Our visit to Essauoira was a vacation within a vacation. We took an early bus from Marrakesh and came to our dimly lit, richly colored, romantically adorned riad in Essaouira’s medina. After setting foot on the top terrace that had a view of the violent waves that crashed onto the rocky shore, a feel of relaxation and equanimity washed over us, purging us from any notion of hustle and bustle. The city was a spawning ground for deadlocked French hippies, coming to the favorite sojourn of Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix years ago. Bohemian artists set up numerous galleries to compliment the ferocious beauty of the waves sculpting the port’s coastline. During our short stay, Missy and I promised to refuse stress, savor romance, feel the sun touch our face and smell the salty wind. As the bus pulled away the next day, passing by goats climbing on forests of Argan trees (who would chew the nuts that would be later collected and pressed to make the precious Argan oil), I smiled knowing that the mission here was accomplished.
-This was one of our favorite cities, the medina is more laid back especially compared to Marrakesh and there is a great fish market that is also interesting to see.
-Try to come to the end of the port in the afternoon to see row after row of fishing boat land in the port and carry in the fishing haul for the day.
-Lodging- Riad Alech– If you want romantic, this is your place. The owners are warm and wonderful, it is located in the heart of the medina. Be warned, it is really dimly lit- especially difficult if going from the sunny terrace back inside the stairs where your eyes need to quickly adjust to the darkness or you will fall down the staircase. We staid in the suite which gave us access to the biggest bathtub we’ve ever seen- like 9 feet wide. There are many housing options in the city, but this is a good one.
A potpourri of SubSaharan Africa, Arabia and Europe, Marrakesh is a city splashed in ochre and teaming with a carnival of vendors and entertainers in a dazzling display of treasures and fabrics, creating a chaos of colors that is difficult to decipher at first. The Jemma el Fena is the the city’s pounding pericardium with drums beating from every direction, snake charmers hypnotizing cobras with their piercing flutes, dried fruit vendors trying to catch your attention and other shop keepers such as tooth extractors and soothsayers all setting up shop. It is devastatingly busy and the souks just off the square continue to bustle as motorbike after motorbike zip through the endless wave of clueless tourists. When darkness covers the square, the colors only get brighter as hundreds of food vendors set up shop at night in the Jemma selling goat heads, typical Moroccan dishes, fish and chips and other not so gourmet meals that taste so delicious. For desert, chocolate pastries and ginseng spice tea with a side of your choice of music performance on the square. It was Atlantic City’s boardwalk on acid with enough hashish mongers to fuel a rocket ship.
After going through the souks, and Missy buying her tenth scarf (oh please shoot me), we celebrated the last night together with Kristof and Melody at Narawama, an elegant thai fusion restaurant in a UNESCO world heritage building that was decorated in a way that was fit for a sultan.
The next day, we visited the Marjorelle gardens (kept up by the late Yves Saint Laurent), spent time with an herboriste learning about traditional Berber medicines, visited the Bahia palace- a splendid structure designed to pacify the sultan’s many wives and concubines 200 years ago and had another trip through the souks. In the evening, we visited the Mellah, where rows of brightly colored spice cones stood where Jewish salt sellers and other businessmen used lived harmoniously in the Muslim culture, enriching history and culture of Morocco’s spirit. Well, really the harmony depended on the attitude of the sultan at that time period.
As we walked home during the evening, passing the sultan’s kasbah, we saw storks resting on the castle walls clacking their beaks together as the setting sun mystified the red-orange buildings. It seemed as if these birds, proudly perched on their throne, were claiming the city as their home that would never be stolen by famine, French occupation, in the face of the current tourist colonization.
-Be prepared to be harassed! Everywhere you walk, people will be selling you goods, offer to help you out (with the future intent of getting a tip), misguide you away from an intended destination and entertain you with music or a snake for a fee. How to fight fatigue? Either don’t spend too much time here (our mistake) or just take a deep breath and enjoy. We did not sense that there were many thieves, mainly because they have derived more honest means of stealing your money by making you pay for unnecessary junk and services.
-New Years in Marrakesh requires advanced planning if you want to do it up (we did not). It is a trendy jet set destination and many “hot spots” offer pricey (like 300 euros a person!) events. We did not know it would be so extreme and ended up just walking around the square all night which was painfully and soberly boring. To Moroccans, New Years is not a big deal.
-Lodging- Hotel Atlas- a cheap, dirty hotel in a small alley way just off the Jemma el Fena. When we first arrived, our room reeked like ciggarettes, but the extremly nice owner moved us into another room. Their is a chronic problem with the smelly shared bathrooms not having toilet paper. The only reason to stay here is that it is super cheap-170 dh a night- and conveniently located.
– Narwama– very expensive, the food is good to great but not mind blowing but the decor and the eating experience is one of a kind. There are these acrobat entertainers that is rather cheesy but all in all if you have money to spare you need to go there.
-Restaurants – Cafe du Livre-located outside of the medina in the French section, this place was awesome. A relaxing break in the day with superb food in a coffee shop, where you can pick up English books both used and new. This place is highly recommended if you are nearby.
Merzouga -> Ourzazzate/Ait Ben Hadou -> High Atlas Mountains
We returned to the Auberge with our camels that morning and after breakfast, Missy and I piled into the backseat of our Belgian friends’ small rented car and drove to Ouarzazate to break up our intended destination of Marrakesh into a two day trip. In Rissani just outside Merzouga, we took a wrong turn and ended up in a bustling Moroccan market street where we had to compete with a traffic jam of donkey carts, rusty bicycles, diesel cars and vendors vying to inch through the chaotic storm of people. Melody’s heroic driving navigated us back on track and then through the Anti-Atlas mountains, the Dades valley and finally embarking past Ourzazate (famed for its many movie studies where Star Wars, Babel, Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia was shot) to Ait Ben Haddou.
After an entire days worth of driving (both camel and car) we checked into a cheap hotel and I tried to rally against fatigue and rush over to the ancient kasbah of Ait Ben Haddiou, crossing a stream on a donkey, to enter the enchanting relic of the past. This kasbah hugs the hillside and overlooks the Ouarzazate river. I felt it was reminiscent of a smaller version of Machu Picchu with centuries old ruins suspended in animation allow your imagination to reconstruct what ancient life was like behind the old stone walls, except here it was easier to do that because 10 families continue to reside behind the old stone walls. It was a tourist trap, but a marvelous one and as we climbed to the highest point of the kasbah, the same sun that passed here 700 years ago drew light away from the striped rock formations, craggy mountains and fertile land along the river and set into the valley.
The next morning we left our hotel while it was still dark and head through the High Atlas mountains. As the sun roe, the road began to wind, treacherously, through the rocky, treeless mountainside. At every turn, we passed another mountain village with buildings made of rock that blended seamlessly and simply into the landscape rather than a rude interruption as is accustomed in the West. After driving through the seemingly uninhabitable terrain, suddenly a cypress forest appeared in a brilliant and sudden change of ecosystem.
In the end, Melody’s brilliant display of driving brought us to the hustle and bustle of the industrial hodgepodge that is Marrakesh.
-Lodging- Hotel Baraka (?)- it is on the main road as you come to Ait Ben Haddou. It was cheap, had a restaurant, we had our own bathrooms, it was clean. Nothing too special, but not a bad place to stay.
One of the perks to living in an Islamic city is that there is no need for an alarm clock. The frightening sound of the Muezzin calling for early prayer from the smokestack minarets pierces into any dream no matter how wonderful. On this morning, the call was welcoming because we needed to meet Abdul, our Berber guide for a drive to the desert. Missy and I piled into the Mercedes grand taxi, while Melody and Kristof chased after us in the car that they had rented.
We drove through the snowless ski mountains of Ifrane and forded a 50 meter meter flooded part of the road going through the Rif mountains, Oregon trail style. Then we stopped in a small one street town in the countryside while Abdul and the driver stopped to pray leaving the four of us to wait disgustedly in front of a restaraunt where full goat carcasses hung right next to the grill. Since it was Friday, the “Muslim Sabbath,” the prayer session took like an hour longer (more than the promised 10 minutes). As we waited, to entertain ourselves, I made friends with a local restaraunt owner who let me sample the face and brain from a pot of boiling goat heads.
We then took off through the cedar forrests of the Middle Atlas mountains and then after through the Ziz Valley, where the milenia of running river beds dragged a rake across the snaking canyon faces. We arrived at the Auberge (hotel) in the pitch dark and were greated with Tajine and beer by a hashish smoking guide of another group of Brazilians who accompanied us on our travels.
The next morning, we woke up and walked around the compound that we could not realy see the night before due to darkness. Missy and I walked outside the gate for a second and we started jumping up and down in excitement because of the scene that was presented to us- an endless rolling sea of yellow-orange Saharan sand with dunes piled ontop of each other in a shoving match. I ran to the first dune I saw, throwing sand like confetti that was taken by the desert wind to a nearby camel (dromadaire to be precise) who was standing pensively looking at me, an ameuture who is used to regular rainfall preventing soil from becoming sand.
That day we piled into a 4×4 and drove through the “Black Desert” to see a Berber tribe play Gnawa music, then to a lake with flamingos and then returned to our Auberge for the camel (dromadair) excursion. It took an hour to caravan to the touristy tenting area in the desert and as we arrived the sun was setting. The group wanted to climb a steep mountain dune 1000 feet high to see the sun fall off into the horizon. Our eyes were certainly bigger than our muscles as climbing that beast, through the deep sand and took an immense amount of energy, but seeing the entire desert change into a glowing neon tangerine hue and the sun become a melting grapefruit was all worth it.
Missy and I shivered ourselves to sleep that night and woke up early to catch the sun rise, animating the desert. Tragedy took place as three minutes before the crest of the sun appeared, the camera decided to break from all the sand clogging the parts.
-Transport from Fes to Erfoud can be accomplished by bus. ONCF, the most reputable line at the time of our trip had one that traveled overnight. This will make you miss the beautiful scenery of the Middle Atlas mountains and Ziz valley on the 8 hour ride. We found a price of the grand taxi of 2000 dh ($250). Abdul, our guide charged us 3000 dh ($380) for Missy and I for a ride, one night in the Auberge, meals, travel around Merzouga for the day to see sites and one night camel excursion.
-A better way to go to the desert we found out is through Marrakesh. There are more trip outfitters and with more competition, lower prices. Although in our experience we were able to avoid acting like typical tourists and learn much more about Moroccans by interacting with Abdul, we could have avoided using such a shady guide.
-You should not enter Merzouga without a guide. They will circle you like vultures upon arriving and supposedly can take advantage of you such as initially charging 50 euros and then at the end claiming they charged 200 euros and there is no regulation down there.
-To travel from Merzouga to Marrakesh, you need to find a ride to Tinehir (I believe) and there you can find several buses that can take you to Marrakesh. This is a long and miserable ride and you will drive through the High Atlas Mountains at night arriving very late to the ochre city. A better way is to spend the night in Ourzazatte (try to check out Aiit Ben Haddou nearby!!!) and enter Marrakesh the next day.
-Dress warm for the nights- especially in the winter- because it is quite cold int he desert.
-Take care of your toilet needs before you leave if you can because there is only a Berber toilet in the desert (sand) with little trees to hide your business.
We took the train from Meknes to Fes at noon and were picked up by the owner of the Dar that we were staying at- Bernard. A Dar is basically a smaller version of a riad, more like a pension where you stayed at someone’s home rather than a fully dedicated hotel. Now Bernard was a combination of Santa Clause and the father that you wish you had but both have the same fantasy lore. Except he spoke French and little English. Despite our linguistic barriers we understood his kindness without translation.
He parked his car and when we walked through the entry to the Medina, I can only describe it as the cliched “assault on the senses.” The putrid scent of sheep flesh drying on the nearby walls (to eventually become leather) mixed with the sweet smell of Argan oil products, the devastating sight of street children was superimposed on opulent tiles and carpentry work of mosques, the shrieking cries of the Muezzezin calling for prayer harmonized with the rhythmic bumping of carts trudging down the streets. To feel and taste Fes is to peel a layer of dust off your being but Balak! Balak! Watch out! Make sure you don’t get too lost in the moment or you will get run over by a donkey.
When we entered Dar Melody, a seemless mix of French and Moroccan coziness, Bernard served us fresh strawberries and orange juice and after we settled, he drove us to the Bab Boujloud, the main gate of the Medina. He introduced us to Sayeed, owner of his favorite restaurant and Missy and I proceeded to get lost down several of the almost 10,000 narrow streets that make up Old Fes. We stumbled into a tannery to learn about the 3 month process of turning sheep, cow and goat skin into leather, bartered with various shop keepers, met spice sellers teaching about safron and argan oil and made our way through the dizzying maze back to Sayeed’s restaraunt.
At dinner, we had one of those rare moments in life where the perfect alignment of events makes one reconsider atheism and question how meaningless coincidence could be so fortuitous. Now in two days, Missy and I planned on traveling to the desert on a nine hour overnight public transit bus before meeting a guide for a camel trek. When she saw the bus and learned about the treacherous mountains we needed to pass, she wisely decided that the risk of death to the benefit of saving money was too great and insisted on finding a driver. As we sat down to eat, and told Sayeed of our dilemma he enthusiastically informed us he had the perfect guide and driver for us. He contacted him and told us that he would meet us after eating. As dessert was being served, we spotted Melody and Kristof down the street, the Belgian couple we met the previous night in Meknes. We invited them to sit and eat with us and they obliged. When we told them of our plans to travel into the desert, while this was not on their agenda they said it sounded interesting. So we sat as they enjoyed Tajine and cous cous and then came along Abdul, our soon to be guide. He introduced himself as an aspiring philosophy student, the same age as us, very proud of his Berber culture and experienced in taking travelers into the desert. As he was describing the trip, Melody said she felt something click as if there must be a Reason that she was in one of the 10,000 streets at the exact same time we were eating, as we were about to meet Abdul, whom we met indirectly from Bernard. She agreed to join us on the spot.
This was our second day in Morocco. A land where mystique was abundant to the point of pasee and it became apparent that our trip would be truly special.
The next day, we hired a guide to help us navigate the overwhelming narrow streets of Fes to cultivate our curiosity of the history and culture rather than fixate on the ever-present feeling of being lost in a maze. We visited the shrine to Moulay Indrissi- bringer of the crescent to North Africa, the Madrasa Bou Inania – oldest university int he world built in 1351, a hotel to house pilgrims making their way to the spiritual pulse that is Fes, herboristes selling spices, herbs and goat skulls to ward of evil spirits (Jinn). Islam is a literally translated as submission, and this made all the more clear as the intricate hand wrought trellis and carpentry work, the need to pray 5 times a day and a mindset dedicated to a power greater than any mortal beamed through every narrow corner that we turned.
In the afternoon, we meet up with our new Belgian friends and Kristof and I let the girls enjoy mint tea as we head into a Hammam- a traditional bath house. I put on my swim trunks and followed a half naked, one eyed man to a centuries old, steamy tiled dungeon type room where other men where washing themselves with buckets of hot water.
He gestured me to lie on the ground and proceeded to dump piping hot water on my head (heated by a man hired to throw wood chips into an over all day underneath the Hamam). He then lathered me down with a generous amount of argan oil soap all over my body, well almost all over. Then he took out this rough hand-sized cloth that had been dangling in his elastic band near crotch, used on previous customers, and scrubbed me hard. I could see layer after layer of dead skin exfoliate off my body (oh I hope that brown stuff was my dead skin). I then went through a couple of rounds of hot and cold water dumped on my head before going back to the changing room to relax with some mint tea.
Relaxed, Kristof and I returned to our women. It was getting late and we had a long drive down to the desert tomorrow, so we split ways excited for the next adventure. On our way back to the Dar, Missy and I stopped to sample snail soup from a humble looking street vendor and we noted that this was a very merry way to celebrate Christmas.
-To get a guide or not get a guide? Many people told me that it was essential to get a guide because Fes is such a maze. In my view, I think it is a good idea to get a guide, but if you have more than two days in the city, you will probably be able to figure it out with enough motivation and save the money (although you should not pay more than 200 dh or $27). Also, I did not find my guide or others chock full of information to satiate my curious mind. Anyway, when picking a guide, first you need to get one that is registered. This is a good quality control measure. You will be approached by many people offering their service, but they will likely have an agenda to bring you to their family’s shops and pressure you to buy. With a registered guide, you will definitely see the main historical sites, but you will also be brought to stores (whether he or she has a relationship to them or not it is difficult to say), where you will be pressured to buy. Bernard recommended the guide to us, so it is best to go through your hotel/hostel to find a guide as an added quality control measure.
-In the maze, try to have the Bab boujloud as your reference point as this is universally known
Dar Melody- Do yourself a favor and stay here if in Fes. Bernard is amazing! His home is gorgeous, breakfast was perfect… all for 50 euros.
When you enter the Bab boujloud, the main entrance to the medina, as you walk to the left, you come across a handful of traditional Moroccan restaurants. They taste the same (absolutely delicious), cost the same and allow you to people watch. Sayeed’s restaurant is Restaurant Guenoune.
Cafe Clock– a little break from tajine and cous cous can be found here. The food was not amazing, but they put together interesting plates. I recommend the camel burger.
I could not sleep for a second in my hostel bed because I ate too many late night churros and chocolate. So after a long night, I woke Missy up early to see the Palacio Real before heading over to Barajas airport. To our dismay, 3 inches of icy slush covered the ground as more sleet pelted us from the sky. The uncomfortable and short visit of what supposedly is a magnificent palace was only the beginning of our troubles.
Cold, wet, and sick of Madrid’s weather, we returned to our hostel, picked up our bags, hopped onto the subway and head to the airport. With little surprise, we came across a throng of pissed off would-be passengers, discovering their flights were canceled. We were one of those passengers. We were supposed to leave at 1pm and were transferred to an 8pm flight, so Missy and I began brainstorming how best to kill 7 hours in a Spanish airport. The prevailing idea- eat 25 chicken McNuggets at the McDonalds and pass out on the dirty dirty floor…. We woke up 4 hours later and checked into our flight, which would also be delayed and did not leave until 2am.
After landing in Casablanca and going through customs, it was 4am, so we decided to kill some time in the airport before catching the 6am train that would bring us to Rabat. We did not shed any tears missing our stay in Casa because we heard there was nothing special, and instead it allowed our first impression of Morocco to be made by the imperial city and political capital. Now a this time I have slept for less than 5 hours in the past 2.5 days, so I am delirious to the point of hallucination but after we took the cab to the Kasbah Oudaias, not even a scizophrenic on LSD could fantasize something so surreal and magical as this village overlooking the river Bou Regreg. The kasbah- which is basically a medieval fortification or castle- was built in 1150AD and flourished today as a neighborhood with wandering streets with blue, turquoise and cyan colored walls broken up by elaborate and ornate doors that would make you feel as if knocking was a form of desecration.
After grabbing the freshest glass of just squeezed orange juice (literally just picked off the ubiquitous orange trees), we walked into the medina- or market place where no cars but noise permeated as we got a small taste of commerce in an Arabic city.
We hailed a cab and returned to the train station and went to Meknes and checked into Riad D’Or. A riad is a restored old manshion, usually undertaken by Europeans capitalizing on affortable property values and labor in Morocco to return the splendor and mystery to the old walls in a modern interpretation. Riad D’or is truly something special, with every turn beckoning wonder to the intricacies of Islamic decor and there were many turns and nooks in this home.
We napped heavily and then explored the relaxed Medina before settling into the restaurant- One Thousand and One Nights which was basically like eating in someone’s home. Literally. There were little kids running around and there was a bed sitting right next to the kitchen. It was here that we met Melody and Christoff, a Belgian couple our age finishing their meal as we ordered who we started chatting with and would become instrumental later on in out trip.
-In 2010, the Rabat train station did not have a bag check (as the Frommer’s guide mentions) so we took a taxi to the busiest station- a 30 dh taxi ride away- to hold our bags during the stay
-Make sure you have a cab put on the meter in Rabat and Meknes
-It is normal for the taxi driver to pick up extra passengers while bringing you to the destination if there is room
-Haggling can be fun, just realize there is a science behind it- whatever price they initially give you, assume that half that amount is really the cost, so try as hard as you can to get bellow that number (half initially mentioned) as possible. Your best tactic- walk away. If you name your goal price- assuming it is fair- pretend to walk away when they do not meet it and they will bend. Don’t get lured into the tricks they use such as “name your last price” or quick hand shakes or compliments. Stick to your price and you will get it as long as walk away. They will usually be pissed off after wards, but that is a sign of a job well done.