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Trip Report Magnificant Morocco

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My husband Paul and I (active 60’s and not yet retired) try to take an international trip once a year. Last summer, on our front porch in upstate NY, our daughter suggested that we plan a trip together in 2014. We originally thought of going to the Balkans, one of Paul’s and my favorite destinations, but one thing led to another and our Balkans adventure turned into an adventure to Morocco. All in all, six of us will embark on a spring journey through this beautiful country. We’ll be joined by our daughter (N), son-in-law (D), granddaughter (S -almost 13) and grown son (M) – what a treat!

We’re independent travelers, and as a travel agent in my former life, half the fun for me is the planning. I researched riads, dars and just about every other detail of the trip. Except for a three-day desert sojourn, we’ll be on our own. We chose mid-April to correspond with our granddaughter’s spring break.

We travel to Europe fairly often, but this is our first time to North Africa. Our son, M, majored in Arabic in college and lived in Ifrane for a summer, and he’s also traveled there since college. Our daughter, N, visited two years ago. (Has anyone noticed that our children have travelled so much more than we did by their age???). Also, we all speak French which will be helpful in getting around the country.

Daughter N and family, and son M will be there about 10 days. Paul and I will spend a solid two weeks, from April 16 – 30 to maximize what will probably be our only trip to Morocco (so much to see and so little time ). Paul and I will fly into Casablanca and spend a night, then join the rest of our family in Marrakech. This is our itinerary:

April 16 – 17 – US – Casablanca
April 17 – Casablanca
April 18 – 21 – Marrakech
April 21 – 23 – Desert Tour including Erg Chebbi
April 23 – 27 – Fes (after which M and N and family return home)
April 27 – 29 – Tangier
April 29 – Rabat
April 30 – Rabat – US

I appreciate Fodors and all the valuable information I’ve gotten throughout the years for various trips, so I’ll post a thorough trip report to help other first-timers who are planning to visit and to let those of you who have been there relive your experiences. I hope you’ll follow along on our family adventure - see you on the flip side!

Ellen

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    Welcome to Morocco.
    Your bare-bone itinerary sounds fine to me--
    While in Marrakech try and have a day trip to Essaouira--- Same while in Fes, visit Meknes and the Roman ruin of Volubilis.
    Oh yes have a Hammam experience.
    Regards

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    We’ve arrived home from two weeks of exploring this fabulous country. I’ll break this up into segments for easier reading and I’ll add pictures when I can.

    After eight months of anticipating and planning, we set off from our home in Upstate NY to Casablanca, the first stop on our Moroccan adventure. We planned for two weeks in Morocco which was the most time I could take off from my work and still allowing us to see a fair amount of this magnificent country. What made the trip even more exciting was that we were doing most of it with our son and our daughter, her husband and our almost 13 year-old granddaughter, six of us in all. This trip report won't be a blow-by-blow, but rather impressions from a first-time visitor.

    The journey began a bit tenuously. I booked a late Air France flight out of Detroit to Paris with a connection to Casablanca. The originating flight from our small regional airport was the last flight out for the day. A couple days before we left a light came on in my brain about being on the last flight out; if we missed our AF connection, we'd be out of luck! I called Delta and they put us on an earlier flight with no change in fare. As we were boarding, sure enough, Delta cancelled the flight we were originally on! Whew - close call!

    We were advised not to spend time in Casablanca, but we especially wanted to visit the mosque as it's one of the only ones in Morocco accessible to non-Muslims. We arrived from a short layover in Paris the afternoon of Thursday, April 17. Unfortunately, our luggage didn't make the connection at CDG, but no problem, there was another flight arriving that evening. By 9:00 our hotel told us that the suitcases hadn't arrived, so we went to bed hoping to see them the next morning. Fortunately, they arrived on an early flight but instead of being delivered to the hotel, we had to go back out to the airport to collect them. Our train to Marrakech where we were to meet up with the rest of our family left at 11:00 a.m., so our visit to the mosque turned into a trip back to the airport. Needless to say, we were disappointed not to be able to see the mosque, but so happy to be reunited with our luggage!

    We stayed in the Royal Mansour Meridian, a Marriott, in the middle of the city. Normally we don't stay in chains when we travel outside the US, but we wanted a western-type hotel knowing we’d be suffering from jetlag after a very long trip. It was a big, very nice hotel. Other than seeing the route to the airport and back - twice - we didn't see any sites in Casablanca. Our impression is that it's a huge, somewhat dirty and bleak city but that might be unfair given our short time there.

    The train to Marrakech was pleasant and uneventful.

    In all, we took three trains during the two weeks. We bought first-class tickets which were cheap by US standards. Moroccan trains are mostly clean and reliable. Each train arrived after schedule, but no problem. The trip to Marrakech takes about three hours and we enjoyed seeing the countryside along the way, a combination of hilly terrain, cactus and lots of sheep!

    Next, Marrakech.

    A few pictures of the hotel in Casablanca. https://plus.google.com/photos/101746969814741573931/albums/6008584754436812993

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    When you step onto Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, you enter another world. Several acres of cacophony assault you. The souq (the Arabic term for marketplace) is full of people hurrying in every direction, music, snake charmers trying to entice you to put a snake around your neck, men with monkeys on a leash, vendors selling everything from toys, ceramics, herbs and spices to beautiful vegetables. At night the square transforms into one huge outdoor restaurant. The daytime stands are removed in place of scores of food sellers. Tables are set and every 10 feet a different food hawker tries to lure you into his patch of real estate to have dinner. From what we could tell, the food in each place was relatively similar; Moroccan salad, skewers of different meats, couscous, sweet, sticky pasteries. Through the haze from the grills, there’s a wonderfully pungent aroma of Middle Eastern cooking.

    People are dressed in every manner; men in djellabas (the ‘d’ is silent), the full-length “robe” that many Muslim men wear, women in full burqas, and Western dress. The vast majority of women we saw in Morocco wear at a minimum the hijab, or head scarf. They’re used to Westerners in Morocco, so although we didn’t wear shorts in public, our crop pants and short-sleeved shirts didn’t seem to offend them. Of all the places we visited in Morocco, Jemaa el Fna is one that I felt I didn’t get enough time in. Here are some photos of the square and Moroccan dress.

    https://plus.google.com/photos/101746969814741573931/albums/6009218917199840065

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    Thanks for the TR. Good thinking about the Delta flight!

    Pity about Casa, but really, your impression isn't far off. The mosque is as much an exhibition of Moroccan crafts as it is a religious building.

    I see your profile says you were going to take the Trans-Mongolian in 2011 - did you go? I took it in 2004 and it was one of my more interesting trips!

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    thursdaysd, no we haven't done the trans-Mongolian yet. It's still on my list. My husband wants to go to India next. Not sure I'm as taken with the thought as he is, but we'll see.

    More to come on the Morocco trip report.

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    Riads and Dars...

    We were fortunate to stay in the equivalent of five-star hotels. But they’re more elegant guest houses than hotels. While there are many Western-style hotels in Morocco, we opted to stay in dars and riads. A riad by definition, is a building that surrounds an inner courtyard. The courtyard usually has a pool or fountain and is a quiet refuge after a day in the souk. ‘Dar’ means house. They’re usually very small; the most rooms any of ours had were seven.

    Our rooms were exquisite. The bathrooms were beautiful, usually decorated with beautiful ceramic tile. No detail was overlooked. All three of our riads/dars had rooftop terraces. The terrace of our riad in Marrakech offered a view of two stork nests. We spent a lot of time engrossed in the nesting culture of storks; it was fascinating.

    The terrace of our dar in Fes overlooked the entire old medina and from the terrace of our dar in Tangier we were able to see the Rock of Gibraltar across the Mediterranean. Since the weather was warm and perfect throughout our stay, breakfast was served every morning on the terraces. Breakfast usually consisted of yogurt, fruit, wonderful Moroccan bread, crepes, fresh orange juice and coffee or tea.

    The owners of two of the riads were French. The owner of the dar in Fes is American. She painstakingly restored every detail of it over a period of years and hired a young couple to manage it. All of them welcomed us as family visiting their house.

    I found all three on Trip Advisor after a lot of searching and reading reviews. I'd highly recommend each one.

    Marrakech - Riad Badi http://www.riadbadi.org/fr/
    Fes - Dar Roumana http://www.darroumana.com/
    Tangier - Dar Chams Tanja www.darchamstanja.com/‎

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    Marrakech and Fes

    Marrakech is Morocco’s fourth largest city. Founded in 1062, its population is now just over 1M. You can see the Atlas Mountains which run north and south through the middle of the country. A number of well-known international names have lived in Marrakech including Yves Saint Laurent who bought the beautiful Majorelle Gardens, a peaceful oasis in the heart of the modern city known for its stunning “majorelle” blue. The 12th century saw the building of madrasas, or koranic schools. We visited one well-restored madrasa which served as home and school to over 100 boys and men for almost eight centuries. The narrow alleys of the old medina are full of pedestrians but if you’re not careful, you may be run over by a motorcycle, moped or motorized cart speeding around the next corner. The ville nouvelle, or modern city boasts a number of luxurious hotels, including the gorgeous Mamounia, a five star art deco property which has hosted the likes of Mick Jagger and Winston Churchill. We treated ourselves to a drink there one evening.

    Fes

    If the medina in Marrakech seems old, it’s nothing compared to Fes. Founded in 789, it appears to have stood still in time and you can almost picture what it was like all those centuries ago. Unlike Marrakech, there are no motorized vehicles in the medina which would normally give it a calmer atmosphere were it not for the fact that the streets (alleyways) are so narrow that the crush of people makes it frenetic. The medina is one of the largest car-free urban areas in the world. Fes itself is the third largest city in Morocco with a population of almost 2M. Driving through it when we arrived, it appeared to never end. We spotted McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Hut! :(. The old medina is so large that we didn’t spend much time outside in the nouvelle ville other than a stroll along a tree-lined boulevard where we stopped at an outdoor café for a morning break. We hesitated because, typical of most cafes, there were no women customers, but my presence didn’t seem to bother them.

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    This will be the first of two posts about our trip through Morocco to Erg Chebbi.

    I'm not sure more than a few people have read this trip report, but I guess I need to remember that this forum isn't as well-read as Europe which is what I'm used to. Morocco is off the beaten path for many which is a shame because its landscape is breathtaking, its people are genuinely welcoming, it's affordable and even getting a glimpse into the culture as a tourist is fascinating.

    Since we figured this would be our one and only trip to Morocco, we wanted to make sure we included a visit to the desert. It turned out to be the highlight of two weeks of highlights. Because our children had only 10 days, we had to limit our Sahara trip to three days/two nights. I found that most excursion companies don't offer an itinerary that short because it involves too much driving. I did find Morocco Excursion, http://www.morocco-excursion.com/.

    They picked us up from our riad in Marakkech. There were six of us, seven including the driver, in a Mitsubishi Pajero Sport. Good thing we were family :). The first day we crossed the Atlas Mountains and spent the night at a hotel in the Dades Gorges. I have a fear of driving over mountain passes, but surprisingly, this didn't bother me. The scenery was breathtaking, climbing through lush greenery, finally reaching the top of the treeline, then descending again. We often remarked that it reminded us of the Rockies.

    We stopped for lunch at Aït Benhaddou a kasbah and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We climbed to the top and were able to see miles into the countryside.

    We stayed here the first night. http://www.riadvieillescharrues.com/. It was a rustic, charming riad in the middle of the Dades Gorges. We had three choices of lodging that night and we chose this which was the medium option. Definitely rustic, but fine for a night. It was a narrow gorge and that night was particularly windy which lent an almost eerie quality to it. We were served a delicious dinner family style with the few other boarders.

    Our driver that first day only spoke Arabic and Spanish. Most Moroccans speak French, then English after Arabic, but not this young man. Our son speaks Arabic, but the Moroccan dialect is very different from traditionally-taught Arabic, so as the only Spanish speaking member of the family, he served as our interpreter. Looking back, it made it all that more interesting and exotic!

    The second day we left early after another delicious Moroccan breakfast. A new driver, Ibrahim, met us in a somewhat larger (thank heavens) SUV. Once over the mountains, the landscape was flatter and more desert-y with low scrub. We passed through countless villages and began to see even more traditional dress - lots more burqas. We were interested to see so many women on donkeys with baskets of greenery. Our best guess was that they would make mats of some sort with it.

    We had lunch at a cafe in Erfoud, a busy city on the edge of the dunes. After lunch Ibrahim took us on an off-road excursion through the moonscape leading to the dunes. We started to see a mass or orange ahead of us which got bigger and bigger as we approached. That was our first glimpse of Erg Chebbi and it was a thrill.

    In case only a few people are reading this report, I'm going to talk in more detail about the trip into the dunes in a separate trip report entitled Erg Chebbi as it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Here are a few pictures of those couple of days leading to Erg Chebbi.

    http://tinyurl.com/q7nj7hf

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