May 8, 2017

Fez, Morocco

From Erg Chebbi at the Saharan desert, we rented a car with a Canadian uncle (hi Steve!) to our next destination – Fez. The scenic drive took about 8 hours with our driver maniacally navigating the mountains of Ifrane with one hand cradling his phone and the other juggling between the steering wheel and stick shift. We took a break halfway through at the town of Midelt. Lunch was overpriced albeit tasty freshly grilled lamb and beef with salads at a 2nd floor terrace of a butcher shop overlooking the market.

At about 3 PM we were relieved to finally enter the UNESCO World Heritage site of Fes El-Bali and to get off the car with legs cramping but in one piece.  Fes E-Bali is the best preserved walled city in the Arab world. Its sprawling labyrinthine medina has over 9,000 plus car free streets - the sort of a city that defies google maps and Waze. We’re glad to have had the foresight to make arrangements for pick up.

After the nondescript wooden door of our riad, you can imagine my awe when we were greeted with full blown Moroccan chic in the light filled central courtyard. Our suite opens to it and we linger there at breakfast. Sala goals! Minus the velvet couch.

After picking up my jaw from the grandeur of our accommodations, we proceeded to cleanse all the sand of the desert that got everywhere, and I mean, everywhere and to get ready for dinner. We chose an al fresco resto on a little terrace near the Blue Gate for some people watching. After dinner we did a little exploration to get our bearings and pick up supplies. We bumped into Steve and arranged to meet up for dinner at Nomad the next evening and called it a night.

We decided to stay only for 2 nights thinking Fez might be another Marrakesh but we were wrong. It actually felt more authentic as if it defied time and more true to the Morocco I had in mind.

Noureddine, the traditional healer we’ve met in his pharmacy couldn’t have said it any better. “People come to Morocco because the locals are very traditional and still make things with their hands the old fashioned way.” What he said was really apparent as what we have witnessed at the silk weavers shop, the tanneries, the potteries and the ferran – traditional communal bakery.

To make the most of our time, and to cover all that we wanted to see and be able to ask all the questions without the huge language barrier, we booked a whole day private guided walking tour arranged with our hotel. It was one of the best decisions we’ve made. With a licensed guide by our side and with his ID prominently displayed, we’ve got absolute zero hassle navigating the labyrinthine streets of Fez El Bali. Saved us a lot of trouble, time and our sanity.

Al-Attarin Medrasa

Our English speaking impeccably dressed guide Nassir made sure that we get lost in the visual splendor that is Fes, but not too lost that we don't find our way back to our riad. He also knows where to get the best deals. Plus we got someone to take our cliche touristy shots without the need of accosting random strangers.

The usual Morocco narrow streets lined with architecture of impressive hand carved meticulous details, sometimes even gilded in gold, is not your mainstream street sitch.

Moulay Idriss Mausoleum and Mosque

Non Muslims are not allowed to enter the mosque but because of Nassir, they let us take a peek.

Old as time traditional leather dye-ing at the tanneries of Fes. Grateful that we've kept the bouquet of mint handed to us at the leather shops because the stench at the tanneries is basically cow hide dyed with pigments and a cocktail of moo dung and bird poop. Au naturelle!

Lunch was such a treat. Nassir brought us to the terraced restaurant of Dar Tajine where the breeze cooled us after hours of walking. There we ate like royalties with a seemingly never ending procession of so many little plates laid before us.

We believe that one of the best ways to understand a culture is through its food. Not that we need any excuse to stuff our faces with glorious Moroccan food. Mid meal, the owner asked how we’re enjoying our lunch and when we told him there’s too much and that we possibly can’t finish them all, this was what he had to say. “You’re only here once so I want you to try everything the best Morocco has to offer. “ How’s that for hospitality.

Filled with so much food and a little sluggish from the really long lunch, we asked Nassir to bring us back to our riad for a mid day nap. That right there is a holiday in our books!


March 25, 2017

Saharan Desert Safari Day 2 and 3

Todra Gorge to Erg Chebbi

We were down at the communal dining at 7 am and it was still dark out. While waiting for breakfast, we ventured on the terrace and the view was incredibly dramatic! We missed that last night. But as it was freezing, we headed back indoors. I could imagine that terrace full on summers though with a comfortable chill.

After breakfast, we were herded back to the coaster. Our driver is a stickler for schedule and we might have stressed him out a bit by being constantly the last ones to board. At least we were consistent.

After an hour or so of driving, we stopped at a roadside and a berber named Ali came to meet us. He will be our guide in the valleys of the thousand Kasbahs as we passed olives and dates plantations to reach the village of Tinghir.

In Tinghir, we visited a carpet seller where we got rolled out not only a red carpet marhaba (welcome) but all sorts of hand-woven colors. They were all exquisite but no one in our group was in a market for carpets. It was just in the 2nd leg of our multi-city tour and we were planning to shop for carpets later on in the trip. Guy wasn’t really pushy but after him serving us mint tea and laying out carpets after carpets of every size, design and color, it got awkward telling him we’re not buying after all. I was glad there were a good number of us to share the awkwardness with. If it was only me and Kim, I might have just swiped the card for the cheapest and smallest one. If you have plans of buying, they accept credit cards and can arrange shipping.

We wanted to buy scarves though for the Saharan tour and we knew it’s going to be more expensive at the desert. We bought a couple for just 50 dirhams each at a shop by the exit of Tinghir and the shopkeeper demonstrated how to wrap it on my head the Berber way. I liked it too much and totally clueless redoing it on my own I never took it off for the rest of the day.

From Tinghir we boarded the bus back and proceeded to the canyons of Todra Gorge. It was very pleasant to stroll along the crystal clear river and it was just beautiful with the valley softly illuminated with the morning light.

My favorite though was lunch under the shade of olive trees set up by the rocky river. We had the freshest salads, bread, kofta and grilled chicken.

It was a long drive from there to Merzouga and I mostly napped on the way. When I woke up, the vast dunes loom on the horizon.

Before sun down we reached the desert and came face to face with the towering mounds of the Sahara. Camel ride in the Saharan desert at sunset sounds utterly romantic. In reality, my cute bum was sore! I was glad when after an hour and a half I saw our tents and we were told to get off our camels. The camel parking though was littered with poo and there’s no way avoiding stepping on them.

Our camel guides treated us to a folkloric entertainment post a chicken tajine dinner. Our only light came from the full moon and the bonfire. There were lots of dancing, singing and drum beating. When the embers died down and it got too cold, we slipped back into the tent and passed out immediately. That night we slept like nomads on a tent furnished with hand woven thick rugs and mattresses on the floor. It was bitter cold and was pretty basic with not even a toilet you just have to do it “behind the dunes”. But that was definitely one of the highlights of any Moroccan trip!

Saharan Safari Entertaiment

Catching the sunrise means getting dragged out of bed sometime at 4 AM but to watch it rise behind the dunes is magical.

3 day Morocco Saharan Safari

Breakfast and coffee awaits us at the town at the foot of the desert. Most members of our group were going back to Marrakech but we have teamed up with our favorite Canadian we adoringly nicknamed Mr. Fancy Pants and made arrangements to hire a private car to head to the city of Fez some 7-8 hours away.

February 6, 2017

Saharan Desert Safari Day 1

Enticed by the promise of fantastic views and a nomadic adventure, the second leg of our Morroco trip brought us to the Saharan desert.

The trip from Marrakech to Merzouga for the Erg Chebbi sand dunes entails a lot of driving and planning the logistics is quite tedious and complicated. We found that it’s better to join a multiday package tour to break it up and we’re happy that the transport and accommodations were safe, comfortable and clean. There were also lots of interesting stops and side trips along the way and a chance to walk around and stretch our legs. Those were some of our main concerns and we’re glad our worries were unfounded.

saharan safari morocco

The 3 days/2 nights package tour we booked with our riad was a convenient way to see more of the countryside. The drive was gorgeous as Morocco had such a contrasting varied landscapes.

We were picked up at Riad El Jadide at 730 AM and was brought to the square where we then transferred to our official bus tour. We were supposed to do a private tour with just the 2 of us but there was a mix up in our riad and it was too late to change the booking so we grudgingly joined the group.

The bus was a babel of languages with a merry mix of people from all over the world. Our group turned out fun and easy to get along with and we’ve met wonderful new friends. After exchanging emails and going on our separate ways after the Saharan Desert safari, we kept bumping into some of them at the other Moroccan cities and it was always wonderful to see a familiar face in a crowd.

Looking back that was a fortunate mishap as we thoroughly enjoyed it although we probably can’t say the same for our guides and driver. During, we might have been the most difficult participants – always asking for lunch before exploring, sitting out hikes and sites when it gets too hot or cheesy, looks for the exits ahead of the others and leaves on our own. I hope our tip made up for it ha ha! Joining a group tour also came out very economical.

So our tour itinerary went something like this:

DAY 1: Marrakech - Tizi n' Tichka - Ait Benhaddou - Gorge Dades

We departed Marrakech at 8 in the morning, 30 minutes behind schedule. The stunning views begin immediately as we made our way up the High Atlas Mountains. We stopped for coffee and snacks at some roadside shack before crossing the extremely steep and winding Tizi n’ Tichka pass. Boy was I glad I haven’t forgotten to pack a whole pad of anti-emetic pill!

Before lunchtime, we’ve reached the province of Ourzazate.  A guide (with a compulsory 25 MaD tip per person) joined us for a tour of the UNESCO World heritage site of Ait Benhaddou – a real fortified city. The Kasbah (fortress) was the slave trading city of Yunkai in that hit TV series Game of Thrones.

Lunch (not included in the tour) was at a shaded terrace. I had beef tajine while Kim had chicken. Dessert was a platter of fruit and fresh dates. I wasn’t expecting much from the food as the place was packed with tourists but it was actually one of the best meals we’ve had in the country. It was then 2 PM and we were so hangry we couldn't be bothered to take photos.

After a leisurely 2 hour lunch, we continued on with the drive to Dades Gorge stopping from time to time for coffee and tea, bathroom breaks or photos.

Before dark, we’ve reached Le Veaux Chateau Du Dades where we stayed at on a freezing cold night. Dinner was a bowl of chunky soup spiced heavily with cumin followed with couscous and chicken tajine plus the ubiquitous chewy bread of course. 

January 9, 2017

Marrakech Travelogue Part 3

We have booked our 3 days dessert safari leaving the day after so we had 1 more full day to spend in Marrakech.

We’ve already serendipitously toured the medina and has seen Ben Yousseff by ourselves the previous day, so we decided against a guide for the day. But if you go, and have limited time, a guide would be really helpful.

With nothing much on our agenda for the day, we asked our riad to arrange a taxi to bring us to Saadien Tomb. We were picked up by our driver right at the door. He parked just a couple blocks out and we could have easily found him but it was an appreciated thoughtful gesture and nice to start the day not worrying about getting lost.

Saadien tomb was sealed up for centuries until they were redicovered in a French aerial survey in 1917. The burial ground with 2 mausoleums and over 100 tombs scattered around the garden was well preserverved and has been restored to their former glory.

The Chamber of the 12 pillars mausoleum was spared no expense and was built from imported Italian Carrara marble with honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) gilded with pure gold. This is the resting place of the Saadian sultan, princes and members of the royal household, including a few Jewish graves.

It is popular with stray cats and tourists for an entrance fee of 10 MaD. This is also where Kim got her first marriage proposal from a guide who speaks 7-8 languages. Declining the offer, we headed for brunch.

Brunch was a chicken tajine in Kasbah café just across the entrance of the tomb.

The weather is nice and chilly but sunny conducive for walking so we ambled down the avenue following some carriages transporting tourists and soon enough saw the minaret of Koutobia Mosque.

We knew then we were near the square and continued on for glasses of chilled freshly squeezed orange juice. So refreshing and cheap at just 4 dirhams a pop. We also always get extra half glasses if we oblige photo requests from the juice sellers. Shoot away then ha ha! As asians, we must really look so different from them to attract attention. To get less of the unwanted kind, I suggest that you dress properly with shoulders and knees covered. Morocco is still very traditional and a muslim country after all and it’s respectful to be well and decently dressed, well anywhere for that matter.

From the square we entered the souks again to explore more. I really wanted to see Souk de Epices or the Spice Market and I’m glad we did! It’s not too far away from the square really and it wasn’t difficult to find. We bought a few grams of menthol cystals and basically just got snap happy. There’s just too much to photograph.

To prepare for our dessert safari tour leaving in the morning, we proceeded to Carre Eden Mall in the new city to buy some supplies. A couple of local guys smiled at us and we smiled back. They then started weirdly following us around all over the mall and the groceries. That totally creeped us out and I was about ready to call the local police as we hightailed it out of there. As we wait for a cab, they passed us by but did nothing so maybe we weren’t really in any real danger. Still that was weird and made us be on guard and kept from being too friendly the rest of our trip.

Those kind of attention colored our Marrakech experience a bit but it wasn’t exactly horrible. And to be fair, we’ve met really friendly and kind locals who were generous with their time to help us out. 

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