A Moroccan Adventure: The Best and the Worst

Dear ROYAL Air Maroc,

 

We just returned from Morocco and wanted to commend you on the most horrific example of service and efficiency in the travel industry, ever.

If your goal is to eliminate all tourism and air travel in and out of Morocco, congratulations on a job well done.

 

Yours ever so truly,

Us.

 

We started our journey in Marrakech.

 

We wisely arranged for a car from the airport to our hotel in the heart of the city. They retrieved us, put our luggage in the car, and off we went.

Until the pavement ended with an abrupt stop and our driver got out of the car.

In Moroccan Arabic he said something with a hand gesture. Another person appeared with a donkey cart and no donkey, threw our luggage into the cart, and began pulling it down the gravel road. After a few seconds, our jetlagged brains engaged, and we decided it was a good idea to follow.

 

 

Off we went down a gravel road packed with people and other carts. We wove our way in and out of small alleys, streets, and walkways until I was sure we’d walked in circles for 30 minutes. Then our gentleman guide turned around with a wide smile, pointing to a doorway with no sign that looked like the last 200 doorways we just passed. Apparently this was our hotel.

 

He unloaded our luggage from the cart, smiled and waved, and disappeared.

 

We stepped inside to our riad. It was spectacular.

 

 

Riads are the most popular type of “hotel” in Morocco.  It means something like “garden” in Arabic, and they’re essentially inward-facing houses/hotels. In ours at Riad Farnatchi, all the rooms in the U-shaped building faced a beautiful garden courtyard.

 

The only view to the street was from our small shared rooftop. That’s where we enjoyed our first Moroccan sunset and were introduced to Moroccan sparkling wine, Chateau Roslane.

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Marrakech was overload for all the senses. It has an intensity in colors, textures, and patterns that fills all the space and air around you. And everything seems to be bathed in candlelight.

 

The smells also hit you on all fronts, especially in the souks (the city markets). Piles of spices and food stalls were omnipresent. It is the ultimate sensory experience everywhere you look, even through the small archways and down narrow alleys. Everything competes for your attention.

 

 

The Marrakech medina, the center of the city, has one of the biggest-series souks in Morocco. You can spend hours winding your way through the rugs, spices, shoes, clothes, and housewares until they all look alike. (Actually, they all look alike even in the beginning). Everyone says the souk in Fez is better. Trust me, they look and smell the same.

 

After wandering the markets, I HAD to have the babouche (traditional Moroccan leather slippers), even though they were patently uncomfortable and actually ugly. They’re still in my closet in the original packaging. It’s hard to think of a way to re-gift those cleverly.

 

A quirky highlight in the city is Jemaa el Fna, the square formerly used for public decapitations. It’s now transformed into a haven for snake charmers, acrobats, monkey trainers, and teeth salesmen. You never know when you’ll need a few extra teeth, right?

 

After several days getting to know Marrakech, eating tagines with khoubz (the Moroccan version of naan or pita), wandering the streets and alleys, filling our nostrils and stomachs…..we couldn’t wait to get out of the city.

To the Atlas mountains.

There’s a quote from Winston Churchill to Roosevelt in 1943 after convincing him of a detour to Morocco:

“I must be with you when you see the sun set on the Atlas Mountains.”

 

So we headed east to do the same.

 

The Atlas Mountains separate the coastline from the desert in Morocco, and they are an unexpected gem. The mountain area is home to North Africa’s most remote villages. Until the last decade, running water and electricity were nonexistent there, and even today are considered a luxury.

In addition to the momentous sunset (Churchill was right, of course), it was here that we had the experience of hiking through the remote villages and up the mountains and meeting the Berbers, the indigenous population.

And it was here that our Berber guide informed us his 13-year daughter’s husband had been chosen and she was getting married next year. Suffice it to say, there is still a fairly distinct inequality between the sexes and ages most of us can’t wrap our minds around.

It was also here that we got to experience the way of life, drink the traditional Berber tea (more herbs than the more popular mint), and see the shared space among parents, kids, chickens, goats, and donkeys.

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And it was here we learned to bake bread by sticking it on the roof of the handmade clay and dirt oven.

 

The views from every vantage point are memorable and magical.

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Especially the views of the mounds and piles of booze bottles. Why? Drinking is allowed in Morocco, but not in public. During a few hikes, we happened upon a few unexpected surprises in remote locations that resembled recycling bins after homecoming weekend in college.

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After the Atlas introduction, we made a longer trek west to the seaside village of Essaouira. In Morocco, everything seems to be a longer transport, even in this seemingly small country. The drive was worth it to see the contrast to this village and port city on the Northern Atlantic. It showed us there is no “typical” in Morocco.

 

We stayed at the Heure Bleue Palais in the center of the city within easy walking distance of the morning fish markets, the seaside wall, and the historic 5th century trading post (built under Portuguese rule) with a giant cannon.

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Two things we learned at the Heure Bleue: I didn’t get any gratification from smokin’ the hookah, and the old-style bar cart needs a revival (and believe me, we’re trying).

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Around Essaouira, we bicycled along the coast, watched goats climbing the Argan trees, and rode camels on the beach.

We’d been hearing all along that people “can’t leave Morrocco without a rug.” We tried, but it finally caught up with us in Essaouira. The thing about buying rugs in Morocco is when you’re there, you don’t notice the smell. When it arrives at your home and you unroll that bad boy, you will definitely notice the smell. And no, excessive Febreze and hanging it out in the fresh air doesn’t really help.

 

 

From the sea to the camels.

We headed back the long way toward Marrakech and were lucky enough to catch up with the traveling camel market in one of the small cities. This isn’t the big Guelmim camel festival, rather the more regional traveling market. Think of the Midwestern county fairs with the sad kids’ rides and the gathering of townspeople. Only the purpose here was the buying and selling of camels. It’s pretty heartbreaking to hear the camels actually crying as their families are ripped apart (as we callously took pictures, of course).

And there was the donkey parking lot off to the side. Sadly, no valets. Everyone had to park their own donkey.

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From the camels to the highest point of luxury.

The final leg toward Marrakech was highlighted with biking through the arid desert land and rocking the actual Kasbah.

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We stayed in a Kasbah (a former defensive fort on a hill) turned garish hotel.  Let’s just say we didn’t bring back design ideas from the Kasbah.

Ending the trip in Marrakech, we stayed at La Mamounia, the undisputed grande dame hotel (or “snotty hotel,” as our friend George likes to say). Recently renovated (probably 2008/2009) it was ending on the highest of high notes.

Until we had to fly home.

Marrakech to Casablanca to JFK via Royal Air Maroc . What was so bad?

 

Wellllll. After two flight delays, arbitrary posting, changing and cancelling of flight times, a reservation system that went down, no record of our flight reservation, haggling to get seat assignments, going through 4 passport checks with the airline (one that took our passports away from over an hour), told to simply wait for what you hoped was the right bus for the flight that had no posted departure…..After all that, as we were boarding the plane the flight attendants called out there was no assigned seating. Mass exodus ensued of people throwing their bags onto seats, pushing, shoving, and screaming.

 

Our final seats? Between a screaming baby and two goats. The Delta flight from JFK home was heaven.