Morocco 2022 Beautiful, Exotic, Enchanting
Many people associate Morocco with the movie Casablanca and Rick’s Café, but there is so much more to this exotic destination.
Morocco, officially the Kingdom of Morocco, is the westernmost country in the Maghreb region of North Africa. To the north lies the Mediterranean Sea and the Rock of Gibraltar, a stone’s throw away. To the west is the Atlantic Ocean, and to the east, the country of Algeria. To the south stretches the mighty Western Sahara Desert. Morocco was once a colony of France, so is more sophisticated than other destinations.
I decided I would visit Morocco after hearing numerous enchanting tales from my sister who worked there for a year. The trick to this tour for me would be fitting it in with a trip to France for the Christmas holidays with my family.
In my early days, I would never think of booking a tour as I was more inclined to set my own agenda. The older I get; the more appealing organized tours have become. The thought is, see it all, and then go back on my own to the destinations of interest. On the Go Tours had the right tour, at the right time, and at the right price. I had toured with them in the past, so this was an easy decision.
I flew out of Denver, laid over in Detroit, and continued to Paris where I was greeted by my sister and brother-in-law. Spending two days with them before my adventure, I was able to get over my jetlag and drop off two Christmas gift-ladened suitcases. I would strongly suggest this to anyone crossing multiple time zones.
I arrived in Marrakech a day prior to the beginning of the tour and the rest of my soon-to-be travel companions’ arrival. I had learned an important lesson years ago on a trek to Kilimanjaro where I missed my connecting flight due to weather over the Atlantic. I was a day late coming in and had to catch up to my trekking team. Never again.
Jamal, the tour guide, and Mojave, the driver, picked me up at the airport and took me to the hotel, which was just minutes from the airport. Nice, clean accommodations, and just a forty-minute walk to the medina (old section of town). I was traveling light, so the unpacking was a breeze, and I took off for the souk (market) to do a bit of exploring on my own. The walk took me past open plots of land to my left and buildings under construction to my right. Being winter, the heat wasn’t an issue, but the region had been in a drought and there was a lack of vegetation in the rock- and-sand-swathed vacant lots.
The walls of the ancient city appeared and indicated that I was approaching the medina, the oldest section of town. Two arched gates, side by side, allowed traffic in and out, flowing in a muddled, yet orderly way. The small cars, mostly Toyotas, were busy zipping about. There were donkey-pulled carts, street vendors of all types, and even a KFC. The mixture of the cultures, old and new, was a sight. Wafts of kabobs roasting over open flames, fresh breads, car exhaust, and animal droppings assaulted my senses. Scooters were ripping by, tooting their horns; a donkey would bay; calls from the vendors came from every direction. Everyday life in the medina.
I finally reached the souk (thank you, Google Maps), and found an ATM. You can only withdraw up to 2,000 Moroccan dirham (about $200) per day, but money changers are abundant. The old market lies at the foot of the Koutoubia Mosque, the oldest mosque in Marrakesh, construction completed in 1157 AD.
Since I arrived early in the day, prior to 10:00 AM, the market was just coming to life. There is a large plaza area called Jemaa el Fna, where you will encounter snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, monkeys to be placed on your shoulders for photos, and other purveyors of mayhem and mischief. They are eager to take advantage of the starry-eyed tourist and will approach you, even pulling your arm, to lead you to their turf where they have set up shop. And this is how I wound up getting photos with the snake charmer and a henna tattoo of a scorpion on my left hand. They do understand that if they catch you first you are not prepared for haggling, which is the lifestyle here, and you might overpay for their services, which I did.
Once you enter the souk, you realize that you are in a massive labyrinth of very narrow streets, some just a few feet wide. Shops of all types are jammed together and divided into sectors such as leather goods, copper items, textiles, and carpets. The merchants will call out to you to enter their stores; the most common tactic to engage you is to ask, “Where are you from?” If you are not interested in the product or shopping in general, just ignore them. You are not hurting anyone’s feelings in doing so. Cats are everywhere. They are well fed and welcomed as they keep the rodent population in check. Dogs, on the other hand, are also abundant, but not allowed into homes. They live on the street and despite this, are not malnourished.
I spent a few hours wandering through the souk and then headed back to the hotel, another long walk, but very doable and plenty of time to absorb all the fantastic sights of the day.
The following day my travel companions began to trickle in. There would be nine of us in total, me being the only American. The majority were from the UK, two from Canada, one from Hong Kong and one from India. An interesting hodgepodge which would make for a whimsical journey. This is one of the things I like about On the Go Tours, you can opt for small tours.
Our adventure would begin the following day.
Our first tour day started with a quick ride over to the Majorelle Gardens. Jacques Majorelle was a French orientalist painter. He first visited Morocco in 1917 and on a subsequent return trip in 1923, he made the decision to live there. He purchased a palm grove and had his studio built there, complete with a vast garden of exotic plants he had collected from around the world. The prominent color in the compound is “Majorelle Blue”, a color which he created.
In 1962, Majorelle passed, and the compound fell into ruin. In 1980, Pierre Berge’ and his life-partner Yves Saint Laurent, the fashion designer, acquired the estate and restored it to its present-day splendor. When YSL died, Berge’ donated it to the Foundation Jardin Majorelle. This site is well worth the visit.
Also at the site is a museum dedicated to the Berber culture, a bookstore, and a boutique. You might want to skip this as time is limited and the garden is fabulous. Our tour guide got us a group pass and we were able to skip the long line into the gardens.
After the gardens, we met up with a local tour guide for a walking tour of the area surrounding the marketplace. There were plenty of exotic things to see and his quirky antidotes made the tour enjoyable and informative.
The marketplace transforms at night. In the once-open space, there are now rows and rows of stalls featuring exotic dishes, clothing, and other wares. The Moroccan soccer team had made it into the World Cup quarterfinals, so there was an air of excitement throughout.
Dinner later that night was at an upscale restaurant, which beyond the savory food, had belly dancers and musicians for entertainment. This was our first chance to try tagine as the main course. We were offered four types: vegetarian, lamb, chicken, and beef. The meat is cooked in an earthenware claypot along with vegetables, rice, and couscous. Tagine dishes are fabulous and would become a staple of our trip.
Our third day was our first venture out of Marrakech. Our tour bus, which was a comfortable 14-seater, was packed with all our gear and we departed for our destination, Ouarzazate. The drive would take us over the High Atlas Mountains though the Tizi n Tichka Pass, the highest pass in Morocco. The views were fabulous, and we stopped a couple times for photo ops. The descent of the mountains brought us to our first stop of the day, Ait Benhaddou, an ancient, fortified Kasbah. This location is protected by UNESCO and is well preserved. It has been used in many movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones, and Gladiator.
The Kasbah is located atop a prominent hill which overlooks the three intersecting valleys below. The mud and clay bricked structures have well stood the test of time. The coolness of the interior gave a nice reprieve from the now beating-down sun. Across the river from the Kasbah is the city of Ait Benhaddou, where the locals live. We stopped there briefly and then departed for Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood of North Africa."
A tour of the Atlas Studios was an option, which I am glad I took. It wasn’t expensive at all, eight dollars, and lasted about an hour. The many sets have been used repeatedly in different movies. It was so interesting to see the detail of the set which could place you in the interior of a pyramid, a street in Jerusalem, or even the prison from Gladiator. The facades were made of fiberglass and paper mâché. The backsides were supported by wooden frames and trusses. When a movie production company wishes to use the studios, they can either build their own set which will later be sold to the studio at a deep discount or rent a previous set.
That evening we arrived at our hotel where a local astronomer took us out to get a preview of the stars, we were going to see the following night. He had a powerful telescope and vast knowledge of the skies. As the evening progressed, we watched in awe as the moon in all its splendor rose over the distant hills in just a matter of minutes.
Day four was a bit of a drive, but there were plenty of sights to see.
We stopped at Todra Gorge, known as the “Grand Canyon of Morocco.” The towering walls of this canyon can reach the height of 1,000 feet and from your view at the bottom looking up, you can witness professional climbers, the walls changing color as the sun moves, and listen to the cool river fed by the Atlas Mountain springs, which flows beside you. The walk is not long, but it is impressive.
Prior to arriving at our destination for the night, Merzhouga, we stopped at a roadside shop to purchase our desert essential gear, sheshes (headscarves), and djellabas (robes). Everybody bought something.
When we arrived at Merzhouga, the day was getting short. We had just enough time to unload our day packs and meet our guides who would take us to our remote Berber camp in the Sahara. Our party was divided into two groups, six and three, each with a guide who would lead our camel trains on foot to our destination.
Riding a camel is different than riding a horse. The camel is wider, there are no stirrups, and you mount and dismount the
camel while it is belly down on the sand. When the camel stands, it raises its rear first which results in a steep stance which throws you forward. It then rises on its front legs which throws you back; if you are not paying attention, you could be in trouble. I mentioned there are no stirrups, so you are balancing yourself on the beast. They are calm animals and comical to look at. Their walking motion can be described as riding in a car with four square wheels. It does take some getting used to. We had one tour member who opted for a ride in a vehicle instead of a camel.
I am taking a guess here, but we probably traveled seven or so miles into the desert before we stopped and dismounted to watch the sun set over the highest dunes in the Erg Chebbi, the tallest being 500 feet. Depending on the location of the sun, the sand changes color and at this point, it was turning bright orange. Simply stunning. We remounted and continued our way, reaching camp in thirty or so minutes.
Our camp was quite impressive. It consisted of a red-carpeted runner the length of the camp with ten tents on each side. A master tent where the meal would be served was pitched at the end of the runner. Each tent contained a real bed with plenty of blankets. Two tents were set up as latrines with multiple toilets and cold showers. The greeters served us hot mint tea and we toasted reaching our destination.
After dinner, we met with the astronomer from the previous night. He had a sophisticated telescope set up and gave us a tour of the heavens. As the Berbers played music around the fire, we saw the rings around Saturn; the colored bands of Jupiter; nebulas; Andromeda, the closest galaxy to ours; and many other sights. At this time of the year, there is a meteor shower called the Geminids Shower, which emanates from the Gemini constellation. It is considered a “rock shower.” We witnessed shooting star after shooting star. The absence of any light pollution made the night sky even more impressive.
We were up early, predawn, to make our way back by camel to our tour bus. There was so much ambient light reflecting off the sand, flashlights were not required. We did stop to see the sunrise over the dunes. Another impressive sight.
Our next destination would be the city of Fes. This was a long drive, but as always, there was something to see. We had to cross the Moyen Atlas Mountains and the road ran through a national forest. There we stopped and fed a troop of Barbary Macaque monkeys. This was quite comical as they would grab your pant leg and tug on it until you gave them a peanut which was supplied by a local merchant.
Further down the road, we witnessed the nomadic Berbers traveling across the mountains. They camp in caves or makeshift homes. This portion of the drive had dogs lining the highway. I’ve never seen so many in one place. They were fed by drivers tossing them scraps as they drove by. The dogs belong to the nomads who use them to protect their flocks of chickens and goats. There was no real breed of dog, they all looked similar except for their markings. They were medium-sized, short haired, long tailed.
We drove through a village named Ifrane. It resembles a Swiss village. The homes are all white with red tiled roofs. The elevation is high, so the Moroccan athletes train here, and Europeans live here en masse. Cool summers, cold winter with snow.
At the end of a long day of driving, we made it to our destination, Fes.
Fes is known as the oldest medieval city in the world, founded in the 9th century, about the time the Muslims arrived.
We spent our day touring the medina which is comprised of over 9,400 narrow alleys and streets, some so narrow you must turn sideways to make your way though. We explored a tannery where we watched the workers in charge of dying the leather wade up to their waists in pools of dye and soak the leather. They had a large selection of leather goods in their shop, and they could make you a leather coat while you waited. A carpet factory was on the agenda and a couple of the group bought beautiful examples. We also visited a ceramic factory where I purchased a tagine cooking pot which should be arriving in Colorado about the time I get home.
It was raining like crazy the two days we were in Fes, which made touring difficult, but you know what, these people needed that rain, so I couldn’t complain.
Our journey today would take us to Rabat, the capital, located on the Atlantic Ocean. Along the way we stopped at Volubilis, a village of Roman ruins dating back to 40 AD. What a picturesque location! It is easy to understand why it was built where it was. Excavation started on this site in the early 1900s. Most of the columns and stone blocks were hauled away and used by the Muslims to build a mosque in Rabat centuries ago.
I found Rabat to be most impressive. It was immaculate and organized. The King was visiting so there was a lot of activity going on. The night we arrived; we had seafood on a large wooden ship moored in the harbor. A memorable meal, indeed. The next morning, we had the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace, exterior only, and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. This was a quick stopover as our tour was winding down.
Our next stop would be Casablanca and then on to Marrakech, and then home.
As I mentioned, many people associate Rick’s Café with Morocco. We could not pass up stopping at Rick’s for a photo at the entry. What many people don’t realize is that the movie Casablanca was filmed on a set in Hollywood and Rick’s Café in Casablanca is nothing more than a modern and expensive restaurant named such. Still, it is a reason to stop for a photo!
The only mosque to allow tours in Morocco is the Hasan II Mosque. It is massive. Worshipers can number up to 35,000 in the interior and 85,000 outside. It cost $880,000,000 to build and was constructed in six years, completed in 1993. The cedar ceiling can open and reveal the sky.
It is the largest mosque in Africa and, depending on who you talk to, either the 3rd or 7th largest mosque in the world. The minaret is 60 stories high.
Well, all good things must come to an end, and we made our way back to Marrakech to prepare for our departure the next day.
I was fortunate to have such marvelous traveling companions, a superb tour guide, and the time for this journey. There are more adventures in my future, but this one will be hard to beat.
Things to know before you go.
1) Be prepared to haggle with the vendors. Prices are not marked in most locations. You should only pay about 25% of what they ask. These folks are pros, and it is probably best to be accompanied by a companion on your shopping spree. Once a deal is struck, you are obligated to buy.
2) There are “guides” in the souk (market) who will lead you to a shop which they represent. Of course, they get a percent of the sale and will ask you for money also. Just ignore these people when they approach you.
3) Keep small bills in one pocket and larger in another. You never pull out a wad of big bills, ever.
4) Most legitimate shops will accept credit cards. Be wary of them overcharging you. Always review the bill prior to signing.
5) Tipping at restaurants is not expected but appreciated greatly. 5 – 10% max.
6) Tip your guides. I always tip the guide and driver in advance, generously. Your call.
7) Don’t drink the water. It is heavily fluorinated, but you can still get the bug. Bottled water is offered everywhere. I drink sparkling so I know that when it is opened at the table it is not tap water.
8) Most people who deal with tourists speak French and English. Arabic and Berber are the national languages.
9) Taxis can be a rip-off. Only use metered cabs and make sure the meter is running. If nonmetered is your only option, negotiate the price before you depart.
10) If you are off on your own and dining, be wary of the meal of the day, which may be over charged once you finish. Always verify the price of the meal prior to ordering if you are in a non-tourist-oriented restaurant.
11) The food is extraordinary. Try it all.
12) Crossing the street might seem like the video game “Frogger.” I found it easier to watch the locals and cross with them.
13) Be prepared to spend a long time in the passport check point at the Moroccan airport. Get there in plenty of time to catch your flight. Your passport will be checked often at the airport so do not put it out of reach.
14) You are discouraged from taking any Moroccan cash out of the country. They do not check, however.
15) Do buy travel insurance. I have never had to use it, but it is a comfort to have in case things go poorly.
16) Have an extra passport sized photo available in case you lose your passport. I carry a laminated copy of my photo page when I travel.
17) Always have an extra ATM card with you. ATMs have been known to eat cards or hold them until the next day.
Enjoy your trip. I have traveled several times with On the Go Tours. I find them to be on top of things if there is an issue. They do communicate well.
Ciao! Or in this case, wadaa.