I’m starting with some details about us, Morocco, our accommodations, and our plans as I had trouble finding answers to all my questions and I hope this information will help those in the planning stages. If you just want to read about our trip, skip to my second installment. Hope this is helpful.
We are US ex-pats living in Zurich for about a year now. I have 2 teen-aged daughters attending international schools. My 13-year-old auditioned to participate in the international schools honors band festival, which this year was held at Rabat American School. She plays the trumpet and was lucky enough to be chosen to attend. Wahoo!!! - as she would say – we’re going to Morocco! In fact, my daughter has reminded me a number of times, “we’re the first ones in our family to go to Africa!” Cool.
My older daughter is quite the history and art buff and will last all day in a museum, but this daughter is pretty much done with that sort of thing after about 30 minutes. She is more interested in how things work or are made and observing different people or seeing nature or animals. So far, a lot of our European travel has been to big cities and has involved lots of museums and such. I was hoping Morocco would be more to her interests and so planned the trip accordingly.
Since she was the only musician attending from her school, I was required to act as her chaperone and so would have only limited time for sightseeing in Rabat. During the Rabat portion of the trip she would house with a local family and I would stay alone in a hotel.
I decided we would go to Morocco a few days early and see another part of the country as well as Rabat but where?? I looked over the Fodor’s boards for help, bought a book, and got very confused, and just a little concerned about the safety of two petite western women traveling alone. I decided to use a travel agent, a woman who has traveled a number of times to Morocco, to help me plan this trip. I was glad I did, as she did an excellent job and made the trip smooth and stress-free.
Although I have studied a bit about the Arab culture and Islam, this was my first trip to Morocco and so let me say here that I am a complete novice. Any observations made here are simply from my own limited knowledge and experience. Please confirm my findings with your guidebook or an expert.
Many Moroccans speak several languages with Arabic and French being the most likely. Those in the tourism industry generally also speak English with varying degrees of skill.
We speak a little German, no French, and no Arabic, so language was an issue for us. For the Fes portion of the trip we had a wonderful English-speaking guide. In Rabat, more people spoke English, and if not English than German, so we were able to communicate more easily. In fact, we used our German quite a bit in Morocco. It was neat for my daughter to see that sometimes knowing another language can help you even when visiting a country where that is not the primary language spoken.
At the agent’s recommendation, we used a guide for 2 of the days in Fes. I can’t imagine navigating the medina there without one, but people do. I can’t speak to the safety issue, as we felt safe with the guide, but I noticed that at night no one really “let” us head out on our own. One night we visited a restaurant with a music/dance show, and the owner and his driver picked us up and dropped us off at the Riad. This seemed very “normal” to everyone there. I assume it was because we were women alone. But I don’t know exactly what we were being protected from….perhaps it just isn’t safe for anyone not just women? I don’t know. I’d love to hear others perspectives on this.
Our two days with the guide were wonderful, educational, fascinating. The guide spoke great English, was a great source of information and was pretty much the mayor of Fes. We did visit a number of artisan cooperatives but I let him know early on that I wasn’t a big shopper and there was never any huge pressure to buy, except at one rug shop, and even there he stepped in when I said I was not interested. (Well, I actually did buy a rug but more on that later.) One thing I really appreciated was the guides awareness of my need every couple of hours for a clean, western toilet!!
The contact information for our guide:
00 212 61 16 91 52
Fes versus Marrakech
A big decision for us was choosing between Marrakech and Fes. There are varying opinions on this, but regarding Fes I kept hearing the words: authentic, historical, artisans. Regarding Marrakech I kept hearing: touristy, overwhelming, exciting… I thought about my daughter and I and our interests, and remembered how tiring we found Rome (as much as we loved it) and opted for Fes. I can’t compare it to Marrakech, but it was a great decision for us. We actually had no idea what to expect because photos can’t really do this country justice. If you want to step back in time and enjoy watching things crafted and sold the way they were ages ago, then Fes is for you. It is not charming or quaint – it is real and sometimes a bit shocking. There are no snake charmers – for that you need to head to Marrakech – and I know my daughter would have enjoyed that as well, but Fes was a good choice for us. We also saw Volubilius (highly recommended!!) and Meknes en route from Fes to Rabat.
Just a thought, when planning your own itinerary…After four days in Fes, it was nice to come to a cleaner, more modern city where we could get around on our own. If we had time to head to the desert, I think that also would have been a good break from the busy city.
Weather and Clothing
We traveled the last week of February and the weather was warm (low 70’s) but not hot, with cool evenings (50’s). Think layers and sweater plus jacket at night. Dark jeans and long sleeves work for the daytime. Bring plenty of clothes as you will feel a bit “dirty” after walking through the medina all day – in Fes, it can be a bit dirty with donkey droppings, market debris, and trash on the ground. Rabat is much more modern and clean. You will want comfortable shoes that are not open-toed and can be brushed clean.
I wished I had brought more casual clothes. I wore the same pair of dress black slacks for dinner almost every nigh and came home with 2 pairs of clean dress slacks, but I ran out of long sleeved t-shirts and jeans for the daytime. I did have to hand wash my jeans. Remember loose-fitting, long pants and sleeves, and no bare midriffs, etc.
In Fes, most women will wear head coverings and Kaftans or Jellaba (pointy-hooded ankle length cloaks) and the men will wear Jellaba. In Rabat, you will see a mix of head coverings and cloaks as well as flowing hair and western wear and some tight jeans although no short sleeves or shorts on men or women. The colors in Rabat were brighter; the Jellabas more ornate. The teeth were better too, and some women had orthodontia
Currency, Exchange Rate, Tipping
At the time of our trip it was 7.5 dirham for 1 USD…. And falling☹ I just divided everything by 7 or 8 to get a basic idea.
Although Morocco is certainly cheaper than most European cities, dining out and a nice hotel can add up. Typically Moroccans don’t eat out except in the more western areas and the kind of restaurant you might want to eat and use the facilities in, will likely not be the American version of a “greasy spoon”… so yes, Morocco is reasonable, but be aware you will probably dine and hotel “up” a little.
In Rabat, you will see more Moroccans in the restaurants and in Fes and the environs you will be “guided” to more touristy places. You can still enjoy a wonderful Moroccan meal even if not surrounded by Moroccans diners.
There are ATMs just about everywhere, but sometimes they won’t work. No worries, just find another one. Try to get a lot of small bills in change early on, as they will fly out of your pocket for tips and such. It was difficult getting change of 100 or 200 dirham when you needed just 20 or 50 for a tip.
In restaurants, the tip is not usually included. 10% seemed the gratuity for dining out although some tourists of certain nationalities left nothing. It is customary in some countries in Europe to only leave 5% or nothing, as the gratuity is included and some felt the same applied here, but that was not my understanding based on a few discussions with locals although it was honestly hard to reach a tipping consensus. I started giving 20 dirham for basic help with bags or a visit into a Berber home, or to use a bathroom. I left 10% for dining tip, and I rounded up around 5 dirham for cab fares. I asked around and found 100-200 dirham per day is a nice tip for a very good guide.
Just my thoughts on this – some may differ…
Fes Medina, Morocco
This is an authentic “Riad” or a traditional house set around a courtyard and affording a peaceful break from the busy and tiring medina (old city) although actually situated right on the edge of it. The Riad Fes has an older section in traditional Moroccan décor and a newer section supposedly more modernly decorated although we did not see the more modern rooms. We stayed in the older section and our “room” was on two levels with the zellij (Moroccan-style mosaic) bathroom on the first level and sitting and sleeping area on the second. The room had just one small opaque window so it was a bit dark. Other rooms with more light were available, but we paid for the standard room and although there were many vacant rooms, we were not upgraded.
There is a lovely, peaceful roof garden with an amazing view of Fes. The Riad Fes is a very romantic place.
You definitely feel like you’re in Morocco at the Riad Fes. The bar and restaurant area is beautiful, especially at night when there is a large lighted fountain, and lanterns and a fireplace are glowing as well. Breakfast was a fantastic buffet of Moroccan specialties as well as eggs to order. You will not be disappointed! Ours was included in our room rate, which we negotiated for, as originally there was an extra charge for breakfast. Dinner was also quite good with prices around 485 dirham (around 60 USD) for a complete dinner for two without drinks. The service was friendly and professional.
For Morocco, the Riad Fes is considered very expensive. Compared to Switzerland and other European travels we have taken, it wasn’t that high for us. You can find much less expensive places if this is too steep for you.
Souissi, Rabat, Morocco
This is another Riad style hotel in a Rabat neighborhood. It is not in the central part of the city, but is about a 10 or 15 minute taxi ride to just about everywhere. Taxi fare is pretty cheap in Rabat – think 8 USD tops to most tourist sites.
The grounds of this Riad are spectacular. There are beautifully maintained gardens with fruit trees and palms and a very pleasant pool area. There is a pretty tiled courtyard with a fountain and gardens and benches and sitting areas. There was something interesting to notice every time you walk through to your room. The common areas are filled with interesting rugs, artwork, lanterns etc. The décor is a lovely palette of peach, blue, red, and green plus terracotta. The rooms are pleasant but not luxurious – also in cheerful colors, the bed very comfortable, and the room is spacious. The bathroom is a good size but again not luxurious, and mine had some mold in the bathtub area. Everything was clean otherwise.
I can’t say enough good things about the way I was taken care of here. The desk clerk – Zakia – a lovely young woman – spoke excellent English and was friendly and attentive to my every need.
I ate alone a number of times in the dining room and everyone was friendly, welcoming and helpful with translating the French menu. I found dinner here more expensive than in Fes. The menu is more French than Moroccan. I noticed other solo women as well as some groups of businesswomen. The hotel seemed to have a large number of business travelers, but also couples, golfers, and Moroccan ladies who lunch.
I had some small problems with room service (language issues ultimately) but they were resolved reasonably quickly. Also, I mistakenly ordered a raw veal dish and it was graciously replaced (although I was charged for it).
I used the spa for a massage, manicure and pedicure – about 600 dirham or 80 USD – and the young woman (Nawal) was excellent and lovely. The spa area was pleasant and clean although the robes and towels very worn.
Breakfast was good, although not spectacular like the Riad Fes. It is a buffet of cereal, pastries, Moroccan pancakes, yogurt, cold cuts and fruit.
The Villa Mandarine is a lovely little oasis from the hectic pace of a Moroccan city tour. Again, it is considered very posh for Morocco, but it’s not so fancy at all, just very nice and charming.
Next up: We travel to Fes
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