with Intrepid Tours, Mum, 6 Aussies, 3 Germans and UK Jan
13.03.2014 - 26.03.2014
Since it's so late, here's my overview of Morocco and after the Day-by-day if you want to know !
Loved Morocco. As hoped it was full of colour, lively streets, friendly people and diverse cultures, ancient and modern. As in most countries the 'touristy' cities sometimes showcase the worst parts but I'll choose to mostly mention the good Arriving into Marrakech was a surprise, expecting lower standards of living, instead the landscape was modern and pretty, streets lined with gorgeous orange trees that sent a fresh scent into the air. The French influence is evident immediately in the streetscaping and many gardens dotted around. For a busy city the traffic was a little chaotic but not quite as crazy as India or Thailand.
There I was thinking it would be hot and sunny as for a mild Summer day in Perth. Not quite. It got to low 20s during the day but the nights were cold and going south and up the mountains would get only colder!
The diverse landscape in Morocco was amazing, especially the Atlas mountains which at times driving through had deep gorges uncovering colourful layers of the rock. Snow in the mountains was unexpected to and we walked high enough to hold it and then seeing nothing but rolling sand dunes in every direction in the vast Sahara it was hard to imagine it was not never-ending.
Breakfast every day of the tour was the same, spongy bread and sometimes Moroccan crepe (like paratha) too with jam and honey, fresh orange juice and sweet mint tea. Bread also came at every meal and after a few days on tour we just couldn't eat much anymore... until I discovered the locals often had olive oil with it! Huh, asking nicely gets you everywhere ?
Our taxi driver seemed extremely friendly as we chatted most of the way toward the old medina where our riad was. Then he tried to charge us 70 dirham per person for the ride as opposed to 70 total as quoted ( I made sure to agree on a price before getting in). Yeah right. Unfortunately this was common in Marrakech and each day there tourists are hassled for money for taking pictures, having someone show you directions to a place 50m away even if you don't want their help and for no reason at all. Even kids as young as 5 do this. It's so sad to experience a city and it's people in this way, where most interaction is because they see you as a dollar sign and not because they are interested in where you come from or what you are doing in their country. Luckily this didn't happen everywhere and we met lots of genuinely friendly locals too!
Our Riad (google for more info) was divine. The riad is a typical style of family house from the Arabs and VERY suited to the Perth climate. Central courtyard letting in full light, thick walls for natural insulation and climate control, 3 stories high to accommodate people and maximum use of the roof terrace for outdoor living. Simply decorated with tiled floors and colourful touches.
Mum and I stayed 2 night in the old Medina, a maze of narrow streets to get lost and found in, with mostly souks selling all the touristy bits (and a bit of hassle from the shopkeepers, just to cement how concentrated the touristy area was), but also decent local leathergoods and ceramics and good good food. Tagines and couscous and mint tea. Well exciting for the first 5 days, then not so much By the way, the secret to the mint tea is the sugar. The ingredients are just green tea, lots of fresh mint and white sugar. Order it without sugar as I did many times and it just doesn't taste minty. Also bitter. Because the green tea just keeps on scalding. I wonder if they know that if they only brewed the tea for 2 minutes then strained it out they wouldn't need so much sugar ?
I discovered immediately that English would be a challenge and my basic French was enough to converse well and ask and answer questions. French is taught and spoken after Arabic whereas English falls a few more places down the list in most cities there. A lot came back to me just hearing it all the time (turns out a lot of the other tourists were French) and Mum admitted she'd be lost without me and I know it made a huge difference to my experience of the place.
Going on a tour, though with only 12 of us, was fabulous for covering a great distance across the country and having a local guide. Especially one who grew up in a Berbere (southern morocco) village. The traditions and lifestyle and history of Berbere is too complex to go into but encompasses some of the most beautiful paint work, jewellery, basket weaving and tool-making I have ever seen.
- *The Berbere Museum inside the Jardin Majorelle (owner by Yves Saint Laurent before he died) in Marrakech had a small but incredible collection.
So, into the details.....
On the Saturday 15th March we met with our Intrepid group, guide Mustafa and started our 10 day 'South Morocco Discovery'.
Meeting group in Marrakech and dinner in Jemma El Fna square – “ The Greatest Public Square Spectacle in Africa” (big call but it was a lot of fun). Huge communal table eating with dozens of different stalls dishing up tapas style share plate. Men come around with trolleys of Middle Eastern sweets and another stand sells (very sweet) ginger & cinnamon tea with a type of soft ginger bread snack. One of my favourite food discoveries in Morocco.
We had a good group, 12 of us plus tour guide Mustafa who was local, growing up in a Berbere village in South Morocco, where most still live very traditional, self sufficient lifestyles.
Bus a couple of hours to in Imlil then walked one hour up to our riad in tiny village of Aremd. Here we were 2000m above sea level and the view of the snow capped mountain behind us was absolutely breathtaking. Completely unexpected and gave me chills - not just because it was about 10 degrees in the middle of the day, but because it was reminiscent of Dharamshala in India. After a hearty egg tagine lunch, just for fun we did another 2hr walk up the mountain to a shrine and 2600m above sea level. I could see snow in the area we were heading and actually found pristine patches near the path at the top, still frozen enough to make snow balls out of !!
The purpose of our mini-trek up the mountain was an Islamic shrine called Sidi Chamarouch. Not sure of the religious significance since Muslims aren’t allowed to have shrines/idols. Anyway, the locals believe it is a shrine to “help” women… if a woman goes there and sacrifices an animal (for which there is a special slaughter square) she will then find a husband. The bigger and more significant the animal the better man you get hahaha! Women are also sometimes taken there to be cured of mental illnesses. Hmmm. As Mustafa said it could also be the walk and clear air and scenery that does that for women who are usually cooped up in the house.
That night it was freezing so I layered up in the few non-summer clothes I had, wrapped my sleeping but plus blankets around me and slept in the lounge next to the only open fire.
Driving through the Atlas Mountains and along the highest pass in Morocco at 2260m. Almost all day.
Destination Ait Benhaddou Kasbah – a really spectacular old fortress. We climbed up through the narrow alley to the top, amongst several shops selling the typical cheap tourist souvenirs, unfortunately characteristic of all of the towns/cities we saw.
Short stop through Ouarzazate aka Mollywood where a lot of films have been made over the years, from Lawrence of Arabia to a bit of Indiana Jones #4 and Gladiator. They had built a studio there but we had no time for any tours.
Nearby we stopped again in a local traditional pharmacy. The presentation here was fabulous, the Pharmacist went through heaps of the ingredients commonly used there, and now by us – think cinnamon, orange blossom and rose water, eucalypt oil, saffron, paprika etc plus their Argan oil and explained the benefits as natural medicines. Very similar to Ayurvedic practices so I really enjoyed this stop. Only room in my rucksack for a bag of herbal tea promising to fix every ailment under the sun .
Sahara Desert! So we stopped in a little town on the edge of the desert called Mhamid to buy ourselves turban-scarves (it this tour sounding kitschy or what!) and have a camel ride. Most of us chose not to buy turbans… they really are just long pieces of cotton so we wrapped our own scarves around our head ?. The camel ride was a novelty, more fun for laughing at each other than anything else.
On to the desert proper! Fun & bumpy 4wd ride 2 hrs to the desert camp which was literally in the middle of nowhere. It consisted of 4 small sleeping tents, one big communal tent and a kitchen tent. Oh and a little toilet/shower tent which I don’t think anybody used. We just decided to all wear the same desert-dirty clothes until the next night at a nice hotel with hot running water!
It was incredibly peaceful here like the Aussie outback and we climbed the highest dune nearby to watch the sunset Not quite as beautiful as over the beach but memorable for the peace and the simplicity of the landscape. I should mention also that we were only 40kms from the Algerian border here!
Only memorable for the drive through the Anti-Atlas mountains- an absolutely stunning backdrop against the edge of the Sahara Desert and stopping in a small town for a hotel-café lunch, at which point myself and 3 others in the group made excuses to explore the town and eat street-food instead (still tagines and brochettes [shish kebab] but REAL food with flavour and local characters to talk to!).
Goat’s IN trees. Yes it’s real. The goat herders take their goats to the wild Argan trees as they like to climb them and eat the nuts. The old trees are incredibly strong as often the goats can get right to the top and tips of the branches. Once eaten the nuts are collected from the excrement because the digestive system of the goat efficiently removes a hard casing making it easier to crack the rest of the nut and press for oil.
Stop at an Argan oil co-op supporting local women. I had bought oil in Marrakech but a few others went wild buying up miracle creams. They also put out some of the tastiest argan oil, honey (very very dark in color) and a spread called Amlou. Look this up! Its basically argan oil, ground almond and honey mixed into a paste… did taste a little like sweet tahini. Heaven. Couldn’t buy, too heavy and expensive but sooo easy to make!!
Also visted a leather tannery where they explained the process of bringing in fresh animal skins – camel, cow, sheep and goat- for curing and colouring and collecting the sheep’s wool, then creating bag, jackets, shoes etc. As one would expect it smelled AWFUL so what they do is give you mint leaves to smell as you walk around. Educational.
En route to Essaouira we stopped to buy our own food for a picnic at a hypermarket. It is what it sounds like and they have these in Europe – its one giant shop that equates to Coles, Retravision, BCF, outdoor world, dymocks and a clothing store all in one. At least I finally found local goat’s yoghurt & cheese (no camel's) plus freshly cooked lentils and vege’s. We lunched on the beach between Agadir and Essaouira which is a stretch famed for windsurfing. It was refreshing being on the coast again and we watched the surfers who had come down from various European countries creating a community of campervans.
Day 8 & 9:
Finally we had more than 1 night in the same town. A beautiful Riad in Essaouira. Very touristy but fun, sunny and myriad of tiny alleyways to explore. Like most Moroccan towns it had a colourful history which left a Jewish quarter and other areas to give it character.
Day 10: Local bus back to Marrakech and end of tour. We shared email addresses and I’ve got a room in Germany with Moe and another in the Lake District with Jan if I need.
Next day train to Rabat with mum, the Political Capital of the country and so ‘normal’ that no one asks you for money for no reason. In fact the local were the opposite, we met some lovely people who went out of their way to help us with the tram and taxi to our Riad there.
Obvious difference in economic situation, which made me sad to think of how unemployment can change a city, where it becomes defined by how tourists are treated.
2 nights in Rabat to re-group before an entire day travel to get over to Spain, by train to Tangier, bus to the new port, a bloody long delay in ferries and final arrival in Algeciras (8.30am to 9.30pm in all). 26th March…
I'm so glad I went and on tour it made getting around very easy but missed out a lot of good things too. If I go back to Morocco I wouldn't join a tour again. It's perfectly safe to travel alone as a single female and I could get on well with the basic French language I have, The tour sheltered us from eating real food (ie off the streets and street cafes) and felt rushed, spending only 1 night in each location until Essaouira at the end. That is the nature of most tours though.
More pics in my gallery...