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Trip Report Morocco Trip Report

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I recently returned from a two-week trip to Morocco. The genesis of this trip was one of my best friends and I looking for an opportunity to travel together, which meant finding a place we were both interested in going to. We decided on Morocco and started looking for someone with whom we could arrange the trip. We found Mark Willenbrock and Mad about Morocco through this forum. We contacted Mark, then sent him a tentative itinerary, which started a two-month email conversation. Mark made suggestions, we asked questions and made more suggestions and eventually came up with the following itinerary: Chefchaouen / Fes / Erg Chebbi / Skoura / Demnate / Marrakech / Essaouira.

We flew into Tangier via Madrid. I loved the Madrid airport - structurally interesting and the only airport I’ve ever been in that was clean enough that I could lie on the floor and put my feet up.

Mark picked us up at the airport in Tangier. We weren’t planning on spending any time there because we figured we’d be jet-lagged and want to get to our first night’s destination, but we wound up going to the kasbah to look down on the harbor and eat lunch. Afterwards, we made a stop at the American Legation building, which was interesting. We drove to Chefchaouen via the coast road so we could see Gibraltar, which we hadn’t seen from the plane.

We arrived in Chefchaouen after dark and went to dinner before heading to our riad. Like other places we would visit, no cars could get into parts of the old town, so we parked at a lot and walked from there to the restaurant and then to the riad. I was a little disconcerted by the number of stairs involved everywhere – due to an accident, I was walking with a cane and my mobility was somewhat limited - plus the stairs were very uneven. At the riad, we had a room with a loft, which BF very kindly took, and the bottom stair was a foot high!

The next morning, we had breakfast on the terrace, which was lovely, and then it was off for a walk around town. It was like walking into an enchantment! Maybe it was the blue walls and doors everywhere (and blue is my favorite color), but I loved the town. We popped in and out of shops, but weren’t ready to do any buying. Eventually, we made our way to a street overlooking the river, where women were washing clothes in public troughs, then walked up to a mosque high on a hill above the city. The view was incredible and while we were up there, the midday call to prayer began ringing out from the mosques in town. That was one of the high points of the trip – it was so moving.

We visited a rug shop in the afternoon and had our first occurrence of the gesture of hospitality, which is mint tea. BF was interested in a couple of rugs, but wanted to wait until the next day to make a decision. At this point, Mark gave us some good advice, which we didn’t always follow and should have - if you see something you want, buy it because you may not find it again. We did some more looking and walking and Mark said he’d know how to find me if I fell behind - he’d just follow the clicking of the camera.

The next day, we went back to the rug shop and BF did some hard bargaining for the rug she wanted. It was fun to watch her in action and she got a great price, which the owner gave her only after we’d walked out of the shop. We then spent some time trying to find the shops where we’d seen things we wanted to buy for gifts and luckily found them. By the time we left Chefchaouen for Fes, it was too late to follow our original plan of stopping to see Meknes and Volubilis, but Mark said that since we had two days in Fes, we could use the second day to do that if we wanted to.

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    In Fes, Mark put us in a house that he helped renovate and manages for the owner in the UK. There was a housekeeper who came in to clean and cook for us and the place was lovely, plus had a roof terrace. Our first night there, we had dinner with Mark's family at their house.

    It was in Fes that Mark informed us that due to an emergency situation, he was going to have to leave us after the Fes portion of the trip and would be turning us over to another English ex-pat, James, who did some guiding for him. We were not happy about this, but what could we do? As James later said to us, TAB (that’s Africa, baby!). As it turned out, we got along famously with James, so it all worked out.

    The arrangement for our first day in Fes was for a local guide to take us through the medina. I found the Fes medina very intimidating in some ways. It’s covered in many areas, so it’s dark (and not good for photo ops), and it’s narrow, with uneven streets (well, paths) and very crowded and overwhelming. I think the way to see it might be 2-3 hours at a time and not trying to cram it all into one full day. By the end of the day, we had decided to take Mark up on his suggestion of spending the next day in Meknes and at Volubilis.

    We had a lovely day in Meknes, visiting the imperial city and then going into the souks, which were much less intense than those in Fes. After that, it was on to Volubilis. My attitude in the planning stages had been ‘you’ve seen one Roman ruin, you’ve seen them all’ but as it turned out, Volubilis was very interesting. Mark is very knowledgeable and had a lot to tell us about this as well as the other places we’d been. On the way back to Fes, he and BF decided to take a new road (I got no voice in navigational matters!), which led us by an interesting route to Fes. We wound up in a village, with the road forward blocked by a truck. We were the center of attraction for several minutes! The driver was found, the truck moved, and then we were on our way. Back in Fes, we met our new guide, James. It was a meet-and-greet as we wanted to get back to the house for dinner.

    The next morning, we set off with James for Erg Chebbi. This being February 29, one of our goals for the day as geocachers was to find a cache, so we could fill in that date on the calendar grid and not have to wait another four years for it. When we realized we’d be in Morocco that day, we identified a cache along our route and told Mark in an email that we’d want to go after it. Each cache is rated for difficulty and terrain and this one was 3 (out of 5), but from the description, it sounded okay. When we got there and zeroed in on the area, using GPS and the description, we realized it was much more challenging than it sounded - up a somewhat steep hill with loose rock underfoot. BF decided not to try the climb, but I gave it a go, cane and all. I carefully climbed to the location of the cache, found it and signed the log, and then headed down, being even more careful than I was going up. (For more about geocaching, go to www.geocaching.com.)

    After that, it was time for lunch in a cafe that Mark recommended. It was small and unassuming, but they served us one of the better tagines we had on our trip. We drove through some interesting scenery - a town that looked like it was in Switzerland and stretches that could have been Utah. (Over the course of the trip, we saw why so many movies are filmed there - Morocco can be a stand-in for many areas of the US as well as for other countries.) This was also the day we saw Barbary apes in a stretch of forest. Unfortunately, we also saw a person feeding them. I despair of my fellow human beings when I see that kind of stupidity.

    By the time we reached the auberge in Erg Chebbi, it was dark, so we couldn’t see much of the surroundings. After dinner by a lovely fire, it was off to bed.

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    The next morning, we drove into the dunes. To be honest, I never realized that the Sahara isn’t all sand - most of the desert terrain was flat dirt and rocks - which is why the dunes are notable. After we walked around and took pictures, James took us to a Tuareg depot, where there were many things for sale, including pottery, rugs, and clothing. BF got a lesson, which I video-ed, in how to wrap a long scarf into a turban. She bought the scarf and wore it as a turban while we were in the desert! We both bought gifts and I bought for myself a decorated metal box made to hold the Qur’an. Although I’d done a little bargaining in Chefchaouen, this was my first real experience at it and it felt weird! However, it’s expected and in fact, considered an insult if one doesn’t bargain since it implies the goods aren’t worth your time. There were a few times we didn’t bargain, for example, when the price was acceptable to start with or we were buying something small, like packets of pigment in Chefchaouen.

    After a great lunch at the auberge, we packed a small bag for the night at the bivouac. The nice thing about this place was that we kept our room for that night and didn’t have to pack up everything. We made it to the bivouac, which was quite comfortable (Western toilets!) in time for sunset on the dunes. Our dinner was served in the dining tent, which was draped in rugs. We especially liked the dark blue rugs with spangles that covered the ceiling. After dinner, we moved out to the campfire for tea, drinks and conversation.

    The next morning, we were up early for our pre-dawn camel ride into the dunes. It was quite chilly, although not as cold as I expected, so I was glad for the long underwear and fleece I had packed. I wasn’t keen on the camel ride as I had ridden a camel for about 15 minutes in Australia and found it very uncomfortable. However, it’s faster and easier than walking into the dunes and less injurious to the environment than an ATV. The ride was okay and after we dismounted, we climbed up a dune to watch the sunrise. I was thrilled to be seeing sunrise in the Sahara!

    When we came down from the dune, the camel drivers had spread out some fossils for sale. This happened everywhere we went, but for the most part, people were polite about it. When we were watching the sunset the night before, a boy appeared out of nowhere (or at least, it seemed that way) with little cloth animals to sell. He waited very patiently until after we finished taking pictures before approaching us. BF bought a cloth camel for I think 20 dirhams, which James said would provide more than one meal for his family.

    After breakfast at the bivouac, we headed back to the auberge to pack up and drive to Skoura, which is outside of Ouarzazate. We stopped in a small town on the way to pick up a guide, who took us to see some rock carvings and then fossil hunting.

    Mark had steered us away from Ouarzazate as being very tourist-y, but I’m not sure that Skoura was worth the extra time and distance. The kasbah we stayed at was interesting architecturally, but there was no charm to the place, the staff was not welcoming and the food was mediocre. However, the next morning, there was a great view from the roof and we visited a Sufi shrine nearby, which was interesting.

    From Skoura, we headed to Demnate and Kasbah Timdaf. The drive through the mountains was spectacular, but I was glad that James was doing the driving and not one of us - lots of hairpin turns and narrow roads. We stopped to see Aït Benhaddou from a hill overlooking the valley in which it’s situated. Rather than eat in a restaurant, we had picked up picnic supplies in Ouarzazate and stopped to eat our lunch on a hill that could have been in Scotland, down to having a heather-like plant cover. A stray dog approached us but like the people trying to sell things, politely lay down several feet away and waited for us to finish our meal!

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    We arrived at Kasbah Timdaf before dark, which was a change after having arrived at our last two destinations late enough that the managers called Mark to ask where we were (it wasn’t that late, just after dark). This place was built by the current owners in the traditional Berber way, but it was much more comfortable that the kasbah in which we stayed in Skoura. We settled in our room, then met James in the lounge area by the fireplace for before-dinner drinks.

    There was one other guest, a Canadian photographer, who was already eating his dinner, but he joined us for dessert. He was backpacking around Morocco and treating himself to a couple of nights here. He had been on a hike up into the mountains with some local people, who showed him the hashish fields and the harvesting and processing. Very interesting!

    Our original itinerary had us here for one day, but when we wound up with an extra day during the planning stage, BF suggested we take it here. That was a fortuitous choice. We realized the next day how tired we were of driving and how much we wanted to stay in one place for a day. The weather was fantastic and after breakfast on the terrace, we pursued various activities on our own - napping, reading and wandering around the gardens. In the afternoon, BF and I ‘did’ a hammam. It wasn’t like a public bath, but the spirit was the same - soaping all over with olive oil soap, sitting in a small stone, fire-heated enclosure like a sauna, and using a rough mitt to scrub ourselves. This finished off with a cold shower, which was also outside. It was very relaxing, but I’d like to try it with someone else doing all the work of scrubbing off the dead skin! At sunset, I climbed up a small hill behind the kasbah to take photos, as did BF. We joined James for dinner and chatted with the Canadian photographer, who had gone to the Sunday market in Demnate.

    I highly recommend Kasbah Timdaf. The kasbah is comfortable, the food good, and the scenery beautiful - it’s farmland, with the Atlas mountains as a backdrop. It was a good break from the traveling and at this time of year, quiet and peaceful.

    The next morning, we headed for Marrakech. It’s about two hours away from Demnate, so we were there in time to meet up with Mark for lunch. We ate at an Italian restaurant and I must say it was a relief to have something other than a tagine. Afterwards, we did a little sightseeing and geocaching as this was our most likely chance for BF to get a Morocco cache, which she did. BF also bought a map on which to mark our route; she says it’s something she’s done for years and I wish I’d thought of it for my previous travels. We wanted to go to the Marjorelle Garden, but just as we pulled up, so did several tour busses, so we decided to skip it.

    Marrakech reminded me of New York City and James told me later that other people have said the same thing. The modern part of the city is very modern - lots of big-name stores - and the whole city seems to throb with energy and activity. Traffic is insane! Every time we crossed a street, BF and I scurried to whichever side of Mark was not facing oncoming traffic! There were cars, bikes, scooters, horse-drawn carriages and pedestrians and they all seemed to be in the road at the same time and without regard for each other.

    We stayed at a riad in the Jewish quarter. This riad was lovely - a small pool in the courtyard, tortoises, which are considered good luck, and mint tea on our arrival. There was a wonderful roof terrace, from which we could see storks nesting in the nearby mosque minaret.

    The next day, we had a guide to take us through the Marrakech medina and to the Bahia Palace and the Medersa Ben Youssef. While we appreciated his knowledge of the palace and the medersa, he seemed to have a set itinerary in mind, while we were content to wander through the medina and the souks once we had done the tours. I think what I would do in the future, at least in Marrakech, is have a guide for a half day for things like the palaces and museums, then go off on my own. We returned to the riad in late afternoon and retired to the roof terrace with some mint tea before heading to dinner at a French restaurant.

    The next day, BF and I wandered over to and through the Jewish cemetery, then ventured into a couple of the nearby souks. As always, they were fascinating, especially when we wound up in an area where huge bags of spices were being brokered. Women weren’t supposed to be there, but when we made to leave, a man said it was okay for us to stay and told us about the proceedings. What I wish I had a picture of is the moment when BF and I were crossing a street and got marooned in the middle! There were all kinds of traffic on all sides of us, but fortunately, it was a narrow street with a turn in it, so things were moving slowly and we were able to make it across safely.

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    We returned to the riad late-morning, where James picked us up for the drive to Essaouira. Arriving in Essaouira, we had lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking the water, then checked into the Mumtaz Mahal. This place was our splurge; personally, the decor was a bit over-the-top for me, but BF was in seventh heaven! It was beautifully done, though, and quite luxurious.

    After checking in, we drove over to the port. When I happened to glance through an arch and see the ramparts, I was so excited, I could only point. We went up into a tower and the views were fabulous in all directions. We then did a little wandering in the outskirts of the souks, but a front was moving through, so it was very windy and getting chilly. After a brief rest at the riad, BF and I found a restaurant a short walk away for dinner. The food was just okay, but there was a fire, which was lovely.

    The next day, we wandered through the souks, then up to a section of the ramparts that even James had not seen. The ocean was kicking up spray against the rocks below us, the sun was shining and the whole scene was incredibly picturesque! After we came down from the ramparts, James called a friend of his, Ulysses, who has an argan oil business, to see if we could visit. The man said yes, so off we went. We had wanted to buy the oil at a women’s cooperative, but James and Mark explained to us that many argan oil producers were now calling themselves women’s cooperatives, even if they aren’t, and that it’s hard to tell which are legit. We were hesitant to buy any products in the souks, since we didn’t know if they were adulterated.

    We really enjoyed our visit to Ulysses’ establishment. Because argan oil has anti-aging properties, BF and I wanted to bring back a vat, but that was impractical! His sister-in-law demonstrated the products to us - for personal care, the oil is mixed with other ingredients like shea nut butter to make it more absorbent by the skin, and there were various balms and lotions to try. We also tasted the plain oil with bread; there was a version made from the toasted nuts that was especially delicious.

    We followed up our visit with a lovely lunch at a nearby French cafe, then drove down to the beach. Despite the cold water, I took off my shoes and socks and waded in - I wanted to say that I’d been in the ocean in Morocco! After we got back to Essaouira, we went down to the port to take sunset photos. It was so beautiful, I could have stayed forever. We had a lovely fish stew for dinner at the same restaurant where we’d eaten lunch the day before and this is when I realized that I’d miss having fresh olives with every meal!

    I was up early the next morning to go to the port for sunrise photos. It was great wandering around, seeing a couple of men get ready to go out fishing and the boats under construction. They are still made by hand and I met a man who was a ship’s carpenter. I had to scurry to get back to the riad for breakfast - we were taking off a little earlier than usual so we’d have plenty of time for our drive up the coast to Casablanca.

    The drive up the coast was another of BF’s brilliant ideas. We had to get to Casablanca for our flight to London anyway, and in the course of her research, she found out that a town on the way, Oualidia, had wonderful oysters, so she suggested we drive up the coast, stopping there for lunch. I have to say that that was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken - absolutely fantastic. We made it to Oualidia in time for lunch and had a seafood feast looking out over the lagoon. The tide was coming in and we could see the spray from the waves crashing against the shore on the ocean side of the lagoon.

    Getting into Casablanca was horrible - it was Friday afternoon and you’d think everyone would have been heading out of the city. We had booked a hotel in the city, rather than at the airport, thinking we’d get a chance to sightsee a little bit before dinner, but that didn’t happen. The hotel was awful - bad enough that I wrote my first review on tripadvisor - but it was only for one night. I admit it - we went to Rick’s Cafe for dinner. However cliched that may be, the food was very good and no way could we have gotten a meal like that in the US for what we paid there. We had a lovely time together and I don’t think any of us wanted the evening to end, since it was our last one. The next day, James drove us to the airport, where we said goodbye to him and Morocco with tears in our eyes.

    I expected to find Morocco interesting but I didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I thought I’d tick it off the list as ‘been there, done that’ but I find myself thinking of how soon I can get back there. I think my excuse will be that it’s a wonderful place for artists and photography counts as art, right?!

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    Photos are here: http://tinyurl.com/7xrdm5g.

    Miscellaneous:

    Best last-minute addition to my suitcase: a pashmina-type scarf. Not only did I wear it as a scarf, I draped it across the car window to block the sun.

    What I wish I'd taken: a small jar of peanut butter. I don't usually take food on my travels, but I could have used the protein at breakfast, which was usually fresh-squeezed orange juice (delicious) and 2-3 different kinds of carbs.

    Great suggestion from the BF: to wear my photographer's vest since I couldn't use my backpack (broken collarbone). Bought one for my first safari, hadn't worn it much since, but it was perfect.

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    Really enjoyed this report and the photos!

    Do you happen to recall the name of the auberge and bivouac in Erg Chebbi? Trying to find a comfortable place and your description sounded like what we're looking for.

    Thanks.

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    Thanks very much for your trip report & your stunning pictures. I have been back & forth with Mark about a trip next year so it is great to hear your firsthand report.

    Ian

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    What a great report! Good writing and description of the experiences. We have been to Morocco three times - every time with Mark Willenbrock! He is the best at finding out what you want to do - and then making a plan to do it! With other guides, I think you often follow their itinerary.
    I know that feeling you had when you left Morocco. I, too - thought that I could cross it off my list. After three trips - it still isn't crossed off! Trying to figure out how to go once again.

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