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Of all the gin joints in all the world…

Anyone who has ever taken an organised minibus tour will understand what I mean when I say that you only see what you are shown. And our Christmas tour around Morocco was no different. While we had hoped to get out into the ‘real Morocco’ — away from the caricature markets of Marrakech — what we, in fact, got was a string of carefully-choreographed slices of life, performed by people who all appeared to be personal friends of our driver.

If I was going to see the real Morocco, I would have to get out and see it for myself, under my own steam — away from the constant herding of Abdul and his endless cries of “Yalla! Yalla!” aimed at hurrying us along.

As it was, our rest day back in Marrakech provided just such an opportunity.

As a massive movie fan, with a particular soft spot for the Bogart / Bergman classic, there was no way I was coming to Morocco without visiting Casablanca. For me, it felt tantalisingly close, even if the three-and-a-half-hour train trip was almost as long as our flight out here.

I had read that a former US diplomat, Kathy Kriger, had reinvented Rick’s Café, from the bow ties up. And the lure of lunch, to the strains of As Time Goes By, was simply too strong to resist, especially when a first-class ticket from Marrakech was just $13 each way.

Arriving in the early dawn at Gare de Marrakech, the nostalgia kicked in straight away. I was greeted by what you might generously call ‘vintage’ SNCF rolling stock, pulled by an aging diesel that had clearly seen more miles than any engine ought to see. Inside was just as antique, with straw-filled seats and ‘facilities’ that were nothing more than a toilet screwed down over a hole in the floor. Add in an assortment of chic French travellers from central casting who were sharing my carriage and smoking endless Gauloises, and you couldn’t have asked for a more appropriate way to travel back in time to Casablanca.

This was the real Morocco I had longed to see… The rust red of the deserts slowly giving way to the lush green of fields and farms as we headed to the more temperate north. The backwater stations with no signs, because if you didn’t know where you were, then this probably wasn’t your stop. The Poirot-style ticket collector. The hawkers, quickly hurried off by the guard. The worry that the carriage may not hold together all the way to Casablanca.

For such a long trip, it was all over far too quickly, and I soon found myself sitting in a cab weaving its way through the modern streets of the port city. The five minutes across town cost as much as the three and a half hours across the country, but still, here I was standing outside Rick’s, and the tear in my eye had nothing to do with the taxi fare.

For anyone who knows the film well, this is not Rick’s. But then, to be fair, it’s not trying to be. Kathy Kriger has not tried to build a studio tour re-creation or a museum piece replica. Her dream was to re-create the essence of Rick’s: the style, the sophistication, the experience. And in this, she has succeeded admirably.

From the slick, obsequious staff to the whitewashed walls, the details are all evocative without being derivative. There was the piano, the Moroccan lamps, and of course, a glorious gin bar. Kathy herself was excellent in the role of Rick, dressed in a stylish bowtie and dinner jacket and chatting amiably with her guests. My only disappointment was that I’d wasted my time honing my skills online on the way up, because this vision of Rick’s had no Emil spinning the roulette wheel and no pretty girls dealing poker.

However, it did have a fine lunch, which, while not cheap, was not as expensive as it could have been under the circumstances. And even while dining alone, I was still blown away by the magic of it all. They say that everyone comes to Rick’s, and it was easy to see why.

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By the time my return train hauled its ancient rolling stock back into the darkening Gare de Marrakech, I’d been on the tracks for more than seven uncomfortable hours. But I had finally seen something of Morocco that was not finely-tuned for the tourists, even if my ultimate destination had been exactly that. I may be back in the minibus tomorrow, with rather more confidence that my transport can make the trip, but I’ll be looking at the world a little differently. 

 

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