Mediterranean shoreline from Cafe Halfa, Tangier, Morocco
I hate to admit it but I’m a big fan of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours. Sure, they’re tourist schlock—a kind of cheesy urban safari—but they’re still a pretty good idea. With a minimal amount of time and money visitors can pretty much take in the highlights of a city relatively trouble free. Can’t ask for more than that if you’re on a budget and time is limited.
Moroccan woman in market on outskirts of Tangier’s old city or medina.
Hop-on, hop-off wasn’t much on my mind when I visited Morocco, although time and money was limited. But Morocco surprised me, pleasantly. The combination of a fascinating history, several prominent urban highlights, and a well-run, punctual and inexpensive rail system allowed me to easily take in much of the country’s best, on the cheap, in a relatively short amount of time. Not the traditional day-long double-decker excursion, but a prolonged hop-on, hop-off writ large.
Entrance to Fes Medina
This is partially due to the legacy of the French. While they exported colonialists and marginalized a good portion of the local population they also developed infrastructure that helped to modernize the country. Among the most important additions was the more than 1000 miles of now state-run train lines that link the major urban areas (Casablanca, Tangier) and imperial cities (Marrakech, Fes, Meknes, and Rabat).
Sunrise over Fes medina.
Another French “legacy”, if you want to call it that, was a decision by France’s first resident general in Morocco, Hubert Lyautey, to preserve its “medinas” or medieval cities. “Do not offend a single tradition, do not change a single habit,” he reputedly said. This differed from the French approach in Algiers, where they razed a good portion of the medina to make room for a wide central boulevard, as much to drive a wedge in the insurgency as for aesthetics or functionality.
View from gallery overlooking Fes tannery and the medina.
In Morocco, the French instead built a “nouvelle” or new city to sit along side the Arab original, leaving intact the labyrinth of narrow roads, mosques, markets, Koranic schools, and workshops that are the hallmarks of a medieval Arab city. While the new cities are not without their attractions, it is in Morocco’s medinas where the spirit of its people and culture comes alive. And these fascinating time capsules remain remarkably preserved, with the requisite infusions of modernity, to this day.
Father and daughter resting on outskirts of Rabat medina.
With a reliable train service and several fascinating cities only hours apart, my trip through Morocco quickly took on the feel of a hop on hop off tour—after a few days in one jaw-dropping locale, I was on the train to the next, ending each journey with a cup of Moroccan whiskey (sweet mint tea) at a medina café and marveling at the ease of it all.
Jamaa el fna, Marrakesh
Each of Morocco’s medinas brings with it a different experience. Overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, Tangier arguably has the most attractive setting, and has long been coveted by wealthy Moroccans and Westerners, including Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. (A section, although not the most attractive, was used in the Bourne Supremacy film.)
Bahia Palace in Marrakesh.
Fes, established in 789 A.D. and once the most important learning center in the Arab world, has the most intact and dramatic ancient city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, thousands of narrow streets and alleyways meander for miles within its ancient walls and are out of bounds for most motorized vehicles. Fes’ medina competes with Venice for the title of the largest contiguous car-free urban environment on the planet.
Marrakesh’s northern medina.
Meknes is also a World Heritage Site, comes jampacked with markets and monuments and is only a stone’s throw from Fes. Rabat’s old city is colorful and charming, enjoys spectacular views of the Atlantic, and includes a striking Andalusian-style garden retreat. Marrakech, long the jewel in Morocco’s tourism crown, has its palaces, gardens, and Djemaa el Fna, a central gathering place replete with snake charmers, storytellers, acrobats, and other street performers that has few urban rivals, anywhere.
Koutoubia mosque, Marrakesh
Getting to and from these places never took me more than a few hours (except from Casablanca to Marrakech which took five) and never cost more than $20. I purchased all my tickets without a reservation, never waited long in line, and never had any trouble getting a comfortable seat, which is more than I can say for some of the hop-on, hop-off bus tours I’ve been on.
Hassan II, mosque, Casablanca
As for schedules, I worried about them at first but soon realized there always seemed to be a train heading toward the major urban centers whenever I arrived at the station. For travelers that require a little more certainty, it’s possible to make reservations and check schedules at the station, by phone, or online. Not me though, at least not on this trip. I was having too much fun just hopping on and seeing what was waiting at the next stop.
Moroccan woman in traditional Muslim headscarf in market on outskirts of Tangier medina.