One of the biggest advantages of moving to Europe is its proximity to Northern Africa. We were both attracted to the challenge of visiting such a mysterious place with a vastly different culture. After a brief taste of Moroccan life in Tangier, we wanted to experience haggling in the souks of Marrakesh, camping under the Saharan stars and navigating the medieval medina in Fes.
We started our 9 day Moroccan excursion in Marrakesh - a city in the foothills of the Atlas mountains that is surrounded by 900 year old fortress walls. The main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa is the busiest square in all of Africa, and features snake charmers, witch dentists, belly dancers, drummers, cafes and street-cart vendors. We arrived in the evening to our riad within the city walls. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes of wealthy merchants and couriers. They typically include an open-air courtyard, traditional hammam spa and rooftop terrace. Although the flight was only 3 hours, stepping into this style of accommodation made us feel a world away, with intimate cozy lounge areas decorated with Berber pillows, detailed Moorish wall carvings, brightly colored tiles and an overall luxurious yet hippie aesthetic.
The riad staff greeted us with a welcome drink of mint tea and Moroccan pastries. For our first night, we decided to eat dinner on the rooftop terrace overlooking the bustling market streets below. We enjoyed a chicken tajine with lemon and olives, vegetable cous cous, and a variety of small plates of olives, eggplant, homemade breads and spreads. Throughout Morocco, the service is very formal and there are lots of courses and plate changes and drink refills. We found the service overwhelming compared to our usual travel style of grabbing snacks from markets on the go. We watched the sunset on the rooftop and retired to our room for a dessert of fresh dates before resting up to explore the 9,000 souks in the market the next day.
We woke up, enjoyed a rooftop breakfast of homemade breads, jams and pancakes, and headed down a narrow stone walkway to the main square. Even early in the morning, we were surrounded by a bustling scene that felt as if it were taking place hundreds of years ago. Donkeys pulled carts filled with rugs, pillows and lamps for sale, snake charmers played eerie tunes, street dentists showed off their collections of molars and vendors of all kinds called to us from stalls selling spices, cosmetics, clothing, home decor, kitchen tools and other handicrafts. We headed straight for the famous orange juice carts to sample fresh squeezed grapefruit, orange and lime juice for an energy boost to haggle in the market.
The souks are a maze of winding open air stalls, grouped by types of goods sold. There are metalworkers souks for lamps, knives and platters, tannery souks for leather goods, spice souks, clothing souks and live animal souks among others. We spent several hours exploring the goods and bargaining. Dave learned several Arabic phrases like "how much" and "too expensive" and we enjoyed conversing with the various merchants. We had a good laugh when a street vendor offered Dave 1,000 camels for Erin and when another offered to ship 16 cats to Dave after he pet a kitten on the street. Dave felt drawn to the traditional djellabas - long hooded robes that Moroccan men wear daily. Erin finagled for handmade leather sandals, flats and her own red rhinestone djellaba. For lunch, we hung out in a rooftop cafe while an artist applied henna to Erin's hand in the traditional style.
We headed back to our riad for a traditional hammam and massage. A hammam is a heated steam room with marble floors, seats and walls along with a fountain. In Morocco, women typically visit a hammam weekly to detoxify their skin. To start, our therapist splashed us with buckets of warm water. Next, she applied black oil soap with loofah gloves. She scrubbed so intensely that it removed the top layer of skin. Afterwards, they offered us beet smoothies to rehydrate from the steam room experience. We headed back to our room for a quick rest and woke up to sounds of the 5-times daily call to prayer in the early evening. We headed back to the main square to soak in the bustling, bygone market atmosphere in the twilight.
For dinner, we departed the old walled city into the French colonial portion of "new" Marrakesh for dinner at Al Fassia, a traditional Moroccan restaurant owned and run by women. Before dinner, we walked around the new area of town and were surprised to find that it was very similar to European cities with treelined streets, sidewalk cafes and stores like Zara and H&M. At Al Fassia, we had a multi-course feast of tajines, cous cous, Moroccan wine, fresh bread, olive oil and olives and fruits.
The following day, we woke up and enjoyed a rooftop sunrise before beginning our long trek through the countryside to the Sahara desert. We arranged with a private driver to customize our 16 hour journey into the desert and stop at various points to explore villages and natural sights. We had no idea that we were about to traverse many different lanscapes and climates. Anxiously, we hopped into a 4x4 with Youssef, our 25-year-old fun-loving driver, and high-tailed it through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
During the first 8 hours of our drive, we weaved through mountains, forests, river gorges, canyons and oases. We were surprised at the diversity of the landscape in Morocco. One highlight was our stop at a women's argan oil collective where we purchased locally produced cosmetic oils and soaps. Later we toured a Berber home where we met a nomadic family and learned how they create carpets on a traditional loom.
We were most excited to visit Ait Benhaddou - the setting for many movies and shows, including "Lawrence of Arabia", "Gladiator", "Cleopatra" and "Game of Thrones". Ait Benhaddou is a fortified ksar palace dating from the 1600s. We spent several hours hiking from the base of the palace city through traditional dwellings and shops to the top, overlooking the river valley.
After a full day of driving and exploring, we arrived at the Skoura Oasis to stay at a ksar set in a lush organic flower garden. We were stunned to see such a dense, tree-filled area surrounded completely by dry, empty desert. We toured the flower-lined grounds and enjoyed a poolside dinner featuring live musicians. Dave wore one of his djellabas for dinner and couldn't resist dancing with the musicians to the Palestinian tunes (his partner was a professional floutist and amateur magician). We watched the sunset and enjoyed stargazing from the rooftop where we got a clear look at Jupiter.
The following morning we jumped back in the 4x4 with Youssef and dashed through the Rose Valley, where roses are grown, harvested and processed for rose oil and rose water. The entire valley smelled sweet. From there, we swooped into a river gorge where Dave bouldered amidst ancient caves. After another 8 hours driving into the Sahara, we picked up a Berber guide who sped us off-road over sand dunes for the final hour. It was thrilling to spin out, get air and fish tail on the sand with absolutely no idea of our location.
Seemingly out of nowhere, we arrived at our luxury desert camp. The camp featured Berber tents, rugs, pillows and lanterns spread out in the sand. Each of the 8 guest tents featured full bathrooms, carpeted floors and giant king-sized beds. The camp also included a hookah lounge, fire pit and dining tent. We ran up the dune overlooking camp, which was deceptively taxing and Dave sand-boarded down in his djellaba. We pinched ourselves as we sat barefoot in the sand at dinner in a gorgeous tent lit with fire lanterns. The camp cat, Chiggy, honeypotted Erin by purring on her lap and then stealing her chicken entree once she let her guard down. It was a bit cloudy, so we didn't see a ton of stars, but we enjoyed the complete quiet and darkness in the desert.
We woke up at sunrise and climbed the dunes for a boundless view of the desert before embarking on a camel trek. After our elephant adventures in Thailand, we weren't sure how riding camels would compare, and we can both definitely say we prefer the elephant kinship to the camel. The ride traversed up and down dunes in the middle of nowhere, with no civilization in sight. We were covered by a cloud of flies on the jolty, lurching ride. We spent about 2 hours on the camels trekking further into the desert, and we eventually came upon a private tent set up just for us with a homemade Moroccan lunch.
We lounged on rugs and pillows while enjoying traditional Moroccan fare including olives, dates and Erin's new favorite dessert, fresh peeled oranges dipped in cinnamon. Rather than taking the camels back to camp we opted for a wild 4x4 ride through the dunes. We spent the afternoon sharing travel stories with the other camp visitors - an older couple from San Francisco and a young couple from Philadelphia. As the sunlight dimmed we enjoyed more sandboarding and a late night campfire.
We woke up early on our last morning in the Sahara to hike along the ridges of the dunes and to stare out to the endless sea of sand. We hopped back in the car with Youssef and spent another full day in the car. The highlight of the drive was feeding monkeys in a mountaintop forest.
By late afternoon we made it to our third and final stop in our Moroccan tour: the medieval town of Fes. Fes is known as the cultural capital of Morocco and the "Athens of Africa." It's home to the oldest continuously functioning university in the world, the largest car-free city in the world AND the largest remaining lived-in, in-tact medieval civilization. Knowing all that ahead of time, we were still not prepared for the stone labyrinth of a thousand narrow lanes, artisan bazaars, aromatic spice stands and mosques. Upon arriving at the edge of the walled medina, Youssef handed us off to a man who led us into a maze of pedestrian-only streets to our riad. Bewildered, we zigzagged down unmarked alleys, under covered tunnels and through clandestine footpaths to an intricately carved towering door on what otherwise seemed like an unremarkable, crumbling building that blended in with the rest of the concrete structures in the medina.
When the door opened, we were stunned to see a luxurious palace, complete with lounges, a pool and two multistory courtyards, all covered in colorful tiles, patterned textiles and artistic carvings and handicrafts. After our welcome mint tea, we were shown up to our room which featured a private outdoor lounge, original painted carved doors, 30 foot wooden ceilings and a luxury bathroom out of a Las Vegas resort, but with Moroccan flare. We headed up to the rooftops to survey the surroundings and were shocked to be completely surrounded by a dense expanse of crumbling, buildings. In the far distance we could make out rolling hills filled with vineyards and farmlands. Atop the nearest hill outside the densely packed medina we spotted some crumbling ruins to explore later on our trip.
On our first day in Fes we were intimidated by the maze of streets and we worried that we wouldn't be able to exit our riad without getting completely lost. We were tired from our journey from the desert so we enjoyed one of the best dinners of our trip in our riad. Dave was mesmerised by the howling, haunting call to prayer emanating from the mosques at nightfall. We stood on the roof studying the town while each mosque played an overlapping but unique version of the ritual. It was eerie and beautiful all at once.
We started the next day with a personal guided walk through the artisan workshops. Each narrow roadway within the medina is home to a particular artisan trade. We visited a metalworker carving an intricate design in a silver patterned light fixture with a handsaw. We watched an elderly man seated on a stool carve a comb out of a sheep horn. At a leather tannery, we were handed sprigs of mint to hold up to our noses while we visited the dye pits - clay tubs filed with natural dye and animal skins. We saw skins drying in the sun and being washed with a waterwheel and pigeon excrement as the acid in the pigeon's digestive tract helps bleach the leather. We appreciated shopping for local items directly from the people working hard to make such beautiful goods.
We explored madrasas and seminary schools, peeked in on ornate mosques and explored Moorish palaces. Walking among the maze of streets, we observed children playing soccer on the stones, donkeys carrying mail and packages, community bread ovens, and crumbling caves leading to luxe palaces dating from centuries ago. Because all of the streets and buildings were constructed hundreds of years ago, none of them are wide enough for cars, so everything is done with donkeys, including moving furniture, collecting garbage and delivering goods. We felt far away, not just in terms of location, but also totally lost in time. We enjoyed interacting with the street-smart kids, and Dave often jumped right into their street soccer games,
We were lucky to have three more days in Fes. The initial shock of being surrounded by a foreign maze of streets and unfamiliar sounds and smells melted away and we became more and more comfortable heading out on our own to explore the streets. We traversed through the winding streets to the famous blue gate into town and beyond through empty squares and crowded street markets to the hills above town. Dave loved climbing on the ruins of a royal palace among herds of sheep while we took in contrasting views of the densely crowded medina and the empty rolling hills beyond. We did another hammam experience in an original 9th century structure and enjoyed rooftop drinks watching sunset over town. While looping around the narrow alleys to develop a sense of direction, many locals complimented Dave's djellaba style, "you really know how to choose."
We found a favorite local spot called the Ruined Garden, a former merchant family home that slowly fell into disrepair and became a garbage dump, only to be restored again by a French expat. The restaurant features only a few tables surrounded by dense gardens where fruits, herbs and vegetables are grown for use in the vegan cuisine. We enjoyed fresh peach, orange and strawberry juice, spiced veggies and decadent chocolate mouse among the ruins while chatting with stylish (and very opinionated) young Moroccan guys. We talked about pop culture and travel and politics and slang Arabic words used by locals. Dave's favorite word would fit right in with west coast surfer culture: zween is another way to say "gnarly."
On our last day, we transitioned into our final accommodation, Riad Fes. This was the most luxurious of the spots we visited and was a visual feast of interior design and architecture. It featured original tile floors, wall and ceiling carvings along with fountains and a modern pool and spa. Erin loves the Moroccan style of interior design, and dreams of coming back someday to furnish a house with rugs, doors, lamps and pillows all in the textured, earthy, comfortable but luxe north African style.
We found Morocco to be a place of shocking contrasts. You can step from a bustling, rough, gritty, loud street market into a luxurious serene riad and drive from the desert to snowy mountains in a single day. In Fes, a man leading a donkey through narrow lanes of the medina to collect garbage is chatting on an iPhone. In Marrakesh, we experienced snake charmers out of Aladdin and haute cuisine that could stand up in any modern city. We both fell in love with the architecture, design and contrasting landscapes in Morocco, and relished the challenge of adjusting to the vastly different culture. We will definitely be back.
Next up, a complete change of pace in Ireland.
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