Sunday, June 28, 2015

Morocco - Day 1 Travel to Casablanca and Tangier

(First night in Tangier, Morocco. Spain is behind us just across the water)

First off, the excitement of a dream coming true - finally going to Morocco?! I practically floated onto the plane at SFO. I had been dreaming of this trip since I was 14 and it was here! Here I am trying on my pack the day before leaving:

Osprey packs are THE BEST. I can't say enough good things about these. We decided to do this whole trip with just our backpacks and a duffle bag for souvenir overflow. We hauled them over to the other side of the world, dragged them through trains, taxis, the desert, the mountains, through medina's and souks and they were perfection. If you are looking for a hardworking travel pack look no further than Osprey. 

We flew from SFO to JFK on Jet Blue. It was easy and painless. Then we had a 3 hour layover before boarding Royal Air Maroc for our 7 hour flight to Casablanca. The plane was a brand new dreamliner and was SO nice. Each of the seats had a big screen with plenty of free movies and TV plus a USB port at each seat. NICE. As soon as we boarded the plane loud Arabian music began playing and continued until we were 10,000 feet in the air. To my untrained ears it sounded a lot like Indian music...but what do I know.

My husband and I were some of the only Americans flying to Morocco. It was a full flight and truly an immediately immersive experience into Middle Eastern and African culture. All of the women on the flight wore a headcovering of some kind. I heard almost no English. My seat mate was a young Moroccan mother traveling with her 18 month old son. She was also pregnant and we can all imagine how tiring it is to travel while battling morning sickness and caring for a toddler. I held her son a few times on the trip and loved being able to help. Sam's seat mates were from Liberia and spoke very little English. It was our first time flying back to Africa since our journey five years ago to Ethiopia and honestly, it felt like going home. Crazy right?

Once we landed in Casablanca, we each took up residence in the bathroom to change clothes and clean up a bit. Brushing your teeth and applying deoderant after a long flight is positively renewing. I'm glad that we took our time cleaning up because we stood in customs for nearly 2 hours. Just STANDING. We hardly ever moved more than a snails pace every 15 minutes. I still do not know why it took so long. It was hot and dingy in that part of the airport and I needed to do some positive thinking/deep breathing/digging deep to GET THROUGH the ridiculousness of it all. Plus...jet laaaaaggggggg...

Then it was over and we were through. We ran out to the taxi line and I quickly asked the first driver I saw if he spoke English. Ummmm...clearly he did not. I switched to French and got us on our way to the Casa Voys train station in Casablanca. For some reason, I thought that this taxi trip would be five minutes long. It was more like 25-30 minutes. My brain was fried from traveling and I quickly realized that I was going to need my French to come through for me in a big way because people were NOT speaking English.

After an initial scuffle with the taxi driver over the price (our first attempted shake down of the trip!) we ran into the train station with about 15 minutes to spare to make our train. I had studied up on all of my train station/purchasing vocabulary and it worked perfectly! I think it was about $50 for both of our tickets. Let this be a lesson to you: study the languages you will be encountering on your international journeys. It makes everything so much easier. Also as a side note, we decided early in our trip planning to simply land in Casablanca and be on our way. There isn't much to see or do there (although the name evokes a mysterious Hollywood glamour) and we wanted to spend two nights in Tangier.

Have you seen the film Darjeeling Limited? It is a favorite of my husband and mine. The train travel in that film was fairly similar to what we encountered in Morocco. We booked a first class compartment, which is just a fancy way for saying that there were six comfortable seats inside our compartment instead of eight or ten cramped seats like in the second class cars. There was a snack cart that would come through the compartments every hour or so and a rudimentary bathroom at either end of the car. The seats were comfortable and we were wiped from being awake for nearly 24 hours. We both crashed as the train made its way through the countryside from Casablanca to Tangier. The journey took about 4 1/2 hours.

(Sam on the train...)

Upon arriving in the port city of Tangier, we ran from the train to grab a taxi. Our taxi driver was a bit of a hustler but at least he was pleasant about it. He drove a circa 1970 Mercedes sedan, had on a red and white striped shirt, a cigarette behind his ear and spoke only French. It was like something out of an old movie.

We stayed at the riad  Dar Chams Tanja near the wall of the old Kasbah.


We later discovered Dar Chams was in a GREAT location. I would absolutely stay there again. The owners are an older French couple and were really charming. They spoke almost no English so I was up to bat again with translating duties. By the time I went to bed on that first night my brain was so tired of translating:).  Our hosts got us situated with pastries and our first proper cups of mint tea on the roof.

This was the first time that we heard the call to prayer from mosques across Tangier. I can't fully describe how incredible it was to hear in person for the first time. I loved it. I never grew tired of hearing it and looked forward to it every day of our 12 days in Morocco.


We had the best views of the old city as well as the port from the roof of our riad.

Eventually we settled in a bit and headed out looking for dinner (it was now nearly 5:30 PM). We were taking our cues from Anthony Bourdain and his CNN Parts Unknown special on Tangier. He had talked about Cafe Tingis, Cafe Baba and a magnificent meal at Saveur de Poisson. We set out to find all three.

(But first, old door with blue washed walls? Thank you Tangier!)

We literally stumbled onto the legendary Cafe Tingis! I was so excited. Cafe Tingis is located in the historic Petit Socco (or Little Square) of Tangier and has been around since early Venetian times.

(Fresh oranges in a cart near the Petit Socco)

 (One of the many alleyways near the Petit Socco in Tangier)

(We encountered many beautiful neighborhood mosques. I could not stop snapping pictures.)

Next it was onto the famous Saveur de Poisson. You guys. This the best meal I had the entire time I was in Morocco. Hands down. This wasn't just a meal, it was an experience. This place is only open for a few hours in the afternoon and then after 7:00 PM in the evening. The owner brings in herbs and vegetables from his farm somewhere near Tangier. No one really speaks English. The restaurant is very small and rustic and smells divine. There is no menu and dinner comes in four courses. We began with olives and some kind of insanely delicious sauce and breads and nuts.

Just looking at the above photo makes me feel crazy inside. The next course brought a seafood soup and then the best fish I have ever tasted. The olives? Out of this world. We ate shark for the first time and dove into dishes of food where we had no idea what we were eating. It didn't matter; everything was delicious. At one point I asked for a glass of water and was told, "No water. Only juice". The juice was some crazy pulpy blend of grapes and plums and maybe blueberries? I lapped it up. Dessert was honey drizzled over berries and almonds.

Sam remembered the happy character in the photo above from the Anthony Bourdain CNN special. This man is the owner and spends the evening running around the small restaurant space filling bowls, bringing heaps and heaps of fish and breads, smiling and laughing with the guests. He did not speak French or English, only Arabic, so our communications were pointing and simple phrases. We soon noticed he was bringing us more treats than the other tables (extra berries and honey, more mint tea). Finally as we were leaving, he washed off two sets of wooden spoons and forks, gave them to me and hugged both me and Sam. It was a magical evening and the perfect end to our first night in Morocco. 

If you ever find yourself in Tangier you MUST go to Saveur de Poisson. If you do nothing else, go there.

Next up: Day 2 in Morocco and more exploration in Tangier.

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