Morocco Trip Report

Amcan Travel visits Morocco, March 2012.

It took us a whole day to fly from Lisbon to Marrakech, but we made it by 10pm. We were met at the airport by our local host Carolyn and guide Mokhtar. They took us to our riad for the night, (photo, Riad Dubai), which is run by a veteran hotelier named Mr. Said. He has worked all over Europe for 40 years. We were in this wonderfully decorated room (photo, decor) equipped with a truly unique bathroom and free wi-fi, yeh!!!

The morning started with birds chirping early and we were up to the roof under this giant Moroccan tent for a breakfast of crepes, Moroccan naan bread, yogurt, fresh squeezed OJ and strong coffee (photo, rooftop cafe). We went with our driver, guide, host and her friend Catharine to the city center to exchange some local money before going to the modern airport (photo, airport drive) to pick up the other three ladies. We immediately hit the road to Ouarzazate southeast of Marrakech, the Hollywood of Morocco, where movies like The Sheltering Sky, Jewel of the Nile and Gladiator were shot. We stopped by some nice kasbahs (fortresses) before reaching the destination and had some wonderful tajines (meat and vegetable cooked in a special shaped clay pot) for lunch. Evening at the hotel (photo, The Palmeraie), which offers wi-fi, Barbara and her client, Jane were both happy sitting at the reception area, one doing her email and one writing her blog. From time to time, Barbara will pause and check Jane’s blog and offer corrections.

Second day in Morocco we were up early with breakfast in the hotel and we first stopped by a giant gift shop just outside Ouarzazate. The owner took the trouble to give us some custom and history references and let us loose, which is certainly a dangerous thing with six ladies addicted to shopping. One of us ended up spending quite a bit at the shop after a fantastic bargain. Both parties seem to be happy with the result. Richard received a gift from our guide, Mokhtar, a turban wrap and learned how to wrap himself like a real berber (photo, Richard and Mokhtar). We pressed on to the Berber land. First into the Dades Gorge, a deep V-shaped canyon carved out over centuries by the Dades River (photo, river view), offering spectacular views, such as the so-called Monkey’s Toes (photo, rock formation). We visited Kasbah Amridil, the country’s most famous, a 17th century beauty so iconic it's featured on the 50 Dirham bill (photo, Kasbah). After some lunch we continued to a long walk in the valley led by a local Berber guide, who showed us not only the terrain but the herbs and plants along the way and villagers' houses with laundry in the front (photo, airing out), picked some to put in his backpack. We finally ended up in his house, where he submerged the herbs into the piping smoking tea pot. Out came this fragrant, heavenly tea (photo, tea), that everyone wow-ha-ed, enjoyed with nuts and almond cookies. We checked into a small hotel facing the river, every room with a balcony in front (photo, hotel). We convened in our guide’s room to sneak a glass of some wine we had bought in Marrakech, which was really good and everyone loved it. The evening became very fun, when our meal servers turned into Berber drummers and jammed with Richard, Mokhtar was the singer, while our driver danced with ladies.

Third day, we start getting used to the simple yet hearty Moroccan breakfast consisting of warm naan bread, with local honey so thick you could use it as a spread, fresh butter and two or three kinds of jam, strong Moroccan coffee, abundant hot milk, OJ and tea. Very simple, Barbara got her protein from a heavenly combination of milk and honey. We passed a small town, when their market was open, and stopped for some fresh produce for our picnic lunch. We enjoyed the stalls in the market from spices to fresh meats and necessaries (photo, market). Even though there were not a lot of women in the market, we did not stand out too much as everyone was modestly dressed, til another tourist showed up in tight shorts and revealing tops. We drove more and got into Boumalne Du Dades, a major tourist town as a lot of trekkers stock up their supplies before heading out to the valley. We had some coffee and sweets at a local cafe while our guide went to get fresh bread. After more driving into a Berber village, we carried our supplies and walked down towards the river (photo, walking down), through the village. We set up a nice picnic of bread, tuna fish, goat cheese, olive oil and two kinds of olives, sweet pepper, purple onions, crisp cucumber and ripe tomato. What a treat. Back to the road, into the Gorge, not only we saw bus load of tourists, a few brave climbers hanging hundreds of feet above us, but also the local Berber families picnicking on the bank of the creeks enjoying their Sunday afternoon. We reached our hotel in a Berber village of Tamtattouchte (photo, at Baddou Auberge), not far from the gorge. The rooms were cold so gas burners were brought into the charmingly decorated room. It was not even 4pm yet, so without the internet, everyone was doing their walk into the village, sipping tea or beers with olives, or shopping at the tiny gift shop run by the German lady who made jewelry herself. A big RV group came in with one driver collapsed at his seat, a Brit living in France. Our group member Susan, a retired LPN, was immediately brought to help. The patient was then sent away to hospital 20 miles away. We were all very proud that we saved a life along the way. We started dinner with tajine with rice, strangely delicious. In the evening, the local folks who were stonesmiths and laborers by day, came in to jam together with the lotar, drums and Richard chimed in. First the lotar master was tight, but with Richard’s delicate gesture, he gradually opened up and start leaving spaces in his melodies and let Richard's flute come in and then they played together. Looking at his silhouetted face softening and becaming joyful (photo, lotar guy), it almost brought tears to Barbara’s eyes.

The fourth day saw us driving toward Sahara, first passing the town of Tinghir, where we picked more fresh bread and cheese, and one member picked her first Jellaba. On our way we stopped to picnic, and gave the leftovers to a family working in the nearby field. We continued past the Gorges of Todra till we reached Merzouga Erg Chebbi, the dunes. Barbara checked email for the last time and kissed her computer goodbye. We got onto our camels led by two handsome local herdsmen. Barbara’s camel is a small guy named Arulou, with the most beautiful white front toes, long lashes over light pretty eyes. She immediately fell in love. Riding toward the deep Sahara, we formed a single file like a caravan, with long shadows on the sand dune (photo, on mounts). After riding for some time we climbed up a prominent dune to watch the sunset (photo, dunes), a long time dream came true. As one fellow traveler said: one of the bucket list item checked. When we reached our camp, the tents were up and tea was ready, dinner is being cooked, we enjoyed a hot meal, right in the middle of the desert and slept under the dark blue dome full of stars, so many stars, one could not tell the Milky Way.

On our fifth day, waking up in the tent and climbing back up the sand dune barefoot, the icy cold sand turned our feet into icicles. One couple celebrated their 27th anniversary with a heart carved on the sand. None of us can think of a better place for the celebration. We enjoyed hot coffee, milk, tea with bread, jam, olive, cheese and fruits. Back to our camels, Barbara saved her apple for Arulou and he seemed enjoying it quite well. He has the prettiest white camel toes (photo, Arulou). Our camels were all tied each to the one in front. Richard’s camel got sneaky and got the line out of his mouth so he was loose from the camel ahead of him. He yelled out, not Oh Crap, or Help, but a rather calm, "I say!" The herdsman ran back to retie the camel and everyone kept repeating his "I Say" and laughed so hard Barbara was almost falling off her camel. The ride back to civilization seemed to be a lot faster than the day before when we walked away from our belongings other than a backpack with overnight supply. The riad where we stored our luggage as the base was gracious to let us use their showers to clean up the sand all over us. We headed back to Rissani (photo, gate), to get fresh bread and a piping hot roasted chicken. We enjoyed lunch outside a Berber village, while all village kids gathered around us watching, not much for our food, though they welcomed the leftovers, but more curiosity over these white and Asian women without veils biting into sandwiches. We arrived at dusk to an ancient village and stayed at a 450-year-old Kasbah surrounded by palm groves and wheat fields. We went to have tea with the host family in their living room. To show their hospitality they turned on their color TV and invited us to watch the Arabic language news reported by Aljazira, offered the dates grown outside their Kasbah and sweet waffles. We had some wonderful fresh salad and a nice lamb tajine with prunes and olives, cooked by a young father. After dinner, a few of us sat together, Barbara reciting Chinese poems, our guide offering seven poems from the Koran in Arabic with a beautiful writing, and Richard playing flute spontaneously, improvising and accompanying our mood. A truly magic evening!

We decided on day six, we had our first cooking lesson right at the Berber kitchen, learning how to do Berber bread from a local girl named Zara in her early 20s. A virgin who still needs someone to accompany her when she is out of her house, she received us in her small and dark kitchen, sifted flour into a clay basin, added yeast and salt and hot water, started mixing and pounding the flour dough, all the while kneeling down on the floor. The dough needs a couple of hours to rise, then our group took turns to push each small dough into a cake, on the back of the basin, then into the mud oven, with a metal plate halfway raised inside. Zahra used dry palm leaves to heat the oven thoroughly, stick one of our products into the oven, we watched it rising as a balloon, out came the fresh breads, one of them kneaded by Barbara (photo, my bread). Yummy! We took our fresh bake on the road for the last picnic lunch, with eggs, fresh vegetables, cheese and olive. The bread was our cutting board, the presenting plate and our food. At the end of the lunch, when some of us want to dispose the leftover bread, as no villagers nearby to be given, our guide and driver picked them up and let us know what bread to them, unlike vegetable and fruit, which comes from nature and can be back to nature, but a gift from Allah, which should be cherished and treasured, never to be tossed easily. This got Barbara’s enormous respect, as an old Chinese saying has it: Disrespect of the Almighty sent food is a crime that will be punished by Almighty, without you knowing it. In the afternoon, we visited Ait Benhaddou Kasbah, an 11th Century Caravanserai used to film Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. The Egyptian looking towers also provided ample spaces for storks to build their nest and nurse their young. It was also an observation and communication tower that can pass the information to the towers on both sides, a few miles away, with drums. We stayed at the family-run riad in the area. Our dinner at the tastefully decorated banquet room (photo, tasteful!) was interrupted by a group of young Polish bikers who will use the riad as a dorm-like stop to refuel. We gave our leftover tajine to them and talked a bit of politics with one of the guys who had visited the US.

Last day on the road is to go through another smaller but equally interesting Kasbah, Glaoui Kasbah. Though not as old as some of the others we have seen, its second floor receiving courts would certainly blow anyone’s mind away, with materials from Fez, over 300 artisans’ craft work, it is a wonder of design, color, including a five-colored mosaic reflecting the five pillars of Islam (photo, mosaic). Its beauty has far passed Barbara’s describing ability. We can only admire it with our eyes and hearts. We arrived into Marrakech by late afternoon, stopped at the city’s biggest supermarket to stock up some supplies and check into our lovely Spartan riad inside the maze-like Medina, our home for the next five days. We freshened up and went out to the Jammel El Fna, the center square with hundreds of food stalls, surrounded by merchants of all sorts, potion sellers, storytellers, performers and beggars. We had some delicious brochettes at the food stall and enjoyed some tender coconut cookies.

First day in Marrakech, Richard took his first hammam with our guide, and went to get train tickets for our next trip. We then got back to the riad, gathered two more members of the group to start our walking tour north. We first visited the Ben Youssef Medersa (photo, archway), an old Koran school with beautiful courtyard (photo, courtyard), surrounded by intricate carvings in the typical Arabic eternal designs, student quarters with windows facing the courtyard. It is hard to imagine that 900 students were studying centuries ago. The Koubba Ba’adiyn nearby is mysterious and oddly beautiful, since it is older than everything else around it and has no written history about it. The Museum of Marrakech is a graceful palace, with several small displays arranged in a spectacular building, whose courtyard was converted into a covered hall, with a water fountain in the middle, piped soothing music playing. It was more like a sanctuary than a museum. We stayed in the room for a long time to soak in the atmosphere (photo, main hall). Finding the way back to the riad was quite a challenge. Since all souqs are now open and every souq's keeper (there are A LOT of them) wants our business, we got lost in the maze of the souqs and ended up circling around the same nicely decorated, well attended Mouassine Mosque two times, til some of the souq owners recognized us as old friends. After about 2 hours, we were finally out of the maze and ended up at Haj Mustapha for some especially delicious lamb tajine. Everyone was exhausted when we made it back to the riad.

Second day saw us going down south to Mellah district, an old Jewish neighborhood with their spice market (photo, spices). We reached the old synagogue but the day was Shabbat. One of our members tried to disguise as a Jew, but the boys at the gate did not want to have it. They asked her to speak a few Hebrew words, so we had to press on. The first stop was Bahia Palace, the grand palace, where we ran into another member of our group touring the city on her own. The palace was full of the similar wonder we saw in Glaoui Kasbah, but with a lot more tourists. Then we all split, Richard and Barbara went through a secret door to Saadian Tombs, which is stunningly beautiful with unique mosaic inlaid in a way that we had not seen anywhere else (photo, tile with finger). We continued to walk to the ruin of the Badi Palace, one of Barbara’s favorite places in Marrakech, with broken walls, and stork nests on top of them (photo, nest). One nice feature that made Barbara really appreciate the place, on top of the fact that she has seen some very fabulous palaces, was the detailed English explanation of each pavilion. Language has this ability that enables one’s imagination to the eternity. In her mind, this palace becomes alive. We continued to Dar Si Said, once a palace highlighting Marrakech’s riad architecture and superb craftsmanship, now a fine museum showcasing the Moroccan arts in chronological order from 11th century. We rushed back to our riad to attend our second cooking class of making a chicken and vegetable tajine, and a couple of unusual and wonderful Moroccan salads, one with onion and tomato, one with just zucchini and parsley. We drank wine and chatted into the night (photo, cooking).

The next morning saw us up early for an excursion to Essaouira, a seaside resort town mostly for city folks of Marrakech and Casablanca, with a Medina, fortress and stalls of fishmongers. On the way, we saw the goats on the argan trees (photo, goats), stopped at a women’s cooperative to learn how the nuts were processed into gourmet food and cosmetic products and got some for ourselves. Hundreds of blue fishing boats crowded the port due to the strong wind (photo, boats), which made the surfers very happy. We walked around the fortress, shopped at the Medina, where Richard got his castanets and a fishskin-head clay drum and we had a delicious seafood feast at the dock restaurant pointing all the fresh catch of the day as our lunch. Back to Marrakech, Barbara and her friend Jane went to a semi-private hammam, got scrubbed and argan oil massaged, a perfect relaxation and sisterhood bonding.

Fifth day in Marrakech featured a visit to the Majorelle Garden (photo, garden) donated by Yves Saint Laurent. The garden gathered hundreds of non-indigenous plants and trees and made an oasis right in the middle of dusty, bustling Marrakech. Everything was well cared for as we could see there is a worker every few yards. The Berber culture museum inside the garden was best lit in all museums we have been in Morocco, well illustrated with a modern design twist. The multimedia interaction was a very nice touch. We then got out of town to Ourika Valley which is about an hour away. A beautiful escape for Marrakech folks to enjoy a piece of quietness, magnificent scenery right against the high Atlas snow capped mountains. We visited the local pottery kiln/workshop and saw the master working on the pottery wheel. Barbara bought one of his finished tajine sets and plans to use it back home for cooking. We stopped at another argan oil co-op and bought some oil from the ladies. Lunch was at the end of the road. The tables were right next to the river with almond trees and apricot trees blooming. We got back on time for our last cooking lesson to make couscous. A local lady and her daughter who is the riad caretaker demonstrated the process and we enjoyed a wonderful meal as the perfect official ending of our trip.

Last day in Morocco is departure preparation. One of the members left at noon and the rest are hanging around til our evening overnight train to Tangier. Richard and Barbara visited the Tiskiwin Museum (photo, courtyard), donated by Dutch Anthropologist Bert Flint in the gorgeous mansion. Each room represented a caravan stop from Sahara to Marrakech, focusing more on sub-Sahara culture south of the desert all the way to Timbuktu. We had the privilege of meeting Mr. Flint himself who lives in Marrakech full time and his nephew from Amsterdam who came two or three times a year to help out. The Marrakech school district just started to arrange school tours with the museum as Mr. Flint the enthusiastic docent in Arabic. We had leftover couscous for dinner, which tasted better the next day and head out to our train station for the overnight ride to Tangier. Our exotic and exciting Moroccan trip comes to an end.