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Archive for the ‘Morocco’ Category

When I think of Morocco, I think in colors. Casablanca and its whitewashed houses. The earth tones of Marrakech. The “Road of a Thousand Kasbahs,” with all the southwest colors, notably warm red and sage green. And the Atlas Mountains, with a mix off all of these colors, against a deep blue sky.

I am always surprised about what surprises me when I travel. In Morocco I expected to love the culture and architecture and people. The surprise was how much I was fascinated by the landscape. The vibrant images of the villages, mountains, coast and desert have remained with me long after my departure.

Morocco is a popular tourist destination because of its history, culture, arts and architecture. It’s an Arab country on the content of Africa, but it is located just across the Mediterranean from Spain and for centuries was a cross-roads for people coming and going to Europe – so, not surprisingly, it has a European flavor. In fact, French is their second language.

 

Tourists also love Morocco because you can get a lot for your money there. The country’s tourism campaign is “Cheap, Exotic and Safe.” That’s pretty much right on target.

I chose Abercrombie & Kent for my tour of the country. They have locals on the ground in Morocco so that you can get a great, authentic experience. Our tour director grew up in Marrakech and he was fantastic—very knowledgeable about the local culture.

So, let us begin at the beginning…


Casablanca

Hassan II Grand MosqueWe arrived in Casablanca from Paris on Air France. This is where many people start their visit to Morocco – mostly dictated by the convenient flight options. I would recommend finishing in Marrakech so you end on a high note.

Hassan II Grand Mosque

The highlight of Casablanca was the Hassan II Grand Mosque, which is among the largest in the world. Almost half of the mosque lies over the Atlantic Ocean. This was inspired by the verse of the Qur’an that states “the throne of God was built on the water.” Part of the floor is glass, so worshippers can kneel directly over the water while praying.

We ate at “Rick’s Café,” made famous by the movie Casablanca. The café itself wasn’t the scene of the movie, but was set up by an American afterwards as a tourist attraction. The food was good and we enjoyed the atmosphere as well.


Rabat

Rabat Walls

Rabat Old Town

Rabat, the political capital of Morocco, is an hour’s drive from Casablanca. It is a pretty city beside the ocean and I would recommend it as a starting point if you don’t care about seeing Casablanca and your flight arrives at a conducive time. We spent only a brief time in Rabat but the best part was the Oudaya Kasbah, built on a bluff overlooking the ocean. The gate is one of the most beautiful in the Moorish world and there is a wonderful, tranquil garden with a fountain and fragrant orange trees. We didn’t spend the night at Rabat, but continued onto Fez, which was about a three-hour drive from there.Hassan Tower (12th C)


Fez

Fez Views

Fez is considered to be the cultural center of Morocco and best preserved historic town in the Arab/Muslim world. We stayed in the heart of the walled city, so it was easy to step outside and get immediately caught up in the daily life of this fascinating city. The best part was being able to peek into the ornately tiled courtyards when the large double doors were open.

Fez Street Scene

Here I was surprised by how large and how spread out the ancient city was. Just walking along the streets was like traveling back in time, seeing the residents in their traditional garb, riding or pulling along donkeys (no cars allowed). And the streets! There are thousands of little lanes and alleys, each looking quaintly similar, making it simple to get lost in the labyrinth of the city. Be sure to always have a map with you (or your GPS), as you will get immediately lost!

We visited Nejjarine Square, which was a nice balance of greenery and tile work mosaics. Fez is famous for its tanneries. The leather goods are amazing and seeing the ancient process of dyeing the leather is very interesting, but be prepared for the pungent smell if you decide to go. I’ve heard the suggestion of bringing along some mint leaves to refresh your senses and I think that is excellent advice.Riad Details

Riad Courtyard

Other sites we visited were the Karaouine, one of the oldest universities in the world, and the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter, established in the 15th century. Fez was once home to the largest Jewish population in Morocco and this area was walled off to protect the Jewish people from raids from Arab tribes.


Erfoud and the Sahara Desert Caravan

Road to Erfoud

Next we travelled to Erfoud, a small town on the edge of the desert, to rest for the night before our caravan into the Sahara the next day. The journey took about eight hours, with a stop for lunch in Midelt. The latter part of the trip featured stunning views of palm plantations, Berber villages and the spectacular Sahara Desert.

Road to ErfoudAfter a restful night, we departed the next morning and visited the fortified town of Rissani and its quarry of fossilized fish where you could buy countertops, flooring or other stones and have them shipped home. After lunch, we departed in luxury 4-wheel drive vehicles for the highlight of our tour—the Sahara desert!

Sahara GlampingWe spent the night in tents in the Arab “Caidai” style with a decidedly luxurious twist (aka Glamping). The tents were decorated with colorful, tribal carpets and each one had its own jerry-rigged shower and bathroom. When we arrived at our remote tented camp via our camel caravan (!), we were greeted with mint tea and pastries. We then left on camel back again in the early evening to see the desert sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, which can rise as high as 500 feet. (These were the same dunes featured in Star Wars, Sex and the City 2 and many other movies!) The image of the sun setting over the desert (sundowner-in-hand) and the huge dunes was more extraordinary than you could imagine.

Dinner was a delicious, traditional Moroccan meal served in the common tent – of course, we had to find our way following the lanterns which defined the path. We all agreed our Sahara desert experience was the highlight of the trip thus far.Sahara at Dusk


Ouarzazate

Sahara BerbersSahara BerbersAfter our night “roughing it” in the tent, we headed out to our next destination, stopping along the way to visit a family in the desert to see a little of authentic Moroccan nomadic life.

Road of a Thousand KashbahsWe then drove on the “Road of a Thousand Kasbahs,” linking the Sahara to the Atlas Mountains, with an amazing landscape of limestone hills full of palm groves and rose gardens. Driving over the Atlas Mountains was spectacularly beautiful!Road of a Thousand Kashbahs

All the southwestern colors blending together took my breath away and, along with spending the night in the desert, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. In the morning we did a little sightseeing in the city, which is known for its pottery and carpets. We saw the Glaoui Kasbah of Taourirt, considered to be one of the most beautiful Kasbahs in Morocco. Next we toured the fortified village of Ait Benhaddou, with its decorative kasbahs perched upon steep slopes. This village has been featured in many movies, including Lawrence of Arabia, Jesus of Nazareth and Gladiator.Road of a Thousand KashbahsRoad of a Thousand Kashbahs

Fortified Village: Ait BenhaddouIn fact, you can also visit a number of the movie sights throughout this region – a Hollywood favorite!


Marrakech

Marrakech: RiadOur last stop was Marrakech, known as the “red city” because of the hue of the many red sandstone buildings. We stayed at the Four Seasons Marrakech, which is a true five-star resort and the perfect spot to spend our last days in the country. The hotel’s design is a modern take on traditional Moorish architecture, with elegant, clean lines, rose-hued pavilions, gardens, courtyards and pools. All of the rooms have balconies that feature views of the lovely grounds, the historic Menara Gardens or the Atlas Mountains.

Marrakech: MedinaMarrakech is known for its architectural and cultural attractions, most of which are inside the old walled section of town, or the Medina. The Medina is a great place to go at night, as you can see generations of families all eating and socializing together.

Jardin MajorelleOne of the highlights of the city was our visit to the Jardin Majorelle, created by a French artist in 1924, with its vivid cobalt blue buildings, exotic groves, lily-covered pools and enormous sculptural cactuses. This garden truly represents all the beauty and exotic nature of the country, with extraordinary plants such as lotus flowers, cacti, bougainvillea and palms and streams filled with fish. In 1980 Yves Saint-Laurent purchased the garden and villa and restored it to his exact specifications, which really put a personal stamp on it.Marrakech: Market

We took a carriage ride through Marrakech, which was a wonderful way to see the city and all of its neighborhoods. The light in the city was brilliant; it’s easy to see why Westerners would want to live there.

Too soon it was time to return home. Fortunately, a brief stay in Paris on the way made the leaving the beauty and magic of Morocco a little less sad.


Things to Know:

Language: English is a second language at best. Arabic and French are the most commonly used languages.

Where to Stay: There are a wide variety of hotel options in Morocco, from the well-known 5* brands (Sofitel, Four Seasons, Aman) to wonderful Riads.

Food: I would stick with restaurants the Riads/Hotels recommend – there are plenty of great options! We were encouraged not to eat at the markets – even though it was terribly tempting. We also stuck to bottled water. These precautions certainly paid off!

Religion: Morocco is a predominately Muslim country which has a history of being very welcoming to Westerners.

Bathrooms: In general, the facilities were what we see in the West, however, there were some public bathrooms which were simply holes in the floor. Even so, most places had attendants and the facilities were kept clean.

Photos: Be sure to ask permission before taking a photo. Some people expect to be paid, and many do not like having their picture taken.

Shopping: Leathergoods in Fez, and colorful, tribal rugs, jewelry, tiles and pottery throughout the country, but especially in Marrakech and Fez. We also found some wonderful and interesting pieces made with fossilized stone in the Erfoud area.

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