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WTF?!

Evidently, there’s something worse than a ferry trip across the Strait of Gibraltar and a ten-hour train journey from Fes to Marrakech: a three-hour bus ride from Marrakech to the coastal town of Essaouira on an un-air-conditioned coach bus, overloaded, old and having a cabin temperature of close to +40C.

I wish I were friggin’ kidding. Hell sounds like a paradise after a trip on that God-forsaken deathtrap-on-wheels.

That said, once we arrived in Essaouira, noted for its famous visitors of yore (Hendrix and the Beatles to name but a few), we were greeted by the refreshing winds off the Atlantic, which, we agreed made our harrowing and altogether horrible journey to the town worth it. Almost.

In fairness, our guest house was positively charming, as were the staff. Tucked away at the end of a narrow corridor off one of the medina’s main drags, it offered us a sanctuary for three marvelous days. Moreover, it proved to be a wonderful way to conclude our grand adventure.

Of course, most everyone comes to Essaouira for the beaches and so, when in Rome, we spent a fair amount of time soaking up the sun.  (We’d been on the go since we arrived in Morocco and deserved the break, frankly.)

As is happens, we were also in town for the World Cup final, between Spain and the Netherlands.

Having caught a number of the games whilst in Spain, we were positively delighted our adopted team were vying for the cup. I don’t need to say what happened next, but I will say this: what a way to finish!

Sadly, all good things must come to an end and, after three days of rest and relaxation, we packed our bags one last time and caught the bus to Casablanca where, nearly three weeks after we began our adventure together, my friend and I would call it quits.

Sigh.

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And I thought crossing the Strait of Gibraltar was rough!

Evidently, a thirteen-hour, overnight train trip from Fes to Marrakech is much worse, especially when the train breaks down en route and there are no sleeper cars available.

That said, once we were in Marrakech things picked up quite nicely.

That’s not to say the city itself was amazing. On the contrary, it was Morocco at its worst: hot, noisy, polluted and full of people trying to rip you off.

No, what made our night in Marrakech spectacular was Hotel La Mamounia.

Talk about opulent!

We wiled away the evening at its sumptuous Morrocan Bar, which overlooks the hotel’s palatial gardens. (Miraculously, we had the place all to ourselves, which made it all the more remarkable.)

We then nipped into the famous Churchill Bar for a nightcap (or two), while a jazz duo serenaded the few of us who preferred the sanctuary of a dimly lit and air-conditioned bar to the bedlam of Marrakech’s famous Djemaa el Fna.

Sure, before calling it a night, we grabbed some street food at one of the countless stalls packing the medina’s main square. (We had to do something to remind ourselves La Mamounia was but a temporary reprieve from the Morocco we were experiencing!)

Then bed. Essaouira and the Atlantic Coast awaits…

Yes! This was more like it. This was the Morocco my friend and I were anticipating when we were crossing the Strait of Gibraltar.

Fes, one of Morocco’s four “imperial cities,” is an absolutely charming place—so long as you don’t mind the heat, the smell, the donkeys. It features Morocco’s, indeed the world’s largest medina; a labyrinthine maze of cobble-stone alleyways, narrow roads and souks. And, lucky us, we were staying in an absolutely gorgeous riad smack dab in the center of the place.

We were only staying in the city for two days, so opted for an official guide to show us around. It was well worth it! In fact, I’d say it was probably one of the best decisions we have made thus far. (I really don’t know how we would have managed to see half the sites were we left to our own devices.)

In a little over a half a day, we visited one of Morocco’s most beautiful madrasas,  which, much to our surprise, was modeled on Granada’s Alhambra. We also visited the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 AD and an important center of theological study to this day.

However, without doubt, our most memorable moment came when we visited one of Fes’ many tanneries. I shall be forever grateful to the manager, who wisely suggested we take a generous handful of mint leaves with us during our tour. (The smell was beyond comprehension and, I later learned, due to the large vats of all-natural ammonia solution, made from a rich mixture of pigeon excrement and cow urine.)

Among the many leather goods on offer were the ubiquitous Moroccan slippers, which continue to mystify me. Despite the manager’s insistence to the contrary, the shoes simply do not fit properly. Regardless of one’s size, one’s heels are invariably left unprotected by the unusually short soles. Très bizarre.

Of course, as we did in Chefchaouen, we located a nearby hotel’s bar to unwind. On order: Fes’ own Spéciale Flag. Heavenly.

As much as we would have liked to stay in Fes for a day or two more (if for no other reason than to bask in the extraordinary hospitality of our guest house), we had to press on to Marrakech. And so, after two remarkable days in the heart of old Morocco, we boarded a train (at 2 a.m.!) to Marrakech. All aboard that train…

I’m glad we chose to spend two days in this sleepy, albeit strange town. Our harrowing journey, which started in Cordoba and required we take a train, a ferry, a bus and a grande taxi, was altogether exhausting. Thankfully, we made it in one day —and without killing each other.

Our pension was located just steps from the Place Uta Hammam, the medina’s heart and soul. Small, by Moroccan standards, it still offered plenty of places to eat, drink mint tea and watch passersby.

It should be said many of those passersby were… interesting. Something, which upon further investigation, we found was likely due to the relative isolation of the town and the small community living within it.

By the second evening, our spirits revived, we went in search of drink, which can be difficult in these parts. After a little digging, we discovered the Hotel Parador, an aging grand dame of a place. (Who am I kidding? The place was a dump — but a licensed one!)

Several bottles of Casablanca beer later, we made our way back to our room, ready for the morning and our onward journey to Fes.