When first arriving in Marrakech you already have an idea of what to expect. The city is famed for its Medina, its bustling street culture and general vibrancy. On my recent visit here I was also concerned that the city, and country as a whole, would still be feeling the impact of the recent earthquake but I’m pleased to report that not only is Morocco open for business it’s also more than ready to welcome visitors from around the world.
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1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
For my trip I wanted to experience as much of the city as possible, but I also wanted to see one of Morocco’s other famous destinations too. I decided to combine my visit with a train trip to the coast to take advantage of the updated rail network. Both Marrakech and Casablanca have a magical reputation and are rightly near the top of many travel bucket lists, but what do they each offer and can a rail trip through Morocco really connect two entirely different places?
Where to stay in Marrakech
Riad style habitations have an alluring appeal to visitors to Morocco. These beautiful homes, which can vary in size, have a practical purpose too, however, and are designed to keep you cool when temperatures here can regularly hit 40°C or more. If you want to stay in a classy property which is based around the riad concept, but also gives you the convenience of a boutique hotel, then IZZA is the perfect choice.
The collection at IZZA has been thoughtfully curated and sourced from a variety of partners including fellowship.xyz, a leading contemporary and digital art gallery, the prominent NFT collector Studio137, and the exclusive private collection of IZZA’s founder and owner. Together, they form what is poised to be one of the most expansive permanent exhibitions of generative and digital art in the world. Refik Anadol’s well-known ‘generative data painting’ ‘Machine Hallucinations – Space | Chapter II: Mars’ is on the rooftop terrace to offer an alternative, mesmerising view to the one the city naturally offers.
Creativity and culture connect with enough space to work at leisure here whilst enjoying every element of the bustling city. There are three tranquil courtyards that hide you away from the sun during daytime and any guests in the evening, while the rooftop restaurant is a delightful mix of local cuisine and international flavours. There really isn’t anything else like IZZA this close to the Medina of Marrakech, it’s a unique idea where contemporary and traditional values sit perfectly together.
Prices range from €160 (approx. £140) to €800 (approx. £695) per room per night, including daily breakfast, airport transfer on arrival, and a 45-minute massage in IZZA’s spa and hammam treatment room.
Things to do in Marrakech
IZZA thrives on the idea of being a genuine House of Friends, and as such, my new friends here told me I had to visit the Medina as soon as I arrived. You can get around the city quite easily and find all the notable points of interest by yourself, but its better to have a guide for your first visit to get a general sense of what is going on.
Don’t be apprehensive about going to the old town. The stories we’ve all heard many times over are overstated and common sense is all you really need. Haggle as you please and know that no one will be offended if you walk away, even if they act like you’ve committed a mortal sin. It’s all part of the act here, and everything is done in good humour. A couple of tips from locals to follow are; never let anyone guide you into a shop for a purchase and look to pay less than 40% of the initial asking price.
Marrakech is one of the imperial cities of Morocco, with Rabat, Fes and Meknes making up the rest of that list. Each of the quartet is associated with a colour and here it is red which is the dominant hue you will see. The clay walls surrounding the Medina are made from red earth and so are many of the traditional buildings inside. In the evenings there are more food stalls and vendors in the main section of the souk close to Jemaa el Fna square. Snake charmers and monkey handlers mingle with henna artists and leather goods vendors for a heady mix of tourist bait and local produce.
If you have a little longer then do check out the new town where large malls and modern buildings offer a glimpse at the other side of the city. For my journey, I did indeed head out there but it was to continue on to another historical destination with an equally lofty reputation.
Travelling by train in Morocco
The rail network across Morocco is one of the safest in this part of the world. High speed trains (Al Boraq) run across mainly the north of the country connecting cities like Tangier, Rabat, Fes and Oujda. I was taking the 2 hour 30 minute journey to Casablanca from Marrakech and booked the return trip in no time at all a few days in advance. This was a relatively last minute online purchase, so slightly more expensive than other options, but a return first class ticket still only cost £50/$60!
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The train station in Marrakech, much like the main airport here, is pristine. There has been a big push in the last few years to improve the network and by 2025 there will be a greater focus on rail travel. You get great views of the country when choosing this option, and the inconvenience (as well as cost) of short domestic flights really doesn’t make sense.
The seats are comfortable and there is plenty of space for luggage. You can buy light refreshments, but you’re much better off packing snacks for the journey. You’ll be able to get a good nap in too, but the views should not be missed! Sit back and enjoy the rushing landscapes as the terrain from the outskirts of Marrakech changes from sand dunes to the coastal ruggedness of Casablanca.
Where to stay in Casablanca
Wanting to mix it up in a new destination, and also desperate to get a taste of fresh sea air, I opted for the Four Seasons Casablanca Hotel as my place to stay for a few nights.
The entrance boasts the ‘wow’ factor you often associate with this brand, and they sure do know how to make the most of the ocean views they have. You can pick from a variety of rooms, all of which are spaciously appointed with all the amenities you would expect from such a property. The seafood-forward restaurant is an excellent dining option and you’ll get a great insight into the local fish that you’ll spot being caught on the beach.
Things to do in Casablanca
Casablanca is noticeably cooler than Marrakech. When I was in other parts of Morocco – on previous trips to Tangier and Ouarzazate – I had been told about this city as an entirely different part of the country. Some days begin and end with a light fog rolling in before the sun quickly burns off the haze. Others are fully under the blazing Moroccan sun, with a welcome sea breeze keeping temperatures down.
El Hank lighthouse leads you towards the main downtown area and is a good marker to use if you want to orientate yourself when walking towards the main places to see in Casablanca.
The Corniche is a long stretch along the coast where you’ll find many people diving into the sea or simply lounching on the beach. In the evening you’ll see shops and clubs open up and a younger group of people enjoying the cooler nights here. There are spots good for fishing and families can be seen on most days on Plage Lalla Meryem. If you walk up here on the coastal boulevards towards the Medina, you’ll quickly spot Hassan II Mosque.
This impressive religious structure is one of the biggest mosques in the world and is a captivating showcase of local materials and craftsmanship. The wooden roof is a modern wonder in itself as it can be retracted to give worshippers some fresh air and a look up at the heavens. The mosque is open to all visitors at certain times everyday, just check local prayer times in advance or make an online booking.
You can also make an online booking for Rick’s Cafe, a wonderful homage to the classic movie Casablanca. Although the Hollywood production was shot mainly on soundstages in America, the inspiration was drawn from here. The central location was a bar (or more accurately a gin joint), and this recreation gets most of the details just right. The food is good, if overpriced, so if you’re on a budget pop in for a drink and a sweet snack. There’s also a dress code everyone seems to know about that is ostensibly taken very seriously… however when I forced myself into a nice shirt and tight shoes I was slightly disappointed to find other patrons had stuck to their flip flops and shorts.
There is a small market place and its certainly worth a wonder, but you’ll notice prices in general are slightly higher than in Marrakech. I did find the overall quality of the goods on show to be better, though, so if you’re after something in particular rather than an impulse purchase, save your dirham for Casablanca.
That said both cities offer excellent value for money and you can easily do both on a short trip. I spent just over a week between Marrakech and Casablanca and discovered to places I will be visiting again and again in the near future. If you’re planning an end of year escape to the sun or just thinking ahead to your next big adventure, Morocco is open and ready to welcome you.
It was a relief to see things getting back to normal and knowing how dependent the country is on tourism. You can also visit with the reassurance that you are doing good by the people you meet here. To be honest, things were up and running almost immediately after the initial impacts of the events of September and on my trip I found many visitors who had booked last minute trips to catch some winter sun. I’m glad I joined them.
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