Mesmerized

Location: Marrakesh, Imlil and Zagora, Morocco

Introduction:

We crossed back over into the northern hemisphere to get a taste of Morocco. The weather was mild during the day yet cool enough that we had to break out our jackets for the first time in months. We flew through Cairo into Casablanca and then took a pair of trains to reach Marrakesh where we spent several days. We then booked a tour to get out into the mountains and desert for a few more days before returning to Marrakesh. At times, Morocco reminded us of Turkey, the first Arab country we ever visited. At others times, it felt uniquely different, especially given the French influence and language spoken by many. Fortunately, there was enough English spoken that we were able to make our way around without too much difficulty. Overall, we were impressed with Morocco’s beauty and all that it has to offer.

Sites Visited:

Essentially, Marrakesh is comprised of 2 cities: the old and the new. We started out in the old section called the Medina and finished up in the new modern European-like district called Gueliz. The Medina is a maze of alleyways filled with pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycles, and mule-drawn carts making passage rather interesting. Then, there are the shops. In the heart of the Medina are the Souks, or markets, that sell all sorts of local goods. Many of which you can see being handmade by craftsman and artisans. In the outer passages, there are varieties of fruits, vegetables, spices, raw meat, live chickens, rabbits, etc. for sale making for some interesting sights, sounds and smells. The main square is called Djemaa El-Fna and it’s somewhat exotic with snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, monkeys and the like. We also found lots of stalls selling street food along with cafes and restaurants that are tucked away or up on a rooftop. These restaurants are like an oasis from all of the chaos occurring in the alleyways. There are various museums as well. More than anything, it’s a shopper’s paradise and that, unfortunately, took some of the fun out of it for us, as all we could do was window shop given that we’re traveling with backpacks.
We booked a 3-day tour with Atlas and Sahara Tours – Morocco. On our first day, we headed east to Imlil, which is nestled in the Atlas Mountains. We took some guided hikes into the mountains and through the local Berber villages. The air was cool and crisp. The sun was warm and bright and the scenery was beautiful. We thoroughly enjoyed it.
The next day, we headed 300 km further southeast to Zagora and the Sahara Desert. Along the way, we stopped at Ksar Alt Ben Haddou where a number of famous films have been made like The Gladiator. This helped to break up the drive. The scenery was mesmerizing but the serpentine-like roads through the endless mountains were a slow go. We awoke early the next day to head out into the Sahara on camels. The ride was quiet and peaceful but didn’t take us as deep into the Sahara as we were hoping.

Accommodations:

We spent our first 3 nights in Marrakesh in a Riad named Dar Nour El Houda. It was tucked down an alley and we needed an escort to find it but once inside, it was a relaxing retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Medina. It was quite comfortable and we were served a modest breakfast each morning. It contained a lovely courtyard and rooftop deck. We did, however, find it odd that none of the guest rooms had locks on them. This was a first for us. It wasn’t an issue of safety but rather a concern for the security of our backpacks and belongings. Fortunately, we did not run into any issues. Our room had a/c but we didn’t need it and the wifi was good. We made special arrangements with our hosts and enjoyed a home cooked meal of beet soup, lamb tagine and chocolate pear dessert all of which were delicious.
We spent 1 night at Riad Jnane in Imlil and it was quite nice and colorfully decorated. It gets cold at night in the mountains but we were kept warm with radiant heated floors and 4 layers of blankets on our very firm bed. They had a rooftop patio with scenic views of the Atlas Mountains where we were served a 3-course lunch of salad, beef tagine and fruit salad. We were so full from lunch that all we could eat for dinner was a bowl of soup. The wifi was surprisingly good in the common area.
When we arrived in Zagora on the edge of the Sahara desert, they tried to put us up in a “Luxury” tent even though we’d made arrangements to stay in a Riad. We said no thanks and ending up spending 1 night at Riad La Petite Kasbah. The accommodations were satisfactory and the food was ok. The wifi in the common area was the best we had in Morocco.
We used some Starwood points to spend our last night at La Meridien N’Fis in Marrakesh. We were thrilled to finally have a fitness center for the 1st time in 2 weeks.

Food And Drink:

It was great to have some spice back in our food again. We ate out frequently and enjoyed many flavorful dishes including Lentil & Crushed Eggplant Salad, Smoked Salmon Tartar, Roasted Vegetable Couscous, Lemon Chicken, Chicken Kabobs, Spinach Ravioli and Lamb Tagine. To our dismay, the wine selections were limited, more expensive and somewhat disappointing. Much to our surprise, we found the orange juice served in Morocco to be consistently outstanding and perhaps the best that we’ve ever had.

Transportation System:

We, of course, had to take the “Train to Marrakesh”. We tried to buy 1st class “assigned” seats but they were sold out. So, we ended up in 2nd class, which was fine except that it was standing room only when we left Casablanca and it took a few stops on the 3-hour trip before we both found seats. Once we started our tour, we were transported in a Toyota Land Rover. The 4-wheel drive came in handy when we went off-road. We also took several taxis in the new section of Marrakesh and found it to be an aggravating experience. Most of the taxi drivers refused to use the meter and negotiating fares in a foreign language became a challenge. Then the drivers wouldn’t have change (or so they’d claim). So, we ended up paying higher fares than we should have.

Shout Out:

We’d like to recognize our hosts, Patrick and his wife Lilian, from Riad Dar Nour El Houda as they couldn’t have been more helpful. Patrick walked us through the alleys to dinner on our first night. While we were out the next day, Lilian noticed that we’d hand washed some clothes and hung them in the bathroom to dry. She rehung everything on a drying rack in the courtyard for us. We really enjoyed our stay with them. Merci Beaucoup!

For Your Amusement:

We finally fell victim to our first scam (that we’re aware of anyway) when we overpaid for a local Sim card for our iPhone at an airport kiosk. It was a basic “Bait and Switch” scheme. Given the language barrier and our fatigue after a long travel day, we decided to just accept it and move on.Satellite TV appears to be a popular pastime in the Medina of Marrakesh.
We thought we’d finally found a travel corkscrew that would get through airport security but even this one was confiscated. So, we have resorted to a new method of opening our wine without a corkscrew. We just push the cork down into the wine using a toothbrush handle.

Highlights:Wandering around the Medina of Marrakesh and hiking in the Atlas Mountains.

Next Up: Now that Spring is approaching, we’re leaving Africa and making the move up into southern Europe. We’re starting out in Portugal and looking forward to exploring their wine regions.

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