Monday, June 20, 2011

Travel Writing about Morocco #31

Many times The View from Fez has been critical of travel writing about Morocco. However, today we give the thumbs up to Steve McKenna from the Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald. As he discovers, train travel in Morocco is a brand new experience. Here is an edited extract:

I'D HALF expected Tangier's railway station to resemble an old-fashioned Indian terminus: air rife with spicy smells, frantic ticket kiosks and nearly every open space covered in blankets, on which generations of families would sit amid bulging piles of baggage.

However, with its shiny marble floors, small, orderly queues and almost clinically sedate atmosphere, Tanger Ville seems almost too spick and span for a place with as much culture-shock potential as Morocco.

But this gleaming new edge-of-town transport hub is a symbol of the renaissance gripping the country's previously neglected rail system. A multimillion-dollar cash injection has sparked the construction, or refurbishment, of more than 40 stations, while new track and rolling stock is leading to faster, more comfortable journeys.

Fez Railway Station
The investment has clearly charmed the public. Last year, network operator ONCF carried an estimated 30 million passengers – up from 14 million in 2002. A jolt of caffeine (and of excitement) hits me as I sip a cafe au lait and survey Tanger Ville's electronic departures board, which, in French and Arabic, flaunts a series of exotic destinations.

I'm catching the train bound for Marrakesh, a city that bathes in its own magical allure. I head onto the platform alongside a microcosm of 21st-century Morocco – men, women and children in a mix of Western-style clobber and traditional Moroccan attire (headscarves, colourful tunics and hooded djellabas) – and I find myself humming the words to Crosby, Stills & Nash's 1969 classic folksy tune Marrakesh Express.

 "Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes, travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies, ducks and pigs and chickens call, animal carpet wall to wall . . ." - Crosby, Stills & Nash

A few things have changed. It's a bright, sunny day – as it was back then – but there are no ducks, pigs or chickens aboard and animal skin plays no part in the décor. Today's train is clean, workman-like and split into two classes, both air-conditioned, with an aisle running down one side. As the cost difference is negligible, I've plumped for first class, which is more comfortable.

First Class Moroccan style
I've also decided that going to Marrakesh in one fell swoop – 8 hours – would be exhausting, so I'm splitting the journey by having lunch in the capital, Rabat, then boarding another train later.

Rabat Railway Station
Several places that aren't covered by ONCF – including gorgeous towns such as Chefchaouen and Essaouira – are linked to the network by Supratours' deluxe coaches, yet hundreds of towns and villages remain well off the beaten track as speed, rather than connectivity, tops the agenda. For example, a new two-track line, with double-decker trains, has cut journey times between Casablanca and Fez to three hours, 20 minutes, a 70-minute reduction.

By 2015, French-built TGV Duplex trains, running at up to 320km/h, will link Tangier and Casablanca in just two hours, 10 minutes and in the most ambitious scheme, by 2030 the 700 kilometres from Tangier to Agadir will be traversed in just four hours.

Purists and nostalgic types might be dismayed that a previously gritty old network has embraced modernity so enthusiastically but, for most, Morocco is on the right track.

Getting around

Sample first-class fares: Tangier to Rabat, 145 dirham; Rabat to Marrakesh, 185 dirham; Casablanca to Fez, 165 dirham. For timetables,

Read the whole story:  Sydney Morning Herald

See all The View from Fez travel writing stories here: Travel Writing

Photos: The View from Fez (click images to enlarge).

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