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15 days, 5 walks, 4 medinas, 3 gal of mint tea, 2 camel rides, one Morocco!

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Jun 23rd, 2013, 03:49 PM
  #21
 
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Ah, you almost tempt me to head back to Fes, which I feel I shortchanged last time.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 04:01 PM
  #22
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Color me blue in Chefchaouen

We wake up to a strangely chilly morning; Mohammed informs us that there is a cold front moving towards Fes. Uh oh, we hope it will be warmer when we get back. We're only taking one small suitcase with us, so leave the large ones in our room. There's an ATM in Rcif, so we withdraw some cash before hailing a taxi to the station. Our first order of business is to get our return tickets on the 3:15 bus back to Fes tomorrow. At 10, a bus arrives to take us to the CTM station where we check in our bag (for 5 MAD) and check email using the free wi-fi in the cafe while we wait. In retrospect, we should have just gone to the CTM station directly. The bus departs on time; its air-conditioned, comfortable and we lean back into the reclining seats for the 4 hour ride. Note there are seat numbers on the ticket, but both this bus and the one we return on have 2 sets of seat numbers (above the seat and on the side) causing much confusion and a lot of last minute moving around. Once we get into the countryside, the scenery is beautiful with rolling hills and miles of golden wheat fields swaying in the wind dotted with wild poppies. I love poppies - they're such happy flowers. We pass through a small town where almost every electric pole and chimney is topped with massive stork nests. This part of Morocco reminds us of Tuscany, especially when we see some cypress trees. At the halfway point, we halt at at a roadside rest stop. There is a butcher shop with fresh carcasses hanging out in front and charcoal grills next to it, so we know what we're having for lunch! We buy 20 MAD worth of freshly ground kefta meat and take it to the grill where it's cooked for us. In a few minutes, we are enjoying hot kefta kebabs and grilled onions sprinkled with chili served with khobz bread. It's finger licking good! Even before we finish the last bite, we're looking forward to eating this very meal on the way back. The landscape changes as we go up the Rif mountains; it's lush and green with carpets of wild flowers in white, yellow, pink and purple growing all the way up the hillside. Spring is wonderful, isn't it?

When we make the last turn towards Chefchaouen, we see our first views of the distinctly blue medina perched on the hilltop. It instantly reminds us of the Andalucian Pueblos Blancos especially Zahara and Grazalema, only blue instead of white. Once we reach the bus station around 3, we give Carlos a call (he and his wife Ana, who are originally from Malaga, own the B&B Casa la Palma) and take a blue petit taxi to Bab Mahrouk. Carlos arrives a minute later and we walk down several steps to the B&B. We expect it to be cool here given the elevation, but it's much colder. Carlos tells us that the temperature was in the 70s/80s more than a week ago and then it snowed last week. Damn the cold front. The sky is also grey and threatening rain, so we check in, say hello to Ana, get some directions, and try and head out soon so we can walk around as much as we can today. The B&B is brightly decorated and cozy with large rooms. There is a small roof terrace with lovely views of the medina and surrounding hills, so we warm ourselves with some mint tea and a plate of Moroccan cookies before we leave. Carlos' directions are simple - climb down the steps until we reach a fork, turn left to head to Ras el Maa (the river) and go up the hill, go straight down to get to the main square called Plaza Uta el Hammam, or turn right and get lost. For now, turn left it is. The medina is unique; awash in a myriad shades of blue - from pale and icy to bright and deep, sometimes all together in the same building. We stop to watch a woman paint the walls and steps in front of her house.We go up and down cobbled steps turning into narrow alleys while heading in the general direction of the river. There are kids in every corner - both boys and girls - chatting and playing with a football, paper kites or stones. They all say "Hola" as we walk by, a reminder that this region was Spanish territory and not French like the rest of Morocco. We pause at every arch and door, wondering if we'll ever make it to the river.

We finally do; there's a small waterfall with locals hanging out or picnicking or washing their clothes in the river. There is a small restaurant here, but since the weather has been holding up so far, we decide to continue up the hill to an abandoned mosque directly across from the medina and offering up panoramic views. Dark clouds hug the steep cliffs while the sun peeking out casts a faint glow on the blue and white buildings - it's very picturesque. This area is also known for its hash; in fact they grow it right behind the mosque. Ajit, who has allergies likely caused by all the dust in Fes, has been sniffling for the past couple of days. You know where I am going with this. As we walk up, he is approached several times by men, some more persistent than others, who try to sell him some hash and he keeps saying no. It's annoying and even a little funny (given the sniffling ), but never threatening. I would avoid this area after dusk however, just to be safe. When we get to the top, we sit for just a little while and take some pictures, but don't linger.

Once we get back down, we decide to walk down to the plaza and kasbah. This is where Ajit gets started on his "Cats of Morocco" project, because there are just so many of them everywhere. Meanwhile, I am mildly obsessed with the "Doors of Morocco", so we are both enchanted with this town. After a wander through the plaza, we sit in a small cafe across from the mosque and people watch. There are not many tourists here, mostly locals catching up with friends and family at the end of the day and kids playing. The men look comfortable and warm in their woolen hooded djellabas, while women wear the more fashionable varieties, some accesorized with scarves and boots. Wearing a light sweater and cotton scarf, I'm very envious of them right now. At about 7, we head to La Lampe Magique (or Casa Aladdin) for dinner. It's a huge restaurant with several levels of seating. We start with soups - lentil for me and harira for Ajit. We then share a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and a kefta tagine. The meal is very good and the harira a standout. Dessert is a letdown however with the flan and chocolate crepe tasting just ok. It's been another long day, so we trudge back up the steps to the B&B after dinner. It's dark, but there are a lot of kids still playing outside under the street lamps. For us, it's time to call it a night.
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Jun 24th, 2013, 06:43 PM
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It's grey and drizzling when we wake up. Ana has whipped up an impressive breakfast for us - there's mint tea, fresh OJ, warm bread with fresh goat cheese, the best strawberry jam and orange marmalade I've had (you can taste the fresh fruit), eggs and crepes with goat cheese and raspberries. Too full to move, we hang around to chat with Ana about their move to Morocco and what they love and dislike about living here. She's a resident but Carlos has to renew his visa every 90 days, which is what he's doing today in Ceuta. At about 10, we pack up and check out of our room; we'll be back at 2:30 to pick up our bag.

This morning, our plan is to turn right at the fork and get lost, and that we manage to do quite well. The rain has made the cobbled steps very slippery, so we move gingerly holding umbrellas and our cameras. The rain is light and comes and goes, so it's not too bad. In fact, the wet stones/walls and grey skies make the blue colors of the medina all the more vivid. We walk up and down turning here and there, past a small square with stores and a tea shop, past grape vines hanging across narrow alleys, past interesting doors and windows, past women carrying trays of bread to be baked at the communal ovens, past a crumbling square with a central fountain that must have been beautiful once upon a time. The sounds of a ball being kicked around in every corner, laughing kids, kittens playing, women talking to each other, feet shuffling on the cobbled streets, all echo through the medina. We drift around for more than an hour and think we're at one end of the medina, only to find ourselves back where we started - but this is half the fun. We pick up some cookies from a shop and stop for some tea, before continuing through the market and finishing up at the plaza. For lunch, we go to Darcon, as it's recommended by Ana. We have the lentil soup, zaalouk and a chicken b'stilla. I am excited to try the b'stilla - a unique sweet and savory Moroccan meat pie traditionally made with pigeon. It's filo pastry filled with ground chicken, nuts, raisins and cinnamon and dusted with sugar - an odd combination of flavors in my opinion, but one that works pretty well nonetheless. While the rest of the meal is so-so, we do enjoy the b'stilla. Afterwards, we walk back up to the B&B taking a different route this time, and wishing we had another day or two to spend in this charming town - a day to explore the medina some more and a day to hike in the hills.

Ana tells us that we can walk to the bus station in about 10 minutes, so that's what we do. Only, its a much longer walk that takes us about 20 minutes. Outside the medina, the new town looks like any other small town and we see a lot more tourists here. Along the way, I ask a couple of girls where the bus stop is and they point us down a road. Every time we stop, unsure of the direction, we see the girls behind us giggling and pointing straight down. We finally find the bus station at the end of a very steep road. The bus ride back to Fes is uneventful and we get to enjoy the wildflowers and hot off the grill kebabs one more time and nibble on the dates that we'd forgotten we had with us. We arrive in Fes after 7 and are back at Dar Seffarine shortly thereafter. Our bags are already up in the suite and we literally run up the stairs to check out the palatial room and explore every inch of woodwork and stucco - we love it! We skip dinner tonight, but join the other guests for a beer. The cold continues in Fes unfortunately, so dinner has been served in the breakfast room up on the terrace instead of the garden. There are a couple of familiar faces and many new ones, so over a delightful dessert of apple pie with an almond crust, we catch up with each other.
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Jun 25th, 2013, 05:49 PM
  #24
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Not sure if anyone is still reading, but here goes another installment. If no one's reading, I'll just come back to post our pictures once they're done.

A cooking class, more pottery and bidding adieu to Fes

This is our last full day in Fes and its bittersweet; we are excited about the adventures that lie ahead but Fes and this dar have been very special and we'll be sad to leave tomorrow. We are supposed to be picked up from Dar Seffarine at 9:30 for our cooking class, but Fatima (who runs the class when Lahcen is unavailable) is running late, so she asks us to meet her at the Batha Hotel instead. Once there, we walk over to the riad that she manages, and over mint teas and really good cookies, look through the menu options to pick what we want to cook today. It's going to be just the two of us in the class, so we get to pick what we like. We will start with harira, the traditional Moroccan tomato soup, followed by lamb and vegetable couscous, and end with date rolls for dessert. We expect to leave for the market now, but end up waiting around for another half an hour while Fatima wraps up her work at the riad and checks out a guest - we're a little peeved about this. Anyhow, we finally set out at 11 for the market close to Boujloud to buy the ingredients for our meal. Our first stop is for vegetables - we are using 7 for the couscous - eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, cabbage, turnip, carrots, pumpkin. Then, it's fresh mint for tea, followed by lamb from the butcher. On to chickpeas freshly soaked in water (so much better than the canned version and clock friendly), dates, walnuts and finally, freshly made paper thin filo sheets for dessert (it's fascinating to watch the woman make the filo).

It's time to get back and start cooking! It's a really hands on class and we make everything from scratch. The harira is a simple recipe to follow, so I am most excited about the couscous, which is not cooked in water or stock like we do back home, but involves a rather laborious process of steaming, two or three times. First we wash the couscous in cold water and let it sit until all the water is absorbed and sprinkle it with salt. While the lamb and vegetables bubble away in a pot, the couscous is steamed on top in a double boiler. After about 15 minutes, we remove the couscous onto a large plate, and fluff it with our hands to remove the lumps. Pour some olive oil, fluff, and steam again. Last but not least, add a few pats of smen. Couscous made this way is just so creamy and flavorful even with nothing else added to it. The lamb goes in the center, the vegetables around it and the couscous is topped with caramelized pumpkin and raisins. Besides the date dessert, we also make a simple melon salad with mint and orange blossom water. Throw in an appetizer of briouates stuffed with spiced cabbage and carrots that Fatima has already made for the riad guests, and we have a truly delicious meal. There is just so much food that we hardly do it justice. It's been an interesting and fun day and Fatima has been great - we love getting to know a country through its cuisine and cooking/food rituals and techniques.

It's 3:30 by the time we're done so we hurry and take a taxi to the Art Naji factory to buy some ceramics. We are looking for designs similar to the ones we've seen at Dar Seffarine, but the manager informs us that those were custom ordered by Kate. Since he knows what we like, he brings over a few pieces from inside that are similar - perfect. We pick up 4 small bowls and 2 larger ones. If we had time, we would have loved to take a tour of the factory to see the artisans at work and see the entire process - they make everything from hand painted plates, bowls, vases and tagines to colorful and elaborate zellij tables and fountains. The manager calls a taxi for us and we take it to Bab Ftouh, from where we walk through the Andalucian quarter past the mosque and through the market, along narrow streets with no tourist to be seen, past tiny shops specializing in woodwork or metalwork or leather until we reach Seffarine square. One last orange juice and tea on these stools in this square with this view and it's time to say goodbye to Mustafa and the other staff. It gets chilly as the sun sets, so we don't sit on the terrace for long before we are forced to head back indoors. It's too bad. Dinner tonight is in the parlor; more intimate, with candles and just the French/German couple who we've gotten to know for company. We have squash soup, a cucumber/pepper salad, fried eggplant, potatoes with parsley, carrots with cumin, kefta tagine and roasted peaches with yogurt for dessert. All washed down with a bottle of rose. After another round of goodbyes, we enjoy our last night of luxury in our majestic suite - tomorrow, we bid adieu to this home away from home.
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Jun 26th, 2013, 05:14 AM
  #25
 
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" If no one's reading, I'll just come back to post our pictures once they're done."

Well I'm still here, and still enjoying the story.

You're right, instant couscous just can't compare with the properly made version.

Awaiting the next installment!
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Jun 26th, 2013, 06:38 AM
  #26
 
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Our trip includes three nights in Fes, this is all excellent information!!

Then after Fes our route is very similar to your Day 7 to Day 13, so I'm looking forward to the rest of your story.
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Jun 26th, 2013, 08:36 AM
  #27
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Thank you both for continuing to read. Knowing someone is finding this remotely useful or interesting is motivation enough for me to wrap this up soon. My goal is to do a chapter a day...another one to follow tonight.

bniemand - I'm starting on Day 7, so hoping the next few segments provide you with some helpful info.
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Jun 26th, 2013, 11:15 AM
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Keep posting! Reading regularly as part of my planning for our September trip.

thanks!
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Jun 26th, 2013, 02:31 PM
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Ok, here goes Day 7

A walk through cedar forests and a surprise meeting in the Middle Atlas

Mohammed brings out an extra special breakfast for us this morning that includes a frittata and french toast. He's the best. Alaa and Kate have left for Norway, so we don't get to see them before we leave. Hamid, our driver from JBT, arrives promptly at 9 to pick us up, and we're on our way. There is no sign of warm weather returning; poor Ajit is in desperate need of a sweater or hoodie. Today, we're driving through the Middle Atlas, where the lush valley and wildflowers remind us of the drive to Chefchaouen. Our first and very brief stop is at Ifrane, known as the Switzerland of Morocco, with a ski resort and vacation homes of the uber wealthy, including the king's palace. It's weird to see a town full of chalet style homes, looks so out of place here. When we get out of the car, the 40F temperature jolts us awake. A week earlier, Ifrane was a balmy 65F. We run into a coffee shop to warm ourselves with some tea, use the restrooms and try unsuccessfully to find Ajit a sweater.

So, we continue on to Azrou, where we will meet a local guide for a 2 hour walk through the cedar forest. Yes, you heard right, cedar forests in Morocco, who would've thought! I didn't, until I started reading about this region. Zacharia is waiting for us at a gas station, so we pick him up and drive to the national park where Hamid drops us off. It's not as cold here and we warm up as we walk through the tall cedars and oaks. This region is also known for barbary apes - we do see several of them scampering about. Zacharia does a lot of hiking and climbing in the area, but this is his first time working with JBT. He's an interesting guy and observant Muslim, eager to talk and share his views on Morocco and religion. He also points out several herbs and medicinal plants growing in the wild. When he's not hiking, he's cooking in restaurants or doing wood working. The fresh mountain air is refreshing and it's really nice to walk through a landscape that's so unexpected. At the end of our walk, Zacharia calls Hamid to pick us up.

We think we're having lunch at a restaurant in town, but instead, Hamid drives us to a residential neighborhood. Very curious. We enter a home and who do we see, but Thomas and Fazia, the owners of JBT! We're pleasantly surprised. Our host is Aisha who works for JBT. Thomas and Fazia live in Ifrane, but happen to be in Azrou today and decide to organize this lunch and meet us. Excellent. It's interesting to hear them recount how they got here, what made them stay and start this company, their vision for it and also share our travel stories. Meanwhile, Thomas and Zacharia discuss single and multi-day trekking routes in the area that they can add to the JBT roster. For lunch, Aisha brings over a massive plate piled high with couscous and topped with chicken and vegetables - it's a communal affair and we all sit around and dig into it together as we continue talking. There's also a lovely moist apple cake and fruits for dessert. Aisha has been incredibly generous in sharing her home and this delicious food with us. It's almost 4 and we've got a long way to go to Erfoud, where we'll be halting for the night, so unfortunately it's time to leave. Azrou would be a great base to use for hiking or river trips in the region, for those who are so inclined and have the time.

The 4 hour drive to Erfoud continues to deliver some of the more dramatic changes in landscape that I have seen in such a short distance. We have gone from lush valleys to thick cedar forests to arid flat lands strewn with rose colored rocky outcrops and Berber villages to the verdant Ziz Valley. We stop at a view point here to say hello to Tata, the JBT coordinator for the region and whose family we’ll be spending the day with tomorrow. Then, it’s onward for another hour to the dusty town of Erfoud, known for its famous October date festival. We drive by several tacky hotels that all look the same and are used by large tour groups headed to the desert. Hamid drops us off at our hotel, Ksar Assalassil and will pick us up in the morning. This hotel is not as tacky as some of the others we’ve passed by and the rooms and bathrooms are certainly large, but it’s all very blah. Dinner is terrible particularly the beef tagine, which is just a couple of chunks of beef and a lot of dripping fat. Eww. This will be our worst meal on this trip. I think given that most travelers just use this town as a jumping off point for desert trips provides little motivation for the hotels. The chilled beer is nice though, especially as it’s warmer here…finally!
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Jun 26th, 2013, 07:13 PM
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From an oasis to the desert

Breakfast at the hotel is much better than dinner and has the standard fare of OJ, bread, jams, hard boiled egg and a yogurt. Edible but not memorable. At 9:30, Hamid arrives to drop us off at the Tafilalt oasis in the Ziz Valley, where we will be spending most of our day with Tata. With our Toyota Land Cruiser, we are able to go off road to the edge of the gorge and get a birds eye view of the lush palmeraie and fields, and the largely hidden Oued Ziz (the river) that once carved its way to create this gorge, snaking through it. These oasis are the lifeline of the valley. There are several ksars or fortified villages in this palmeraie, and with their adobe homes easily blend into the landscape. Tata was born here, and is married with 5 kids ranging in age from 5 months to 13. As we walk down the gorge to the valley floor, he tells us about his serendipitous meeting with Thomas and Fazia several years ago, even before they had started JBT, that led to their collaboration and his employment with them - T & F were traveling through the area looking down at the oasis and wondering how they could get down there, when they met Tata, and the rest (to make a long story short) as they say is history. It's a wonderful story of an enterprising man, who seized the opportunity, sold his motorcycle to buy a laptop, taught himself how to use the computer/internet, practiced his English and found ways to tailor this Ziz valley experience to suit the traveling styles of his clients.

We walk past the cemetery, kasbah, take a short tour of the house he was born in that is now abandoned and then stop over at his sister's house. Her name is Naeema and she is gorgeous and shy. We sit on the living room floor and have mint tea and peanuts and continue chatting. Soon Naeema brings over a large bread stuffed with spiced onions and herbs. It's similar to an Indian paratha and is wonderful to taste. Locals calls it Medfouna while to tourists it is Berber pizza. Ajit and I can't stop eating, even though we know that a big lunch awaits us. My mouth waters even as I write this. After this hearty snack, we continue walking through the fields irrigated by narrow canals. I forget the exact number, but there are more than a million date palms in this oasis which brings in most of the money for the families. Most everything else that grows here sustains the village. There's wheat, lots of vegetables and tons of fruit trees (figs, pomegranates, apricots, grapes, peaches, almonds) and alfalfa for the livestock. Each family owns a plot of land and the village has a system wherein water is diverted to a plot on a particular day of the week. Specific canals are blocked with stones to divert the water as needed.

After more than an hour in the fields, we reach Tata's home and meet his wife, mother, brother, son, nephew and 3 daughters. His wife doesn't speak any English, so our attempt at a conversation with her leaves us all laughing hard. Ajit and I take turns to kick the ball around with his nephew and middle daughter - the 5 year old nephew has pretty slick moves. Tata's son, like most teenagers, is mostly focused on watching TV. Lunch is served outdoors under a gazebo covered with grape vines. Very nice! Lunch is elaborate as expected and consists of cucumber salad, carrots with cumin, zaalouk, roasted peppers, potatoes, beef tagine with vegetables, bread, grated carrots in OJ and melons. Simple, local, fresh - are what come to mind. The whole family (except Tata's mother) eats at the table with us, and we are also joined by a half a dozen cats anxious for some scraps. Hamid arrives at 2 in time for dessert and entertainment - the kids sing songs and recite poems and passages from the Koran - until we have to leave around 3. This has been another lovely day in the Middle Atlas offering a glimpse into a way of life that's unique to this region, generously shared by Tata and his family.
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Jun 27th, 2013, 04:12 PM
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seemaskt - Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed travelog. I'm saving it all in Word so when you are finished I can just sit down and read it all like reading a book. Thanks.
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Jun 27th, 2013, 05:15 PM
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I am so enjoying your travel log. I appreciate the time it must be taking you to write it. we are planning a trip to Morocco in late Sept/early Oct. This has been a big help!
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Jun 27th, 2013, 06:59 PM
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Thanks astein, Caroline and travellovers! Looks like many of you are planning a Sept/Oct trip to Morocco. Have a great trip!

A mild sandstorm, a fire and stars like we've never seen before

We retrace our way back to Erfoud and then drive straight through to Merzouga via Rissani. All along the roadside, there are fossil factories, but we're not interested. The landscape is mostly flat and barren until we see towering dunes rising up from the desert floor signaling that we have arrived at the edge of the Sahara. Hamid takes us off road here so we can drive along the dune line. We stop to see fossilized rocks, the home where his mother grew up and a group of water wells connected by underground channels dating back to the 11th century. The dunes here are the highest we've ever seen, a lovely salmon shade at this time of day and with graceful curves and peaks - breathtaking! We arrive at our hotel, Xaluca Tombouctou, leave our suitcases behind, freshen up and carrying just a knapsack and our cameras, set out to find our camels.

We meet Ibrahim, who's got our camels or rather dromedaries (they are single humped) - a 20 year old maverick and a 7 year old sprightly fellow. And what do you know...I get the maverick. Let's just say I've not had the best luck with certain beasts of burden (refer trip to Jordan to get an idea). Ajit has never been on a camel, while I have been on one once (and got licked in the process, ick). We are helped on to our camels and set off towards the desert - Ibrahim leading my camel which is tethered to Ajit's camel, while his friend Yacoub walks ahead to setup camp. The weather is perfect - not too hot with a lovely breeze. A few minutes later, the wind picks up a little and swirls the sand around us, so my camel gets grouchy. He keeps changing direction, grunts unhappily, and has to be pulled because he doesn't want to move. All the while, I sit up top holding on tightly hoping he doesn't hurtle me down. Ultimately, Ibrahim has no choice but to change course and take a more circuitous route to camp. Once my camel settles down, I quite enjoy the ride. I knew our camp was going to be close to the dune line (30 minutes without the detour), and not in the deep desert as I would have liked. But, Ajit didn’t care for a 2+ hour camel ride, so we settle for this. Sigh, the compromises we have to make when we are married.

When we get close to camp, we get off the camels to walk around and climb up the dunes as the sun goes down. The sea of sand and dunes for miles and miles is amazing; the Sahara is almost as large as the US and extends across North Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea. And, Algeria is just 20 miles away. It’s only when we huff and puff up the tallest dune, that we see the lights of Merzouga, so it’s easy to pretend that we are in fact far away from civilization. As the sun sets, the dunes change from golden yellow and rose hued to deep red and orange and change shapes ever so slightly with the blowing wind. Back at camp, we have tea and peanuts and watch the stars come out as dusk turns to night. I'm relaxed and enjoying my tea looking up at the sky when out of the corner of my eye, I notice flames - the wind has tipped one of the lanterns over and a carpet slung over the tent has caught fire. I yell to Ajit who is closer to the tent and he runs over, pulls the carpet off, runs with it outside the camp and throws sand over it to put out the fire. Phew! A little too much excitement. Open lanterns on a windy night is not a good idea. For dinner, we have a mixed salad with fried chicken, lamb tagine and fruits. Ibrahim and Yacoub, friends from Hassi Labied, play drums and sing Berber folk songs. They are entertaining and get a 10 for effort though they can't carry a tune very well. There are a million stars in the sky now and we all lay back and look at the constellations together and talk about the similarities in Hindi/Urdu and Arab words and of course Bollywood.

Since it's a cool night, we ask I & Y to pull the beds out of the tent so we can sleep under the stars. I am so mesmerized by the night sky that I don't want to close my eyes. It's a brilliant idea...that is until the wind starts howling and blowing sand all over us. We have to cover our heads with the sheets and blankets to keep the fine desert sand off. I drift in and out of sleep. Ajit, of course, is snoring in 5 minutes. After about 2 hours when the wind dies down, I pull away the sheets, dust off the sand from my hair and face and continue my star gazing and contemplation of our place in this universe. I fear that if I close my eyes for even a second, I'll fall asleep and not see these stars again. It's strange...this urge to keep staring up at the sky. At some point during the night though, sleep finally gets a hold of me, and the next thing I know, I open my eyes and the stars have disappeared. Dawn has broken in the Sahara.
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Jun 28th, 2013, 05:17 AM
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Wonderfully vivid descriptions!
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Jun 28th, 2013, 10:42 AM
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Have been enjoying your Moroccan musing, thanks alot for taking time to share in such a great details.
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Jun 28th, 2013, 07:12 PM
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You're very kind, Fra_Diavolo! And thanks UnderMoroccanSun.

Sunday market in Rissani, a wonderful hike in the Todra Gorge and a lovely auberge

It’s almost 6 when I open my eyes and I quickly wake Ajit up so we can take in the sunrise over the dunes. It is very chilly, so the warmth of the rising sun feels good. The shifting sands have covered all our footsteps from the evening before. We walk around for about an hour before we head back on our camels. Back at the hotel, we expect to use the pool showers to freshen up. But, the hotel staff are really nice and offer us a free room instead. Oh yes! A hot shower feels so good and refreshing this morning. The rooms here are much nicer and tasteful than in Erfoud. Breakfast is basic, similar to the morning before. Hamid arrives at 9:30 and we set off for Rissani. Our plan is to visit the Sunday souks, but first, Hamid takes us to his mother’s house where he’s spent the last couple of nights. Their family used to live within the ksar, but were the first family to move and build a more modern house outside. It’s a nice, 2 level home and we meet his mother, sister and nephew. We have tea and a plate of sugary, sticky sweets, and sit around talking (to Hamid mostly due to language issues). He turns on the Zee Aflam channel on TV that shows Bollywood hits dubbed in Arabic all day long. The songs are not dubbed however, which is why so many Moroccans are familiar with Hindi movie tunes. We only stay a short while, but it is really sweet of Hamid to bring us to see his family.

Leaving here, we drive to the Rissani souk, which has a busy market thrice a week, when Berbers, Arabs and wandering nomad traders come together to buy and sell their wares. The parking area has tethered donkeys instead of cars. We’re here on a Sunday morning around 11 and walk with Hamid to the cattle and sheep markets first. The cattle market is quiet, but the sheep/goat market is very active with a constant flow of people bringing their animals into the market, examining them and negotiating prices. We then go to the main covered market that sells everything from produce to meat to clothes to household items to window grills/doors. They sell coffee made with date seeds which is interesting, and we get conned into buying amber at the spice souk. Hamid is not very happy with how we handle the amber transaction and gives us a lecture on bargaining afterwards.

From here, it's a 3 hour drive to the Todra (or Todgha) Gorge through arid flatland flanked by the High and Anti Atlas mountains. Along the way, we stop at one of the ancient well systems and walk through the underground canals. We don't halt for lunch until we are at the gorge around 3; we are famished by this time so don't really care where we're eating. The place we stop at has a set menu for 120 MAD, which is expensive - we get kefta brochettes and a fruit plate and eat on the terrace. We then drive through the mouth of the gorge, which is very narrow, with the sheer canyon walls going straight up on either side. It's a very busy area though with several rock climbers, souvenir sellers and families picnicking by the shallow river on a Sunday afternoon. We drive on for another 3 miles to the Auberge le Festival, our home for the night. We check in and meet Youssef, who works at the auberge and is our guide for the hike this afternoon. Over tea, we discuss where we want to hike and how far we want to go. One option is to hike in the valley, but we've already walked in the Ziz valley and will be hiking in the Dades valley tomorrow. So, we nix this idea and decide to hike up the gorge instead. I have canvas shoes on so I'm worried about not having enough grip with all the loose rock, but Youssef assures me that it will not be a problem.

We start at 5 and begin hiking up the gorge across from the auberge. We go up almost 3/4ths of the way, passing shelters built by nomads. The gorge is not as steep here, but the textures of the rock face are striking as are the colors. We hear faint drum sounds coming from the auberge, so Youssef yells out to Abdul who starts drumming even louder, the sound reverberating through the canyon and bouncing off the rock walls. Fantastic. Rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage grow wild all along the slopes. Youssef is a 20 year old kid who grew up in a village about 80 kms away. His mother still lives there, his father passed away a few years ago. He's only started working at the auberge recently and taught himself English, Spanish and German so he could be a guide. He's super friendly and a nice guy. For the next 2.5 hours, we follow him as we wind our way down and up through the gorge and make a circular route back to the auberge. It's been a fun hike in pleasant weather and we are so glad we did this.

The auberge is like a stone castle built against the gorge, while our ensuite cave room is built into the rock (we had a similar room in Santorini several years ago). It's charming, cozy, naturally air-conditioned and nicely decorated. There is also an open shared terrace facing the gorge. After a shower, we go up to the main lobby where dinner awaits us. There's harira, moussaka tagine (a Moroccan take on the classic Greek dish) that is oh so good in spite of its corny name, and apple pie along with red wine from Meknes. Youssef and Abdul play drums and sing Berber songs, really well I might add and enthusiastically. Besides us, there is only the owner or manager (we think) and his wife with their year old daughter, who entertains us all with her dancing. It's a lovely evening and the auberge quickly becomes our second favorite hotel of this trip - it's small, casual, friendly and intimate. After dinner, we sit out on the terrace for some time surrounded by the moonlit gorge and stars up above, before calling it a night.
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Jul 2nd, 2013, 08:42 AM
  #37
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Another great hike in the Dades gorge and onwards to Skoura

We wake up to blue skies and and another warm morning. We are only leaving at 10, so are able to have a relaxed breakfast. It's the usual spread and an omelette and we eat it outdoors while we soak in the sun. The auberge is an eco friendly hotel, using solar power, local materials and vegetables and herbs from its own garden. An old sheep dog sits in the corner enjoying the sun as well - he used to live with nomads, but ever since he got too old to move around with them, he has been living here.

On our way to Boumalne Dades, we pass by palmeraies and Berber villages around Tinerhir and stop to take pictures. This entire stretch from here all the way to Skoura where we're headed to tonight is called the Valley of a thousand kasbahs (a kasbah is a fortified home with watchtowers). And for good reason, as there is kasbah after kasbah in varying stages of disrepair at every turn. Some stand proud and tall having gracefully withstood centuries of tumult while others are a crumbling shadow of what they once were. At Boumalne, we take the piste (dirt road) to the Perle du Dades hotel, where we will be meeting our guide, Hassan. This is a nice property away from town, with a pool, billiards, ping pong, board games, spa etc.- a good option for families with kids. We go over our plan for the afternoon with Hassan over tea and peanuts. Picking up our picnic lunches, we set off on our next adventure.

We first drive through the Dades gorges with its incredible red rock formations set against lush valleys and dotted with kasbahs, passing through the villages of Ait Youl, Ait Arbi and Ait Oudinar. Beyond this, the road makes hairpin bends as it steeply curves its way up the gorge (Am I glad to have taken some Dramamine this morning!). At the very top, we park at a hotel/restaurant and walk over to the edge to take in the stunning nausea inducing vista of the plunging walls of the gorge all the way down to the river below. We drive back the same way until we reach Ait Arbi - this is where we get off to begin our 3 hour hike.

We walk through the village, past its kasbah and unique rock formations, through fields, scrambling up and down the rocks and across the river over a narrow log bridge. There is no trail or path; only Hassan knows where we're headed and how we're getting there. Halfway through our hike, we turn a bend and end up at a beautiful shaded spot by the gurgling river with a view of the rocks - a perfect place for a lunch of cheese, egg and chicken sandwiches with apples and oranges. Hassan's story is an interesting one. He grew up in a nomad family until the age of 10 when his mother moved with her sons to the town of Boumalne. He hadn't ever gone to school, so learnt to read and write then. He finished school and studied international relations in college (we think that's what he said) and when he couldn't get a job, decided to change course and study/practice to become a trekking guide. Having grown up in the mountains, he knows the area like the back of his hand and leads multi day hikes as well as treks up to Jebel M'goun and Sraho.

We continue hiking after lunch up to the top of the rocks for some more gorgeous views, including the monkeys fingers, another unique rock formation. It hot now and we're actually sweating, which feels strange after all these days of cooler than normal temperatures. It's almost tempting to join the locals swimming in the river! But, we keep moving. Along the way, Hassan points out interesting plants and herbs and picks fruits off of trees for us to eat. We walk through more fields, cross the river once more and trudge up another rock until we reach the main road where Hamid awaits us. This has been another fun hike through a unique landscape and a good reason to get off the main roads. It's past 5, so we drop Hassan off near the hotel and continue on our way towards Skoura.

We drive past the valley of roses or Kelaa M'gouna, known for its very fragrant roses and famous rose festival in early May. There are factories and shops selling rose water, oils and perfumes all along the roadside. Oh, another interesting thing we observe on the roads is that drivers signal to each other to indicate if a police car is up ahead - a wave means an all clear and index finger pointing down means slow down, there's a cop ahead. If you're driving in Morocco, maybe this will come in handy? We reach Les Jardins de Skoura, off the main road and a few kms away from town, around 7:30. This is a beautifully landscaped and stylish property, with a pool, hammocks, outdoor lounging areas, lots of flowers, fruit trees, and a couple of terraces. Our room is cozy, with a reading nook and a large bathroom. We also run into and say hello to Caroline, the French owner, who lives on the property.

Once we check in, we go up to the terrace to watch the sun go down over some cold beers. We are joined by the local dog, a cute fellow who enjoys all the attention he gets from us and then sits on the wall barking at anybody who walks or drives past the hotel. There are a lot more guests here than we've seen at the other hotels. Soon it gets really windy, so we head back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. Dinner is served in a covered area outdoors and is a formal affair. The food is really good (I didn't write down notes for this day, so don't remember what we ate in detail) - there are a few mezzes, a tagine and a pear dessert. We stick around after dinner to chat with some of the other guests. Sleep is fitful tonight since the storm knocks out power and the AC/generator keeps beeping and turning on and off all night.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 08:13 AM
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Fascinating kasbahs and descending into Marrakech

Today is going to be a long day. Our plan is to walk in the Skoura palmeraie for a couple of hours this morning before starting on the long drive towards Marrakech with stops on the way. We have breakfast sitting outside in the garden next to bright sunflowers and wait for our guide to arrive. He's running late due to bike trouble and arrives at 9 instead of 8:30. His name is Kamal, the quietest of the guides we've had so far. He is enthusiastically greeted at the door by the 2 dogs that live here - the friendly one from yesterday and an older, wiser black lab. The dogs are out the door even before we are, and they join us for the entire walk. Apparently, this is what they always do.

The palmeraie here is larger, flat and more arid, with views of the barely snow tipped High Atlas range in the far distance. There are several kasbahs, both old and reconstructed, strewn about the oasis. Kamal takes us to a few of them that look especially nice in the morning light. Had we more time, we would have loved to do a similar walk in the evening to take advantage of the "golden hour". Date palms and fruit trees abound here as do crops like wheat, corn and alfalfa. We walk along narrow roads and paths that crisscross through the fields and from village to village. Our dogs disappear every now and then as they go off getting wet in the canals, chasing cats and birds and generally having a ball. We plan to get back to the hotel by 10:30, but it ends up being close to 11. This is another place where it would have been great to slow down and spend another day in the inviting gardens and go on more walks, but unfortunately, it's time to get moving.

We drive past Ourzazate, but don't stop at the Kasbah or movie studios. Instead, we head over to Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The approach to this ksar along the Ounila river and valley framed by the High Atlas and following the old trade route is lovely. Situated on a hill across from a now dry riverbed and fringed with palms, this partly retouched village of red mudbrick homes, both simple and elaborate castle like kasbahs with towers, is very picturesque. And, parts of it are still inhabited. There are also ramparts up at the top as well as remnants of mosques, granaries etc. We don't use a guide here, and just walk with Hamid. The views from the top of the ksar below, the new town across the river and the barren lunar landscape behind are nice, but the wild winds take our breath away even more - it's actually a little scary. For lunch, we survey the options by the entrance and find a decent restaurant just across on the main road. We order a salad to share and kefta sandwiches with spicy harira. It's a quick meal that hits the spot.

From here, we could have driven directly to Marrakech via the Tizi n'Tichka pass. But instead, I've asked Hamid to take a detour so we can stop at the Glaoui kasbah in Telouet. And, what a wonderful detour it is, in my opinion not to be missed. The kasbah itself is unique and extraordinary, because while it is in a near ruined state on the outside, hidden inside are a few remaining rooms filled with gorgeous zellij, stucco and carved/painted cedar doors, windows and ceilings, that took 300 artisans to complete back in the day. We say no to a guide at the entrance, but a deaf mute man follows us around, and we don't have the heart to turn him away. He is eager, overly so sometimes, but points out all the best work for us to photograph. The interiors are falling apart and slowly collapsing as well, and if not partly restored or at least reinforced, it will be such a loss to Moroccan period architecture and craftsmanship. But, we hope this doesn't get completely renovated and turned into a hotel either. With a final stop on the rooftop that looks across the hills and valley, we head back to our car still googly eyed.

The scenery along the piste until main tarmac road has red and pink hued hills and hamlets blending into terraced hillsides. I didn't expect to see terraced wheat fields in Morocco! Once on the main road, we climb up until we reach the Tichka pass at 2260m, where we make a quick stop for pictures. Then, the road makes several hairpin turns as it hugs the side of the mountain and provides spectacular views of barren hills, pastures and finally lush forests and fields until we eventually reach the plains and continue on to Marrakech. To Hamid's credit, he drives cautiously and this combined with the magic of Dramamine, means I don't get car sick at all. The last stretch to Marrakech is quick with no traffic and we drive past swanky golf courses and upscale residences on the outskirts of town before we reach the medina around 6:30. We've come a long way these past few days - both in terms of distance and experiences - from one imperial city to another.

We hire a porter outside Bab Laksour and he drops us off at Riad Magellan, where we say goodbye to Hamid. He's been a very good driver, guide and companion for the last 5 days. Hamid rents an apartment by the airport with his brother, where he'll catch some much needed rest for a day before he takes his next guests to the desert. At the riad, we are greeted by Mohammed, a lovely older gentleman who speaks no English. He offers us tea and a snack in the courtyard and then shows us to our room upstairs. We want drop off some laundry, but since communication with Mohammed is an issue, we decide to just wait until the morning when Philippe, the owner, is in. There is also a problem with the water pressure in the shower, but this will also have to wait till the morning.

This riad is as different as it can get from Dar Seffarine in Fes - while it has traditional touches like the soft pink, cream and brown tadelakt walls, it is modern in it's design and furnishings with a focus on vintage and global traveler themes. Tonight, we're having dinner at the riad since we've arrived late. When we come down, the table has been set and since it's chilly, there's also a roaring fire in the fireplace. Imagine a wam fire in Marrakech in late May...is this crazy of what? Mohammed brings out a trio of appetizers that includes the best zaalouk of the trip. Then we have a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives that is also delicious and end with a dessert of warm apple pie. After dinner, we enjoy our wine beside the fire. We are unable to finish the bottle, so Mohammed offers to keep it chilled in the fridge so we can indulge in another glass tomorrow. It's time to call it a night before we venture out into the labyrinth of streets, that is the medina, tomorrow.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 11:31 AM
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This report is so helpful! I'll pop in now with a question. As I mentioned before our route from Fes to Marrakech is similar yours, although we are doing it with more driving each day and fewer overnight stops (no hiking for us.)

On the day after our overnight camp in the Sahara Desert, we drive (with our guide/driver) from Merzouga to Boumalne Dades (260 km) and stay at Xaluca Dades. I originally requested we drive to Skoura instead (which would be an additional 70 km) because I loved the look of Les Jardins de Skoura. Xaluca Dades gets mixed reviews on TA, especially about the food, but the tour company guy said we should stay at Xaluca because it is one of the few hotels with heat and it can get cool at night. We're going at the end of September. I'm thinking "cool" to a Moroccan means something different than cool to a Chicagoan, but I'm not sure if I should push for a change or not. What was your experience with the night temps and did you happen to notice if Les Jardins had heat? Do you think Les Jardins would be worth an extra hour (or more) of driving?

Glaoui kasbah in Telouet sounds fabulous, I'm going to ask to add that as a stop after Ait Ben Haddou.
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Jul 3rd, 2013, 05:15 PM
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Hi bniemand,

I would certainly drive the extra hour or so to Skoura. It will be a long drive 7-8 hours with a stop for lunch, but will be worth it IMO. Unless you plan to detour into Todra or Dades gorges.

I don't remember if there was heat at Les Jardins. You could email the hotel and ask. While the weather in Morocco was much cooler than we expected for May, September shouldn't be cold. Carry layers with you and you should be fine.

We drove past the Xaluca in Boumalne - its a huge hotel used by large tour groups and for conferences, and very different from Les Jardins.

Hope this helps.
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