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Trip Report Morocco . . . Rough Around the Edges

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I will post this report gradually. I am typing this 1st bit from a riad in Essaouira. This is our last full day in Morocco - we are off to Paris for the final 3 nights of our vacation tomorrow. Our itinerary:

3 nights Marrakech
1 night Skoura
1 night Zagora
1 night camping in Chegaga
3 nights outside Taroudant
4 nights Essaouira
3 nights Paris

To date we have had a great time & the weather has been perfect. Never too hot or too cold. We had to adjust our itinerary mid-stream but more on this later. Anyway . . . It is off to breakfast & more souk browsing . . .

Ian

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    Executive Summary:

    It was a great destination. Easy to travel around with a lot of infrastructure to support tourists. We felt safe everywhere although some of the cities/towns might be dodgy at night if you wander into the wrong areas. Riads & meals can be done very economically as well. We traveled sort of mid-range. Our driver was $1200 for 5 days including the desert camp costs & one night in Zagora.

    I will admit that the food got boring. Tagines (stews) & brouchettes (shish kebab) were the staples with fresh fruit & veggies making up 90% of the diet. Chicken, lamb, kefta (grd lamb or beef). We could have tried goat & camel but we didn't. A shepherd even offered me camel milk. No fish available except on the coast. Marrakech & Essaouira had a lot more variety. Liquor can also be a problem in some areas but most tourist areas have something. I bought 6 bottles of wine in Marrakech & it came in very handy. Our riad in Taroudant was dry.

    You must be Muslim-tolerant. It was never an issue for us but it is ever-present. The Moroccans are also picture-shy so you have to be sly & fast with a small camera to get good people shots. Or ask & offer to pay a pittance.

    English is a 3rd or 4th language at best. It is possible to do but my rudimentary knowledge of French made it far, far easier to communicate, negotiate, ask directions etc. Essaouira is a major French quickie holiday get-away.

    The roads were good but engaging. They crap out to 1 1/2 lanes in the south. You share the road with cars, vans, camels, donkey carts, motor scooters, bicycles, schoolkids . . . etc. Even though I would/could have driven it, I was glad to be a passenger. We came upon one nasty 'fresh' accident in the Draa valley.

    Marrakech: Narrow alleys filled with people, stores, aggressive vendors, speeding motor scooters, horse-carts . . . the main square Jemaa el Fna turns into a huge food stall at night. 2 - 3 days is enough & you will want to escape. If you love shopping & negotiating for everything, it is a must.

    The High Atlas/Anti Atlas/Draa Valley: Stunning vistas that will keep your camera humming & your head turning. The High Atlas are green on the Marrakech side & brown high desert on the southern side. Gorges, folded mountains . . . incredible. The Draa Valley is rimmed with mountains with scrub desert as the date palm plantations follow the river. Mud brick villages with crumbling kasbahs everywhere.

    The Chegaga desert was our highlight. The dunes, the rocky trails, the flat lake pans, the ever-present mountains, grazing camels, hidden nomads . . . impossible to describe. With a good driver to guide you it is spectacular. I can now tie a classic Bedouin turban.

    Taroudant: This was a gritty little-touristed town. Our least favorite & we carefully avoided going in at night. It was worth a look but we were really glad we stayed in a deluxe riad south of the town. The Berber & Arab souks were for local shopping.

    Essaouira: A very small contained medina made it easily approachable. Very safe although I was offered a nice chunk of black Moroccan hash in our 1st hour in town. We had great weather in the high 70s & no wind but this was a rarity. It is a sail board etc wind-sport mecca for many.

    We have over 1000 pictures to cull through & I will post the rest of my trip report once I write it.

    Ian

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    "so you have to be sly & fast with a small camera to get good people shots. Or ask & offer to pay a pittance."

    Ugh. What gives you the right to take photos of people who don't want their photos taken? Pay or don't pay, I don't, BUT DO NOT SNEAK. I really despise people who do that.

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    I agree tsd & we restricted our photos to general atmospheric street shots in the souks & we got a lot of photos of people's backs. The ever-present motor scooters were fair game imho since they were so annoying. We never took closeups without permission. But we still found a full-size dslr was a deterrent.

    I did pay a shepherd for some 'goats in trees' shots & a 'volunteer' street guide in Marrakech for pics of his mess of kids.

    Ian

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    In my executive summary, I forgot to mention the friendly people of Morocco. The staff of every hotel/riad we stayed in was excellent. Sure we were paying the bills but all were really friendly – even with a language barrier – and all went out of their way to make us happy – from the gardener to the owner.

    And . . . on the streets . . . a lot of the vendors were great. You could joke & banter with them & have a lot of fun. Negotiating with them was a blast everywhere. We asked one 20s something man for directions in Marrakech as we were getting lost in the maze & the few signs had disappeared. He said he would take us with nothing expected at the end except a shukran. He did & he refused a tip. We also had great interactions with most taxi drivers & local people in general.

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    Two years ago we had a wonderful trip to Turkey. At the time, other travelers had told us that shopping in Istanbul was merely a warm-up for Marrakech. That lit the fire. My wife also expressed a long time interest due to the long ago travels of her hippy friends who went to backpack & smoke hash in the 70s.

    After some preliminary research, it looked worthy. But of course, I had to carefully research all potential destinations, investigate transport etc etc. I read a mess of Trip Reports here & elsewhere trying to get a fix on what would be both doable & enjoyable.

    I quickly concluded that self-travel via car was not in the cards for this one. Although I always liked driving & I see it as a part of the adventure, my wife flatly said no. She simply said that she wanted to enjoy the holiday as well & since there were some serious mountains that would have to be crossed, that meant other transport was necessary. And so I had to leap into the murky waters of researching a Moroccan guide for a part of our trip.

    But first things first. Where? When? To avoid the dreaded blur tour syndrome which many travelers fall prey to, I decided to concentrate in the south. This gelled to Marrakech, desert, Essaouira. The desert meant Chebbi or Chegaga & eventually the remoteness of Chegaga won out over the comparative convenience of Chebbi. To avoid the extremes of weather, late April/early May seemed to make sense.

    So with this sketch of a plan, I talked with numerous guides via email to refine it all & to help with my decision of which of them to hire as well. Of course, guides companies make money by charging you a fee but also getting commissions from the hotels, restaurants, 'factory' tours etc that they use for you. Hotel selections are always an important factor for us, so I chose my own. For us, all must have nice bathrooms or my spouse would not be a happy camper. All must allow smoking or have a balcony so we could feed our bad habit (we also like to sit out at night after dinner for cocktails). This proved to be a problem for some guides who insisted that their suggestions were much better . . . blah blah blah. They didn't get hired. Ditto ones that kept insisting that their itineraries to other places were better. As a grizzled travel veteran, I know what I like. I know what my wife likes. We never feel compelled to visit every site & every tourist ticky-tacky stop. And we like to travel at a pace that suits us – which always means a mix of fast & slow travel.

    But enough pre-blather . . . it is time to get to the Trip Report . . .

    Ian

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    We began our escapade with an Air Canada flight from Toronto (YYZ) to Paris (CDG) & then a long wait of 5 hours pacing the various sections of Terminal 2 before we could check in for our EasyJet flight to Marrakech (RAK). All went smoothly. If you ever flown EasyJet, you know that they have a baggage limit of 20kg per bag. My wife’s bag clocked in at 19.8kg. The over charge would have been €14 per kg so we were relieved. We had premium bulkhead seats that allowed advanced boarding but that disappeared with a bus to gate system which turned it into animal boarding . . . oh well . . .

    We arrived at RAK airport at the same time as flights from Manchester & Birmingham so the terminal was abuzz but we cleared customs easily & retrieved our baggage. It was 28C outside which was a welcome change from home where I had seen snow flurries on the day before we left. Spring had skipped Toronto this year. RAK is just one small newish terminal which made it very easy to navigate & we met the sign-carrying driver that our hotel had arranged for us.

    We had arrived.

    Our first impression of Marrakech was very favorable as we exited the airport & headed into the city passing the posh Mamounia Hotel on the way. Everything looked clean & orderly with wide boulevards until we turned south from the circle just at the edge of the medina into the real chaos of the streets of Marrakech. I was very happy that I wasn’t driving. That first assault to your senses is always the most vivid. Cars, trucks, horse-drawn wagons, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians – all weaving & dancing like a choreographer’s nightmare. Now THIS was the real Marrakech.

    Our riad was in a no-drive zone on the edge of the old Jewish quarter just south of the Bahia Palace. The hotel had staff collect us & our things for the short walk to our hotel. It was up a small stretch of a one way vendor-lined road that buzzed with constant traffic & we turned into a short series of three narrowing alleyways that would be a great film set for a horror movie. But then we stepped into the peaceful tranquility of our home for the next three nights – the Riad Dar One.

    The riad owner, Jean Peres, an expat Frenchman from the south of France, greeted us warmly & had us sitting down & drinking our first mint tea in a flash. A true gentleman, he explained the riad & the breakfast details & showed us to our suite. His riad is your typical small tastefully decorated open courtyard house with a small rose-littered pool with a gentle tinkling cascade of water in the atrium. So serene you wanted to whisper. The rooms are on the 2nd floor with our suite, the Sirocco, sharing the 3rd floor with a comfy terrace for the guests. We had a private terrace on top accessed via a circular metal staircase that had a panoramic view of . . . well . . . rooftops & satellite dishes with the odd stork’s nest thrown in for balance. Oh & not to forget the several minarets . . . but this terrace perch is one of the higher points in all of Marrakech!

    We had a coffee on the terrace & talked briefly to some other guests – a friendly pair of NY girls relocated in London who we saw every day & an unfriendly quartet from Canada. Shame on them!

    With some suggestions from Jean, we headed out to find an ATM & to have our first Moroccan dinner. Thankfully, both were very close to the riad. The ATM required some busy street crossing & a first whiff of some of the more unpleasant smells of Marrakech in the small & very decrepit Jardin Sidi Hmed El Kamel but we got a mittful of dirhams (2000 maximum at the ATMs now) & made our way to the restaurant that Jean had made a reservations with. It turned out to be La Tanjia, which is a tourist restaurant in a riad decorated with dark woods & Moorish plaster dimly lit with big brass Moroccan lights. They sat us on the second floor. The menu – which was to become all too familiar – was brochettes & tagines. We enjoyed fairly nondescript lamb brochettes but with our jetlag we probably would have been happy eating cardboard by this point & a half bottle of wine helped immensely. Just as we were finishing, the house DJ (really?) cued up some tunes & three belly dancers made the rounds of the various tables. Hmmm.

    Then it was back to the riad for a nightcap of duty-free booze & bed. Thud.

    Ian

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    Day 2

    I vaguely remember hearing a distant call to prayer in the dark. Undoubtedly the pre 5am call. Always exotic & haunting in a very good way. Well . . . as long as it is far enough away. We had a really horrid scratchy recorded call in Istanbul that emulated from a mosque next door. The Blue Mosque would start it beautifully & then this horrid thing would kick in & drown it out. And in Cirali, Turkey, it musically echoed off the backdrop mountains . . . but it also woke the roosters & the dogs up.

    Anyway, I finally gave in & got up at 6:30 leaving my spouse sleeping. It was warm outside & it was really, really quiet for a city. I could only hear street noise when I climbed up to the aerie. A very light drizzle started & immediately stopped but it drove me inside so I wandered downstairs to rev up the iPad’s WiFi, managing to almost seriously stumble on the stairs in the dark. I still have the bruises. The whole riad was dead quiet with the night man asleep on the couch in the back room until the house started buzzing around 7:30.

    We had breakfast & hit the streets around 11am armed for action. We have dual cameras: her’s a Canon dslr, mine a Sony RX100 – an amazing little camera btw. We both had money – Euros & dirhams. And we pointedly both had our riad’s address & phone number in our wallets. A little incident in the Sistine in Rome had proven the wisdom of this.

    We headed up the beeline Rue Riad Zitoune el Kmid to Jemaa el Fna, gawking at the sights, sounds & smells all around us AND dodging motor scooters, handcarts, bicycles in the narrow cobbled streets. This is not a pretty & quaint city. This is raw, vibrating place that assaults you & excites you in equal measures. After a cursory walk around the Jemma vendors & requisite snake & monkey dudes in the open square, we hit the souks. At this point, we were sight-seeing & price-checking but that didn’t last long. After a few minor purchases, we got sucked into a carpet tea ritual & yes, we bought a few small throw carpets. Not crazy money since we also knew our prices in NA as well as at source from our previous Turkish carpet experience. The Turkish Soumak carpets we picked up in Göreme for our newly renovated bathroom really MAKE the room imho. My wife also conveniently had brought our sizes & her own tape measure, so we were prepared. After the usual what’s your price/what’s your offer exchange, we bartered him down to his exasperation level, which is always a good thing when you are negotiating. When he is ready to write you off, make him a do or die offer & you will usually get what you want for a decent price. It worked. I was happy that it was done & out of the way for the rest of the trip! We bought some washable veggie carpets that are made in Western Sahara (aloe vera supposedly) since they are for the kitchen.

    At his suggestion, we went for lunch in the Riad Timtam which was nearby. Another average brochettes & tagine set menu restaurant (250dh) but we ordered a la carte for less. The sunny courtyard where we were seated was stunning & almost worth the price of the meal on its own. The tile, plasterwork, greenery & roses were all pretty dazzling & a nice respite from the mania of the street. Ditto the other carpet store that you walk through to get to the courtyard. Service was lackadaisical but we were starting to find that this seemed to be the norm in most places, so we went with it. As antsy North Americans, we always have to remember to slow down, take a deep breath & enjoy the slower pace.

    After lunch, we did some more souking as we started back in the direction of our riad. Now I should tell you that streets signs in the Medina are awfully shy & the hotel-supplied maps are not the most accurate things. So, after some wrong turns & some map confusion we asked someone for directions & made our way back. Hint: it is very helpful to get a fix on a major site/building that is near your hotel so you can ask directions to IT rather than your hotel which nobody you meet will have ever heard of. In our case, it was the Bahia Palace. You have been warned.

    At this point in the narrative, I should tell you about our ongoing iPhone issue. My wife needs to keep in touch with home. With a new iPhone 5, she had planned ahead. She phoned our provider before leaving home & bought a $100 package that included X number of minutes & X number of text messages. She had downloaded directions for international calls. That way she could call her elderly parents & text her son. It all sounds good until you get there & the phone only returns a message nattering in a foreign language. The night before, we had asked the unfriendly Canadians for advice. Their suggestions returned the same result. Before we hit the street that morning, my wife had asked the riad staff. One of them went out & bought a cheap phone card so we could use his phone to phone our provider. Of course, the card expired while she was on hold. Frustration was growing in leaps & bounds throughout the day so we made this a priority. We hit the street again & found a payphone & bought another phone card with more time. This time we got through & we were informed that Bell Mobility won’t allow international roaming calls from a new iPhone account holder for 6 months. REALLY? AND YOU COULDN”T HAVE TOLD US THIS WHEN WE BOUGHT THE PHONE PACKAGE BEFORE WE LEFT HOME? Yes, there was yelling involved. “I’m sorry ma’am but if you keep using language like that I will have to disconnect”. They finally relented & opened the phone & it worked. Ah . . . the joys of modern technology . . .

    With this task completed we set out on another mission. To buy wine. On the forums etc, I had discovered that at least one of the riads that I had booked was dry. It was OK to bring your own but they didn’t sell liquor. And I had read that liquor stores beyond the High Atlas Mtns were few & far between. Using my rudimentary French (a MAJOR asset for our future adventures btw) I negotiated a fare with a taxi driver for a round trip & we spend out of the medina & into the newer parts of Marrakech. It is a whole ‘nother world out there. Wide streets & boulevards with a seemingly calmer version of the traffic mania. He took us to a well-stocked Carrefour somewhere near the Jardins Majorelle & I bought 6 bottles of 'cheaper' Moroccan red wine to help us survive the trek south. This proved to be a very wise thing.

    We had had a busy day so we chilled on the riad’s terrace with a cocktail, resting up for one of Marrakech’s main events: the evening food stalls in Jemaa el Fna.

    It was Friday night & the streets of the medina burst into activity as shopkeepers shuttered their stores & everybody – young & old, tourists & locals – all made the pilgrimage for this spectacle. And it was. The narrow alleys had scooter jams as they weaved through the crowds making their way to the square which was packed with people by 8PM. Smoke & steam hovered over the stalls' cooking grills churning out goodies for the crowd. The smells were tremendous. Away from the stalls, musical performers did their magic to the delight of circles of spectators – all clapping & dancing with the rhythms - but no pictures please! A free art exposition displayed the considerable talents of Moroccan artists. It was a major party for all.

    After a walk around to peruse the various offerings, we wimped out & settled on Stall # 1, Chez Aicha, which is run by a local woman according to Jean. We grabbed some seats next to a young Portuguese couple on one side & some Brits on the other. The Portuguese guy worked for the French TGV in Rabat & came down for the weekend to show his girlfriend that life in Marrakech was very, very different from the ‘sterile’ cities in the north. We ate some brochettes & a salad & had a blast. Do not miss this if you get to Marrakech!

    Exhilarated & exhausted, we made our way back through the spooky alleys to our riad & collapsed.

    Ian

    btw I will post some pictures to the Bucket after each report segment as I am editing them as I write this tome.

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    Day 3

    This was site visit day. Marrakech isn’t just a big shopping bazaar although it fills this role admirably. After breakfast we aimed once again toward the souks for the trek to the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Another warm day in the high 20Cs albeit overcast. Our legs were a bit sore from our trekking the day before so we took our time browsing the stores on the way & chatting with the friendly vendors. They typically asked where we were from or tried to guess. No one ever guessed Canada but as soon as we told them, they immediately said: “Montreal?” “No, English Canada – Canada Anglais”. That would stump them because they thought we all speak French & live in Quebec. I guess my mediocre French fooled them. My grasp of the language is actually coming back slowly & the trip helped. I dredged up words that I haven’t used since high school French. I am exposed to both French Canadians & French associates through work which helps even though they always use English for me. I do have pronunciation down pretty well so I can fool a Parisian if I keep it really, really, really simple. I do a great ça va. And btw French is the immediate language that everybody defaults to if you are not Arabic. So freshening up on it before traveling to Southern Morocco is not a bad thing. My wife was often at a loss to communicate in the hinterlands where English petered out to a large degree.

    It was easy to find the Madrasa/Medrasa/Médersa after a mid-trip direction check with a vendor. It shares a square with the museum & the mosque. As noted by many, paid admission also gets you into the Marrakech Museum. Both buildings are great examples of Moorish/Arabic craftsmanship with intricate wood carvings & delicately plastered entrance ways. Oh & not to forget the tile work. As we both love this architecture we wandered around both venues snapping pictures. The museum displays were pretty much useless but the building was worth a look. We encountered our first tour groups here but I won’t rant on about them as I have in previous trip reports.

    After these great photo opps, we saw a tannery sign & thought it might be worth a look. So we promptly headed north – in the wrong direction. It wasn’t on the hotel supplied map . . . It didn’t take long & we were the only tourists on the busy streets. Eventually, I admitted confusion & I asked a 20s something man for directions. He is the one that I referred to in the summary above. He said: “I will take you there & I want you to know that when we get there I don’t want anything but a shukran.”

    And he was true to his word. But we didn’t know that as we set out through the crowds. His English was quite good. I am at a loss to recall his story but I believe he was a native of Marrakech. He led us through streets & alleys (big ones thankfully) & he & I chattered the whole way – about 15 minutes. The surroundings were getting bleaker & smellier & more rugged with fewer people & our radar was on alert. I am sure that most travelers have had these experiences. You get in a situation & you have to trust someone you have never met - not necessarily blindly, but you are there & your options are limited.

    Anyway . . . he delivered us right to the waiting arms of a tannery guide. We were immediately given a handful of mint – they jokingly called it Berber perfume – to help ward off the smell. We snapped a few pictures of two tank areas as he was telling us that it was Berber day & they were tanning camel hides today. This is not a fun place. As the smell really hit us, my wife called a halt & informed us that she had to leave. Right now. I gave the guy 20–30 dhs & we left. Back into the not too pretty street in the not too pretty section of Marrakech. Looking at a good map later, I would say that we were on Bab Debbagh St near the gate.

    It didn’t take long before another ‘guide’ had latched on to us with the promise of salvation & a way to Jemaa el Fna square. He kept with us for 5 minutes or so & insisted that we take a picture of his kids along the way. When I offered him 20-30dhs, he asked for more & when I said “Non, merci” he got insulted & dropped us like a hot potato, but the streets were busier & we were feeling more comfortable by then. But we were still quasi-lost. We trudged through some streets & markets & I spied a Jemaa sign with an arrow which led to more streets & alleys & we eventually found our way back to the Bahia Palace & our riad’s area. We had a late lunch at the corner restaurant La Table de Marrakech eating brochettes in their second floor open room watching the very active street below. It was cheap & OK & the street parade below was entertaining.

    Refreshed, we set on sights on the nearby Saadian Tombs. Easy to find, just around the corner from a spice vendor-lined street. It is also on the tour group’s maps & the major tomb had a 10 minute lineup to snap pictures. And 15-20 minutes was all the site needed but we had some kittens to take pictures of while we queued. Speaking of cats, a vendor outside the entrance had dyed a cat pink & he tried to collect money if you try to snap a picture. Sorry, but my picture of it was free & I don’t approve of the dye job. Street cats in general looked pretty rough in Marrakech & numerous kittens had eye infections. I felt very proud of myself as we sauntered back to the Bahia: two French ladies asked me – in French – for directions to the Tombs & I was able to answer convincingly in their native tongue. Of course, the Bahia Palace had just closed prior to our arrival, so we called it quits & went back to our riad for a pre-dinner rest & cocktail. Our bodies were rebelling & we were showing our 60ish age . . .

    I had booked the schizophrenic Italian/Moroccan Pepe Nero for a taste of something different. It is housed in an out of the way – but well signed – area between the Bahia & Jemaa & we found it without a problem. Housed in a riad, it has a very elaborate & photogenic pool in the atrium, resplendent with nice foliage. The restaurant itself has wonderful tile with a fountain in the middle of the dining room. As we dined on beef filet & sucked in a bottle of wine, we watched a waiter step into the inoperative fountain’s pool as he rushed by. He didn’t drop his dish & he recovered with aplomb albeit with a wet shoe. Well done! The meal was very good & a nice break from Moroccan fare. The clientele was mostly tourists, but a large table was Moroccan, who obviously knew the chef.

    We strolled back to our room for a nightcap & to toast our time in Marrakech. Another day could easily have been used here but we were ready to leave the hubbub all the same. The constant parade of scooters in the alleys in the popular areas was wearing awfully thin.

    Ian

    Next Up: The Adventure Continues . . . Our guide arrives & takes us up & over the High Atlas . . .

    Marrakech Pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Marrakech

    Or if you prefer a slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Marrakech

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    Lovely report! And great pictures. Buying a carpet in Fes was one of the most not-fun things I've done on any trip. Just do not enjoy haggling at all! I'm glad you had a good time with your negotiations and didn't stress out the way I did.

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    I guess I forgot to mention that this Trip Report is going to be a long one.

    Day 4

    Having seen & survived our interesting - albeit quick - visit to Marrakech, we were chomping to move into Phase 2 of our trip: The drive south into the Atlas Mtns & the desert beyond. This was the main event for us. If you have had a look at a map of southern Morocco, you can see Marrakech is located in a large temperate coastal plain that is classed as tropical Mediterranean grassland or chaparral. As you move south & up you go through a temperate/cold arboreal zone in the High Atlas which morphs into semi-desert on the southern side in the high inter-mountain range region between the High Atlas & the Anti-Atlas. The western part of the inter-mtns returns to chaparral as you lose altitude & approach the Atlantic coast. South & west of the Anti-Atlas it is desert. In geologic terms, the Anti-Atlas is the older range with the High Atlas the relative newcomer. In human terms, this is Berber country with a smattering of Arabic peoples like the Bedouin & the Tuareg.

    To easy the speed of our travel south – always a sore point with my spouse – I had booked two nights in the palmeraie of Skoura. I thought – unfortunately not with enough clarity – that this would give us a slow & peaceful meander south. The big flaw in my plan was the drive from Skoura to M’Hamid to get to our desert sojourn. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

    The iPhone 5 alarm shattered a peaceful sleep at 6am. It was time to move. We had packed the night before & arranged an early breakfast at 7:30am since our driver was coming at 8am. This is the one time that the Riad Dar One staff let us down. We went down to atrium for breakfast & the riad was quiet. Not a soul until other couple with similar plans joined us with the same anticipation. It took 15 minutes to rouse someone & get our slight repast organized but it was accomplished eventually.

    And our driver arrived promptly at 8am as previously arranged. Well, actually he arrived closer to 9am since the time had changed over the weekend to daylight savings time & many Moroccans had not made the change yet . . .

    In Morocco, a driver is a driver. A guide is a guide. They are licensed separately & their duties are – in theory – limited to their licensing. But, of course, all travelers hope for a driver that will get them safely & efficiently from Point A to Point B, as well as providing some insight into the country, the geography, the peoples, the customs & all in our own native language . . . quite a tall order actually. There are a multitude of companies – big & small – offering these services & this is one of the biggest decisions you will make in planning a trip to Morocco. You can sift through thousands of posts here, on Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet et al on the subject. It really boils down to a real recommendation from someone you trust or a seat of the pants decision based on the price & the communications that you have had.

    I chose option #2: Seat of the pants. I communicated with a number of companies & finally decided on Desert Majesty. Felicity (co-owner) was very forthcoming & accommodating with my plans. She agreed to work out a plan that allowed us to choose our own route, our own hotels & our own itinerary. Drivers typically stay for low cost at nearby hotels. They eat in the same restaurants where they have you programmed because the driver eats for free. They get a spiff from the vendors that they visit with you, offering your wallet as an incentive for factory tours/educational centers/co-ops etc. There is no chicanery here, it is just their business. My insistence on hotel choice was a bend in their typical plan but she readily accommodated this. She listened to what I wanted & offered it for a very fair price.

    Meet Said (pronounced Sa-eed). Driver extraordinaire. Born 28 years ago in the desert to Bedouin nomads. Except for 6 years of school in Erfoud he lived as a nomad. He eventually wound up as a camel jockey in Erg Chebbi, which is where Felicity found him & hired him as a driver. He lives in a shared apartment in Marrakech – shared with Ali, another driver for DM. For us, he was the perfect driver. Safe. Personable. A total professional. We met Ali at several stops & he seemed to be cut from the same cloth. Said knew when to talk & when to leave us alone in peace. He answered every inane question we could throw at him & he shared with us his amazing depth of knowledge about the desert. And Said seemed to know every driver working the circuit. He knew every road & route that we traversed & every store & restaurant along the way. He can speak near-fluent English as well as French & the various Arabic dialects. And he had a great sense of humor which made him a lot of fun to spend time with. To say that we walked away from the experience very satisfied is an understatement. So while the choice of a tour company is an important one, it is the driver that will make or break your trip & we hit the proverbial jackpot with Said. While I am sure that there are hundreds of guides that will do the job very well & give a similar result, we were very, very pleased.

    Our vehicle was a comfortable Toyota 4x4 – a.k.a. the Japanese camel. Since the temperatures during our trip were moderate, we never used the AC.

    That all said, could I have driven it myself? Yes, but my wife refused to go if I did. But a few observations for those that may be considering this option. The roads were good north of the Anti-Atlas. Well marked with decent guardrails in the mountains. South of the A-A they deteriorated to 1 ½ lanes in many spots. Moroccan drivers tailgate. Everybody. They also lean on the middle of the road as a rule. Their highway fatality rate is very high but we only saw the remnants of one nasty crash in the Draa Valley & we experienced very few ‘close calls’ – none instigated by Said, I might add. A self-driver I talked to did explain that the frequent police radars zones/checkpoints can lead to problems due to corruption. He was pulled over in one despite a modest speed & they got his violations up to 1700dh. 100dhs to each officer made it go away. Said employed hand signals for other drivers. A V for victory or a light flash meant radar/police ahead. His fingers on the glass meant watch for flying stones & a hand wiggle meant slow/caution ahead.

    Now I will quicken the pace of the story.

    We left Marrakech easily & set off northwest towards the foothills that led to the Tizi N'Tchika pass. The flat soon gave way to rolling hills with the mountains looming in the distance. As we started climbing the hills remained very green on this - the Marrakech side. At our first pit stop, we noted that the temperature had plummeted. Beautiful eye-popping vistas all around. Small mud brick villages hugged the mountain slopes with herds grazing on the tilted hills. We passed through an area forested with tall conifers that looked just like any forest in the west of Canada or the US. By the next stop, the vegetation was petering out except for green clusters in the river valleys. The terrace from this café allowed some excellent ‘village in the mountains’ shots. Btw these are both standard stop points on the route for all drivers because I have seen the same photos posted in numerous places on the net. Swooping higher through switchbacks we stopped at an Argan co-op high in the mtns at Souk El Had Zerkten. Local village women work this tourist spot & one in particular was very personable as she described the edible Argan products that they were making & pitched the packaged product they had on the shelves. We bought some sprays as gifts & later price checking proved that they were very competitive & at least we knew their products were pure & unadulterated which is not necessarily true of the goods you find in the souks.

    After cresting the top & taking the obligatory photo of the sign at 2,260m we started the descent. Much more gradual & much drier on this side of the crest. At Tazentoute, we hung a left & made our way on a 1 ½ lane road to one of the south’s big events: Ait Benhaddou.

    The new town is stuffed with tourist SUVs/vans/motorcycles as well as cheap tourist restaurants. The ancient Ait Benhaddou is across the river which is accessed via a bridge. We stopped just on the edge of town for pictures & the event-present hawker sidled over with a snake for photo opps. He got his money. After a quick lunch we walked over & into the ksar. The experience is marred somewhat by vendors – albeit non-aggressive ones - but it was pretty cool to wander around.

    Visit done, we drove to modern Quarzazate to conclude our business at DM’s head office. Quarzazate is obviously a main junction for tours as well as the movie sets on the edge of town that have made it famous. Basically from what we saw, it is a fairly sterile town with little charm but it does have great street lamps! At the office, we discussed my plan flaw & we decided that we would ditch our 2nd night at the hotel in Skoura in favor of a hotel that DM would source & supply in Zagora. This would set us up properly time wise for the desert trek. Business concluded we hit a small supermarket on ‘main’ street for water & supplies (OK, OK . . . it was mix for our duty free) & then back in the SUV for the ½ hour drive to our hotel: Les Jardins de Skoura, passing the manmade Lake El Mansour on the way.

    This hotel is a sprawling newish mud brick building tucked in the massive palmeraie near Skoura. We off-roaded to get to it. Actually all of the roads appeared to be bumpy dirt tracks winding through the palms, at least all of the ones we drove on. Run by a French woman named Caroline, it was a very pleasant place to stay. I told Caroline that we were going to leave early & she said that she would try to sell the room for our 2nd night & she would refund me if successful. She wasn’t so we were charged for an empty room, but it was my fault so I can’t whine about it. C’est la vie.

    The hotel has beautiful gardens & a refreshing swimming pool. They serve a set dinner which we partook of – it is actually a requirement of the first night of your stay. It was not a chore however, since it was good. Before dinner, we met a couple from Los Angeles. He had developed a ‘secret’ Moroccan itinerary that he used as an enticement to get his wife over to Europe so he could visit Burgundy for wine – which she was sick to death of. We also met a couple from the Netherlands, traveling with their 14 year old daughter. He was a history teacher & they lived rurally. Really friendly people. He was the self-driver that I referred to above. It was actually the homely hotel dog that brought the girl to us & we ended up having dinner beside them that night. Dinner was kefta tagine with egg. It was a fun evening trading travel stories & lies into the night over a couple bottles of wine. Note: I still hadn’t broken into my personal wine stash yet.

    High Atlas, the mid-Atlas, Ait Benhaddou, Skoura Pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Over_the_High_Atlas

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Over_the_High_Atlas

    Coming up: The drive down the Draa

    Ian

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    Day 5

    You might have noticed in the pictures above that we had left the clouds behind in the Marrakech plain. The temps yesterday had risen to the high 20Cs. Just about right!

    Due to our itinerary change we had an earlier morning than expected & Said arrived about 10am. We headed back to Ouarzazate & made a stop at a Berber museum. Well, maybe not. It was a two storey store of Berber goods for sale complete with a carpet shop upstairs. “Have some mint tea” We weren't buying despite the quality of goods offered but it was a good bathroom break as we aimed south. South meant more mountains as we had to cross the Anti-Atlas range but the first view we had was Ouarzazate’s massive landfill. This meant acres & acres of plastic bags – particularly the blue ones - that seem to be ubiquitous in the fields outside Marrakech & around Morocco in general. When you see this, plastic bag bans start to make sense.

    The mountains were stunning. Massive tabletop mounts with huge canyons carved by ancient rivers. We tried to capture the grandeur at several photo stops along the way but it is always impossible. The last stop gave us a great view of the start of the Draa valley at Agdz where is widens into a lush plain. For time immortal, the Draa has meant life. Prehistoric rock art is sprinkled in the surrounded hills as evidence & more recently, the Carthaginians & the Romans identified the Draa as a rich agricultural area. I had thought of Agdz as a potential overnight stop during my research but the town looked pretty basic with road construction that has torn up the main drag.

    Just south of Agdz, we stopped for lunch at the old ksar of Tamnougalt, part of which is now Hotel Chez Yaakoub. A typical tourist lunch of brochettes & fries followed on the terrace overlooking the ksar & the palmeraie beside the river. After lunch, Said wanted us to talk to his boss in Quarzazate as there seemed to be some confusion about our stay in Zagora. Specifically, about who would pay. After a little you said/didn't say, we resolved it amicably (in our favor, I might add) & it was on the road again.

    The Draa Valley road is a slow haul. I could see why Said knew that my original route plan was flawed & didn't allow enough driving time. The valley is dotted with an almost continuous stream of old ksars & kasbahs & worn mud brick villages. Each village was unique but they all shared the same brown hue of the river mud. And they all had their own graveyard with a forest of small standing stones serving as markers. The road was well used with donkey carts, bicycles, sheep & goat herds, school kids coming & going to/from school, people carrying bamboo & straw & just about anything else in their carts & on their backs & shoulders & heads. Just squint a little bit & you could look back a thousand years. And to our left, we always had the green palms hugging the river as it twisted south between the bordering hills.

    Mid-afternoon, we stopped for coffee in a nondescript restaurant La Kasbah in Ouled Otmane. Seizing the chance to stretch our legs we wandered into the palmeraie across the road at Said’s suggestion. The heat was building – it was near 30C now – and the coolness in the trees proved a nice respite from the sun. And it gave my wife the opportunity to lose her sunglasses. C’est domage but at least they were cheap.

    We were tired when we finally pulled into Zagora around 6pm. After a stop at the famous 52 days by camel to Timbuktu sign for one of ‘those’ pictures, we drove to the south of town & east across the river to our surprise hotel – it was supplied by DM – and therefore one that I hadn't research 6 months ago.

    Historically for us as travelers, a surprise hotel is usually a major bomb. My wife needs a nice bathroom or she gets cranky. And we have bad habits that we like to indulge in - particularly when we are on vacation. That is why I research a year out - to find the perfect spot for us. Roomy, with a private veranda or terrace, a nice bathroom etc. That said, I occasionally blow it & I must admit, that I too have cringed at some of the places we have stayed in over the years. The Hotel Pernik in Holguin, Cuba would top my awful list & my wife would point out the Caravaggio in Rome on our first trip there - the room with the three-legged bed. Yeah, we have had some disasters but eventually, they just add some color to our travel stories.

    The Villa Zagora looked like it was going on the list. A small walled property beside the hwy, it started with a wonderful garden & pool, a decent lounging area in the lobby & a seriously dismal small room on the 2nd of three floors, with a ‘modest’ bathroom with shower . . . down the hall. Oh yeah! Now I don’t want to sound like a typical stuck-up privileged North American here (albeit a modest one because we’re Canadians), but we hit our disaster zone. We told Said that it would do for one night because we were tired & didn't need or want a scene & the hotel manager was really trying to be nice. “You have the whole floor to yourselves because everyone else is in the desert tonight” “Yes, you can smoke anywhere” “Yes, we will make you a good dinner. Whenever you want” OK, OK. I figured that we have enough booze to get through a night almost anywhere.

    And that is what we started to do. We pour stiff drinks & went down to the garden to escape the depression of the dingy room & to fire up the iPad. And surprise, surprise, it wasn't bad there. Really, really pleasant actually & the staff started buzzing around – bringing us snacks & ice. I identified two different peppers trees in the foliage & wonderful roses at their peak. One of the staff – a jovial older man who spoke only French named Mohammed I believe - was particularly great – although really they all were. We moved over to the veranda for dinner & I cracked the cork on one of my stash bottles of red. And they brought us soup & salads & chicken brochette – all made by a lady in the kitchen. And it was all great. Earlier in the trip, my wife had identified a strong dislike for the chicken seasoning at several eateries we had been to over the last few days. We tried to describe it – turmeric – although it probably was a blend including cumin. I was translating via the net & Mohammed went to the kitchen & back & forth, eventually bringing a spice jar out of the kitchen for us to taste. Anyway, their effort was truly charming & it turned out to be a really nice night. And there were only 2 other couples around the hotel for dinner but the gardens allowed near-complete privacy for all. One of the couples was the people from LA from the night before – the ones with the surprise itinerary.

    When all was said & done, we retired to our dismal room a lot happier than when we arrived.

    Anti-Atlas & Draa Valley Pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Anti-Atlas_Draa_Valley

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Anti-Atlas_Draa_Valley

    Next: The Desert

    Ian

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    Day 6

    It was desert day! Our chance to touch the remote nothingness that is the Sahara. Many people obviously share the same desire which is why desert trips are so popular in Morocco & elsewhere. Sure it is a canned experience that tens of thousands have done before. And of course, there is relatively no danger. But it still fires your imagination in some basic way. And at the very least it was an opportunity to really get away from the accoutrements of modern daily life. We had asked Said: “What if the SUV breaks down?” His answer: “You fix it or you wait & hope that someone will find you before your water runs out & you die.” Good answer to nervous neophytes.

    Said picked us up after breakfast around 9am. As we were leaving the Villa Zagora, the staff all came out to thank us for visiting. And the manager assured us that there were normal rooms with baths on the 3rd level & he invited us to return when they are not fully booked. We left with smiles for all. We drifted into Zagora central for a store but the town was abuzz for May Day celebrations & there was no parking to be had.

    We headed south to Tamegroute & stopped to visit the pottery co-op where they make the distinctive green pottery. We knew that this was your typical tourist hit & that we would get sucked into an obligation purchase but why not? Our host spoke only French. It was rather sobering to see the 14 year old working the pottery wheel inside & a number of beggar children outside. We decided to skip the Koranic library that is the other site in this small town. The land around was getting more barren now, with just scrub vegetation - except for the green that hugged the distant Draa as it trickled south.

    Just after Tamegroute, we saw our first dunes materialize with the Tinfou dunes just to the east of the deteriorating highway. There was a section of roadwork underway here with a rough bypass - so improvement is gradually coming. Then it was over a minor mountain before we dropped down into dusty Tagounite to do some turban shopping. Yeah, it was corny but it was still cool in a strange touristy way. When in Rome . . . y’know? We stopped at a fabric store since Said had told us: “The pre-made ones are just for tourists & aren’t long enough”. We bought 15m of some green cotton for my wife (it matched her top) & 20m of white for me (it’s cooler in the sun & I thought it looked cooler as well) & Said tied them Bedouin style for us. He said that he had forgotten his own (one of 25+) at home, so he got 30m of black for himself. He agreed that black was a traditional Bedouin color & that he preferred it anyway. Feeling only slightly foolish, we had coffee in some restaurant in town that surprised us with its amazing tile work upstairs in the bathroom area. We also took the opportunity to buy some cheap replacement sunglasses.

    It was south once more & over the last small mountain before we dropped into the start of the desert. Yes, the excitement was building. First though, we had to stop for the camel ride that my wife was so looking forward to – as well as dreading. She was afraid of camel spitting, biting & of course . . . falling off. A beautiful-looking riad called Chez Pasha was our way stop for this experience. On the left after the village of Oulad Edriss, it was a stark contrast to all around it. It boasts a pool, an outside patio bar, restaurant etc with some a large comfy lounging gazebo. This was also our staging area for the desert trek & the profusion of 4x4 SUVs in the parking lot proved that we would not be alone. It was now a wonderful 30C or so with blazing sun & the pool looked very inviting.

    But we had camels to ride. Well . . . let’s be honest here. You don’t exactly ride them. You hang on while a wrangler walks ahead & leads the pack that is tethered together. It was just my wife & I so our caravan was pretty small. I took the lead camel – the lead is always the docile old pro – while my wife took the follower. We were led across the road & into the sand & dunes. Acacia trees dotted the area & it was very atmospheric after we left the noise & photo-marring power lines behind. The camels plodded along except for the jarring ups & downs on dunes. As usual, my wife’s beast liked to munch on passing greenery. And five minutes out, my legs were in the I’m-too-extended mode which made the ride less than comfortable but horses do the same thing to me. Anyways, it was really cool in a dorky way but an hour was more than enough. We ‘rode’ back to the Chez Pasha gate. Then it was chill time at Chez Pasha until 4pm. We lunched & lounged & fed the cats until the allotted hour. And we noticed & acknowledged the LA couple, for the third time in the third place.

    Departure time had arrived. And Said appeared as a Bedouin. His transformation was complete when he added his headdress to the traditional dress tunic he had on that day. Around Morocco, people don’t wear their full traditional tribal ‘dress’ togs unless they are in the tourist business. They wear everyday things in the towns & markets. Except women of course, and then all bets are off. His attire looked awesome & his timing of the donning of it impeccable. He was a proud Bedouin while we were only tourist schmucks.

    We had company for the drive. Two other SUVs – each with one couple - and yes, the LA couple was one of them in a black SUV. It would appear that the other two drivers didn’t know the way across the desert to their respective camps. One was coming to our camp & the other – the LA couple – needed to be led to another. The hotel manager had sidled up to Said & asked if he would lead them. He agreed because there is always safety in numbers in the desert anyway. We made one last stop in the very last outpost M’Hamid. Water. We bought 3 frozen & a 4 pak of unfrozen as suggested. A cluster of kids surrounded us clamoring for candy or money as we belted in. The giveaway pens we brought for such times were still safely packed deep in our suitcase . . . (insert irony).

    The amazing thing about the desert is that whenever you touch it, you always realize that your perception of it as sandy nothingness is quite wrong. It is an ever-changing tableau – an awesome & humbling natural work of art. Any of you desert-dwellers, will have to forgive me for my hyperbole. As an urbanized northern arboreal inhabitant, I think the desert – any desert - is incredible. But the Sahara was somehow very special - probably due to Hollywood & seeing Lawrence of Arabia at a tender age. I know, that that was a different desert except L of A was filmed partially in Morocco . . .

    Anyway, the drive was incredible as the route traverses bumpy & stony parts, small sand dunes & sandy scrub patches along the way. Many tracks weave through the route as drivers search for a smooth path. You drive roughly west/northwest midway between two mountain ranges with the southerly one – more distant - at the closed Algerian border. Said pointed out small plants with yellow flowers that his mother boiled – twice – the 2nd time with herbs - to make an edible vegetable. Or the poison plant: berberis – that grows everywhere & its milk will temporarily blind you – but they also use it for treatment of eczema. Even the wood stinks too much so they don’t burn it. We stopped at a waterhole where three cautious donkeys let the lure of some dates we had in our stash overcome their shyness. Some minor dunes gave Said the chance to really use his 4WD & we told him that he was ready for some real Canadian snow now. He liked the idea & was eager to try. It was a fun drive.

    As we approached the Chegaga dunes, we came upon a large level area of low plants & hundreds of camels munching happily in what is the feed for Lake Iriki. The nomads had turned them loose to enjoy this rare banquet. Said told us that there are no wild camels – they all belong to somebody. I have no idea how they sort them out afterwards but he told us that camels do have a very long memory & if you are nasty to them they won’t forget. He also told us that they best way to find water in the desert is to withhold it from one camel & he will lead the rest right to it. Simple desert logic. Oh & remember . . . the babies are the tastiest!

    After dropping off the black SUV – the LA couple – we doubled back to our camp. If I recall correctly, Said told us that many of the camps are run by the same company who have emergency contingencies available for anything catastrophic. We had seen a tall antenna in the distance & at the camel buffet, there is one permanent structure visible in the distance – a school.

    We all – by all I mean all 4 of us since we only 2 couples at this point - hit the dunes for sunset. In the distance you could see tiny figures on the tallest dunes as others did the same. Beautiful.

    Back at camp we settled in while the staff prepared dinner as the darkness set in. Candles were supplied to each hut. Not a tent at all (thankfully) the huts were small with mud walls & a thick cloth top . . . and a steel door. The interior was lined with fabric & matting on the sand below. Two twin beds together & a small nightstand. There was also a main cook shack, a separate staff sleeping building as well as the toilet/wash building. The running water - wasn’t - so it was bucket flush & water bottles for teeth & washing at the sinks. The showers were available but gravity-fed cold water only. And no power to the dangling lights in the huts because that would mean they would have to start the generator - which would spoil the tranquility for our camp & those all around.

    Around the dinner table, we met our campmates. A couple from London – he was German in IT & she was ½ Indian & an astral astronomer in a previous career – now an actuary. Our late-comers were a young French Canadian couple (gallery owner + costume designer) who lived 5kms from my boss in a small town in Quebec , Canada just east of Montreal. Small world phenomena at play. They were budget traveling via bus & train & they related a hairy experience in the north. I think they said it was heading south of Casablanca that their train was stoned & many window panes in their car were broken. Everybody hit the floor & they said it was pretty frightening. They didn’t know that it was stones at first fearing gunfire. The officials at the next station weren’t quite as concerned however & did a calm inventory of the damage.

    We had nice meat tagine meal & I contributed 2 bottles of my wine to the table & the Quebecois couple bought a bottle of red from the camp. We finished the evening around the campfire with a drum performance by the camp guys in costume. I missed the spider sighting by the campfire but I heard talk of a big one that got away from a stomp by one of the camp crew. We had a running joke about scorpions & the 2 oranges I kept to throw at them but ultimately, they were not needed.

    We fell asleep with the door wide open watching the millions of stars stretching all the way down to the horizon.

    Day 7

    I was up before dawn for the sunrise but my spouse preferred the comfort of the bed. So I soloed out with other quiet couples sprinkled around. Eerily quiet actually, with the cool sand underfoot & all manner of strange new footprints & tracks in the sand. Beautiful again.

    Back in camp people were starting to move about & the camp crew put out a simple breakfast. No one felt the pull of the cold water shower so we are went stinky for the day. The French Canadian woman related a nighttime event. At 2am she went to the toilet & used her iPhone as a flashlight and . . . eewwww. She was asking for rice – unsuccessfully - to try to bring it back to life.

    We got an early start & said goodbye to the French Canadians who were going back to M’Hamid & busing – hopefully – toward Meknes. We drove back through the camels & picked up the 3rd SUV again. Btw we now have a LOT of camel pictures. We set out on a sandy track that circled the major dunes to the north. Relatively slow going but it was still very entertaining. Then it was on to the dry flat pan of Lake Iriki where 80km/hr was easy reached in the less rutted areas. This was Paris to Dakar race territory. Said’s mother has told him that before the 70s, Lake Iriki used to annually fill with water & pink flamingos would flock there. The dam that created the lake near Quarzazate stopped the flow. On the edge of the dry lake, we stopped at a very lonely house on a small dune for mint tea under a bamboo gazebo. A Berber rest stop – his brother is a member of our camp crew from the night before. The rest room facilities were basic – but appreciated. Ladies: Bring your own toilet paper supply & keep it with you everywhere out & about in Morocco.

    After Iriki, the stone drive started. It starts off light with tracks worn between the frequent stones & ends up a bone-rattling bounce on packed stone. Said was kind & called another stop in a massive fossil field just before the final torture began in earnest. I almost kissed the tarmac when we reached it outside of Foum Zquid but the scenery always made up for any minor discomfort. We loved every minute of it.

    Back on pavement we bade farewell to the LA couple as they made their way just north of town to a deluxe riad to relax for a night. With the Londoners, we hit a restaurant – Restaurant Chegaga - for eats as the weekly market bubbled around us. Goats squalled. roosters crowed. People haggled. We had a decent lunch – the usual with lots of fries – and fun company. As we were leaving a group of 15 desert bikers rolled in – shaking off dust from their run.

    Another farewell ensued to the Londoners & we headed north with a quick stop to blow out the air filter on the SUV. The topography changed immediately as we drove into the Anti-Atlas range. Very dry & very nice to travel through. The road was 1 ½ lane so it kept Said busy while we were gawking at the scenery. Again, cameras don’t do it justice. We bee lined through Tazenackt – Berber carpet ground zero – avoiding the urge to stop as we had a long drive to our next riad in Taroudant. Yes, it was long but our necks grew sore from our swiveling heads as we tried to take it all in. Folded, tortured mountains gave way to vast plateaus with nomad camps in the distance. Gorgeous valleys ringed by towering mountains. Then the Argan trees started, spotting the dry fields beside the highway & climbing up & down every massive hill. And not one damn goat in a tree. We saw some herds with shepherds but since it was late afternoon by this time, they were all heading back to the pen.

    We stopped in Taliouine for a washroom break & coffee. Said got a call from his mother & he apologized because he had to take it. Mothers are the same everywhere. As we were leaving, in came the Londoners. We all laughed about how slow their driver was & how we would see them in Taroudant. We didn’t. But we did stop for some of the Taliouine Valley’s finest: saffron. We bought 2 grams of premium saffron for the equivalent of $5 from a small general store on the main drag that Said knew. He always buys some for his mother there. We should have bought more . . .

    Then it was down through the last remnants of the Anti-Atlas & into the lushness of fertile valley of the Souss River. Our destination was south of the Taroudant on the edge of the very basic village of Al Ein Mediour. I was getting worried as we threaded through the grim back streets of the village until we turned into the gates of the Riad Jnane Ines.

    At this juncture, we sadly said goodbye to Said, our driver & companion of the last 4 days. I highly, highly recommend him as a driver. I will post company data etc at the end.

    To finally answer the question above: Why Taroudant?

    With our brisk itinerary - over the mountains & through the desert – which turned into one more day of travel that I hadn’t anticipated – I decided that we needed to rest somewhere before continuing on to Essaouira. A holiday in the holiday. We didn’t want a city, so Agadir was out. All of the other places I looked at had inferior lodging for our style of a rest hotel or the towns were really small. I booked with the assumption that we would veg for a day at the riad & go to Taroudant for ½ day & this is what we ended up doing.

    As mentioned above, the Riad Ines Jnane sits on the edge of a dingy village. It is essentially rural, surrounded by fields with miscellaneous livestock. We were welcomed & whisked to our room by the ever-efficient Fatima – their only English speaker & somehow connected to the family as we were to find out. Our suite was on the top floor with a private terrace above it. I could see the Anti-Atlas in one direction & I could just make out Taroudant & the High Atlas in the other. A non-functioning tile Jacuzzi was also up there. We actually never asked if it could be fired up, so I don’t know if it worked.

    We finally showered & relaxed with a cocktail in anticipation of dinner. Sitting up top before dinner we noticed that the wind picked up uncomfortably at dusk & this prompted us to move inside. They don’t sell any wine here but you are welcome to bring your own. We did. Down for dinner, the kitchen hummed & we were served promptly by a rather stern man - who appeared to handle food & beverage for the riad. A nice touch: The tablecloths, napkins & all dishware always were a color & pattern matched set. And they had several different colors that they alternated. Well done! The food was very good as well. We were the only guests at dinner except for a family with a little girl.

    A very full day.

    Chegaga, Anti-Atlas Reprise pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Chegaga_to_Taroudant

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Chegaga_to_Taroudant

    Next: Taroudant cont'd

    Ian

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    Day 8

    When I closed Day 7 with ‘we slept well’ I was chuckling thinking of the next morning. It was Friday & I was awoken just before 5am by a not-too-distant call to prayer. And 10 minutes later there was another call & so on & so on for an hour. Every 10 minutes. Now this was a new crinkle that I hadn’t experienced in any other Muslim community before. But it was Friday . . .

    I surfed the net in the lobby, edited pictures & posted stuff to boards etc while I waited for the house to wake up. I was rewarded with a coffee when they did around 7:30.

    We had breakfast outside on the wonderful patio between the pool & the garden which was really, really pleasant. The same stern man but a different color & pattern service.

    This is a good time to do a minor rant about breakfasts in Morocco. Everywhere we went, every riad in every town served exactly the same breakfast. It is as if there is a Moroccan breakfast law that riads must follow. Coffee or tea. Fresh orange juice. There was always a basket of stale round bread cut it quarters or eighths. Fried flat square dough things. Very thin crumpet-like breads. Usually all plated separately. Accompanied by jams & honey to spread on all of the above. As a treat, yogurt was sometimes included & we had an egg option in one riad. Actually the stale round bread accompanied EVERY meal. Thankfully, the quality of bread took a major leap forward in Essaouira. But how are they all the same? A puzzler. We discussed this with other travelers & they were all as mystified as us. End rant.

    After breakfast, Mustapha burst on the scene. A friendly high energy man, he was the owner & the riad is his labor of love. Once again, my French skills were put to the test with this very nice man. He showed us around describing the building of it, the Berber craftsman he hired to do all of the doors & woodwork especially the wooden ceiling of the front room off of the atrium which was his pride & joy & reminiscent of the wooden ceilings in Marrakech. He explained that all of the rooms were named after a family member & our suite – Mazza – was named after his grandmother. His kids & various family members made up the staff. His wife oversaw food preparation & 2 girls – nieces (?) helped serve & made up the rooms. Certainly a family affair.

    I should make mention here that our hot water disappeared after my tepid shower in the morning. We told Mustapha & Fatima & they reassured us that a technician would have a look at it. By night, it had finally returned to the warmer side of tepid which is how it remained for our stay. They offered us use of the hot showers in the hammam downstairs if we wished. They also didn’t make up our room this day which was odd but I guess they assumed that since we were staying around the riad all day that we didn’t really care. We didn’t. And there was the empty Jacuzzi. These & other little things around Morocco in general spawned my subtitle: Rough Around the Edges.

    The rest of the day we did . . . nothing. We lounged up in our private veranda. We had a nice lunch by the garden. Afterwards we lounged by the pool, took a dip, baked in the sun, watched the birds swoop in to drink from the pool etc. Between 1pm & 2pm, the mosque kicked in again with a one hour reading from the Koran or something similar. Other than that it was very peaceful & we appeared to have the whole riad to ourselves except for a skeletal staff present on their holy day.

    In the evening the cool breeze kicked in again. Hmmm. Was this a pattern? I asked one of the porters (nephew, son-in-law???) if it was a regular occurrence. Just about every night was his answer . . .

    Day 9

    We had breakfast outside again. We felt sorry for the staff who have to lug all of the dishes back & forth. This day’s place setting was a repeat of our first dinner but it matched again - as did all yesterday.

    We asked Fatima for a taxi into town. A beat up old ’82 240D Benz was our chariot. He drove us into a small square/intersection right near the big municipal souk – the Arab one - Souk Jnan Jamaa. Taroudant looks very cool from outside its walls that encircled the whole small town. Obviously due to their age, some walls are newer than others but they give a very neat appearance – totally at odds with what you find inside. It is not a pretty town. It makes the medina of Marrakech look pretty good. A carriage guy immediately hit on us – I think I was still paying the driver as he approached. In English. We said no. We set out into the nearby souk. It is a real disappointment unless you are shopping for cheap bags, Chinese clothes & household goods or foodstuffs. It is obviously a town souk with for every day shopping. And lo & behold, the carriage guy popped up in the souk to pitch us again. Twice. We hit a bank machine & then went into the nearby Berber souk. Its goods mirrored the municipal one with the addition of carpets, some leather goods & one place with metalwork – which ‘we’ were searching for. My wife wanted to come home with some Moroccan lanterns for our porch. We went in the metal shop.

    What occurred next is one of those strange travel things that happen that you question afterwards. The shop was seriously smoky & we looked at the goods through a haze. The young owner appeared & his eyes were flame red from the smoke or . . . After 3 or 4 minutes of gasping in there we left. And we both swear that we were a bit high. I don’t know if it is just our imagination but maybe it wasn’t only incense that the metal guy had in the air. Maybe he had just flamed a huge pipe bowl before we walked in & we got the second-hand. He certainly looked high. Anyway, we hit the busy street outside the souk to wander somewhere/anywhere & there was the carriage guy again. Yes, really. 80dhs for a 1 1 /2 hour ride? Done! We walked to his carriage near the Arab souk & gratefully got in. He nattered on as we toured a bit of the city & went outside to go around the walls. It was actually really pleasant just sitting there enjoying the spectacle of Taroudant. And then he insisted that we needed to visit the old Jewish quarter. It was a seriously dump. The whole area was. We saw sheep & goats eating garbage. And there were piles of garbage heaped elsewhere. We stopped in a square with a small Berber market & it was seriously strange. Carriage guy suggested a Berber co-op, so we left the carriage & he led us through some alleys to a . . . carpet shop, of course. The owner was working a couple & gave us a little of his very abrupt time. After 5 minutes we left.

    Back to the carriage we went, to find the guy’s young teen brother holding the horse. I don’t know where he came from. And he was coming along. OK? Well, not really. Despite the bright sunshine, our weird-out meters were in the red now due to our surroundings. But we cautiously said sure. We announced that we were hungry & what restaurant would he recommend? Moroccan or tourist? Tourist, we both answered simultaneously. We needed a teeny bit of security now. Thankfully our suspicions were probably nothing & we rode over to the main square where he pointed somewhat disdainfully to the tourist restaurant at the back. We settled with him & parted ways.

    The staff, the menu & the washrooms were all pretty bleak but we had some other tourists around us now for comfort. They were all French. I had yet another chicken brochette & we both had fries. It was cheap & tasted it.

    We had had enough.

    The town was miserable or at least WE couldn’t find a speck of charm anywhere. And the shopping was a major dud from what we saw. And we both agreed that there was no way we would come in again at night for dinner. I had learned from the net & Fatima that cabs were acquired just outside the city walls by the Bab Zorgane Gate. Small white ones flitted around town but we needed a blue one or something. This taxi pen was a major holding area with white cabs, blue cabs & the green Big Taxis as well as a stack of tourist buses. We found it outside the gate & through a small decrepit field. The appearance of an ‘English’ created a stir & I was grateful that I had the hotel’s card with a map. A small crowd grew around me as supervisors & drivers studied the map. No one knew where it was or could figure out the map but a driver (blue taxi) finally gruffly agreed to drive us. A 240D again with no AC vents, no handles on the roll up windows & several big rock dings in the windshield. It was a really beat-up car. He warmed up immensely when he saw our riad & he pitched us to let him drive us anywhere we wanted to go later or the next day. Fat chance, I thought as I took his card.

    We chilled by the pool for the rest of the afternoon. Today, the riad got somewhat busy as other guests checked in & wandered around. I surfed the net for a restaurant option that didn’t involve going into the town. This is one of the problems with staying at a semi-remote hotel - going anywhere involves effort. I chose another riad that seemed to have decent TA reviews & I asked Fatima if she would arrange a taxi. A little later she came back & said that taxis were too difficult & that Mustapha – the owner – would drive us & pick us up. To go to a competitor for dinner? Really?

    And that is precisely what happened. He kindly drove us to the Riad Dar Zitoune for dinner. They were midway between the Jnane & the town. Seemingly a junket-like hotel that aimed squarely at the French tourist market. French-style menu & wine – with a cheese course offered. We had roasted lamb shoulder & a bottle of wine. A very nice change from tagines & brochettes. The pool & grounds looked quite good as well – and they had a bar - but I preferred the more intimate Jnane Ines from what I saw.

    Mustapha arrived on cue to provide transport – a true gentleman.

    Taroudant & Jnane Ines pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Taroudant

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Taroudant

    Next up: the drive to Essaouira

    Ian

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    Well your riad looks lovely even if Taroudant was in general disappointing.

    Did you not have pancakes for breakfast anywhere? We had those at every riad along with the items you mentioned. Definitely thicker than crepes - I really loved them with honey.

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    Yes, I guess what I refer to as: very thin crumpet-like breads were the pancakes.

    I was glad we saw Taroudant - as an everyday essentially non-touristed Moroccan town - but I certainly wouldn't go back. And we were very happy at the Jnane. Fatima - the only English speaker - was a little odd & very abrupt & she took a bit of time to warm up to but I had her laughing at YouTube videos by the time we were leaving.

    Ian

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    Yes, I thought Taroudant was a little off the tourist trail.

    By-the-way -- in your picture #21, The Stones Begin, the strange conical hill in the background looks like one that appears several times (in several different locales!) in the film Lawrence of Arabia.

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    Our driver Said, comically called it: Tagine mountain. There was another similar one south of Tamegroute.

    My wife & I were just saying that we'll have to watch Lawrence of Arabia again. In the film credits, it appears that they also filmed some bits at the Casa de Pilatos in Sevilla - which was one of our favorite sites there. Another reason to watch it again.

    Ian

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    Day 10

    It was time to move on once again. Our riad arranged transport for us. We didn’t want fuss or muss & the idea of squeezing into a Grand Taxi or bus & transferring to another in Agadir was really, really unappealing. So we booked one just for us. Not cheap since it was a one way 4 ½ hour drive. 110€ - was the quote Mustapha told me . . .

    We said our goodbyes to Mustapha & the staff at Jnane Ines & we left around 9:30am. It was a straight run to Agadir where the driver had to check in at the main taxi terminal. This was busy & pretty grimy. From there we went straight up the coast through Agadir – passing the royal palace on the ocean – and then past all of the beach vacation-type areas to the north that stretched north from the city. It was Sunday, so they all were busy with the weekenders. Somehow, we thought that we had left the mountains behind us – but this was certainly not the case. After the coast the road ducks inland & up. And it keeps going up & down for much of the drive. It’s the High Atlas eroding into the Atlantic. Seemingly endless miles of argan spotted hills swept by as did numerous nameless villages & hamlets . We were getting tired of driving but the countryside was gorgeous nonetheless.

    And then . . .

    Somewhere in the vicinity of Lake Tinsekht, I spotted them! YES! Goats in trees. I asked the driver to stop & he backed up & we bailed out of the car with our cameras. I had read about this before the trip & we had kept a vigilant eye on the fields while we were driving in argan country. We had seen millions of trees. We had seen thousands of goats. But this was the only time that we saw the two together. We had also seen dozens & dozens of argan oil vendors who set up shop on the highway at the end of their lane to sell liters of oil. We had been warned not to stop because the purity of the oil was a question with unlicensed producers. Anyways, back to the REAL excitement - goats in trees . . .

    The taxi driver thought we were crazy. The shepherd wandered over wondering why people were taking pictures of his mangy herd. After I said bonjour & handed him 20dhs, he walked away very pleased. We got our pictures & some fly bites. Everybody was happy.

    The only other stop we made was at an argan co-op for a washroom break & to buy a few more sprays as gifts. They also had some of the most garish pottery we had ever seen. It was another gloriously sunny day with the same 30Cish temps that we had had since Marrakech. Never too hot & never too cold – just right for holidays.

    We reached Essaouira in the early afternoon. The driver had some difficulty finding our hotel which was just inside one of the medina’s gates. The one with the Orson Wells memorial. We had a bit of a misunderstanding with the driver at the end. I thought Mustapha had told me 110€ but the driver insisted that it was 130€. Hmmm. He got his money but no tip. I don’t know if I was right or wrong but it was not a happy ending to the peaceful drive. But at least it was our last drive . . .

    Needless to say we were happy to turn ourselves over to the welcoming staff at the Madada Mogadar which is actually on the 2nd floor & shares a street entrance with the Riad Mumtaz Mahal in an alley 2 doors inside the gate. Within five minutes we had dropped our luggage in our main floor room & we were ushered up to the terrace for coffee & to fill out the usual Moroccan hotel forms. Whew. We had done it. We had survived our trip to the High/Anti-Atlas & the desert. We had seen a wide swath of the southern part of Morocco & finally we had also seen goats in trees. Essaouira was now our base for 4 nights until we jetted back to Paris & our final weekend.

    Hunger pangs were gnawing so we hit the street to find some eats. Way down a street – as opposed to an alley - near a north gate we stopped in a small local - as in non-tourist shop & I had a 15dh kefta sandwich with fries & my wife had the cheese sandwich for 12dh. It was small but the bread . . . ohhh . . . real French bread. The bread in this cheap & noisy restaurant - some Arabic Idol-like program was blaring on the TV – was better than any bread we had had on this trip! It was fresh. The crust was chewy. Wow!

    We stepped out into the street after this delectable & cheap lunch & I was lighting a cigarette when a man came up & asked in French for a light. Then he flashed me a big chunk of Moroccan black hash that he had secreted in his hand. Hmmm. Non, merci. We had been in the town for less than an hour & I had a drug offer in broad daylight in the middle of a street. This certainly wasn’t Taroudant anymore.

    The streets were filled with tourists & hawkers doing the dance. Lots of both with a healthy mix of locals shopping for dinner ingredients. A very laid back mini version of Marrakech. I breathed a sigh of relief & we went back to the Masada to unpack & unwind.

    Of course, the first decision was upon us in no time: Dinner. We had a lot of choices again. And no, we didn’t want Moroccan. In fact I didn’t eat a brochette again for the whole time I was in Essaouira. We chose an Italian place called Ristorante Sylvestro. Good on TA. Recommended by our hotel girl. Reserved. Done. It was now time for a pre-dinner drink!

    Dusk was just approaching as we left the hotel. I easily navigated us through the squares/gates/alleys that put us there in 10 minutes. It is on one of the ‘major’ cross streets of the medina. And it is Italian. Sylvestro is the owner & he cooks with a helper & helps his server as well – note the singular ‘server’ here for future reference. We were seated downstairs – which is actually upstairs just not up –upstairs. The menu is varied Italian pastas meats & seafood . . . yes, seafood appeared once more on the menu. In the Atlases seafood does not exist. And I ordered a bottle of Italian red wine – yes, Italian . . . another real treat. In every other restaurant along the way if I ordered anything but Moroccan wine, they were out of it. This was getting good.

    And good it was. I had a calamari pasta appetizer & my spouse had the Parma ham. So, so good. I know holidays tend to exaggerate your appreciation of a meals – in both directions good & bad – but it was good. We were served by the sole waitress but Sylvestro stopped by for a brief bonjour at some point as well. I think he said he was from Milano originally. You can also dine up-upstairs in the open air – but with zero view. The mains were mixed – her pasta was ‘the best’ – my veal scaloppini was good but not great.

    We wandered the spooky alleys of Essaouira back to our hotel.

    High Atlas Coast Reprise Pictures

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/High_Atlas_Coast

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/High_Atlas_Coast

    Next: Essaouira Cont’d

    Ian

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    Glad you found your goats! Seeing pictures it's now more understandable - how the branches don't come out of the trunk from high up but branch out from ground level.

    If you do watch Lawrence of Arabia again maybe try to find the restored version that was released in 2012 which is supposed to be beautiful. Per Sony:
    "We wanted to return this film to as pristine a condition as possible to honor its anniversary release. The original negative was seriously damaged in a number of ways, some problems dating from the original release and some accumulated over the years. Until now, we did not have the tools available to address these issues. We think fans of the film will be as amazed as we are at the detail and resolution in the imagery captured by cinematographer Freddie Young to compliment David Lean’s immaculate direction."

    Can't wait to hear more about Essaouira - we did not get there.

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    Day 11

    I should tell you a bit about our hotel, Madada Mogadar. Mogador is the old Portuguese name for Essaouira (which is a mutation of the Arabic as-Ṣawīra). The Madada comes from the owner’s name Christine Dadda. She told us that she was Monaco-born & a flight attendant with Air France for many years. Fourteen years ago she bought the property that makes up the hotel. She has slowly built the business which includes the restaurant next door – La Table – which is managed by her brother & it includes a cooking class next door called L’Atelier. She is currently working out plans for a pool & riding property just outside of town. Certainly an entrepreneur.

    The Madada has some suites on the main floor with reception – actually the 2nd floor above the street – and more upstairs circled around the hotel’s veranda that overlooks the sea & the beach. The veranda is a great spot for breakfast or drinks etc. Be forewarned that the local bee populations have figured this out as well. Our suite was on the main lobby level – one of 3 that have a small private veranda with a sea view. There are 2 large friendly resident cats that come & go as they please. The older gray one has learned to knock on our door – yes, knock – not scratch – to gain access to the outside via our veranda that is attached to the city walls & its crenellations. She meows loudly on our veranda to be readmitted. Christine told us that this one adopted the hotel one day & has never left. Très cute.

    You will notice I dipped into partial French. For all intents & purposes, Essaouira is a French vacation resort. There is a direct Air Maroc flight to Orly 3 days per week to feed the hotels & resorts around the town. Yes, some English vacationers slip in as well as other nationalities, but the vast majority of foreign bodies here are French & the businesses & vendors all default to French with English as a backup. Once again we got the: Where are you from? Canada. Montreal? response from dozens of them. If you speak to them in English you get: London? Menus are in French although they sometimes will have a modestly-used English one as well. I also heard German, Spanish & Italian speakers roaming around, not to forget the lady in the cooking class from Russia that I am about to talk about. She & her husband had driven down from Spain in a rental car.

    Now about the L’Atelier cooking class . . . We decided that it might be fun to try one. I cook well so I didn’t really need a lesson & we had resisted classes up to this point on all of our trips, dismissing them as too . . . I don’t know . . . too something. But . . . since we were in Essaouira for several days, we felt that we could spare the time. They are held twice daily in a purpose-built kitchen that adjoins the restaurant on the street level. We had chosen chicken pastilla as the main dish with a pepper/tomato appetizer & because we were the first to book, that is what our whole group cooked. It is run by Mona, whose mother is the head chef at Marrakech’s hoity-toity Mamounia Hotel. The English translation was handled by the personable Allison an English expat who came & stayed. So we chopped & we diced & we cooked etc for 3 hours or so. There were 5 of us in total but I was the only man so of course, I became the butt of all of the jokes. Hey, I play that role well. There was an English couple from Paris (he observed but didn’t cook), a note-taking serious woman from France, the very pleasant woman from the Urals in Russia & my wife & I as participants. Pastilla is a very involved dish which is made with pigeon or chicken & it is wrapped in a phyllo-type pastry which was – thankfully – premade. While it was cooking, we took a walk to the souk with Allison for a visit to a spice shop. I found it interesting that he had individual popular spice blends for the common Moroccan dishes: chicken or meat brochette, chicken, meat or fish tagines etc. I guess that is why a lot of them tasted the same from place to place. We also found out the simple method to test the quality of saffron: one strand + wet finger + white paper = a bright yellow color. Muddy brown yellow is the cheap stuff – from Iran of course - wink, wink. The merchant got some business as the English couple from Paris bought a bunch of the blends & some of the perfume bars. We went back to La Table to eat our creations. After all the work, I found the pastilla a bit too savory for my taste but it was an enjoyable day.

    It was time to get out in the sunshine. We meandered to the fishing port, which lies in front of the walled town – so only a 5 minute saunter from our hotel. We wanted to see the famous blue boats etc. It is important to remember that this is a working port. To the fisherman, boat crews, haulers & all and sundry, we are tourists & we are irritating. We get in the way & we take pictures – which is annoying at the best of times to Moroccans. But . . . we got our pictures. There is a dry dock with ongoing ship repairs, a number of large trawlers & a huge contingent of the smaller blue boats – rising & falling with the waves. It is bustling with activity with the deckhands & fisherman all in action & boats coming & going. Some of the small boat fisherman lay their catch out to sell to daily shoppers. The fish of the day was literally what was on display with some interesting things like the spiny crabs & strangely mottled yellow & brown moray eels laid out on tarps. And not to forget the multitude of skyrats – seagulls – spiraling above & squawking loudly for whatever scraps that they could grab. Let’s just say that the smell was . . . powerful.

    Tired from the day’s exertions, we stopped for a coffee in one of the outdoor cafes that cluster in the open square at the entrance to the town. This is also bank machine central for Essaouira. Then it was back to the hotel to sort out dinner. We chose Tavas, which is just inside the walls next to the square. It seemed to be a happening spot for dinner & drinks – they advertised a full bar & live entertainment. As with many other restaurants, it was up several flights of stairs with a large outdoor patio boasting large propane heaters for the cooler nights. They had a patio even higher up that boasted a sea view - since it was over the height of the walls - but this also meant that it got cool winds directly from the Americas so only the foolhardy chose that high spot & they didn’t last long. The thugs at the door – bouncers – should have dissuaded us but we made the trek up the stairs to the patio. We were seated & ignored. Yes, the service was truly lousy. We found that service in Morocco in general is very laidback - to put it nicely – but this spot was really, really slow. Our section was worked by 2 servers who were always running – but always running to a different table it seemed. A couple beside us – an upscale yuppie duo from France by the look – were menu’d, served, fed & finished – all far more rapidly than us despite their later arrival. Of course, they had the other waiter. A live band played reggae music but thankfully not too loud as is usually the case. Anyways, the grub was good – simple salads, GOOD French bread & filet steaks that were cooked perfectly. The menu was touting a package meal with dessert – like most restaurants in Morocco – but you can go a la carte if you wish as we did. I ordered a bottle of French wine but they were out of it – but who wasn’t? Only Sylvestro had delivered with his Italian wine to give us a break from a monotony of Moroccan wines – which had proven decent & cheap but not world class. I must admit that I didn’t sample any expensive Moroccan plonk so there might be quality wines that I missed out on. So Tavas was good food but not a place to return to. I was glad that we didn’t have coffee or dessert because we would have had to be there until closing to get it. And by the way, we paid with Visa at the table which had proven common throughout Morocco. The price never included the tip which is paid in cash at your discretion.

    After we finally finished up, we walked a few eerie alleys & then closed the night with the last of our duty free liquor on our patio overlooking the darkened sea with the surf crashing in the distance.

    Day 12

    This was a day for exploring Essaouira. And haggling for stuff as well. Old Essaouira is actually a small village. The town & the outer walls were built in the waning years of the 18th century. The sea is to the west & the north, the newer Essaouira is found to the east, the port & parking is to the southwest & the beach is to the south. As a tourist, you will spend most of your time within the walls unless the beach is your draw to the area. The souk is roughly in the middle of the medina with butcher shops, spice stores, housewares, clothing etc – all of the things for daily life with a few cafes blended in. The tourist goods are sprinkled all around but centered on several main ‘streets’ & the street that runs along the north ramparts. Car traffic is not allowed & even official vehicles don’t penetrate beyond the 2nd gates which makes it a great place to walk around. Motor scooters aren’t as numerous as in Marrakech so your biggest danger is the multitude of push/pull cart guys who ferry luggage & trade goods around the town. Riads & hotels are scattered throughout with most restaurants sticking to the ‘streets’ vs the alleys. In other words, it is a hodge-podge but it is hard to be lost for long since it is so small & contained.

    Shopping isn’t as good as Marrakech. At least that is what my wife told me accusingly on many occasions. There was less variety of goods & more of the same ole . . . the same ole carpet stores, wood shops, sandal shops etc etc. The shop keepers weren’t as aggressive as Marrakech & the prices started much lower – therefore the haggled price was not as deeply discounted. It was still fun to dance with them but don’t expect massive price drops. But you should always TRY. One thing that we did run into is that the first customer of the day often got the best price as the merchant wanted a sale to start the day with good luck. Or maybe that is just what they told us . . .

    And so that was our morning. Wandering & haggling. I accompanied my wife shopping – an activity I normally have to be dragged kicking & screaming to – but I became the ‘closer’ who finalized the price. It gave me something to do. I did draw the line at sandal shopping – every man has his limits.

    In the afternoon we wandered down to the beach to touch the Atlantic & to look for a beach restaurant. The water was cold of course & the affordable restaurants were at the other end so we didn’t venture down all the way. We doubled back into the medina & went to the fast food local place again. This proved once again that it is never as good the 2nd time. Still OK, but our delight at French bread was diminishing because everybody had good bread here in Essaouira.

    I spent the rest of the afternoon lounging & my wife did a little photo shooting & exploring shops.

    For dinner, we reserved at La Table – the hotel’s restaurant. It sports a laidback staff, a very pleasant environment with a unique menu of seafood & steak. I had an octopus starter & steak & my wife had Iberico ham & a spiny crab dish. Mine was great but the crab was a little mushier than expected & the ham was a little on the too-thick-cut side of things as far as smoked ham goes. I know fussy, fussy. Very good bread again & I finally got a bottle of French wine. We got chatting to the couple next to us – they were that rare breed in Morocco - Americans - from Houston on a small tour of Morocco & they had broken free for dinner. We also noticed an English woman traveling solo from our hotel who we had talked with over breakfast that morning. We invited her over for a drink. A lawyer from London, she had bussed in from Marrakech after visiting the city & going to an ‘amazing’ yoga spa in the High Atlas for a few days. Another very nice evening.

    Day 13

    This was another lazy day similar to Day 12. A low fog bank was drifting in despite the sunshine when we got active after breakfast so we aimed towards the port again. This certainly played well for some atmospheric blue boat photos with a disappearing soft mist in the distance.

    Then it was more browsing & shopping & wandering the medina. By this point, we didn’t even need the map to find our way around. We went back to the ramparts shops to buy some inexpensive wooden boxes having found a vendor there with the best quality & price the day earlier. Since it was lunchtime we picked a nearby restaurant that offered a sea view – Le Rencontre – and we climb the numerous flights of stairs up. The view was quite nice & their pizza was actually very good.

    I should touch on the weather. Since arriving in Essaouira we had had sunshine & high 20C temps every day & this continued for our entire stay. And we had no wind. The locals we talked to remarked how lucky we were because usually the wind from the ocean is constant & quite annoying to many. I am sure that the beach surf crowd was not pleased since we had only since windsurfers on the day that we arrived & not since. Their pain was our gain – for once.

    Another afternoon of relaxation followed & my wife took the opportunity to go shop without me. She found that the vendors were more aggressive when she was alone & it was harder to get to the bottom line. Well, at least I knew that I was good for something. It is very safe in Essaouira so she didn’t feel the slightest bit uncomfortable alone. I should also note that dress on the street is very casual & the adherence to coverage that is important in many Muslim communities is not an issue here. So you can see burkas next to miniskirts on the street.

    For dinner, we went back to Syvestros. I know, I know what you are thinking . . . about my statement about never going back . . . well . . . we shouldn’t have. We were seated up-upstairs at our request & this proved to be a fatal error in judgment. They were very busy & it took forever for the waitress to get around to climbing the 2 flights of winding stairs to get to those of us on this level. We watched table after table get stunted service with only one diner’s plate arriving at a time. Everybody was eating out of sync because it took so long for the next plate to arrive. Sylvestro & the waitress were hustling & they were also doing a lot of apologizing. Unfortunate. Our meal arrived in the same fashion with 5 minutes or so between her plate & mine. Sylvestro is a victim of success by the look of it. Sylvestro, if you read this: Hire some serving staff or close the top floor or your reputation will be as flat as your pizzas.

    We went back to the Madada after another spooky walk & opened the last bottle of my stash wine for a nightcap.

    Essaouira Photos

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/library/Morocco/Essaouira

    Slideshow

    http://s67.photobucket.com/user/imcarthur/slideshow/Morocco/Essaouira

    Next up: Departure Day & our 2 day stopover in Paris

    Ian

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    Day 14

    Departure day. This was it. We were leaving on an Air Maroc flight to Paris/ Orly – just after 6pm.

    It is always a bittersweet time of a vacation. In one way, you have had enough. Enough travel. Enough hotels – no matter how luxurious they may be, it is still a hotel & not home. Enough strange foods, restaurants, abominable toilets – the list goes on & on. You miss your family, your pets, your friends, your own bed. Your stuff. But at the same time, you are sorry that it will end. The discovery of new places is intoxicating. Meeting wonderful people whose lives are so different from yours & yet not so different after all. I know that my pulse quickens when I buckle in at the start of an open un-driven road with unknown wonders lurking just around the next corner. But . . . it must end.

    But then we were stopping in Paris for a quick holiday at the end of our holiday. We had been to Paris before on a several occasions & so it wasn’t an unknown destination. It was comfortable & it had become our favorite city abroad. And with a late flight, we had lots of time to wrap-up last minute shopping, so we packed roughly after breakfast to see how much space we had left to jam in more gifts. We were OK - we had a few square inches of space left. Would we be overweight? Yeah, probably but at this point, we didn’t care that much.

    We hit the street running. Sandals for her. A lantern for them. A small box for me. I was able to employ my sale’s closing skills to great effect as we visited all of the key vendors that we had singled out for this last minute splurge. It was now or never. This is my price or I walk . . . forever. It worked very well. And then it was back to the hotel to ram it all in so we could check out on time at noon.

    We accomplished our task & rolled our cases out & into the watchful eye of the hotel staff. Food was the next imperative. We walked for 20 minutes in circles checking out a few places & we finally gave up & just chose one. It really didn’t matter at this point; it was just fill for the void. We settled on Restaurant Les Portes, right near the 2nd gate. The woman that came out of the back to seat us didn’t speak English or French. The menu was the typical Moroccan fare, so we ordered cheap meat & lemon chicken tagines despite this communication roadblock. Two minutes later, the manager hustled in with apologies. The tagines weren’t bad at all iirc.

    My wife wanted to do just a bit more shopping to kill time while I chilled in the Madada’s public places. I settled with the hotel, organized the Paris paperwork & surfed on my iPad as my mind started to go into travel mode. I travel a lot for business & I am very good at it. My colleagues are often amazed at the speed & efficiency of my trips. I focus & I do it. This means that I am very punctual. To a fault, of course, if the truth be known. I am early for everything. I guess it is in my genes as both my parents were the same.

    Now my wife isn’t bad. She humors my obsession with punctuality & she is typically ready at the appointed hour. But I swear she also likes to toy with me at these times. Anyways . . . she got back early this time & I was grateful. The hotel had arranged a driver who had arranged a push cart guy to ferry our bags to the van. I was surprised to find out that the airport was south of Essaouira & we had passed it unknowingly on our drive in. So it was through the dune area that surrounds the town & past some lonely dusty cheap vacation hotels & condos to the très petit aéroport d'Essaouira. I had to stay in French since we were going to Paris. Check in was a breeze with next to no line since there was only one flight. One bag clocked in at 19.7kg & the other was 23.5kg. The Air Maroc woman didn’t care. With Easyjet that would have been 64€.

    We filled out the Moroccan exit docs & talked with the official who was really friendly asking about our time & what we enjoyed. Of course, the suspicious side of me said it was a good profiling interview but maybe he was just being nice. We grabbed some cheap duty free including a bottle of rum for 7.50€! That was cheaper than a bar drink in Paris . . .

    To make a long story short, the plane was late. The lounge filled with annoyed & annoying vacationers from France. Kids wailed & ran around as people argued & laughed & fidgeted with their carry-on. You know the scene. A corner of the lounge beside the eating area was deemed a smoking area. Who knows? No signs allowed or forbid it & no one cared. Oddly, the airport officials let some of the politer kids with their parents out on the tarmac to watch the flight taxi in when it finally arrived about an hour late. That wouldn’t happen in security wrought North America. The flight was relatively cloudy for much of the way but sometime after leaving Morocco’s coast, I did make out parts of undulating Andalusia below & later the Gironde estuary as France disappeared into twilight. And then we broke through the clouds over Paris & I spied the Eiffel Tower glittering amongst the lights of Paris.

    And that brought a smile to both of us.

    --- End Morocco Trip May 9, 2013 ---

    Ian

    PS

    When I get to it, I will post the Paris portion in Europe>France and post a link to it here.

    I will also post my whole trip report with embedded picture links on my site & I will post the link here as well.

    Thank you for reading. It ended up much, much longer than I anticipated.

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    It was great reading - you're an excellent writer.
    I really wish we had gone to Ess. as I don't know that we'll get back to Morocco and it sounds like a very interesting city and a contrast to the parts of the country we were able to experience.

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    Very well done.

    Best meal in Essaouira for us was the fresh grilled fish at the stands by the harbor. Actually, one of my best lunches ever.

    We had better luck than you with the service at Tavas.

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    The two thugs at the door were surprising to me in Essaouira. Of course they do bill themselves as a bar so maybe it gets rowdy with the young beach ground in the summer.

    Ian

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