Reflections on a 2 week Morocco Trip

Old Dec 22nd, 2018, 08:03 PM
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Reflections on a 2 week Morocco Trip

We are a couple in our early 70s who took a 2 week trip to Morocco in November - our 25th overseas trip together but first to this part of the world. As in our previous trips we traveled independently, but for this trip we included a private tour for 5 days/4 nights from Fes to Marrakech. We count this as one of our favorite trips! Our itinerary was a common one for first time visitors.

1 night in Casablanca after evening arrival from Seattle
Train to Fes
3 nights in Fes in a riad in the Batha area (Riad Mazar)
4 nights/5 days private tour with Desert Majesty
3 nights in Marrakech in a riad in the Medina (Riad Miski)
SupraTours Bus to Essaouria
3 nights in Essaouria in a riad in the Medina (Riad Watier)
Transfer to Casablanca in private car (because another couple from our riad was also traveling there - a lucky coincidence)
1 night in airport hotel in Casablanca (Atlas Sky Hotel)

I keep a day to day travel journal when we travel but I won’t post the journal or go through the day to day itinerary.. Instead I will just post some reflections about the trip - what went well, what we really enjoyed, what we might have done differently. In general we found the food very good, people very helpful, and the riads very welcoming and helpful. We were expecting a lot of hassling in the medinas but we weren’t significantly bothered. It seemed to be enough to say no thank you or not now and move on. To us it seemed much less than certain areas in Turkey, India, and markets in Vietnam. This was a pleasant surprise as we were prepared for much more. I also used a fair amount of my very rusty French especially in the markets. Here are some more specific reflections

CASABLANCA
Train tickets from Casablanca to Fes. We couldn’t buy these ahead of time and I was concerned about buying 1st class tickets at the last minute, but it was no problem on a Monday morning. We just went to the station about half an hour early. 1st class carriage had compartments of 6 seats. We had the two by the window with a little table in between. Very comfortable for the 4 hour trip and friendly people in the compartment.
We also found a very convenient Maroccom shop near the ticket window at the Casa Voyageurs train station. In a few minutes I had a SIM card installed in my phone. The 20 dirham payment was plenty for a few short phone calls to the US and a couple of local calls.

FES
Batha was a good area to stay in. It is right on the edge of the medina but still accessible by car or taxi. The riad was a short walk to the Blue Gate area which had a number of restaurants and access to the main streets through the medina.

Riad Mazar was a gorgeous riad with spectacular craftsmanship. I’ve written reviews of the riads on Tripadvisor so won’t do it here, but want to mention that it has a very rare ELEVATOR - for a riad. I have a weak knee so this was very welcome to me and allowed us to stay on the 3rd floor and also easily access the roof.

We booked a half day tour through the riad for our first full day which was very worthwhile. The official guide was very informative but impersonal and took us on a whirlwind tour covering a lot of the high spots. We were specific about not wanting to shop and that was not a problem although we did end up at a carpet shop and leather shop as part of the tour but the lectures were very short since it was clear we were not buying.

At the suggestion of our riad we took a taxi to the Mellah (Jewish quarter) and really enjoyed that area. It is a busy pedestrian area of locals going about their business with just a smattering of tourists. There is a long main shopping street with narrow alleys branching off, picturesque and interesting, as well as the Synagogue to visit. We walked back to the medina and between the Mellah and the Blue Gate you pass through the Jardin Jnan Sbil Park, lovely and peaceful.

If we find a restaurant that really suits us, we tend to make it “our” restaurant. In Fes it was Chez Rachid which is very near the Blue Gate. The food was very good, service was excellent, and we enjoyed sitting out front watching all the activity. A casual, good value place.

We could have used one more day for a trip to Volubis/Meksnes.

FES to MARRAKECH with DESERT MAJESTY
This was the highlight of our trip! Our driver, Mohammed, a young Berber who grew up as a nomad, was an excellent, safe driver of the 4 wheel drive SUV and took wonderful care of us, responsive to any requests, and anticipating the kinds of things we would enjoy. We got out of the car quite regularly - to walk around a market by the side of the road, to stroll down a scenic or characteristic road while he drove ahead a ways and waited for us, to walk through an oasis, to go into a ksar or ksour, to visit a mosque, to walk around a town…. The scenery went from desert to mountains and gorges, sometimes really spectacular, but always interesting. We were mesmerized by the changing colors around us.

We spent the first night in Erfoud at the Rose du Desert Hotel (our favorite of this tour and a place we could have stayed longer).
We really enjoyed driving the Rissani loop between Erfoud and Merzouga, a narrow road passing by a number of ksours and ksars.

We spent the second night in the Sahara Stars Desert Camp outside of Merzouga. Peter went by camel from a meet up point with the camel guide. Mohammed took me in the SUV along a faint track in the sand which was very fun bouncing like a jumping bean and sliding back and forth like in heavy snow. We had upgraded to this luxury camp because we really wanted the attached facilities. The tent had every comfort except heat. (I brought a hot water bottle and was glad of it). The camp of about 10 tents plus dining tent plus staff tent was pretty well lined with carpets and lanterns. All the comforts made it seem a bit like a hotel next to the dunes. There wasn’t much of a feeling of being away from it all. A good dinner was served in the dining tent, linen and all, after sundown - pureed veg soup; couscous of veg, chicken, sausage and beans; banana and apple with chocolate sauce. After dinner we enjoyed sitting out under the stars and listening to the staff play music and drums around a fire.
We got up early to see the sunrise and stood around freezing in the dark for while. The actual sunrise was a little underwhelming for us and we could have stayed under the warm covers longer.. But the sun spreading across the dunes with dramatic shadows and changing colors was absolutely gorgeous. A cautionary tale! Be careful of your camera on the dunes. It’s easy to do a little slide and bounce down. I had my camera and held it up as high as I could but it still got sand in the telephoto lens and that was the end of it. It was an old and inexpensive camera but I still liked it. But I was able to use my phone camera for the rest of the trip - just not as convenient for me.

Day 3 took us from Merzouga to Boumalne des Dades across a red and gold desert surrounded by blue/purple and pink mountains with stops to see the ancient qanats (irrigation system) and walking in the Todra Gorge as well as various photo stops and a very good lunch at Chez Iriki in Tinherir on a terrace overlooking the palm oasis and the Todra Gorge.

Day 4 from Dades to Ouarzarzate was one of our favorite travel days ever! Dades Gorge is absolutely stunning with all the shades of red and pink and the high cliffs and dramatic shapes. From Boumalne de Dades we went off road up a rocky dirt track to a high desert plateau surrounded by the most fantastical red rock mountains or all colors - a vast open space with no signs of civilization in any way. Mohammed let us out to walk and went on ahead. It was such an amazing experience to be alone in such a vast natural area. We came off this plateau before the small red clay town of BouTharar where Mohammed had arranged for us to eat lunch at the home of a Berber family he knew. They were very hospitable and we had a lovely couscous lunch, the window by the table framing a beautiful view of river, oasis, and mountains.
The road from BouTharar to Kalaat Mgouna and the main road to Ouarzazate was a narrow road running through a steep gorge along a river far below on one side and high cliffs on the other - very dramatic scenery.

Day 5 from Ouarzazate to Marrakesh
We passed Ait Ben Haddou, the famous Kasbah, but did not stop to explore because it would involve a lot of climbing which I am not able to do. We passed through the beautiful Ounila Valley with clay villages climbing the mountainsides high above the river and green oases. We did stop and tour the Telouet Kasbah which was very worthwhile. The Kasbah was built over three different centuries and is in various states of ruin and renovation. The renovated part has some stunning craftwork. There is a restaurant on the grounds and the lunch we had there was excellent - especially the meat and dried fruit tangine was heavenly.

I was concerned about getting car sick crossing the Tiz n Tichka Pass, but the road is quite good (still a lot of road work going on) and I felt fine. In fact, considering the crazy roads we had been driving on I was quite surprised I had never gotten car sick on this trip. I did take no dose meclizine a couple of times a day.

Normally we like to stay a few days at each place we visit to limit the packing and unpacking among other things, but in this case we felt like all the packing business was really worth it for this very interesting experience.

MARRAKECH

This is where we would have done things differently.

The medina, while nominally pedestrian, has a steady traffic of motorcycles and bicycles weaving through the strolling pedestrians. The locals seem very comfortable with this and basically ignore them. Unfortunately my nervous system didn’t adjust to this so I was in a pretty high anxiety state a good deal of the time when we were out.

Our riad was lovely in every way but the location wasn’t the best for us. It was NE of the Place Djemma not far from the Ben Salah Mosque. It was theoretically about 10 minutes stroll from the Place Djemma but it always took us at least 25 minutes because of watching for and avoiding motorcycles. We liked the area because it was out of the tourist/shopping part of the medina and with few tourists but just people from the area going about their business. But it was impossible for us to go anywhere without facing the motorcycles and there were no restaurants nearby except in riads..In hindsight we would have been better staying in the Ville Nouvelle where there are sidewalks and restaurants in close walking distance.

Because of this we probably didn’t see as much of Marrakesh as we could have. The first day we spent in the medina going through (and getting lost in) the souks and going to the Museum of Photography (which is wonderful and was worth more walking in the medina). The second day we got a cab (about ¼ mile walk) and went to the Marjorelle Gardens (very nice, but a very long line) and the Saadian Tombs (extremely long line to see the main tomb - and just get a minute to look in the door).

We had dinner two nights and one lunch at the Zeitum Restaurant on Place Djemma because the food was very good, service was friendly, good value, and we had lots to watch while we were eating.

In ways I wish we could do this part of the trip over because I know there is so much more of Marrakech we could have enjoyed.

ESSAOUIRA
The town is very picturesque and easy. The main streets are lined with attractive shops and the merchants are not aggressive. Streets make sense and have names and there is no motor traffic (!). We spent 2-½ days strolling and shopping and eating. The shopping is really very good here. The goods seem to be cheaper here than the other places. A few shops have fixed prices which were surprisingly low to us. In addition to the main shopping streets there are plenty of other things to see - the battlements, the port and fishing activity, the wide sand beach, the back lanes in the medina with occasional square with little restaurant, the walls of the medina….We really enjoyed this small city very much but with less time available you could easily cover the area in a day. It was a perfect place for us to end our vacation.

Our riad was in the medina near the battlements. We let the riad know which Supratours bus we were arriving on and they sent a man with a cart to meet us, take our bags, and lead us to the riad.

The owner of our riad arranged a private car for us and another couple to go to Casablanca which worked out very well for us. The cost was 1600 dh divided by the two couples which meant we avoided the 7 hour bus/train/train/shuttle combination it would have required to get to our airport hotel.

We ate every night at the Adwak Restuarant because we couldn’t imagine one we would enjoy more and there were plenty of things on the menu. Highly recommended!

A FEW MORE GENERAL COMMENTS
Riads: All of ours were very clean and very comfortable. We took larger rooms and we appreciated the extra space. The breakfasts were plentiful, in general with lots of bread products - homemade muffins and pancakes in addition to bread, always fresh squeezed orange juice. We ate dinner once in a riad - an excellent meal in beautiful surroundings but we were alone and we prefer dining in a livelier atmosphere. The owners/managers of the riads were all extremely helpful - from arranging our transportation, to getting our bus tickets, to doing our laundry to recommending restaurants and sightseeing…

Meals: We ate very well. On our tour we ate 2 “dinners” a day. The menu is pretty limited but we always found something delicious to eat. Our favorite things:
Harira, or Moroccan, soup. Each restaurant does this a little differently but it is good and started most of our meals.
Chicken or fish tangine with preserved lemon and olives Meat tangine with dried fruits
Pastilla (especially the goat cheese and dried tomato at the Zeitun)
Desert is almost always fruit. The sliced orange with cinnamon is delicious, also the chopped fruit salad. If you have a sweet tooth, there are plenty of beautiful pastry shops around.

Alcohol: We had drinks one night at the Hotel Batha in Fes at their comfortable bar. We were also able to get a bottle of wine at two of our riads - a Moroccan wine, quite nice, for 150 dh. Didn’t take it out of the riad, though, - just a little drink before going out to dinner.

Weather: Tropical downpours on our first and last days - both travels days so it wasn’t really a problem Every other day was sunny and in the 60s with cool nights and mornings. Really perfect travel weather!

This is longer than I anticipated and I’ve left a lot out. I will be glad to answer questions if I can.
linawood is offline  
Old Dec 23rd, 2018, 03:16 AM
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Thank you for taking the time to write this, there's nothing so helpful to fellow travellers as a detailed account such as this.

Seeing as you are on TripAdvisor, will you post it there as well?
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Old Dec 29th, 2018, 12:38 PM
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This is great and very timely. We are considering 10 nights in Morocco late March. I'm going to contact Desert Majesty. Thanks! Will have other questions I'm sure.
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Old Dec 30th, 2018, 11:42 AM
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Thanks for sharing your visit with us. Appreciate the food for thought. We considered going in May but did not want to coincide with Ramadan. Morocco is still high on our list though.
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Old Dec 30th, 2018, 07:39 PM
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We were really happy with Desert Majesty and highly recommend them! The tour was first class all the way - lodging, food, vehicle, and safe, helpful driver. it's a well organized operation - and local to the desert. The office is in Ouarzazate.
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Old Jan 12th, 2019, 08:10 PM
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Thank you for writing your experiences. I hope to go to Morocco one day and this helps figure out how to go about it.
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Old Feb 18th, 2019, 02:16 AM
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Hey linawood,
This Detail is too informative for me because I am going to Morocco next month with my besties. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
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Old Nov 14th, 2019, 06:07 AM
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Hi again Linwood, hope you're still watching this because I have more questions! Everytime I think I've figured out how to do Morocco...I read a post and change my mind. I'm in the process of trying to figure out how to get private drivers to take us on a custom itinerary and had basically ruled out the desert because I didn't think we'd enjoy it enough to warrant all that time in the car. But, your descriptions make the road trip sound very enjoyable. I had looked at Sahara Stars as an option when first considering going there, and you're experience sounded good. Did you feel like there were many other camps all around you? You did say you didn't feel like you were in the middle of nowhere. Since we don't want to ride a camel, and I don't think climbing sand dunes would be good for my touchy knee or feet...do you still get a good view of the dunes from the camp?

Also, did you wish you had another night in the Dades Gorge area? My plan, as of now, is to spend two nights there at Chez Pierre so we can get a bit of a walk, and two nights in the Skoura area to enjoy that as well. I'm wondering if we booked with Desert Majestry if they would accommodate that. Did they book all your accommodations on this leg of the journey?

It sounded like you preferred Fes to Marrakech....I'm still thinking of leaving Fes out just because of the long travel time to get there, but I like your idea of a train direct from Casablanca. Hope you can fill me in on my questions...we might add the desert after all!
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Old Nov 16th, 2019, 12:02 PM
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Hi Barefoot Beach, There are lots of companies and people providing custom tours as that is the way a lot of tourists get around. We were very happy with Desert Majesty but there are plenty of others. I decided on them from Fodors trip reports, Tripadvisor, and a good mention in Lonely Planet. I think all of them will work with you to arrange a tour exactly as you like. Going to the desert is going to mean a lot of time in the car one way or another. Because we were taking 5 days from Fes to Marrakech it meant we could go more slowly and off the main highways some of the time. But we found the changing desert colors and scenes so beautiful in their way and loved being driven around (usually I am the driver). If you are doing a round trip from Marrakech it would be a little different and conceivably you could take 2 different routes. By stopping for 2 nights then you would be able to do a lot more walking. On our little tour we did a lot less walking than we usually do. Also if you are doing a round trip from Marrakech, your hotel may have recommendations or be able to arrange it.

Marrakech has plenty to offer and is a fascinating city. My big problem was that the motorcycles and fast bicycles on the narrow lanes scared me. But I haven't found other people making that an issue so I think it isn't a universal problem. Or maybe I'm old enough to feel fragile. And some of that may have been the location of our riad.

As for Sahara Stars, you could see another camp in the distance but it wasn't right near by. The dunes come right up to the camp but they aren't very high. Even with my bum knee I could get up a little one for a better view. If you come in with a 4x4 you'll be crossing the dunes. My sense of not being away from it all had to do mostly with all the comforts provided by the camp.
Whatever you decide, I know you will have a very special trip. We've traveled quite a lot over the years and this stands out as a big favorite.
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Old Nov 17th, 2019, 05:32 AM
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thanks linawood....think I've added the desert and Fes back in our itinerary and will have to sacrifice Essaouria....it's still fluid though.
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Old Nov 23rd, 2019, 07:18 PM
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Thanks for your very informative report. My husband and I are in the process of planning a trip to Morocco next October. Barefoot - we seem to coincidentally follow in your footsteps each year!
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Old Nov 26th, 2019, 03:58 AM
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Thanks for sharing your useful information. If I look for 7 days solo trip to Morocco then how much it should be a reasonable cost?
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Old Nov 26th, 2019, 10:49 AM
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linawood, I also had problems in Marrakech with the motorcycles, motor scooters and bikes in the Medina.
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Old Jan 28th, 2020, 05:06 AM
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Loved your TR which brought back memories of our 2 previous trips to Morocco. On our first trip there, about 20 years ago,, I remember dodging donkeys and donkey poop in the medinas, not motorcycles. There were no motorcycles to worry about. We are returning to Morocco for 2 weeks next Nov. Your report made me wish it were next month instead. Thanks for posting.
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