Malaise in Morocco

We’re going to be honest here. Morocco wasn’t our cup of tea (although, we did really enjoy the Moroccan mint tea!). We tried to like it. We tried to love it. We had a comprehensive, well-timed itinerary allowing us to experience medinas, dessert, beach and ancient civilizations. We both feel that this was the first time we felt overwhelmed by and cautious of the way a place treats tourists. The overall experience disappointed us.

It seems those in the tourism industry are much more interested in money than in providing a good service or teaching foreigners about their culture. We felt we had to be on edge and alert at all times to not be taken advantage of. That made for a stressful week and a half.

But it wasn’t all bad so I’ll start at the beginning…

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-2: Flight from London to Marrakech
  • Days 3-5: Sahara Desert Tour
  • Days 6-7: Essouaouira
  • Days 8-10: Fez
  • Day 11: Chefchaouen
  • Day 12: Tangier
  • Day 13: Flight to Seville, Spain

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina →  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: April 26-May 7, 2014

Our Odyssey:

Marrakech

We arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at Marrakech’s international airport. We had arranged to stay at a riad (or guesthome) in the medina (old city within the medieval walls). Our host sent a driver to pick us up. After getting some cash out of the ATM we met our driver and headed into the walled city.

Since medinas in Morocco were built hundreds (lots of hundreds) of years ago, the streets are narrow, winding and confusing. You could easily get lost as there aren’t street signs and some streets are just small alleys called derbs. This being the case, our driver dropped us off at a parking lot just outside a gate where the maze of the medina begins.

Aziz, our host at our riad, met us there and guided us through the winding streets to his home. We loved Aziz from the very beginning. He offered us mint tea upon arrival (not uncommon when first arriving at a riad) with delicious sweet pastries. They tasted a bit like baklava but looked like samosas. He gave us directions to the main square- Djemaa El-Fna (I still have no clue how to pronounce this) for dinner.  We were able to navigate successfully through twists and turns and markets and shops and people and scooters and general chaos.

At this time we were loving Morocco. We were exhilarated by the energetic vibe, enamored with the kind hospitality of our host, and in stimulation overload from the colorful clothing, buildings, lights and goods throughout the shops.

When we got to the square, we were surprised to see that the restaurants aren’t set up the way you typically see it in the United States (Madison, WI is a good example). Instead, picnic tables and benches fill the center of the square. Pop up restaurants line all sides. It is kind of like a flea market but for food. We picked one and ordered our first authentic Moroccan meal. We dove right in, ordering potato cakes, couscous, and skewers of various unidentified meat. It was delicious.

Lanterns in Marrakesh medina

I loved the colors of the lanterns in the Marrakech Medina.

Dinner in Marrakesh Medina

Our first night in the Medina in Marrakech. This was the part of the trip where we were in love with Morocco.

Dinner in Marrakesh Medina

Excited for our meal!

Dinner in Marrakesh Medina

The bustling central square at night

Dinner in Marrakesh Medina

Cooked-to-order meals

After this it was pretty much downhill and has been rocky ever since. Later that night, I had some severe heartburn and ended up throwing up my entire meal, and Tim’s stomach struggled with the food as well.

Putting this behind us and deciding to go easier on our stomachs for the day, we headed out to stroll around the medina. We walked back up to the square, which is completely different during the day. The restaurants are gone and instead it is largely an open space dotted with various street performers.

When I say street performers, I really mean snake charmers. This was interesting for all of a second and a half and then it just really creeped me out. It got worse when a man came up to Tim, asked him if he wanted a photo, to which we both said “Non merci”, and then threw a snake around his shoulders. Startled and annoyed by this breech into his personal space, Tim flung the snake away.

This was more traumatic for me than for Tim, as he hasn’t mentioned it since. He also asked me to put that last sentence in here specifically. Men. He also wants me to mention as a reminder that on the Inca Trail he went looking for snakes, so don’t be thinking he’s afraid of snakes because he is definitely not.

So anyway, after dodging snakes left and right (okay I’m exaggerating a little), we made it through to the other end of the square, to Koutoubia Mosque. We aren’t permitted inside as we are not Muslims, but we are perfectly happy to respect that boundary and enjoyed just walking around the outside and the surrounding gardens. This particular mosque dates from early 12th century and was the model for future towers in both Rabat, Morocco and Seville, Spain (where we head to tomorrow, incidentally).

Koutoubia Mosque

Koutoubia Mosque

 

I came down with a bit of a cold and a sore throat while in Marrakech so we spent the rest of our time just relaxing.

Sahara Desert Tour – a Rant

Monday morning after 2 nights in Marrakech we were up bright and early for a 3 day/2 night tour we had booked into the Sahara desert (itinerary details here . The instructions from the tour operator said to meet at ClubMed at 6:30am, so that is where we were. There we waited, until 7:40am, after much anxiety over whether they were coming for us or if they had scammed us.

At this point our driver drove us 200 meters away to the other side of the square, where we got into a van after much confusion which took us back to ClubMed. We still don’t understand why any of this happened, but in the midst of it all we made friends with a nice Spanish couple, Pasqual and Theresa. They were equally befuddled by the lack of organization and communication at the start of this tour.

After a few more van switches and insistence on our part that our bags must travel in the same van as us (the tour organizers were trying to separate us from all of our belongings), we finally left ClubMed at 9:30am.

Clearly this wasn’t the best start. I’ll get my bitching out early and leave it to this one section alone. If you don’t want to read my whining, skip down to the next section. Here we go- this tour was terrible.

Our driver was a grumpy, silent man, who never told us anything about any of the sights we drove by. I’ve since read about all of the amazing things we didn’t know we saw. He smoked all the time (not a huge problem, except that he would do it in the van while we’d be outside of it, making all of our luggage/sweaters/etc smell like smoke). And he would not even tell us where we were going, what time we would get there, what we would learn about, etc. He would often stop at the side of the road and say, “Photo stop”, then light a cigarette.

More than once I asked him if he could tell us what we were looking at. He generally did not know. There was also a ton of driving, which the information online when we booked did not really prepare us for. And by a ton of driving, I mean about 12 hours per day. In a van. With 13 other people, one of whom wouldn’t stop clapping and shouting “Ay yay yay yay” like a deranged yodeler.

I could complain more, but that information is best suited for the feedback email and complaint we submitted to the tour company (Traces Berberes) upon our return to Marrakech 3 days later. End bitchy rant.

Ait Ben Haddou

A few hours after we left Marrakech, driving east towards the Sahara, we got to a fortified village called Ait Ben Haddou. This town was built from the earth in the 11th century as a stop along the old caravan routes and still has an ancient granary store at the top of the hill.

The site resembles a sprawling castle but is actually many kasbahs (or large family homes) grouped together. Eleven families still live there today. The site, aside from being ancient and fairly well-preserved, has also been the site of many movie filmings (Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Alexander to name a few).

Ait Ben Haddou

Ait Ben Haddou

Ait Ben Haddou

Cheesy tourist pose

After about an hour at this site we continued our drive for a few hours more and stopped overnight in a rural town called Boumalne du Dades, which marks the southern entrance to the Dades Gorge. This gorge is a large canyon (63km long), and while we didn’t get to explore it much, the scenery from our hotel was lovely. The hotel also offered a delicious and filling dinner of tagine (basically a roasted chicken and vegetable dish all cooked together).

Todra Gorge

Having some fun at Todra Gorge

Chicken tagine

Chicken tagine

Overnight in Merzouga Dunes of Sahara Desert

The next day we got up bright and early (another early day) to head further east- our destination being the Merzouga dunes. Along the way, though, we stopped in the Todra Gorge, which was truly beautiful. Though smaller than its sister, the Dades, we were able to be in it and walk along the river for a bit.

We also had a nice tour of a local town. We visited a cooperative that provides housing and food for women from the mountains in exchange for their rug-making skills. After this it was back on the road for many more hours until we arrived in Merzouga at about 5pm.

Moroccan mint tea

Moroccan mint tea

After a little bit more waiting it was time to climb aboard our camels for our ride across the dunes to a cluster of nomadic tents where we would spend the night. Riding the camel was truly a cool experience, and scenery was spectacular as it was sunset. Even with our large group around, it felt peaceful to be surrounded by such an expanse of sand dunes.

Two hours later we arrived at our tents and settled in for the evening. Dinner was another delicious tagine meal (that said, tagine gets old after a while…). Afterwards, Tim and I took a short walk away from the tents to sit on the side of a dune and look up at the stars. I realize this sounds exceptionally cliche, but it was a really wonderful experience to sit there with my best friend and soulmate looking up at such a clear view of the stars and talking for a few hours.

Morocco Desert

Camel silhouettes in the Sahara Desert

Morocco Desert

The Sahara was admittedly stunning and made up for the trials of the rest of the tour

Morocco Desert

No filter.

Morocco Desert

I loved the waves of sand

Morocco Desert

I named my camel Old Blue Eyes

Morocco Desert

Our tent for the night

We both slept well, then woke up at dawn for the two hour ride on our camels back to the van. This day was particularly exhausting, as we were sore from the camel ride the night before, and once back to Merzouga we still had a 12 hour drive ahead of us to get back to Marrakech. That said, it was again a beautiful and peaceful ride. The sun’s light as it rose that morning cast amazing light and shadows across the landscape.

It’s also worth mentioning a little French boy in our tour group with his parents who was super adorable and shared everything he ever got with us (chips, gum, candy, you name it). The kid loves sharing. He is very shy at first, but opened up to everyone on the drive back that last day, playing games with us and teaching Tim how to count to 10 in French. He would laugh every time someone tried to pronounce 4 in French – it was super cute!

Tim and our favorite French kid

Tim and our favorite French kid

When we got back to Marrakech we spent another night with Aziz. This was a great relief after such long days. While we were away, Aziz had offered to by our bus tickets for us to get to Essaouira the next day. Again, Aziz was amazingly helpful and kind to us. His hospitality was unsurpassed in Morocco.

Essaouira

We had a fairly leisurely morning the next day before heading to the bus station. The drive to Essaouira went by quickly (especially compared to the long drives from the previous days). Essaouira, aside from being impossible to spell or say correctly, is known for its beachy hippie atmosphere.

Jimmy Hendrix allegedly spent some time here. He was inspired by a large rock formation off the coast that later became his “castle in the sand”. We enjoyed 2 relaxing days here, seeing the old ramparts of the medina, the port and walking along the beach watching wind surfers. I also personally enjoyed the abundance of cats in this town.

Essaouira

Portside in Essaouira

Essaouira beach

Essaouira beach

Essaouira beach

Tim at the beach

Fes

After our time in this quiet beach town it was time to head back east, to Fes. This was a long day that consisted of a bus ride back to Marrakech where we barely made our train connection to Fes. All in all it was about 8 hours of travel.

Fes was a bit of a low-point in our trip. We were both wearing thin on energy and patience, and our host in Fes was pretty terrible and actually rather scary at the end. I don’t even have the energy to go into it fully on here, but if you’re curious, we left a review on TripAdvisor here.

Fes as a city was a lot like Marrakech in the sense that it has a large medina filled with shops, cats and locals hustling us, pretending to be tour guides. Frankly, it is exhausting to walk through these medinas, and the only relief was seeing all of the cats and baby kittens. We found one restaurant near Bab Boujeloud, one of the gates to the medina, called La Palma. We returned there every night in Fes because they had good food at a cheap price and very kind and genuine service (something we were learning was a rarity in Morocco as a foreigner).

Waiter in Fes

Our favorite person in Fes

Our first full day in Fes was a bit stressful, as we had to move Riads, then find the bus station that sells tickets to Chefchouen (our next destination). The quest for bus tickets took a few hours and trips to various stations before we found the right one. We were exhausted and tired. We decided to treat ourselves to ice cream. I got a Magnum Double Caramel, which was the best packaged ice cream bar I’ve ever had.

After a rest at our riad we also took ourselves on a semi-self-guided walking tour of the medina to see the Kairaouine Mosque (the largest mosque in Morrocco) and the tanneries. Fes is known for their leather tanneries, which are very large. They use the same techniques from nearly a thousand years ago. To get to the tanneries is quite confusing, as Google Maps doesn’t identify them, and local maps do not either.

After wandering around and more or less giving up on finding it, we walked by a young man who had a business card for one of the tanneries. He said that views of the tannery are free and that he’d take us. We followed him for about 10 minutes through some dark alleys, thinking at this point that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. We arrived at a leather goods shop where the owner took us up to the roof to see the view of the various vats of pigeon poo (used to clean the leather) and dyes.

It was interesting history to learn about, but afterwards the owner pressured us to buy something. It became very uncomfortable to the point where we felt rude. When we left, the unofficial guide tried to take us to some other place. We told him we just wanted to go back to our riad. We tipped him and parted ways, but only after he argued with us to tip him more than we had.

Fes leathery tanneries

Fes leathery tanneries

Fes medina

It’s easy to get lost in the medinas. Tim and I took photos at turning points to remind us of our route so we could get back to our riads. Here, I remind us to go right.

Meknes & Volubilis

For the next day, May 5, we had arranged for a driver to take us out of Fes a bit to see the city of Meknes and the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. Volubilis was the first stop and it was very cool to see. Pheonicians settled here over a thousand years ago. Subsequently, the Romans expanded their empire out to this area.

Since it was on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, it was hard to defend and maintain so they eventually gave it up. It remains an excellent example of typical Roman architecture, and well-preserved mosaic tile floors. What Tim and I enjoyed most about this site is the freedom to walk around among the pillars and columns and explore the remains of the various buildings. I would say this hour was the highlight of our time in Morocco.

Volubilis

Ancient Volubilis from afar

Volubilis

Volubilis city gate

Volubilis

Is this Italy or Morocco?

Volubilis

The Pompeii of Morocco – Volubilis

Volubilis

Me at Volubilis

Volubilis

Impressive tile flooring

Volubilis

Tim in Volubilis

After that we went to the city of Meknes where we visited a mausoleum holding the body of Moulay Ismail. This sultan expanded his empire across most of Africa back in the late 1600s. He had a very grand vision for his empire, and a good example of that is the granary he built in the city. Since his army was so large, he had 100,000 plus horses. He needed a granary that could supply food for them. The granary is so large that it could store grain for these horses for 20 years if needed. It goes without saying then that the place is huge. It was neat to get to walk around it and imagine it filled up with grain and goods.

Meknes

Tim in the Meknes granary

mausoleum holding the body of Moulay Ismail

Mausoleum holding the body of Moulay Ismail

After this we got lunch and our driver returned us to Fes. Back in Fes, we took a nap then went back to La Palma for our last dinner in this city.

Chefchouen

The next day we got up to make our way to the bus station to head to Chefchouen. The relaxed attitude of this town a good change of pace after the hectic vibes of Fes. It’s also painted entirely blue (allegedly to keep mosquitoes away). Of the cities we visited in Morocco, we liked this one best. We also made some friends at the bus station who were going to Chefchouen and then eventually to Seville at the same time as us. It was cool to make a connection here that we will get to see later this week in Spain.

Chefchouen Blue city

Me, writing this blog post in the blue city, in a blue room, wearing a blue shirt

Cats of Chefchouen

Cats of Chefchouen

Chefchouen

Blue city of Chefchouen

We took it easy in Chefchouen, just relaxing and enjoying the zen feel of the area. The next day we headed back to the bus station bound for Morocco’s northern coast, the city of Tangier.

We fly out tomorrow for Spain. Since our hotel is near the Tangier airport, we didn’t venture into the main part of the city at all. Instead we opted to relax by the pool for the evening. This was the best way to unwind after a rather stressful segment of our trip. We are ready and excited to explore Spain!

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