Thursday 17th to Wednesday 23rd September
We arrived in Mohammedia in the early evening having been unable to enter the port at Rabat. As I said in my last post, we had to negotiate our way around Asphalt Summer leaving, so for those of you who are fans of large cargo ships here she is, and a friend:
After a few hours customs and immigration arrived. First the young man from immigration came on board whilst we were having supper, declining a drink as we filled in the usual forms, and he took our passports away. Then the two men from customs turned up. We reassured them we didn’t have any firearms on board and filled in a few more forms. The dock area was rather bleak especially at night, with cargo ships loading and unloading nearby all night long.
The next day we collected our passports from a very cheerful, jokey and friendly policeman at the dock gate and had a look around town, prosperous feeling, houses with well kept gardens behind high hedges. Mohammedia doesn’t get a mention in the Lonely Planet guide to Morocco, presumably because it has no old walls, ancient medinas or kasbahs, so not of much interest to tourists. But it has a Yacht Club, in an exclusive compound with lush gardens, palm trees and a swimming pool, where they served lemon meringue pie with tea. Bliss.
We had spotted a sad looking dog in the port, dogs being kept here as guard dogs but not usually as pets (I read that the saliva of dogs is considered unclean by Muslims, and angels won’t visit houses with dogs in them). Hugh, thinking it was the one he had heard howling as it was thrown into the harbour earlier in the day, bought some dog food for it in the supermarket, but we never saw the animal again and it turned out that there was a pack of several dogs roaming the port.
On the following day we caught the train to Casablanca. The railway station at Casablanca was even grander than the clean and modern one at Mohammedia with fast, electric trains. The marina in Casablanca, however, has been in construction for over 17 years and is still years off completion.
Casablanca is a big busy city. The main site to visit is the Hassan II mosque, built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday and paid for by public subscription (purely voluntary of course but facilitated by a door to door collection). It’s the third biggest mosque in the world. “What would you like for your birthday sire?” “A mosque would be nice, the biggest mosque in the world… well perhaps not bigger than the mosque in Mecca, …. or the one in Medina….. I’d like the third biggest mosque in the world, but make mine have the highest minaret”. And it is extremely impressive, especially inside. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit on a guided tour outside prayer times. Full of marble, carved plaster work and cedar wood it was construction by Moroccan craftsmen in only 7 years! It will fit 20,000 men and 5,000 women, the women in a balcony separately from the men and less space for women because ‘it is better for women to worship at home’. I wish I’d asked why at the time rather than just assuming that women were considered far too busy with their domestic responsibilities, but on googling this there appears to be religious controversy regarding this issue. It makes me realise how little I know or understand about Islam and particularly of a woman’s place in the Muslim world. Morocco is one of the more liberal Muslim countries where many young women dress in western clothing in the cities and although headscarves are usual, wearing a veil is rare. The current King Mohammed VI is, I read, determined to bring the country closer to Europe and into 21st century, giving more freedom and education to his people, with some arguable improvements in human rights, particularly for women.
After the Mosque we explored the rather scruffy, rundown medina, shacks erected on the streets, made out of plastic sheeting and housing unfortunate sheep or a cow awaiting its fate. In the early evening there was a busy market packed with people and everything on sale from fruit and vegetables, spices, live chickens and sheep, pottery tajines, plastic bowls, etc etc..
Then onto Rick’s Café, modelled on the film Casablanca. It had to be done, and although they were reluctant to let us in with Hugh in shorts, when it appeared that I was going to sit at the bar by myself with a G&T they let him accompany me. Aiming to be authentic with a grand piano, but sadly no pianist. Perhaps he got he fed up with playing the same request and resigned.
The next day another train journey to Rabat. Rabat, the capital of Morocco, has spacious avenues, government buildings, a 17th century walled medina, the Kasbah with 12th century gate, pretty whitewashed streets and views to the river below. We also visited the tranquil Andalusian Gardens where we had mint tea and cakes overlooking the river estuary and marina (the one to which we’d been denied admission), and then a taxi to the Chellah, the site of an ancient Roman city with a moorish mosque built within the same walls, storks nesting in a ruined minaret and surrounding trees.
Back in Mohammedia we took our passports to be stamped for exit and at 2am the next morning we left our berth and headed across the bay in the dark. I was at the pulpit watching out for the lights of fishing boats in the bay.
We had a 15 hour sail to El Jadida, initially motoring as there was so little wind, but as the wind came up in the afternoon we were able to sail in the sunshine in gentle force 4 winds from the north east. As we entered the harbour in the warm early evening light there were shouts of ‘welcome’ from men sitting on the breakwater. There was no space for yachts here so we dropped anchor in the small fishing harbour under the walls of the Portuguese fortress . We were met by the harbour master and taken off to his office and then to the immigration police to fill in the usual paperwork, everyone friendly and charming. At the harbour Rasheed was the main man who was generally helpful, getting us a new bottle of gaz and keeping a watch on Vega.
The next day we visited the old town within the 16th century Portuguese walls, and walked around the ramparts. A street of tourist shops where we bargained for a goat-leather backpack, a pretty but crudely done pottery plate which we were assured was of the highest quality and some gifts. Despite our haggling the prices down I suspect the shop keepers did well, although you are left feeling that you are causing them terrible hardship by paying so little. Off the main street the houses were more rundown and as we passed a shed the blood of some newly slaughtered animal was running out to form a puddle in the street. We looked round an old subterranean vaulted cistern used for water collection and used in the 1950s by Orson Wells in his film Othello. Very atmospheric with the arches reflected in the water on the floor and apparently hidden for centuries and rediscovered in 1916 when a shopkeeper was enlarging his premises.
After El Jadida we had planned to visit Safi and Essaouira, towns further south, both sounded gorgeous. But reports of no space for yachts, particularly dirty smelly fishing harbours and the thought of yet more bureaucracy was discouraging. Morocco has been delightful, fun, fascinating but also hard work. Most other sailors we spoke to bypassed it and quite a few of those who did visit disliked it, finding the lack of facilities and the dirty harbours disagreeable, whereas we found being the only yacht in a small fishing harbour to be a special experience, and were made to feel welcome and safe. Clearly there is the intention to build spacious modern marinas in Tanger and Casablanca, but they both seem years from completion. There must be ambiguity in encouraging large numbers of western tourists to a country with such a different culture and values, even one as progressive and safe as Morocco, the more so as the world is at the moment.
Our sailing friends Chris and Julia had recommended Isla Graciosa to the North of Lanzarote and we fancied some R&R before our return home. So we decided to leave Morocco and do the three day, 360 mile sail to the Canaries in one go.