“All on board that train!” The lyrics from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s memorable tune kept rolling around my mind as I searched for the station to board the “Marrakech Express.”

So why was I looking for this train? I was wandering back from the war in Vietnam, not as long a journey as Ulysses’ back from the Trojan War, but far more widespread. I had come to Casablanca, not for the waters, but to fill in the space left in my mind by the classic film with that name.

No, there is no “Rick’s Cafe Americain” there. In fact Casablanca is a rather humdrum sprawling city. The most interesting site in the town is the Hassan II Mosque, reputedly the largest in the world of Islam, but I am not sure. Unfortunately when I visited the mosque was still under construction, so it only offered a vision of what it would become.

So on to the exotica I had expected in Morocco.

I found the station which at the time was a very spartan affair. Bought my ticket and borded a very plain Jane train. Not the old-fashion train I had found on the Hejaz Railway but one probably built in the mid-1950s with lots of chrome and vinyl.

The trip itself was not very long but interesting. The countryside was definitely not the forests of Vietnam or the corn fields of the US Midwest. Dry is the word if not arrid. But there were animals grazing on sparse fodder and irrigated fields still tilled mainly by hand tools. The villages were mostly mud-walled affairs with most color coming from clothing hung out to dry. So far Morocco had not served up the romance and adventure I had expected.

All that changed, however, when we pulled into Marrakech. At last I found the images I had expected. An entire city with walls of a color somewhere between ochre and burnt umber. No wonder it is also called the “Red City.”

My introduction was exceeded when I found the “Djemaa El Fna,” the large plaza which is usually translated to mean, “Place of the Dead,” and indeed public executions were once held there. Today it is far from being dead. By day it bustles with commerce, performing Barbary apes, snake charmers, and colorful water sellers dressed in traditional costume. By night it adds food and drink sellers, dancing boys, storey tellers, magicians and other entertainers.

Extending from the plaza is the souk or bazaar. The most lasting impression was the richly colored skiens of wool hanging in the passageways to dry. Not sure what I bought that first time, but over the years I have purchased rugs, inlaid tables, copper pots and other such handicrafts from this bazaar.

After seeing all this how to end the day? I found the casino where I played some cards and then went to see the show which featured what I later came to learn was a famous bellydancer. What a woman! She was a geat dancer, but far more important, more beautiful than any bellydancer I had seen before or since. Here it was, the romance to complement the exotic surroundings. No, I did not meet her, but subsequently saw her dance in Fez and Tangier, so I guess I could consider myself to be her “groupie.”

Yes, the Marrakech Express takes you to another world. From a modern, developing world metropolis to a city that reeks of exotic adventure and romance. An amazing introduction to what I call the closest exotic country for Americans to visit. I have been there at least five times and have never been disappointed.

Do see Morocco which in 1777 became the first country to officially recognize the newly independent United States of America.

Leo Cecchini
June 2009