Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Morocco: Three Weeks in March

Jane and her camel follow me and mine as we navigate sand dunes en route to an overnight camp
in the Sahara near Morocco's border with Algeria. 

March may not be the best time of year to visit Morocco. While the desert heat isn't in full force yet, the slopes of the High Atlas Mountains can be bitterly cold, especially at night, and the coastal cities are still getting a chill wind off the Atlantic. However, March was what worked for Jane and me and off we went. Below is an outline of our trip, and below that are a few hotel and other photos. (My tourist snapshots and more description of each destination are in other postings.)
      We left Washington's Dulles airport on Air France on March 8, changed planes in Paris and were in Casablanca by mid-afternoon on the 9th. Casablanca is a lively, modern city, but it doesn't display the exoticism we wanted to find in Morocco. One night there was enough. We stayed at the quirky Hotel Le Doge (click HERE for link), which we'd recommend to anyone. It's an old mansion cleverly expanded to become a boutique hotel. We had our first Moroccan dinner in its sumptuous dining room.
     The next day, with me unexpectedly suffering from an ear infection, we got into a car for the five-hour drive south along the coast to Essaouira, where we stayed at Dar Maya (click HERE), a riad in the city's small but interesting medina. A riad is a traditional residence in Morocco's medinas. Riads are centered around open-air courtyards, usually with a fountain or pool, and can be as tall as a five- or six-story building, though they usually don't have that many levels. Some of the floors, particularly on the ground level, have extremely high ceilings. Expect to climb stairs, and expect those stairs to be steep and narrow. All serve food, usually traditional Moroccan fare of pastillas (meat pies) and tajines (lamb, chicken or beef baked in a special ceramic vessel), along with salade Morocaine, which is usually a lightly dressed and delicious chopped salad.  The only tajines we didn't like were those featuring seafood.
      The medinas themselves are the oldest parts of Morocco's cities, walled, often made of stone and mud bricks, and featuring mazes of narrow, twisting and essentially unnamed passageways. We stayed in the medinas in Essaouiara, Marrakesh, Meknes, Fez, Chefchauen and Tangier. We never felt unsafe or threatened anywhere in Morocco, and the medinas seemed particularly safe, though tourists are warned about pickpockets, especially in Jemaa el Fna, the huge square in Marrakesh.
      At Dar Maya in Essaouiara, we were particularly well looked after. The British owner, Gareth, found a doctor to check out my ear the afternoon we arrived. The doctor charged me 500 dirham or about 50 U.S. dollars for a house call to my hotel room.  A prescription for a 10-day program of prednisone, which I filled at the pharmacy around the corner from the riad, cost 35 dirham ($3.50 -- can you even buy Q-tips in the U.S. for $3.50?).  I had antibiotics with me -- part of our usual travel kit -- and between the prednisone and the antibiotics, my ear soon cleared up.
     After three nights in Essaouiara, we were driven to Marrakesh, about two and a half hours away. We had our various hotels arrange for cars to transport us from one to the next, and it worked very well. All but one of our drivers spoke English and all of the vehicles were relatively new and comfortable. In planning a trip like this again, though, we might get prices from a few taxi or tour companies for handling all of the transfers. Almost every driver we had asked about driving us to our subsequent destinations. We did this -- choosing destinations and hotels and making our own reservations and then asking the hotels for help with cars and drivers -- rather than going as part of a tour group. We often see tour groups when we travel, a dozen or many more people following along behnd a guide, and it doesn't look like a lot of fun. Much better, we think, to be free to decide at the last moment to spend a day at the beach or visit a winery or take the rental car for a drive along a river. That said, it's easy to understand why many people, especially those unfamiliar with Muslim countries, would choose to join a tour group.
    Marrakesh has a huge and very confusing medina. Our driver called ahead and had our hotel,  Riad l'Orangerie (click HERE), meet us at one of the gates. Cyril, the riad owner, and one of his staff were there to help with our luggage and guide us to the riad. We spent three nights there.
     Our next stop was the tiny village of Tamatert in the High Atlas, worlds away from crowded and cosmopolitan Marrakesh but only about an hour and a half by car. We stayed at Douar Samra (click HERE), an extremely rustic hikers' lodge clinging to the side of a mountain. If you're looking at a map, look for Imlil, the largest and best-known of the villages.  When we left, a donkey was enlistedd to carry our luggage up a goat path to the road several hundred meters above the lodge. The inn's main building has a hammam, a cushions-on-the-floor dining area, a few rooms and no electricity. We stayed in a separate building that did have electricity for lights and for recharging cameras, tablets and phones. Heat was provided by a wood-burning fireplace that was lit every evening while we were at dinner in the main building. A hot-water bottle was also placed in the bed. March is still very cold at an elevation of 2,000 meters.
     Our next stop was Ait Benhaddou, a celebrated citadel whose mud-brick buildings have pretty much stayed intact since the Middle Ages. We stayed a couple of kilometers out of town at Kasbah Titrit (click HERE), operated by a French-Moroccan couple who transformed an ancient fortified house (that's what a kasbah is) into a fairly palatial hotel with a hammam, spa services, an indoor swimming pool and a dining room with French-oriented fare that gives you a break from tajines. This was another two-night stay.
     On March 20, we left Ait Benhaddou for an almost six-hour drive to Riad Madu (click HERE), an inn in the westernmost part of the Sahara near the border with Algeria. We stayed one night at the inn and one night at its desert camp, which we reached after riding camels for about an hour. Riad Madu is close to the town of Merzouga, but we never went into the town. On the last day, we awoke before dawn to see the sun rise over the dunes, then were whisked back to Riad Madu in an SUV, which was almost as much fun as the camel ride, to meet the car that would take us for about seven hours on twisting roads through desert, mountains and forests to Meknes.
       Meknes is strongly associated with one of Morocco's longest-reigning sultans, but that all ended early in the 18th century. The town seems to have been quiet, or rather, quietly charming, since then. We stayed at Riad El Ma (click HERE) for two nights, using our one full day here to visit Volubilis, the nearby ruins of one of the Roman Empire's most remote outposts, but we still had plenty of time to explore Meknes's low-key but interesting medina. Most tourists reach Volubilis as a day trip from Fez, but Meknes is closer and itself worth a visit.
       On March 24, we headed for Fez, where we stayed at Riad Laaroussa (click HERE), one of the most posh places we stayed. It's really two adjacent buildings, one a palace-like riad with an open-air courtyard and an outdoor swimming pool on a terrace; the other a smaller house with a glass-covered courtyard and smaller rooms. We spent one night in a small room in the more modest part of the hotel, and then two nights in a much larger room overlooking the larger courtyard. Laaroussa has a very popular spa, complete with hammam and the usual spa services. It also offers fine dining in a room atop the riad, which unfortunately is reached by what amounts to five flights of very steep stairs.
       The next stop was Chefchouen, about three and a half hours from Fez. Chefchouen is known as the blue town because so many houses and other buildings are painted that color. While most medinas in Morocco certainly cater to tourists, they also are where a lot of Moroccans live and work and have businesses to serve them. The medina in Chefchouen seem to exist only to sell things to tourists. Although people do live in the medina, there seemed to be few businesses other than candy and cigarette counters that focused on them. We stayed at Lina Ryad (click HERE) for two nights.
      Our time in Morocco was coming to an end. Our last destination was Tangier (also known as Tanger and Tanja), where we stayed at the French-owned Dar Chams Tanja (click HERE). Tangier is about two and a half hours from Chefchouen. Tangier has a typical Moroccan medina that's dominated by a hulking castle. There are points in Tangier where one can look across the Strait of Gibraltar and see the southernmost coast of Spain. Tangier also has a lively and modern downtown and, surprisingly, a huge wide and clean beach, which it is hoping to develop as a tourist destination of its own.
    After three nights in Tangier, we set off for another land to explore. We had a 6 a.m. flight to Lisbon, Portugal.

Shopping in the Souks

     Bartering is not only expected in the shops and stalls of the medinas, it's the only way to avoid grossly overpaying.  The advice once was, I'm told, to offer half of the first quoted price. Now the advice would be to offer a quarter or even less. Walking away without buying almost always results in the offer of a lower price, and since many vendors sell essentially the same shoes, scarves, wooden boxes, argon oil, etc., you can often look for a better deal. The caveat is, that if you find exactly what you want, don't assume that you'll find it elsewhere. For example, textiles in one weaving shop in Fez were far superior to those elsewhere, but by the time we realized that, we were unable in the medina maze to retrace our steps to the shop we liked.

A Word About Hammams

    Hammams (most riads seem to have hammams) are essentially steam rooms in which one is covered in a special black-olive soap, which is allowed to sink in for 10 minutes. Afterward, one is rigorously and thoroughly scrubbed with a textured mitt. Public hammams (which we didn't visit) usually accept men and women at different times of the day. We used hammams in our riads. At Douar Samra, Jane and I had the place to ourselves to soap and scrub each other. This hammam had to be reserved so that the staff had time to build wood fires under the floor that heated the water and warmed the room. At hammams at more deluxe places, there is someone (it was women at Kasbah Titrit, Lina Ryad and at Riad Laaroussa) to do the soaping and scrubbing. And then do it again and again with various soaps or oils. Swimsuits or at least underwear are expected to be worn. If the hamman experience is followed with a massage, a towel is worn. You don't have to be a guest to make hammam or spa reservations at most riads

A Word About Alcohol

    Morocco makes beer (the Casablanca lager is more than acceptable) and wine. Most vineyards are in the north, but we visited one outside Essaouiara. Red wines tend to be Bordeaux-style blends and are usually very good. The word "reserve" seems to mean considerably better wine at only a slightly higher price. Roses and whites are less dependable, in my view, and I didn't care for the "gris" or "gray" wines at all. They seemed to me like watered-down roses.
   Not all riads can supply you with alcohol or serve it with their dinners. There are no wine shops in the medinas. We flew through Paris to Casablanca, and picked up a couple of bottles of French wine in the duty-free shop. We  also bought wine at the Val d'Argon winery outside Essaouiara. If wine with dinner is important to you, plan ahead. Your hotel, even one in a medina, can help you buy wine, though not all restaurants allow you to bring it. And be careful carrying wine in the medina. A restaurant owner walking us to his place in the Fez medina wrapped our bottle in his jacket so no one would see it. At one supposedly alcohol-free restaurant in Tangier, our waiter asked us if we wanted wine. Why, yes, thank you, we did. So he signaled a coworker and after a rather long wait a bottle of red wine arrived via motorcycle. He was careful to place it on a side table where it couldn't be seen from the door. It added a mere 120 dirham (12 U.S. dollars) to our bill.
     Restaurants outside the medinas, in the newer parts of cities, are much more likely to serve alcohol.

What You Can't See

     In medinas and newer parts of cities, you will see magnificent mosques. Unless you are Muslim, you cannot enter them. You may be able to peep into courtyards and sometime into the interiors themselves, but that's about it. Notable exceptions are former Koranic schools in Marrakesh and Fez, where you can roam pretty much at will, even seeing the cell-like quarters where students lived. Also off limits to tourists and locals alike are the many royal palaces. Fez, for example, has a palace complex with maybe two dozen palaces behind high walls. There is talk that the king, Muhammed VI, is thinking of opening some to the public, but that hasn't happened yet. However, the complex's huge brass doors are an attraction in themselves, and people are allowed to photograph them. You are not, however, allowed to photograph the palace guards.

Looking down into the courtyard at Dar Maya
in Essaouiara.

The beach at Essaouaira, as seen from the patio at Ocean Vagabond.

Lunching and lounging at Ocean Vagabond in Essaouiara.

The ground-level pool at Riad L'Orangerie in Marrakesh was just a few steps from our room.

This was the door to our room at Douar Samra in the
High Atlas Mountains. When the wind died down, the
sun was bright enough to make the deck on top
comfortable -- if you were bundled up.

The main lounge and dining room at Douar Samra. Dinners here are a communal affair, sharing dishes
with (mostly rather young) people from around the world. One couple from London was
traveling with their six-month-old daughter. They even took her along on what sounded like
a fairly strenuous mountain hike.

Kasbar Titrit near Ait Benhaddou has been refurbished as
an impressive hotel and spa. It was built of mud bricks
centuries ago.

Riad Madu, near Mersouga, is at the western edge of the Sahara Desert. It uses camels to take guests
out into the desert for overnight stays in tents. Since the tents are set up permanently and include
hot showers and flushing toilets, let's not call it camping. But an adventure nonetheless.

The courtyard at Riad El Ma in Meknes. Here we met a French-Belgian
couple and their year-old son, whom they were in the process of adopting
from a Meknes orphanage. They had been staying here for a month.

The main courtyard at Riad Laaroussa in Fez, a palace from the 1600s that is now a deluxe inn.
 The roof around the opening is a terrace with various seating areas and views over the medina.

View from our room at Lina Ryad in Chefchouen. The blue paint
is the town's hallmark.

Our room at Dar Chams Tanja in Tangier included this wonderful corner window. Inside, it was
two window seats. The roof of this building had terraces with magnificent views.

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