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Trip Report Morocco Trip Report September 2011

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For our 10 year wedding anniversary, we decided to leave the kids at home and go away to the far, exotic land!!!!! We had the time of our lives. We were fortunate to find a guide who became a great friend, Lahcen from Around Morocco, who shared the beauty of Morocco, its people, cities, nature, culture, and traditions with us.
We consider ourselves to be well traveled and addicts to international semi-exotic destinations. We love to immerse ourselves into different cultures as the ultimate getaway. Morocco provided us with this escape -- its combination of vibrant cities (Fez, Marrakesh), natural beauty (Gorges, Mountains, Desert), and friendly people provided the perfect balance of a different culture while feeling completely welcome and safe. Lahcen tirelessly brought alive every aspect of this beautiful country and its people.
We flew in to Casablanca from Chicago (via Madrid) where we were picked up by Lahcen at the airport. We didn't get a chance to get money, so Lahcen treated us to coffee and to lunch until we got to Meknes, where we finally got some money out at the ATM and felt "complete" again. Meknes is a cute little town. He took us to his friend' s shop who makes Damascene, an almost lost art form of making beautiful design by applying silver threads to iron. He showed us to one of the king's palaces, and we were on the way as we were antsy to get to Fez.
Lahcen arranged for the riad there, so when we arrived, we changed, washed off and were greeted to a really nice dinner right there, at the riad.
The next day, our trip actually began. We met our Fez guide and went off. We strolled the narrow streets of Medina and learned about the history and current traditions of the city. Fez has so much to offer in terms of culture that it is almost sensory overload for the eyes, ears, and nose (the food and spices in the market smells so good, I can almost taste it now).
We visited a few of the traditional "touristy" shops -- the tannery, which is a must see, but beware of prices; a rug co-op -- same advise.
Our trip was heavy on shopping because we have a store that sells home and business accessories, and we wanted to pick up some unique items (ok, a plug for our store www.indieabode.com) The lesson learned: bargain hard -- very hard. Never pay the price. Moroccans are tradesmen -- so be prepared =)))
Fez, I was advised, was good for leather and ceramics because of a certain kind of soil that is only found in that area. So, we loaded up on poufs, plates, tagines, and henna lamps.
We also loaded up on wine at the grocery store, as smaller riads and restaurants don't serve wine. They don't mind if you bring your own though.
We spent a full day in Fez, and the next day, we were off to Merzouga -- Lahcen's home town at the outskirts of the Sahara desert. It was a LONG, VERY LONG drive. But it was fun: we stopped at the cedar forests, home to the makak monkeys. They come up to you and take apples right from your hands. This was amazing. We were going to stop and have lunch at Lahcen's sisters house, but we ended up running late, and just stopped there for tea and sweets. Lahcen's nieces painted my hands with henna (I mentioned to Lahcen that I would've like to get that done the day before). We continued our drive until we got to Merzouga pretty late at night. We stayed at an amazing riad, that belongs to Lahcen's cousin. We were treated like family -- where did we want to have dinner: upstairs on the roof, at the pool, downstairs? Our luggage was taken to our room, our dinner was served on the rooftop deck and we were again, in heaven!!!!

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    When we woke up the next morning, the whole day was already planned. We had a lovely breakfast. After that, we went to the shop where Lahcen picked up traditional Berber wardrobe for my husband and I - we were now both attired in light blue djellaba robes. May be it was a hint to me (ha-ha). Dressed for the occasion, Lahcen took us to a nearly private band performance by a local tribal band. I believe this music is called Gnaoua. We were served traditional mint tea and danced to the beat. My husband is really not a dancer, but Lahcen has a way of bringing out the fun side in everyone – its impossible to not have a good time with him, that even my dear husband was out there dancing.
    After the music, we went back to town where Lahcen picked up our lunch -- Madfouna (as he explained, it's Moroccan pizza), and the three of us headed to an antique shop so I could look for some jewelry. We met some of Lahcen's friends and shared the lunch. After I couldn't swallow another bite of Madfouna (and it was good! According to Lahcen it's made with 35 spices from the Atlas Mountains), and I finished my shopping, we went back to the riad to get ready for our overnight desert camel track. We jumped into the pool, had a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, took showers and went to meet our desert guide, a really nice young man Muhamed who spoke very decent English (we found that out while hanging together at night at the camp, but more about this later).
    Muhamed helped us on the camels and off we went. I was really looking forward to that part, while my husband was dreading it the most. I must say, that the camel ride was very uneventful =)) It's not super comfortable if you are not used to it (we obviously weren't), and both of our backs started to hurt a little by the end. The track was just long enough -- about 2 hours to enjoy the sunset, the realization that we were on the camels, going into the Sahara desert to spend the night. Amazing? Incredible? Unbelievable? Magical? Yes to all of these.
    We got to camp site by the time it started to get dark. It was a pretty basic camp, but it had toilets with running water, small "dining" area with electricity. And, kind of basic tents with blankets and pillows on the sand. Just good enough for one night (ok, as the saying goes- my idea of camping is Hilton). I must say though, Muhamed made an incredible chicken tagine. May be because we were outside living our dream, it was even better.
    We met three other guests who were staying at the camp -- the young men from other parts of Morocco who went on boys' camping trip. So, the 6 of us started talking and before we knew it, the tagine was gone and it was getting late.
    We then heard some drumming from the nearby camp tents and decided to go check it out while Muhamed was cleaning up and getting our tents ready for us. He met us there, shortly and joined another guide at the drums. A few more guests with their guides came over. It was the most amazing impromptu drumming session, under the Sahara moon, with signing and dancing. I guess when people talk about travel memories and experiences that they remember the most and that stand out the most - this was probably it for us.
    Before we went to bed, Muhamed took us on a dune to look at the stars and we called it a day (or a night).
    The wake-up call came at 5 am with camels moving around, people climbing the dunes to watch the sunrise, and the local guides packing the camels and making breakfast.
    We got back to the riad by 10 in the morning and went to sleep for a few hours.
    That day was our actual anniversary, but we were pretty tired. We didn't sleep much and we were back with Lahcen in the car, going to the Dades Gorge where we were spending the night before going to Marrakech. I still had to make a few shopping stops on the way (which took longer than both men (Lahcen and my husband) anticipated) so we were running late again. As we found out later, Lahcen had a surprise for us waiting at the hotel. This was another hotel that he arranged for us. When we walked into our room, the rose petals were spread all over the bed, the sinks, and the bathroom floor. There was a heart made out of rose petals and a plate of fresh fruits!!!! If someone will say this is not thoughtful......I know no one will say this. Since we were tired from the road and the previous night at the desert, we decided to try Hammam - moroccan sauna. Great, refreshing -- my skin felt like I was born again.
    We then went to the hotel's restaurant for dinner and at the end, they brought us a cake with Happy Anniversary written on it!!! Lahcen missed the presentation as he was at the hammam himself while we were at dinner, but we did end up sending him half the cake.
    Got up the next morning and drove through the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. It was a 5 hour drive, that took us longer, b/c we stopped on the way. I did more shopping. Lahcen took us to a very famous Kasbah where he gave us a tour (he is so knowledgeable that we wanted him to give us a tour instead of a local tour guide), and we were off.
    We got to Marrakech later in the evening. It was crazy!! Coming from the desert and the small towns where we only spent the last couple of days (but we've done so much, and discussed so much, and have seen so much, that it seemed like we've been traveling forever) -- here we were -- a medley of cars, buses, donkeys, pedestrians, bicycles!
    I picked a hotel in Marrakech, riad Kniza and we loved it from the minute we stepped there.

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    Marrakech is very diverse and vibrant city. It is Morocco's melting pot. I won't describe it in detail, b/c that's what the tour books are for. We spent the next day at the Medina with our Marrakech guide that Lahcen had arranged for us. Very knowledgeable man, Yussef. Medina in Marrakech is a city in its own. I believe it's second to the one in Damascus, Syria. It is HUGE! It is so big that even I got tired of shopping!!!!! Now, this says a lot =)))
    Our tour would end around 2, b/c it would get hot, so my husband and I would just continue on our own -- we went to YSL home and gardens. A beautiful place, definitely worth a visit. Unfortunately, the house itself was closed, but we enjoyed walking around the gardens.
    We went back to the medina in the evening by ourselves -- we always felt safe.
    We went to the famous square, Jemma el Fna. It was interesting, but this is the only place where we had "to watch it". I felt that we were approached all the time to " do henna designs" (I just showed my hands), to take pictures with the poor monkeys, to take pictures with the snakes (who I think were so done that you could stick a finger in their mouth and they would spit it out), to take pictures with the donkeys and I don't know what else. And, some vendors were a little aggressive. We never run into that at the Medina. I felt that the shop owners were very respectful and if it was a firm "no", we were never hassled. May be because we were with guides, and that made a difference. I don't know.
    I must say that all the guides we were with were very considerate of "our" time. We were a little nervous while planning this trip that we would spend so much time with other people.
    As most Americans (and sorry for the generalization), we are very protective of our limited vacation time and really want it be OUR TIME. It's funny, but it almost felt like the guides knew that and they were there when you needed them, but walked in front of you or behind you most of the time. When we weren't with Lahcen in a car, he would drop us off to walk around; he would take us to lunch and then go and have lunch with his friends.
    Lahcen was a big help. I keep inserting his name everywhere, but this is because, I can't think of our trip to Morocco without him. He was such a staple and such a presence the entire time, that the two of us, who value our one on one time so much, actually missed him when we left Morocco. If you read the reviews that other people wrote about him, there is one common thread -- everyone feels that he becomes your friend. It is a very unique quality that not many people can be proud to have.

    A few more general things about Morocco:

    ATMs are everywhere. If one is not working, you will find another one nearby.

    Most people speak some kind of English. If they don't, they'll try to find someone who speaks some kind of English. If you speak a little bit of French, it helps enormously.

    The food is delicious. Everyone in the service industry is aware that foreigners do not eat raw vegetables or drink tap water. We've asked some riads to make us coffee with bottled water, until someone told us that they boil it anyway =))) Tea is served with boiled water.

    We were VERY careful with the tap water. Brushing the teeth, taking showers.

    I ate peeled fruits, and was fine. We were both actually fine, and my husband has a very sensitive stomach -- the wind blows and he gets sick.

    Women do dress conservatively, and so do men. However, tourists dress how they fell comfortable. We were there in September and it was still hot. I wore sleeveless tops everywhere. Some places, it was probably less appropriate than others, but with big Cannon camera on my chest, I got no "dirty" looks. However, I am glad I didn't bring any of my summer cargo or jean mini-skirts. I don't think I would've felt comfortable wearing that.

    Alcohol is not available in the medina restaurants, nor in the small riads or restaurants. However, the places that are more touristy, do serve alcohol.

    We found Morocco to be safe to travel. However, we were with guides most of our time, except for Marrakech. So my opinion my be a little skewed.

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    And, I forgot to mention that Lahcen comes to the US every year to attend the fossil show in Arizona. And, we got to see him in Chicago this spring, which was great!!!!! But, the reason that I am mentioning this is that is very easy to do financial transactions with him, b/c he has an established account with a US bank. Luckily for us, it was with the same bank and I didn't even have to pay any transfer fee when I transfered a deposit.

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