Tasty tagines and mobbed medinas - a Moroccan medley

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Jan 21st, 2009, 06:43 AM
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Tasty tagines and mobbed medinas - a Moroccan medley

Aside from one foray to Egypt, and one long ago visit to Mexico, all my travel has been to Europe and Asia (I live in the US). But I’d been considering a trip to Morocco for some time, and finally decided to combine Lisbon and Morocco for a trip last November (plus a little Paris and London at the end - I aim to see as much as I can per Transatlantic flight). I was looking forward to wandering the medinas, admiring the scenery and enjoying the food.

These days I prefer to travel independently, but I’m not really comfortable having a car, driver and guide for just one person (and the last time I did that the results weren’t good). I didn’t want to rely on public transport for the mountains and desert, so I combined solo travel (Rabat, Essaouira and Marrakesh) with a tour (Casablanca to Marrakesh) with Intrepid. I’d traveled with them before in Asia, and liked their itineraries.

I’m still working on the photos, but the first three galleries - Rabat to Fes - are up at kwilhelm.smugmug.com/Travel/667854
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Jan 21st, 2009, 06:46 AM
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Nov. 6th - Plane and Train, and Train, and Train

Getting to Casablanca from Lisbon without a time-consuming detour through Spain left me with a choice of flying Royal Air Maroc or TAP, both pricey. I finally booked on TAP for about half price through Expedia, not an outfit I had used before. I was a bit nervous, since I couldn’t pull up my reservation on the TAP website, but everything went well.

Unfortunately, I was already in the line for passport control in Casablanca before I realized I needed to go back and pick up a form - maybe one of the announcements on the plane, which I couldn’t hear, was about that. Oddly, just beyond passport control, a uniformed guy was posted at the top of the stairs, checking everyone’s passport for entry stamps.

My flight wasn’t listed on the monitors for baggage claim, but I eventually tracked down my bag (on the carousel for Alitalia!) and at least the carts were free. I wheeled mine into an elevator and down to the bleak and cavernous railway station below the airport. Buying a ticket to Rabat I got the first hint that my halting French was going to come in very handy.

I had an hour to kill before the first train, so I went back up for coffee, having to put my bags through a metal detector on the way. When I finally boarded the train I was the only woman in my compartment, which had high-backed, dark brown seats that had seen better days. In accordance with instructions from both the ticket seller and the conductor, I got off at Ain Sabaa, and tried to find the connecting train for Rabat. I’m not sure whether it was my French that caused the problem, or the railway man’s hearing, but I wound up on a train going back to the airport instead! (“Rabat” vs. “aeroport”?)

I boarded my third train thinking I would have to try again to change at Ain Sabaa, but luckily it turned out to be a through train to Rabat, and one of the young women in my compartment, a student with an American fiancée, spoke good English. Full dark had set in by the time we finally reached Rabat, where the station was undergoing renovation and was a scene of mass confusion, and I really appreciated her help in finding a taxi. One with a friendly driver who used the meter, too.

I had found a good prepaid rate online for the Mercure Sheherazade - a little pricier than my usual hotels, but I wanted a comfortable start to the Moroccan leg of my trip. I wasn’t disappointed - my room was a good size, with a big, comfortable bed and a flat screen TV (but only sports programs were in English). With just three small table lamps, one of which I had to put on the floor so I could use its outlet for the fridge, the room was rather dark, but I subsequently found that most Moroccan hotels had dim lights. The AC didn’t work: I managed by opening the window, but I was there in November. The bathroom had been nicely renovated.

The hotel had a restaurant, and I was hungry. Turned out, the restaurant had good food at a reasonable price. This first night I enjoyed their calamari in tomato sauce and some excellent bread, and the beef and prunes tagine was tasty if a bit tough.

Interestingly, while a drinkable red wine was available, and I paid for it, it wasn’t listed on the printed bill. Good thing I had withdrawn plenty of cash at the airport and prepaid for my room, as the credit card link didn’t work.
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Jan 21st, 2009, 06:50 AM
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Nov. 6th - Nov. 8th. Roaming Rabat

I used Lonely Planet’s guidebook for Morocco, but the maps were much less useful than usual, with too many no-name streets, or even missing streets. Worse, the scale seemed to be off. I kept thinking places were closer than they really were, and walked when I should have taken a taxi. This was an especial problem in Rabat, as the Mercure wasn’t in the center, and I got rather more exercise than I had intended.

I started this trip in Rabat instead of Casablanca partly because the budget hotel scene in Casablanca seemed grim, and partly because Rabat had more sights. Although it only became the capital in 1956, it began life as the Roman town of Sala Colonia. The Roman ruins are in an area that later became a Muslim necropolis, Chellah, and is now home to a colony of storks. The tour groups that infested the Hassan Tower seemed to skip this site, and I spent a peaceful morning among the trees.

The Hassan Tower, and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, were very close to my hotel, and so required much less walking. The tower is the still-lofty remnant of a mosque begun and then abandoned in the 12th century. It rises above geometrically precise rows of truncated columns, victims of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake - yes, the earthquake affected Morocco as well as Portugal.

On the other side of the columns the stark white cube of the mausoleum seemed stunted in comparison. The building, modern, lavishly decorated, and well-guarded by men in elaborate dress, housed the present king’s grandfather, who ruled only briefly after Morocco gained its independence from France and Spain, dying in 1961.

The best preserved relics of Rabat’s past are the walls of the kasbah, and its monumental gateway, the Bab Oudaia, also from the 12th century. Behind the massive walls I wandered along narrow streets, between buildings painted bright blue and white, terracotta flower pots on their doorsteps, to reach a windblown square. Below me to the right, the mud-flats edging the river Bou Regreg, below me to the left, the Atlantic, across the river, the huddled houses of Sale.

I have to say, I was not impressed by the waterfront in Rabat, which seemed to be suffering from a combination of neglect, industry and ill-planned development. I much preferred the scene within the walls of the kasbah, including the Andalusian Gardens and its outdoor Café Maure, although not the dusty Musee des Oudaia.

The Archaeological Museum held my interest longer, although I could have done without the skeletons. The man in charge insisted that I should take photographs of the Roman bronzes from Volubilis. He also told me that the “new” king now allowed people into the palace grounds, so I trekked over to take a look. I’m not sure what happens with the people on tour buses, but as a solo visitor I had to leave my passport at the police desk on the way in. The officer in charge seemed very concerned about my security -when I left he insisted that I put my passport back in my money belt, and that I carry my camera in my day bag rather than round my neck. Since I could only enter the (extensive) grounds, not the palace itself, I’m not sure it was worth the hassle.

Sitting on my coffee table, alongside the massive “Art and History of the Silk Road” (maybe I’ll finally get there this year) is “The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World”. I was eagerly looking forward to the medinas of Fes and Marrakesh, but I certainly wasn’t going to miss Rabat’s. Due to my difficulties with the Lonely Planet map I started a bit further east than I had intended, but that gave me a look at the meat and produce section, very full of locals busy with their grocery shopping. I visited the rest of the medina on a Friday afternoon, which was a mistake - not many people were about, and some of the shops were shut.

Since the Mercure was out of the center, and had a reasonable restaurant, I wound up eating dinner there three nights running. In addition to the calamari, I really enjoyed their warm chevre on toast with salad, and a chicken tagine with preserved lemon. The grilled chicken with green beans was only so-so.

I had been very disappointed with the couscous I tried in Sicily, and ordered the Friday couscous for lunch at Restaurant el-Bahia, just outside the medina walls, with hopes that the Moroccan version would be better. It wasn’t. The lamb wasn’t bad, but the veggies were overcooked, and the couscous was still just a rather boring grain, with no spice in evidence.

Rabat gave me a gentle introduction to Morocco. Although the country seemed less developed than I had expected, the wide streets in the capital were dusty rather than dirty, and the hassles minor. I did have difficulty finding a functioning ATM, but my only other “housekeeping” chore was buying a ticket for the train ride back to Casablanca. Since I was perfectly willing to fight for my place in line, and I had written down what I wanted so as to avoid language issues, this was no problem. I was glad I had taken care of it the day before I left, unburdened by luggage.
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Jan 21st, 2009, 09:16 AM
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Looking forward to more, you're reviving long lost memories.
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Jan 22nd, 2009, 05:16 AM
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Here you are, Femi. Anyone else reading?

Nov. 9 - 10 - Casablanca to Meknes

I thought I had reserved a taxi to take me to Rabat station, but apparently not. Also, it was Sunday morning and the street outside my hotel was deathly quiet (I know that Friday is the Muslim Sunday, but you couldn’t tell it from that street). Eventually someone went off and found a taxi for me a few streets away. In contrast, passengers packed the double-decker commuter train to Casablanca, and I was lucky to score a single seat at the top of the stairs with enough floor space for my pack.

At Casa-Port train station I avoided the taxi touts who met the train, and gave up on the taxi drivers just outside, who refused to use their meters and asked double the price I expected to pay. Instead I walked a few steps to the main street and located a more amenable driver. Admittedly, I had to navigate, but the price was right.

My Intrepid tour started at the Transatlantique hotel, which had garnered almost uniformly bad reviews on Tripadvisor. My last tour with Intrepid, in Lombok, had been at the “Basix” level, and having found it a bit too basic, I had opted for the “Comfort” level for Morocco. The Transatlantique was not an auspicious beginning. The Art Deco façade and the elaborate public rooms were beautiful, but as a hotel it was a bust.

The front desk staff took forever to establish that Intrepid was in fact using the hotel, and that I was on the list. The single room they sent me to was small and dingy, with French windows to the balcony that didn’t open and a shower that would get the toilet wet. No toilet paper, and getting some turned into a major exercise, even though I had fortunately brought my French phrase book along for the Paris leg of the trip, and could at least communicate what I wanted .

I did some minimal laundry and headed out in search of lunch. Once again, the Lonely Planet map turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help, and when I did track down the restaurants I was looking for they were either closed or empty (always a bad sign). Eventually I settled on Les Fleurs, near the medina, which served a good sole and fries and bad coffee.

I took only a quick detour through the medina, as I was expecting to spend a lot of time in the medinas in Fes and Marrakesh, and instead followed Lonely Planet’s walking tour. While I can’t think of a good reason to revisit Casablanca (big, noisy, dusty, modern) I did admire the 1930’s Mauresque (Moroccan Art Deco) facades in the city center, and I enjoyed some quality people-watching in big Place Mohammed V, where many locals were enjoying the shade under the trees, some patronizing the chick pea or hot tea vendors - the tea vendors carried big metal kettles balanced on portable braziers. Later I opted for an indoor snack at the Café Alba (listed in LP as female friendly), where I sank into a comfortable armchair and tucked into crepes suzette.

I got back to the Transatlantique just in time to clean up before the first group meeting, only to find a note telling me I needed to move into a double room with another solo traveler! I was really annoyed - the front desk staff must have known this would happen when they sent me to a single room in the morning. Now I could stay put only if I coughed up 290 dirhams ($35 US). I heard later that this was a standard scam at this hotel.

Finally arriving, late, for the group meeting, I met the leader, Abdel, and the other nine tourists - my Aussie roommate, two solo male travelers, one a German living in Switzerland and one from Ireland, both paying the optional single supplement, and three couples. This turned out to be one of the most sedate tour groups ever - one couple, from Denmark, were elderly, and one, from Australia, spent a lot of the time on the sick list.

After dealing with the organizational details, we headed out for dinner, at the nearby Hotel Guynemer. We all sat in a row on couches in front of low, round “tables” - brass trays - which somewhat limited conversation. While I liked the salad, with green beans and cheese, my lamb tagine was mostly bone and fat.

Back at the Transatlantique, I discovered that the bad reviews had been spot on. First, the heavy bass from the hotel’s night club kept me awake, and then insect bites woke me up - the only bites I suffered anywhere in Morocco! Fortunately, I was able to extract my silk sleep sack from my bag without waking my roommate, and wrapping myself in silk defeated the insects. Breakfast, with watered orange juice, so-so coffee and pre-packaged cheese did not improve my opinion of the place.

Before leaving Casablanca, we toured its main sight, the Hassan II mosque. As befits a largely modern city (growing rapidly outwards with rings of apartment blocks and shanty towns) the mosque is new, having been built in the 1980s and 90s by the then king, mostly using “voluntary” donations - more than half a billion dollars worth. It is also huge: said to be the world’s third largest mosque and able to hold 25,000 people inside and another 80,000 in the courtyards. While it’s a showcase for Moroccan crafts, and elaborately decorated, I found it rather sterile.

Normally Intrepid tours feature public transport, but aside from the train ride from Casablanca to Meknes we "Comfort" travelers would do the whole trip in a private minibus. This train left from Casa-Voyageurs, further from the center than Casa-Port, and we spent nearly half an hour standing around (no empty seats) waiting for it to show up. Our first class seats were comfortable enough, but the compartment was short of leg room and storage space, and rather hot. And the scenery wasn’t very exciting until the last hour, when we started to see hills.

Our hotel, the de Nice, was reasonably close to Meknes station - the Danish couple took a taxi, but the rest of us walked. Clean, quiet, and without insects, it came as a relief after the Transatlantique, but was otherwise unmemorable. We went out for a group drink - my fears that alcohol would be hard to come by in Morocco were proving unfounded, although wine came by the bottle not the glass - and spit-roast chicken and fries.
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Jan 22nd, 2009, 07:58 AM
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Thank you so much for taking the time to post! I am leaving for Morocco in March, starting in Casablanca, so your experiences are a great guide!
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Jan 22nd, 2009, 12:22 PM
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Hello, SRupp - are you traveling independently, or with a group? Hope you have a great time. How long do you have in Casa? If I'd had longer I'd have gone to the Jewish Museum.
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Jan 23rd, 2009, 06:14 AM
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thanks for the post and photos!
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Jan 23rd, 2009, 06:14 AM
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Enjoying your report, thursdaysd!

Morocco is on my list for 2010 so I'm glad to see write-ups, which are hard to come by on fodors.

Can't wait for the next installment.

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Jan 23rd, 2009, 03:24 PM
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Please continue with your report - I would love to go to Morocco in the future so I'm very interested in all the details you can offer about your trip. It sounds like a fascinating place to visit.
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Jan 23rd, 2009, 03:35 PM
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OK people, here's the next piece. Photos for this are up at smugmug

Nov. 10 - Meknes and Volubilis

Moroccan history in Meknes

We spent a morning touring Meknes, once important as Morocco’s capital under Moulay Ismail in the early 1700s. I liked our guide, although some people seemed less taken by his opening statement that everything he would say would be a lie. Since I often do without a guide at all, I was just amused.

Lonely Planet, perhaps a slightly more reliable source than the Meknes guide, says that Moulay Ismail kept 12,000 horses (maybe for the “Black Guard” troops used to maintain his rule), and the walls of the stables and granaries built for them are still intact. Although the roofs have gone, the perspectives down the long lines of columns and arches are reasonably interesting.

Aside from the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca, all mosques and most other religious buildings in Morocco are closed to non-Muslims. Having been able to visit mosques unchallenged in several other Muslim countries, I found this a bit strange. However, the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail in Meknes is an exception, and we were allowed in to admire the tiles and see the Christian cross and Star of David worked into a couple of the panels.

Our tour through the medina featured a shopping op and lunch. For once, I quite enjoyed the shopping op - I hadn’t seen the damascening process up close before, and the shoppers were quick. For lunch we split between two hole-in-the-wall rooms - just enough space for the table and a bench - for camel burgers. General consensus: quite good, tastes like meat. And no ill effects.

Roman history in Volubilis

The area around Meknes is noted for good soil, producing grain, olives and grapes, all of which were very attractive to the Romans, who built the city of Volubilis nearby. Although Roman occupation only lasted until the late 3rd century, people continued to live on the site until the rise of Meknes. Unfortunately, the Lisbon earthquake largely leveled the buildings, although some restoration has been done by French archaeologists.

We spent part of the afternoon walking the streets between the low stone walls. Several good mosaics are still in situ, and the partially restored basilica is quite photogenic - and home to a few storks. While most Roman sites pale in comparison to Pompeii and Herculaneum, or to Rome itself, I was pleased to add another remote Roman location to Hadrian’s Wall, the most northern, and Conimbriga, the most western. Now I need to figure out which would be the most eastern.
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Jan 24th, 2009, 06:59 AM
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Great pictures!
The intricacy of the tilework is amazing.
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Jan 25th, 2009, 02:55 AM
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heya thursday - just found your post. Great stuff. Keep writing. I'm listening.
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Jan 25th, 2009, 06:20 AM
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Hi dogster - nice to see you over here. Although I'm a visitor on this board myself. Unhappy guide story coming up - although just one day and nothing like your Bhutan debacle.
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Jan 25th, 2009, 01:03 PM
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Great report and pictures.

I too am waiting for more.

From Merzouga which way did you go.?

Erfoud....Todra Gorge ...Dades Valley...Quarzazate...Marrakesh ??
then back to Casablanca?

or another way !
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Jan 25th, 2009, 01:25 PM
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Hi Percy, thanks!

You're exactly right on the itinerary. This is the 2009 version of the trip - www.intrepidtravel.com.au/trips/XKP - although it's not exactly the same. We didn't go to Chefchaouen, and we stayed in Ouarzazate not Ait Benhaddou - wish it had been the other way round.
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Jan 25th, 2009, 01:37 PM
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Here's a snippet - more tomorrow.

Nov. 10-11 - Fes: the Good Stuff

We were scheduled for two nights at our next stop, Fes, in a riad on the northern edge of the medina. Our minibus dropped us in front of the imposing Sofitel Palais Jamai, and we carried our bags through alleyways, down steps and across a narrow plank bridging a repair trench to reach the Dar Masmoudi (www.darmasmoudi.ma/en/). While I appreciated the riad’s lushly decorated public rooms, and the lavish and well-cooked meals, it was a long way from any night-life - aside from expensive drinks in the Sofitel’s bar. Again, I liked the big room I shared with my Aussie roommate - especially since she gave me the double bed and took the single herself - but the bathroom was cavernous and cold, with nowhere to hang anything (next morning I found some clotheslines, along with great views, on the roof.

Dinner that first night was far removed from burgers, camel or otherwise, consisting of a parade of different and delicious tastes. We began with lentil soup, accompanied by dates and figs and some sweet and crunchy item whose name escaped me. Then a collection of little dishes surrounded a bastilla - diced chicken wrapped in thin layers of pastry and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon - much nicer than I expected. Chicken with salad and couscous with vegetables were followed by fruit. We ate in a side room, seated on plush couches, while a fountain played in the main courtyard.
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Jan 25th, 2009, 03:51 PM
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Keep it coming.

I'm Lovin' it
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Jan 25th, 2009, 04:06 PM
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Me, too! I always enjoy your reports, Thursday!
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Jan 25th, 2009, 07:28 PM
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Why thanks, eks! In that case, maybe I should mention the Lisbon report from the first part of this trip - http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=35174288
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