Tasty tagines and mobbed medinas - a Moroccan medley

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Feb 9th, 2009, 02:45 PM
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thursdaysd

That is what a lot of people say ,that the food gets monotonous and the menus is the same in most places,so your choice is limited.

Leslie:

I got very sick in Peru last year.

I was having Llama steak and fish and I think it was the fist.

Within 2 hours when I got to my room .. I was vomiting from 8 PM until 3 AM!!.. yes that long.

Not a FUN time believe me.

Carry on with the report thursdaysd,
I may not comment everytime ...but I am reading with interest.
Thanks
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Feb 10th, 2009, 10:59 AM
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Nov. 18 - Film fakery

We didn’t leave the hotel until 10:00, which gave us some extra time to enjoy breakfast - good orange juice, and real cheese instead of pre-packaged triangles - and our comfortable rooms. When we did get started, we drove across rather boring desert, and I resorted to my iPod. (I bought the iPod before my spring trip to Southern Italy, and became a surprised but instant convert. I load books on tape rather than lots of music.)

We drove right through Ouarzazate, past plenty of interesting-looking cafes and restaurants, to a hotel on the outskirts. While it had a rose garden, a pool and a musician, we ate outside, and there wasn’t much shade. Then we drove back to town to visit one of the film studios. Ouarzazate had stood in for a number of different locales, in films such as Kundun and Gladiator.

I’m not quite sure what I had expected from our tour of Atlas Studios, but what I got was pretty disappointing. Our “guide” was boring, and the left-over sets in poor repair. While it was mildly interesting to see how much was façade and how little substance, this was one stop that signally failed to interest me - or anyone else in my group.

Rather than staying in one of the upmarket hotels in Ouarzazate (those film stars have to sleep somewhere) we drove on to Ait Benhaddou, and the second-worst hotel of the trip. Not that Ait Benhaddou isn’t worth visiting, I really enjoyed our visit to the Kasbah, but it should be a day trip from Ouarzazate.

To reach the Kasbah, clinging to a hillside crowned by a ruined fort, we had to cross a river - on stepping stones with sacks on top. I managed fine, but some people needed a helping hand. I didn’t make it all the way up - the steep slope leading to the castle looked too slippery with scree for me to trust myself coming back down.

Between a depressing, shabby, room, badly designed bathroom and scratchy sheets, I was already hating the hotel before breakfast, which included NO protein. I had to make a quick trip to a little shop round the corner for cheese and yoghurt.
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Feb 11th, 2009, 05:07 AM
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What was the name of the hotel in Ait Benhaddou? Will make a note to avoid.

Your pictures of the movie studio did make it seem like it's not worth a special trip. Funny how many guided tours go there.
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Feb 11th, 2009, 05:33 AM
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Leslie - the Ait Benhaddou hotel was the La Kasbah, but I really think you'd be better off staying in Ouarzazate instead.

I think I had confused the Ouarzazate film studios with the Tunisian location used for Star Wars (see asap.ap.org/stories/319404.s) which I had seen on the Amazing Race, so I found it especally tame.
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Feb 11th, 2009, 09:37 AM
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Finally got a chance to go through your photos in detail. They're great for delivering a sense of place.
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Feb 11th, 2009, 11:12 AM
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Thanks Femi - I'm still working on the Essaourira and Marrakesh galleries - they should be up soon.
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Feb 11th, 2009, 12:25 PM
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Nov. 19 - Icy Imlil

We spent much of this day on the bus, cutting through the High Atlas mountains towards Marrakesh via the Tizi n’Tichka pass, at almost 7,500 feet the highest in Morocco. I had really looked forward to this drive, but was a bit disappointed after having seen the gorges. The views weren’t bad, but the pass was mostly a lot of barren rock. But the scenery around Imlil quickly cheered me up. The first snowfall of the year had dusted the mountains beyond the town, and trees clothed the nearer slopes.

I can’t recommend Imlil itself, though, unless you’re using it as a base for skiing or hiking. There is nothing to do in town, especially after dark, other than shop. Three of us did trek up the hill to visit the well-reviewed Kasbah de Toukbal, and to be charged 30 dirham for a cup of coffee. (20 dh apparently being an entry fee!) Going up I discovered that I was even more out of shape than I had realized, I would certainly have needed one of the hard-working donkeys to carry my luggage had I been staying there.

We were staying at the Riad Imlil in town. Unlike the riad in Fes, this one had no glass in the windows, only shutters, and the only heat in the public rooms came from inadequate fires. Our bedroom had one radiator, which happily could be moved - we positioned it between the two beds, I dug out my silk sleep sack, and we managed to warm up enough to sleep. The next morning the dining room was so cold we all wore our outdoor clothes to breakfast.

Change of Plans

We were now scheduled to spend the last two nights of the tour in Marrakesh. Then I had planned to take a bus to Essaouira for two nights, followed by three nights back in Marrakesh. After Abdel had floated the idea of a day trip to Essaouira I had checked that I could spend an extra night there. No-one else wanted to make the trip, but I decided to skip the last day in Marrakesh and go anyway. I had intended to use one of the Marrakesh days for a trip to the Cascades d’Ouzoud, but the rivers had been low enough for me to give up that idea, there were no tour activities scheduled for our second day in Marrakesh, and I was more than ready to switch back to independent mode.

As it turned out, A, the Swiss-German, spent some time reading his guidebook, and decided to make the day trip after all, and I was happy to have his company. Since we also had three people needing tickets to Agadir, the bus stopped at the Supratours ticket office on the way to our Marrakesh hotel, and waited while we progressed slowly to the head of the line inside. One day and night in Marrakesh, and then I would be on my own again.
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Feb 14th, 2009, 07:05 AM
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Nov. 20 - Marrakesh, Part One</>

Our Marrakesh hotel, Le Caspian, was comfortable enough, but I had been disappointed that it was in Gueliz, the new town, not the medina. When I came back from Essaouira I would stay in the medina - and discover that Gueliz wasn’t such a bad location! But after getting checked in we hooked up with our local guide and headed straight for the medina.

Plan A was for us to take a local bus, but the first was too crowded for all 12 people to squeeze on, and after a while without a second showing up we moved on to Plan B. Abdel wanted us to walk, but when that was shot down we took taxis. I actually did the walk a couple of times and it took maybe 20 minutes, and was a bit boring. The taxis were fairly cheap, provided you bargained hard.

We met up in front of the 230-foot tall soaring minaret belonging to the Koutoubia mosque (no infidels allowed inside), and walked down a tree-lined avenue past a large collection of horse-drawn carriages to Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakesh’s famous central square, where we ate lunch at a café overlooking the action. Except that there wasn’t all that much action.

In fact, I found the square altogether less exciting than I had expected. Perhaps if I had just gotten off a plane at Marrakesh’s airport I would have found it truly exotic, but after nearly three weeks traveling around Morocco, the sights were familiar and only the size impressed. The square (actually more of a butterfly shape) was big, but seemed to have plenty of open space, and to be not very full of wandering tourists. Water sellers I had seen, orange juice vendors I would see in Essaouira, snake charmers I wanted to avoid, and the souvenir sellers were offering the same goods I had already seen too often.

But I enjoyed lunch: given a chance to break out of the iron triangle of couscous, tagine and brochette I had a not very good tomato and mozzarella salad and a good chicken bastilla. Then the guide took us off for a tour of the medina (the old town), which in his mind meant the souk (the market). I almost (but not quite) felt sorry for the guide. It quickly became very clear that not one of us intended to shop. He couldn’t even get us inside the shops, as we all planned to visit later on our own, and just wanted him to help us get oriented. Worse, rather than visiting the museum, where the ticket admitted the holder to two other sights, we wanted to visit the Saadian tombs at the other end of the medina.

It actually took quite a lot of insistence to get him to take us to the tombs, but then we stopped at the Palais de la Bahia and the Palais el-Badi on the way. The Bahia was impressive, the el-Badi rather stark, and the tombs totally worth the long walk. Unlike el-Badi, to which they were once connected, the tombs were never plundered, and remain a testament to the brilliance of their 16th century builders. They glow like jewels in the drab setting of the medina.

After the guide returned us to Djemaa el Fna I took care of some business (ATM and Internet) before sharing a taxi to the hotel to get cleaned up for our farewell dinner - back on the square. Pedestrian by day, it glowed brighter at night. Little groups of drummers, lit by lanterns, sent a throbbing beat into the cool night air. The orange juice vendors had been replaced by stalls selling spiced tea. And rows of tented cafes filled the central section. Abdel picked one, and we filled the wooden benches set perpendicular to the cooking area. The food was varied although hardly gourmet, but the real entertainment took place in the “street” between the cafes, where bemused tourists were waylaid by eager touts for one café after another.

After a wander around the square, we walked back to the hotel, stopping at a bar in the new town on the way. The pop music and fancy cocktails were quite a contrast to the scene in Djemaa el-Fna. Back at Le Caspian I said my farewells to the group, and arranged for a morning taxi. A and I would leave for Essaouira before 8:00. The group tour had served its purpose and I had enjoyed the company, but I was more than ready to move on.
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Feb 18th, 2009, 11:22 AM
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Oops, sorry about the bold type! I should have previewed.

Nov.21 - 24 Taking it Easy in Essaouira

Once again, ordering a taxi the night before hadn’t worked, but I had allowed time for that, and A and I arrived at the Supratour bus station in plenty of time for the 8:30 bus. I had to buy a ticket for my bag, but this didn’t seem to result in any additional security - the ticket was checked when the bag went into the hold, but not when it came out.
After an hour we stopped for coffee and toilets, and then as we neared Essaouira I started to see argan trees, and co-operatives offering argan oil products for sale. Argan oil is produced from nuts that have been “processed” through the digestive systems of the local goats, and I had read that the goats actually climbed the trees to reach the nuts. I don’t have any pictures to prove it, but I did see one, rather small, tree with goats in the branches! It was certainly the highlight of the bus ride.

I had no trouble finding my hotel, the Lalla Mira (www.lallamira.ma/en/index.html), although once again the Lonely Planet map seemed to diminish the distance I had to walk. I was taken aback to find a small group touring the hotel, probably drawn by the hammam in the basement (the oldest in town), or the hotel’s “green” policies, but otherwise I loved the place. I especially liked my four-poster bed (with curtains), and the green tadelakt walls in my bathroom. (Tadelakt is a lime plaster that gives an unusual finish to the walls.) For once in Morocco, my room had plenty of light, and the breakfast buffet featured natural yoghurt, goat cheese and eggs.

Essaouira came as a bit of a change from the rest of Morocco, too. Back in the Phoenicians’ day, the original settlement was a center for trade in a purple dye extracted from mollusks, and reserved for the elite. Much later, the Portuguese turned up and renamed the town Mogador, but the current layout, especially the much-photographed ramparts, date to 1765 and a French architect. Now, instead of soldiers, the ramparts are the preserve of tourists, and the old town is full of souvenir shops, restaurants and riads. In fact, although it’s on the Atlantic coast, the town feels more Mediterranean, and is a great place to slow down and rest up for a few days.

I spent one day touring around, and taking lots of photographs, with A, and another doing the same thing on my own. The seagulls swirling around the turreted fort, the bright blue row boats, and the narrow streets, were all irresistible. I even spent some time investigating the souvenir shops, and eventually tracked down the jewelry souk, near the meat and veg market (where the locals shopped) and bought another Hand of Fatima for another friend in need of some good luck.

I ate well in Essaouira, too. I especially enjoyed the small, friendly, family-run Les Chandeliers, where shrimp salad in spicy mayonnaise was followed by duck confit with excellent fried potatoes. Dinner at my riad included tender calamari and a wonderful cheese plate. Unfortunately, I can’t speak so highly of Elizar, an odd place that felt a bit like dining a private home - until a noisy French tour group showed up - and where the chicken tagine tasted good but was incredibly tough. The owner claimed it was because the chicken was organic, but I thought it was just not cooked properly. Tagines do seem to be generally tough - I don’t think there’s enough liquid to stew the meat properly.

So I had a good rest in Essaouira - savoring mandarin juice on the waterfront, watching the tide crash in over the off-shore rocks from the ramparts, curled up with the herald Trib crossword on a sheltered sofa overlooking one of the courtyards at my riad, and wandering the back streets. I figured I was now ready to tackle Marrakesh.
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Feb 18th, 2009, 11:51 AM
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Okay , you are off to Marrakesh now !!!! waiting to hear all about it.
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Feb 18th, 2009, 02:37 PM
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OK, people, I've finished fiddling with the photos. They're all up at kwilhelm.smugmug.com/Travel/667854.
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Feb 19th, 2009, 04:43 AM
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Loved the last pictures - the blue in Essaouira is breath-taking. Can't wait to hear about your adventures in Marrakesh.
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Feb 20th, 2009, 01:43 PM
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Nov. 24 - Back to Marrakesh - a Gorgeous Garden, a Rotten Riad and the Stupendous Stylia

My last breakfast at the Lalla Mira was enlivened by a talk with an American woman who had been volunteering at an orphanage in Rabat. Then I set off for the bus station and a rather rattle-trap bus back to Marrakesh. As with the Rabat train station, I had to get away from the bus depot before I could find an amenable taxi driver.

I had wanted to stay in a riad in the medina for my last three nights in Morocco, and after much reading and thought, I booked the Dar Silsila. Although it didn’t appear in any of the guidebooks I consulted, at the time it was number four on Tripadvisor, with many favorable reviews and only a couple of bad ones. I had enjoyed very good results using Tripadvisor for Italy, so I looked forward to a luxurious stay and attentive service.

My first clues that all might not be well were the draconian cancelation penalty, and the lack of clear directions. But I didn’t expect to cancel, and I was able to figure out the location while I was in Morocco with the tour group. I suspect most visitors arrive from the airport using transport arranged (at an inflated price) by the riad.

The taxi dropped me at the Koutoubia mosque, a major Marrakesh landmark, and I walked into the medina down a busy commercial street. But then I turned into a narrow alley way, fronted by blank walls, that turned and twisted, and eventually went through a tunnel. I couldn’t help wondering how I would feel walking back to the riad after dark on my own.

The staff at the riad were clearly not expecting me, despite the email I had sent confirming my arrival, but eventually they found my paper work, and told me that my room wasn’t quite ready. We had some trouble communicating - unlike the staff at the Lalla Mira, they only spoke French, and apparently our accents weren’t compatible. Eventually I was taken up to my room, but instead of letting me settle in, my guide insisted on taking me up to the roof and trying to sell me a hammam and massage.

By this time starvation was setting in, so I walked over to the Djemaa al-Fna and picked a café with a view of the square. After lunch I took another taxi north to the Jardin Majorelle - an oasis of shade and calm, with a small but good museum housed in a brilliantly blue villa. The Koutoubia gardens, which I checked out on my return to the medina, seemed rough and unkempt in comparison. The Dar Silsila’s apology for a map had included a reference to the Stylia restaurant, and on the way back to the riad I made a reservation there for dinner - with the help of neighboring carpet seller who saw me hesitating in front of the closed front door. (I took a look at his carpets, but was more impressed by his building.)

Back at the riad, I was met by the owner. His first words? “You need to pay in advance”. In cash, it turned out. In euros. Since he never asked for my passport I concluded that he had no intention of registering me and therefore of passing the tax he was charging me on to the government. I didn’t have three nights worth of dirhams, never mind euros, and told him he’d have to wait. I also declined dinner, a hammam and a massage, and got a less than reassuring response to an enquiry about a transfer to the airport on my departure.

I retired to my room, where I discovered that just as the attentive service hadn’t materialized, the accommodation was far from luxurious. For starters, there was no glass in the windows, only wooden shutters, giving a choice of daylight with outside air - distinctly cold during my stay and no doubt impossibly hot in the summer - or inside air with inadequate artificial light.

Then, there was nowhere to put anything - no luggage rack, no drawers, just one small triangular shelf in a corner cupboard, and a rod with a few coat hangers in one corner. Nor was there anywhere comfortable to sit, the one round purple chair clearly having been chosen for form rather than function. After I reached down to put some paper in the ridiculously small trash can, housed in a cupboard under the equally small and shallow sink, and scratched my arm on the door badly enough to draw blood, I left for dinner in no happy mood.

The Stylia turned out to be a tourist restaurant par excellence, but so over the top it amused me. I was led by a costumed doorman to a table at the back of a huge, columned, room, where rose petals were strewn on the dark red carpets, and on the embroidered table cloths. A small fountain played in the middle of the room, an eight-sided dome rose in the center of the ceiling, a mosaic-walled alcove adorned the back wall, and the chandeliers dripped colored glass. Two robed musicians played strings and drums beside the fountain, and the waiters were dressed in white with black cummerbunds and pointed black slippers.

I shared all this magnificence with a couple of other women, eating together, a small, all-women tour group, and three men in a corner who seemed to be regulars. The carpet-seller had mentioned dancing girls, but maybe they are saved for larger audiences. The food, while not as elaborate as the room, was really quite good - a pigeon bastilla that would have been better if the pigeon had been boned, a lamb tagine with cumin and lemon, and couscous. When I left, I was escorted down the Stylia’s alley to the main street by a large gentleman in a swirling cloak, only to head up the even quieter and darker alley opposite on my own.
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Feb 21st, 2009, 02:55 AM
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Great, great report!! Morocco was one of my very favorite trips and your fantastic photos and report bring it back
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Feb 21st, 2009, 02:06 PM
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Thanks laartista! Alas, while I'm very glad I went to Morocco, I don't think I'll be back - unless I develop a yen to do some serious hiking. But I'd be more likely to head to the Himalayas for that.

Nov. 24 - 25 - A Decision

I made it back to the riad having encountered nothing worse than my own imagination, and was admitted by a young man I hadn’t seen before. (The Silsila doesn’t hand out keys to the front door, and expects you to put your unnumbered room key in a drawer when you go out.) I went up to bed, only discover more problems to add to the list in my last post.

The stained glass above the doors and windows let in too much light, and there were no drapes to cover them. The bed consisted of two mattresses: one was flat, but had a tilt to the middle and put me right in front of the stained glass, the other was a set of hills and valleys, quite impossible to sleep on. The pillows were stuffed with some kind of rubbery substance. At first I thought an annoying clicking noise came from the two large hot water tanks hanging from the ceiling of my bathroom, but I finally traced it to the heater above my bed, and had to turn it off.

In the morning the large shower head delivered a gentle mist all over the place, rather than a steady stream in any one place. The shower curtain didn’t go all the way round the shower, there was nowhere to put soap and shampoo, and the wall was dirty. When breakfast consisted of a small orange juice, coffee, and NO protein, and the staff apparently wanted me to eat it sitting on a sofa instead of at one of the tables, I had had enough. I couldn’t face two more nights.

Note that all these problems are things I would have put up with if I were paying budget prices, but I wasn’t, and I had just come from the lovely Lalla Mira, where I had paid much less for much more. I collected my guidebook and went out to find something better.

I started at the Dar Catalina, which had been on the Silsila’s “map”. They were full, but the doorman took me round the corner to the Riad Hasna (www.riadhasna.com), where I was offered a big, comfortable room, with carpet, drapes, and lots of shelves, for the same price as my miserable room at the Silsila. The roof terrace held a small swimming pool, not that important in November, but the large sitting room was filled with deep armchairs and warmed by a cheerful fire, very important in November! Sold.
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Feb 22nd, 2009, 02:23 AM
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om my! That bed sounds like the one I've been sleeping on for months in Florence, I swear I awake every day with a sore neck. The new place looks nice. Look forward to reading more.
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Feb 22nd, 2009, 05:44 AM
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Yes, the Riad Hasna looks fabulous. Dar Silsila would be such a downer. Hard to trust Trip Advisor lately - so many fake, inflating reviews.
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Feb 22nd, 2009, 06:28 AM
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Thoughts on Tripadvisor....

The Riad Hasna isn't even ON Tripadvisor! When I got home I looked a little more carefully at the Tripadvisor reports on the Dar Silsila. Of the most recent 50 "most favorable", almost all were from one-time posters! And after I put up photos of my room, other posts went up with enough photos to push mine off the front page.

Then there's the fact that owner got to reply to my review (tinyurl.com/63oqme), but I couldn't reply to his post, in which he actually lied - e.g. "When this guest arrived she said she was not happy with her room as it was smaller than she had expected." - totally untrue - that's one complaint I didn't have!

He also wrote: "She had sent me her comments in an email implying that if she did not give her a refund she would post her comments about my riad on Trip Advisor." - I sent him one email, in reply to his rather threatening email to me, and my only reference to Tripadvisor was: "...to find that the hotel in no way matched the descriptions I had found on your website and on tripadvisor.com."

It's particularly annoying that Tripadvisor won't take any action. I asked them to review the Silsila, as did another couple who were staying there at the same time, but it's still the 6th most popular hotel in Marrakesh.
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Feb 22nd, 2009, 07:06 AM
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Yeah, I tend to use trip advisor for their reviews less and less. I do like the forums though.
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Feb 22nd, 2009, 10:54 AM
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Thursday, I have really, really thoroughly enjoyed reading your lengthy and lively description of your journey to Morocco! Adventures--and mis-adventures--enjoyable to read here in the winter in Maryland as I plan a trip to Morocco for early fall for my husband and myself! And your pictures, as well....a wonderfully complete "picture" of all you saw! We are perhaps not as adventurous as you, and are looking at a private tour for the two of us with guide and private car. I have so far sent an email and got a quick reply from Morocco Travel Agency, based in NY and Morocco. Will have to follow up with request for actual references, I think, based on what you've said here about reviews!

Interesting your comments on the responses from the owner of your final Riad in Marrakesh......and a word to the wise, I think, on the positive comments about it, in that not all "reviews" here can be assumed to be REAL reviews by guests!

In any event, thank you again for your delightful report on your recent trip! And if you have any further gems of advice or suggestions, they will be much appreciated!

KathyN
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