Wednesday, February 4, 2015

New Five Suitcases: A Week in Morocco

Cross-post of an article published on Five Suitcases, the new home for my travel-specific writing. Over Christmas, we spent a week in and around Marrakech, Morocco (thanks, Ryanair direct flights from Dublin!) seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, tasting the tastes, and... smelling the smells of North Africa.

It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time. Rather than draw one trip out into seven or eight Travel Monday posts as I would have done before, I made one long(ish) post with a condensed, less-personal, more tip-heavy article that looks more like a traditional travel article on a website or in one of those cheesy in-flight magazines.

Full text of the post is below, but feel free to visit the post over at Five Suitcases to like and share!


From the cold, dark, lonely reality that is expat Christmas in Dublin, we planned an exotic and exciting escape. An escape to a new continent, a warmer climate, and a country in which everything would be open on Christmas Day!

Surprisingly, Irish discount airline Ryanair operates direct to Marrakech Menara Airport twice weekly. This sets up well for the long weekend and the weeklong Moroccan adventure.

Morocco, we learned, is surprisingly large -- approximately the same size and shape as the US state of California -- with most of the population in the northern (non-Sahara) half of the country. A number of famous and mysterious cities will be on the travel planner's list: Hollywood-famous Casablanca, hat-famous Fes (Fez), Spain-in-sight Tangier, well-known express terminus Marrakech, and many others.

We decided to make Marrakech the hub of our week-long holiday, alternating days in the city with side trips to the mountains, the desert, and the coast.

From Marrakech Menara Airport, we took the municipal bus no. 19. The bus runs frequently and quickly directly into the center of the city -- the fortified medina. Aggressive taxi drivers compete for business at the airport exit and can be a sensible (if slightly more expensive) option to get to a specific address.

Marrakech, for tourists, is in two parts: the ancient walled medina and the Ville Nouvelle or New Town. The medina is exactly the picture of an Arabic trading post: tiny streets haphazardly laid out, endless souks -- narrow market streets with merchants and vendors selling all manner of food, household goods, spices, and souvenirs -- and the always-buzzing main plaza, Jemaa el Fna.

The square changes mood throughout the day. In the early morning, before the tourists are awake, locals stop for breakfast in small street cafes. These very French-influenced breakfasts are usually small breads or pastries served with Moroccan green tea with mint and lots of sugar. Merchants drive horse- or donkey-pulled carts into the square loaded with their goods and sometimes a small tent.

Later in the day, fortune-tellers, snakecharmers, and henna artists squeeze into the square with the merchants, orange juice and dried fruit stands, and crowds of tourists. At night, food grills and street musicians continue to happily separate tourists from their money.

Towering over the square (and the rest of the city) is the impressive minaret (steeple or tower) of the Koutoubia Mosque. The first mosque on this site was completed around 1157, and it serves as a constant reminder that Morocco is an Islamic country. Five times daily, the Koutoubia (and dozens of other mosques in the city) issues the call to prayer. Loudspeakers project these haunting chants from the tops of mosque minarets throughout the city. One can't help but feel decidedly not-in-Kansas-anymore while listening to these sacred-yet-exotic calls. These would be the soundtrack to most of our Moroccan adventure.

The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque Marrakech, Morocco
The Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque

Beyond the media, the New Town looks decidedly European. Wide streets are lined with orange and olive trees and sidewalks. At large intersections, multi-lane roundabouts circle fountains as cars, scooters, and buses fight for positioning. The famous (but sadly not free) Majorelle Gardens offer a quiet rest in a beautiful and clean walled botanic garden. These gardens and the mansion inside were once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, the now-deceased French fashion designer. After his death in 2008, his ashes were scattered here in his favorite garden.

From Marrakech, agents offer many different day and overnight trips leaving conveniently from the city center. The Atlas Mountains just east of the city offer many different kinds of outdoor entertainment from impressive waterfalls to adventure hiking to skiing. Beyond the mountains is the sprawling Sahara Desert. We took a two-day, one-night trip over the mountains to the fringes of the desert for an unforgettable camping trip.

These tours, and there are dozens of them each day, visit a number of scenic and historic sites en route to the desert. The Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah has been used in a number of Hollywood movies, beginning with Lawrence of Arabia and continuing to a recent filming of Game of Thrones. This city of clay was originally built by settled-down nomads to do business with the trading caravans traveling through the river valley. The word Kasbah refers to a clay-walled building with security towers at each corner. This hillside stronghold has several of these buildings, forming a very easily-defensible fort.

Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah Morocco
Ait-Ben-Haddou Kasbah

Nearby, the ancient-modern city of Ouarzazate boasts more ancient clay-walled forts and buildings, all well-maintained for use in film and television. The city even boasts a functioning studio and a museum of movie memorabilia used for local on-location filming. Interesting that this city in the middle of the desert has carved out such a lucrative market to boost the local economy based on its Western-friendly attitude and Middle-Eastern look.

Most overnight desert trips include a short camel ride from the road to a small campsite. Hosts in traditional nomadic dress lead the camels to the circle of tents, serve a hot meal of tajine (a North African meat or vegetable stew made in a conical dish), and lead songs around around a campfire. The experience is quite touristy -- the tajine is discreetly brought to the campsite on a truck, and other identical campsites are set up not-quite-beyond eyesight or earshot -- but it's a great time nonetheless.

Camels Waking up at Sunrise, Zagora Morocco
Camels Waking up at Sunrise

After returning from the desert, we took a break from the crowds, noise, and smell of Marrakech with an overnight trip to the seaside fishing village of Essaouira. The city is served by Supratours, the coach system operated by Morocco's national railroad to connect cities without rail lines. The bus ride was surprisingly comfortable and hassle-free -- most of the passengers were Western tourists, as I imagine is the case for most Marrakech-Essaouira buses.

The coastal village was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. Fishers unload their catch at the busy port and shipyard, and much of it is sold immediately to local residents and restaurants. A row of fish grills just off the port allows visitors to choose a fresh fish to be filleted, grilled, and served immediately. Unlike Marrakech, motor vehicles are not allowed inside the walled medina of Essaouira, so locals and tourists can wander the (much, much cheaper) markets without fear of scooter and motorbike handlebars knocking unsuspecting elbows. A sunset walk on the well-kept beach made for a perfect end to a day in this relaxed resort town.

Essaouira, Morocco

With this trip, we checked off a number of firsts from our travel list. Despite its proximity to Europe and the recent French influence, this country was unlike anything we'd seen before. We experienced exciting highs in the stunning natural and cultural wonders and sometimes disheartening lows in the unchecked pollution and poverty of the inner cities. It was travel in a much more real sense; we weren't visiting a neutered Western Disneyland. Morocco has real teeth, and at the end of our trip, we felt gloriously bitten, chewed up, and spit out by this beautiful country.

Travel Tips

  1. Almost all prices in Morocco are negotiable and flexible. Savvy hagglers can get great deals in this already low-cost country. Novice negotiators beware: always agree on a price before accepting any kind of good or service, including taxi rides. Making this process even more frustrating is the lack of small coins in circulation. Many businesses are cash-only, so they never go to banks to get rolled coin for change. Almost everyone will try to get exact change from you, and some will simply refuse to make change at all. 
  2. If your itinerary is flexible, you can save money by booking side trips the night before they leave, as agents try desperately to fill empty spaces for next-day tours. Play hard-to-get for the best price. Keep in mind that this carries the risk of finding only sold-out or cancelled tours.
  3. Travel safely. Morocco is a developing country, and poverty and crime are widespread. Follow the same rules you would when traveling anywhere: use a money belt for most of your cash and important documents, don't flash too much money, and be wary of scammers, thieves, and pickpockets. Be even more cautious about asking for (or accepting) directions from locals. Most will be directions to a market or shop with a high-pressure sales pitch, and some will be to dangerous dead-end alleys. Try not to stray too far from well-known and well-lit areas at night.

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