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Trip Report MOROCCO SOLO

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From September 20 until October 8, 2013, I---whom some of you would call an elderly---white woman traveled by myself to Casablanca (1 night), Tangier (4 nights), Chefchaouen (2 nights), Fez (4 nights), Marrakesh (5 nights), Essaouira (1 night), and Casablanca (1 night), in that order. With the exception of the night in Essaouira and the last night in Casablanca, I had booked all rooms in advance.

Ordinarily, I do not stay in the likes of the Sofitel, but, researching accommodations in Casablanca for my first night ever in Morocco, I concluded that it was the safest bet and got the best deal I could on the Internet. Yes, indeed, it is a fine place in a good location, but there seem to be two staff members for every guest and the fawning becomes irritating. I did appreciate, however, the employee who shepherded me to an excellent nearby restaurant, Taverne du Dauphin, which specializes in seafood. Other employees helped me make travel plans.

I traveled by second class coach on the train to Tangier without difficulty where I stayed at Dar Chams Tanja, run by a French couple, Michele and Dominique. It was located almost adjacent to the kasbah and just inside the medina. The house is extremely attractive inside. Without being intrusive, the hosts do their best to offer information and suggestions. For me, the first night, they had a man escort me to Le Nabab, a good local Moroccan restaurant. They also arranged for a car and driver to take me to Asilah, an old Portuguese port just south of Tangier. (That is a beautiful little town and it has a superb seafood restaurant, Casa Garcia.) Breakfast on the rooftop terrace was a pleasure. There was about three times more food than I could eat: eggs of one's choice, cooked to order; Moroccan pancakes; French bread; fresh fruit; orange juice; yoghurt; café au lait (in my case). I recommend this place very strongly.

I enjoyed watching life in the medina---the children in their uniforms going to school in the morning, returning home for lunch, going back in the afternoon, and, finally, heading home in the late afternoon; sitting down and talking to some of the traders (all male), watching them stroke their cats; observing women pick over vegetables and fruit; noting that the only children playing in the streets were boys and regretting the fact that little girls were kept at home to learn how to be good wives.

Another restaurant that I ate at in Tangier was Salon Bleu, just inside the kasbah. It has about five levels, each with some view, but the top one, naturally, having the best: the Straits of Gibraltar. It serves meals and beverages all day, a great asset, and the food, much of it French, is excellent.

I walked all over the medina, which is quite extensive, and visited many of the close-in sights. I got lost many times, occasionally late at night, and was forced to ask people for directions. No one hassled me; no one looked menacing. Moroccans went out of their way to be helpful. They treated me as though I was their grandmother.

From Tangier, I went to Chefchaouen. Since I have already written a report, I will add only that, thanks to a posting on this forum, I stayed with Ana and Carlos at Casa la Palma. They have a charming riad with cozy, colorful rooms and a nice rooftop terrace where Carlos tends many plants ("his babies"). The main thing to keep in mind before visiting Chefchaouen is if one is physically able to handle all the steps of the town.

The bus ride from Chefchaouen to Fez, about four hours, is not only comfortable but interesting. The landscape varies from hilly to flat. In September and October, the fields have been cleared, plowed, and harrowed in preparation for sowing new crops. There are enormous olive groves. One realizes that Morocco is a great agricultural producer. En route, the bus stopped midway for a WC break. Many people dashed off to the butcher's shop where they ordered meat for kebabs and took it to the adjacent charcoal grill for men to cook it. Cats circled around, turning up their noses at morsels of bread, but eating meat. Watching was a lot more fun than eating.

The first impressions of Fez were baffling to me. I saw a great city wall and outside it enormous cemeteries. Soon, though, the taxi driver pulled up to a gate and led me inside the medina to Dar Seffarine near the meatalworkers' area surrounding Plaza Seffarine. The first view of the interior is breath-taking. The courtyard is several stories high and tiled beautifully. Large rooms (really suites) ring the courtyard on different levels. While the house can accommodate eighteen guests at a time, the maximum there during my four-day stay was ten. I hardly ever saw anyone except at meals and I felt as though I was in a deserted palace. Strangely, the staff was helpful (Kate, the co-owner, in particular did me a great favor), but seemed remote, although I have to say that the curtain broke open briefly when management sent a woman employee with me to the post office. The number of narrow, steep stairs just about killed me, for my room was on the second level (two stories high), breakfast was served on the rooftop terrace (at least another level---and sometimes I had to go down to go up), and dinner was served one night upstairs. One of the best features of this riad is that breakfast is at a common table and dinner is offered every night, also at a common table. The other guests were fascinating and, especially for someone traveling alone, it was great to share adventures. At both meals, the food was very good. The riad is in an excellent location and I recommend it highly, too.

The atmosphere of Marrakesh, reached by an eight hour train ride (first class---which I recommend because trains are crowded), quickly changed in my taxi ride from the station from wide, tree-lined boulevards to the bustle of the medina adjacent to the Royal (Residential) Palace about fifteen minutes from Jemaa el Fna. Riad Nafis is about a five minute walk from the gate through small lanes of merchants, palace guards, children kicking soccer balls, motorbikes, and women buying supper. It is owned by a Frenchman but well-managed by a Moroccan staff and a fine accommodation. For me, one of the best parts about Marrakesh is that it is flat and that there are almost no steps. Nonetheless, I did not care much for the city. The primary reasons are that there are hoards of tourists, hundreds of touts (many very aggressive), and vehicular traffic is allowed throughout the medina, including Jemaa el Fna. Medinas in Tangier, Chefchaouen, and Fez didn't have motorbikes because of the steps, but Marrakesh, being step-free, has them anywhere there is the width to accommodate them (ditto for autos). Since "streets" are framed by high walls, the engine noise reverberates as drivers zoom around. It is positively dangerous to cross Jemaa el Fna because of large horse-drawn coaches, autos, motorbikes, three wheel scooters, trucks, bicycles, and various other conveyances.

I did enjoy some things in Marrakesh. Majorelle Garden is a beautiful attraction. Quite by accident, I happened late one night onto a restaurant next to the police station/jail in Jemaa el Fna, Al Baraka. Although geared to western tourists and a little expensive, it was a beautiful courtyard filled with a palm tree and decorative plants. There were four fixe prix options on the menu (I would have preferred a la carte, but I was starved). The entertainment was a belly dancer, the food and wine were good, service was good, and I left very happy. Another restaurant that I can recommend is Le Tanjia, so much a tourist destination that even the policeman blocks away knows about it. It is in a big house and can't be missed because of a large sign, in Latin letters, on its roof. It is nicely decorated and, like Al Baraka, offers belly dancers and musicians. The menu is extensive and the food is good. The last, Kosy Bar, I have mixed feeling about. It is strictly aimed at a western clientele, but the unusual menu, with dishes ranging from western to Asian, allows one to eat light or to eat heavy. Its big attraction, I think, is that westerners, assaulted on all sides by languages, smells, scenes, and behavior that are alien to them, find a place that reassures them of their own culture.

Believing that six nights were too many in Marrakesh, I took a one-night trip to Essaouira and stayed at Dar Ness in the medina. James, the manager, both facilitated my visit and inquired about my welfare several times. He even sent his employee with me to the bus station when I left. The location is excellent, once you find it. I am challenged in this regard and I went around in circles until someone led me to the door. The riad itself is simple, but clean and very nice. I would gladly stay there again. Essaouira was built by the Portuguese centuries ago and the medina is within the fort they built, so it overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. The main pastime, unless you go south to the sandy beaches, is walking the ramparts and visiting the harbor. Shopping is also important. The displays of goods seem much more attractive than at other locations I have visited and the traders, while industrious, are good-natured. It is easier to look at merchandise without being harangued than at other places I visited. As for food, the seafood cooperative in Essaouira has set up stalls in the plaza between the medina and the harbor that are open all day selling fresh seafood. I patronized Chez Ali #33 twice and recommend it strongly. Each stall has a display of the seafood available. The customer points out what he wants and the cook grills it over charcoal. Soft drinks are for sale, too. My choices included a very large crab (don't get this! grilling is the wrong way to cook crab), prawns, octopus, and squid.

The last night in Morocco, Oct. 8, was spent at Ibis City Centre Hotel in Casablanca, which is next door to the Sofitel. Having stayed at the Ibis chain in France, I thought this would be adequate, but, aside from location, the hotel was poor. The interior looked frayed and worn. The small room was bare-bones. The only good thing about it was that it was on the fourteenth floor and I had a clear view of the harbor. The one cup of coffee I had the next morning, coming from a push-button machine, was hardly drinkable. But, I did get to have dinner again at Taverne du Dauphin.

For women readers who are contemplating traveling in Morocco on their own, I want to be encouraging, but also very honest. This was an extremely frustrating trip for me, for three reasons, none having anything to do with the fact that I am a woman. First, the language. Where French was in use, I got along fine (I counsel any visitor traveling alone to Morocco to know some French, Spanish [for some areas], or Arabic). It seemed common, however, for hotels and restaurants to use Latin letters for one part of their designation, but Arabic for the important part, as in "HOTEL ____." In many places, no one knew any French. Second, staying in the medinas. I am still greatly in favor of this location, but medinas are mazes. There are almost no street signs and, if there is one, it is likely in Arabic. The people living there do not know the names of the streets or the names of prominent buildings that might be guide posts. Showing them a map is hopeless because they are unfamiliar with them. Third, the number of steps, especially in Tangier, Chefchaouen, and Fez. I should add the steps that one will encounter in any riad and in many restaurants because buildings are not wide, but very vertical. The first two of these problems could be alleviated, in part, at least, by arranging for guides, either for the entire trip through some agency, or in individual cities through the guest house or other means. I am so independent that I don't want to be led around on someone else's schedule. As for being physically capable of managing the steps, I know now that I did not appraise my situation adequately. But, then, I didn't know there were so many. C'est la vie.

Some women worry about being hassled. I have found that speaking loudly and authoritatively will discourage most, although at one man in Marrakesh I had to shout, "Get out of my way!" He understood me.

A tip about taxi drivers. I don't know what to do when, as in Tangier, where at the train station all the taxi drivers swore that they did not have metered cabs, you are forced to pay an exorbitant fare, but in a situation where you are more in control, find out the standard fare to your destination, hail a cab on the street, and, when you arrive, give the man the money without a word as you exit. If drivers refuse to pick you up, keep trying. Maybe negotiate a little higher. You'll find someone willing to take you.

Another tip: bus and train tickets. The buses and trains in Morocco are very busy. Go to the station (or have the manager of your guest house make arrangements) at least a day in advance, preferably more than one day, to buy the ticket.

That's about all I can think of to write at the moment. If anyone has questions, I'll be glad to respond. ZZ

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