Trip Report

Old Jan 12th, 2007, 09:21 AM
  #1  
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Trip Report

We had a wonderful time in Morocco this holiday. We hired Hamid Dandane as our guide and we were completely satisfied with our decision. Hamid picked us up at Casablanca Airport on Saturday night after a long flight from San Francisco to Paris, a seven hour layover at CDG and then off to Morocco. He introduced us to his driver, Driss, who was similarly friendly and helpful. On the hour and a half trip to our hotel in Rabat, Hamid oriented us to the country and answered all our questions about customs and our plans over the next ten days. Hamid sent us an email with a detailed itinerary so we had a good sense of where we were going, the timing and the sights we were going to see.

We stayed in the Balima Hotel in Rabat, which was very basic and not very updated, but we were very tired and so all we needed was a comfortable bed and a bathroom. They seem to be renovating one of the floors, so it could be nicer in the months to come. The square where the hotel was located seemed to be a happening place, with lots of young people hanging out at the outdoor café in the front of the hotel. The included breakfast was a variation of what we were going to enjoy for the next two weeks in both Morocco and our four days in Paris – café, a croissant, rolls and various jams, cheese and butter. For the first few days when we returned, I craved croissants for breakfast – but I quickly got back to my usually routine. My cardiovascular system probably appreciated it too.

Hamid and Driss picked us up after breakfast helped load our bags into their comfortable Mercedes Benz van and off we drove for a tour of Rabat. Hamid really knows his country, the history and the culture. He was also incredibly informative about Islam. Over the ten days we were there, each time the call for prayer sounded, I had this intense desire to stop whatever we were doing and pray. Although some people have commented that the call for prayer felt like “big brother” was watching, I found it very appealing to stop my activities and taking the time to put my life into perspective five times a day. Although we never did stop to pray, I started tuning out everything going on and found a peaceful spot in my mind when I heard the call. The first place we stopped was really nice – the Chellah. These are Roman ruins dating back over a thousand years. We got there before the tourists in the early morning. The lighting was perfect for photography and the quiet peaceful nature of the place had just the right calming effect on us after the stressful previous day of traveling. What was nice about having a private guide like Hamid was that he took us places that groups couldn’t go. We met the caretaker of the site, with her dozens of feral cats, feeding them on the steps of her house. This was the case throughout the ten days – I got the sense that we were allowed back stage to this wonderful production to see what others didn’t get to experience.

We eventually found our way to Meknes where we had our first true Moroccan meal. This might sound really weird, but I was worried about two things – eating and using a bathroom (OK, I know a psychotherapist would have a field day with this! Wait, I am a psychotherapist!) Anyhow, Hamid picked excellent restaurants for us to eat at, and all were reasonably priced. He also knew all the good bathrooms to stop at along the way. We stopped at the stables and granaries of Moulay Ismail, which was one of my favorite photographic stops. It was also our first look at a Medina – but it didn’t really prepare us for what we were about to experience in Fes.
After a long day of touring and driving we made our way to Fes. We discovered that Fes was Hamid’s hometown and his love for it was evident in the stories that he told us this wonderful city. We stayed in Fes three night and Marrakech for four nights. If we had to do it again, I would probably have done just the opposite. First of all, our Riad, Luna et Soleil (http://www.luneetsoleil.com/) was one of the nicest places we have stayed in all our travels. Pauline and Jurgen have gone to great lengths to make this gem of a riad an unforgettable experience. From the exquisite decorations to the scrumptious breakfast and dinner, this Riad is four stars in our book. The next time we return to Fes we will definitely stay with them.

At the Lune et Soleil, we met fellow travelers who did not have a guide and although they hit many of the major sites that we also visited, we saw a side of the country that they missed, not being local. We also had the history, language and cultural piece that the other travelers were missing (unless they did extensive reading before hand). I can’t imagine doing this trip without a guide like Hamid. We would have missed so much. Anyhow, back to the trip.

Fes was unforgettable. We could have spent days just exploring the old Medina. It was a feast for the senses. My only regret was that I didn’t take more photographs. I was still nervous about photographing people and alienating them. As I got the hang of it – I used my telephoto lens, but also just went up to them and asked. Everyone I asked was incredibly gracious about it. We bought all our “big” items Fes, and we were glad that we did. The best artisans seemed to be there.

From Fes, we started our daylong drive to the Sahara Desert. It was an incredibly trip – from crossing the magnificent Atlas Mountains to discovering life in Sahara towns and cities. We parked the van in Rissani, where four-wheeled drive picked us up for the forty-minute drive to Erg Chebbi in Merzouga. We arrived to a pot of mint tea in front of our Berber tent where we were going to sleep that night. Fortunately for us, we were the only ones there that night, so we had this little encampment all to ourselves. Before dinner we joined Hamid, Driss and one of the staff in a round of drumming and percussion. Then we had a delicious Berber dinner, followed by entertainment by the staff. From there we went to our tent, sat by the fire in the sand and watched the stars – the millions of stars – come out. We eventually went to bed and eventually woke up to two sounds – one of this animal snorting noise, the other a soft, gentle voice saying, “Wake up.” We got up to find our three camels sitting in the sand outside our tents, ready to be mounted and walk up the dunes to watch the sunrise. It was an incredible experience, that none of us will ever forget. Afterwards, we came back down for a great breakfast. After a while, we packed up and started the long trip to Sekoura, where we would spend the night in a fourteenth century Kasbah.

What was great about these two long drives to and from the desert, was that we took two different routes so we got to experience new sights in each direction. The Kasbah where we stayed was unforgettable, Chez Bouarif. The own was gracious and incredibly hospitable. As in the desert, we were the only ones there that night, which allowed us to receive his undivided attention. We got a tour of the house and gardens, it’s history, we got to watch our dinner bread being made on the roof, and we were fed a gourmet dinner and breakfast that was fit for royalty. The next morning we got back into the car and started the long drive over the High Atlas Mountains to Marrakech.

One of our stops along the way was Ait Benhaddou. I imagine this is a very touristy place in high season, but once again we only three of a few people walking up the labyrinth of trails leading to the ruins on top. The photography opportunities were great in this area as well - the late afternoon sun made the lighting perfect.

The drive through the High Atlas Mountains was intense, even for us who are used to driving the Sierra Nevada and Rockies. We arrived in Marrakech after dark where we parked the car in the periphery of the Medina, and hired a man to cart our luggage to our Riad, The Aviateur. Low and behold when we got there, the lights were out and no one was answering the doorbell. Oh, oh! Could it be we were at the wrong place? No such luck. A neighbor came out and told us that the Riad had closed for renovations. Just as panic was setting in – Hamid got on his phone to find out the problem. Thank goodness he was there. Imagine getting a place to stay on Friday night, Christmas weekend. We took the luggage back to the car and Hamid drove us around to hotels in the modern district to find a room. We actually found a nice place for a reasonable price. The only problem was that homeless people were sleeping across the street and a few of them were not on their medications, so there was lots of yelling and arguments going on. After the peace and quiet of the desert, this was hard to take. But we went with the flow and tried enjoy ourselves. Our 15 year-old daughter really enjoyed this room, because she had a separate room to herself. Marrakech was not as enjoyable as Fes partly because of our accommodations, but also the sheer number of tourists. Hamid showed us some very interesting sites, but it felt very crowded and noisy. The night we went to the market in the square, instead of just walking around, Hamid took us to a restaurant where we got a table on the second floor balcony. From there we used our telephoto lens to get all the shots we wanted from the comfort of our seats. It was nice to have this overview and just watch the activity below. After sunset, we went down for a walk among the vendors. The following afternoon, Hamid took us back to the square after visiting the souks for our daughter’s obligatory photo with a monkey on her shoulder and a snake around her neck. She was much braver than I – but then she usually is.

The last day we drove out to Essaouira for the afternoon. It was a lot of fun getting away from the stimulation of Marrakech and discovering life by the coast. The most enjoyable part of the day was our visiting the fish market, buying fish for the five of us (my family and Hamid and Driss) and taking it over to the vendors by the seawall and having them cook it. It was a fitting end to our ten days together. The next morning we arose for an early start to Casablanca airport.

This was an unforgettable trip. Having Hamid’s guide services, and Driss’ driving expertise, made the experience informative, entertaining, delicious, easy and simply remarkable. The Moroccan people were kind and inviting, and incredibly patient with communication difficulties. The trip had an added benefit that I didn’t expect. I decided to have my next novel take place in Morocco. So, add creative to the list of above adjectives.
danielsonkin is offline  
Old Jan 12th, 2007, 09:30 AM
  #2  
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The photos for this trip can be found at:

http://danielsonkin.smugmug.com/Portfolio/271613

I hope you enjoy them.

Daniel
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Old Jan 12th, 2007, 09:47 AM
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great report and photos thanks
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Old Jan 12th, 2007, 02:23 PM
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Hi Daniel,

Good report. I need to get offline soon so read through quickly but will read it thoroughly tomorrow and look forward to seeing your pictures.

I'm glad that you had a good time in beautiful Morocco, I remember your early questions.

Thanks for posting. I'll read this agian tomorrow and also read the Paris report.
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Old Jan 12th, 2007, 04:34 PM
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jgg
 
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Thank you for the report and really loved the pictures. We leave 9 weeks from today!!
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Old Jan 13th, 2007, 02:56 PM
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Hamid doesn't have a web site, but he tells me that he is working on it. Until then, the best way to contact him is by email ([email protected]). If he is busy with another group during your scheduled trip, he will be more than happy to refer to another excellent guide.

Thank you everyone for the nice comments.

Regards,
Daniel
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Old Jan 15th, 2007, 06:29 PM
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Thanks very much for your detailed trip report, Daniel. It's particularly helpful for us since my wife and I are also using Hamid for part of our trip to Morocco in April - and it was fun to check out your photos and see what he looks like (not to mention what Morocco looks like - what great shots!). Glad you had such a good time there.

btw did you find any of the Jewish sites to be particularly noteworthy? My wife is Jewish and while we don't plan our sightseeing around Jewish sites, it's interesting and sometimes poignant to see the remnants of Jewish communities in so many countries.
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Old Jan 16th, 2007, 10:55 AM
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Thank you for the detailed report. My husband and I are going to Morocco at Christmas so this information was very helpful. BTW-great photos.
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Old Jan 18th, 2007, 09:04 AM
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krishnan,

Hamid did take us to the Jewish section of the Medina in Fes, where we saw a very old synagogue. I hear that there are also Jewish cemeteries in Morocco that would be interested in visiting. Here is a web page describing them as well as other Jewish cites.

(http://www.jewishgen.org/cemetery/africa/morocco.html)

Hamid will work with whatever your interests are, just ask him. Have a great trip.

Daniel
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Old Jan 18th, 2007, 05:47 PM
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Thanks, Daniel - we'll make sure to mention it to Hamid. Very interesting link to the Jewish cemeteries as well. Amazing that the Jewish population was a quarter million in 1956!

And compliments again on your photos - you truly have a great eye for finding the striking in the everyday.
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Old Jan 19th, 2007, 07:57 AM
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<<...I started tuning out everything going on and found a peaceful spot in my mind when I heard the call.>>

Yes, I had a similar feeling, not at all a "big brother watching" experience.

Your report is excellent and your photos are beautiful! I recognize some of the locations and must have stood in the same spots for one of the ruins in the Chellah and one in Meknes. You did far better than I in Marrakesh though. It was so crowded that it was frustrating trying to take photos.

Your desert pics are gorgeous; I especially like the one with the sunrise with the man's profile. Is that you? or Hamid?

I'm glad the trip was a success for you and your family.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2007, 12:32 AM
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Thank you for your report. I almost missed it because it didn't have Morocco in the title!

I'll finally be in Morocco this May. I hope my trip would be just as fun as yours. Thanks for sharing the pictures too.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2007, 06:19 AM
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Hi daniel,

Leaving tomorrow for Morocco. A question, is the d5rive over the Atlas mts to the desert a really scary road? Also any last minute advice.

thanks
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Old Jan 23rd, 2007, 12:58 PM
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laartista,

Lucky you going to Morocco tomorrow,I wish I was too.

I rode to the desert from Fes and didn't find the road scary at all, but I was in a bus with a very good driver. I might have been nervous if I'd been driving myself but I really enjoyed the ride and the scenery and I'm anxious about heights.

I think it will be pretty cold in the mountains and in the desert if you're camping, so plan on layering and have a hat and gloves.

Have a great time.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2007, 01:02 PM
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Thanks Lusiah. we are going to the desrt from Mkech. I'm pyched and have pcked warm clothes for the overnight.
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Old Jan 23rd, 2007, 08:17 PM
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I've never seriously thought about a trip to Morocco. Your trip report has me considering it! Thanks for the interesting, thoughtful report and the fantastic pictures.
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Old Jan 28th, 2007, 01:19 PM
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Thank you everyone for your kind comments about my photos.

The road over the Atlas Mountains was not that difficult. Of course, I live in California and we are used to a lot of curves and steep cliffs on our roads. If you are traveling with Hamid, he will stop as often as you need to avoid car sickness. If you are on a group tour, and you are not used to the windy roads, I would consider some dramamine. They have a non-drowsy version that will allow you to not miss the beautiful sites.

The profile in the desert picture is Omar, our camel guide. He was very nice. When we got down to the camels to return to the auberge, he wanted to sell us some fossils from the desert. A lot of people do try to sell you something in Morocco, but isn't that true everywhere? The economy is hard and people are just trying to eak out a living. His things were so inexpensive, we just obliged him and bought a few pieces without trying to talk him down (too much).

Again, we highly recommend visiting this wonderful country. The people are warm and friendly and your senses will be brought to life in ways you never expected. Feel free to contact us you have any questions.

Regards,
Daniel
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Old Feb 3rd, 2007, 06:36 AM
  #18  
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For some reason, Hamid's email address does not completely post in html, so clicking on the link below will not post the correct email address in your email program. Just cut and paste it or manually type it into your email client. The prefix of his email address is: Hamid_d (be sure to include the underscore between the ds).

[email protected]

Regards,
Daniel
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Old Jul 17th, 2007, 06:48 PM
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We just returned from a ten day trip to Morocco, using Hamid Dandane as our guide. Mu husband and I have done a fair amount of traveling and have often used guides to help us make the most of our trip. I can honestly say that Hamdid is far and away the finest guide we have ever used. Starting with our email communications six months ahead to plan the trip, I had a sense that I was working with a real professional. By the time we met Hamid, when he picked us up at the Casablanca airport, I felt that we already knew each other. From start to finish, Hamid saw to it that each day was filled with the most amazing sites, jaw dropping scenery, history, culture.....all explained in his flawless English. His love for Morocco is simply contagious, and we were soon hooked! We followed an itinerary similar to Daniel's, in a previous post: Rabat, Meknes, Fez, a couple of nights in the Sahara, Atlas Mountains, Marrakech. This itinerary enabled us to see the many faces of Morocco, from the medieval medinas of Fez (our favorite city and Hamid's hometown) and Marrakech, to the desert (camel ride at dawn was a highlight) to the mountains (Berber villages), and more. Hamid is highly educated and very knowledgeable about every aspect of life in Morocco. He was also well prepared to share the Jewish history of the places we visited, and presented the Jewish heritage with great respect and honor. Because we were together so many hours each day, there was time to talk about many things, and Hamid was open to any and all questions about life in Morocco, his religion, current affairs, etc. Hamid was meticulous about every detail---in fact, I don't remember getting out of the car even once without him jumping out first to open the door! Speaking of the car, traveling with Hamid means you are in the capable hands of Driss, his driver. Driss, a native of Marrakech, is a real pro too, navigating the teeming streets and winding mountaim roads with equal ease. Within a day of meeting Driss and Hamid, it felt like we were four friends travelling together. With Driss handling the driving (something we would NEVER attempt in Morocco) and Hamid watching out for our safety and well being, we could simply relax and enjoy everything we were seeing and experiencing. Hamid knows which restaurants are the best, which shops have the most unique merchandise, and where the cleanest bathrooms are. He also suggested the riads that we stayed at, which were delightful and so authentically Moroccan.
Two of the high points of the trip were being invited to Hamid's home in Fez and Driss' home in Marrakech. We loved meeting their families and getting a glimpse into Moroccan life that few tourists experience.
I do not know how Hamid's rates compare with other guides, but this is where the old expression of "you get what you pay for" holds true. I simply cannot imagine doing this trip without them. And if we are so lucky as to be able to return to Morocco again, you can be sure that the first thing I will do is book Hamid.

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Old Sep 7th, 2007, 08:34 AM
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sallya,
I am glad you had as great a time as we did with Hamid and Driss. You are definitely correct about the cost. I don't really know what other people charge, but they were worth every penny or Dirham, as it were.
Regards,
Daniel
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