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Trip Report 15 days, 5 walks, 4 medinas, 3 gal of mint tea, 2 camel rides, one Morocco!

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Hello everyone!

My husband and I were in Morocco for 2 weeks in May. We are a couple in our mid 30s from New York, who love to travel independently. We've traveled to Egypt and Jordan (amongst the Middle East/Northern African countries) and to Rwanda/Tanzania in sub-Saharan Africa, so have some experience in the region.

Work has been busy and summer weekends are spent outdoors, so this trip report is going to come in fits and starts. I'm going to do my best to finish it up as soon as I can, while our memories are still fresh. So, please bear with me, if you're following along.

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    The beginnings of a trip:

    I have been dreaming of Morocco for several years now. Even while growing up in India, Morocco sounded so exotic and mysterious! When some colleagues in my first job out of college traveled to Casablanca for work, I was insanely jealous. I think I put together my first travel plans for Morocco in 2009, but in the years since, we ended up traveling to other far off lands for a variety of reasons. So, this year, I was determined to finally get Morocco back on our radar and started the pre-trip research/planning back in January for a trip in May. I counted on Ajit and I getting 2 weeks off from work and built a plan around it – I knew I wanted to spend more time in Fes than Marrakech, make a detour into Chefchaouen (something about this town nestled in the Rif mountains captured my imagination), spend a day or two on the coast in Essaouira and fill the days in between driving from Fes to Marrakech through the Middle and High Atlas mountains. I wasn’t surprised when Ajit nixed the self drive idea in less than a second, even before I finished my sentence (winding mountain roads and the automatic vs. stick issue were deal breakers, especially since I get extremely car sick). So now, I had to go find us a car/driver for this portion of the trip. I knew we had 5 days to work with and didn’t want to just be driven from point A to B every day. I had done enough reading to know that the landscapes in Morocco were varied with lots of possibilities for easy walks/hikes that would allow us to get out and smell the roses (literally!). I also wanted to spend a night in the desert, set aside time to hit a local market and try and have some meaningful interactions with the locals (we’ve done homestays in Asia, but that was going to be unlikely on this trip). These parameters figured out, I contacted a few local agencies and asked them to come up with a plan for the 5 days. Work was extremely busy during these weeks, so I really didn’t have much time to negotiate an itinerary with each one of them. Journey Beyond Travel was one of two that actually responded with a plan that most closely matched what I had asked for. They were able to fit in a hike each day with local guides that I was very excited about. They also had us spending a day in the Ziz valley, visiting the guide’s home and having lunch with them, which I appreciated. I also wanted to break up the trip from Merzouga to Marrakech with nights at the Todra Gorge and Skoura, instead of Boumalne Dades and Oarzazate which is on most itineraries, and wanted to detour to the Telouet Kasbah on the way to Marrakech, all of which they were able to do. Thomas, the owner of JBT, was easy to work with, and while his responses sometimes took a few days, I was never concerned. In the end, this is what our plan looked like. Oh, and once we confirmed travel dates at work, we booked direct flights from JFK to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc, leaving May 10 and returning May 26.

    Day 1 – Arrive Casablanca early AM, take the train to Fes
    Days 2, 3 – Fes
    Days 4, 5 - Chefchaouen (by bus)
    Day 6 – Fes
    Day 7 – First day of drive with car/driver, walk in Azrou, o/n in Erfoud
    Day 8 – Day in Ziz Valley, o/n in the desert
    Day 9 – Sunday market in Rissani, hike in Todra Gorge, o/n at the gorge
    Day 10 – Hike in Dades Valley, o/n in Skoura
    Day 11 – Walk in Skoura, drive to Marrakech via Ait Benhaddou and Telouet Kasbahs
    Days 12, 13 – Marrakech
    Days 14, 15 –Essaouira (by bus)
    Day 16 – Fly back to JFK via Casablanca

    For hotels, we prefer small, intimate, family run places whenever possible, in the budget to moderate price range. I found the absolutely charming Dar Seffarine in Fes and was lucky to get the dates we wanted. One of the benefits to traveling in the shoulder season. For Chefchaouen, I booked Casa la Palma, run by a Spanish couple. JBT suggested a hotel in Erfoud which was fine since I couldn’t find anything nicer. Auberge le Festival in the Todra Gorge looked lovely and I asked Thomas to book us there (note that JBT will book the entire trip including hotels, so I couldn’t book the hotels myself for those 5 days). For Skoura, Thomas highly recommended Les Jardins de Skoura, and while it was more expensive than we typically like to spend, I went with his choice. There is no dearth of riads/dars in the Marrakech medina, which made it harder, but the description of Riad Magellan in the LP sealed the deal for me…well, that and the nice off season discount that the owner Phillipe gave us. For Essaouira, I picked the more budget friendly option of Les Matins Bleus. Only Riad Magellan required a deposit (paid with a CC), while some of the others just required a CC on file. JBT required an initial deposit as well, with the rest to be paid a month before the trip.

    Everything was in place and the anticipation of winding medinas, busy souks, kasbahs, tagines and desert dunes kept me going through the crazy times at work…until Ajit got laid off from work in late February. What!!! Moment of panic…actually, there were several days of panic, with the trip being the least of our worries. I didn’t cancel the trip, knowing we would both need a break, whether he found another job by then or not. But, that’s easier said than done, given all the possibilities and the fact that I had purchased trip interruption insurance but not cancellation. Anyway, long story short, Ajit was able to find another job in late April and start right away, and his new group was really nice to let him take the 2 weeks off so soon. Phew! Of course, with all the uncertainty over the last couple of months prior to the trip, there was very little excitement leading up it…mostly just exhaustion. Throw in a last minute work trip to Atlanta for me getting back the night before our trip, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go on the trip anymore. Luckily, that thought quickly evaporated as we lugged our bags to JFK and boarded the flight.

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    Thanks for reading along, bniemand and thursdays! Interested to hear about your trip planning, bniemand...what do you have planned?

    Here's the next short installment. Promise to have more this evening.

    Arrival in Casablanca, an interesting train ride and getting lost in the souks of Fes:

    The Royal Maroc flight is basic but adequate and with tolerable food...much better than expected. It's a 7 hour flight, which gives us enough time for a quick snooze before we land in Casablanca. Since we depart an hour late (the usual air traffic congestion), we arrive an hour late, just past 8 am. With visas already in hand, we clear immigration and customs pretty quickly, and our large suitcases (one of which is mostly empty) make it as well. Our first order of business is to withdraw some cash. A man at the information desk points us in the direction of the ATM which is at one end of the terminal. Unfortunately, it eats my card but thankfully spits it out after a few seconds of panicked button pushing. Not willing to take another chance, we exchange $100 for dirhams at one of the currency exchange counters, just so we have some cash in hand. As we walk towards the train station, we pass another ATM. This one works, so we use both our cards to withdraw a few thousand dirhams (max limit is 2000 MAD). For anyone landing at CMN and taking the train, this appears to be the more reliable ATM option. Just across the ATM, we spot a Maroc Telecom outlet, where we get a SIM card.

    From here, we take the escalators down to the station to get our tickets. Before we left, I had printed the train schedules from the ONCF website (for both the train to Casa Voyageurs and from there on to Fes). I ask the man at the counter for 2 First Class tickets to Fes and point to the specific trains that I want. He doesn’t speak any English (and we don’t speak any French), so a friendly local standing in line helps with the translation. It takes a long time to process the CC and when I finally get the tickets, I quickly check the coach/seat numbers and the verify the destination. Looks fine, so we move on. It’s a short wait for the train to Casa Voyageurs – the signage for First Class is not easy to find, so we ask someone for help. It’s a short 30 minute ride to the main city station, where we get off to switch to the train leaving for Fes. We buy a couple of bottles of water and walk to the platform to find the 11:15 train. I check the train number posted, but it doesn’t match what I have on my ticket. Hmm, first sign that something could be wrong. I walk over to the station entrance to ask an agent if there is another train leaving for Fes, but he points me to the one that’s already on the platform. Ok then. So, we find our coach and seats and board the train. There is one other girl sitting across from us who we say hello to, and when the train chugs out of the station, we relax and settle in for the 3 hour journey. I have to say here that I am impressed by the Moroccan trains – they’re in good condition, clean, well air conditioned (not freezing cold) and with comfortable seats.

    A ticket agent comes by shortly to check our tickets – appears all is well. At the next station however, we are joined by 4 more people, and 2 women appear to have our seats. Drat! The girl who had boarded with us at Casa Voyageurs speaks good English and helps to translate for all of us. She asks to see our tickets and points out that they were issued for the 9am train from the airport and the connecting train to Fes…interesting, because we bought our tickets at 9:40am and it says so on the ticket!! Sigh, I should’ve paid more attention to our tickets. Anyway, we can’t find a ticket agent, so we end up squishing into one seat for the next half hour or so until an agent comes by. Good thing I am tiny. One of the men in our compartment explains the situation to the agent and offers to move to another seat. How very kind of him – we are very appreciative and thank him profusely. We also thank the girl who helped with the initial communication and got chatting with her. Her name is Sukaina – she was born in Fes, grew up in Meknes where her family still lives and currently works in Casablanca in a strategy consulting firm. We find out that she has applied for the Fulbright scholarship and plans to apply to business schools in the US. Since Ajit went to Columbia and helps with the admissions process, we end up talking to her about the application process, US versus European schools, her background and story and what she hopes to do with her MBA. She tells us that with 50% of the population under the age of 30 who are dealing with rampant unemployment and not many big industries to employ them, Morocco’s future depends on entrepreneurship - her plan is to help foster this culture amongst the youth and nurture small businesses. She also volunteers at an organization that is working towards the same goals. It’s a great story and conversation to have at the beginning of the trip! Before we realize it, the train arrives at Meknes and it’s time to say good bye. We exchange emails, wish her good luck and promise to stay in touch. We spend the last half hour gazing out the window at the miles and miles of olive groves and vineyards set amongst rolling hills – this region produces the best olive oil and a large percentage of Morocco’s wine – it’s beautiful! We arrive in Fes and find the driver holding a sign with my name on it – I had asked Dar Seffarine to have us picked up and told them which train I expected to be on. It’s nice and hot outside, and sunny – such a welcome after the cold, dreary weather we’ve been having in NYC. It’s a 10-15 minute ride to the medina and we get off at a parking area close to the tanneries. A porter shows up and loads up our bags into his trolley and off we go - through narrow winding dusty alleys, dodging donkeys carrying leather and other goods, running kids and people going about their day. We have no clue where we are or which direction we are going in, but in about 10 minutes, we are standing outside a large door being welcomed into the calm, gorgeous confines of Dar Seffarine. We are home. :-)

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    Dar Seffarine is spectacular, neither words nor pictures can do it justice. Built in the 14th century, it has been lovingly and painstakingly restored by Iraqi/Norwegian architect owner Allaa and his wife Kate. The central courtyard is breathtaking with incredibly detailed plaster work, cedar wood, original zellij floors and massive elaborately carved/painted doors. The décor is tasteful and enhances the architecture without overwhelming it. Ajit and I were both in love. Mohammed, one of the managers, brings us fresh mint tea, while we fill out the paperwork and wait for the room to be ready. This will be the first of several hundred mint teas that we will drink of this trip. As I write this and it’s raining outside, I’m craving another sweet mint tea. Ah! We walk up the stairs to our (double) room but find out that we have been upgraded to a suite. Great! The room is huge, with separate seating and sleeping areas. It has windows overlooking the courtyard as well as outside windows, which is unusual and brings in great light. We want to stay and soak this all in, but we are really hungry having only eaten a couple of granola bars all day. So we decide to venture out and get a late lunch. Rooms are left unlocked here, to give it the feeling of being in a home rather than a hotel. Mohammed draws us a simple map that shows us how to get to the important landmarks - Bab Rcif, Bab Boujloud. We don’t go too far for lunch though – there is a small restaurant in Place Seffarine, close to the guesthouse.

    We walk up and order some mezzes – Moroccan salad, bean dip, zaalouk (eggplant dip), roasted carrots with cumin, roasted peppers, a chicken tagine and a couple of mint teas. There’s also some bread or khobz to spoon all this goodness into our ravished stomachs. The food is simple but tasty, and the restaurant also provides a great vantage point from which to observe the goings on in the square below. This is a wonderful triangular souk of coppersmiths that quickly becomes one of our favorite places in the medina. We hear them hammer away at their copper and brass pots, pans and plates, the din becoming louder and louder until it all blends beautifully together and sounds almost musical. The entrance to the Karaouine library is here as well, though non Muslims are not permitted inside. After lunch, we stroll around this small souk observing the different methods being used to work the metal and peek into the tiny shops.

    Our plan for the rest of the afternoon is to aimlessly wander the medina with no agenda heading in the general direction of the Bab Boujloud - basically, get lost and find our way back home. There is a lot of foot traffic at this time as we slowly make our way through the maze of narrow streets taking it all in, turning this way or that anytime we see something that piques our curiosity. There are shops selling everything from clothing (like djellabas and babouches) to household items to colorful rugs/blankets to spices/medicinal herbs to fresh goat cheese/traditional sweets/nougat/nuts and the list goes on. The shops are small and make great use of vertical space with shelves going all the way up the high ceilings, every inch of which is filled with whatever is being sold. Shops geared towards the locals are interspersed with the touristic shops. Every few minutes, we hear someone yell "Belak!" behind us which signals to us to get the hell out of the way and let the hard working donkey carrying the heavy load pass through. When we don't know which way to turn, we ask shopkeepers to point us in the direction of Talaa Kebira (the main thoroughfare of the medina). Eventually, we end up at the lovely Nejjarine fountain flanked by the recently restored and equally elegant fondouk or caravanserai, used to provide shelter and food to tired traders and their animals as they traversed the trans-Saharan trade routes hundreds of years ago. We will be back to check out the fondouk tomorrow; for now, we turn around towards Henna Souk (making a note of the ceramics here) and then try and find our way back. We love how the medina surprises us with interesting architectural details when we least expect it - an intricate arch here, a beautiful door there. You walk the same alley twice and notice something new each time. We get to the Al Karaouine mosque, take a quick peek inside before the gates close for evening prayers, and walk along the walls of the large complex until we hear the familiar welcoming sound of coppersmiths letting us know that we're almost home.

    We run into Alaa when we get back and let him know that we'll be eating here tonight. Dinner will be at 8:30, so we go up to the terrace for a bit to take in the lovely views of the sprawling, crumbling medina dotted with minarets (and several hundred satellite dishes) and surrounded by gentle hills. We can't wait to spend our remaining evenings in Fes enjoying this view with a drink in our hands. Can it get any better? After a quick shower, we head downstairs for dinner in the open courtyard by the kitchen. Allaa is cooking lamb tagine with dried lemons and invites me over to taste it and check the seasoning. It's delicious. All meals are a communal affair here, so we are joined by a Brazilian/Portuguese couple and a British couple who have just arrived from Marrakech. Dinner is fantastic - we start with squash soup, followed by the succulent tagine and a cucumber/green pepper salad and finally grated carrots in orange juice for dessert. The conversation is lively and begins with beer/wine and ends with tea almost 3 hours later. Allaa joins us as well and tells us their story of how they got here, his life in Iraq/Norway, life in the medina, its future, his hopes/dreams - it's fascinating. Kate also joins us for the last hour. Before we finish up, he promises to give us a tour of the house tomorrow at 5. This evening has felt like an intimate dinner party in a friend's home - a testament to Allaa/Kate's vision for Dar Seffarine. It's been a very long first day in Morocco, so we fall asleep quickly dreaming about what the rest of our trip has in store for us.

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    Sorry about the visa confusion. We are US residents, but hold Indian citizenship, which means we need visas to pretty much every country in the world. :-)

    thursdays - I'll post a link to our pictures when they're ready and you'll see what I mean. I think you'll love it as well.

    I'll be back with more tomorrow...

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    I'm following along too as we are going in late September. I have a question I'm hoping you can answer. You mentioned the tea being sweet. My husband is diabetic and I'm wondering if it was already sweetened or if you added the sugar. I don't want to offend anyone by appearing unappreciative but he couldn't drink sweet tea for two weeks or it would become a real problem for his health. Is there an option of unsweet tea? Thanks.

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    Hi Caroline - Yes, Moroccans love really sweet tea. In some places, we were offered sugar on the side. In some places, we specifically asked for it on the side and they obliged. But, in smaller towns or smaller restaurants, there were times that they either forgot or didn't understand. If that were to happen, I think it would be perfectly fine for your husband to either politely decline or ask for another cup of tea and explain the situation. I don't think they would take offense at all.

    Have a great trip!

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    Mesmerized by the magic of Fes

    We wake up around 8 this morning and head up to the terrace for breakfast, where Mohammed had laid out a lavish spread. There's 3 or 4 different kinds of bread (khobz, a layered bread resembling the Indian paratha, and a bread with a thousand holes), carrot and date jams, eggs, apricots and melons, fresh orange juice and tea/coffee. It's a great way to start the day and Mohammed is a hoot - he's a fun guy who loves Bollywood movies (as do most Moroccans) and entertains us with his stories and impersonations every time. We get along really well. Our plan for the day is the head over to the main blue gate of the medina, Bab Boujloud, and follow the LP walking route that goes down Talaa Kebira and ends in the vicinity of Place Seffarine - perfect. We walk over to Bab Rcif and hail a red petit taxi that takes us to Boujloud for about 11 MAD.

    Fes is the third largest city and the most perfectly preserved amongst all of Morocco's imperial cities. Fes-el-Bali, the old walled city and a UNESCO world heritage site, dates back more than a 1000 years, and it seems little has changed since then. The ochre colored medina is shaped like a fish bowl, so we are walking downhill towards the center. High windowless walls line narrow passageways, everything but shops hidden from the world. We start at the produce souks close to Boujloud - similar to markets in Asia, they sell everything from fresh produce, bread, many varieties of olives, pickles, meats and fish to other cooking and kitchen essentials. It's fun to just observe the shopping process and look at things we would never see in a market in the US - like cow hoofs or a goat head for example! We spot a couple of men walking with the hoofs, so people definitely buy it, I'm just not sure what they do with it. Across from the ancient but now non-functional water clock, we enter the Bou Inania madrasa founded in the 12th century and one of the few religious institutions open to non Muslims. Ajit and I both love Islamic architecture, so we can easily spend hours admiring the fine zellij, calligraphy and plaster work. Luckily, we have the place to ourselves for some time before a large tour group wanders in. We amble further along Talaa Kebira and check out hidden back alleys and pop into shops until we spot a terrace cafe - a great time for some rest and mint tea with the added bonus of a group of street musicians singing Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry...that's not something you expect to hear in Fes.

    It's lunch time, so we decide to turn back and find Thami's, a restaurant that was highly recommended on a few blogs. There are several tiny restaurants set right next to each other, so make sure to sit at the right table if you go there. We sit under a mulberry tree and order his famous kefta kebab tagine and chicken couscous. He also brings over bread, olives and a small plate of lentils with spicy peppers. The food is cheap and delicious, although the kefta is a little oversalted. Mulberries dropping from the tree onto our table provide free dessert. After lunch, we walk through an interesting fondouk selling honey, butter, meat preserved in fat, and smen (a smelly, fermented butter) stored in barrels. From here, we get back to a familiar place from yesterday - the Nejjarine fondouk. This time we pay the entrance fee to take a look at the beautiful restoration inside (the carved cedar pillars and railings are lovely, and so are the restrooms) and the museum showcasing arts and crafts through the ages. Across from the fondouk is a souk specializing in gaudily decorated wedding chariots - in all the artisanal souks, we see and hear craftsmen busy at work using skills and techniques that have been handed down through the generations. It's estimated that there are about 30,000 craftsmen working in the medina today. Our next stop is the Henna Souk to look at ceramics (we love traditional pottery!). Fes is the handicraft capital of Morocco and its artisans produce the finest pottery in their signature cobalt blue. We like a vase and negotiate the price down a little (it's my first experience with bargaining on this trip, let's just say it's not one of my core skills), but ultimately I'm not convinced enough to buy it.

    Then it's a quick stop at the Moulay Idriss mausoleum and onto the 14th century madrasa Al Attarine. This madrasa is smaller than the Bou Inania, but the work here is more intricate, abundant in its details and just gorgeous. A few hundred clicks later, we're back on the street and turn into Al Karaouine mosque and university (founded in the 7th century and quite possibly the oldest university in the world), another familiar landmark from yesterday. As we walk by, a young man beckons us over to his terrace that looks over the mosque - the ariel view shows what a huge complex this is in a tightly packed medina. On the way down, we get sucked into a ceramics shop with an aggressive owner. The ceramics look more dusty than antique, so we glance over some of the pottery as we take a few sips of over sweet Berber tea that appears before us and listen to the owner's sales pitch, and then walk out leaving him muttering under his breath. He doesn't scream any obscenities at us like he apparently did with the British couple the next day. We follow the sounds of the coppersmiths to Seffarine square and head over to the corner cafe, run by Mustafa, who also owns the restaurant. We sit on the outdoor stools with tea and orange juice in our hands - it's the perfect place to relax, soak in the atmosphere and watch the medina life go by. From mules going back and forth from the tanneries carrying multi-hued hides, large cauldrons being hand forged and then cooled off at the fountain to an agile 10 year old rollerblading with amazing skill over the cobbled uneven streets and steps of the square - an interesting juxtaposition of traditions and inevitable "modernization" of the medina.

    At 5, we head over to the dar for our tour of the house. We are joined by some new faces - guests who have checked in this morning. Alaa gives us an overview of the medina's architecture and layout, Islamic architectural concepts, the history of the house and the restoration challenges over a 3 year period. We walk through all the rooms in the house and each one has a story. Being an architect, Alaa has respect for traditional architectural elements and has put a lot of thought/effort into maintaining the symmetry and flow of the house, especially when bathrooms had to be added. Therefore, bathrooms are awkwardly shaped with no tubs and Alaa has had guests complain about it, which is really unfortunate. Luckily, this group of us could care less about the size of the bathrooms. Alaa saves the best for last, the master suite, which is literally like a palace with a painted domed ceiling, stained glass windows, ornate columns - we are all (well, except for the couple staying in the room) speechless for a few minutes. Alaa takes me aside and asks if we wouldn't mind moving to this room when we came back from Chefchaouen - Are you kidding me? We are ecstatic! After all of oohs and aahs, we head over to the terrace with a bottle of chilled wine and enjoy the rest of the evening and sunset there, that ends with the call to prayer. We are not very hungry tonight, so go over to Mustafa's for dinner and have the same meal we had for lunch yesterday and then call it a night.

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    Really wonderful detail in this report!

    1Caroline -- no one seemed offended in the shops. In fact it was only offered a carpet shop in Fes, if I remember correctly, the one place we sat down. My wife and son took a glass.

    In several private homes I simply took a glass, although I am also a type 2 diabetic (and have no sweet tooth to begin with). This only happened three or four times over two weeks. I was careful not to finish so it was never refilled. And you can always just explain that he is diabetic.

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    On our second full day in Fes, after another lovely breakfast (which also includes fried tomatoes), we begin at the Chouwara tanneries, a short distance away. At 9:30 in the morning, the medina is just slowly waking up and most of the shops are still shuttered. As we walk past our local cafe, Mustafa spots us and offers us to take us to the terrace with the "best view"...since we are going to have to get on to a terrace anyway, why not just go with him and so we do. Around the tanneries, there is much more activity at this time of day. Mustafa takes us to the terrace of one of the bigger leather shops, introduces us to the owner and leaves. The tanneries in Fes are the oldest in the world and use techniques that remain unchanged for centuries, producing soft leather that's renowned the world over. In front of us are vats filled with lime and cow urine in which sheep, goat, cow and camel skins are treated for a few days to prepare them for the dyeing process. Apparently, pigeon poop is used sometime during the tanning process as well. Next to it are vats filled with natural pigments to dye the leather, looking like a tray of water colors. They use poppies for red, saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, henna for orange and so on. We also see a couple of men apply the color by hand on the hides. This is hard work especially in the heat of the summer. Once the dyed hides are dried, they are cut and taken to shops where they are sewed by master craftsmen into colorful bags, babouches and jackets. The shop has some nice purses and handbags, but we aren't too keen to buy anything. We do give the owner a small tip for the use of his terrace. We then walk across to the other end of the tannery and up another terrace for a closer view of the color vats. In both places, we are given mint leaves to help with the odor, but it doesn't bother us at all. I've read that there have been proposals to move the tanneries outside the old medina given the large scale pollution of the river, but its been met with a lot of resistance from the locals/workers given how integral the tanneries are to the history of the medina and its economy.

    Next, we take a taxi from Rcif to the station to buy our Supratours bus tickets to Chefchaouen for tomorrow. We are told that Supratours is not operating this route anymore, so we buy tickets for the 11am CTM bus that leaves the station at 10:30. Tickets taken care of, we have the taxi drop us off at the Batha museum. This 19th century palace turned museum houses traditional artwork from Fes - the highlight being the gorgeous ceramics. I wanted to take many of the pieces home! Sitting on the courtyard steps surrounded by trees and greenery also provides a welcome respite from the sun. It's a short walk to Boujloud, so we decide to stop over at Thami's once again for lunch - today, we keep it light and order kefta kebabs and a mixed salad. Across the restaurant is a sweet shop selling all kinds of sugary delights, so I pick up a few different varieties that will be our dessert later in the afternoon. There's a macaroon like almond cookie, gazelle's horns - a crescent shaped dough filled with almond paste, briouats filled with what else but almonds and a fried dough dipped in honey that looks just like the jalebis in India. As I'm buying the sweets, an old man stops by with a delivery for the owner and when he sees me, he yells "I love you, Kajol!". Kajol happens to be a very popular Bollywood actress from the 90s, and before you off and google her, let me tell you that I look nothing like her. It is so unexpected that I burst out laughing. At least a couple of times a day throughout the trip, we have locals yell out names of popular Bollywood actors/actresses/movies/songs when they see us - in fact they seem to be more current with Bollywood than we are. It's interesting to see the reach of Bollywood in Africa - we have had similar experiences in Egypt, Tanzania and surprisingly Rwanda.

    The next few hours will be dedicated to shopping and I have come prepared with the names of a couple of shops that I want to check out. Our first stop is Coin Berbere owned by the Idrissi family - we are here for rugs but they also sell antique ceramics, furniture, scarves etc. They have a large and lovely collection of carpets and Moroccan blankets, and Mohammed shows us the different styles unique to each Berber tribe. Most of the rugs we like are too large for our small NYC apartment, but we find one in the right size for our entryway that we both love. It's tightly rolled and wrapped and will easily fit into our half empty suitcase. Feeling satisfied, we walk along Talaa Seghira to our next stop, Au Petit Bazar de Bon Accueil, a 5th generation shop specializing in antique ceramics. There are several beautiful pieces here. some with hefty price tags, but we finally settle on a beautiful 50-70 year old covered tureen hand painted in shades of blue, green and yellow. The owner is talkative and entertaining. He knows Alaa and Kate very well, so offers to pack the piece and send it over to Dar Seffarine that evening - perfect. As we leave, he comes over and gives me a pretty necklace as a gift, so we're quite sure we overpaid...make that very sure. In Morocco and other cultures where bargaining is a way of life, a transaction is not about the actual value of the object being traded, but how much it is worth to the buyer. So, in that respect, we feel we've got a good bargain - we'd be paying at least twice the price in the US, that is if we are lucky enough to find a piece like this. Ah, I feel better now. :-) Next, it's back to Henna Souk, where we buy a distinctive blue Fes plate bargained down to less than half the original price (I'm feeling victorious at this point!). At the shop next door, I buy 100g of Ras-el-hanout. I'm tempted to also buy the spice mix for chicken tagine as it smells heavenly, but decide against it. Along the way, we pick up a couple of bric a bracs to give away as gifts as well as a half a pound of plump Erfoud dates.

    Just as we did yesterday, we end our walk at the Seffarine square cafe with mint teas, nibble on the delicious sweets we picked up earlier and take in the scene. Having read in the LP that Borj Nord (the northern fortress of the old town up on the hill) provides lovely expansive views of the medina, we try to take a taxi, but it's Sunday when locals from the new town and surrounding villages come in large numbers to the medina, so it's very busy and no driver wants to take us there. So instead, we hang out in Rcif for some time, where there's loud music and live entertainment and a few hundred kids having a ball. We also call Lahcen Beqqi, owner of Fes Cooking, and book ourselves a cooking class when we get back from Chefchaouen. The evening ends with a couple of beers on our rooftop - this time we are joined by the other guests (1 French/German and 3 British couples) and have a good time with shared life and travel stories and a lot of laughs. There are 11 of us having dinner at the dar tonight including a Latvian couple with their young daughter who have just arrived, so a long table is set in the courtyard garden. Zouhir, the other manager, and the young woman cook (whose name I forget) have been cooking up a storm and what a treat it is. There's all the familiar Moroccan appetizers - salad, zaalouk, roasted peppers, carrots with cumin - followed by roasted potatoes and a lamb tagine with peas and artichokes. For dessert, it's diced apples and bananas in orange juice. I love the weight and designs of the plates and bowls here, so Zouhir writes down the directions to the pottery factory, Art Naji, just outside the medina. The conversation continues well past dinner and we have to tear ourselves away and say our goodbyes since we have packing to do before we leave for Chefchaouen tomorrow.

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    Color me blue in Chefchaouen

    We wake up to a strangely chilly morning; Mohammed informs us that there is a cold front moving towards Fes. Uh oh, we hope it will be warmer when we get back. We're only taking one small suitcase with us, so leave the large ones in our room. There's an ATM in Rcif, so we withdraw some cash before hailing a taxi to the station. Our first order of business is to get our return tickets on the 3:15 bus back to Fes tomorrow. At 10, a bus arrives to take us to the CTM station where we check in our bag (for 5 MAD) and check email using the free wi-fi in the cafe while we wait. In retrospect, we should have just gone to the CTM station directly. The bus departs on time; its air-conditioned, comfortable and we lean back into the reclining seats for the 4 hour ride. Note there are seat numbers on the ticket, but both this bus and the one we return on have 2 sets of seat numbers (above the seat and on the side) causing much confusion and a lot of last minute moving around. Once we get into the countryside, the scenery is beautiful with rolling hills and miles of golden wheat fields swaying in the wind dotted with wild poppies. I love poppies - they're such happy flowers. We pass through a small town where almost every electric pole and chimney is topped with massive stork nests. This part of Morocco reminds us of Tuscany, especially when we see some cypress trees. At the halfway point, we halt at at a roadside rest stop. There is a butcher shop with fresh carcasses hanging out in front and charcoal grills next to it, so we know what we're having for lunch! We buy 20 MAD worth of freshly ground kefta meat and take it to the grill where it's cooked for us. In a few minutes, we are enjoying hot kefta kebabs and grilled onions sprinkled with chili served with khobz bread. It's finger licking good! Even before we finish the last bite, we're looking forward to eating this very meal on the way back. The landscape changes as we go up the Rif mountains; it's lush and green with carpets of wild flowers in white, yellow, pink and purple growing all the way up the hillside. Spring is wonderful, isn't it?

    When we make the last turn towards Chefchaouen, we see our first views of the distinctly blue medina perched on the hilltop. It instantly reminds us of the Andalucian Pueblos Blancos especially Zahara and Grazalema, only blue instead of white. Once we reach the bus station around 3, we give Carlos a call (he and his wife Ana, who are originally from Malaga, own the B&B Casa la Palma) and take a blue petit taxi to Bab Mahrouk. Carlos arrives a minute later and we walk down several steps to the B&B. We expect it to be cool here given the elevation, but it's much colder. Carlos tells us that the temperature was in the 70s/80s more than a week ago and then it snowed last week. Damn the cold front. The sky is also grey and threatening rain, so we check in, say hello to Ana, get some directions, and try and head out soon so we can walk around as much as we can today. The B&B is brightly decorated and cozy with large rooms. There is a small roof terrace with lovely views of the medina and surrounding hills, so we warm ourselves with some mint tea and a plate of Moroccan cookies before we leave. Carlos' directions are simple - climb down the steps until we reach a fork, turn left to head to Ras el Maa (the river) and go up the hill, go straight down to get to the main square called Plaza Uta el Hammam, or turn right and get lost. For now, turn left it is. The medina is unique; awash in a myriad shades of blue - from pale and icy to bright and deep, sometimes all together in the same building. We stop to watch a woman paint the walls and steps in front of her house.We go up and down cobbled steps turning into narrow alleys while heading in the general direction of the river. There are kids in every corner - both boys and girls - chatting and playing with a football, paper kites or stones. They all say "Hola" as we walk by, a reminder that this region was Spanish territory and not French like the rest of Morocco. We pause at every arch and door, wondering if we'll ever make it to the river.

    We finally do; there's a small waterfall with locals hanging out or picnicking or washing their clothes in the river. There is a small restaurant here, but since the weather has been holding up so far, we decide to continue up the hill to an abandoned mosque directly across from the medina and offering up panoramic views. Dark clouds hug the steep cliffs while the sun peeking out casts a faint glow on the blue and white buildings - it's very picturesque. This area is also known for its hash; in fact they grow it right behind the mosque. Ajit, who has allergies likely caused by all the dust in Fes, has been sniffling for the past couple of days. You know where I am going with this. As we walk up, he is approached several times by men, some more persistent than others, who try to sell him some hash and he keeps saying no. It's annoying and even a little funny (given the sniffling :-) ), but never threatening. I would avoid this area after dusk however, just to be safe. When we get to the top, we sit for just a little while and take some pictures, but don't linger.

    Once we get back down, we decide to walk down to the plaza and kasbah. This is where Ajit gets started on his "Cats of Morocco" project, because there are just so many of them everywhere. Meanwhile, I am mildly obsessed with the "Doors of Morocco", so we are both enchanted with this town. After a wander through the plaza, we sit in a small cafe across from the mosque and people watch. There are not many tourists here, mostly locals catching up with friends and family at the end of the day and kids playing. The men look comfortable and warm in their woolen hooded djellabas, while women wear the more fashionable varieties, some accesorized with scarves and boots. Wearing a light sweater and cotton scarf, I'm very envious of them right now. At about 7, we head to La Lampe Magique (or Casa Aladdin) for dinner. It's a huge restaurant with several levels of seating. We start with soups - lentil for me and harira for Ajit. We then share a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and a kefta tagine. The meal is very good and the harira a standout. Dessert is a letdown however with the flan and chocolate crepe tasting just ok. It's been another long day, so we trudge back up the steps to the B&B after dinner. It's dark, but there are a lot of kids still playing outside under the street lamps. For us, it's time to call it a night.

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    It's grey and drizzling when we wake up. Ana has whipped up an impressive breakfast for us - there's mint tea, fresh OJ, warm bread with fresh goat cheese, the best strawberry jam and orange marmalade I've had (you can taste the fresh fruit), eggs and crepes with goat cheese and raspberries. Too full to move, we hang around to chat with Ana about their move to Morocco and what they love and dislike about living here. She's a resident but Carlos has to renew his visa every 90 days, which is what he's doing today in Ceuta. At about 10, we pack up and check out of our room; we'll be back at 2:30 to pick up our bag.

    This morning, our plan is to turn right at the fork and get lost, and that we manage to do quite well. The rain has made the cobbled steps very slippery, so we move gingerly holding umbrellas and our cameras. The rain is light and comes and goes, so it's not too bad. In fact, the wet stones/walls and grey skies make the blue colors of the medina all the more vivid. We walk up and down turning here and there, past a small square with stores and a tea shop, past grape vines hanging across narrow alleys, past interesting doors and windows, past women carrying trays of bread to be baked at the communal ovens, past a crumbling square with a central fountain that must have been beautiful once upon a time. The sounds of a ball being kicked around in every corner, laughing kids, kittens playing, women talking to each other, feet shuffling on the cobbled streets, all echo through the medina. We drift around for more than an hour and think we're at one end of the medina, only to find ourselves back where we started - but this is half the fun. We pick up some cookies from a shop and stop for some tea, before continuing through the market and finishing up at the plaza. For lunch, we go to Darcon, as it's recommended by Ana. We have the lentil soup, zaalouk and a chicken b'stilla. I am excited to try the b'stilla - a unique sweet and savory Moroccan meat pie traditionally made with pigeon. It's filo pastry filled with ground chicken, nuts, raisins and cinnamon and dusted with sugar - an odd combination of flavors in my opinion, but one that works pretty well nonetheless. While the rest of the meal is so-so, we do enjoy the b'stilla. Afterwards, we walk back up to the B&B taking a different route this time, and wishing we had another day or two to spend in this charming town - a day to explore the medina some more and a day to hike in the hills.

    Ana tells us that we can walk to the bus station in about 10 minutes, so that's what we do. Only, its a much longer walk that takes us about 20 minutes. Outside the medina, the new town looks like any other small town and we see a lot more tourists here. Along the way, I ask a couple of girls where the bus stop is and they point us down a road. Every time we stop, unsure of the direction, we see the girls behind us giggling and pointing straight down. We finally find the bus station at the end of a very steep road. The bus ride back to Fes is uneventful and we get to enjoy the wildflowers and hot off the grill kebabs one more time and nibble on the dates that we'd forgotten we had with us. We arrive in Fes after 7 and are back at Dar Seffarine shortly thereafter. Our bags are already up in the suite and we literally run up the stairs to check out the palatial room and explore every inch of woodwork and stucco - we love it! We skip dinner tonight, but join the other guests for a beer. The cold continues in Fes unfortunately, so dinner has been served in the breakfast room up on the terrace instead of the garden. There are a couple of familiar faces and many new ones, so over a delightful dessert of apple pie with an almond crust, we catch up with each other.

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    Not sure if anyone is still reading, but here goes another installment. If no one's reading, I'll just come back to post our pictures once they're done.

    A cooking class, more pottery and bidding adieu to Fes

    This is our last full day in Fes and its bittersweet; we are excited about the adventures that lie ahead but Fes and this dar have been very special and we'll be sad to leave tomorrow. We are supposed to be picked up from Dar Seffarine at 9:30 for our cooking class, but Fatima (who runs the class when Lahcen is unavailable) is running late, so she asks us to meet her at the Batha Hotel instead. Once there, we walk over to the riad that she manages, and over mint teas and really good cookies, look through the menu options to pick what we want to cook today. It's going to be just the two of us in the class, so we get to pick what we like. We will start with harira, the traditional Moroccan tomato soup, followed by lamb and vegetable couscous, and end with date rolls for dessert. We expect to leave for the market now, but end up waiting around for another half an hour while Fatima wraps up her work at the riad and checks out a guest - we're a little peeved about this. Anyhow, we finally set out at 11 for the market close to Boujloud to buy the ingredients for our meal. Our first stop is for vegetables - we are using 7 for the couscous - eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrots, pumpkin. Then, it's fresh mint for tea, followed by lamb from the butcher. On to chickpeas freshly soaked in water (so much better than the canned version and clock friendly), dates, walnuts and finally, freshly made paper thin filo sheets for dessert (it's fascinating to watch the woman make the filo).

    It's time to get back and start cooking! It's a really hands on class and we make everything from scratch. The harira is a simple recipe to follow, so I am most excited about the couscous, which is not cooked in water or stock like we do back home, but involves a rather laborious process of steaming, two or three times. First we wash the couscous in cold water and let it sit until all the water is absorbed and sprinkle it with salt. While the lamb and vegetables bubble away in a pot, the couscous is steamed on top in a double boiler. After about 15 minutes, we remove the couscous onto a large plate, and fluff it with our hands to remove the lumps. Pour some olive oil, fluff, and steam again. Last but not least, add a few pats of smen. Couscous made this way is just so creamy and flavorful even with nothing else added to it. The lamb goes in the center, the vegetables around it and the couscous is topped with caramelized pumpkin and raisins. Besides the date dessert, we also make a simple melon salad with mint and orange blossom water. Throw in an appetizer of briouates stuffed with spiced cabbage and carrots that Fatima has already made for the riad guests, and we have a truly delicious meal. There is just so much food that we hardly do it justice. It's been an interesting and fun day and Fatima has been great - we love getting to know a country through its cuisine and cooking/food rituals and techniques.

    It's 3:30 by the time we're done so we hurry and take a taxi to the Art Naji factory to buy some ceramics. We are looking for designs similar to the ones we've seen at Dar Seffarine, but the manager informs us that those were custom ordered by Kate. Since he knows what we like, he brings over a few pieces from inside that are similar - perfect. We pick up 4 small bowls and 2 larger ones. If we had time, we would have loved to take a tour of the factory to see the artisans at work and see the entire process - they make everything from hand painted plates, bowls, vases and tagines to colorful and elaborate zellij tables and fountains. The manager calls a taxi for us and we take it to Bab Ftouh, from where we walk through the Andalucian quarter past the mosque and through the market, along narrow streets with no tourist to be seen, past tiny shops specializing in woodwork or metalwork or leather until we reach Seffarine square. One last orange juice and tea on these stools in this square with this view and it's time to say goodbye to Mustafa and the other staff. It gets chilly as the sun sets, so we don't sit on the terrace for long before we are forced to head back indoors. It's too bad. Dinner tonight is in the parlor; more intimate, with candles and just the French/German couple who we've gotten to know for company. We have squash soup, a cucumber/pepper salad, fried eggplant, potatoes with parsley, carrots with cumin, kefta tagine and roasted peaches with yogurt for dessert. All washed down with a bottle of rose. After another round of goodbyes, we enjoy our last night of luxury in our majestic suite - tomorrow, we bid adieu to this home away from home.

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    " If no one's reading, I'll just come back to post our pictures once they're done."

    Well I'm still here, and still enjoying the story.

    You're right, instant couscous just can't compare with the properly made version.

    Awaiting the next installment!

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    Our trip includes three nights in Fes, this is all excellent information!!

    Then after Fes our route is very similar to your Day 7 to Day 13, so I'm looking forward to the rest of your story.

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    Thank you both for continuing to read. Knowing someone is finding this remotely useful or interesting is motivation enough for me to wrap this up soon. My goal is to do a chapter a day...another one to follow tonight.

    bniemand - I'm starting on Day 7, so hoping the next few segments provide you with some helpful info.

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    Ok, here goes Day 7

    A walk through cedar forests and a surprise meeting in the Middle Atlas

    Mohammed brings out an extra special breakfast for us this morning that includes a frittata and french toast. He's the best. Alaa and Kate have left for Norway, so we don't get to see them before we leave. Hamid, our driver from JBT, arrives promptly at 9 to pick us up, and we're on our way. There is no sign of warm weather returning; poor Ajit is in desperate need of a sweater or hoodie. Today, we're driving through the Middle Atlas, where the lush valley and wildflowers remind us of the drive to Chefchaouen. Our first and very brief stop is at Ifrane, known as the Switzerland of Morocco, with a ski resort and vacation homes of the uber wealthy, including the king's palace. It's weird to see a town full of chalet style homes, looks so out of place here. When we get out of the car, the 40F temperature jolts us awake. A week earlier, Ifrane was a balmy 65F. We run into a coffee shop to warm ourselves with some tea, use the restrooms and try unsuccessfully to find Ajit a sweater.

    So, we continue on to Azrou, where we will meet a local guide for a 2 hour walk through the cedar forest. Yes, you heard right, cedar forests in Morocco, who would've thought! I didn't, until I started reading about this region. Zacharia is waiting for us at a gas station, so we pick him up and drive to the national park where Hamid drops us off. It's not as cold here and we warm up as we walk through the tall cedars and oaks. This region is also known for barbary apes - we do see several of them scampering about. Zacharia does a lot of hiking and climbing in the area, but this is his first time working with JBT. He's an interesting guy and observant Muslim, eager to talk and share his views on Morocco and religion. He also points out several herbs and medicinal plants growing in the wild. When he's not hiking, he's cooking in restaurants or doing wood working. The fresh mountain air is refreshing and it's really nice to walk through a landscape that's so unexpected. At the end of our walk, Zacharia calls Hamid to pick us up.

    We think we're having lunch at a restaurant in town, but instead, Hamid drives us to a residential neighborhood. Very curious. We enter a home and who do we see, but Thomas and Fazia, the owners of JBT! We're pleasantly surprised. Our host is Aisha who works for JBT. Thomas and Fazia live in Ifrane, but happen to be in Azrou today and decide to organize this lunch and meet us. Excellent. It's interesting to hear them recount how they got here, what made them stay and start this company, their vision for it and also share our travel stories. Meanwhile, Thomas and Zacharia discuss single and multi-day trekking routes in the area that they can add to the JBT roster. For lunch, Aisha brings over a massive plate piled high with couscous and topped with chicken and vegetables - it's a communal affair and we all sit around and dig into it together as we continue talking. There's also a lovely moist apple cake and fruits for dessert. Aisha has been incredibly generous in sharing her home and this delicious food with us. It's almost 4 and we've got a long way to go to Erfoud, where we'll be halting for the night, so unfortunately it's time to leave. Azrou would be a great base to use for hiking or river trips in the region, for those who are so inclined and have the time.

    The 4 hour drive to Erfoud continues to deliver some of the more dramatic changes in landscape that I have seen in such a short distance. We have gone from lush valleys to thick cedar forests to arid flat lands strewn with rose colored rocky outcrops and Berber villages to the verdant Ziz Valley. We stop at a view point here to say hello to Tata, the JBT coordinator for the region and whose family we’ll be spending the day with tomorrow. Then, it’s onward for another hour to the dusty town of Erfoud, known for its famous October date festival. We drive by several tacky hotels that all look the same and are used by large tour groups headed to the desert. Hamid drops us off at our hotel, Ksar Assalassil and will pick us up in the morning. This hotel is not as tacky as some of the others we’ve passed by and the rooms and bathrooms are certainly large, but it’s all very blah. Dinner is terrible particularly the beef tagine, which is just a couple of chunks of beef and a lot of dripping fat. Eww. This will be our worst meal on this trip. I think given that most travelers just use this town as a jumping off point for desert trips provides little motivation for the hotels. The chilled beer is nice though, especially as it’s warmer here…finally!

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    From an oasis to the desert

    Breakfast at the hotel is much better than dinner and has the standard fare of OJ, bread, jams, hard boiled egg and a yogurt. Edible but not memorable. At 9:30, Hamid arrives to drop us off at the Tafilalt oasis in the Ziz Valley, where we will be spending most of our day with Tata. With our Toyota Land Cruiser, we are able to go off road to the edge of the gorge and get a birds eye view of the lush palmeraie and fields, and the largely hidden Oued Ziz (the river) that once carved its way to create this gorge, snaking through it. These oasis are the lifeline of the valley. There are several ksars or fortified villages in this palmeraie, and with their adobe homes easily blend into the landscape. Tata was born here, and is married with 5 kids ranging in age from 5 months to 13. As we walk down the gorge to the valley floor, he tells us about his serendipitous meeting with Thomas and Fazia several years ago, even before they had started JBT, that led to their collaboration and his employment with them - T & F were traveling through the area looking down at the oasis and wondering how they could get down there, when they met Tata, and the rest (to make a long story short) as they say is history. It's a wonderful story of an enterprising man, who seized the opportunity, sold his motorcycle to buy a laptop, taught himself how to use the computer/internet, practiced his English and found ways to tailor this Ziz valley experience to suit the traveling styles of his clients.

    We walk past the cemetery, kasbah, take a short tour of the house he was born in that is now abandoned and then stop over at his sister's house. Her name is Naeema and she is gorgeous and shy. We sit on the living room floor and have mint tea and peanuts and continue chatting. Soon Naeema brings over a large bread stuffed with spiced onions and herbs. It's similar to an Indian paratha and is wonderful to taste. Locals calls it Medfouna while to tourists it is Berber pizza. Ajit and I can't stop eating, even though we know that a big lunch awaits us. My mouth waters even as I write this. After this hearty snack, we continue walking through the fields irrigated by narrow canals. I forget the exact number, but there are more than a million date palms in this oasis which brings in most of the money for the families. Most everything else that grows here sustains the village. There's wheat, lots of vegetables and tons of fruit trees (figs, pomegranates, apricots, grapes, peaches, almonds) and alfalfa for the livestock. Each family owns a plot of land and the village has a system wherein water is diverted to a plot on a particular day of the week. Specific canals are blocked with stones to divert the water as needed.

    After more than an hour in the fields, we reach Tata's home and meet his wife, mother, brother, son, nephew and 3 daughters. His wife doesn't speak any English, so our attempt at a conversation with her leaves us all laughing hard. Ajit and I take turns to kick the ball around with his nephew and middle daughter - the 5 year old nephew has pretty slick moves. Tata's son, like most teenagers, is mostly focused on watching TV. Lunch is served outdoors under a gazebo covered with grape vines. Very nice! Lunch is elaborate as expected and consists of cucumber salad, carrots with cumin, zaalouk, roasted peppers, potatoes, beef tagine with vegetables, bread, grated carrots in OJ and melons. Simple, local, fresh - are what come to mind. The whole family (except Tata's mother) eats at the table with us, and we are also joined by a half a dozen cats anxious for some scraps. Hamid arrives at 2 in time for dessert and entertainment - the kids sing songs and recite poems and passages from the Koran - until we have to leave around 3. This has been another lovely day in the Middle Atlas offering a glimpse into a way of life that's unique to this region, generously shared by Tata and his family.

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    seemaskt - Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed travelog. I'm saving it all in Word so when you are finished I can just sit down and read it all like reading a book. Thanks.

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    I am so enjoying your travel log. I appreciate the time it must be taking you to write it. we are planning a trip to Morocco in late Sept/early Oct. This has been a big help!

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    Thanks astein, Caroline and travellovers! Looks like many of you are planning a Sept/Oct trip to Morocco. Have a great trip!

    A mild sandstorm, a fire and stars like we've never seen before

    We retrace our way back to Erfoud and then drive straight through to Merzouga via Rissani. All along the roadside, there are fossil factories, but we're not interested. The landscape is mostly flat and barren until we see towering dunes rising up from the desert floor signaling that we have arrived at the edge of the Sahara. Hamid takes us off road here so we can drive along the dune line. We stop to see fossilized rocks, the home where his mother grew up and a group of water wells connected by underground channels dating back to the 11th century. The dunes here are the highest we've ever seen, a lovely salmon shade at this time of day and with graceful curves and peaks - breathtaking! We arrive at our hotel, Xaluca Tombouctou, leave our suitcases behind, freshen up and carrying just a knapsack and our cameras, set out to find our camels.

    We meet Ibrahim, who's got our camels or rather dromedaries (they are single humped) - a 20 year old maverick and a 7 year old sprightly fellow. And what do you know...I get the maverick. Let's just say I've not had the best luck with certain beasts of burden (refer trip to Jordan to get an idea). Ajit has never been on a camel, while I have been on one once (and got licked in the process, ick). We are helped on to our camels and set off towards the desert - Ibrahim leading my camel which is tethered to Ajit's camel, while his friend Yacoub walks ahead to setup camp. The weather is perfect - not too hot with a lovely breeze. A few minutes later, the wind picks up a little and swirls the sand around us, so my camel gets grouchy. He keeps changing direction, grunts unhappily, and has to be pulled because he doesn't want to move. All the while, I sit up top holding on tightly hoping he doesn't hurtle me down. Ultimately, Ibrahim has no choice but to change course and take a more circuitous route to camp. Once my camel settles down, I quite enjoy the ride. I knew our camp was going to be close to the dune line (30 minutes without the detour), and not in the deep desert as I would have liked. But, Ajit didn’t care for a 2+ hour camel ride, so we settle for this. Sigh, the compromises we have to make when we are married. :-)

    When we get close to camp, we get off the camels to walk around and climb up the dunes as the sun goes down. The sea of sand and dunes for miles and miles is amazing; the Sahara is almost as large as the US and extends across North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. And, Algeria is just 20 miles away. It’s only when we huff and puff up the tallest dune, that we see the lights of Merzouga, so it’s easy to pretend that we are in fact far away from civilization. As the sun sets, the dunes change from golden yellow and rose hued to deep red and orange and change shapes ever so slightly with the blowing wind. Back at camp, we have tea and peanuts and watch the stars come out as dusk turns to night. I'm relaxed and enjoying my tea looking up at the sky when out of the corner of my eye, I notice flames - the wind has tipped one of the lanterns over and a carpet slung over the tent has caught fire. I yell to Ajit who is closer to the tent and he runs over, pulls the carpet off, runs with it outside the camp and throws sand over it to put out the fire. Phew! A little too much excitement. Open lanterns on a windy night is not a good idea. For dinner, we have a mixed salad with fried chicken, lamb tagine and fruits. Ibrahim and Yacoub, friends from Hassi Labied, play drums and sing Berber folk songs. They are entertaining and get a 10 for effort though they can't carry a tune very well. There are a million stars in the sky now and we all lay back and look at the constellations together and talk about the similarities in Hindi/Urdu and Arab words and of course Bollywood.

    Since it's a cool night, we ask I & Y to pull the beds out of the tent so we can sleep under the stars. I am so mesmerized by the night sky that I don't want to close my eyes. It's a brilliant idea...that is until the wind starts howling and blowing sand all over us. We have to cover our heads with the sheets and blankets to keep the fine desert sand off. I drift in and out of sleep. Ajit, of course, is snoring in 5 minutes. After about 2 hours when the wind dies down, I pull away the sheets, dust off the sand from my hair and face and continue my star gazing and contemplation of our place in this universe. I fear that if I close my eyes for even a second, I'll fall asleep and not see these stars again. It's strange...this urge to keep staring up at the sky. At some point during the night though, sleep finally gets a hold of me, and the next thing I know, I open my eyes and the stars have disappeared. Dawn has broken in the Sahara.

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    You're very kind, Fra_Diavolo! And thanks UnderMoroccanSun.

    Sunday market in Rissani, a wonderful hike in the Todra Gorge and a lovely auberge

    It’s almost 6 when I open my eyes and I quickly wake Ajit up so we can take in the sunrise over the dunes. It is very chilly, so the warmth of the rising sun feels good. The shifting sands have covered all our footsteps from the evening before. We walk around for about an hour before we head back on our camels. Back at the hotel, we expect to use the pool showers to freshen up. But, the hotel staff are really nice and offer us a free room instead. Oh yes! A hot shower feels so good and refreshing this morning. The rooms here are much nicer and tasteful than in Erfoud. Breakfast is basic, similar to the morning before. Hamid arrives at 9:30 and we set off for Rissani. Our plan is to visit the Sunday souks, but first, Hamid takes us to his mother’s house where he’s spent the last couple of nights. Their family used to live within the ksar, but were the first family to move and build a more modern house outside. It’s a nice, 2 level home and we meet his mother, sister and nephew. We have tea and a plate of sugary, sticky sweets, and sit around talking (to Hamid mostly due to language issues). He turns on the Zee Aflam channel on TV that shows Bollywood hits dubbed in Arabic all day long. The songs are not dubbed however, which is why so many Moroccans are familiar with Hindi movie tunes. We only stay a short while, but it is really sweet of Hamid to bring us to see his family.

    Leaving here, we drive to the Rissani souk, which has a busy market thrice a week, when Berbers, Arabs and wandering nomad traders come together to buy and sell their wares. The parking area has tethered donkeys instead of cars. We’re here on a Sunday morning around 11 and walk with Hamid to the cattle and sheep markets first. The cattle market is quiet, but the sheep/goat market is very active with a constant flow of people bringing their animals into the market, examining them and negotiating prices. We then go to the main covered market that sells everything from produce to meat to clothes to household items to window grills/doors. They sell coffee made with date seeds which is interesting, and we get conned into buying amber at the spice souk. Hamid is not very happy with how we handle the amber transaction and gives us a lecture on bargaining afterwards.

    From here, it's a 3 hour drive to the Todra (or Todgha) Gorge through arid flatland flanked by the High and Anti Atlas mountains. Along the way, we stop at one of the ancient well systems and walk through the underground canals. We don't halt for lunch until we are at the gorge around 3; we are famished by this time so don't really care where we're eating. The place we stop at has a set menu for 120 MAD, which is expensive - we get kefta brochettes and a fruit plate and eat on the terrace. We then drive through the mouth of the gorge, which is very narrow, with the sheer canyon walls going straight up on either side. It's a very busy area though with several rock climbers, souvenir sellers and families picnicking by the shallow river on a Sunday afternoon. We drive on for another 3 miles to the Auberge le Festival, our home for the night. We check in and meet Youssef, who works at the auberge and is our guide for the hike this afternoon. Over tea, we discuss where we want to hike and how far we want to go. One option is to hike in the valley, but we've already walked in the Ziz valley and will be hiking in the Dades valley tomorrow. So, we nix this idea and decide to hike up the gorge instead. I have canvas shoes on so I'm worried about not having enough grip with all the loose rock, but Youssef assures me that it will not be a problem.

    We start at 5 and begin hiking up the gorge across from the auberge. We go up almost 3/4ths of the way, passing shelters built by nomads. The gorge is not as steep here, but the textures of the rock face are striking as are the colors. We hear faint drum sounds coming from the auberge, so Youssef yells out to Abdul who starts drumming even louder, the sound reverberating through the canyon and bouncing off the rock walls. Fantastic. Rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage grow wild all along the slopes. Youssef is a 20 year old kid who grew up in a village about 80 kms away. His mother still lives there, his father passed away a few years ago. He's only started working at the auberge recently and taught himself English, Spanish and German so he could be a guide. He's super friendly and a nice guy. For the next 2.5 hours, we follow him as we wind our way down and up through the gorge and make a circular route back to the auberge. It's been a fun hike in pleasant weather and we are so glad we did this.

    The auberge is like a stone castle built against the gorge, while our ensuite cave room is built into the rock (we had a similar room in Santorini several years ago). It's charming, cozy, naturally air-conditioned and nicely decorated. There is also an open shared terrace facing the gorge. After a shower, we go up to the main lobby where dinner awaits us. There's harira, moussaka tagine (a Moroccan take on the classic Greek dish) that is oh so good in spite of its corny name, and apple pie along with red wine from Meknes. Youssef and Abdul play drums and sing Berber songs, really well I might add and enthusiastically. Besides us, there is only the owner or manager (we think) and his wife with their year old daughter, who entertains us all with her dancing. It's a lovely evening and the auberge quickly becomes our second favorite hotel of this trip - it's small, casual, friendly and intimate. After dinner, we sit out on the terrace for some time surrounded by the moonlit gorge and stars up above, before calling it a night.

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    Another great hike in the Dades gorge and onwards to Skoura

    We wake up to blue skies and and another warm morning. We are only leaving at 10, so are able to have a relaxed breakfast. It's the usual spread and an omelette and we eat it outdoors while we soak in the sun. The auberge is an eco friendly hotel, using solar power, local materials and vegetables and herbs from its own garden. An old sheep dog sits in the corner enjoying the sun as well - he used to live with nomads, but ever since he got too old to move around with them, he has been living here.

    On our way to Boumalne Dades, we pass by palmeraies and Berber villages around Tinerhir and stop to take pictures. This entire stretch from here all the way to Skoura where we're headed to tonight is called the Valley of a thousand kasbahs (a kasbah is a fortified home with watchtowers). And for good reason, as there is kasbah after kasbah in varying stages of disrepair at every turn. Some stand proud and tall having gracefully withstood centuries of tumult while others are a crumbling shadow of what they once were. At Boumalne, we take the piste (dirt road) to the Perle du Dades hotel, where we will be meeting our guide, Hassan. This is a nice property away from town, with a pool, billiards, ping pong, board games, spa etc.- a good option for families with kids. We go over our plan for the afternoon with Hassan over tea and peanuts. Picking up our picnic lunches, we set off on our next adventure.

    We first drive through the Dades gorges with its incredible red rock formations set against lush valleys and dotted with kasbahs, passing through the villages of Ait Youl, Ait Arbi and Ait Oudinar. Beyond this, the road makes hairpin bends as it steeply curves its way up the gorge (Am I glad to have taken some Dramamine this morning!). At the very top, we park at a hotel/restaurant and walk over to the edge to take in the stunning nausea inducing vista of the plunging walls of the gorge all the way down to the river below. We drive back the same way until we reach Ait Arbi - this is where we get off to begin our 3 hour hike.

    We walk through the village, past its kasbah and unique rock formations, through fields, scrambling up and down the rocks and across the river over a narrow log bridge. There is no trail or path; only Hassan knows where we're headed and how we're getting there. Halfway through our hike, we turn a bend and end up at a beautiful shaded spot by the gurgling river with a view of the rocks - a perfect place for a lunch of cheese, egg and chicken sandwiches with apples and oranges. Hassan's story is an interesting one. He grew up in a nomad family until the age of 10 when his mother moved with her sons to the town of Boumalne. He hadn't ever gone to school, so learnt to read and write then. He finished school and studied international relations in college (we think that's what he said) and when he couldn't get a job, decided to change course and study/practice to become a trekking guide. Having grown up in the mountains, he knows the area like the back of his hand and leads multi day hikes as well as treks up to Jebel M'goun and Sraho.

    We continue hiking after lunch up to the top of the rocks for some more gorgeous views, including the monkeys fingers, another unique rock formation. It hot now and we're actually sweating, which feels strange after all these days of cooler than normal temperatures. It's almost tempting to join the locals swimming in the river! But, we keep moving. Along the way, Hassan points out interesting plants and herbs and picks fruits off of trees for us to eat. We walk through more fields, cross the river once more and trudge up another rock until we reach the main road where Hamid awaits us. This has been another fun hike through a unique landscape and a good reason to get off the main roads. It's past 5, so we drop Hassan off near the hotel and continue on our way towards Skoura.

    We drive past the valley of roses or Kelaa M'gouna, known for its very fragrant roses and famous rose festival in early May. There are factories and shops selling rose water, oils and perfumes all along the roadside. Oh, another interesting thing we observe on the roads is that drivers signal to each other to indicate if a police car is up ahead - a wave means an all clear and index finger pointing down means slow down, there's a cop ahead. If you're driving in Morocco, maybe this will come in handy? We reach Les Jardins de Skoura, off the main road and a few kms away from town, around 7:30. This is a beautifully landscaped and stylish property, with a pool, hammocks, outdoor lounging areas, lots of flowers, fruit trees, and a couple of terraces. Our room is cozy, with a reading nook and a large bathroom. We also run into and say hello to Caroline, the French owner, who lives on the property.

    Once we check in, we go up to the terrace to watch the sun go down over some cold beers. We are joined by the local dog, a cute fellow who enjoys all the attention he gets from us and then sits on the wall barking at anybody who walks or drives past the hotel. There are a lot more guests here than we've seen at the other hotels. Soon it gets really windy, so we head back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. Dinner is served in a covered area outdoors and is a formal affair. The food is really good (I didn't write down notes for this day, so don't remember what we ate in detail) - there are a few mezzes, a tagine and a pear dessert. We stick around after dinner to chat with some of the other guests. Sleep is fitful tonight since the storm knocks out power and the AC/generator keeps beeping and turning on and off all night.

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    Fascinating kasbahs and descending into Marrakech

    Today is going to be a long day. Our plan is to walk in the Skoura palmeraie for a couple of hours this morning before starting on the long drive towards Marrakech with stops on the way. We have breakfast sitting outside in the garden next to bright sunflowers and wait for our guide to arrive. He's running late due to bike trouble and arrives at 9 instead of 8:30. His name is Kamal, the quietest of the guides we've had so far. He is enthusiastically greeted at the door by the 2 dogs that live here - the friendly one from yesterday and an older, wiser black lab. The dogs are out the door even before we are, and they join us for the entire walk. Apparently, this is what they always do.

    The palmeraie here is larger, flat and more arid, with views of the barely snow tipped High Atlas range in the far distance. There are several kasbahs, both old and reconstructed, strewn about the oasis. Kamal takes us to a few of them that look especially nice in the morning light. Had we more time, we would have loved to do a similar walk in the evening to take advantage of the "golden hour". Date palms and fruit trees abound here as do crops like wheat, corn and alfalfa. We walk along narrow roads and paths that crisscross through the fields and from village to village. Our dogs disappear every now and then as they go off getting wet in the canals, chasing cats and birds and generally having a ball. We plan to get back to the hotel by 10:30, but it ends up being close to 11. This is another place where it would have been great to slow down and spend another day in the inviting gardens and go on more walks, but unfortunately, it's time to get moving.

    We drive past Ourzazate, but don't stop at the Kasbah or movie studios. Instead, we head over to Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The approach to this ksar along the Ounila river and valley framed by the High Atlas and following the old trade route is lovely. Situated on a hill across from a now dry riverbed and fringed with palms, this partly retouched village of red mudbrick homes, both simple and elaborate castle like kasbahs with towers, is very picturesque. And, parts of it are still inhabited. There are also ramparts up at the top as well as remnants of mosques, granaries etc. We don't use a guide here, and just walk with Hamid. The views from the top of the ksar below, the new town across the river and the barren lunar landscape behind are nice, but the wild winds take our breath away even more - it's actually a little scary. For lunch, we survey the options by the entrance and find a decent restaurant just across on the main road. We order a salad to share and kefta sandwiches with spicy harira. It's a quick meal that hits the spot.

    From here, we could have driven directly to Marrakech via the Tizi n'Tichka pass. But instead, I've asked Hamid to take a detour so we can stop at the Glaoui kasbah in Telouet. And, what a wonderful detour it is, in my opinion not to be missed. The kasbah itself is unique and extraordinary, because while it is in a near ruined state on the outside, hidden inside are a few remaining rooms filled with gorgeous zellij, stucco and carved/painted cedar doors, windows and ceilings, that took 300 artisans to complete back in the day. We say no to a guide at the entrance, but a deaf mute man follows us around, and we don't have the heart to turn him away. He is eager, overly so sometimes, but points out all the best work for us to photograph. The interiors are falling apart and slowly collapsing as well, and if not partly restored or at least reinforced, it will be such a loss to Moroccan period architecture and craftsmanship. But, we hope this doesn't get completely renovated and turned into a hotel either. With a final stop on the rooftop that looks across the hills and valley, we head back to our car still googly eyed.

    The scenery along the piste until main tarmac road has red and pink hued hills and hamlets blending into terraced hillsides. I didn't expect to see terraced wheat fields in Morocco! Once on the main road, we climb up until we reach the Tichka pass at 2260m, where we make a quick stop for pictures. Then, the road makes several hairpin turns as it hugs the side of the mountain and provides spectacular views of barren hills, pastures and finally lush forests and fields until we eventually reach the plains and continue on to Marrakech. To Hamid's credit, he drives cautiously and this combined with the magic of Dramamine, means I don't get car sick at all. The last stretch to Marrakech is quick with no traffic and we drive past swanky golf courses and upscale residences on the outskirts of town before we reach the medina around 6:30. We've come a long way these past few days - both in terms of distance and experiences - from one imperial city to another.

    We hire a porter outside Bab Laksour and he drops us off at Riad Magellan, where we say goodbye to Hamid. He's been a very good driver, guide and companion for the last 5 days. Hamid rents an apartment by the airport with his brother, where he'll catch some much needed rest for a day before he takes his next guests to the desert. At the riad, we are greeted by Mohammed, a lovely older gentleman who speaks no English. He offers us tea and a snack in the courtyard and then shows us to our room upstairs. We want drop off some laundry, but since communication with Mohammed is an issue, we decide to just wait until the morning when Philippe, the owner, is in. There is also a problem with the water pressure in the shower, but this will also have to wait till the morning.

    This riad is as different as it can get from Dar Seffarine in Fes - while it has traditional touches like the soft pink, cream and brown tadelakt walls, it is modern in it's design and furnishings with a focus on vintage and global traveler themes. Tonight, we're having dinner at the riad since we've arrived late. When we come down, the table has been set and since it's chilly, there's also a roaring fire in the fireplace. Imagine a wam fire in Marrakech in late May...is this crazy of what? Mohammed brings out a trio of appetizers that includes the best zaalouk of the trip. Then we have a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives that is also delicious and end with a dessert of warm apple pie. After dinner, we enjoy our wine beside the fire. We are unable to finish the bottle, so Mohammed offers to keep it chilled in the fridge so we can indulge in another glass tomorrow. It's time to call it a night before we venture out into the labyrinth of streets, that is the medina, tomorrow.

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    This report is so helpful! I'll pop in now with a question. As I mentioned before our route from Fes to Marrakech is similar yours, although we are doing it with more driving each day and fewer overnight stops (no hiking for us.)

    On the day after our overnight camp in the Sahara Desert, we drive (with our guide/driver) from Merzouga to Boumalne Dades (260 km) and stay at Xaluca Dades. I originally requested we drive to Skoura instead (which would be an additional 70 km) because I loved the look of Les Jardins de Skoura. Xaluca Dades gets mixed reviews on TA, especially about the food, but the tour company guy said we should stay at Xaluca because it is one of the few hotels with heat and it can get cool at night. We're going at the end of September. I'm thinking "cool" to a Moroccan means something different than cool to a Chicagoan, but I'm not sure if I should push for a change or not. What was your experience with the night temps and did you happen to notice if Les Jardins had heat? Do you think Les Jardins would be worth an extra hour (or more) of driving?

    Glaoui kasbah in Telouet sounds fabulous, I'm going to ask to add that as a stop after Ait Ben Haddou.

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    Hi bniemand,

    I would certainly drive the extra hour or so to Skoura. It will be a long drive 7-8 hours with a stop for lunch, but will be worth it IMO. Unless you plan to detour into Todra or Dades gorges.

    I don't remember if there was heat at Les Jardins. You could email the hotel and ask. While the weather in Morocco was much cooler than we expected for May, September shouldn't be cold. Carry layers with you and you should be fine.

    We drove past the Xaluca in Boumalne - its a huge hotel used by large tour groups and for conferences, and very different from Les Jardins.

    Hope this helps.

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    Does anyone have any suggestions for finding a car/driver when outside of the Imperial Cities? JBT sounds very good. I was wondering if there were other reliable companies?

    Thanks.

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    We are using Desert Majesty and have been extremely pleased with the promptness of response and the willingness to answer every question and route us where we wanted to go. We also got what we feel is a very good quote from them. One of the partners, Felicity, is incredible. Here is their website link.

    http://www.desertmajesty.com/

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    Marrakech: a madrasa, a museum and the madness of Djemaa el fna

    After breakfast this morning, we meet Philippe and tell him about the shower which he promises to have fixed. We also drop off our laundry with Amina, one of the women who works in the riad. With directions in hand, we set off into the medina. The medina here, unlike Fes, is an earthy shade of pink, flat with wider streets, and with many more tourists. But, much like Fes, it is a maze with the high walls protecting beautiful homes and courtyards from the evil eye, overflowing with shops and fondouks with carts whizzing by being pulled by mules and horses. Our riad is located in the Mouassine area, so we walk north and east in the general direction of the Ben Youssef madrasa, veering of course every now and then when something interesting catches our eye and getting lost taking the wrong turn at intersections. We pass by some dyers stalls which have bundles of brightly colored yarn hanging off the rafters in the ceiling and from walls - how tempting for cats! I love the arches along the alleyways, the large bronze lantern like streetlights and the multitude of mostly crumbling fondouks that are still being used for wood and metal work.

    The Ben Youssef madrasa is similar to the madrasas we have seen in Fes, but larger, in fact it is the largest in Morocco. The workmanship here is gorgeous as is to be expected, but the large crowds detract from its serene beauty, so in that respect we enjoy the madrasas in Fes much more. We are able to go up to the student dormitories here, tiny cells decorated with stucco and woodwork and overlooking the central courtyard visible through small arched windows - you can almost imagine young boys intently studying their Koran here hundreds of years ago. Our next stop is the Museum of Photography, which has a fabulous collection of black and white photographs of Morocco taken by intrepid explorers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a fascinating glimpse into how locals dressed and lived in those days and how the country and its cities looked; there are some lovely pictures of Berber women wearing elaborate jewelry - oh, how I wish I could've traveled to Morocco then. We stop by the roof terrace for some tea and OJ, to rest our feet and enjoy the views of the medina and the distant (and hazy) mountains.

    For lunch, we want to try Souk Kafe; it's a little hard to find the first time hidden in a corner around the bend from men hammering copper into beautiful bathtubs and sinks. We settle into the cozy cushions of the third floor terrace and dig into some delicious lamb tagine and a tender beef stew called tanjia that comes with creamy couscous. After lunch, we check out a few shops including Kif Kif (that Philippe's wife owns) hoping to find interesting ceramics, knick knacks or cushions made with kilim fabric, but we don't see anything we like. So, we walk to Bab Fteuh and turn into the main souks to wander about for a bit there. We soon find that we are pretty souk'd out at this point. It's quite hot as well and therefore time for a mid afternoon refresher at Dar Cherifa, an art cafe set in a renovated 16th century riad. We have a fruit juice, tea and a plate of cookies in their courtyard surrounded by artwork that's for sale. It's a nice, chic setting and the prices reflect that. It's a good place to relax though.

    From here, we walk to Djemaa el Fna and hail a taxi to the Supratours station to buy our bus tickets to Essaouira. The taxi driver offers to wait for us at the station and bring us back for 60 MAD, which seems reasonable so we accept. We get tickets on the 8:30 am bus to Essaouira day after tomorrow and the 3:15 pm bus back the next day. Tickets taken care of, we ask the driver to drop us off at Koutoubia mosque. We find a shaded bench in the park across from the mosque, and while the afternoon away. At about 6:30, we head back to Djemaa el Fna, which even a couple of hours ago was a mostly empty and quiet square with juice and dried fruit stalls and a few snake charmers, but is now throbbing with activity. The square has been taken over by several food stalls that are being setup and the smell and smoke from the grilled meats wafts through the air. The snake charmers, performing monkeys, musicians, dancers, acrobats, henna artists and other entertainers have multiplied in their numbers, attracting both locals and tourists alike. We steer away from all the madness and head up to the terrace of one of the cafes facing the square and take in the carnival scene from several feet up in the air, until the sun sets and the throngs of people begin moving over to the food stalls.

    That's our cue to head down to the plaza for dinner. Every stall has a number, and I've noted a few down from Tripadvisor reviews. The stalls are not setup in sequence so it takes us a few minutes to find our first stop, Hassan at #32. As soon as we sit on the bench, sheets of paper are placed in front of us with olives, khobz, tomato dip and a couple of salads. We order a sauteed beef dish that's delicious and sausages that are good but too cartilaginous. We briefly consider the snails in broth at stall #1, but decide to pass. As we walk past the stalls trying to decide where to eat next, we are constantly bombarded with menus and pleas to eat at each one of them. We brush them all off as politely as we can and settle on stall #98, where we get a spicy sausage and tanjia. The sausage disappoints and the tanjia while tasty is not as tender as the one at Souk Kafe. We should've ordered the kefta skewers or fried fish. Oh well. Too full to try another dish, we opt for spiced tea instead at stall #70. We end the night sipping the warm, aromatic tea while humming along to the Bollywood music blaring over the speakers from the stall next to us.

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    BTW, Desert Majesty is one of those listed in the Fodor's, Frommers, and Lonely Planet guide. They have excellent recommendations. That was one of my 'biggies' so I spent a lot of time researching them.

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    Our second day in Morocco leaves us with a crick in our necks


    Our shower barely trickles water the night before as well, so after we complain to Philippe again, he apologizes and moves us to the larger Chocolate room. Apparently, all the digging and repair work being done outside in the alleyway is the likely culprit. Our new room has some lovely furnishings including a vintage steamer trunk and a gorgeous sculptural floor lamp - a lot of the furnishings in the riad came from Philippe's Paris flat.

    After breakfast, we walk past Djemaa el Fna to the Bahia Palace, initially built in the late 19th century by a grand vizier of the sultan and later enhanced by another slave turned vizier. Even though we're early, large tour groups are already here with their guides and the clicks of cameras and chatter can be heard all over. But, no matter the distractions, this palace will enthrall - the delicate and detailed stucco and cedar wood work, brightly patterned zellij, stained glass windows, rectangular and domed gilded ceilings intricately painted in colorful geometric and floral patterns, and the most gorgeous doors - we can't but ooh and aah at everything we see. And this is only a small fraction of rooms and courtyards in the palace that are open to the public. If you are a fan of Islamic architecture and Moroccan interiors as we are, this palace will delight. We spend way more time here than planned and take way too many pictures, but leave thrilled.

    From here, we walk west through the Mellah or the old Jewish neighborhood towards the Saadian Tombs, tucked away just behind the Kasbah mosque. This complex of ornate tombs is the final resting place of Saadian Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour, his family and advisors. Built in the 16th-17th centuries, these tombs were walled up and hidden from the world for about 200 years. No expense was spared in their construction, using imported Italian marble and gilding the honeycomb stucco with pure gold. But, neglect over a couple of centuries has dulled the once extravagant complex and leaving no evidence of the gold. There are long but quick moving lines to view the chamber containing the sultan's tomb as well as the one next to it, a quick peek in and we're out.

    Our next stop is the Badi Palace, close by. This large palace, once decorated with gold, crystal and turquoise, but then looted 75 years later, is mostly in ruins with nothing much left to see. What we're here for, are the hundreds of storks nesting up on the ramparts and towers of the palace watching over the medina. We've never seen this many and this close - they're beautiful birds and graceful as they fly up into the air. There are also lovely views of Marrakech from here, nicer I'm sure at sundown. We're really hungry at this point since it's past 1, so we pop into a hole in the wall restaurant just off the side street. We get salad and freshly grilled kefta kababs that come with olives, warm bread, tomato dip and harissa. It's really hot out, so we gulp down some Coke as well. A fantastic and dirt cheap meal!

    After lunch, we walk back the way we came towards Djemaa el Fna to make one last stop at Dar Si Said - another fine example of the elaborate but elegant Moroccan craftsmanship and home to the museum of arts. The wedding chamber room upstairs with its domed ceiling is as spectacular as anything in the Bahia palace and takes our breath away. As well, with only 2 other people in the museum, we are able to enjoy its beauty in peace and quiet. A definite must see in Marrakech. By this time, both Ajit and I have a crick in our necks from looking up at ceilings and focusing on intricate details all day long. We decide it's time for some rest back at the riad. On the way back, we check out one more store that I have on my list and which has nothing to our taste either. Walking past the square, we get some cold freshly squeezed orange juice (with no ice) for 4MAD from one of the stalls. Aaah, so refreshing! Back at the hotel, we rest up a little, check email and download photos.

    By 4:30, our stomachs are rumbling again, so we go back to Souk Kafe for another pot of tanjia and an assortment of 7 mezzes that are light and delicious. The rooftop here is a great place to get comfortable and relax, so we linger on over mint tea. After, we stop at Souk Cherifia (where Terrasse des epices is located) and buy a babouche magnet and a set of 4 mid sized hand blown lightly tinted tea glasses from a downstairs shop. Upstairs, there are several upscale shops with lovely and well made clothing, accessories and home goods, modern but with a Moroccan touch, and with Paris/NY prices. One of the shops sells some beautiful and unique embroidered lidded baskets bought from Berber families, which I'm very tempted to buy, but ultimately decide against. This is one shopping regret from the trip.

    Our ticket for the Museum of Photography gets us in today as well, so we decide to go up to the roof and enjoy the late afternoon views. Unfortunately, the kitchen closes at 6, so we can't order a beverage. We sit for a few minutes, take a couple of pictures and ponder where to go next. Back to the Terrasse des epices it is - we seem to be walking in circles today. They have a nice rooftop except the open bar area is not very well shaded from the sun. We get a couple of juices (no alcohol is served) and a chocolate b'stilla. Their food menu looks interesting as well with both Moroccan and western choices. Then, it's back to the hotel, where we lounge upstairs (me in the hammock, Ajit on the sofas) drinking cold beers and reminiscing about the trip we've had so far. It will be an early morning tomorrow since we're off to Essaouira.

    We'll be back here for one final night before we fly back to NY. While Marrakech has more restaurants and trendier stores, galleries and bars and some beautiful palaces, our hearts belong in Fes.

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    LOL Fra_Diavolo...I have been typing hard all day trying to finish up the last segment. It's bee a crazy week at work. Here goes...

    A seaside jaunt to Essaouira

    Breakfast this morning is at 7:15 since we have a bus to catch. Mohammed knocks on our door at 6:30 even though we haven't asked for a wake up call, he's really sweet. As we did in Fes, we leave our bigger suitcases here while we carry just our backpack and one small bag to Essaouira. We easily get a taxi from Djemaa el Fna to the station and have plenty of time to get a tea and check in our bag before our bus departs. Our bus trip isn't without some excitement - about a half hour in, our driver overtakes a car while (we think) going over the speed limit and gets pulled over by cops. The hand signals that worked so well for Hamid on our 5 day drive clearly didn't work here. We expect the driver will be issued a ticket and then we'll be on our way, but the animated conversation and hand gestures indicate this is a more serious matter. Apparently, the driver is missing some papers that he is supposed to carry on him. At one point it looks like we may have to head back to the station, but after much yelling followed by pleading, we are off on our way.

    It's a 2 hour drive through some uninteresting scenery until we hit the coast and arrive at the medina gates. We hire a porter to take us to Les Matins Bleus; it's a quick 5 minute walk to the hotel which is in the heart of the medina at the end of a dead end street. The hotel is simple and charming with bright and airy rooms (ours is on the terrace) and eager staff, Samir and Youssef. Essaouira is sunny, but windy and a little chilly, so our first order of business when we step out is to buy Ajit a sweatshirt - we get a cool Essaouira blue hoodie from one of the shops in the souk. All right! Ajit's now got a surfer dude look going...well, not really. :-) For lunch, we want to try Ferdaous in an alleyway behind the hotel, but it's closed. So, instead, we decide to walk over to harbor area and eat at one of the fish stalls.

    The medina here is a brilliant white punctuated with bright blue doors and windows - very Greek isle like, but also uniquely Moroccan. It's a 5 minute walk to Plaza Moulay Hassan by the harbor and as we get to the square, we can smell the salty sea air and fish. In one corner of the square are the fish stalls, each proudly displaying their catch of the day. There are wooden tables and benches in front of each stand, where we can sit and eat. As we get within a few feet of the stalls, there is a lot of spirited yelling and pleading as each stall tries to convince us that they have the freshest fish at the best prices. We are hungry and not in a mood to negotiate so settle for the one right in front of us. Ajit loves fish while I prefer shell fish, so he picks out a bass and a couple of sardines, while I get a small mound of jumbo shrimp. With bread, fresh salad and a couple of Cokes, it comes to 200 MAD. We are definitely getting ripped off and we know it. While we wait for the fish to be grilled over the coals, we chat with a German couple at our table. The fish and shrimp arrive lightly charred and juicy and we get our hands dirty as we tuck in. While we think it is over hyped, it's a try-it-once kind of experience nonetheless.

    After lunch, we walk towards the ramparts and port. There are hundreds of seagulls flying around in the sky swooping in to eat the remains of fish being gutted by fishermen sitting by the walls. We spot several cats as well - me thinks there are more sea gulls and cats in Essaouira than people. We spend the next hour wandering the busy harbor area filled with colorful boats, both large and small, and fisherman getting ready to go out to sea. We then walk along the rampart walls, and go up to the turreted skala with its many cannons and overlooking the sea. The views from here and along the ramparts of the whitewashed medina jutting into the sea, waves crashing against the rocky coastline, blue boats bobbing in the waters and swirling seagulls is picture postcard worthy. And the light is brilliant too. I can see why this city inspires. We continue walking along the ramparts, through narrow alleyways flanked by shops to the skala at the other end of the medina and then walk back. Along the way, Ajit is enthralled by the cats and kittens of Essaouira.

    It's almost 5 now, so we stop for a quick spicy merguez sandwich at a streetside stall and walk back to the hotel to freshen up. At 6, we head over for drinks to Taros, right on the edge of the medina and overlooking the harbor. It's lovely to sit up on the terrace with its fine views and enjoy a glass of wine. There's live music here at 7:30, but we leave to catch the sun set, which casts a warm golden glow over the medina walls. So pretty! We take photographs and hang out by the ramparts until dusk. For dinner, we go back to Ferdaous and try a couple of tagines - simple but good food. And then it's time to call it a night.

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    Winding down in Essaouira and saying goodbye to Morocco

    This is our last full day in Morocco; we sleep in a little and have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace before heading out for the day. We check out of our room and leave our bags downstairs. Our plan this morning is to walk to the beach, which is easy to get to from the medina gates. We don't get very far when we notice a group of men playing football on the beach – they’re in team jerseys so it looks like they are warming up for a match. So, that’s what we do – sit on the wall by the roadside overlooking the beach and watch a match between the red and green teams. It’s awesome! While at the beginning it’s only the 2 of us watching the game, soon a few tourists and several locals including friends of the players join us, so there is a nice crowd cheering the players on. It’s a spirited game with some great ball skills on display and eventually the green team wins 2-0. What a fun way to spend a morning in Essaouira!

    For lunch, we decide to try Caravan Cafe that Philippe had recommended. The restaurant is in a lovely courtyard setting with beautiful art and collectibles strewn about - good food/ service, but with NY prices. They have a global menu - we share a chicken b'stilla, I have shrimp in a saffron sauce while Ajit has a fish dish. After lunch, we wander around the souks - I pick up cosmetic argan oil that's cheaper here than in Marrakech and so much cheaper than in NY, some natural soaps, and make one last attempt to find some cushion covers that I love. Nope, not happening. There are some very interesting shops though along the alley that runs parallel to the rampart walls.

    Before we know it, it's 2:30 so we pick up our bags and walk to the Supratours station. As we are leaving, I'm tempted to try crepes with the Essaouiran specialty of amlou (an almond spread with honey and argan oil) but a couple of the crepe stands along the way that we check are not carrying it. I finally get to taste some at the Assouss Argane shop near the station - it's nutty, earthy and fragrant, but a little too rich.

    Our overnight trip has been a great way to soak in this charming city, but Essaouira deserves another day or two of laid back wandering. The bus trip back to Marrakech is uneventful and we get in a little before 6. I'm able to negotiate the taxi fare to Djemaa el Fna down to 20MAD and feel very empowered, it's too bad today is the last day of our trip. We gulp down our last street side orange juice at the square and walk over to the riad. Mohammed greets us warmly at the door and we are in the duplex beige room this time - it's a very cute room but seems to have the same shower issue.

    After freshening up and repacking, we walk to the ATM to withdraw the last bit of dirhams that we'll need for the hotel and dinner. On the way, I spot a bright rug thrown over a stool outside one of the shops in the souk. We hadn't planned to buy any more rugs, but this one appears to be the right small size for our bedroom, so of course we have to check it out. The shop has several pieces that we like and we ultimately settle on 2 old Berber rugs. I'm excited! Ajit has to make another trip to the ATM so we can pay for them. For dinner, we initially plan to go to Cafe Arabe, but the restaurant is a little too trendy and we are in the mood for something more mellow and low key, so where else do we end up but Souk Kafe for more of that great, home style food. Nestling into the cushions, we end with mint teas on a warm Moroccan night - perfect.

    We have a 10:15 am flight from Marrakech to JFK via Casablanca, so we have an early breakfast, say our goodbyes to Mohammed and are out the door by 7:45. Philippe has arranged for a drop off at the airport, which is very convenient with our now very heavy suitcases. The check in lines are long at the airport, but there are no delays. At the Casablanca airport, we look for Sukaina (the girl we met on our first day), who is flying to Tunisia and will be in the airport around the same time as us, but unfortunately we miss each other. The flight to JFK is mostly spent watching movies and soon we are home.

    It's been a wonderful 2 weeks in a country that charms us in ways we don't even expect and we leave with such fond memories. Of the interesting and generous people, unexpected connections, winding medinas that transport us to another time, diverse landscapes, gorgeous architecture, artisans who continue to use centuries old traditional techniques, the simple and fresh food and finally, the excessive mint teas and sweetest orange juice.

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    Loved your report as I skim read it and can't wait until I have more time to savor it, paragraph by paragraph. I too loved the doors of Morocco and have a collage of them in my office and also in my home (photos). Esp. Chefchaouen. Reading your report definitely makes me want to return to Morocco! (We were there in 2006--driving around the country by ourselves.)

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    Thank you for sharing us this beautiful detailed report, hope to read more detailed reports about other Tour companies too, we encourage reports like this to be shared in the forums.
    again thank you.

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    Excellent report seemaskt. I did an almost similar trip like yours, also stayed at Dar Seffarine (they're the best!) and with JBT ( with Hamid as our driver) too. You've captured well in words the experience, that I feel transported back to Morocco :)

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    Wow your report so poetic and soulful. We are staying at Dar Seffarine and looking into JBT. I was wondering if you could answer a couple of questions for me.
    I noticed that you did not use guides in Fez and Marrakeech, looking back now was that ok?
    We too are a couple that are world independent travelers from Hawaii living in New York City.
    Any further advice would be so appreciated.
    We are going first to Paris then onto to Morrocco, but first starting out in Marrakeech.

    Thanks, Ty

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    Oh yes, because of your report of Fez and the Riad, I just automatically looked at their website and booked it. I did not even look at other places. I just knew it was right for us.
    Ty

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    You don't need a Guide for the City just a guidebook will be the best to avoid being ripped off, your riad can manage anything for you in Maroc, you can use the Bus for places the Train can not reach check www.oncf.ma affordable and reliable.

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    Thanks kakijalan! When were you in Morocco? It's so nice to hear of others who've stayed at Dar Seffarine and used JBT/Hamid.

    Ayty, you are too kind. I'm so glad you booked Dar Seffarine...hope you love it as much as we did. Do try and take a tour of the house if Alaa is around.

    As for guides, we didn't feel the need for one and we were happy to just wander on our own, get lost and find our way back. You could give it a try on your own your first day and if you feel the need for a guide, then ask your riad to arrange for one. Another option would be to do a specialized tour with companies like Plan It Fez. They're on the expensive side but you could focus on something that particularly interests you like the food markets for example, instead of being taken to a carpet shop.

    Hope this helps. Let me know if you have more questions.

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    Ah Seemsasket you are the one who is soooooo very very kind. I just know that Dar Seffarine will be soulful, and I like you, feel that it will be Fez, not Marakeech that I will be drawn to. I will take your advice and venture first on our own. We have been to Turkey, Africa, parts of Asia, so we might be ok.

    i really like JBT/ but I think we are going with Soulful Safari as they are more reasonable. I did book the riad in Skouro. I am not into the "rah-rah" of Morrocco, as we live in NYC, and 8 million people on a day to day basis, gives us enough of that. I am booking Dar Karma just on the outskirts of Marakeech as I feel I just did not want to be in the square.



    Thanks, ayty (Ty)

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    Hi ayty - Given your prior travels, you will be fine on your own. I'm glad you also booked Les Jardins de Skoura...you'll love it. If you plan to overnight anywhere near the Todra Gorge, I highly recommend Auberge le Festival as well.

    We live in NYC too, so I hear you re getting away from the crowds. We usually prefer smaller towns and villages when we travel as well.

    Good luck and have a great trip!

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    I LOVE your photos! I can tell you are drawn to the same things as me, I'm sure I'll also come home with hundreds of pictures of colorful tile work, wood carvings and stone carvings.

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    Just wanted to say your trip report was wonderful! I'm coming from NYC as well, staying in Marrakech for 6 days before Madrid, and planning on a day trip to Essaouria (but now i wish we had decided to stay overnight!). How was the supratours bus? Is it comfortable? is there a bathroom or no? Just curious.

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    Thanks ashwin and ivywinter!

    ivy - The supratours bus was very comfortable. There is no bathroom on the bus but they stop at a rest area half way through the trip where you can use the loo. Have a great trip!

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    Hi there -

    Sorry it's taking so long to get our pictures posted, but life keeps getting in the way.

    Here's another album completed with pictures of our last day in Fes, the cooking class and teh drive to Azrou and Erfoud.

    http://culturesconnected.smugmug.com/Travel/Morocco-2013/A-cooking-class-and-onward/30193915_ZMgggh

    Hope to get our act together and be back with the rest of the pictures soon.

    I think some of you are headed to Morocco soon...if you are, have a wonderful trip!

    S

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    STUNNING photos!! Fantastic trip report! I'm at the very beginning stages of planning a trip to Morocco, and I think I would just like to replicate your entire trip. Do you have any photos of your camp-out in the desert? Your description of the stars......takes my breath away. Is there anything you would have done differently on this trip? It sounds pretty perfect to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us.
    Laurie

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    I don't mean to infringe on your post, seemaskt, but I thought you might like to see two videos that I made in Morocco (I made others, but just haven't gotten around to editing them yet.). The first one is:

    Marrakesh, a Moroccan Treasure and is primarily regarding the Majorelle Botanical Gardens (yes it does have cats) and a little of the main squre.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60Ya15tRo6s&feature=c4-overview&list=UUHtFITe6rSNQkjZARMNzQEg

    The second one is Ouzoud Waterfalls and there were cats there too although I don't think I filmed them. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6YR31Ikt0w&feature=c4-overview&list=UUHtFITe6rSNQkjZARMNzQEg

    I'll have more in a few weeks at this YouTube site.

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    Thanks Laurie...sorry, I have been away from Fodors for several weeks and missed your post. All of our pictures are up on our smugmug site, so you should be able to see the rest of the pictures that I didnt post links to.

    http://culturesconnected.smugmug.com/Travel/Morocco-2013

    I don't think I would have changed the trip at all although an extra day each in Chefchaouen and Essaouira would have been great. Have a great trip...when are you going?

    Thanks linawood!

    Caroline - I'll check out your videos when I get home...thanks for the links. Glad you had a wonderful trip! Welcome back.

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    Seemaskt, this is exactly the kind of trip report I was looking for!

    Your writing style is great for getting the feel for a place.

    I'm about to head to Morocco for a similar amount of time and will be using this report for sure!

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    We are thinking of doing a similar trip. In order to cut down on the cost of the daily guide/driver, we think we will try to take the train from Rabat to Fes and the bus up to Chefchahoen and then back to Fes as you all did. The we want to engage a guide/driver and do a similar trip to the south with hiking etc. The current price for guide/driver seems to range from 120E to 220E! We speak no Arabic or French so it seems to present some obstacles. Your report is giving us "courage".

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    You will love Morocco, zinfanatic, so take the plunge. :-) Glad this report is providing some encouragement. We did find the costs high for the 5 day trip from Fez to Marrakech, but I didn't have much time for research back then. I think you'll find more options if you dig around some more.

    Have a great trip!

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    Just wanted to come back to report, for those who read through my report, that Sukaina, the girl we met on the train to Fes on our first morning in Morocco and who my husband Ajit helped with the Fulbright scholarship and business school essays and interview prep, will start her MBA program at UC Berkeley this fall. Very exciting for her of course and for us as well!

    Hope you're all having a good summer.

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    seemaskt, i must have read your TR numerous times trying to digest and get inspired by it! I'll be placing a reservation with Dar Seffrine, got to! Just bought our airline tickets today. We are a family of four (DD & DS both work and live in NYC; my husband and I in NJ). I hope you don't mind my asking how much does your 5-day trip cost? I just want to get an idea so I will have a number to compare it with. Re guides, how you find them? Through the riad ? Again, an idea please on how much do they charge/day. If you are uncomfortable giving the #'s here, let me know and we can exchange emails privately. Thank you.

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    zinfanatic, we are planning to do a Marrakech-Sahara-Fes trip, too this coming Nov. would you please let me know where you got the driver/guide info? Right now, I just have quotes from three tour companies which include half board, accommodations and car (+ driver/guide). I am considering Around Morocco, Journey Beyond Travel, and Blue Men of Morocco. If anyone had used any of the tours above, would appreciate it if you can share your experience and possibly the cost (if not comfortable to publish in the forum, we can exchange emails privately). Thank you.

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    nina88 - How exciting for you and your family. I hope you love Dar Seffarine as much as we did. My husband and I reminisce often about our stay there, such lovely memories. Do say hi to Mohammed, Alaa and Kate.

    Our 5 day trip cost about $2600 for the car, driver, all lodging, most meals, guides for the hikes and tips. I picked the hotels and the hikes that I wanted to do and Thomas/Fazia were very easy to work with. JBT is more expensive than other companues like Desert Majesty for example. But, I wanted more flexibility and the option to design my itinerary (since we don't typically do tours and I like to be in control :)) and JBT fit the bill.

    Have a great trip!

    pattyroth - Thank you! I do remember talking about our shared passion for photographing doors on another thread. :) And, I think we've been to some of the same places in Asia in recent years. Where are you off to next?

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    seemaskt, thank you very much for the info. Dar S. requires to prepay the 1st night so they can hold our reservation for the rest of the stay. I sent my credit card info to pay but they are having a hard time processing it. Wonder why it did not go through when our Marrakech charge did. How did you handle the 1st night deposit/payment?

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    Nina, I checked my emails and it doesn't look like we prepaid at DS. They took my cc details in case of cancellation but I wasn't charged until after our stay. Why don't you ask DS what they recommend if they're having trouble charging your card? Good luck.

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    seemaskt, thanks... turn out nothing to do with my cc; they wanted paypal which means I will incur various charges; they are now able to accept my cc to confirm reservation and as you said in case of cancellation.

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    Nina88 we are on vacation now. Typing and internet connection difficult. Can I answer your question via email or in general terms here when I return. Plans changed a bit. Had a great deal of difficulty getting replies to my requests for custom tour by several companies. Others twice the money and some were not accommodating with my wish NOT to pay for guide and driver when I did not need one in Marrakech for four days at end of trip. More later or via email.

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    Zin, here's my email address if it's going to be easier for you, plus I also wanted to finalize this part of our travel/tour asap and move on to the fun parts (restaurants and sites): nnyc67@yahoo.com. Thanks a lot.

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    seemaskt, would you please give me an idea on how much to tip the following: driver/guide (per day or at the end of the tour?), porter (going to the riads in Marrakech & Fez, etc.), kasbah, when visiting a house of local family, when taking pictures, etc. Don't have any idea as we only took 2 short guided tours in our 18 years of travelling and since Morocco seems to be tips driven country. Thank you very much.

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    Fabulous report, still to look at the photos. I am going solo, hopefully next year and have just started researching. I am thinking of combining a tour, which isn't usually my thing with some free time on my own, so will devour all the suggestions.

    No doubt I will have some questions...
    Cheers Schnauzer

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