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trip report, morocco

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Morocco Trip Report March 27-April 8, 2014

We (couple with 13 year-old grandson) have just returned from a memorable tour of Morocco with a driver/guide.

Tip #1: Bring to the airport, the credit card you used to buy your airline tickets. It’s a rule I may have heard, but it slipped between the folds in my brain. Delta required that we buy new tickets and we have yet to receive confirmation of a refund on the originals.

Our Berber guide, Mohamed, met us in Rabat. According to our tour director, only 1% of their clients fly into Rabat and I don’t recall why we did. I could have easily done without it and based out of Marrakech instead. It necessitated an extra overnight and 4 hours of the least scenic drive of the trip.

Our first destination was Chefchaouen, the blue city. It turns out the blues aren’t as vivid as often pictured; still, it was charming as were our hosts at Riad Assilah. The King’s wife and the young prince were touring Chefchaouen as well, so when we arrived some of the streets were blocked off, meaning that Mohamed couldn’t park near the hotel and Ismael had to come and help us carry our bags through the cobbled streets in the pouring rain. Fatiha did everything she could to make us comfortable, including taking our raincoats every time we came in and putting them in the dryer. We had heaters in the room, but I was glad I’d gone to a thrift store and bought a sweat shirt and pants that I could leave behind at the end of the trip, leaving room in the suitcase for purchases. We visited the Kasbah with its pretty courtyard. Sam enjoyed the old prison cells. That evening we ate at Casa Hassan, one of my favorite restaurants of the trip—gorgeous, inexpensive, delicious, gracious service.

We lost an hour to Morocco’s daylight savings time, which “Moha” tells us, is treated as optional, and we should forget about it. Nevertheless, for time conscious Americans, it feels like we need to hurry. Moha is constantly saying, “Don’t worry---you just need to be happy and enjoy.” We are headed toward Fes, via Volubilis and Meknes, driving through beautiful mountains, olive groves, shepherds with their sheep, cowherds with one or two cows (no fences so someone must mind the cows no matter how few). The men are wearing long robes (djallaba) with pointed hoods. The streams are beginning to run from the recent rain and snow on the mountains. My camara was acting up, but there is another problem in this photographer’s dream, Moroccans don’t like their photos taken. Some want you to pay, but most just don’t like to be photographed and if you ask, will decline. This rule does not apply if you’ve formed a relationship, either business or personal and sometimes that’s easy to do. The Volubilis Roman ruins from 2nd 3rd c. BC were very scenic surrounded by wildflowers as we welcomed the sun.

We had two “splurge” hotels on this trip, which if planning the trip on my own, wouldn’t have included. But when I asked for an upgrade on the itinerary in Fez, the tour director did it in a big way and upgraded in Marrakech as well. In retrospect, I’m really happy to have had the experience at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech, and probably could have done without the Relais and Chateau, Riad Fez. While Riad Fez was stunning, I maintain the kindness of the staff will stand out in your memory above all else, and here they were cool.

After a good night’s rest and a lovely breakfast we were met by Ahmed for our city tour and shopping. Rules require that city guides must be certified and driver/guides cannot serve in this capacity. First we went to a pottery factory which was interesting, but the first of occasions where I felt we were expected to buy. Thankfully, there was no hard sell here. Prices were high, but the quality and workmanship was high as well. Sam bought a tagine pot for his mother. The currency conversion confused me on more than one occasion, and I bought a plate—really just to contribute to the cooperative, until I found out it was $80. Though I was mortified, I had to back out of that purchase. Wish I had done that for the really big purchase. Wait for it.

The medina was fascinating and perhaps because it was our first, my favorite of the medinas we toured; very colorful, noisy, chaotic. It wasn’t long before Ahmed guided us to a beautiful rug co-op where we were told the women get 80% of the profit. Sam wanted to get a small rug for his dad and so the bargaining began. We had absolutely no intention of purchasing a carpet, but it wasn’t a question of yes or no, but which of these do you like the best. The process was so overwhelming and we felt pressured by time as well as sales tactics. As I left with two carpets, I saw others I would have preferred, and have been kicking myself ever since for the choice, the price, and for getting into the situation at all. I have bartered in other countries and enjoyed it to a degree. Maybe I’m just not up to it anymore. Ahmed then took us to a fabulous antique “museum” where I could have spent all day admiring. I made the mistake of inquiring about a mirror and was actually physically restrained when I declined and wanted to leave. After a lovely lunch of Moroccan salad, which is an array of small plates—(eggplant, cauliflower, zucchini, to name a few); chicken, lemon and olive tagine; and meatball stew; Ahmed took us to a weaver, then the leather tannery. This is a scene frequently pictured in guidebooks, with the vast array of colorful vats and dyers standing knee deep in dye, swirling the leather. We bought a few things here, again at higher prices than we would have paid in the medina and again, the quality point was made by the guides.

A highlight of the day was arriving at 5pm to the ruins in the hills above Fez, just as the muezzins’ calls rang out over the whole city. The setting sun cast a pinkish glow over the crumbling ruins. Sam captured the sight and sound on his GoPro.

As we were driving on April first toward the desert, Sam got Moha with “Oh no! I forgot my camara. April Fool!” Lots of police were lining the road. The King’s wife seemed still to be following our route. We stopped to stretch our legs in Ifrane, “the Switzerland of Morocco.” The city is clean (though, excluding Rabat, I have been favorably impressed with cleanliness of Morocco in general), European, sterile and not particularly appealing. As we drove through the middle and high Atlas Mts, we saw snow, lots of sheep. We’re told there are no wild animals because nomads and their dogs kill them. We passed through more arid lands on the far side of the Ziz valley where we saw many small villages, many deserted. At around 5pm we arrived in Erfoud where Moha’s family lives. They welcomed us with tea, bread, cookies, and a lovely shawl for me from Moha’s mother. These are genuine, lovely people whom it was a pleasure to meet. Moha’s sister drew a henna design on my hand. At 7:30 we arrived at our hotel in the desert town of Merzouga, Riad Nezha. Though we were exhausted, the staff was so warm and kind to us and made a particular fuss over Sam that we hardly noticed our fatigue.

Note: The changes in altitude can be a problem to the headache prone. Just Saying.

The next morning we saw that the winds were kicking up. We did drive through the desert (which I can only imagine is much easier by camel) to a village of Berbers who are black former slaves. These men wear white and entertain tourists with their music and dancing. We then drove by some mineral mines and visited a nomadic family living in a tent crafted with sticks and woven fabric. Moha brought them some provisions. Given the ferocity of the coming sand storm and the isolation of the desert, we are amazed at how these people survive. We had intended to ride camels out to a camp this evening and watch the sunrise in the morning. Instead, we had to wait out the storm until morning. Thank goodness for a deck of cards. Sam, as he loves to say, kicked our butts in gin rummy. At 6am our camel whisperer, Ahmed, woke us and we mounted the camels (he talks quietly to them and taps their noses until they drop down, but you’d better hang on because as soon as you mount they rise up. Moha told us that if you hit a camel they will remember you for years, and not in a good way. There were still stars in the sky when we left and the air was brisk. The wind had died down, though, and the dunes were clean and rippling. The sunrise was spectacular with the light playing off the varying shapes of the dunes. When we got to a very high dune, Ahmed, who had been carrying a board for Sam, told us to follow him on foot to the top. Bob and I made it half way then walked back down. Ahmed and Sam went to the top where Sam took off on his board, surfing to the bottom then repeating. This is what Sam had been waiting for and it didn’t disappoint.

After breakfast we circled back through Rissani where we visited the very interesting souk there. We stopped at an herbalist where we bought some spices. We walked by the souk “parking lot,” where the only vehicles were donkeys. This was also the donkey mating ground if that be the intention of the owner. The donkey parking lot photo that I sent to friends was one of the greatest hits. We stopped by a fossil factory where we bought a 300,000,000 year old jelly fish. After lunch at Touroug (very good, sweet waiter) drove through Tinghir, a lovely community that was originally Jewish. The Kasbah was built during the 18th c. The documentary, “Tinghir Jerusalem,” Studies the friendship between Jews, Muslims, and Arabs in this community.

Throughout our trip route we were struck by how beautifully new construction is planned---old construction as well for that matter, to blend into the hills and terrain, whatever hue that may be. Nothing looked junky or jarring.

Do to time constraints; I must now skip ahead to Marrakech.
I had been looking forward to the Majorelle Garden, but unless we somehow missed most of it, it was a disappointment. Visitors are kept to a ramp, pretty much bumper to bumper, and most of the flora is green and not particularly healthy. We were hungry, so got off the ramp and went into the attractive café where, by the time we were served, had to wrap it up and take it with us. I did have orange blossom ice cream, which was out of this world. It was also the first “dessert” I’d been offered on this trip. The Moroccan food has been very healthy, usually ending in orange or other fruit slices sprinkled with cinnamon.

The stand-out here was our riad, La Maison Arabe. As I mentioned before, it’s the staff that makes the difference, and to a person, the staff were kind, and skilled. Here I had my best spa experience ever for the same price I would pay for half the time and luxury in the states, including an extra tip. Just one problem, on entering the room, complete with rose petals on the beds, I saw that the carpet needed vacuuming. That was taken care of within 15 minutes and I never had another issue. Cooking classes are offered here, though we didn’t partake. I had one of the most enjoyable meals ever our last evening at poolside with twinkling lights and lovely live Andalusian music.

I want to offer thanks to Lahcen Boujouija and Around Morocco Tours, and much gratitude to Mohamed for making this such a fun, carefree adventure. We were treated like family, which is their goal.

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