North to Europe
A road trip From the Sahara to the MEDITERRANEAN, via Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat. In a 38 year old Rover P6 V8
Thirty-one degrees C and rising rapidly.
Despite the fact we’d only been on the fringes of the Sahara for a few days, the heat was taking its toll. It was time to head north, back across the High Atlas Mountains to cooler climes. We loaded up the Rover, checked out of the Auberge, and set off to the main road linking Ouarzazate with Marrakesh, about 130 miles away. The road conditions were considerably better than we had encountered on our two day southward crossing a few days previously, but the road still climbed to 2,100m above sea level as it baked beneath the omnipresent sun.
As we climbed, dicing with grand taxis, tour buses and crawling lorries, the engine temperature rose as usual, but the modification we’d made the previous evening – directing the screenwash system onto the carburettors to cool them – meant that thanks to a squirt every kilometre or so, we didn’t have any of the fuel vaporisation issues which had plagued our previous attempts to drive slowly up hills. The brakes weren’t so fortunate however, and shortly after crossing the high pass the pedal would go straight to the floor, necessitating a cafe stop to allow them to cool down, before coasting the vertical 2km down the northern reaches of the High Atlas, back to sea level. Ahead lay Marrakesh, and by mid afternoon we had located the town’s old Medina, avoided the hustling chancers which stalk tourists incessantly in Morocco and found a Riad to stay the night in.
Marrakesh’s old town is like no other in Morocco; a living pantomime which gives your senses no respite. By day, you take centre stage as you explore the twisting souqs, eyed opportunistically by every stallholder and hustler as you studiously feign disinterest; for interest is something which will be expertly latched onto as a means to coax open your wallet. The cries ring out around you: ‘bonjour’, ‘come look at my shop’, ‘good price for you’. All around, locals fly through the twisting alleys on motorscooters, donkeys wander through the melee, and life goes on with a frantic intensity.
But at night, the tempo increases. Dejemaa el Fna square in the centre of the Medina becomes a caricature of the great city’s past. Snake charmers, performing monkeys, musicians and storytellers compete for the crowds, and a swathe of food stalls compete for business – ‘come, my kebabs are the best in town’, ‘you’re from England? Here, my food is bloody marvellous’. Aromas drift through the balmy air; mint tea, spices, tagines, drains. The whole square animates with a vibrant rhythm, a liveliness which assaults your senses and brings you to life.
But there are nodes of stillness within the extroversion. Here, an old lady kneeling to beg for change, her look of hopelessness refined to perfection. There, a weary man roaming the crowds, trying to sell an old belt for a few dirhams. And just out of the square, staring into the middle distance, someone holds four packs of tissues in his hand as the crowds rush by, his white stick leaning against his leg.
Every extreme of life competes for your attention as you wander the Medina, demanding your attention every step of the way. A million stories of tragedy and triumph.
We took the 2-lane motorway north out of Marrakesh, heading for Casablanca, and dodging stray dogs and bored mules all the way. The Rover seemed happy to be heading North, growling along the smooth tarmac without a complaint. Inside the car, the cooler air – a mere 34 degrees – was most welcome, but open windows and plenty of stops for cold water were still essential to preserve sanity.
Casablanca turned out to be as we’d imagined; a dull commercial centre which 4 million people call home, and which has little obvious to recommend other than the Hassan II mosque – the largest in the country, built by its modest namesake as a 60th birthday present to himself. Despite its audacious numbers – its minaret reaches 210 m skyward, and is topped by a gold ball 12m in diameter, while 105,000 people can worship there simultaneously – I found it strangely underwhelming. Despite its bold outline, obsessive detailing and grandiose size, the fact it was only completed about 20 years ago negates its impressiveness somewhat. In a world where skyscrapers are completed somewhere on the planet every day of the week, the impact of a self-congratulatory 200m high minaret is negated somewhat.
We left dull-but-businesslike Casablanca for Rabat, where we wandered the evening away taking in the ‘real’ Morocco. Tourists were non-existent and instead of souvenirs, the souqs sold the essentials for everyday life. Clothes, food, music and household goods. No-one hassled us; we were blissfully invisible in comparison to the tourist towns. And all around us, Moroccans went about their everyday lives, rather than competing for our attention through displays of drama or helplessness.
The road north from Rabat to the ferryport took us past a few pleasant ex-fishing villages, which had become beach venues for Morocco’s middle class, as well as plenty of fellow Europeans. We stopped for coffee at a couple of these relaxed places, enjoying the cool sea air, clean streets and old forts around which they were invariably centred. And then we hit the road again and reached the border with the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, where our 1,100 mile lap of Morocco ended.