In Morocco with Isram

By David Cogswell

Notes from an Isram Morocco Fam By David Cogswell No one was indifferent when I told people I was going to Morocco. The reaction was invariably positive. “Morocco! Now there is a place I would love to visit,” was a typical comment. Even people who had never been to Morocco and seemed vague about what is actually there, seemed to fall into a mini-swoon at the mention of the name. Morocco holds a mysterious allure.

There is so much to say about the country it’s hard to know where to begin. It is an African country, yet it has a close affinity with its northern neighbor, Spain, from which is it separated only by the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Spain was dominated by the Moors for centuries and many of the most intriguing tourist sites in Spain, such as the Alhambra, are Moorish. Morocco later was colonized by the Portuguese, the French and the Spanish, and they all left marked influences. French is the dominant language of Morocco besides Arabic. Casablanca, the legendary port city on the Atlantic, still carries its Portuguese name. Some parts of Morocco’s Mediterranean coast are still under Spanish control. The multicultural influences spread like veins through the landscape. It is primarily an Islamic country, but its Muslims live side by side with Jews and Christians with no more strife than neighbors in New York City.

I asked Leslie Warren, IsramWorld’s Spain, Portugal and Morocco specialist, who was the tour director for the fam trip I joined, what attracts people to Morocco. A travel agent could determine a good prospect for Morocco, she said, by asking questions, such as, have they been to China? Egypt? Turkey? Did they like those places? A person who answers yes to some of those questions would be a good prospect for travel to Morocco. People are attracted to Morocco, she said, by its beauty and fascination.

I joined 11 travel agents on IsramWorld’s educational fam trip to Morocco. The program was based on the itinerary of Isram’s “Imperial Cities” tour, a nine-day survey condensed for travel agents to six days plus two traveling days. It was more intensified than the standard trip and more focused on education and less on pleasure and relaxation. Also included were many site inspections of hotels, inns and riads, which are hotels created from what had previously been homes. The itinerary included overnight stays in Rabat, Fez and Marrakech, as well as visits to Casablanca, Meknes and the Atlas Mountains and much ground covered between those points. After three nights in Marrakech, we were scheduled to fly from Marrakech to Casablanca to catch our return flight to New York.

Leslie Warren was the founder of Escapade Tours, a company that was formed to operate tours for Iberia Airlines. Some years ago she sold the company to Isram and retired from the business. But later she returned to head Isram’s Spain, Portugal and Morocco division, still called Escapade Tours. Her affinity with Morocco has been one of the driving forces of her life, an attraction that only increases with time. She has been to Morocco 25 times, each time digging deeper and discovering new layers for exploration.

Morocco is roughly the size of California, and like California it stretches along the coast. Morocco is the northwest coast of Africa. Its Atlantic coastline is about a thousand miles long. East of Gibraltar, Morocco’s coastline stretches another 300 miles along the Mediterranean.

We flew Royal Air Maroc, Morocco’s national carrier, from New York JFK to Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city and probably its best-known, thanks to the movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. As great as the movie is, it doesn’t give any idea what Morocco is like.

My e-ticket said the flight would be eight hours and 25 minutes, but on board the pilot told us it would only take six hours and ten minutes to make the trip. Our departure time was 8:20 p.m. We were scheduled to arrive in Casablanca at 8:45 a.m. local time. I enjoyed a dinner of salmon with tomato sauce and potato salad topped off by a cube of cheese cake. After sleeping a while, I woke up to see the morning light coming into the cabin. The map on the video monitor showed the red line from New York to Morocco almost complete. The cities were labeled with Arabic script. As we approached Casablanca the plane banked to the left and the ground appeared in the window, creating a composition of agricultural plots of various geometric shapes of green, brown and yellow, my first glimpse of richly fertile land of Morocco. I gathered with my dozen or so compatriots-to-be in the airport and we walked out to the cool, fresh morning air of Morocco.

We boarded an 18-seat Mercedes minibus, arranging ourselves in seats that we returned to for the remainder of the trip. We rode into Casablanca, getting our first glimpses of the verdant landscape with its rich, floral vegetation, and the ornate Moorish design that would become familiar over the coming week. Our first point of interest was the Hassan II Mosque. Built between 1986 and 1993 at a cost of $850 million, it’s the largest mosque in Africa, the third largest in the world. Its giant tower stands over the Atlantic Ocean, placed at a 45 degree angle to the main horizontal structure. It’s one of 1,974 mosques in Casablanca.

After walking the grounds of the mosque, we stopped at a beachside area of restaurants, hotels and shops, with six large swimming pools of varying sizes, densely populated with swimmers. We took a brief drive around the lush cityscape of Casablanca, with its many species of palms and flowering plants, through the business district and some residential areas, including a new upscale residential development called California.

Then we took of for Rabat, stopping at a roadside restaurant along the way for lunch. It served simple dishes, Morocco style burgers, fish sandwiches and salads. When we arrived in Rabat, we unloaded at our hotel, Tour Hassan, which we were told is the most upscale hotel in town. It had a solid, vintage feel, with an ornate Moorish design decorated with colorful paintings. At Tour Hassan we were able to unpack, clean up, rest and re-organize to prepare for our exploration of Morocco, which was just beginning to unfold. -- David Cogswell

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