Fodor's Travel Talk Forums

Fodor's Travel Talk Forums (
-   Africa & the Middle East (
-   -   Morocco: A Journey to the West (

tripplanner001 Nov 18th, 2021 05:19 PM

Morocco: A Journey to the West
If all goes as planned, we will be making our way across the Atlantic - to Morocco - this time tomorrow. The North African country has been on our list for quite some time. We are fascinated by the diverse landscapes, the architectural details and flourishes of its buildings, and the cuisine.

We attempted a trip to Morocco almost exactly ten years ago to the day but unfortunately had to cancel due to last-minute competing obligations. While we've been mentally drawn to Morocco over the years, the infamous hassle associated with the big cities have put us off - until now. Don't get me wrong - the anxiety is still there and we expect some of what we experienced in Egypt last year. But the stars realigned.

Nothing is a given in the time of COVID-19. We considered half a dozen destinations up until last month, when we bit the bullet and put down money for this trip (which is late for us, as we would typically make arrangements for this type of trip several months in advance). Asia was top on our list as it's been six years since we were there. We looked at various European destinations but had concerns about rising cases and restrictions. So we bit the bullet.

We are scheduled for 16 nights in Morocco, as follows:

Arrive in Casablanca, 2 nights
Fez, 4 nights
Erg Chebbi, 2 nights
Todra Gorge, 1 night
Skoura, 1 night
Imlil, 2 nights
Marrakesh, 4 nights

As always, thanks to the Fodorites who helped with our planning.

Welcome aboard. I will share our experiences almost live.

tripplanner001 Nov 18th, 2021 05:44 PM

Planning and Preparations

Our itinerary is a typical one for a first trip to Morocco. We knew we wanted to visit Fez and Marrakesh and could not decide how to divide seven nights between the two. So we opted for four nights in each. We also knew we wanted to visit the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi and do some hiking, which explains the overnights on the way to Marrakesh. We were also looking for a contrast of landscapes and experiences. An overnight stop between Fez and Erg Chebbi was considered, but we dropped it in favor of four nights in both Fez and Marrakesh as none of the points along the way seemed interesting except for maybe Ifrane, which would be too close to Fez for it to make sense. We originally considered two nights at Todra Gorge, but dividing the time between Todra and Skoura offered more variety.

We booked several refundable hotel stays first and then added airfare and a train trip from Casablanca to Fez. Between Fez and Imlil, we hired a car and driver from Desert Luxury Camp / Your Morocco Tour, the operator of the Erg Chebbi camp we chose.

To enter Morocco from the United States, we are required to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative PCR test (there is conflicting information on whether the test needs to be administered 48 or 72 hours prior to departure). To be safe, we are carrying both, with the PCR test taken this morning and the results delivered in about ten hours.

Our luggage is packed. Our documents are in order. The required health assessment forms are completed. Fingers are crossed and prayers are said. With some luck, the next time we check in will be from Casablanca.

progol Nov 19th, 2021 05:12 AM

Have a great trip, tripplanner! I look forward to following your trip and seeing it through your eyes!

FYI - we are talking about a trip to Egypt for 2022, hopefully in the later part of the year. I was just about to look at your TR again!

(PS - Sorry I missed your planning thread; we were away during that time and I didn't check the boards much. But you did get all the good info you needed!)

tripplanner001 Nov 21st, 2021 02:05 PM

@progol, thank you. Your trip report played an important role in our decision to take the leap off the deep end with Morocco. If you are considering a trip to Egypt, I would highly encourage trip sooner rather than later. I cannot imagine the ancient sites that makes Egypt unique and memorable with the crush of tourists, especially given the close quarters. I'm enjoying your report on Croatia and Italy too.

Travel Day

We traveled on Royal Air Maroc from Washington, DC, to Casablanca. It's rare that we have a direct flight option on an Oneworld carrier to the starting point of our destination so this was very welcome. The flight time is about six and a half hours.. The Moroccan national airline uses a 787 for the route.

We arrived at Dulles Airport three hours prior to our flight, more than usual for us but not during the time of COVID-19. The check-in process was smooth. We were asked for our passports and our vaccination records and nothing more. The only downside is that we were unable to provide our known traveler numbers and therefore unable to take advantage of TSA pre-check. We boarded our flight about 45 minutes prior to our scheduled departure. The flight left on time. Service was adequate, the journey uneventful. We arrived on time, although the arrival process was less so.

Upon deplaning, we were first met by airport agents who asked for our vaccination records. We supplied our CDC card. This was followed by our entry forms, which was quickly reviewed and collected. Then came immigration. The line moved slowly and our agent was probably the slowest we've encountered anywhere. This did not seem to be the norm as others moved through the process fairly quickly. Our agent wanted to review every stamp on our passports, of which there were quite a few. It probably took us about 20 minutes to finally get stamped into Morocco. After a baggage scan at customs, we were through. We withdrew some money out of the ATM and were on our way into the city.

From the airport to the city center our options were taxi, train, and bus. We did not want to deal with the taxi haggling and were not in a hurry, so we opted for the train. The only issue is that the train run once every hour and one just left. As there was a long line to get back into the airport for other options, we purchased tickets for the next train. Unfortunately, the engine decided to take a break and we needed to get on a different train. This set us back by another hour, but we were on our way. We took the train to Casa Voyageurs, the city's main train station, and transferred to a tram line. The train took about 40 minutes from the airport to the city center and the tram about 15. We stepped off at Place Mohammed V, a large public square and a short walk from our hotel.

For our home in Casablanca, we chose Hotel Le Doge, a boutique property within walking distance to several of the main places of interest. We were welcomed at the hotel with tea and cookies on the rooftop terrace with views over the city. The rooms are spacious and well appointed. We rested some, freshened up, and went exploring.

A Walking Introduction to the White City

Per usual, we like to get to know a place exploring it on foot. We set out with an afternoon walking tour crafted from guidebooks and some online reading. Our walk started at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, just down the street from our hotel. The interior is under renovation and in the process of being converted into a cultural space.

Next to the Cathedral is Arab League Park, an oasis of green in a city with not so much of it. Wandering among the stately palm trees and listening to the baubling water features eased our senses to Casablanca. Having not enjoyed much of the people activity near where we live in the past year and a half, the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves were a delight.

The people watching continued as we moved along to Place Mohammed V, a big public plaza surrounded by large government buildings of a mix of Moroccan and Spanish design and a water fountain favored by children and pigeons alike. We sat by the fountain for a bit and admired the interesting architecture and the ornamentation and details found on each of the buildings.

We then headed north and east towards the Central Market, passing by a collection of Art Deco buildings for which Casablanca is famous. The streets are lined with shops of all kinds - clothing, knickknacks, cafes, etc. Most were open and the cafes were busy. The Central Market mostly sells fresh seafood, which could be purchased for cooking at the surrounding restaurants. The fish, calamari, and especially crab looked delicious. If only we were hungry enough for such a big meal. The surrounding stalls also offered vegetables, fruit, and made to order juices. From the market we headed to United Nations Square for some coffee and sidewalk café people watching.

Across the street is one of the main entrances to the medina. Casablanca’s medina is smaller and less famous than that found in Fez and in Marrakesh. There were some of the typical tourist trinkets for sale near the entrance and throughout the southern part of the Medina though most of the stalls sold clothing and other items meant for locals. Most of the passers by also seemed to be locals. As we made our way north, there were more buildings and a couple of hammams. This part was more residential than commercial. We made our way out of the medina towards the north and west. Noticing the time, we had another hour and a half before dinner and decided to head over to Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca’s crown jewel and the largest in Africa. We knew we were too late for an interior tour and would visit again tomorrow but were drawn towards it.

Exiting the medina and heading in the direction of our destination, the mosque immediately came into view. We admired views of the exquisite tiled facade and enjoyed the beautiful light that the late afternoon sun cast on it. There was a gentle sea breeze coming off from the Atlantic, which made it all the more pleasant. A good number of people, mostly locals, had the same idea. The seaside promenade was filled with people enjoying the setting and atmosphere as we were.

We walked along the seafront to Rick’s Café, an American-owned restaurant paying homage to the movie Casablanca. The interior of the restaurant is elegant and the atmosphere is that of an earlier time. The food was fabulous all around and the service attentive. “Sam” entertained us with his piano music as we enjoyed our fine meals.

After dinner we made our way back to our hotel, enjoying the flood-lit buildings we saw during the day.

progol Nov 21st, 2021 05:26 PM

What a great start to your trip - that is, after you finally arrived! You paint such a lovely word-picture that I hope you post some actual photos to even greater effect.

In a short trip, one can’t see and do everything, and we didn’t stop in Casablanca. I’m only sorry to have missed the mosque and the chance to go to Rick’s Cafe! Sounds great!

And we are hoping to go to Egypt next fall. Fingers crossed!

tripplanner001 Nov 22nd, 2021 09:32 AM

@progol, thank you for your kind words. You're right that it is impossible to see everything. It's why I don't have Rabat, Chefchaouen, Tangier, nor Essaouira on this trip, for example. Egypt for you and your husband next year, in shah Allah.

More Walking Than Sightseeing

Casablanca is the commercial capital of Morocco and its largest city but there’s not too much to do for a casual tourist. Our top priority for the day was Hassan II Mosque.

We began the day with an amazing breakfast at our hotel’s rooftop terrace. We were served delicious omelets, cold cuts, cheeses, mini pancakes, breads, excellent coffee, and juice. The food was simple yet delicious and the service was attentive.

Filled up, we started our walk towards the Royal Palace. We knew the interior was closed to visitors but had read that the detailed entrance was worth the visit as well as the surrounding Habous Quarter, also referred to as the new medina. The stroll from our hotel to the Royal Palace was a leisurely one. We passed a few buildings with interesting facades although all the storefronts were mostly closed. It could have been due to a Sunday, perhaps due to COVID-19, I am not sure. The walk took about 30 minutes but was met to disappointment. Turns out even the door to the palace was not accessible to public view due to COVID-19. We tried our luck with Makhama du Pasha, a city courthouse with supposed exquisite interiors, but it too was inaccessible. We carried on to the surrounding streets of the Habous Quarter but there was really nothing to speak of. We did not enter the souvenir shops as we did not feel like engaging in the hassling and there were not other interesting places to look at.

We left the area and headed towards Hassan II Mosque. There was not much of interest along the way save Our Lady of Lourdes church. We made a brief stop and stayed for part of Sunday service.

We arrived at Hassan II Mosque at around two in the afternoon and waited for the museum to open. There are three or four tours in the morning and one in the afternoon, at three. We visited the small museum and waited for the tour of the mosque to start. The tour itself was rather disorganized. There were a couple of tour guides, one for an English speaking tour and the other for a French one; neither said anything about commencing and it was unclear whether they were taking small groups or they intended for everyone to follow. A security guard let everyone knew the two individuals heading towards the mosque were the tour guides and asked us to follow them. There were no commentary along the way so we all milled about enjoying the exterior and took photographs. As folks entered the mosque, the guides gathered the groups and offered commentary. We admired the fine details of the interior - the high decorated ceilings, the massive marble columns, the chandeliers, the intricate woodwork, etc. Built to make a statement, the building sure does. We enjoyed the details more than the commentary. The mosque is very impressive but I give the edge to some of the grand mosques found in Istanbul.

Stretching out in both directions from Hassan II Mosque are pedestrian promenades facing the Atlantic Ocean. We enjoyed a walk along the one away from the city (we walked along the other one yesterday). As we were here on a Sunday afternoon, there was a large contingent on people, mostly local couples and families, enjoying the nice weather. Vendors lined the walkway selling juices, water, and snacks. We purchased and sipped on cups of fresh pomegranate juice - delicious. We made it to the nearby lighthouse and the beaches of Ain Diab, walking on the sand and listening to the crashing waters.

By now it was nightfall and we returned to the city center by tram. We headed to La Bavaroise across the street from the Central Market for dinner but only to find out it was closed. Disappointed, we headed towards Al Mounia, another restaurant of which we made note. We sat down but found out that almost all of the options on the menu were unavailable. We decided to return to our hotel and eat there. The main restaurant was closed too, so we went to the rooftop for a light meal - adequate but not the most memorable. Breakfast was definitely better.

Before going to bed, we asked the front desk to arrange taxi pickup, as we were scheduled to leave Casablanca for Fez early in the morning. We had options for two petit taxis or one grand taxi and chose grand. In Morocco, a petit taxi sits three people and a grand taxi supposedly eight. In general, you pay per seat and the taxi leaves when all the seats are taken or when someone pays for all of the seats. Given that it would be early and we left from the hotel, we didn't need to do this.

In preparation for the taxi ride and having experienced taxi drivers in Egypt and elsewhere, we were prepared to do some haggling and asked the hotel front desk agent to break our larger bills. To our surprise, he refused and simply said the taxi drivers have change. I left it at that as we were similarly dismissed yesterday when asking for a map of the city, to which a different agent asked us to use our phones even though we prefer not to whip it out all the time. Oh well. The hotel and the rooms were nice but it did not extend to the service at the front desk.

tripplanner001 Nov 23rd, 2021 12:42 PM

To Fez

We traveled by taxi from our hotel to Casablanca's main train station, Casa Voyageurs, early in the morning. We asked the hotel the cost of the taxi ride in advance. Sure enough, the taxi driver tried to charge us much more. After a couple of back-and-forths and we had the exact amount among us, we decided to just give him what we were quoted and left. He returned to his vehicle and drove away. Wish we didn't have to do that but it was not as intense as some of the other counters we've had elsewhere.

Having arrived at the train station an hour in advance of our scheduled departure, we waited a bit before we were able to board the train. We boarded fifteen minutes prior to departure. We booked in first class. There are several compartments in the train car and six seats per compartment. The train left shortly thereafter. We slept most of the way to Fez, catching a few glimpses of the mountains, valleys, and cities here and there. In total, the journey took about four hours.

We traveled by taxi from the train station to Bab Bou Jeloud, one of the entrances to the all-pedestrian Fez medina, also known as Fez el-Bali. As expected, we haggled and were hassled by various people trying to sell us their guiding services. We went to several taxi drivers before settling on one. At Bab Bou Jeloud, or the Blue Gate, we used Google Maps to find our way to our riad, or traditional Moroccan residence, fairly easily. It felt a bit surreal, but we're in Fez.

Our home for the next four nights is Riad Fes, not far from one of the main thoroughfares inside the medina. The riad is glorious. The lobby courtyard is spectacular and looks like what we may find in a palace - the columns, the tilework, the wood carvings, the ornamental fountain, the chandelier. The rooms are appointed in different styles, oscillating between traditional Moroccan and modern. Our two rooms were one of each. The rooms are spacious and beautifully decorated. Each has balconies overlooking the whole medina and views of the surrounding mountains - incredible. We freshened up and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the hotel restaurant. The food - a mix of Moroccan and Western - was good.

A Leisurely Afternoon Wander Through Fez, or So We Thought

Refreshed from our train ride and bellies full, we set out to experience Fez, good, bad, and ugly. How will we fare with the dreaded hasslers that make Fez infamous?

From our hotel we made our way to Talaa Seghira, one of the two main thoroughfares within the medina. Lining the street are shop after shop selling leather goods, pottery, carpets, copper and brass goods, and other tourist knickknacks. We went west to Bab Bou Jeloud to get a good look at the beautifully-tiled city gate. We also enjoyed fresh-made pomegranate juice at the gate - delicious! From there we wandered over to Talaa Kabira and browsed the produce markets and did some souvenir shopping. Near the start of Talaa Kabira is Madersa Bou Inania, an Islamic school dripping in exquisite tiles, wood carvings, and ornate designs throughout. Hidden behind an ornate door to the street, the courtyard is a place of calm in the middle of the bustling medina. Sights and smells of meat and produce soon gave way to the hustle and bustle of commerce with merchants plowing their tourist wares. Along the way are foudouks or medieval guest quarters now turned into artisan workshops and stores selling their wares. We wandered deeper and deeper into the belly of the medina and were crushed with goods of all shapes, sizes, and colors surrounding us. Before we knew it we arrived at Al Karaouine Mosque and soon after was hit with the sensory overload of the Mausoleum to Moulay Idriss, the person who founded Fez and brought Islam to Morocco. What an incredible sight! By now, we were intoxicated by old Fez and all that it held. We visited a terrace on top of a carpet shop that offered an incredible bird's-eye view of the mausoleum complex as well as nearby Al Karaouine. We more or less lost track of time. It was already 6:30, so we headed back to our hotel to freshen up for dinner. What was intended to be a leisurely wander to get our bearings and do some light souvenir shopping turned into a complete riot of experiences that put us on a sensory high. How we are beginning to fall in love with Fez.

Dinner tonight was at Dar Roumana, a hotel-cum-restaurant located in the northeastern portion of the medina. Like Riad Fes, Dar Roumana dripped in ornamentation, design, and color. The food was just as good and the experience very enjoyable.

progol Nov 24th, 2021 12:31 PM

When we arrived in Fes, we knew we had arrived in Morocco! It's a place out of time and in another world! Your words captured it beautifully. Fes definitely causes a "sensory high"!

I found your impressions of the Hassan II Mosque interesting and don't feel quite as bad that we missed it, especially since we've been to Istanbul and visited many of the grand mosques.

tripplanner001 Nov 24th, 2021 02:02 PM

@progol, you made the right choice. We knew we did not want to have our day one in Morocco be in Fez as we felt we needed acclimation before diving in. We chose Casablanca 1) because we were already there and 2) the most logical alternative, Rabat, still has its major sights closed due to COVID-19.

The Intoxication Continues

Today is our first full day in Fez and we've devoted it once again to its ancient medina of more than 9,000 streets, alleys, and passageways. As usual, our day began with breakfast at the hotel as it's included in the cost of the hotel room. We were treated to an elaborate feast of French and Moroccan pastries, eggs to order, yogurt, and fruit.

We focused our visit in the central part of the medina with its major tourist highlights. Our first stop on the agenda was Nejjarine Museum, which we reached via a series of back lanes and alleyways. We managed not to get lost using Google Maps to navigate; where Internet service was available, the GPS tracking was accurate in pinpointing where we were.

Back to the itinerary, Nejjarine is a former fundouk that houses a wood crafts museum today. Exhibits include a good selection of wood carvings used in traditional Moroccan buildings - wall decorations, door frames, spice racks, chests, bridal chairs, items used in mosques, and even rifle racks. The building itself is worth a good look. Nejjarine also houses a rooftop overlooking Al Karaouine. We enjoyed Moroccan mint tea here.

Satisfied and hydrated, we threw ourselves into the throws of the souqs, making our way to Moulay Idriss' mausoleum and Attarine Madersa. Another one of Fez' most important Islamic schools, Attarine was covered with the features found at Bou Inania and other Moroccan buildings - tiling, woodwork, carvings, a water feature, and a mihrab. Unlike Bou Inania, visitors are permitted to tour the upstair rooms used for instruction and dormitories. Through the small windows, we caught glimpses of the courtyard below from unique vantage points. For these reasons, we preferred Attarine to Bou Inania.

From Attarine we circled Al Karaouian to Place Seffarine, where we were greeted to the klacking sounds of coppersmiths busy at work. Place Seffarine is quite atmospheric with all the surrounding shops with men busy at work and the library of Karaouine on one side of the square. From here we wound our way to the Chouara Tannery and the leather goods shops surrounding it. We visited one of the shops for a good look at the iconic vats below and the men at work. The smell coming from the tanneries were unmistakable even as we approached the streets around it, although it was not was bad as we expected.

We returned to Place Seffarine and walked through the streets lined with shops selling copper and brass wares to Place Rcif. At the edge of the square is Bab Rcif, another entrance gate to the Fez medina. At this time, it started to rain so we found shelter and stayed put until the showers passed. We then made our way back west along Talaa Seghira and Cafe Clock for snacks and drinks. A recommended stop.

From there we walked to Kasbah Al-Nouar just outside of the medina past the produce markets lining the medina walls. Kasbah Al-Nouar is residential and not visited by most tourists. We saw it on the map and was curious and ventured to have a look. To our surprise was what looked and felt like a small village of its own. The lower half of the walls are painted in blue and the doors to the homes in a different color while the pavement was painted in rainbow colors. The blue seemed reminiscent of some of the photos we've seen of Chefchaouen, not on our itinerary.

After a full day out we returned to our hotel to freshen up before dinner, but not before grabbing some pomegranate juice at Bab Bou Jeloud. Dinner tonight was at Restaurant Har Hatim / Riad Al-Fassia Palace, a good recommendation by our hotel. The meal comprised of simple Moroccan fare, what one would find in a Moroccan home, but the tastes were far from simple. The lamb with couscous and tagine were just amazing. The setting was just as delicious as the food.

The Hustlers of Fez

Hassling is a theme in Morocco as well as in a few other countries in this part of the world (note: I am not disparaging any country, people, or culture in any way. If I offended anyone unintentionally, please excuse me.) Most of those who hustle and sometimes harass visitors are young men but we've encountered older people and children as well. Fez is one of the places in which the hassling is most intense, and one of the main reason we've put off on going to Morocco for some time.

During our day and a half in the medina, we were pleasantly surprised that the aggression is less than we expected. Could it be due to the pandemic? We don't know. We were approached throughout our time in the medina but usually a “no” or “not interested” in English, French, or Arabic did it. The worst encounters were around Al Karaouine and the approaches to the tanneries as well as at the tanneries itself. The guys there were most aggressive and persistent, and, frankly, annoying. In one more intense exchange, a few choice words in Arabic did the trick; this was the only time we felt frustrated.

Everyday Moroccans

Hasslers aside, most Moroccans are friendly and welcoming. A simple "sabah al-khair" or "ahlan wa sahlan" elicited similar responses, head nods, and smiles. We've had some lengthier chats and enjoyed several laughters. We found French to be the most useful language for such conversations. Even when we start in Arabic, I'm usually the one to get tripped up and make the switch to French as they have no problems understanding me in Classical Arabic but I cannot make out some of the Moroccan Arabic words and phrases. It doesn't take much for us to sit down over rounds of mint tea.

tripplanner001 Nov 24th, 2021 08:46 PM

A Whole New World

Even with a day and a half in old Fez, we came away feeling we merely scratched the surface. We could have easily added a day or two for Fez el Bali and find new discoveries with the extra time. Yet the rest of Fez drew us out of the medina walls.

Following breakfast we set out for today’s itinerary - Jnan Sbil Gardens, the Mellah, and Ville Nouvelle. To get to Jnan Sbil Gardens we treaded a now-worn route along Talaa Seghira and through Bab Bou Jeloud, continuing until we past the fortifications and ramparts. The gardens are just outside the defensive walls. Though small and the fountains devoid of water, it made for a relaxing morning stroll and a great way to start our walk. Within the Garden are Andalusian-style gardens, cacti, bamboo, and beautiful palm trees.

Continuing on, we past through another layer of defensive walls and were in the Mellah, or the Jewish quarter. Fez and Morocco in general hosted a fairly large Jewish population, with most of them arriving at the time of the Spanish Inquisition and departing with the modern-day politics of the Holy Land. Characteristic of the Mellah is the unique architecture of the buildings with its beautiful balconies. Located in the Mellah is Aben Danan Synagogue, the oldest in Morocco and still functioning.

Just outside the Mellah is the Royal Palace compound. Although inaccessible to the public, the ornate entrance gate is viewable, at least from a distance. While beautiful, we were unable to get a close-up look of it given the security barriers. I don’t know if this is recent due to COVID-19 or if it has always been the case. Regardless there is not much there except to snap a couple of photos and go.

Leading southwest away from the Royal Palace is the Ville Nouvelle or new city, the part of Fez built by the French during the protectorate area. Running through the heart of this part of the city is Avenue Hassan II, laid out in the style of the Champs Elysses in Paris with its tree-lined street, flower beds, and grand cafes. There is much in the way of “sights” for the tourist but pleasant nonetheless for a laissez-faire stroll and a long, lazy lunch at Maison Blanche, an upscale French restaurant just a couple blocks away from the main drag.

Having been immersed in life in the medina for the last two days, stepping out and into the world of the Ville Nouvelle felt like stepping into an unfamiliar time and place. It made me think about what it must feel like when Fassis saw the modern city for the first time. Or even what it must have been like when people left their traditional villages to new urban areas for the first time in their lives, even today.

From here, we slowly ambled our way back to the old city. We explored the southern portions of the medina near our hotel. The highlight of this back-alley walk was Glaoui Palace, which to our pleasant surprise was open given that current information on the Internet claims it remains closed due to COVID-19. The palace is in a state of disrepair but what remains accessible and visible is spectacular. It was a joy to wander the building on our own, enjoying all the features of Moroccan architecture and interior design. The courtyard off the kitchen was a particular surprise and generated real excitement due to its feast on the eyes.

The sun was about the set and the on-again, off-again drizzle of the day turned into heavier rain shower, so it was back to our hotel. We enjoyed dinner tonight at L'Amandier Restaurant located inside the Palais Faraj hotel. This is a more typical restaurant setting along the quality of the food was much better.

tripplanner001 Nov 25th, 2021 11:58 AM

Rome? French or Italian Riviera? No, We're Still in Morocco

For our fourth day in Fez, we planned an excursion out of the city. Our destinations for the day are Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Meknes, probably the top day trip from the city. There is so much to see and do, discoveries to be had, and experiences to make within Fez that we could have easily spent another day continuing to explore the medina. In hindsight, it would have made sense for us to book a fifth night in Fez to do just that.

In my research on travel to Morocco, information on Fez is more limited compared to information on Marrakesh. Unlike other cities, Fez is best explored wandering, with a few key points of interest in mind to anchor the wandering. We found the Fez Tourism website to be the most helpful given the lack of information. My most trusted guide to Fez is the map published by the Tourism Bureau that suggests walking routes and interesting stops ( The colored routes on the map correspond to points throughout the medina, and the routes are marked with overhead signs along each route. Along with GPS, this helped us navigate and not get lost somewhere that getting lost is common.

While Fez captivated us, the rest of Morocco beckoned and our desire to see more of it drew us out of old Fez’s walls. For today’s excursion, we arranged a car and driver with our hotel. The cost for the day for four people is 1,200 dirhams, more than what we would pay if we hired a taxi driver off the street and / or visited on our own. Given the taxi culture in Morocco, we preferred to save the aggregation, even if it meant paying a bit more.

We left Fez a little after nine and arrived at our first stop, Volubilis, at a quarter to eleven. Volubilis is a town in the Roman Empire and set at the Empire’s southern fringe. Very little of the building structures remain intact as the stones were plundered by King Moulay Ismail to build his new capital in nearby Meknes as well as the 18th-century earthquake that did significant damage to Lisbon. The only buildings to survive in any stage or has been restored are the Capitol, the Basilica, and the Triumphal Arch. What made Volubilis worth the visit are the mosaic tile floors that survive intact through the ages. In all, we spent about two hours at Volubilis.

Nearby Moulay Idriss, a village of about 15,000 people that is home to the mausoleum of the first Islamic ruler of Morocco. Just a fifteen minute drive from Volubilis, we were transported to another world. Stepping out of the car, we were immediately struck by how Moulay Idriss reminded us of a Mediterranean village. There is a village square in the center and homes and other buildings rising up on the hillside behind it, mostly in white. The mausoleum itself is closed for restoration, which didn’t matter to us as non-Muslims are unable to enter in any case. We walked up the hillside above the main square and enjoyed the vistas from up on high, from where we could clearly see the roofs that make up the mausoleum complex as well as the village all around it. We also stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the village for more great views. Even though small, the village oozes charm with its setting, winding car-free lanes, and beautifully painted homes.

After about an hour at Moulay Idriss, we continued on to our final stop - the imperial city of Meknes, one of four. Meknes is home to the Mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, also closed for restoration. A miniature version of Fez, there is not much to see and do. We viewed the ornate gate Bab al-Mansour and explored a bit of the medina, visiting the Madersa Bou Inania and walking a few of the medina lanes, but that was it. The Dar Jamai Museum, a known tourist sight in Meknes, is also closed - for restoration. We were ready to leave after a little more than an hour. There was so little to do that we did not feel Meknes was worth a stop today. We would have gladly swapped Meknes for more time at Moulay Idriss.

Dinner tonight was more casual, at M-Touch, a casual Moroccan restaurant just off Talaa Kabira, followed by one last stroll through the medina. We miss it already.

For those of you who celebrate, Happy Thanksgiving.

tripplanner001 Nov 26th, 2021 12:21 PM

From the Medina to the Desert

We bid an early and reluctant goodbye to Fez and its delightful medina as we met our driver, Hassan, for the seven to eight hour journey southeast - to Merzouga and the sands of Erg Chebbi, near the border with Algeria. Desert, here we come.

Rain and morning traffic followed us out of Fez. Soon after leaving the city we were in the foothills of the Middle Atlas. We wound our way through the gentle hills and mountains for about an hour and change before reaching our first stop, Ifrane, a French Alpine-style resort village popular with locals for weekend and holiday breaks. We enjoyed a morning coffee and cake break at La Paix Restaurant in the center of the village and a walk among the trees with its changing colors.

Rain changed over to snow as we moved into the cedar forests around Azrou. Along the way we were greeted by Barbary macaques and stopped to snap a few photographs. The dusting of snow on the trees and surrounding mountains made for a pretty scene.

Leaving the forest, there was a change in scenery back to gentle brown hills and barren mountains. We also bid goodbye to the rain and snow with bits of sun peeking through the cloud-covered skies. Along the way were small towns and villages and nomadic camps with their herds of goats and sheep. The land flattened as we headed towards the town of Midelt. Apple trees can be seen from time to time. The High Atlas Mountains with its snow-capped rounded peaks were visible in the distance. By now, the skies turned clearer, there were more blue than white, the temperature climbed, and we shedded our layers.

We arrived in Midelt at 12:30, four hours after we departed Fez. We stopped for a quick, casual lunch before carrying on to the desert. We crisscrossed our way through the High Altas Mountains, passing varied landscapes that made the drive a bit more interesting than we had expected. One of the most dramatic sections was the Ziz Gorge and Valley. The landscapes are big and bold - cliffs reaching for the sky, palm groves lining the river below, and homes made of clay and stones along the way. We saw our first kasbahs here as well. Exiting the valley, we passed the towns of Errachidia, Erfoud, and Merzouga before arriving at the edge of the sand dunes.

We were welcomed to our desert camp with snacks and drinks. We enjoyed sunset over the sand dunes before being shown to our tents. Our tents were huge. There are two king size beds in each tent as well as a bathroom with complete sink and shower with running water. The tents have electrical power, running on solar panels. We enjoyed a dinner feast complete with a selection of Moroccan favorites at the large communal tent followed by an evening of music and dance around a campfire and stargazing under the dunes.

Elizabeth_S Nov 27th, 2021 07:48 AM

I just found this now - loving your trip report! When we drove from Casablanca to Fez we were amazed at the lushness and commented it was like being in Tuscany (it was early Spring). Looking forward to more posts!

tripplanner001 Nov 27th, 2021 10:41 AM

@Elizabeth_S, thank you for commenting. I’m glad you’re enjoying the report. I can appreciate your comparison between some of the areas between Casablanca and Fez and Tuscany. The olive groves add to the comparison.

Playing in the Sand

We awoke before sunrise to enjoy the first rays over the sand dunes and some fun in the sand before a simple breakfast in the communal tent.

At mid-morning we met our cameleer for a camelback ride through the desert. It seemed almost surreal that we were riding among the San dunes, viewing the merengue-like formations as far as the eye can see. About an hour later we stopped for rest and some mint tea. The cameleer prepared it for us, nomad style. We also enjoyed some time playing in the sand like children. The camels took a break too and were let loose to roam and eat. After an hour and half of down time among the dunes we hopped back on our camels and headed to our picnic lunch spot among the dunes, with the mountains of Algeria in the distance. We were served a nice salad and a delicious tagine. What a unique experience. Following lunch it was back on the camels for the hour return to camp.

We returned to our tents to freshen up before venturing out to enjoy afternoon tea and later dinner. As it’s been on and off raining since three this afternoon and cold because of it, we all retired to our rooms for some heat and relaxation before turning in for the night.

Melnq8 Nov 27th, 2021 01:50 PM

A fascinating read tripplanner!

Elizabeth_S Nov 27th, 2021 04:39 PM

“hopped back on our camels” ?? You must be a lot younger than I am 😃

tripplanner001 Nov 27th, 2021 11:20 PM

@Melnq8, thank you. Morocco is definitely a fascinating place in which to travel, such that my words don’t do it justice. Having spent two days in the desert and on our way to the gorges, I feel as if I’ve visited more than one country already; the differences between this part of Morocco and Fez are night and day. I wish you safe and happy travels in Portugal and look forward to reading about your experiences too.

@Elizabeth_S, our ages range from upper-30s to mid-70s. We are grateful each time we travel that we are healthy and able enough to do what we do and don’t take it for granted.

Melnq8 Nov 28th, 2021 05:27 AM

Portugal cancelled...again.

progol Nov 28th, 2021 06:10 AM

Hi, tripplanner! I am so enjoying following your travels through Morocco!

I agree about Meknes - the mausoleum of Moulay Ismael was closed for restoration and that was one of the reasons we stopped there. The gate is beautiful to see and worth a short detour, I think, but otherwise, it was otherwise missable on a short trip. We loved Voulubis, though. We had a sandstorm the night we stayed in the desert, but it was still remarkable. Your experience sounds perfect!

tripplanner001 Nov 28th, 2021 11:10 AM

@melnq8, I am so sorry that you had to cancel again. Hopefully things will turn around and you could make the trip soon. Something to look forward too.

@progol, thank you. No sandstorms for us but we had afternoon showers - no big deal for us as it started to rain after we were almost back from our camel ride but apparently, according to the camp staff, it was the most significant amount in about three years. They were visibly joyous. We’re enjoying Morocco much more than we had expected. We’ve had some bumps along the way but it has not detracted from our experiences.

A Dramatic Change in Scenery

We awoke at sunrise for one final breakfast among the sand dunes before getting back on the road. We retraced our route from Fridayuntil we reached the town of Rissani, before heading south by southwest towards Todra Gorge and eventually Dades Gorge and Valley, Ouarzazate, and Marrakesh. From the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi to Marrakesh is approximately ten hours by car without stops. Most make the trip with at least one overnight along the way; we are opting for two, one at Todra Gorge and the other in Skoura, so that we can enjoy the varied landscape and do some day hikes.

The landscape along the way from Rissani is mostly flat desert land with barren hills and mountains of the Anti-Atlas in the distance, a badlands of sorts. As we came closer to Todra, we saw palm groves, small villages, and some farming. We also stopped for some photographs along the way to Todra and for a short walk valley side. We enjoyed lunch at a small hotel and restaurant in the valley, sitting on its sun-soaked terrace surrounded by the high cliff walls of the gorge. What a spectacular setting, and oh so different than the dunes from where we arrived.

Following lunch, our driver dropped us off at the entrance to jaw-dropping Todra Gorge. We walked through the length of the entrance of the gorge before returning to our vehicle for the final few kilometer drive to our hotel, Auberge le Festival, deep within the gorge. We checked in, dropped our bags off, and returned outside. We wanted to maximize the remaining daylight hours hiking in the gorge. We inquired about the available hiking routes and chose one that clocks in at 2.5 hours as it was already three in the afternoon. What supposed to be an easy hike turned out not to be, given the loose gravel and lack of signage. After some scrambling and frustration we aborted the climb. Instead, we decided to wander on our own along the roadway beside the dry riverbed. The road is wide enough for two vehicles and pedestrians. We admired the sheer gorge walls on both sides in turn after turn - very impressive, the road is flat and easy to walk on. We walked about 45 minutes into the gorge from our hotel before heading back to freshen up and enjoy yet another amazing traditional Berber-style dinner and entertainment, included in the price of the room. When it comes to dining in Morocco, we’ve totally been treated like kings and queens with culinary masterpieces one after the other.

All times are GMT -8. The time now is 06:53 AM.