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Kasbahs, camels, and couscous - 12 days in Morocco

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Jun 12th, 2010, 08:23 AM
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Kasbahs, camels, and couscous - 12 days in Morocco

Since there’s not a clamoring for information on Morocco on fodor’s and because there have been a few very thorough trip reports recently, I’ll try to keep mine short & sweet.

When I began planning 2 years ago I knew we didn’t want to do an independent trip involving renting a car. I was fairly certain I didn’t want to go with a tour group either but I did investigate a few. The rep at Odysseys Unlimited pretty much talked me out of their trip – even though the price was so good I was seriously tempted – because they have an average traveler age several decades beyond my husband & myself. The bigger tours also stay in hotels rather than riads and staying in beautiful riads in Fez & Marrakesh was high on my list of trip musts.

I came across several reports on tripadvisor where people had used Journey Beyond Travel and it sounded like just what I was looking for: a custom tour not in a group, not escorted by a guide but meeting with one in each city if we wished, staying in wonderful riads, and the opportunity to visit in people’s homes along the way. It worked perfectly for us and I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Because of Iceland’s volcanic ash our flight from Philadelphia was delayed several hours and we were not at all sure we’d even get to fly – several airports in Europe had closed that day. The delay caused a sprint through CDG in Paris to make our connection and a one day lag in our luggage catching up to us in Rabat – very minor inconveniences compared to the havoc the volcano caused a few weeks earlier!

In the airport at Rabat we had our first lesson in English not being spoken by many. Somehow (arrogantly, I know) there’s the assumption that in the larger cities and especially among people dealing with foreigners (customs personnel and airport baggage claim employees) English will be spoken. Not so much. After a protracted, partially- mimed interrogation by the customs official as I struggled to explain what ‘accountant’ meant I realized that paying more attention in high school French classes would’ve been wise. The same language disconnect occurred when trying to explain our suitcases were missing, what they looked like, where to reach us the next day in Rabat, etc. I do try to learn a few phrases in a language before visiting a country but I just don’t have enough French (or Arabic!) to really converse. Our great loss and embarrassment – it’s a big disservice and disgrace that schools in the US don’t focus on languages more than they do.

Having someone waiting for us at the airport was a nice welcome after the bits of confusion on arrival and Hamid turned out to be not only a great, safe driver but a very nice guy, in general. We enjoyed spending time with him during our drive around Morocco. Having someone to point out different sights – explaining what we were seeing – taking us on little detours to see things we never would’ve found on our own – not having to navigate and try to follow maps on (sometimes) unmarked roads – not driving on the sorta scary Tizi-n-Tichka pass – having someone to deal with police at roadside checks – not having to worry about what we’d do if we got a flat tire – these are some of the reasons we loved Hamid!

After our arrival in Rabat we drove to the medina and then walked through the winding alleyways to check in at the Riad Kalaa. It was lovely – a central courtyard with trickling fountain, flowering trees, brightly colored cushions and lanterns – our room had 20 ft ceilings, gorgeous décor, a bathroom with a huge sunken tub, marble mosaics, and a big comfy bed. Our welcome of mint tea and cookies was just what we needed to energize us before heading back out for a tour of Rabat.

JBT had arranged a half-day tour with a guide. We visited the Oudaia Kasbah with its narrow blue & white painted alleys, the Andalusian gardens, huge gates, & Cafe Maure with heaping plates of cookies overlooking the Atlantic. From the café we watched the boys playing soccer on the beach. Something we’re not used to seeing where we live – lots of families out enjoying the day together – moms, dads, and kids hanging out in the parks, and in the gardens. It was a Monday & I asked if it was a special day or holiday and our guide said no, it was this way every day.

We drove through a pretty valley to the Chellah Necropolis with its Roman ruins of Sala Colonia and the remains of the mosque, tombs, shrines, and religious school where tons of storks are now nesting. We watched young couples buy eggs to feed the ‘sacred’ eels in a fountain which are said to help women become pregnant.

Stopped at the Hassan Tower and Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The mausoleum is lovely – carved marble, mosaics, stained glass and costumed guards at the 4 entrances.

After returning to the riad we were shown to the restaurant where we were to have dinner since Kalaa did not do dinners on Mondays: Dinarjat. It was another opportunity to curse ourselves for only speaking English but we muddled through the explanation that our riad was paying the bill (it was not easy) and managed to order fabulous tagines and Casablanca beer. One semi-funny thing, I ordered a ‘chicken tagine’ and it was served as 2 pieces of chicken on a plate – no veggies, couscous, etc. – just chicken. Good chicken, but just chicken. My husband ordered a ‘7 veg tagine’ and got 7 huge, almost whole vegetables (whole squash, whole eggplant, big carrots, whole potato, whole pepper, etc.) on a mound of couscous. The difference in the two was comical and I was happy to help him eat his mega-meal. It was a great dinner and fun to do the whole hand-washing ritual at the table.

Part of our arrangement with JBT was all dinners were included and were (except for this first night) taken at the riads where we stayed. That worked really well for us – we had amazing food at each place and it was very convenient to not worry about finding restaurants each night. Also not having to have cash on hand for those expenses – it was nice to have one less thing to think about. We’re not foodies and trying different restaurants is never a goal of ours in travel – maybe for someone else eating at the same place two nights in a row would be boring.

We found our way back to the Kalaa & enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep, thus ending our first day. So much for a short & sweet report – I’ll try to be more concise from here on!
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Jun 12th, 2010, 08:25 AM
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Here's a link to our pictures: http://picasaweb.google.com/jamison.leslie/Morocco2010#
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Jun 12th, 2010, 09:37 AM
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This is great, keep it coming, Leslie!

I've been eagerly waiting your trip report -- we're planning to go to Morocco next year and I've been vicariously planning along with you while reading these threads.

I know you were considering (so are we) using Authentic Morocco awhile ago -- what made you change you mind and use Hamid/Journey Beyond instead?

Thanks again for posting this, I can't wait to read the rest.
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Jun 12th, 2010, 05:34 PM
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NanBug - I did feel guilty switching companies because AM seemed really good also. There were a few little differences - JBT was a bit quicker to respond to email and give suggestions and I think the AM price was slightly higher. Also, the conversion was from dirham to British pounds then to dollars with AM and no credit cards accepted (I think I'm remembering that right). Paying JBT directly in dollars as a US company (with a credit card) was a better deal for me.
The woman, Fazia, that runs JBT with her partner was really great to work with. We got to meet her in Ifrane and I liked her a lot.

Thanks for the kind words of encouragement! I'll try to get back to the report tomorrow.
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Jun 12th, 2010, 08:34 PM
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Glad to see this get underway! Also glad that you seem to have had a good trip.
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Jun 13th, 2010, 08:52 AM
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Thanks thursdaysd - and yes, it was a fabulous trip.

Day two: had a good breakfast which was representative of what we had every day – bread, bread, and more bread – some toasted some not, some flat some not. Pancakes or crepes, jams & honey, usually yogurt or a hard-boiled egg, coffee, and amazing fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Hamid picked us up and we headed to the airport to retrieve our bags. This was a time when having someone speaking the language with us was super helpful. Even with Hamid it took several conversations at different levels of bureaucracy and in sometimes raised voices to get the job done. Finally the suitcases appeared and a huge dusty ledger was produced that required many entries, passports to be brought forth and studied, & our signatures in triplicate. Then we were good to go. I’m not a helpless twit, I know we would’ve gotten our bags by ourselves eventually but I’m just saying this was an example of when having someone with us smoothed the way.

Leaving Rabat we drove through a region that was very green with rolling hills that reminded us of Tuscany: patchwork fields, olive orchards, vineyards. Much more fertile and agrarian than I was envisioning. I think a lot of people have an image of mostly desert in their heads when thinking of Morocco – it is so much more.

We drove to Meknes and went into the granary – just a short visit but I thought it was interesting. I’d read a good book about Moulay Ismail and his role in the white slave trade in the early 1700’s (White Gold) so I was looking forward to seeing some of his remaining building achievements. His mausoleum was our first time seeing expanses of zellij tilework – gorgeous. The grandfather clocks in his burial chamber – gifts from Louis XIV – were incongruous with the rest of the décor but I guess they were a point of pride!

After those few stops in Meknes we went on to Moulay Idriss – just a drive through -- and then to the ruins of the Roman (or really, pre-Roman) city of Volubilis which dates to the 3rd century BC. We spent several hours there walking through the foundations of the remaining buildings. Several wonderful floor mosaics are still fairly intact. I really enjoyed our time there. We had the site mostly to ourselves and just roamed around with our guidebook. The weather was perfect – sunny and warm.

We found Hamid back by the entrance and headed onward to Fez. Along the way there were many stops for photos – really incredible scenery – fields of wildflowers, a large turquoise lake (formed by a dam), small villages with donkeys and chickens running around. Of course there are some not so scenic areas – I swear plastic shopping bags are the scourge of the earth. It was heartbreaking to drive by fields where gobs of bags had blown through and gotten stuck in the brush. But for the most part it was a beautiful drive.

On our arrival at the entrance to the medina in Fez we were met by a porter who hefted our bags into a cart and led the way to the Riad Laaroussa. The Fez medina was truly something to behold. We had to double-time it to keep up with the porter & at the same time have our heads on swivels – looking out for oncoming donkeys, bikes, hurrying people, donkey droppings – total chaos. The alleys were full of stores of all kinds – tons of people – and I don’t believe we saw any other tourists during that 15 minute walk – it was quite a feeling of other-ness & being an outsider.

From the exterior of the riad (just a big door in a long wall) you’d never imagine what an incredible oasis awaited. Beautiful rooms on the ground floor surrounding the central courtyard full of trees around a fountain. Our room was on the top floor, up some very serious steps! – and it was fabulously decorated with stained glass windows, a fireplace, tile floor, a sitting area and huge bed, desk, bathroom with double sinks and large tub. We made use of the public computer downstairs and enjoyed the traditional welcome of mint tea and cookies and then went up to the rooftop terrace to hang out until dinner. The roof was full of tables, chairs, colorful cushions, sofas – a big bed! – a really nice place to relax and check out the rooftops of the city. Watched the sunset then got cleaned up and went down to dinner.

The riad had a wonderful kitchen – they offer cooking classes and I wish we’d taken one – all of the meals we took there were excellent.

Day three: The birds in the courtyard were up early and so were we. After breakfast on the roof terrace we went downstairs to meet Nadia who was our guide for the day in Fez. We followed her through the souks agape with sensory overload. The butcher shops made a definite impression: big bloody carcasses laying or hanging around, platters of heads – sheep, goat, cow – on the counter, cats waiting for a scrap to come their way. Other food stalls with heaps of vegetables, fruits, mounds of dates – cones of spices (wish I’d bought spices just to see how the cones respond when they’re dipped into – they must collapse??) were fantastic to see. Trying to take pictures without offending anyone wasn’t easy so mine are mostly blurry hip shots but really no pictures can do justice to the souks of Fez.

Nadia pointed out the typical components of neighborhoods (public fountain, mosque, communal bakery, Koranic school, public bath, medersa) and also architectural detail of significance – what a certain type of hinge on a door meant for example. She gave a lot of good information about the history of the city and Islam and the present-day lives of locals. It was a great day of seeing the various souks, medersas, mosques, fondouks, and tanneries, the Mellah, and the Merinid tombs overlooking the medina.

We did a little bit of shopping – stopping at a rug store (amazing how the spiel is so similar from country to country – I’ve seen way too many rug stores in this life) and the pottery on the outskirts of Fez. Seeing the artisans making the pottery was interesting and I had intended to buy some so that was one shopping stop I requested. I’m not a big shopper so I let JBT know in the planning stages that I didn’t want to spend much time on that. I know that most guides lead tourists from one cousin’s shop to the next on their ‘tour’ so I was careful to avoid that situation. In the guides’ defense, I think a lot of tourists are there mainly to shop so in many cases everyone ends up happy. That would be torture for me. And obviously depending on the guide or company you use there are certainly nicer places to shop that aren’t just tourist schlock and I was happy with the quality of the places we did buy from.

The tanneries in Fez were really cool to see. It truly made me appreciate my job to see the men up to their thighs in the dye vats sloshing the skins around. The odor was not too intense but we were given a sprig of mint to hold under our noses while we were there. There were, of course, lots of leather shops with beautiful colorful pieces – jackets, sandals, belts, bags, furniture, etc. I held myself to only buying a pair of Aladdin-toed slippers.

Also interesting was the section of shops in the medina related to weddings. They have store after store selling custom-made sedans which the bride and groom are carried in on, hoisted up on the families’ shoulders. They’re covered in glittering gold or silver hand-embroidered fabric. The various other accoutrements for the wedding outfits -- the brides change several times into various elaborate costumes with big headpieces--are ordered and handmade nearby. What a big, expensive production --much like at home (ours are minus the sedans mostly!).

A wonderful part of the day was going to Nadia’s family home in the medina for lunch. Her mother and sister had cooked a wonderful meal for us and it was so interesting to see that real side of Fez life – not just the tourist perspective. We were offered silverware if we didn’t wish to use our hands but we managed okay fork-free. Using the delicious flatbread as an eating implement is the easiest way to manage but you do fill up quickly on all that bread! The different spices and combinations of foods (cooked carrots with raisins and sliced hard-boiled egg – excellent!) and incredibly fresh & juicy fruits and veggies were really wonderful.
The food we had everywhere in Morocco was good to great – I gained 3 lbs along the way. Lots of carbs and huge portions!

After a full day with Nadia we were headed back home to Laaroussa and relaxed until dinner – another big, delicious meal.

Day four: this was a guide-free day where we roamed around the souks a bit and visited the Musee Dar el-Batha which is small but has some nice pottery and displays of old clothing and jewelry. We didn’t get lost but we also didn’t go too far into the labyrinth. In hindsight I wish we had explored more and worried less about losing our way back to the riad but at the time it did feel a bit overwhelming and it was also chilly and drizzly that day.
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Jun 15th, 2010, 01:19 PM
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Leslie, my friend and I are both in Philadelphia and thinking of traveling to Morocco next March-April. I would really like to talk with you about airlines, tour agencies, etc. Like you, we aren't keen on being with a group, but as two older women, we would like guides in different cities.

If you're willing to talk, my email address is:
[email protected]

Thanks so much; I'm really glad your trip went so well! I've
been to Europe and spent a month in India, but we have both heard that Morocco would be a wonderful destination to choose.

Andie
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Jun 16th, 2010, 05:57 AM
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Andie - I just emailed you - would love to talk about Morocco!

Day five: Left old Fez in the morning, drove through new Fez which was quite a bustling modern city. From there through the Middle and High Atlas mountains stopping along the way at Ifrane. Known as the Switzerland of Morocco - - built by the French in the 1920's as a summer resort town -- definitely does not feel like Morocco! A-frame buildings, lakes, forests, and cold temps! I was wishing I had brought warmer clothes (it snowed there the day after we passed through) as I shivered in my sandals. We walked around a bit and met Fazia, the owner of JBT, who lives there.

After Ifrane we continued south to Er-Racchidia. The views along the way were stunning - gorges and cliffs, rivers and oases - very dramatic. Lots of stops for photos. Our stop for the night was the Hotel Le Riad. After the luxe riads Laaroussa and Kalaa we were spoiled and it felt like quite a comedown. There was a nice pool but the rooms were very, um, just okay. Maybe like a Holiday Inn, or not quite. Anyway, not terrible and maybe the best the area has to offer.

After the chilly day driving through the mountains it felt nice to be in warmer temps again and we spent a little time sitting by the pool before dinner. Dinner was at the hotel - it was okay: chicken kabobs, rice, an omelette, french fries - eclectic!
Our room had a big gap under the door and when we got back to the room we spent time killing a million mosquitos (and stuffing a towel under the door).

Day six: The next morning Hamid collected us and we drove on towards Merzouga. We passed many ksars and kasbahs along the way. Stopped in the Ziz valley at a palm oasis where we met our desert guide, Tata. Our visit with his family was a special part of the trip. We were shown around the village, hiked through the fields and palm groves, went to his sister's house for tea and then back to his parents' for lunch. Being served milk, fresh very fresh, and dates from their trees was the traditional welcome. After popping a whole date in my mouth I was taught to break them apart before eating in case any insects are lurking inside. Good to know! Our lunch was fabulous - huge platters of couscous, veggies, chicken, warm flatbread, french fries, and the sweetest fruit for dessert.

We drove from there through Erfoud where we stopped at a fossil polishing factory. I bought a few small things and once home I wished I'd gotten more but I was worried about the weight of our luggage. And at that point we had a rug and heavy pottery we were already hauling around.

When we got to the Kasbah Timbuktu in Merzouga we met up with a 4x4 driver, said goodbye to Hamid for the night and went off with Tata to explore the desert. We went on a 3 hr off-road circuit visiting a desert lake, the remains of old French military outposts, the Gnawi brotherhood - descendents of freed slaves who perform their traditional songs (and made us get up and dance with them at one point, glad there's no video footage of that!), and stopped to visit with a nomadic Berber family.

The family included some very cute, very shy children. Their lifestyle with tents covered in old clothing to block the wind, nearest water in a well 3 km away, no electricity, no schooling etc. was very humbling and we were honored to be served mint tea and a snack of peanuts & cookies.

We left there for a camel bivouac, left our luggage in the 4x4 and climbed aboard with just a backpack for the night. Riding the camels was so fun - I laughed the whole time. Really nothing graceful about it since there are no stirrups and no way to brace yourself. Your legs dangle and you hang on for dear life. Maybe expert camel riders would sit differently - one leg crossed? We rode into the magnificent dunes of the Sahara - beautiful terra cotta colored sand, huge dunes, very quiet and peaceful. Eventually dismounted and walked to the top of one high dune and sat for a while - sunset was gorgeous - the shifting colors of the sand and sky, purples and oranges. Really magnificent.

Rode back a ways to a compound of tents. I wasn't sure what to expect but this was a pretty fancy tent. It was a U-shaped setup with a tent to sleep in (also contained a sectioned off bathroom complete with porcelain loo - haha not really roughing it), an open area covered in rugs with table and chairs, a pit with a campfire, and another section to eat dinner in. That was just for the 2 of us. There were other tents in the area but not close enough to hear other people so we really felt we were out there alone.

Had a great dinner - soup, 3 different tagines, bread, fruit for dessert. We were visited by the Gnawi brotherhood who make housecalls to the tents - more singing and dancing (I wasn't any better the second time around) and then awed by the stars overhead. Just amazing to see how many there actually are out there which we see only a fraction of at home.
Slept well under our mosquito-netted bed. I was dreading waking up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. I just knew when I turned on my flashlight there would be a million huge bugs crawling on the netting - but no - the only bug I saw (and the only one for the whole trip) was a big dung beetle in the bathroom, which was fitting. Somehow dung beetles aren't scary, not like spiders or a scorpion, so I didn't panic!
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Jun 16th, 2010, 12:20 PM
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I'm loving this! Thanks again for taking the time to write.

How did Rabat compare to the other places you went -- is it worth a 2 day visit?
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Jun 17th, 2010, 08:24 AM
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Oy - I just had 2 more days complete and somehow hit a wrong button and lost it. Arggh.

NanBug - We liked Rabat a lot. It was nice being on the coast and the city felt more open and less intense than Fez and Marrakesh so it was a good way to start our trip. We only spent half a day there so I'm sure there's a lot more to see & do but my sense of it was one day would be enough, maybe not two.
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Jun 17th, 2010, 09:14 AM
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Day seven: We chose not to get up for sunrise, 5:30 sounded too painful, but at 7 we were up and heading back to the Timbuku for showers and breakfast. We met up with Hamid again and left for Rassini.

In Rassini we made a quick tour of the Moulay Ali Cherif mausoleum and then went to a jewelry shop with lots of interesting pieces handmade by local Berbers and Touaregs. I really, really, really hate the bargaining. If I knew the value of something that would be one thing but I always have this doubt in my mind – were the silver pieces made locally or were they shipped in from a factory in China? Is it really silver or silver-colored metal? Really onyx beads or plastic – I couldn’t tell! So after starting out at an insanely high $1400 price for a couple of necklaces we negotiated down to what I know was still over-paying but I could handle without too much buyer’s remorse. At a certain point I caved in just to get out of the shop and considered any overpayment a contribution to the local economy and not simply being a huge sucker. Have I said I really hate bargaining?? (note – this shopping stop was completely optional, we were asked if we wanted to go , not just taken there).

Drove to the Todra gorge – stunning cliffs (I wrote in my journal 3000 ft. high but I’m not sure about that figure) – and walked through the gorge for a bit. There were lots of tour buses there unfortunately.

On from there to our next hotel, the Xaluca Dades. It was very modern with an interesting décor, a lovely pool & hot tub on a terrace with views over a valley. Our room was a large suite with 2 bathrooms, 2 flatscreen TVs, and 2 balconies. Very posh! Dinner at the hotel was a big buffet with great food – it was nice having options after pretty much every other meal being “eat what you are served.”

Day eight: After breakfast (another huge buffet) we headed off for a long day of driving. We stopped in El-Kelaa M’Gouna and walked in fields of roses. We drove by the palm groves of Skoura and stopped at the Ben Morro Kasbah and the Amerhidil Kasbah.

In Ouarzazate (very cute town) we visited the Taourirt Kasbah. We were happy to walk around alone but a guide attached himself and was such a good salesman we hired him for the brief tour he offered. He asked where we lived in ‘oosa’ and it took me a while to figure out he was pronouncing USA as a word.

We drove by the Atlas film studio but opted not to tour it – I had read it was a bit disappointing. From what we saw from the road I don’t think it would be worth going in.

A neat stop was the ksar in Ait Ben Haddou which you get to by crossing a river (on stones & sandbags) by foot. I imagine when the water is high that’s quite a feat!

From there we drove to the Tizi-n-Tichka pass. Wow, that was some scary road. Unless winding roads precipitously perched on the sides of mountains with little or no shoulder don’t bother you. I was thrilled not to be behind the wheel. Hamid was very cautious unlike a lot of the crazy drivers who careened past us on blind curves. We did see one accident and the big truck involved had jack-knifed and was taking up almost all of both lanes. We squeaked by but a few feet more and traffic would’ve been completely blocked and the road closed until the truck was moved. Can only imagine how long that would take – and I don’t think backing up and taking another route would be an option!!

The views along the pass were stunning – snowy mountains, fields of poppies, dark red earth. Anytime there was a safe place to pull to the side Hamid gave us a chance to take pictures (did I mention we took 1800 pictures on this trip? There were a LOT of photo stops.). What I would’ve liked to take pictures of but felt it would be rude to ask was the laundry laid out everywhere. I guess Sunday is laundry day in that area. In every village we passed the women were at the river washing clothes and then hanging them on any available surface: hedges, tree branches, rocks, sometimes just on the bare ground.

Late afternoon we arrived in Marrakesh. The outskirts took quite a while to get through and the closer we got the heavier traffic was. At the edge of the medina Hamid parked and we grabbed our bags and headed into the chaos. The Kniza was another fabulous riad – probably our favorite on the trip. The beautiful building, very friendly staff, lovely rooftop terrace – everything was wonderful.

We said goodbye to Hamid and that we hoped to see him again someday insha’allah and settled into our new digs. Mint tea and cookies first, of course, and then we were given a tour of the riad and shown the pool, the hamam, several public salons around courtyards, and our fabulous room. We took dinner on the roof and it was yet another amazing meal. The food in Morocco was definitely a high-point and a pleasant surprise, I have to admit. I didn’t expect to miss tagines anytime soon after we got home but my mouth is watering now thinking about them!
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Jun 17th, 2010, 02:02 PM
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Thanks for the Rabat info -- Can't wait to hear about Marrakech!
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Jun 17th, 2010, 05:17 PM
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Leslie, what a great trip report so far! I am really enjoying reading it, it's giving me some great ideas for our Morocco trip next year, particularly the sections on Fes and Rabat. You write really well, I feel like I got a great idea of the things you did and the people you saw. Am looking forward to the next installment!

Btw, I did email JBT, but unfortunately, they emailed me back to say they only do the all-inclusive tours and since they do not work with the hotels we are thinking of (Sofitel in Marrakech and Fes, Hyatt in Casa) they won't be able to assist. I sent them a reply asking if they could maybe arrange everything else excluding the hotels which we can book ourselves, but have not yet heard back. I did receive 2 quotes so far - one from Dounia Travel and one from Your-Morocco-Trip. Both were quite reasonable and seem to have what we are looking for. Are there any other agencies you might have worked with before you settled on JBT?
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Jun 17th, 2010, 05:22 PM
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P.S. Your report was also most helpful in making me realize that we will definitely need a guide with us on account of language. We speak no French at all (I think my Mom maybe has a smattering) and stupidly, I too had assumed that most Moroccans that worked with tourists spoke some English. I know it's maybe arrogant to presume that, but in fairness, they do get a lot of visitors from the US and UK, and we had seen in Egypt last year that communication was not a problem. But after reading your report, I am now more convinced than ever that we need a guide.
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Jun 18th, 2010, 05:38 AM
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Baby_Bear -- I think without a guide you would be okay and there are people who do speak English, just some more than others. I don't want you to think there's no English spoken at all. In the souks and medinas of Fez & Marrakesh I think we got a lot more out of the experience (100% sure) than we would've on our own. But you really don't need a guide the whole time, maybe just part of a day and then you can wander alone. Also we didn't spend time in the new cities of Fez or Marr. so that's a whole different thing and language probably way less an issue.

I really didn't mean to imply speaking only English would be a problem - you can usually mime your way through most situations! - or keep searching for someone to help translate. Anyway, please don't worry about that - English will be fine!! And a smattering of French will go a long way

I did also get information/pricing from Authentic Morocco before I booked and think that sounds like a great company too. She will book whatever hotel you want and set up whatever guide/driver/tour/airport transfer etc. for you. On her website there are suggested itineraries but I believe it is totally flexible and customizable. Also, if requested, she will try to match people up if they're traveling in a small group (maybe two) and want to split the cost of a trip to the desert, for example, by sharing a vehicle with another couple. Anyway, if you like you can check out authentic-morocco dot com and see what you think.
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Jun 18th, 2010, 08:15 AM
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Day nine: Our guide for the day, Mohammed, picked us up at 9 at the riad. He asked where we'd like to go and planned the day around that plus made suggestions. I told him we weren't shoppers so we didn’t need any 'educational' visits to rug shops, etc. He was a great guide – had lots of good information on the history of the city, the various dynasties, the architecture, the influence of various ethnic groups, and also present-day life in Marrakesh.

The medina & souks were, as in Fez, an exciting meld of people, donkeys, carts, bikes, cats, and -unfortunately – about 2 million motorbikes. I quickly grew to hate the motorbikes. They are noisy, fumey, and required constant vigilance to not get run over. That was a big difference between Marr. & Fez – more motorbikes, less donkeys.

We walked to the Koutoubia Mosque, visited the Saadian tombs, the Mellah, and the Palais el-Badi (of which only ruins & nesting storks remain after the palace was ransacked by Moulay Ismail & everything of value carted back to Meknes). Next we went to the Palais Bahia which was lived in until fairly recently – the 1970s? – so the tile floors and walls, carved plaster, beautifully painted ceilings, fountains and courtyards are still intact. We saw one older woman (tourist) struggling to roll up off the floor like a flipped turtle – she had lain down on her back to take a picture of the ceiling -- and Mohammed said, “the last concubine?” Funny – but maybe you had to be there.

For lunch we went to a restaurant, the Earth Café, which is a rarity in Marr. – vegetarian only. My heaping stir fry of veggies, couscous, and a sesame/ginger/garlic sauce was outstanding. It was a very small place – only a few tables – and one woman & young boy doing the cooking in the kitchen which is where you entered the restaurant. Very intimate (so no big buses of tourists!) and delicious food. Before we left we were given a gift of jars of preserved lemons and strawberry jam.

Next stop was the famous Jemaa el-Fna. The plaza wasn’t very crowded in the afternoon but you could get a sense for what the evening would bring. Stalls were starting to come to life, henna ladies were waiting for customers, snake charmers with their cobras laid on rugs, fortune tellers, men with little monkeys climbing on their heads.

From there to the lovingly restored Ben Youssef Medersa. Again – wonderful tiles, woodwork, carved plaster, and an amazing bronze door. In this medersa we were able to see the living quarters of the students. Cells really, some had no windows, were maybe 8’ x 8’ and would hold 2 or 3 students.

The nearby Musee de Marrakesh had a small exhibit of Berber jewelry, costumes, weapons and some wonderful black & white photos from the 1920’s. Not much has changed!

Final stop at the Koubba Ba’Adiyn – the remains of a mosque built in 1106 – really all that’s left is the ablutions pavilion.

For the rest of the afternoon we walked through the souks and watched different craftsmen – metalworkers, cloth dyers, leather shoe makers, tailors – at work. Also went through the food markets which are endlessly fascinating to me – I can’t get enough of the butcher shops with their gory displays. Call me crazy but there’s something about a tray of sheep’s heads looking up at me with dead eyes and lolling tongues that says “we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

We had a wonderful day with Mohammed – he was such good company, very funny and very good at explaining the history of the city.

After relaxing at the riad for a bit we went back out to the Jemma el-Fna in the evening. The chaos level had cranked up since afternoon for sure. Every square inch was covered with teeming masses, smoke from the food stalls was blowing everywhere, every vendor called out, storytellers drew huge crowds, henna ladies grabbed hands to give a ‘sample,’ snake & monkey men vied for tourists’ attention to get their pictures taken with their critters, and everywhere criss-crossing through the crowds and somehow not plowing people over were the ubiquitous, hateful motorbikes.
We walked around for a while and took in the festive atmosphere but didn’t sample from any of the food or juice stands. (Have I said how squeamish I am about eating and how I took pepto bismol every day on the trip as a preventative measure? I am not someone to try the stall food!) There are several restaurants around the perimeter with rooftop seating and getting a spot at a rail up top would be perfect for watching the show unfold.

Day ten: Today was a day alone – no guide. We walked from our riad to the Majorelle Gardens – maybe a 20 minute walk – only had to cross a few busy streets where we latched onto a local and followed him across. The garden is wonderful – definitely worth a visit. The colors of the buildings and pots in blues, yellows, purples – the lily pond complete with frogs and turtles – the huge number of species of cacti and palms, jade plants, huge flowering bougainvillea -- really lovely. There is a small museum attached but while we were there it was closed for renovations.

We walked through the souks again for a while and then returned to the riad for our massage & hamam appointment. We were able to book together – there are two marble tables in the hamam. The steam was so thick and HOT it was a little disconcerting at first but by the end of the process I felt as relaxed and clean as I’ve ever been in this life. We were glad we did the hamam even though it was not as authentic as the neighborhood version would be. But for those you have to take your own supplies and I didn’t pack a bucket so this luxe version at our riad was the next best thing!

The rest of the day we spent relaxing on the rooftop lounge chairs and had another great dinner (bastilla was an appetizer course this time – AMAZING).

For us I felt 2 days in Marr. was enough. If you’re not shopping, aren’t spending tons of time wandering the souks, and aren’t there to soak up sun by a pool I think you can get a good feel for the old city and see a lot of the historic sites in 2 days. Of course, everyone’s different.
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Jun 18th, 2010, 08:55 AM
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Leslie_S, thank you for the very informative trip report. You write really well. My husband, 2 daughters and I are visiting Morocco in September. We booked a customized private tour thru Authentic Morocco at a presumably reasonable price. One question, in terms of clothing for the trip, any recommendations given the time of year we are visiting?
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Jun 18th, 2010, 11:28 AM
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Thanks bandiroot! In May the temps ranged from 50s to 90s. I'm guessing it might be similar for September so be prepared with layers. I really wished I had brought more warm stuff. But I think the ash cloud may have been responsible for the cold snap they had while we were in Fez (so we were told). Maybe you'll find more consistently warm to hot weather.

Even when it was hot-hot I was comfortable in 3/4 length shirts and capris; didn't wear many short sleeves or any shorts. You'll see tourists with all degrees of exposed flesh but I thought it felt more respectful to be a bit modest plus having the sun beating down on bare skin seems hotter than wearing a thin cotton shirt to me.

Hope your trip is wonderful - I'm sure it will be!
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Jun 19th, 2010, 11:32 PM
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Leslie_S, thanks for the tips. We come from a humid tropical country so fortunately we are acclimatized already. More questions if you please. Would you have restaurant and/or night entertainment recommendations for Casablanca? We will be in that city during our daughter's birthday itself.
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Jun 20th, 2010, 05:53 PM
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Sorry, we didn't go to Casablanca so I'm no help there.
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