then, we hop over to Madagascar and talk about Charity’s two-year experience of working in the Peace Corps.

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In Africa/ Asia/ Podcast/ Travel

Walking with a Gandhi, and the Refugee Crisis with Darren Hamm of the Refugee Response

Darren Hamm spent 10 years traveling between Egypt and Asia. Among his list of adventures includes walking with the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and exploring the history of the infamous Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Today, Hamm has settled down in Cleveland and quenches his cultural thirst by working with refugees at The Refugee Response — a non-profit that empowers refugees to become self-sufficient in their new communities. Darren also shares with Joe his insights on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe.

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1 In Africa/ Podcast/ Travel

How to Travel in East Africa with Erin Huber of Drink Local Drink Tap

Traveling to East Africa is a sensitive issue for good reason. A white savior complex exists in which travelers will circumvent the globe just to snap a few photos with some cute kids and pat themselves on the back for a job well done. Erin Huber of Drink Local Drink Tap talks about how to do East African travel right and shares some of her own experiences of working in the region.

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Feature image courtesy of Alexander Radelic, Unsplash