From Casablanca to Marrakech: Top tips for South African travellers

2017-06-25 11:51 - Roy Mckenzie
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For South Africans wanting to visit this mystical North African country, which has recently just rejoined the African Union, there are two standout bases - although certainly an escape here should not be limited to these alone.

They certainly make an excellent starting point and here's what you need to know if you do decide to go. 

Casablanca

Casablanca is probably most famous for the iconic 1940s movie, which was actually shot in a film studio in Hollywood. It doesn’t quite have all the romantic charm conjured up in the movie, and is more of a commercial centre.

That said, there is plenty to do and see in Morocco’s largest city. Here are some highlights:

  • 1. King Hassan II Mosque

This imposing mosque, which was completed in 1993 and is partially built over the Atlantic Ocean, can accommodate 25 000 worshippers inside and 80 000 outside. It has the world’s tallest minaret, and also has a retractable roof. It is open to non-Muslims on a guided tour and is well worth a visit.

  • 2. La Corniche

Casablanca’s popular beachfront district offers a wide array of beaches, pools, sporting facilities, restaurants and other entertainment offerings, including a large mall and private beach clubs. There are plenty spots to stop for a mint tea or virgin cocktail and look over the ocean. The part close to the Hassan II Mosque is a little neglected and incomplete, but still a pleasant walk.

  • 3. Souk

Casablanca’s old medina and main souk is centrally located and an extremely colourful, bustling and exciting place to visit, with labyrinth type alleyways and narrow streets in which you can easily get lost. You can find everything from cheap knock-off clothing to a wide range of spices, foods, local arts, crafts, carpets and fabrics.

  • 4. Place Mohamed V

While there is currently a fair bit of construction going on, this central square is a great place to people watch, and get your bearings in Casablanca. Feeding pigeons seems to be a popular pastime here. Centrally located and surrounded by grand architecture, it is the focal point of a city redevelopment plan, which will see a striking new theatre complex, the Casablanca Grand Theatre (CasArts), opening later this year.

  • 5. Rick's Cafe

Even though it’s a complete tourist haven, you can’t skip this legendary institution. Decorated to have the look and feel of its famous namesake, the movie plays on repeat in the upstairs lounge and bar area. Unlike the smaller, cheaper restaurants frequented by locals, this is one of the few licensed venues in the city, where you can order a Casablanca beer or sample some Moroccan red wine to go with your lamb tagine.

(Scenes of Casablanca, Roy Mckenzie)

Marrakech

Commonly known as the pink city, this enticing, alluring city has been attracting tourists for hundreds of years, drawn to its temperate climate, beautiful location, and intoxicating atmosphere.

It’s a heady mix of old and new, from the spectacular modern architecture of the airport to the uniform colours of almost all walls in the old part of the city; from the upmarket shopping malls with designer shops (and the obligatory Starbucks) to the dusty, dirty but enthralling markets, this is a city to spend a good few days exploring.

  • 1. Jam al afna Square

If there’s one place to soak up the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco, it’s this Unesco heritage site. Head to this bustling area at any time of the day, but especially late afternoon and evening, when locals and tourists alike congregate here to eat, shop and socialise.

In the daytime you’ll see snake charmers, monkeys and all sorts of exotic sights, while the nights are busier with the food stalls offering local delicacies doing a busy trade. It is surrounded by a number of restaurants, many of which have roofdecks from which to see the distant Atlas Mountains while sipping a sundowner.

Only one or two of them are licensed, and tend to be more expensive.

  • 2. Medina

The medieval old city, surrounding the square, is well worth spending a day or two exploring. You’ll get lost in the warren of narrow streets and alleyways, which contain various souks, with areas dedicated to various trades such as woodwork, ceramics, metalwork, carpets, fabrics and others. There are different districts, such as the Kasbah and Jewish quarter, all of which have distinct personalities and offerings. And of course, it’s difficult to resist some of the persuasive salespeople!

  • 3. Walking tour

While it’s wonderful to get lost in the densely packed streets of the medina, to experience it fully it’s probably wise to take a walking tour with a knowledgeable local guide. If you don’t mind negotiating upfront and being taken to various shops and businesses where the guides presumably get a kickback, you will also get a unique perspective of Moroccan life, and see some of the Moorish architectural and cultural highlights of the city, including the Medersa ben Youssef Koranic school, Saadian tombs, Koutoubia mosque and Bahia Palace.

  • 4. Majorelle Gardens

One of Marrachech’s most visited sites, this was originally the home and garden of painter Jacques Majorelle. Famed designer Yves Saint Laurent bought it in the 1960s and restored it to its current glory. This unique garden features cacti and desert plants, set against the dramatic cobalt-blue villa. There is also a Berber Museum in the grounds.

  • 5. Day trips

The regularly snow-covered Atlas Mountains form a dramatic backdrop to Marrakech, and if you’re not planning on travelling further into Morocco, it’s worth taking a day trip to experience the mountains. You can take local transport, but the ubiquitous tour companies all offer more or less the same options – a day bus trip (with obligatory stops at a Berber village, an Argan oil producer, and of course a camel riding opportunity) to places such as the 110-metre-high Ouzoud waterfalls, the beautiful Ourika valley, or even further afield, over the mountains, towns such as Ait Ben Haddou or the Unesco world heritage site Ouarzazate, where a number of films have been shot because of its desert backdrop. 

(Day trips across Morocco, Roy Mckenzie)

What you need to know if you do go: 

Visas: South Africans are required to apply for a visa.

Visa application fees:  Single Entry: R327, Multiple Entries: R 491.

- Passport must be valid at least 6 months after return date.

Medical: No specific vaccines required

SEE: Warning: Your passport 'expires' three months before it expires!

Language: Primarily French and Arabic as well as English although not as prominent, especially in the smaller more remote towns and villages.

Flights Route Access: There are no direct flights between South Africa and Morocco but connecting flights depart daily from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. 

Click here to search flights

- Hub Airport hubs include, Mohammed V International Airport (CMN) for Casablanca or Menara Airport for Marrakesh

- National carrier: Royal Air Maroc (RAM)

- Public transport is adequate, and getting from the airport to the medina or tourist areas can be done by taxi or bus with several bus lines dropping off at various locations around the city. Taxis are also abundant but require some negotiation on fare - Average cost of taxi trip - about 35 Dirham. Uber is available in certain main cities

Time Zone: South Africa is two hours ahead of Morocco.

Travel Adaptor: Standard European Type C / E.

Click here to search Morocco accommodation

(Sites of Marrakesh, Roy Mckenzie)


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