Saturday, September 16, 2017

A Fond Fairwell, Morocco!

“Why would you want to go to Morocco,” some friends asked us last April when we booked this trip.  Our answer then was “It’s on our bucket list.”  Our answer now is, “Why not?” There are few, if any downsides, and many towering upsides.
The spectacular Bahai Palace
In Marrakesh 

Just having experienced a very full three weeks in several regions, we leave with fond memories of memorable experiences, sites, sounds, smells, flavors, and fun.  Most of all, we enjoyed the people—the friendly Moroccans, our amazing guides, our safe bus and van drivers, and our fun traveling companions.

Since our last post about the Sahara Desert, we had two nights in Ouarzazate, a beautiful city built by the French as a garrison outpost in the vast Sahara region.  Many famous movies have been filmed in the area such as Lawrence of Arabia, parts of Game of Thrones, the Man Who Would Be King, and some more recent action films like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and more.  We ate in a Greek restaurant opened in 1928, decorated with autographed photos of famous celebrities.  Our hotel had numerous movie props (like chariots) throughout the grounds.

Game of. Thrones fans--recognize this gate?
The next day we experienced a day in the life of Moroccan villagers, visiting with them in their homes and in the fields.  It’s a hard life, but they seem to be getting by.  Afterward we visited a newly formed women’s co-op called Imik Simik (bit by bit), empowering women with their own incomes and education.  They taught us how to make couscous from scratch and fed us lunch.  Later the women in our group had their hands decorated with henna.

Showing off their artwork

Two bright women and one bored child!

The Atlas Mountains
We’ve mentioned them before, some over 13,000 feet.  They feed the aquifers and help irrigate he valleys and quench the thirst of the cities.  We crossed them via a 7,000 foot pass in a very tortuous but scenic road into the bustling metropolis and historic city of Marrakesh.  All we can say about the ride is “Wow!”

Near the top of the pass over the Atlas Mountains (note the road below)

This was a nice place to end.  By then we were used to the heat, noise, hustle, and bustle of Moroccan inner cities (medinas).  It's quite the energetic city, with lots of narrow alley bazaars, botanic gardens, palaces, mosques, and affluent neighborhoods. It even has City Bikes for rent for those who are suicidal.  It comes even more alive at night. Anything goes from burkas to short-shorts to sleeveless tops.  We stayed in a fabulous 400-year old mansion (riad) that was converted into a hotel.  With three-foot thick walls and everything directed to the inner open-air courtyard, it was a peaceful refuge.  The inside of the 800-year old Bahia Palace was a site to behold, as were the bustling crowded markets.

A bedroom in the Bahai Palace

An Unexpected Highlight
Camping in the Sahara was the highlight of the trip, until our four-hour bus ride from Marrakesh to Casablanca.  Our guide, Nory, practically had us in tears as he described his desperate attempt to immigrate to Italy via Tunisia in 2002.  His Moroccan family in the Atlas Mountains had fallen upon hard times and he wanted to support them.  He and his friends were robbed in Tunis.  The boat, designed for 50, was crammed with 200.  Awash in vomit near the engine, he thought it was the end when it took on water.  The Tunisian navy rescued, robbed them of everything, and imprisoned in filthy sweltering cells for eight days, barely feeding them.  They were finally released at gunpoint on the Lybian border and trekked for several days to get to civilization, where a fellow Moroccan helped them out.

Nory Al Mazdi, our guide
He said it’s no wonder the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, as the government then was very repressive, unlike in Morocco then and especially now.  We’re glad he survived because he enriched our lives beyond measure, and those of everyone he encounters.  There are hundreds of thousands of desperate and talented people just like Nory who risk everything for a better life.

Glad We Went!
Glad we went, but looking forward to getting home.  As we said before, it’s modern, relatively clean, friendly, scenic, and historic.  We don’t think we’ve been anywhere that had such distinctive and consistent architecture throughout.  We felt very safe, even walking the narrow streets at night.                      

Our only regret is that we didn’t bone up on our bad French before we left, but that wouldn't have helped us in the hinterlands.  We feel comfortable traveling independently in many parts of the world, but due to the language, culture, and logistics, Morocco is perhaps best experienced through a guide that can get you into the back door (and the nomad tents) of distant regions.

In a small part of the huge Marrakesh markets 
Our farewell dinner in a former riad

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Vast and Spectacular Sahara

Experiencing the Sahara desert, especially camping in it for two nights, was never on our bucket list. It should have been. It was part of our tripBut package with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) and we thought, "Oh, that's a nice touristy thing to include in the itinerary."  So far, it has been the highlight of our two weeks in Morocco.

The Sahara is vast, and we only saw a tiny fraction of it.  While it is a relatively small part of Morocco, it extends across much of Northern Africa.  It is the dominant geographic reality of Algeria, Western Sahara, Saudia Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and other countries.

It's also not all sand.  Much of it in Morocco is dark-colored, pebble-to-fist-sized sedimentary rocks.  It is a fossil hunter’s paradise in some places like the photo below.

While it may seem like it, the Moroccan Sahara is not all bone dry.  Oases and date palms pop up every now and then, and in some areas the water table is only 6-10 feet down.  The aquifers are fed by snows from the high Atlas Mountains, some of which are over 13,000 feet high.

Unfortunately, the Sahara is spreading to the north and south, and droughts are affecting the aquifers. We visited a former nomad who used to run his goats and sheep in grasslands.  (The continuing Morocco conflict with Algeria forced him to abandon is wandering between Morocco and Algeria.). It's now mostly that pebble-strewn land with grasses here and there.

The nomad's daughter with her baby,
about 3 miles from our camp in the dunes
We also visited with a date grower.  He and his father started their orchard in 1985 in lush grasslands.  It is now covered by1-8 feet of sand.  Fortunately, he still has a good well.

It took a full day to get from Fes to Erfound, a small trading village that is the gateway to the Sahara Desert.  We crossed a 6,000 foot pass through cypress forests, stopped at an alpine-like town, visited with a nomad sheppard on a high plateau, and spontaneously pulled over to experience bustling weekly market in the middle of nowhere

The next day we piled into Land Cruisers and rode through about six miles of rock and sand dunes to our well-appointed and secluded camp.  We had running water, toilets, and solar generated electricity.  The food, prepared by hotel staff from Erfound who commuted each day, was very good.  We rode camels, hiked, and visited nomads in the early morning or late afternoons,  then spent the hot afternoons enjoying extended conversations under the tarp with the other 12 in our group.
It was HOT, especially in the tents. The only way to keep cool was to douse our clothing with water frequently.  At night, we could only get to sleep under wet sarongs or sheets and stay asleep by getting them wet again. Fine dust covered everything.

But the views were magnificent, especially as the sunlight changed and as the full moon came out and later the stars.  But for a few flies now and then, the silence was deafening.

Enroute to Quarzazate

It took nearly a full day of driving through expansive vistas and adobe red villages to reach Ouarzazate, the site of many famous movies. (If it had a desert, North African, or Egyptian scene in it, it was probably shot here.  More, perhaps, in a future blog).  What a culture shock, especially the lush hotel grounds and the infinity swimming pool!  We may have finally gotten the last grains of sand our of our belongings, but not our fond Sahara memories.

Our guide, Nory, who has made this trip extra special

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Drinking from a Firehose in the Middle of the Desert

Entrance to our riad in Fes
Blogging is relatively easy for me when  we have a lot of down time; the post is mostly about one or two topics, or describing a day or two.  It's especially easy when I can use a robust lap top computer with strong internet instead of an iPad tablet.  So, how to distill the last jam-packed six days, hundreds of photos, and countless topics on a tablet into a single post?  I really can't, as we have been trying to drink from a firehouse of Moroccan experiences, sights, sounds, flavors, history lessons, and interactions.   Maybe when we get home I can fill in the gaps and go into detail with some carefully curated photos.  Meanwhile, for those who have encouraged me to write more (and those of you who who haven't), here are a few drops from that hose. And by the way, its not all desert here.  We've rode through miles of orchards, olive groves, irrigated farms, and forests.

Our pre-trip group of 6 merged with 8 travelers in Rabat, the capital city on the Atlantic Ocean.    It was the second day of the El IAd, and the streets were basically deserted.  We toured one of the king's several palace grounds, several ruins, walked the promonade at sunset, and had an amazing meal in a spectacular former mansion hidden in a narrow alley.  Rabat isn't the typical capital city of  a developing nation--it's clean, modern, and mellow.  Drivers actually stop at stop signs and they rarely honk their horns.
(Below mascot at ceramic tile cooperative, followed by Rabat monuments)

Inland about two hours from Rabat, but still in the north, Fes was founded in the 800's between the Rif and Atlas Mountains.  It had a sewer system from the beginning.  We stayed in a riad (a large home with a central courtyard) that was built 400 years ago in the part of the city that was established in the 1200's.   It was actually three raids combined and modernized, and it is spectacular.  (Trip advisor says it's only $108 per night, but it feels like $1,008.).  It's a 1/4 mile walk through alleyways to get there.
We spent a day with a guide exploring the inner city, a laybrinth of alleys, shops, factories, and homes accessible only by foot or donkey.  With 64 miles of alleys, it is the largest non-motorized urban area in the world.  We walked only 5 of those miles.  We visited a Jewish temple, a tanning factory, and a beautiful 800-year old Madrasa.            

Below:  Tannery in Fes

Below:  Madrasa photos

The Madrasa (an Islamic school teaching all subjects to students of all faiths) was the most interesting.  So much of our modern academic system and terminology is based upon them, such as words like endowment, chair, scholarship, etc.

Below:  scene from inside the old medina
While here, we divided into small groups to have dinners with local families.  Our gracious hosts lived in an apartment in the newer French section and they were so eager learn about us, to candidly answer all of our questions and treat us to some tasty Moroccan lamb tangine.

Volubilis and Meknes tours
Volubilis is an amazing set of well-preserved Roman ruins encompassing 100 acres and 1.6 miles of walls.  Founded in the 1st Century, it has mosaic tiles in the floors of some homes, a sewer system,  and more.  Much of it was either destroyed by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake or looted for sultan palaces, but so much still remains intact.

Seventeenth Century Meknes is the onetime home of the Moroccan sultanate.  It boasts the largest city gate in the world and a 25-mile perimeter wall. The old city has a massive structure that housed 12,000 horses and a granary that could hold several years' worth of wheat.

Below: stables & Grainger of Meknes

We concluded our three-night stay in fascinating Fes with an informal dinner on the rooftop, watching the sunset and the full moon rise in the 100 degree heat.  Today (Thursday) we head toward the Saharan Desert, with a lunch stop at a ski resort high in the Atlas Mountains.  We've been to a lot of interesting places over our 40 years of marriage, but Morocco has to be one of the most interesting, and unique.  It's relatively clean,moderately priced, and the people are friendly.  All-in-all, it's been a most pleasant surprise!

Your happy traveler and frustrated blogger,

Friday, September 1, 2017

Northern Morocco--Beautiful, Modern, & Friendly

Morning view from our room in Chefchaouen
Don't believe everything you see or read about the Arab world. Some places, like Morocco, defy the stereotypes, and we've had a delightful time learning this first-hand.  It is modern, relatively clean, beautiful, and friendly.  It's a land of geographical, cultural, economic, and cultural contrasts.  Oh, and did we mention beautiful?

We feel very safe here wandering the streets after dark.  Moroccans like Americans.  In fact, in 1777, in a "Treaty of Brotherhood," Morocco was the first country in the world to recognize our independence.  Women drive cars and motorcycles, have free access to birth control, serve as mayors and members of Parliment, and don't wear full Hijabs.  (Most, however, choose to wear head scarves.) The country is 95% Sunni Muslim, but pretty mellow about it and tolerant of others.  Unlike other Arab countries, there are no religious police or political prisoners, and so far, we've seen little--if any--military presence like we do in other countries.  The people here seem to revere their highly educated King Mohammed VI and his enlightened economic policies.  In our opinion, the policies would be even more enlightened without all of his many palaces.

Just one night and a few morning hours here, but that was enough.  We toured the world's third largest mosque, stocked up on beer and wine, and then headed north to the Rif mountains.  Our definition of hell is a large city in a developing country, especially these days with epic traffic jams.

We base camped three nights in this beautiful mountain city known for its distinctive blue-washed buildings.  It was a huge caravan crossroads 600 years ago because of its water supply and proximity to so many other places.   It's quite a place, and photos just don't do it justice.  We stayed in a 400-years old hacienda, wandered the narrow alleys and took a day trip to have a cooking lesson and lunch with a relatively poor family in the countryside.  What a fun and tasty experience!

This is a UNESCO world heritage site on the Mediterranean Sea with a big Spanish influence on architecture and language.  We had a local guide.  Good thing, as we would have been hopelessly lost in the narrow alleyways of the medina (the ancient walled city, founded in the 1400's.). This was the day before Aid Al Adha, a major religious festival throughout the Arab world, and we encountered mobs of people stocking up for the five day holiday, buying new clothes, food, and fancy sweets.  Sheep were in high demand, costing about $200-$300.  We heard a lot bleating and saw a lot of reluctant sheep being dragged to their ultimate doom the next day (Friday).  Before heading back we enjoyed an amazing seafood feast on the Mediterranean. The ride back through a spectacular gorge and mountain pass over the Rif mountains was so spectacular that none of us fell asleep.

It seemed like a neutron bomb hit Tetouan, Tangier, and everywhere in between.  We were told it's like that most everywhere in the Arab world.  Everyone was at home or in the mosques.  Sheep throats were slit, and the carcasses were hung to age for a day or so.  We managed to find a resort hotel to serve us coffee and sandwiches enroute to Tangier.  About the only people we saw along the roads were desperate migrants from the rest of Africa, hoping to make it to Europe or find work in Morocco.  

After settling into a very nice hotel on the waterfront with the Spain coast in view, we toured an even older medina, about 3,000 years old, with another local guide.  We saw a lot of sheep hides in garbage cans and boys and young men roasting the hair off the sheep heads so that they can be cooked in tangines tomorrow.  Tangier is modern and cosmopolitan, long a favorite of writers, The Rolling Stones,  James Bond scenes, and Spanish tourists.

On to Rabat, the capital city
Saturday, we head to Rabat where we will meet eight other travelers for the main part of the trip.  We've had so much fun together.  Our close-knit group include:  Janice, a child rights lawyer from Detroit; Maria, a retired US State Department political officer, Vanessa, her sister (loudly pronounced See'Star) and cattle rancher from Puerto Rico, and Diane, a psycho therapist from Oakland.  Our guide, Nory, is the best.  He's a Berber from Morocco, and he met his Dutch wife on one of his guided mountaineering trips in the Atlas Mountains several years ago.  He commutes from the Netherlands to guide these trips with Overseas Adventure Trawvels (OAT).  

For more photos, go to Even if you aren't on FB, you can view the photos.  Enjoy!

Alice, Ron, Kathy, Maria Rasheed (driver)
Diane, Nori, Vanessa