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Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

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Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Hello everyone!

My husband and I were in Morocco for 2 weeks in mid May. We are a couple in our mid 30s from New York, who love to travel independently. We've traveled to Egypt and Jordan (amongst the Middle East/Northern African countries) and to Rwanda/Tanzania in sub-Saharan Africa, so have some experience in the region.

I do write detailed trip reports for our pictorial travelog, so please let me know if there's interest on this board for these details, and I'll post them. If not, I'll just post a link to the pictures when they're available.

Here's a high level overview of our trip, so you know what to expect.

The beginnings of a trip:

I have been dreaming of Morocco for several years now. Even while growing up in India, Morocco sounded so exotic and mysterious! When some colleagues in my first job out of college traveled to Casablanca for work, I was insanely jealous. I think I put together my first travel plans for Morocco in 2009, but in the years since, we ended up traveling to other far off lands for a variety of reasons. So, this year, I was determined to finally get Morocco back on our radar and started the pre-trip research/planning back in January for a trip in May. I counted on Ajit and I getting 2 weeks off from work and built a plan around it – I knew I wanted to spend more time in Fes than Marrakech, make a detour into Chefchaouen (something about this town nestled in the Rif mountains captured my imagination), spend a day or two on the coast in Essaouira and fill the days in between driving from Fes to Marrakech through the Middle and High Atlas mountains. I wasn’t surprised when Ajit nixed the self drive idea in less than a second, even before I finished my sentence (winding mountain roads and the automatic vs. stick issue were deal breakers, especially since I get extremely car sick). So now, I had to go find us a car/driver for this portion of the trip. I knew we had 5 days to work with and didn’t want to just be driven from point A to B every day. I had done enough reading to know that the landscapes in Morocco were varied with lots of possibilities for easy walks/hikes that would allow us to get out and smell the roses (literally!). I also wanted to spend a night in the desert, set aside time to hit a local market and try and have some meaningful interactions with the locals (we’ve done homestays in Asia, but that was going to be unlikely on this trip). These parameters figured out, I contacted a few local agencies and asked them to come up with a plan for the 5 days. Work was extremely busy during these weeks, so I really didn’t have much time to negotiate an itinerary with each one of them. Journey Beyond Travel was one of two that actually responded with a plan that most closely matched what I had asked for. They were able to fit in a hike each day with local guides that I was very excited about. They also had us spending a day in the Ziz valley, visiting the guide’s home and having lunch with them, which I appreciated. I also wanted to break up the trip from Merzouga to Marrakech with nights at the Todra Gorge and Skoura, instead of Boumalne Dades and Ouarzazate which is on most itineraries, and wanted to detour to the Telouet Kasbah on the way to Marrakech, all of which they were able to do. Thomas, the owner of JBT, was easy to work with, and while his responses sometimes took a few days, I was never concerned. In the end, this is what our plan looked like. Oh, and once we confirmed travel dates at work, we booked direct flights from JFK to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc, leaving May 10 and returning May 26.

Day 1 – Arrive Casablanca early AM, take the train to Fes

Days 2, 3 – Fes

Days 4, 5 - Chefchaouen (by bus)

Day 6 – Fes

Day 7 – First day of drive with car/driver, walk in Azrou, o/n in Erfoud

Day 8 – Day in Ziz Valley, o/n in the desert

Day 9 – Sunday market in Rissani, hike in Todra Gorge, o/n at the gorge

Day 10 – Hike in Dades Valley, o/n in Skoura

Day 11 – Walk in Skoura, drive to Marrakech via Ait Benhaddou and Telouet Kasbahs

Days 12, 13 – Marrakech

Days 14, 15 – Essaouira (by bus)

Day 16 – Fly back to JFK via Casablanca

For hotels, we prefer small, intimate, family run places whenever possible, in the budget to moderate price range. I found the absolutely charming Dar Seffarine in Fes and was lucky to get the dates we wanted. One of the benefits to traveling in the shoulder season. For Chefchaouen, I booked Casa la Palma, run by a Spanish couple. JBT suggested a hotel in Erfoud which was fine since I couldn’t find anything nicer. Auberge le Festival in the Todra Gorge looked lovely and I asked Thomas to book us there (note that JBT will book the entire trip including hotels, so I couldn’t book the hotels myself for those 5 days). For Skoura, Thomas highly recommended Les Jardins de Skoura, and while it was more expensive than we typically like to spend, I went with his choice. There is no dearth of riads/dars in the Marrakech medina, which made it harder, but the description of Riad Magellan in the LP sealed the deal for me…well, that and the nice off season discount that the owner Phillipe gave us. For Essaouira, I picked the more budget friendly option of Les Matins Bleus. Only Riad Magellan required a deposit (paid with a CC), while some of the others just required a CC on file. JBT required an initial deposit as well, with the rest to be paid a month before the trip.

Everything was in place and the anticipation of winding medinas, busy souks, kasbahs, tagines and desert dunes kept me going through the crazy times at work…until Ajit got laid off from work in late February. What!!! Moment of panic…actually, there were several days of panic, with the trip being the least of our worries. I didn’t cancel the trip, knowing we would both need a break, whether he found another job by then or not. But, that’s easier said than done, given all the possibilities and the fact that I had purchased trip interruption insurance but not cancellation. Anyway, long story short, Ajit was able to find another job in late April and start right away, and his new group was really nice to let him take the 2 weeks off so soon. Phew! Of course, with all the uncertainty over the last couple of months prior to the trip, there was very little excitement leading up it…mostly just exhaustion. Throw in a last minute work trip to Atlanta for me getting back the night before our trip, and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go on the trip anymore. Luckily, that thought quickly evaporated as we lugged our bags to JFK and boarded the flight.

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21. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Hi your detail is extraordinary thank you for sharing. I am planning on going to Morocco in December as my family are going to France for Christmas. I wonder if you would mind sending me the details of the tour company you used. Any other details you have including hotels etc would be greatly appreciated.

I am travelling on my own probably, any other details or tips would be fantastic. Thank you.

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22. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Thanks everyone for the feedback! Glad you're enjoying the report. I'll have more soon. :-)

Padma - I never felt unsafe anywhere, but then I was with my husband. Fes, Marrakech and Essaouira are certainly safe for women traveling alone in my opinion. Everyone's perception of safety is different though, and it depends on your level of comfort, prior travels and experiences, how aware you are of your surroundings etc. I would recommend that you read trip reports of other women who have traveled alone and seek their opinion. If you're traveling with a car/driver, do use a reliable and well recommended company. Hope this helps.

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23. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Thanks Frances. We used Journey Beyond Travel for the 5 day trip from Fes to Marrakech. The rest we planned and did on our own. I highly recommend JBT - they're on the expensive side but very competent and reliable. There are other companies recommended here as well that you can look into. All the hotels we used are mentioned in my report - check out the first couple of posts.

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24. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Sunday market in Rissani and wonderful hikes through stunning gorges and kasbahs:

It’s almost 6 when I open my eyes and I quickly wake Ajit up so we can take in the sunrise over the dunes. It is very chilly, so the warmth of the rising sun feels good. The shifting sands have covered all our footsteps from the evening before. We walk around for about an hour before we head back on our camels. Back at the hotel, we expect to use the pool showers to freshen up. But, the hotel staff are really nice and offer us a free room instead. Oh yes! A hot shower feels so good and refreshing this morning. The rooms here are much nicer and tasteful than in Erfoud. Breakfast is basic, similar to the morning before. Hamid arrives at 9:30 and we set off for Rissani. Our plan is to visit the Sunday souks, but first, Hamid takes us to his mother’s house where he’s spent the last couple of nights. Their family used to live within the ksar, but were the first family to move and build a more modern house outside. It’s a nice, 2 level home and we meet his mother, sister and nephew. We have tea and a plate of sugary, sticky sweets, and sit around talking (to Hamid mostly due to language issues). He turns on the Zee Aflam channel on TV that shows Bollywood hits dubbed in Arabic all day long. The songs are not dubbed however, which is why so many Moroccans are familiar with Hindi movie tunes. We only stay a short while, but it is really sweet of Hamid to bring us to see his family.

Leaving here, we drive to the Rissani souk, which has a busy market thrice a week, when Berbers, Arabs and wandering nomad traders come together to buy and sell their wares. The parking area has tethered donkeys instead of cars. We’re here on a Sunday morning around 11 and walk with Hamid to the cattle and sheep markets first. The cattle market is quiet, but the sheep/goat market is very active with a constant flow of people bringing their animals into the market, examining them and negotiating prices. We then go to the main covered market that sells everything from produce to meat to clothes to household items to window grills/doors. They sell coffee made with date seeds which is interesting, and we get conned into buying amber at the spice souk. Hamid is not very happy with how we handle the amber transaction and gives us a lecture on bargaining afterwards.

From here, it's a 3 hour drive to the Todra (or Todgha) Gorge through arid flatland flanked by the High and Anti Atlas mountains. Along the way, we stop at one of the ancient well systems and walk through the underground canals. We don't halt for lunch until we are at the gorge around 3; we are famished by this time so don't really care where we're eating. The place we stop at has a set menu for 120 MAD, which is expensive - we get kefta brochettes and a fruit plate and eat on the terrace. We then drive through the mouth of the gorge, which is very narrow, with the sheer canyon walls going straight up on either side. It's a very busy area though with several rock climbers, souvenir sellers and families picnicking by the shallow river on a Sunday afternoon. We drive on for another 3 miles to the Auberge le Festival, our home for the night. We check in and meet Youssef, who works at the auberge and is our guide for the hike this afternoon. Over tea, we discuss where we want to hike and how far we want to go. One option is to hike in the valley, but we've already walked in the Ziz valley and will be hiking in the Dades valley tomorrow. So, we nix this idea and decide to hike up the gorge instead. I have canvas shoes on so I'm worried about not having enough grip with all the loose rock, but Youssef assures me that it will not be a problem.

We start at 5 and begin hiking up the gorge across from the auberge. We go up almost 3/4ths of the way, passing shelters built by nomads. The gorge is not as steep here, but the textures of the rock face are striking as are the colors. We hear faint drum sounds coming from the auberge, so Youssef yells out to Abdul who starts drumming even louder, the sound reverberating through the canyon and bouncing off the rock walls. Fantastic. Rosemary, lavender, thyme and sage grow wild all along the slopes. Youssef is a 20 year old kid who grew up in a village about 80 kms away. His mother still lives there, his father passed away a few years ago. He's only started working at the auberge recently and taught himself English, Spanish and German so he could be a guide. He's super friendly and a nice guy. For the next 2.5 hours, we follow him as we wind our way down and up through the gorge and make a circular route back to the auberge. It's been a fun hike in pleasant weather and we are so glad we did this.

The auberge is like a stone castle built against the gorge, while our ensuite cave room is built into the rock (we had a similar room in Santorini several years ago). It's charming, cozy, naturally air-conditioned and nicely decorated. There is also an open shared terrace facing the gorge. After a shower, we go up to the main lobby where dinner awaits us. There's harira, moussaka tagine (a Moroccan take on the classic Greek dish) that is oh so good in spite of its corny name, and chocolate mousse for dessert, along with red wine from Meknes. Youssef and Abdul play drums and sing Berber songs, really well I might add and enthusiastically. Besides us, there is only the owner or manager (we think) and his wife with their year old daughter, who entertains us all with her dancing. It's a lovely evening and the auberge quickly becomes our second favorite hotel of this trip - it's small, casual, friendly and intimate. After dinner, we sit out on the terrace for some time surrounded by the moonlit gorge and stars up above, before calling it a night.

We wake up to blue skies and and another warm morning. We are only leaving at 10, so are able to have a relaxed breakfast. It's the usual spread and an omelette and we eat it outdoors while we soak in the sun. The auberge is an eco friendly hotel, using solar power, local materials and vegetables and herbs from its own garden. An old sheep dog sits in the corner enjoying the sun as well - he used to live with nomads, but ever since he got too old to move around with them, he has been living here. On our way to Boumalne Dades, we pass by palmeraies and Berber villages around Tinerhir and stop to take pictures. This entire stretch from here all the way to Skoura where we're headed to tonight is called the Valley of a thousand kasbahs (a kasbah is a fortified home with watchtowers). And for good reason, as there is kasbah after kasbah in varying stages of disrepair at every turn. Some stand proud and tall having gracefully withstood centuries of tumult while others are a crumbling shadow of what they once were. At Boumalne, we take the piste (dirt road) to the Perle du Dades hotel, where we will be meeting our guide, Hassan. This is a nice property away from town, with a pool, billiards, ping pong, board games, spa etc.- a good option for families with kids. We go over our plan for the afternoon with Hassan over tea and peanuts. Picking up our picnic lunches, we set off on our next adventure.

We first drive through the Dades gorges with its incredible red rock formations set against lush valleys and dotted with kasbahs, passing through the villages of Ait Youl, Ait Arbi and Ait Oudinar. Beyond this, the road makes hairpin bends as it steeply curves its way up the gorge (Am I glad to have taken some Dramamine this morning!). At the very top, we park at a hotel/restaurant and walk over to the edge to take in the stunning nausea inducing vista of the plunging walls of the gorge all the way down to the river below. We drive back the same way until we reach Ait Arbi - this is where we get off to begin our 3 hour hike. We walk through the village, past its kasbah and unique rock formations, through fields, scrambling up and down the rocks and across the river over a narrow log bridge. There is no trail or path; only Hassan knows where we're headed and how we're getting there. Halfway through our hike, we turn a bend and end up at a beautiful shaded spot by the gurgling river with a view of the rocks - a perfect place for a lunch of cheese, egg and chicken sandwiches with apples and oranges. Hassan's story is an interesting one. He grew up in a nomad family until the age of 10 when his mother moved with her sons to the town of Boumalne. He hadn't ever gone to school, so learnt to read and write then. He finished school and studied international relations in college (we think that's what he said) and when he couldn't get a job, decided to change course and study/practice to become a trekking guide. Having grown up in the mountains, he knows the area like the back of his hand and leads multi day hikes as well as treks up to Jebel M'goun and Sraho.

We continue hiking after lunch up to the top of the rocks for some more gorgeous views, including the monkeys fingers, another unique rock formation. It hot now and we're actually sweating, which feels strange after all these days of cooler than normal temperatures. It's almost tempting to join the locals swimming in the river! But, we keep moving. Along the way, Hassan points out interesting plants and herbs and picks fruits off of trees for us to eat. We walk through more fields, cross the river once more and trudge up another rock until we reach the main road where Hamid awaits us. This has been another fun hike through a unique landscape and a good reason to get off the main roads. It's past 5, so we drop Hassan off near the hotel and continue on our way towards Skoura. We drive past the valley of roses or Kelaa M'gouna, known for its very fragrant roses and famous rose festival in early May. There are factories and shops selling rose water, oils and perfumes all along the roadside. Oh, another interesting thing we observe on the roads is that drivers signal to each other to indicate if a police car is up ahead - a wave means an all clear and index finger pointing down means slow down, there's a cop ahead. If you're driving in Morocco, maybe this will come in handy? We reach Les Jardins de Skoura, off the main road and a few kms away from town, around 7:30. This is a beautifully landscaped and stylish property, with a pool, hammocks, outdoor lounging areas, lots of flowers, fruit trees, and a couple of terraces. Our room is cozy, with a reading nook and a large bathroom. We also run into and say hello to Caroline, the French owner, who lives on the property.

Once we check in, we go up to the terrace to watch the sun go down over some cold beers. We are joined by the cute local dog, who enjoys all the attention she gets from us and then sits on the wall barking at anybody who walks or drives past the hotel. There are a lot more guests here than we've seen at the other hotels. Soon it gets really windy, so we head back to our rooms to get ready for dinner. Dinner is served in a covered area outdoors and is a formal affair. The food is really good (I didn't write down notes for this day, so don't remember what we ate in detail) - there are a few mezzes, a tagine and a pear dessert. We stick around after dinner to chat with some of the other guests. Sleep is fitful tonight since the storm knocks out power and the AC/generator keeps beeping and turning on and off all night.

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25. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Fascinating kasbahs and descending into Marrakech:

Today is going to be a long day. Our plan is to walk in the Skoura palmeraie for a couple of hours this morning before starting on the long drive towards Marrakech with stops on the way. We have breakfast sitting outside in the garden next to bright sunflowers and wait for our guide to arrive. He's running late due to bike trouble and arrives at 9 instead of 8:30. His name is Kamal, the quietest of the guides we've had so far. He is enthusiastically greeted at the door by the 2 dogs that live here - the friendly one from yesterday and an older, wiser black lab. The dogs are out the door even before we are, and they join us for the entire walk. Apparently, this is what they always do.

The palmeraie here is larger, flat and more arid, with views of the barely snow tipped High Atlas range in the far distance. There are several kasbahs, both old and reconstructed, strewn about the oasis. Kamal takes us to a few of them that look especially nice in the morning light. Had we more time, we would have loved to do a similar walk in the evening to take advantage of the "golden hour". Date palms and fruit trees abound here as do crops like wheat, corn and alfalfa. We walk along narrow roads and paths that crisscross through the fields and from village to village. Our dogs disappear every now and then as they go off getting wet in the canals, chasing cats and birds and generally having a ball. We plan to get back to the hotel by 10:30, but it ends up being close to 11. This is another place where it would have been great to slow down and spend another day in the inviting gardens and go on more walks, but unfortunately, it's time to get moving.

We drive past Ouarzazate, but don't stop at the Kasbah or movie studios. Instead, we head over to Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The approach to this ksar along the Ounila river and valley framed by the High Atlas and following the old trade route is lovely. Situated on a hill across from a now dry riverbed and fringed with palms, this partly retouched village of red mudbrick homes, both simple and elaborate castle like kasbahs with towers, is very picturesque. And, parts of it are still inhabited. There are also ramparts up at the top as well as remnants of mosques, granaries etc. We don't use a guide here, and just walk with Hamid. The views from the top of the ksar below, the new town across the river and the barren lunar landscape behind are nice, but the wild winds take our breath away even more - it's actually a little scary. For lunch, we survey the options by the entrance and find a decent restaurant just across on the main road. We order a salad to share and kefta sandwiches with spicy harira. It's a quick meal that hits the spot.

From here, we could have driven directly to Marrakech via the Tizi n'Tichka pass. But instead, I've asked Hamid to take a detour so we can stop at the Glaoui kasbah in Telouet. And, what a wonderful detour it is, in my opinion not to be missed. The kasbah itself is unique and extraordinary, because while it is in a near ruined state on the outside, hidden inside are a few remaining rooms filled with gorgeous zellij, stucco and carved/painted cedar doors, windows and ceilings, that took 300 artisans to complete back in the day. We say no to a guide at the entrance, but a deaf mute man follows us around, and we don't have the heart to turn him away. He is eager, overly so sometimes, but points out all the best work for us to photograph. The interiors are falling apart and slowly collapsing as well, and if not partly restored or at least reinforced, it will be such a loss to Moroccan period architecture and craftsmanship. But, we hope this doesn't get completely renovated and turned into a hotel either. With a final stop on the rooftop that looks across the hills and valley, we head back to our car still googly eyed.

The scenery along the piste until main tarmac road has red and pink hued hills and hamlets blending into terraced hillsides. I didn't expect to see terraced wheat fields in Morocco! Once on the main road, we climb up until we reach the Tichka pass at 2260m, where we make a quick stop for pictures. Then, the road makes several hairpin turns as it hugs the side of the mountain and provides spectacular views of barren hills, pastures and finally lush forests and fields until we eventually reach the plains and continue on to Marrakech. To Hamid's credit, he drives cautiously and this combined with the magic of Dramamine, means I don't get car sick at all. The last stretch to Marrakech is quick with no traffic and we drive past swanky golf courses and upscale residences on the outskirts of town before we reach the medina around 6:30. We've come a long way these past few days - both in terms of distance and experiences - from one imperial city to another.

We hire a porter outside Bab Laksour and he drops us off at Riad Magellan, where we say goodbye to Hamid. He's been a very good driver, guide and companion for the last 5 days. Hamid rents an apartment by the airport with his brother, where he'll catch some much needed rest for a day before he takes his next guests to the desert. At the riad, we are greeted by Mohammed, an older gentleman who speaks no English. He offers us tea and a snack in the courtyard and then shows us to our room upstairs. We want drop off some laundry, but since communication with Mohammed is an issue, we decide to just wait until the morning when Philippe, the owner, is in. There is also a problem with the water pressure in the shower, but this will also have to wait till the morning.

This riad is as different as it can get from Dar Seffarine in Fes - while it has traditional touches like the soft pink, cream and brown tadelakt walls, it is modern in it's design and furnishings with a focus on vintage and global traveler themes. Tonight, we're having dinner at the riad since we've arrived late. When we come down, the table has been set and since it's chilly, there's also a roaring fire in the fireplace. Imagine a wam fire in Marrakech in late May...isn't it crazy!! Mohammed brings out a trio of appetizers that includes the best zaalouk of the trip. Then we have a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives that is also delicious and end with a dessert of warm apple pie. After dinner, we enjoy our wine beside the fire. We are unable to finish the bottle, so Mohammed offers to keep it chilled in the fridge so we can indulge in another glass tomorrow. It's time to call it a night before we venture out into the labyrinth of streets, that is the medina, tomorrow.

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26. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Marrakech gives us a crick in our necks:

After breakfast this morning, we meet Philippe and tell him about the shower which he promises to have fixed. We also drop off our laundry with Amina, one of the women who works in the riad. With directions in hand, we set off into the medina. The medina here, unlike Fes, is an earthy shade of pink, flat with wider streets, and with many more tourists. But, much like Fes, it is a maze with the high walls protecting beautiful homes and courtyards from the evil eye, overflowing with shops and fondouks with carts whizzing by being pulled by mules and horses. Our riad is located in the Mouassine area, so we walk north and east in the general direction of the Ben Youssef madrasa, veering of course every now and then when something interesting catches our eye and getting lost taking the wrong turn at intersections. We pass by some dyers stalls which have bundles of brightly colored yarn hanging off the rafters in the ceiling and from walls - how tempting for cats! I love the arches along the alleyways, the large bronze lantern like streetlights and the multitude of mostly crumbling fondouks that are still being used for wood and metal work.

The Ben Youssef madrasa is similar to the madrasas we have seen in Fes, but larger, in fact it is the largest in Morocco. The workmanship here is gorgeous as is to be expected, but the large crowds detract from its serene beauty, so in that respect we enjoy the madrasas in Fes much more. We are able to go up to the student dormitories here, tiny cells decorated with stucco and woodwork and overlooking the central courtyard visible through small arched windows - you can almost imagine young boys intently studying their Koran here hundreds of years ago. Our next stop is the Museum of Photography, which has a fabulous collection of black and white photographs of Morocco taken by intrepid explorers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a fascinating glimpse into how locals dressed and lived in those days and how the country and its cities looked; there are some lovely pictures of Berber women wearing elaborate jewelry - oh, how I wish I could've traveled to Morocco then. We stop by the roof terrace for some tea and OJ, to rest our feet and enjoy the views of the medina and the distant (and hazy) mountains.

For lunch, we want to try Souk Kafe; it's a little hard to find the first time hidden in a corner around the bend from men hammering copper into beautiful bathtubs and sinks. We settle into the cozy cushions of the third floor terrace and dig into some delicious lamb tagine and a tender beef stew called tanjia that comes with creamy couscous. After lunch, we check out a few shops including Kif Kif (that Philippe's wife owns) hoping to find interesting ceramics, knick knacks or cushions made with kilim fabric, but we don't see anything we like. So, we walk to Bab Fteuh and turn into the main souks to wander about for a bit there. We soon find that we are pretty souk'd out at this point. It's quite hot as well and therefore time for a mid afternoon refresher at Dar Cherifa, an art cafe set in a renovated 16th century riad. We have a fruit juice, tea and a plate of cookies in their courtyard surrounded by artwork that's for sale. It's a nice, chic setting and the prices reflect that. It's a good place to relax though.

From here, we walk to Djemaa el Fna and hail a taxi to the Supratours station to buy our bus tickets to Essaouira. The taxi driver offers to wait for us at the station and bring us back for 60 MAD, which seems reasonable so we accept. We get tickets on the 8:30 am bus to Essaouira day after tomorrow and the 3:15 pm bus back the next day. Tickets taken care of, we ask the driver to drop us off at Koutoubia mosque. We find a shaded bench in the park across from the mosque, and while the afternoon away. At about 6:30, we head back to Djemaa el Fna, which even a couple of hours ago was a mostly empty and quiet square with juice and dried fruit stalls and a few snake charmers, but is now throbbing with activity. The square has been taken over by several food stalls that are being setup and the smell and smoke from the grilled meats wafts through the air. The snake charmers, performing monkeys, musicians, dancers, acrobats, henna artists and other entertainers have multiplied in their numbers, attracting both locals and tourists alike. We steer away from all the madness and head up to the terrace of one of the cafes facing the square and take in the carnival scene from several feet up in the air, until the sun sets and the throngs of people begin moving over to the food stalls.

That's our cue to head down to the plaza for dinner. Every stall has a number, and I've noted a few down from Tripadvisor reviews. The stalls are not setup in sequence so it takes us a few minutes to find our first stop, Hassan at #32. As soon as we sit on the bench, sheets of paper are placed in front of us with olives, khobz, tomato dip and a couple of salads. We order a sauteed beef dish that's delicious and sausages that are good but too cartilaginous. We briefly consider the snails in broth at stall #1, but decide to pass. As we walk past the stalls trying to decide where to eat next, we are constantly bombarded with menus and pleas to eat at each one of them. We brush them all off as politely as we can and settle on stall #98, where we get a spicy sausage and tanjia. The sausage disappoints and the tanjia while tasty is not as tender as the one at Souk Kafe. We should've ordered the kefta skewers or fried fish. Oh well. Too full to try another dish, we opt for spiced tea instead at stall #70. We end the night sipping the warm, aromatic tea while humming along to the Bollywood music blaring over the speakers from the stall next to us.

Our shower barely trickles water tonight as well, so we complain to Philippe in the morning, and he apologizes and moves us to the larger Chocolate room. Apparently, all the digging and repair work being done outside in the alleyway is the likely culprit. Our new room has some lovely furnishings including a vintage steamer trunk and a gorgeous sculptural floor lamp - a lot of the furnishings in the riad came from Philippe's Paris flat. After breakfast, we walk past Djemaa el Fna to the Bahia Palace, initially built in the late 19th century by a grand vizier of the sultan and later enhanced by another slave turned vizier. Even though we're early, large tour groups are already here with their guides and the clicks of cameras and chatter can be heard all over. But, no matter the distractions, this palace will enthrall - the delicate and detailed stucco and cedar wood work, brightly patterned zellij, stained glass windows, rectangular and domed gilded ceilings intricately painted in colorful geometric and floral patterns, and the most gorgeous doors - we can't but ooh and aah at everything we see. And this is only a small fraction of rooms and courtyards in the palace that are open to the public. If you are a fan of Islamic architecture and Moroccan interiors as we are, this palace will delight. We spend way more time here than planned and take way too many pictures, but leave thrilled.

From here, we walk west through the Mellah or the old Jewish neighborhood towards the Saadian Tombs, tucked away just behind the Kasbah mosque. This complex of ornate tombs is the final resting place of Saadian Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour, his family and advisors. Built in the 16th-17th centuries, these tombs were walled up and hidden from the world for about 200 years. No expense was spared in their construction, using imported Italian marble and gilding the honeycomb stucco with pure gold. But, neglect over a couple of centuries has dulled the once extravagant complex and leaving no evidence of the gold. There are long but quick moving lines to view the chamber containing the sultan's tomb as well as the one next to it, a quick peek in and we're out.

Our next stop is the Badi Palace, close by. This large palace, once decorated with gold, crystal and turquoise, but then looted 75 years later, is mostly in ruins with nothing much left to see. What we're here for, are the hundreds of storks nesting up on the ramparts and towers of the palace watching over the medina. We've never seen this many and this close - they're beautiful birds and graceful as they fly up into the air. There are also lovely views of Marrakech from here, nicer I'm sure at sundown. We're really hungry at this point since it's past 1, so we pop into a hole in the wall restaurant just off the side street. We get salad and freshly grilled kefta kababs that come with olives, warm bread, tomato dip and harissa. It's really hot out, so we gulp down some Coke as well. A fantastic and dirt cheap meal!

After lunch, we walk back the way we came towards Djemaa el Fna to make one last stop at Dar Si Said - another fine example of the elaborate but elegant Moroccan craftsmanship and home to the museum of arts. The wedding chamber room upstairs with its domed ceiling is as spectacular as anything in the Bahia palace and takes our breath away. As well, with only 2 other people in the museum, we are able to enjoy its beauty in peace and quiet. A definite must see in Marrakech. By this time, both Ajit and I have a crick in our necks from looking up at ceilings and focusing on intricate details all day long. We decide it's time for some rest back at the riad. On the way back, we check out one more store that I have on my list and which has nothing to our taste either. Walking past the square, we get some cold freshly squeezed orange juice (with no ice) for 4MAD from one of the stalls. Aaah, so refreshing! Back at the hotel, we rest up a little, check email and download photos.

By 4:30, our stomachs are rumbling again, so we go back to Souk Kafe for another pot of tanjia and an assortment of 7 mezzes that are light and delicious. The rooftop here is a great place to get comfortable and relax, so we linger on over mint tea. After, we stop at Souk Cherifia (where Terrasse des epices is located) and buy a babouche magnet and a set of 4 mid sized hand blown lightly tinted tea glasses from a downstairs shop. Upstairs, there are several upscale shops with lovely and well made clothing, accessories and home goods, modern but with a Moroccan touch, and with Paris/NY prices. One of the shops sells some beautiful and unique embroidered lidded baskets bought from Berber families, which I'm very tempted to buy, but ultimately decide against. This is one shopping regret from the trip.

Our ticket for the Museum of Photography gets us in today as well, so we decide to go up to the roof and enjoy the late afternoon views. Unfortunately, the kitchen closes at 6, so we can't order a beverage. We sit for a few minutes, take a couple of pictures and ponder where to go next. Back to the Terrasse des epices it is - we seem to be walking in circles today. They have a nice rooftop except the open bar area is not very well shaded from the sun. We get a couple of juices (no alcohol is served) and a chocolate b'stilla. Their food menu looks interesting as well with both Moroccan and western choices. Then, it's back to the hotel, where we lounge upstairs (me in the hammock, Ajit on the sofas) drinking cold beers and reminiscing about the trip we've had so far. It will be an early morning tomorrow since we're off to Essaouira.

We'll be back here for one final night before we fly back to NY. While Marrakech has more restaurants and trendier stores, galleries and bars and some beautiful palaces, our hearts belong in Fes.

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27. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

A seaside jaunt to Essaouira and winding down in Morocco:

Breakfast this morning is at 7:15 since we have a bus to catch. Mohammed knocks on our door at 6:30 even though we haven't asked for a wake up call, he's really sweet. As we did in Fes, we leave our bigger suitcases here while we carry just our backpack and one small bag to Essaouira. We easily get a taxi from Djemaa el Fna to the station and have plenty of time to get a tea and check in our bag before our bus departs. Our bus trip isn't without some excitement - about a half hour in, our driver overtakes a car while (we think) going over the speed limit and gets pulled over by cops. The hand signals that worked so well for Hamid on our 5 day drive clearly didn't work here. We expect the driver will be issued a ticket and then we'll be on our way, but the animated conversation and hand gestures indicate this is a more serious matter. Apparently, the driver is missing some papers that he is supposed to carry on him. At one point it looks like we may have to head back to the station, but after much yelling followed by pleading, we are off on our way.

It's a 2 hour drive through some uninteresting scenery until we hit the coast and arrive at the medina gates. We hire a porter to take us to Les Matins Bleus; it's a quick 5 minute walk to the hotel which is in the heart of the medina at the end of a dead end street. The hotel is simple and charming with bright and airy rooms (ours is on the terrace) and eager staff, Samir and Youssef. Essaouira is sunny, but windy and a little chilly, so our first order of business when we step out is to buy Ajit a sweatshirt - we get a cool Essaouira blue hoodie from one of the shops in the souk. All right! Ajit's now got a surfer dude look going...well, not really. :-) For lunch, we want to try Ferdaous in an alleyway behind the hotel, but it's closed. So, instead, we decide to walk over to harbor area and eat at one of the fish stalls.

The medina here is a brilliant white punctuated with bright blue doors and windows - very Greek isle like, but also uniquely Moroccan. It's a 5 minute walk to Plaza Moulay Hassan by the harbor and as we get to the square, we can smell the salty sea air and fish. In one corner of the square are the fish stalls, each proudly displaying their catch of the day. There are wooden tables and benches in front of each stand, where we can sit and eat. As we get within a few feet of the stalls, there is a lot of spirited yelling and pleading as each stall tries to convince us that they have the freshest fish at the best prices. We are hungry and not in a mood to negotiate so settle for the one right in front of us. Ajit loves fish while I prefer shell fish, so he picks out a bass and a couple of sardines, while I get a small mound of jumbo shrimp. With bread, fresh salad and a couple of Cokes, it comes to 200 MAD. We are definitely getting ripped off and we know it. While we wait for the fish to be grilled over the coals, we chat with a German couple at our table. The fish and shrimp arrive lightly charred and juicy and we get our hands dirty as we tuck in. While we think it is over hyped, it's a try-it-once kind of experience nonetheless.

After lunch, we walk towards the ramparts and port. There are hundreds of seagulls flying around in the sky swooping in to eat the remains of fish being gutted by fishermen sitting by the walls. We spot several cats as well - me thinks there are more sea gulls and cats in Essaouira than people. We spend the next hour wandering the busy harbor area filled with colorful boats, both large and small, and fisherman getting ready to go out to sea. We then walk along the rampart walls, and go up to the turreted skala with its many cannons and overlooking the sea. The views from here and along the ramparts of the whitewashed medina jutting into the sea, waves crashing against the rocky coastline, blue boats bobbing in the waters and swirling seagulls is picture postcard worthy. And the light is brilliant too. I can see why this city inspires. We continue walking along the ramparts, through narrow alleyways flanked by shops to the skala at the other end of the medina and then walk back. Along the way, Ajit is enthralled by the cats and kittens of Essaouira.

It's almost 5 now, so we stop for a quick spicy merguez sandwich at a streetside stall and walk back to the hotel to freshen up. At 6, we head over for drinks to Taros, right on the edge of the medina and overlooking the harbor. It's lovely to sit up on the terrace with its fine views and enjoy a glass of wine. There's live music here at 7:30, but we leave to catch the sun set, which casts a warm golden glow over the medina walls. So pretty! We take photographs and hang out by the ramparts until dusk. For dinner, we go back to Ferdaous and try a couple of tagines - simple but good food. And then it's time to call it a night.

This is our last full day in Morocco; we sleep in a little and have a leisurely breakfast on the terrace before heading out for the day. We check out of our room and leave our bags downstairs. Our plan this morning is to walk to the beach, which is easy to get to from the medina gates. We don't get very far when we notice a group of men playing football on the beach – they’re in team jerseys so it looks like they are warming up for a match. So, that’s what we do – sit on the wall by the roadside overlooking the beach and watch a match between the red and green teams. It’s awesome! While at the beginning it’s only the 2 of us watching the game, soon a few tourists and several locals including friends of the players join us, so there is a nice crowd cheering the players on. It’s a spirited game with some great ball skills on display and eventually the green team wins 2-0. What a fun way to spend a morning in Essaouira!

For lunch, we decide to try Caravan Cafe that Philippe had recommended. The restaurant is in a lovely courtyard setting with beautiful art and collectibles strewn about - good food/ service, but with NY prices. They have a global menu - we share a chicken b'stilla, I have shrimp in a saffron sauce while Ajit has a fish dish. After lunch, we wander around the souks - I pick up cosmetic argan oil that's cheaper here than in Marrakech and so much cheaper than in NY, some natural soaps, and make one last attempt to find some cushion covers that I love. Nope, not happening. There are some very interesting shops though along the alley that runs parallel to the rampart walls. Before we know it, it's 2:30 so we pick up our bags and walk to the Supratours station. As we are leaving, I'm tempted to try crepes with the Essaouiran specialty of amlou (an almond spread with honey and argan oil) but a couple of the crepe stands along the way that we check are not carrying it. I finally get to taste some at the Assouss Argane shop near the station - it's nutty, earthy and fragrant, but a little too rich.

Our overnight trip has been a great way to soak in this charming city, but Essaouira deserves another day or two of laid back wandering. The bus trip back to Marrakech is uneventful and we get in a little before 6. I'm able to negotiate the taxi fare to Djemaa el Fna down to 20MAD and feel very empowered, it's too bad today is the last day of our trip. We gulp down our last street side orange juice at the square and walk over to the riad. Mohammed greets us warmly at the door and we are in the duplex beige room this time - it's a very cute room but seems to have the same shower issue. After freshening up and repacking, we walk to the ATM to withdraw the last bit of dirhams that we'll need for the hotel and dinner. On the way, I spot a bright rug thrown over a stool outside one of the shops in the souk. We hadn't planned to buy any more rugs, but this one appears to be the right small size for our bedroom, so of course we have to check it out. The shop has several pieces that we like and we ultimately settle on 2 old Berber rugs. I'm excited! Ajit has to make another trip to the ATM so we can pay for them. For dinner, we initially plan to go to Cafe Arabe, but the restaurant is a little too trendy and we are in the mood for something more mellow and low key, so where else do we end up but Souk Kafe for more of that great, home style food. Nestling into the cushions, we end with mint teas on a warm Moroccan night - perfect.

We have a 10:15 am flight from Marrakech to JFK via Casablanca, so we have an early breakfast, say our goodbyes to Mohammed and are out the door by 7:45. Philippe has arranged for a drop off at the airport, which is very convenient with our now very heavy suitcases. The check in lines are long at the airport, but there are no delays. At the Casablanca airport, we look for Sukaina (the girl we met on our first day), who is flying to Tunisia and will be in the airport around the same time as us, but unfortunately we miss each other. The flight to JFK is mostly spent watching movies and soon we are home.

It's been a wonderful 2 weeks in a country that charms us in ways we don't even expect and we leave with such fond memories. Of the interesting and generous people, unexpected connections, winding medinas that transport us to another time, diverse landscapes, gorgeous architecture, artisans who continue to use centuries old traditional techniques, the simple and fresh food and finally, the excessive mint teas and sweetest orange juice.

28. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

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Removed on: 11:55 am, October 28, 2013
Columbus, Ohio
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29. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Thanks for posting. My friend and I (two girls) just booked our flights for the end of August. Reading your post will definitely help us plan better. I was thinking about hiring a car and driver for part of our trip as well. Will inquire with the company you named. Thanks!

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30. Re: Just back from 15 wonderful days in Morocco - a trip report

Thanks John and Rupal! Rupal - have a great trip to Morocco!

We're finally making progress with our pictures. Here are a couple of the Fes albums.

…smugmug.com/Travel/…30073727_HkWb9R

…smugmug.com/Travel/…30152223_HHSkzR

Will be back with more later.