Morocco December 2011
In December 2011, we attended annual trade show in Cannes. After that since we already were in Europe, we decided to visit Morocco. It is been on my wish list a long time.
I booked tickets from Marseilles to Casablanca. Our arrival was not as was elegantly stated in movie "Casablanca"… To get to Marseilles, I got train tickets from Cannes to Marseilles. I like
French trains. Well, when they show up! Our TGV train from Brussels to Cannes to Marseilles has been cancelled. We were able to catch train to Avignon and then connect to train to Marseilles St. Charles. Our original train tickets also included connection from Marseilles St. Charles to MRS (Vitroieles airport).
But Avignon to Marseilles train got us there too late and we could not take train to airport. Plan B: So we took bus shuttle to airport. This is lugging all luggage.... Thankfully we did not have heavy luggage. I shipped my trade show materials home. We made to airport just 30 min before departure. I thought we will miss the plane. But we were checked in promptly and securities got us without line. Air Maroc flight was fine,2 hrs, and I had time to catch up on breath. They even served drinks and cheese sandwich.
Suggestion to myself: do what I do for my clients - pay my prices and get driver door to door...... I wanted to save money, it cost me extra 17 euro on bus and stress of running through MRS is just not worth it.
Some information on geography and history.
Morocco is situated in Northern Africa and as we were told, Moroccan consider themselves as a tree, with roots in Africa and branches in Europe. It is the closest country to Europe and closely associated with Andalusian Spain and Portugal. It lies from strait of Gibraltar on the Mediterranean and looks out to Atlantic ocean from the Northwest part of Africa. The Atlas Mountains run through the country from North to South to Algerian border about 11,000 ft in elevation. To the south lies Sahara desert. It is the westernmost country in Muslim world.
Originally Jews and Berbers lived there. Berbers are descendants of people mixed origins (Oriental, Saharan and European) who lived in what is now Morocco since second millennium B.C.. Roman invaders called them Berbers which was derived from Barbarians. They settled at different times but believed were first inhabitants along with Jews. The first Jews came to Morocco around 70CE after destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Second immigration came in 15C fleeing from Spanish inquisition from Spain and Portugal. Arabs arrived in 7C and brought Islam to Berbers. Arabs and Berbers fought a lot but were together in invading Spain, later were expelled from Spain in 11c. That’s why Spain and Portugal has Moorish influence in culture and architecture. In 1660 Morocco came under control of Alawite dynasty which rules Morocco to this day.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Morocco was one of the Barbary States, the headquarters of pirates who pillaged Mediterranean traders. European powers showed interest in colonizing the country beginning in 1840, and there were frequent clashes with the French and Spanish. Finally, in 1904, France and Spain concluded an agreement that divided Morocco into zones of French and Spanish influence, with France controlling almost all of Morocco and Spain controlling the small southwest portion, which became known as Spanish Sahara. Morocco became French colony in 1912 and was under French until 1956.
Unlike in other countries, Jews coexisted peacefully with Arabs and Berbers. Jews were traders and artisans and generally were protected by the King. Morocco is the only country in the Arab World both rich in Jewish history and with a living Jewish community. It is a delight for the travelers interested in the Jewish heritage of Morocco who can discover hundreds of fascinating historical and spiritual sites. A visit to "Jewish" Morocco is a lesson in the potential for Jewish-Muslim coexistence.
In Casablanca airport, we were met by our driver Fatullah. First culture shock – we saw a group of Saudi Arabians in their traditional Arab dress holding in thick padded leather gloves falcons. They had a lot’s of kind of nomadic gear and were packing into a large line of snorkeled trucks. The driver told us that it is popular sport for them to do falcon hunting along with a pilgrimage in Morocco.
At 6pm we arrived our hotel Le Meridien Mansour, best location in Casablanca. We had dinner at hotel in Moroccan restaurant with specialty of Tangine chicken. Mine had pancake (pasta stripes) and lentil and delicately cooked chicken. Michael’s had chicken stewed with olives, lemons and couscous. Both were delicious. The setup was a Berber’s tent. We were the only ones there (low season) and 2 waiters entertained us. Our guide Lahcen arrived later and joined us for desert and tea and we mapped out the next long day. I love Le Meridiens. Like other hotels, this was done in local Moroccan style. It does need a bit of updating but rooms are very large and comfortable and public places are beautiful. Breakfast buffet was abundant and had Moroccan specialties - lot's of dry and fresh fruit, stewed fruits besides general breakfast fare. Good breads and desserts, both French and Moroccan.
Day 1. Casablanca – Rabat – Meknes – Volubulus - Fes
After breakfast we checked out. Too bad we only spent one night, but we had to move on. Our driver and guide arrived and we went to Hassan II mosque by the sea. It was completed in 1993, designed by French architect Michel Pinseau and considered one of the most beautiful mosques in the world. Partly erected on water, it was inspired by King Hassan II to contemplate the power of god, soil and water. The location on Atlantic Ocean is stunning. It is the only mosque in Morocco which is open for tourists visits.
It was Saturday and Moroccan Jewish museum was closed. We took a panoramic tour of this elegant port city.
We saw colonial architecture by French colonialists – Art Nouveau, Art Deco townhouses, Moorish palace like villas – that was a Beverly Hills of the city. Although city is famous by connection with famous people like Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Edith Piaf, but most Americans associate it with romance of the movie "Casablanca" , starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman.
Of course, movie was not even filmed in Casablanca, but to attract more tourists, the fans of the movie can be happy now – a Ricks Café is opened few years ago in a Moroccan home near old Medina overlooking city port.
We also passed by the place of former Hotel d’Anfa, where historic meeting between President Roosevelt and British PM Churchill took place in 1943, at which the date of allied landings in Normandy was decided. Although Germans intercepted the meeting, but they were misled by literal translation of “casablanca” – they thought it was White House in USA and not Casablanca city and failed to prevent it. Also, during that meeting, President Roosevelt pledged his support to Sultan Muhammed V in his struggle to obtain independence from France, thus opening new future for Morocco as an independent country in post war period.
We left Casablanca and went to Rabat, capital of the Morocco. On the way our guide Lahcen told us about history of Morocco. In Rabat, we saw unfinished Tour Hassan Mosque; it was supposed to be the counterpart of Marrakech’s Koutoubia Mosque and the Giralda Cathedral in Seville, Spain, all of which were built by the Almohad Dynasty, the twelfth 12 century persecutors of the Jewish people.
Adjoining the Tour Hassan is the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V, which has become a pilgrimage site for Jews, who cannot forget his efforts to defend them against the anti-Semitic policies of the French Vichy Government. This beautiful building was commissioned by Hassan II, designed by Vietnamese architect and built by 400 Moroccan craftsmen. It was guarded by royal guards on horses. The mausoleum was done in Italian marble and under dome there was sarcophagus of the king. The burial chamber was crowned by 12 sided dome with painted mahogany. The mausoleum had beautiful stained glass work and candelabra.
We left Rabat and went to Meknes, the “Moroccan Versailles" which was founded at the end of the 17th Century by Moulay Ismail, where the Jewish presence is evidenced by Hebraic epitaphs dating from the Christian era as well as Greek inscriptions that still appear in local Synagogues and a place of pilgrimage where the tomb of Rabbi' David Benmidan, "The Patron of Meknes" is located. Unlike other buildings, the Ancient Jewish Buildings in Jewish Quarter “Mellah” had balconies in narrow streets – for Succot. We also visited old town Medina, markets, and Palaces of king Moulay Ismail of 17C, very vast and impressive stables. Then we spent time in market. Meknes, which had 18.000 Jews in 1950, now has a community of 1000.
Lunch was olives and Moroccan flat bread on the market’s cafe, which I started to like very much. And of course, mint tea! Afterwards we went to Roman archeological site, Volubulus which was ancient capital of Mauretania. It has beautiful mosaics. And the roman town was 5 centuries old dating from 2BC to 3AD. Beautiful site, especially at sunset. Some of the more influential homes still had marvelous mosaics made into the floors.
Then we went to Fes. It was olive harvest season. We sampled olives and saw how they are harvested. It was a long day. Usually it is done in 2 days with arrival from USA in the morning to Casablanca.
But since we arrived in the evening, we had to squeeze in 1. We checked in into delightful Riad Fes, in the labyrinth of old town. I do not even know how we walked there, corner by corner with our guide. It is Relais and Chateaux property.
We were upgraded to Sultan suite with Terrace. We had dinner at the Riad. First day had ended and we were already impressed with people of Morocco. They are friendly to tourists, and most important for me, Jews and Muslim live there for many centuries and coexist peacefully.
Riads are traditional Moroccan houses, with courtyard in the middle, which has either pool or fountains. Since in Old Medina there are no views from windows, the Riads were built with windows facing the courtyard and open to the sky. Usually, the first floor is reception, fountain, and restaurants nowadays. So accommodations always start from second floor and up. The rooms are generally represent traditional character. If you go to Morocco try at least one stay in Riad.
Dinner at Riad Fes was OK but not of Relais and Chateaux quality. Lamb was very overcooked. Next morning, we had breakfast there and it was nice, beautifully presented and I liked that they bring everything to your table and not buffet. Eggs were on request to cook but we enjoyed pastries, yogurt, cheese and Moroccan pancakes.
Days 2-3. Fes.
Fez, the oldest cultural and spiritual imperial city of Morocco, was founded in 790 B.C by Moulay Idriss II and today we were off to explore it. Lahcen took us to the observation point on the hill and explained layout of Imperial city of Fes. It had 8c, 14c and new town sections. Our Riad was in 8C area. We went to Jewish quarter (called Mellah) and visited Danan synagogue of 17C.
Fes Jewish quarter is the first Jewish enclave of Morocco. The King and Rulers of Fes protected Jewish community on return for levy collected from Jews. The population of Mellah was settled according to their trade, most of them working with gold and silver. Jews contributed significantly to Fes becoming business center of Morocco. As the city developed many learned men settled in Fes, among them such as Yehuda Ben Qurayesh, David ben Abraham Alfassi and Maimonides (1150) as well as businessmen and community leaders such as Nahman ben Sunbal (1556), Samuel Hagiz (1596), Yehuda Uziel (1603), Shemouel Tsarfaty (1713), Yehuda Ben Atar and Hayim Ben Atar, Avner Tsarfaty (1884) and Isaac ben Danan (1900).
We went to Jewish cemetery dated from 7C which contains the tombs of more Jewish saints than any other cemetery in Morocco, like, Yehuda Ben Attar, Abner Ha-Serfati, Solika Hatchuel, Monsenego. We also saw house of Maimonides. The cemetery was well designed , maintained and clean. The ancient tombs were rounded shapes. Modern graves looked like regular western ones. We saw mausoleums for saints. Some of them, Lahcen explained, are visited often by Jews for pilgrimage. Ancient tombs had Hebrew inscription and modern ones were had French writing.
After cemetery, we went to Medina and explored it’s narrow alleys and souks. We had lunch in nice restaurant in Medina with Moroccan salads and of course, again Tangine chicken which by now we became fond of. As for shopping, we went to the House of Bronze, to see how artisans are working with bronze. We bought ancient bronze menorah which uses oil instead of candles. For leather, we went to tannery. Tanning craft is very ancient, and Fes was and still is the center of it. The tanning process turns animal hides into soft leather and then leather is passed for leatherwork. The tannery of Fes dates to middle ages. We were taken to the observation center by many steps by tannery representative who gave us mint to smell – to protect from unpleasant strong smell of tannery. We watched how hides were cleaned , washed and dyed with natural paints. Then we went down to presentation room to have mint tea and listen to another shopping presentation. We did not buy much, just few small items – pocketbooks etc. Then we went to souk to look at traditional clothes and they talked Michael into buying Jelabah – traditional Moroccan garb – long dress with hood. By that time I already got tired of shopping and bargaining but Michael still enjoyed it.
Bargaining process (see below at end of report) .
Not sure what we were thinking but we walked out from clothes store with $200 wool Jelabah, silk tablecloth and Fes. Michael however was wearing it the rest of the trip and declared it very comfortable. It has pockets cuts so you can comfortable keep your pockets accessible to yourself and away from pickpockets and also hood was used when not for warmth, then for carrying phone and other small items in it. Very versatile clothes. As for Fes – it was traditional red hat which we saw in Egypt and thought it is originated there but turned out Fes city was origin of Fes. We bought it too for completing the Moroccan wardrobe and now it is on display at home
Next day in Fes we explored Medieval Medina, the Medersas, the El Qaraouiyyin Mosque, mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II the founder of Fez in the ninth century who encouraged the Jews to move to Fez and the sumptuous Nejjarine fountain. Then we went shopping for rugs the store was located in 14c palace, and had entertaining presentation by rug salesmen with good smooth English, quoting Shakespeare and quoting Frommer's description of this store. http://www.frommers.com/destinations/fes/3961010031.html .
Medersa is 14C residential college, both cultural and religious establishment. It had beautiful tiles, wooden screens and stained glass. Afterwards we went to new town, and set in café facing wide boulevard, and watched people. That part of the town was very much French/European. There were a lot’s of young people outdoors. Lahcen explained that local team won soccer game so it was a parade. People crowded streets. So it was nice relaxing end of day before we got to our hotel to recharge, pack, and get ready for our next day adventure. Late lunch and café made for the meals for the day so we got some fruit for evening and called it a day.
Day 4 Fes - Erg Chebi, Merzouga Dunes, Sahara desert.
After another pleasant and delicious breakfast at Riad Fes we checked out and packed our already growing luggage to the car and soon we were off to our next destination –Sahara.
We headed south of Fes to Middle Atlas mountains, the altitude was changing to up 10,470 ft in the highest peaks of the mountains. In some places we saw snow peaks. The scenery varied from very little vegetation to some places with forests of cork, cedar, oak and pine. The forest was predominantly from high plateau, where craters of existing volcanoes were filled with lakes. The lakes shore looked like desert. Occasionally we saw people herding sheep, Lahcen told us that semi-nomadic tribes live there. Some wooded mountain areas looked like Switzerland. We stopped some times, to take pictures of the scenery and people (Lahcen asked them for permission to take photos). In one places there were monkeys on roadside and some enterprising locals who were selling peanuts for monkeys. We stopped, fed monkeys and took photos. The baby monkeys were so cute! That mint tea started getting to us so we needed bathrooms more often!
In about 4 hours, we stopped in Midelt and had snacks and tea in luxury hotel Taddart. It was in the middle of nowhere in the half way to Merzouga. While Michael, Lahcen and our driver Fatulla relaxed at restaurant, I inspected hotel. The rooms were 5* quality although hotel is 4*. The woodwork and plasterwork were impressive and of good taste. Some of the rooms hade view of the mountains. There was a small swimming pool and they are building spa. The tourists go trekking in the mountains if they want. So it made sense for stop for overnight on the way to Merzouga, dunes of Erg Chebbi.
We continued south, altitude got lower. The villages had large houses, Kasbah style, Kasbah means castle with towers on 4 corners. The roof was either lower or there was an open terrace instead of roof where obviously people liked to be at leisure. We were supposed to stay in High Atlas mountains last night in Kasbah.
We arrived to Erfoud to luxury hotel Xaluca which runs luxury desert camp in dunes. Some clients may want to stay at hotel and just be taken for a camel ride for sunrise and sunset but we wanted to experience desert in a traditional Berber tent.
The way it works, you arrive to hotel in Erfoud, where desert starts. Then you change to 4 wheel drive jeep and they take you to the desert. Our new driver of the jeep drove fast but carefully on the bumps. The road ended and he was driving through desert rocks and some water. Our original driver Fatullah left in Erfoud and Lahcen went with us to the camp in dunes of Erg Chebbi. We arrived about 30 min before sunset so it was perfect timing. On arrival, the camels were waiting for us. We were not sure how we will handle camels so we decided to go for a short ride over 30-60' high dunes. Otherwise for people who do not want to ride, they just walk to the tent.
The luggage was handled by Berbers who greeted us on arrival. We mounted camels and went for a ride. It was quiet, the colors were dark orange, dunes were tall like small mountains! The camels ride was smooth, because sand was soft. Lahcen was running around us taking pictures from all sides. Another advantage of having guide there! Meanwhile I saw with my side vision our luggage been carried from the jeep to the tent which I assumed will be ours for a night. The camels got us to the tent, and we descended (is this the word? ) camels and walked inside.
The Berbers were waiting for us and met us with nuts, dates, tea and wine. The sun already been down and it became colder. The whole floor was covered with rugs. Shoes were optional. They showed us our tent – it had small sink, shower and electricity but they told us that electricity will be turned off at 10pm so if we need to charge anything, do it now. They even had hot water. The tent was set private, with 4 “rooms” , we were in one and Lahcen in another, each room had private toilet western style and shower.
There was another private party – 2 ladies, but Lahcen said they have their own tent setup. Although it would be possible for them to be with us since every “room” had private bath. However, for deluxe tent camp, they place people privately. Something like villa setup. Most of the time, we spent in the tent’s common area “living room”, where they lit a fire , and talked to our berber host and Lahcen. The Berber camp attendants played traditional Berber music. It was very quiet in the evening. The stars were very bright and you can see Milky Way and other constellation until the full moon rose. It was getting colder but comfortable by the fire. They even let me join in on the drum to the Berber music! The dinner arrived soon and it was served at “living room” table, and it was the best quality we’ve had so far, roasted succulent lamb, excellent moist tangine chicken, and fruit and pastries for desert. It was a lot’s of food, real berber feast.
Contrary what I thought, Berber told us that there is water in the desert, so the wells are drilled and water is coming by pipe. He showed us plastic pipes in the sand. Michael and Lahcen still were looking at stars and I went to sleep. There were about 5 thick blankets, so they were heavy. I got under and fell asleep. At night, when I woke up, it was pitch dark but I managed to find bathroom.
Before I got to bed, Berber asked us if we want to see sunrise and we said yes. So in the morning, he woke us up and we walked dunes (without camels) for a morning walk. It was another beautiful view and reflection of sun on the red sand was just unreal. Afar, we could see a caravan of camels with tourists who came in the morning for sunrise drive, but I would not change for anything to sleep at hotel. It was a lifetime experience I will never forget. Sun was so low that you think you can touch it. And at night, even after sunset, the full round moon was unusual white color. Lahcen said because it is clear air, no pollution so the colors are very vivid.
After breakfast, the breakfast was served, now at the table outside of tent, in the sand in desert, with fruit, cheese yogurt and omelets. We saw Berbers carrying food somewhere in the dunes, he explained us, to next door tourists ladies. We never saw them. After breakfast, our jeep arrived, our luggage was moved there, we hugged Berbers, tipped them and bid them farewell. We were off towards Marrakech but you cannot make in one day so our next overnight stop is Berber Palace in Ourzazate.
Day 5, Ourzazate.
The jeep driver got us to Erfoud hotel where we our driver Fatullah was staying and we switched to our original van. Erfoud was the major Jewish population center of the Tafilalet, where Jews worked as merchants and artisans as late as the twentieth century, We visited a well preserved Jewish cemetery there with mausoleum.
Our next stop was a fossil factory where we saw beautiful rare black marble fossils furniture and knick-knacks. We bought a coffee table with relief fossils which has not arrived yet. I also wanted to check out the Berber rugs which were a bit cheaper than in Fes. But the bargaining was not good, we somehow did not connect with the seller. He was very pushy and we had to get our heavy artillery Lahcen who helped us to close the deal and threaten to the owner that he will never bring tourists there. We bought 2 rugs at rasonable price and it is a pleasure to see them in my living room.
We continued West, passed Palm Groves, saw women collecting them and drying them on the ground. This particular Valley was developed as a communal stronghold against invaders (nomadic tribes), therefore the villages were fortified centuries ago they are called Ksars. Then within fortification, the village developed with houses, medarsas, mosque and granaries.
Some areas of the valley had a lots of underground or river rain water, and that’s how oases developed. It is very fragile ecological environment to preserve oases so people drilled wells, built dams to keep it for irrigation. We saw one of such well and I pulled water out of it by rope. There were also channels which crossed oases to channel water in needed direction. Well kept irrigation canals, trees and greenery reminded me Israeli vegetation where it is also in the desert they have many trees.
We reached Tinjejad which was a village where Lahcen’s family lives. They invited us for lunch and prepared Barbeque turkey served with delcicious homemade bread and pastries. It was extended family of his mother, brother, wife, niece and 2 year old adorable nephew. It was very warm reception and we were touched that they opened their home for us. Lahcen showed us their large home and like all homes in Morocco, instead of top floor, there was terrace. It is relatively cool in summer and they escape from Marrakech for 2 months in summer.
We had nice lunch, conversation with translation of Lahcen and his brother Yosef, who is an English teacher. We hugged them farewell and continued. Our next stop was Todra Gorges where we saw cliffs high as 985 ft on both side of narrow corridor. We took a walk there and saw palm and dates groves and nice vegetation. We enjoyed nice walk there with great views and the mountain air was cool and pleasant. We sat at a café with more mint tea and then continued to Ourzazate which is half way to Marrakech. From what I saw, it is not much to do there except to stay for overnight.
Ouarzazate is located in Atlas mountains on 3800 ft altitude. It is a pleasant clean town, with wide boulevards. It is to be known as Hollywood of Morocco, hundreds of movies were shot there the diamond of the Nile, Lawrence of Arabia, the Mummy, Gladiator, 7 days in Tebet, Babel… … and there is Atlas film studios with artifacts from movies, reminded me somewhat Las Vegas. We only took pictures of the studios from outside since we did not have desire to tour it. We stayed overnight at large resort Berber Palace which also had movies props in the lobby. Dinner at Berber Palace was included, it did not compare with Berber feast in the desert. The hotel was comfortable. Next morning we checked out, stopped at post office and ship some extra clothes and shopping items home.
Days 6-7 Marrakech.
On the way to Marrakesh, we visited the sanctuary of a Jewish saint Rabbi Habibi Mizrahi.
The road continued through High Atlas Mountains and highlight views were Tiz-inTichka Pass (7,417 ft altitude) , built in 1920s by French, through rich soil and fertile valley. Red color earthen villages were perched on the hillsides. We arrived Marrakech in the afternoon and checked in at Riad Demeures d’oriente in old town section. We called it a day and had dinner at Riyad. We got nice Andalusian suite.
We we visited the Mellah with its synagogues, The Negidim synagogue built at the end of the 19th century, the other synagogue of the mellah is the Salat el Alzama, built at the turn of the century. Then we saw very large cemetery where important Jewish leaders Rabbi Hanania Ha-Cohen, the Lion of Marrakesh and Rabbi Pinhas Cohen are buried.
We proceeded to the Palais el Bahia where to see several grand halls, gardens and the harem quarter… then, we saw the eleventh century Almoravide Koubba el Baroudiyn. It is one of the few architectural reminders of the dynasty that presided over the "Golden Age" of the Jews in Spanish Andalucia and Morocco. The Medersa Ben Yusuf, El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs are beautiful demonstrations of the art and architecture of the 16th century Saadians, a dynasty that relied heavily on Jewish traders with Sub-Saharan Africa, including Moroccan-controlled Timbuktu, to finance its wars against Portugal and the Turkish Empire.
By contrast to Medina, the new city, Avenue Mohammed V was the city’s main thoroughfare and very modern. Marrakech surprised us with many green areas and parks.
We visited Berber PHarmacy in old town where we stocked up on spices and natural healing herbs and argan oil ointments. More about aregan oil below.
We shopped in souks with all those labirynths, and we were lost completely in direction but it was the fun part of it. Lahcen navigated. From souks we came out to Mosque Koutobia (only can be viewed from outside) and out to the famous Place Jemaa El Fna, Unesco Heritage site, where each evening there is a hub of activity. We had better view from on f the café’s second floor to take good pictures and watched the snake charmers, some monkey performers and general hubbub. I am not sure why it is called Unesco Heritage site but it was surely fascinating people watching. The snake charmers were very aggressive and demanded money from people who took their pictures. It was safe to watch and take photos from Café. We got prime seats again thanks to Lahcen! Afterwards we went for early dinner at French/Moroccan restaurant at the same square, La Boheme, walked again to watch the activities. By that time, the vendors set up food and drinks stalls.
Next morning, we checked out of Demeure Oriente, and did a little bit more touring: We toured Menara Gardens with nice water pools. Then we went to Cyber Parc. It was very interesting park, clean, comfortable, a lot's of shade which Lahcen explained very important in summer. And the most amazing - it is equipped with free wi-fi! You can check emails from your laptop or phone but there are also terminals around the park with computers for people using it for moderate fee. I never seen such parks in Europe or Asia. Very advanced, in my opinion.
We finished sightseeing Marrakech on second day and were leaving for our next destnation to Essaoura. On the way we were passing Lahcen's apartment so he invited us for tea and meet his wife and children. It was residential neighborhood with wide streets, contemporary apartment buildings, stores and cafes. We stopped to buy something for children and decided on live pet fish.
Lahcen keep telling we do not have to do it and he does not know how long it will live, but we convinced him his 5 year old son will love it. So together with fish bowl and fish food, we arrived to his place. We met his lovely wife and his adorable 2 year old daugther Sarah who liked to play peek-a-boo.
His 5 year old Elias was due to be picked up at nursery school so we drove few minutes to school. The relatives of kids were waiting for kids t get released. We were the only ones arrived in Mercedes van and they were looking at us. Lahcen got Elias, told him something about us and the boy jumped into van on our seats, kissed Michael and rode on his lap looking forward to his fish. We dropped him at home and continued towards our next destination Essaoura.
As I am writing this, one month later, Lahcen emailed me that one male fish died but female still alive. They are buying second male fish now.
Day 8, Essaoura
On the road from Marrakech to Essaoura we stopped to see the wonder of Morocco - Argan trees. It is a short tree with thorned branches with small leaves. The fruit of the tree is Argan nut, with a peel. The oil from Argan tree has restorative and used as a natural treatment from acne, and other dermatology problems. It also used in cosmetics, for salad and nut grinded to paste used something like our peanut butter. The bees produce honey from argan tree and honey also considered very beneficial. Honey with argan nut paste is Moroccan "Nutella". We had it for breakfast and it was very good. Pure Argan oil is supplied all over the world. Lahcen told us that the scientists tried to import to plant in other countries but it did not work and Argan trees only grow in Morocco.
The goats like to climb short thorny argan trees and much on them.
We stopped at argan oil women cooperative which also helps single women supplying them with work. We saw how gathered nuts (looks something like between almond and walnut), and were cracked with stones . Then the nuts were grounded into paste. For salad oil, the nuts were roasted and for cosmetics, they left raw.
We saw presentation and bought honey and some cosmetic products.
We finally reached Essaoura in the afternoon and checked into Riyad Dar L'oussia in old town. We had a little time to explore wooden factory where we saw amazing Moroccan furniture and jewelry woodwork.
Essaoura is delightful fishing port, on Atlantic Ocean. It is delightful fortified coastal town, formerly known as Magador. It had picturesque port and ramparts, manageable old town (medinah) and beautiful views of Atlantic ocean. Historically, it was originally under Phoenicians and Carthaginians until Romans took over about 25 ad. Then it was occupied by vandals in year 429, then Berbers from 9thC and few centuries later by Arabs, then in 15C the Portuguese conquered Essaoura and they erected fortifications which look very similar to ones in Portugal. Then Portuguese and (I think together with Spanish) lost to Arabs and Alau dynasty came to power in 18C. That's when the golden age of Essoura time came in under Sultan alauí Sidi Mohammed Abdallah. He completely reformed the city of Essaouira . This was largely as a result of trade with Europe. Essaouira was transformed into the most important commercial in the Moroccan kingdom; it became the main fishing port of Timbuctu.
So it is fascinating long history which makes this small seaside port so interesting.
We had dinner in beachfront french restaurant.
Next morning, we got up early and had wonderful breakfast on riyads terrrace overlooking ramparts, fishing boats in the port and Atlantic ocean. It was hard to beleive we are in North Africa!
We went for a walk before Lahcen came in and took some photos of fishermen in the port not without being harassed to give them some coins. I did not mind that but when they started asking extra money for next pictures, that was not right in my book.
We had to go back to riyad to find Lahcen who arrived 15 minutes earlier and came looking for us and like our mother hen, started reprimanding us " Where you've been? I went to the restaurant and you were not there". We asked him to relax, since we were already Morocconised and deserve right to explore a bit on our own :-) .
We toured old town, there were mostly white and blue building colors and together with bright sky, it turned to be a photrographer's delight to walk and explore. We admired work of wood artisans, went to Jewish quarter. This town had many Jewish artisanal items for sale and it was hard to pass by. I bought antique silver menorah. I never owned nice one like this. Instead of candles, it uses oil.
We went to the fish market and watched variety of fish. The specialty of region are sardines which are imported all over the world. Lunch was at fish place at the market where you select fish and give to the small grill place to grill it. It was delicious. We chose sardines and Lahcen also added some other local fish which was also good. The price for that lunch was very cheap, something about 10 usd for 3 of us with a lot's of sardines and tomato salad and cokes. I asked what is the name of it but he said "no name". Just fish market!
We also see another specialty of the region - wood artisans. There is Thuya tree which again only grows in Morocco and it has different wood from trunk and branches and Moroccan woodworking artists produce beautiful furniture and other items. Another item great for shopping.
In the afternoon, we took a drive to the beach about 15 minutes away and we walked on the most beautiful beach. It was low tide. I took another camel ride on the beach.
Day 8. Marrakech
Were supposed to go to casbah in the mountains. But due some minor health issues, we thought might not make it going 15 minutes up to get to Kasbah on high altitutude although luggage was transported by mules. We asked and Lahcen said, no mules will not be able to carry us. A pity! So after some calls to our local Marakech agent, we changed the route and decided to go back to civilization to Marrakech. Michael needed either back massage or hot bath. Our agent Zineb, bless her heart, on Sunday, her day off, worked for few hours and changed our reservation to Sofitel Marrakech.
After arriving Sofitel, we had few hours rest and and then Lahcen and Fatullah arrived and we went again to explore Marrakech. We visited Majorelle Gardens which started by French painter Jacques Majorelle. He opened the doors to public. After he returned to France and died, Yves St. Laurent and Pierre Berge purchased the garden and restored it. It is yet another beautiful garden oasis in Marrakech with amazing collection of plants.
After that, Lahcen took us for dinner in new city local BBQ grill which had amazing grilled chicken for fraction of cost what we would pay at Sofitel's.
We continued drive in new area and we saw suburb of Marrakech "La Palmeria" , a restful Palm Groves 13 hectares and 180,000 planted palms which are irrigated by underground water pipes. Outside of city, it is oasis of serenity. However, the area seems to be build up with luxury villas and hotel development, gated communities, Golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, so this is another contemporary face of Marrakech.. Very much like Costa Del Sol, or California or Florida.
We returned to Marrakech and spent our last night at Djemaa El Fna square watching from the same cafe second floor activity.
Last day, we checked out from hotel at noon, did last minute shopping, Tangine chicken in souk in old town, and we headed to airport. We had to part with Lahcen and Fatullah who became for these 10 days like a family. Lahcen got us ot EasyJet check in and then we said goodbye. We hugged them and said will be in touch. We thanked them and our agent Zineb for taking care of us and she promised and I am sure my clients will be in good hands.
She even got our jacket forgotten in Fes, to get delivered to Marrakech. Somehow they get network of guides and drivers and great local support system. I would not know how our trip would be without their help. I know we would survived in Moroco but it would not be same experience.
Marrakech airport was very nice and modern, much better than Casablanca. My priority pass membership entitled us to use of business lounge where we again drank mint tea and pastries and used internet. The rest of trip to Paris was uneventful.
We left Morocco with great memories. I hope to be back sometimes soon.
Some general observations.
Morocco was a long time on our bucket list and it did not disappoint. We expected less but the country surprised us with friendly people, clean green cities and abundance of sites to see. It is easy to get from Northeast of United states and easy flight from Spain and France.
It is though recommended to get most of your trip to book a guide and driver or both (in our case). It is hard to tour alone. While people are friendly, but some vendors can be very pushy and English not widely spoken there. Local people are very friendly and if you see children, I recommend to bring candies or small pens as souvenirs. Better not to give them money. Pens were always appreciated.
Morocco has a variety of accommodations from luxury European high quality hotels to traditional Moroccan houses Riyads, and Kasbahs (castles), just like Chateaux in France, Paradores in Spain and Posadas in Portugal. Riyads have traditional Moroccan architecture with open courtyard. Try to stay at least once to experience characteristic Moroccan house.
Variety of wood products, fossils, leather, rugs, jewelry, bronze, silver, Jewish antiques. See re: bargaining top of the report
Everything starts with price usually twice as much as price of the item. Sometimes more. Sometimes there is no price at all. The goal is to get a price below of price of an item and you go back and bargain. Finally you give them your first last price, they say no, you walk away, then they call you back and start again with your last price. This continued 3 times. If they can all sell it and make small profit, they will sell it. If they keep saying no, you are below their profit margin. Guide helps somewhat if you ask him to, sometimes you are depending on a price, might be talking over the price about $2 discount, which is nothing to us, but will feed their family. Some places do not discount but they give you some free stuff. Lahcen taught us intricacies of complicated bargaining system, when to look into the item you want, most often do not show then what you are interested in. When transaction was completed, not sure if this is applicable to all customers, but ours was completed with hug and recognition us as real Moroccan – as Lahcen called it – our “Berberization” and “Morocconization”.
However for tourists not interested in bargaining, there are stores with fixed prices, even at souks. With fixed price they also give you some free items as well.
To give credit to our guide Lahcen, he did not push any shopping, and I trusted the stores he took us. I think all guides get some kind of commission or gifts from bringing tourists, so accept the fact. But I the stores and vendors he suggested made sense. First of all, if something would not arrive, you have guide to follow up with vendor. Second Lahcen always suggested vendors who would need more money. For example, the cooperative with Argan oil was created to give jobs to single women and I would rather spend money there than anywhere else. When we shopped at the souk, he would out of two vendors would select an elderly woman and since it did not matter for example where we would buy bread – it was the same – he suggested we give her business.
If we were not in a mood of shopping, he instructed us not to make eye contact. True, once you look at the vendor or the product, they would not leave us alone. Also Lahcen and Michael discussed the approach before going to each vendor – do not look at the thing you like look at others but offer money for another thing. That was too much for me and I was losing patience. I did not bargain much….
My favorite subject and important aspect of each trip. Moroccan food was delicious, light and healthy. The breads were always fresh, Moroccan bread is round small like pita shape but more like chiabata. It is hard to explain.. It was delicious.
Mint tea was excellent. Boiled with green tea and mint and served either with sugar or without. No caffeine. If you want caffeine there was variety of coffees, mostly French way.
Chicken and lamb was very popular but we ate most chicken. It is cooked in special clay pot tangine. At home, I tried with slow cooker and succeeded. Chicken is stewed with raisins, lemons, olives and sometimes with chick peas.
Olives were excellent and large variety. Dates were delicious. Small oranges something like clementines were also very sweet. Their pastries were OK but a bit sweet for my taste.
I was impressed with quality of Moroccan wines and very often I have headaches from wine but Moroccan wines were fine.
We bought home various spices which I am experimenting now with chicken.
On the seacoast the fish was excellent.
All restaurants we ate were local, inexpensive and delicious food. We saved money this way thanks to Lahcen, but there were some restaurants which he did not recommend. We also did not get sick and I’ve read about some issues from tourists with stomach problems. We used bottled water everywhere, it was available. As a precaution, we took peptol bismol during the trip and maybe this helped. We ate some salads as well, Few times I forgot and had ice in the drink, and we did not have any problems. Some restaurants we ate, the plates and utensils did not look sterile .
Highlight of the trip was of course night in the tent in Sahara. I am not sure where else I will experience such exotic location.
As I am specializing on Jewish Heritage, that was one of the reason we wanted to check out Morocco. I was impressed with peaceful coexistence of Jews and Muslim for many centuries.
It is indeed very rich in our heritage and not as well known so I highly recommend it for Jewish travelers.
For more photos, see www.facebook.com/sophiatravel