DreamTrips, Morocco

El Jadida, a Coastal Town in Morocco

March 12, 2017

Today we took a trip to El Jadida, a coastal town 100km southwest of Casablanca. The town is an old Portuguese port with a medina that is a UNSECO World Heritage Site. The town, previously called Mazagan, was controlled by the Portuguese from 1514 to 1769 until it was taken over by Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah.

We started our tour at the Portuguese Cistern which was constructed in 1514 as a warehouse that possibly held armory before it was converted to a cistern in the 16th Century. The cistern was rediscovered in 1916 by the Moroccans when a shop owner was expanding his store and water came pouring through the wall.  The cistern collected water from the terraces when it rained. The damp cavern felt a little eerie, but the Gothic arches were quite lovely. Due to the reflections from the thin layer of water on the floor, many movies have been filmed here, including Orson Welles’ Othello.

After visiting the Cistern, we walked down the street to the Fortress of Mazagan. The star form of the fortress included walls eight meters high, ten meters thick, and a patrolling walkway that was quite wide.   We followed the path past old canons toward the busy fishing port and stopped to admire lovely panoramic views of the area.

From the fortress, we drove to the Mazagan Beach Resort for lunch and for the afternoon at the beach. This resort was spectacular. We joked we would have liked to stay here, and take a day trip to Casablanca. The property included a casino, golf course, spa, and a variety of restaurants and activities. We were treated to a fantastic buffet at La Cabane. The main buffet lined offered a variety of cooked entrees including tajines.  The side buffet displayed countless salads.  There was quite a selection of cheese.  The dessert bar was so pretty.  I particularly liked the sculpture made of chocolate!  We didn’t realize until after we finished eating, that we could have gone outside to the grill to get kabobs.  Make sure not to miss that!

After lunch, we walked down to the beach which was very windy and cold! Of course, it was unseasonably hot for two weeks except for our final day at the beach when the temperature dropped 20 degrees with the cold front that arrived. I sat in my puffy on the beach chairs as I watched the waves crash on the sand. Others laid covered in beach towels.  The smart folks found some chairs behind some glass that served as a nice wind break for a much more pleasant beach day.  I particularly liked these beach chairs. Each one had its own sunshade!

Soon we headed back to Casablanca for dinner at Cabestan, a fancy restaurant. We were seated upstairs with a view of the Atlantic. The service was similar to all of our other experiences…the food generally came before we could order a drink. We were served a salad and fish and a pastry for dessert. Don’t go to this restaurant without going to the restroom….particularly men. Very unique…the water of the toilet cascaded down the window, I’m told!

It was a nice final day in Morocco. Now we just have an 18 hour layover in Madrid tomorrow, before arriving back in the USA. What a good trip! ETB

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El Jadida: A Coastal Town in Morocco

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Rambling Around Rabat

Today we took a day trip from Casablanca to Rabat, the capital city.  While driving the 87 km, we learned a little about Morocco.  Its population is 35 million of which 40% are Berber.  The Arab Moroccan dialect includes French and Spanish thus Arabs from the Middle East can’t understand Moroccans unless classic Arabic is used.  Morocco is more progressive than other Muslim nations.  Women can drive cars, over 70% of those studying to be a doctor are women, and Morocco even employs a woman judge.

Four different cities have once served as the capital of Morcocco…Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes, and Rabat.  The current capital, Rabat, is home to 1.6 million people.  Being the political capital, Rabat didn’t seem like it would be that interesting to me, yet I was pleasantly surprised by the 12 Century city.

Our first stop of the day was at Dar al-Makhzen, the royal palace and home to the king of Morocco.  We saw it from a roped off distance, and this time we were allowed to snap photos of the Royal Guards in winter red.  Our visit was quick and we moved on to the Hassan Tower.

Hassan Tower is an unfinished minaret of a mosque whose construction was abandoned with the death of Yaqoub al Mansour in 1199. Mansour, the fourth monarch of the Almohad dynasty, planned on building the largest mosque in the world.  Instead, the minaret which only reached 44 m, half of the intended height, and partly built columns and walls are all that remains of the mosque that also suffered from strong tremors of the 1555 Lisbon earthquake.

I really enjoyed exploring the complex which also included the Mausoleum of Mohammed V located on the edge of the rectangular square opposite the Hassan Tower.  The mausoleum, completed in 1971, contains the tomb of Mohammed V in the middle and the tombs of Hassan II on the left and Prince Abdallah on the right.

After taking in the view from complex, I joined our group as we headed to the medina.  This market was bustling!  I don’t know how, we as a group, managed to stay together.  Every vendor imaginable filled the area.  Locals shopped for food and clothing items while tourists looked at the handicrafts.  We browsed over the merchandise as we passed by each stall before we eventually stopped for lunch at Dar Arbatya for traditional Moroccan cuisine.

From lunch we visited Kasbah des Oudayas for a fantastic view of the Bou Regreg river and the Atlantic.  The kasbah, or fortress, was originally constructed in the 12 Century for defensive purposes.  Inside the kasbah, narrow corridors weaved past blue and white buildings.  The area populated with homes and businesses was quite sedate as compared to other places we visited.

We strolled past decorative doors, murals, lush potted plants, and cats (the animal of choice in Muslim countries), to a place where we could order tea while overlooking the Atlantic.  Next door was a garden.  I wandered through the garden while others rested at the tea house or shopped.

In the late afternoon, we headed back toward Casablanca. We passed aged towns with crowded markets along the way.  Our tour had dinner plans at Basman where we could taste more Moroccan cuisine and watch a belly dance.  Given we had eaten a tajine for lunch and dinner for most of the last two weeks, we bowed out of the late-night dinner.  Instead, I enjoyed a quiet sushi dinner at the hotel with our Icelandic friends while some others attended a music show at the Institut Français de Casablanca which was a few blocks from our hotel.  It was a nice day!  ETB

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Rambling Around Rabat

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Casablanca…The White House

Now that we have been in Morocco a week, we have learned a few Arabic/Berber words.  I think the ones we’ve heard the most are “Marhaba” – “Hello” and “Yallah” – “Let’s Go”.  We were ready to go today.  It was time for a tour of Casablanca.  We started the day at Hassan II Mosque, which is only one of two mosques in Morocco that non-muslims are allowed to enter.  Tourists can visit the mosque at 9, 10, 11 and 2.

The mosque, the third largest in the world, was publicly funded, designed by a French architect and took 35,000 Moroccans to erect the structure over seven years between 1987 and 1993.  Its minaret is 650 ft high.  The main hall holds 25,000 people; 20,000 men on the main floor and 5,000 women in the upstairs mezzanine.  I would have never guessed the intricately decorated 200 ft high ceiling opens.  The mosque, located partly on land and partly on water, has a retractable roof!

The inside of the mosque is decorated in Moroccan marble, Italian granite, and a plaster mix which uses egg.  The ceiling is made of carved cedar wood.  Its interior takes on an Andalusian, Moorish, and Moroccan design which is quite beautiful, and aptly named Hassan (meaning beautiful).  Beneath the mosque are a variety of fountains and interesting wash rooms.

Muslims, who pray 15 minutes five times a day, must shower prior to entering the mosque.  If they can’t they rub a rock.  Our local guide, Hamadi, carries a small rock with him at all times.  He also told us Muslims who drink may not enter the mosque.  I’m certain there are several more religious traditions for Muslims, but I wouldn’t do their beliefs proper justice, so I have included a link to Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muslim.

Hamadi

From the mosque, we visited the medina and quickly twisted through a portion of the souks.  We mostly passed through the food market area.  Snails, mollusks, and turtles were for sale at one vendor location.  Fortunately, we found out that the turtles are purchased as pets.

Upon exiting the medina, we meandered down the White City’s streets and we given a chance to do some shopping.  I personally loved seeing the egg delivery on a cart…a little different from a milk man in the USA.  Margit was interested in a chandelier and a store she stopped in directed her around the corner.  We stumbled upon several shops lining a pedestrian walkway.  It was a nice area, and Jimmi found a button-down shirt that he could wear tonight at Rick’s Café, which had a dress code.

After shopping, we took a drive to the corniche.  We wandered along the sidewalk above the shoreline as we passed by McDonalds, a café, and a variety of gyms and beach clubs.  Some seemed ready for business while other locations were home to empty pools.

After our stroll, we stopped for lunch at El Gausto for fish soup as well as a fish entrée and of course, fruit for dessert.  Not a terribly big fan of fish, I sort of wished that there could have been some variety between the appetizer and entrée!  Oh well, it was food, and I could eat it.

The afternoon included stops in and around the Habous area.  First, we visited Pasha’s Mahkama, or court, which was built in 1952.  The Mahkama formerly the reception halls for the Pasha of Casablanca as well as a courthouse.  Now the complex is used for government administration.

After visiting the Mahkama, we stopped at Casablanca’s Royal Palace.  Though closed to the public, with a guide, we were allowed to wander a limited area of the grounds lined with elaborate water features, flags, flowers, and orange trees.  Today, additional guards in red coats stood by the usual guards which meant the King, who resides in the palace in Rabat, would be visiting soon.  As such, we were not allowed to take pictures of the military personnel.

We ended our day with a short stroll in Habous past a few Arabic bookstores before we returned to the hotel.  We finished the day with plenty of time to spare before 10pm dinner at Rick’s Café, so we went to the Morocco Mall, the second largest shopping center in Africa that opened in 2011.  We heard it was very luxurious.  Aside from the giant aquarium, I didn’t find it to be much different from any other giant mall in America with the exception of the fancy tea shop!

 

Finally, we made it to Rick’s Café which is a restaurant owned by an American, and it is an exact replica of that which was featured in the movie Casablanca.  We were seated at a table upstairs which looked down into the middle of the restaurant.  I really enjoyed the atmosphere here, and the food was outstanding.  The fig and goat cheese salad was fantastic as was the duck!  I think it was probably nice just to have a meal that differed from the traditional tajine.  I have never seen the movie Casablanca, but I feel like I should now that I have dined at Rick’s Café and wandered the city.  ETB

 

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Casablanca: The White House

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Clubbing in Casablanca

So, our first mistake related to traveling from Marrakesh to Morocco, was to book a flight rather than take a train. The second mistake we made was to listen to Fernando and get to the airport 2.5 hours early at 6:45am! There were no lines at the check in counter, and the security for domestic travel was simply at the one gate used to fly domestically!

Fortunately, there was one coffee shop in the entrance area of the airport, so we purchased our breakfast there and sat and waited for two hours before we decided to enter the gate area. The man who operated the security at the gate thought for sure us tourists were in the wrong place and waved us to the international area. We showed him our boarding pass, and though surprised, he let us pass through.

Upon arriving in Casablanca, we made a few more traveling errors. When deboarding the plane, security checks each passenger’s passport and boarding pass to allow them entrance to the international terminal. We weren’t continuing on past Casablanca, so we didn’t have to wait in the line, though squeezing by everyone would have been hard anyway.

We were directed through a different corridor where we ended up at immigration. Should we have been able to read French, we probably could have figured out to follow the green line so we could skip immigration, but our mastery of language only included English and some Spanish. We showed the woman guarding the entrance to lines our passport stamp to indicate we could go around, and she told us we had to fill out the paper first.

We did this and walked back where a gentleman stood who understood enough English to point us in the right direction. We eventually skipped the immigration line and were met by a security guard on the other side who wanted to see our passports. He flipped page by page through our passports for a Casablanca stamp. We kept telling him we came through Marrakesh. Eventually, he let us through. At least they were all friendly!

Clearly, no one flies from Marrakesh to Casablanca, with Casablanca as the final destination as we confused most everyone. The flight was only 50 minutes, but with two hour before time and the bag waiting time, our airport time was far longer than the three-hour train ride, and we didn’t get to see the countryside!

Once we finally got outside to our ride, we had to wait for people in our group who were coming in from International places! To add to the length of our trip, the airport is really far away from the City (at least as it relates to traffic in this City of 5 million people), and it took a good hour to finally arrive at our hotel. The train station, on the other hand, was about 10 minutes away! Jimmi and Margit took the train about four hours after us and arrived at the same time.

Tired, we didn’t do much for the few free hours we had in the afternoon aside from grabbing lunch in the roof-top restaurant in our hotel, but at 6 we headed downstairs for our free happy hour and welcome dinner at the Mövenpick Casablanca Hotel. It was Brien’s birthday, so after dinner we hopped around to a few clubs.

Our first stop, and ultimately our best stop was at Maison B (B for Brien). He is a tequila drinker, so we ordered the menu item listing “6 shots”. The bar added 2 more shots complimentary. It was a quiet night, though we were out very early for Casablanca standards, so after a few more beers, we walked across the street to a Hooka lounge while we waited for our ride to Sky28, a club on the 28th floor of the Kenzi Tower Hotel. This place, though somewhat dead as well, was nice and offered lovely night views of the white city. As midnight rolled around, we called it a night. ETB

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Four Wheeling Through the Asni Ouirgane Valley

So today we took a 4×4 tour to the Asni Ouirgane valley.  Suman, Brien, Nina and I climbed into a large SUV and our driver took us toward the mountains.  We followed the same highway we took to hike in the High Atlas Mountains.  We made stops a few viewpoints for views of the farmland and surrounding mountains, until eventually we turned off onto a dirt road.

We climbed the dirt road which led us through green pastures sprinkled in yellow dots of blooming flowers.  Villages sat tucked in the valley beneath the snow-capped mountains.  After venturing far into the valley, we got to stretch our legs along the road and snap photos of Toubkal, Northern Africa’s highest mountain, while a shepherd directed his goats along the hills.

We stopped for lunch at Chez Momo (http://www.aubergemomo.com/), a restaurant at a nice Riad in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains.  We sat on the patio which overlooked the pool and a lake.  It was quite a nice atmosphere.  The day was sunny, so sun hats were placed on each for us to use.  Fortunately, we found a table that was partly shaded.

Our lunch was tasty!  It included a plate of cold vegetables that could be mixed into a salad, a variety of meats like chicken kabobs, meat patties and sausage, and an apple crisp dessert, and of course bread.  The server knocked our basket of bread off the table onto a chair.  He picked up the bread, added it to basket, and placed the basket back on the table.  Between this incident and the one where the server shook the bread off my appetizer plate and onto my entrée plate, I began to wonder if bread was sacred to the Berber culture.  Believe it or not, it is!  Bread is God given and used as a utensil.  No bread is thrown away or placed on the ground.  Stale bread is placed out for poor people or used for animals!

We arrived back at the hotel in the late afternoon.  Departure for dinner was planned at 8:30, so we had at least five hours of free-time.  The afternoon was scorching hot, so we rested by the pool.  I actually tried to get in a training swim for my triathlon, but the pool was surprisingly freezing cold.  I figured I’d warm up as I swam, but after 15 minutes, my hands and feet were too cold to continue.  Not to mention, it’s not very much fun to exercise while on vacation!

There was a mall across the street from our hotel with restaurants in an open area on the top floor, so we decided to go watch the sunset from the rooftop.  We weren’t exactly facing the right direction, but it did provide a nice view of the nearby medina and the mountains from afar.

Our dinner was at Palais Jad Mahal (http://www.palaisjadmahal.net/), a combination restaurant, bar, and club.  It was fancy and enforced a certain dress code.  The cuisine was international, so we were served spring rolls and fish.  I didn’t think the food was that great, but the atmosphere and dance show was great!  All sort of dancers circled through the restaurants.  Some balanced candelabras on their heads.  Then, in the court yard which was surrounded by the windowed restaurant, fire performers swung flaming batons and dancers put on amazing shows.

Later, we heard loud music and thought there should be dancing with this, but we didn’t see any performers.  We got up from the table and turned the corner into the lounge and bar to find lights blinking, a stage with musicians performing, and women dancing on the bar.  It seemed like to sit at a table by the stage, bottle service was required.  Cuban cigars were available in the lounge.  The place was crazy!  I’d totally go back, especially if I were there celebrating a birthday or something.  We stayed until about midnight before we headed back to the hotel and prepared for an early morning flight to Casa Blanca.  ETB

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Excellent Visit to Essaouira

Today we boarded the bus for a side trip to Essaouira, once Morocco’s main trading port and a stronghold of the Jewish culture.  I really loved this day trip, and I would highly recommend visiting this windy port town home to a picturesque fishing harbor, a medina, a beach with surf, and the world famous Gnaoua Music Festival which takes place in June.

Along the way, we passed by large fruit farms located closer Marrakesh due to the underground rivers, as well as wheat and barley farms which were located in the drier areas near Essaouira.  The reddish dirt was rich with iron which also provided a perfect growing area for the argan trees, where we made our first stop along the main road to see goats in a tree.

I wish I could say in this instance these goats were in the tree naturally, but I unfortunately must admit that a shepherd has trained his goats to pose in the tree for all the tourists.  In exchange for a small fee, we could snap photos.  I didn’t have any change on me, and I was also opposed to paying a fee for something manufactured with animals, so I snapped photos from afar with a zoom lens until I was able to amble up a bit closer.  I had already seen goats climb the trees in the High Atlas Mountains naturally, so at least this wasn’t completely unorthodox, as they do climb trees to eat the foliage.  Though with far more goats in a much larger tree, this sight was far more extraordinary than anything we witnessed on our hike!

After visiting the argan tree forest, we stopped at an argan oil cooperative, Assouss Argane.  The argan oil comes from a nut which falls from the tree and is harvested in the early summer months.  The cooperatives created by the government have given many Berber women job opportunities.  We watched them crack the nut and extract and grind the seed into oil before we picked through shelves of product.  Argan oil is rich with vitamin E, so I bought some oil for my face.  Hopefully with a little use, my skin will be soft and silky smooth!  I learned later from my travel book that while more expensive, it is best to buy from members of the UCFA (http://www.cooperative-argane.com/nos-membres/) in order to support the rural women.  I’m not sure we succeeded at this, but hopefully our purchases still helped some ladies.

We continued past a variety of towns with markets and eventually arrived at Essaouira, home to 6,000 people far smaller than the bustling city of Marrakesh with a population of 1.5 million.  Essaouira is known for its windsurfing, silversmithing, painting, and woodworking.  The wooden articles are made from the thuya tree, an unassuming conifer whose scrubby foliage and knotty trunks are nothing to write home about.  Its root, however, are full of beauty, and the Berbers pass down from generation to generation the skills needed to select, harvest and work the wood.  The best pricing for these crafts is in Essaouira.

Our first stop in this picturesque village was for lunch at Le Seven.  The restaurant’s floor to ceiling windows provided a lovely view of the beach and boardwalk from the main street.  Waves broke on the sandy beach as we were served a three-course lunch.  We started with a cold salad and then had fish for an entrée.  Given we were at a fishing port, it seemed like the fish would have been fresh, but it tasted frozen.  The best course was the dessert with a local beer.

From Le Seven, we were shuttled just a bit farther into the city to the outskirts of the medina.  Before we weaved through the souks of the medina, we visited a jewelry store, Centre de la Bijouterie Artisanale.  I’ve never seen so much silver jewelry in one place!  The cases were loaded with charms, bracelets, rings and more.  The sales people swept in from nowhere as soon as a piece was touched, but otherwise quietly left us alone as we browsed.  Moroccans interpret a pointing gesture as a sign of want, so I’m sure touching demonstrated the same meeting.

From the silver store, we passed by the square and park named for Orson Welles who stayed in Essaouira while filming Othello as we headed toward the fishing port which I just loved.  I loved the old wooden boats lined up on the pier with one currently being restored.  I loved the piles of fishing nets and buoys that lined the harbor.  I loved the seagulls feasting on fish guts.  I loved seeing the fishermen prepare for their next day out at sea as they sliced up fish and baited hooks at wooden stands around the port. I probably could have spent hours here searching out different photos to take, but we had more places to explore.

We moved on to the medina located against the coast where we stumbled upon an alley way of artists. We wandered through the wending derbs lined with blue and white buildings and stores featuring a variety of local artists’ paintings.  Soon we reached a street of antiques and wood carvings.  We tried not to make eye contact or point so we could walk in peace, but then we realized how calm the market in Essaouira was as compared to that of Marrakesh.  We could meander and talk to the friendly store vendors without having to tersely answer “no”.  If I were shopping, I’d shop here.

We had to be back to the bus by 4.  As such, Jimmi and Margit went back to the silver shop to pick up a bracelet she brought with her to be fixed.  I was so impressed by that.  I would have never thought to bring broken jewelry with me to a foreign country, but Margit knew Essaouira was known for its silverwork and that it would be cheaper to get fixed in Morocco!  Suman and I continued to stroll through the market.  Suman opted on some street food.  It looked much more savory and filling than the frozen fish we had for lunch.  Eventually, we found our way out of the medina, though the exit wasn’t that close to the bus.  We hurried around the city wall and joined the group for our two-hour drive back to Marrakesh.  Nina and Brien liked Essaouira so much that they suggested, “We should have stayed here and just taken a day trip to Marrakesh.”  Don’t miss this small port town while traveling to Morocco!

We didn’t leave for dinner until around 8:15 as it is common to eat late in Morocco.  We drove outside of town to Chez Ali which felt like a Moroccan Vegas.  We were greeted by men mounted on horses.  Then we entered into a courtyard of fountains decorated with a giant cobra as a musician played his flute.

Next, we were escorted beneath a walkway of tents set up alongside a horse arena.  The walkway was lined by Moroccan dancers and musicians of all types who displayed the traditions they followed.  Soon we were seated for dinner indoors on the other side of the arena.   Each group of dancers and musicians circled through the restaurant by our tables as we were served our meal.  As usual, it was very hard to order a drink…the food came first!  Though now we were seasoned enough to try to round up the drink orders and ask for them all at once.

Our first course was soup.  The second course, which we thought was the entrée were lamb kabobs, and they were fantastic.  That might have been our favorite dish thus far.  Who knew we’d be served another dish for dinner…a tajine of chicken.  Of course, we were provided fruit for dessert, before we were encouraged to go outside and grab a seat by the arena to watch the horse show.

We were a little late in finding our seats on the cement stairs, so we sat very close to the railing.  We soon found out, while we had a good view, this was not an ideal location for staying clean as dirt and horse slobber flew in our faces as they galloped by us!  I think several unseasoned horse visitors enjoyed the twirling tricks the horsemen performed, but as a one-time equestrian competitor and horse enthusiast, it was a little hard for me to appreciate the horses being spurred into action as the cross-cantered around the corners.

We had a debate about the gentleman who fell off while trying to grab an item off the ground.  We felt it was staged so when the next rider galloped by and snagged the item off the sandy surface, he received a handsome applause!  In addition to the “circus” acts, horses were ridden to the end of the arena where the horsemen would all fire a gun at once.  If they didn’t fire simultaneously, we weren’t supposed to clap, but the audience did anyway.  Overall, it was a fun night of entertainment, though I can’t say I’d do it again despite it being the #1 show out of 5 on TripAdvisor.  Another good day on this Deamtrips Tour!  ETB

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Excellent Time in Essaouira

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DreamTrips, Morocco

Maneuvering Marrakesh

So today was the first day of our Dreamtrip which was offered by our vacation club we joined.  We loaded the bus at 8:30am with our new-found friends, Jimmi and Margit from Sweden and Nina and Brien, Americans who live in South Korea, among others.  Nina is originally Filipino, but due to Brien’s job and her resulting opportunities it is better for her to have a U.S. passport.

Our first stop on the tour was the Koutoubia Mosque, which takes its name from the Arabi word Koutoub, meaning book as there used to be a large booksellers’ market nearby.  Built in the 12th century, the Moorish mosque became a model for mosques around Morocco and even La Giralda in Seville, Spain.  Its minaret is 77 meters high and is topped with three golden orbs representing three holy places; Jerusalem, Mecca, and Marrakesh’s medina.

From the Koutoubia Mosque, we wandered through the medina to the Mussée Dar Si Saïd.  This museum was once a 19th century palace.  The palace was built with a courtyard with four surrounding rooms for the four wives that Muslim men were allowed, though the new king discourages polygamy.  The decorative rooms now display pottery, jewelry, tapestries and leatherwork.

We took the stairs to the second level which was home to a salon with royal chairs and a wedding chest.  The salon’s cedar carved ceiling was painted vibrant colors.  The blue came from indigo, the yellow from saffron, and the red from poppies; all native plants of Morocco.

After visiting the museum, we continued through the medina to La Bahia Palace which I think was my favorite stop of the day.  Lucky for us, it was open, as if the royal family is in town, many of their entourage stay here.  The Palace was built by Sultan Moulay el Hassan I, and its intricate tile work and ornate ceilings were quite spectacular.  We first entered an area where guests were kept waiting to visit.  Then we entered a room which I particularly liked as the ceiling looked like an upside down boat.  This room was used by the primary wife.  We continued to the courtyard for the four wives and then to the courtyard for the twenty concubines. Each surrounding room varied in decoration based on the importance of the occupant.

From the Palace, we weaved through the medina past a vegetable market, butcher and a few shops before we arrived at the Saadian Tombs.  While this 16th century burial ground with a lavish mausoleum and colorful zellij graves was pretty, I found the story behind the tombs much more interesting.

The burial ground was created by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour and is the resting place to 166 Saadians including the Sultan.  It is one of the few Saadian relics left.  Mansour reigned for more than 25 years before his death in 1603 when his vast kingdom was left to his sons who continued in power for the next 60 years but failed to keep the peace when Marrakesh was ultimately captured by Moulay Ismail in 1669.  Instead of destroying the graves, Moulay who was superstitious about plundering the dead, sealed them up.

It wasn’t until after the European conquest when The Treaty of Fez in 1912 distributed Morocco’s regions between Spain and France that the tombs were rediscovered by a French helicopter which spotted a green tile roof while doing surveillance in 1917.  At this time, the French protectorate restored the tombs.

This burial ground is one of the few places where Christians and Muslims were buried together.  The Muslim tombs face East toward Mecca, while the Christian tombs face perpendicular to the Muslims.  The royals were buried in the mausoleum known as the Hall of Twelve Columns, while other skilled citizens such as architects were buried outdoors.

Our next stop was a shopping mall called Complexe D’artisanat.  Not much of a shopper, I found the shoe section, sat on a bench and enjoyed the air conditioning while listening to my audio book!  Others wandered through aisles and had their pick of whatever was available in the souks without having to deal with the chaos.  If I were going to shop, I think I’d rather deal with the chaos simply for the experience, but for a tour operator, it was much easier to allow everyone to shop in a department store in the medina.  I was just happy to be in the A/C as we were visiting in unseasonably hot weather.  Of course, 80 degrees was still cool enough for Moroccans to where coats given their summer reaches 110 degrees.

After 40 mins in the mall, we were served lunch at Restaurant Al Baraka. The appetizer included several plates of dips and vegetables including lentils, salsa, eggplant, and peppers that was served with bread.  The entrée was a tajine of chicken and vegetables.  What we found the most interesting was the service.  Our appetizers were served before we were ever asked if we wanted a drink.  Eventually, Jimmi flagged down the waiter to order a beer, and he left without taking drinking orders from anyone else.  We had to keep flagging him down.  Eventually we figured out, one person was supposed to place the drink order for the entire table!

The restaurant was located just off the edge of Djemâa el Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This centuries old square was once a meeting point for farmers, tradesmen, story tellers, and healers.  Now it is home to snake charmers, fortune tellers and juice carts.  We were given some free time to explore this tourist haven, but given we had already wandered through the area a few days prior, we just stood in the shade of the post office to let our food digest and people watched, while others in the group took the plunge into chaos.

Our tour continued outside the medina, so we walked past the horse drawn carriages, loaded on the bus and headed to the Menara Gardens, home to a “lagoon” and a royal olive grove.  The “lagoon” or I’d call it a reservoir is fed by the streams of snow melt from the High Atlas Mountains.  The garden is a popular place for the Marrakshi who picnic in the shade of the trees and collect water from the nearby stream for baraka (or good luck).  Personally, I didn’t find the gardens too picturesque, but it is always nice to experience something local.

For a picturesque garden, Majorelle Gaden might be a better place to visit.  It was created by the French painter Louis Majorelle and then upon his death passed to late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent.  While we had enough time to visit these gardens after we were dropped at the hotel at the end of the day, I think we felt too tired and hot to explore anymore.  Instead, I went to the gym to try to keep up with my triathlon training and enjoyed a little rest by the pool before preparing for dinner Ksar El Hamra.

TV in the bike

Our dinner restaurant was quite fancy.  We entered into a lovely courtyard before we were led to the dining room where musicians played Moroccan music.  We were served a meal similar to lunch.  The appetizer included a variety of dips.  This time a server with a basket of bread moved from person to person at the table.  I didn’t really want any, but he waited there until I took some, so I placed a piece on my appetizer plate.  I left it there, and when they cleared our plates, the server shook the piece of bread off my plate onto the entrée plate which was underneath.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in my lifetime.  At that point, I succumbed and had the bread with the tajine.

Between dinner and dessert, we were entertained with a belly dancing show.  The dancer moved from table to table while swaying her hips in a circular motion.  Our dessert was different, a pastry lathered in what looked like sugary icing rather than fruit.  Shockingly, it wasn’t very sugary, unlike the mint tea!  We were also served some fried dough drenched in honey and dusted with sesame seeds. What a nice day touring Marrakesh!  ETB

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Maneuvering Marrakesh

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Morocco

Another Day, Another Summit…Tizi Oudite

Today is our third and final day in the High Atlas Mountains. We slept up until breakfast was ready and Omar’s knock on our door awakened us for the meal Mohammed prepared for us which included boiled egg, bread and spreads. Of course, the spreads included jam and honey, and the mint tea was available with sugar. I think Morocco would be a dentist’s dream…it’s all about sugar here. Salt on the other hand is hard to come by. We have yet to have any offered for our eggs at breakfast.

We began a bit earlier today and turned left onto the non-descript trail to begin our climb. We passed through the village and followed the trail toward the summit past animal shelters and terraces of barley and fruit trees. A scare crow stood on a fence near the crops and flat rocks which were used to offer salt to the gods were placed by the orchards. No wonder salt is never offered at meals. It is used for more important things!

Birds chirped in the warmth of this sunny day as we maneuvered the trail with Omar, Mohammed and his mule. Omar has a band and while he is not the lead singer, he cooed his songs about love in the Berber language as he strolled along with us. This area of the mountains seemed much warmer than the parts we hiked the previous two days, and we spotted a few blooming flowers.

Somehow, I picked up the nickname, “Elizabeth the queen”, from Omar…perhaps because I could sort of keep up with them when they hiked up the trail at their pace. As such, I followed Mohammed and his mule up to the summit while Omar hung back with Suman. The weather and the view from Tizi Oudite’s summit at 2,219 m was spectacular! Mohammed and I sat by the cairn as we soaked in the sun until Suman and Omar arrived. I highly recommend Omar as a guide.  His company is www.astaratours.com.

We continued down the other side of the mountain for Matate Village. The trail was muddy at times and it was hard to believe we were hiking in a snowless area when on the other side of the valley facing away from us was a ski resort! On our way to Matate Village, we passed by another herd of goats. This time I spotted the shepherd who leads his goats to the summit of the mountain to graze every day! They seemed to like grazing in the trees on the way.

In Matate, we were invited to Omar’s sister’s house. Uniquely, she was there as she recently gave birth and was staying at Omar’s house, but her kids were there and her teenage daughter had prepared a tajine and tea for us. How nice was that? While her daughter and the younger cousins didn’t join us for our pre-lunch snack, her son, Rashid, and Omar did. We ate the typical Berber way and used bread as our utensils.

Rashid was the only boy in family of six kids. He was finishing up school near Omar’s house, so he joined us for the rest of our walk in order to get a ride into the market to pick up some meat for the family and then to get a ride to Omar’s house with whom he was staying as well. It turns out, Omar had a full house including his wife, child, mom, sister and baby, and nephew!

Our walk took us by more villages, schools, and orchards. I can only imagine how the terraces looked when the apple and cherry trees were in full bloom. How pretty they would be in a few months. We passed by a few more cemeteries as well which to outsiders looked like a patch of grass.  We talked about being buried versus cremated.  I said I wanted to be cremated and Omar said it would be better to be buried because it wouldn’t use wood.  I told him, well American’s use wood for the coffins.  Omar informed me that in Morocco, the dead a placed in a white dress and buried without a coffin.  It was an interesting conversation.

Eventually the trail turned into a road and a few cars zipped by which gave us a feeling of reaching civilization again. We stopped at a shelter in Agersioual Village where Mohammed prepared us our final meal. At this point we were hardly hungry, but we politely tried the salad and tajine as we enjoyed the view of Morocco’s highest peak, Toubkal which stood blanketed in snow at 4,142 m or 13,671 ft.

After lunch, we were transferred back to Marrakesh to begin our Dreamtrip. Our vacation club requires that all accommodations for Dreamtrips be a four or five-star hotel. After two nights of primitive quarters, we excited to get to Le Méridien N’Fis. Our car was checked for explosives before the gate was opened for us to drive to the entrance. We entered the fancy lobby, checked in at the front desk, and then met our Dreamtrip host, Fernando who was from Madrid.

The bellman led us through the large garden past the fitness center, pool and spa as we headed to our room. We were so excited for a hot shower and air-condition as the daytime temperatures were unseasonably warm reaching the low 80’s. We turned on our wall unit and waited for the room to cool as we cleaned up for the welcome reception which included free drinks (non-alcoholic since we were in a muslim country), appetizers, and dinner.

Our room didn’t cool, so reported our issue to the front desk who informed us that it is still winter in Morocco so their air system is still running heat! I guess locals were wearing coats in 80 degrees…oh well. Fortunately, we were in the dessert, and the nights cooled so we opened the windows and requested a fan which was perfect. ETB

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Morocco

Summiting Tizi Mzik in the High Atlas Mountains!

Our breakfast included eggs and bread with lots of spreads including jams, butter, and honey.  Oh, I almost forgot, also tea (and coffee).  I’ve decided it would be very hard to be gluten free here.  Bread is served with every meal.  While I’m not gluten free, bread is not included in my food elimination diet, but with a long day ahead of us, both of us needed to eat more than a few eggs, so we dug into the basket.

Next, we rearranged our luggage and only packed what we thought we would need for the next two days and left the rest behind so the mule wouldn’t be too loaded down.  Omar came over with Mohammed, the muleteer, who cinched our items onto the mule’s back as we prepared to head out.

Today, the sky was clear and we geared up for a long, hard trek.  We walked down the road and through town where we made a left and passed by the date stand as we ascended another road toward the trailhead.  Once again, Omar turned off to the left at the unmarked trail that I wouldn’t have found on my own.  It’s worth having a guide in these mountains.

We began a slow ascent, though the grade wasn’t too steep and rather gradual.  As we climbed, we enjoyed the view of the village below along with an old mosque.  Then we passed a rubbish pile and an incinerator made of rocks and mud to burn the trash.  We passed through a few small pine trees home to several giant cocoons.  I couldn’t believe how big they were especially for one caterpillar, but later found out several caterpillars spun one cocoon together.  It seemed odd to me until Omar showed me a video of caterpillars crawling head to toe in a line so they looked like a snake to keep from getting eaten by birds!  I didn’t know they did this…so cool!  While the caterpillars have to worry about predators, other animals do not as there aren’t any dangerous predators in the High Atlas Mountains.

Soon we reached the first false summit where we stopped for a snack before we prepared for the steep part of the trail ahead.  First we traveled across a level section and enjoyed the views of shelter for farm animals.  On the upslope, however, I tended to get somewhat far ahead of Suman, so upon reaching the large scree, Omar told me to follow the trail to the summit and to look for Mohammed while he hung back with Suman to take their time climbing the steep grade.

I made good time for a while, but became fascinated with the noisy goats trotting up the mountain.  For the life of me, I couldn’t spot a shepherd, but I knew one had to be somewhere.  The goats stopped to graze, sometimes eating leaves from the trees, but anytime I approached they nervously eyed me and encouraged their babies to stay away from the stranger.  The goats came in all shapes and sizes, though I particularly liked the ones with the long beards.

Eventually, I carried on to the summit of Tizi Mzik which stood at 2,484 m.  It took me a little while to find Mohammed as he had joined up with another guide and hiker who was already enjoying her picnic lunch.  I was surprised to see a handful of people at the summit as only one couple passed us.  I was also surprised to see a small orange juice stand!  Anyway, I wandered around enjoying the sun and the views until the cool breeze overpowered the warm sun which sent me to my pack for more layers while I awaited Suman’s arrival.

Mohammed prepared a large medley of salad which included rice, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn and more, and then presented to us a hot tajine.  Suman was too worn out to want to eat much.  I on the other hand had worked up an appetite!  I dug into lunch and even had room for the traditional Berber dessert…oranges. The once shy goats suddenly wanted to join us for this tasty meal.

After lunch, we descended the other side of the summit into Azzaden Valley.  Suman started out at a break neck pace as she was ready to be done, though it didn’t last.  Personally, I find the downhill to be harder as the descent hurts my knees, and I tend to slide on the scree, so I was glad she slowed down.  Omar has the ears for hearing some slide.  With each of our missteps, he turned to make sure we were ok.

We passed through a forest of juniper trees and followed the trail through a patch of snow.  There were several unmarked and somewhat unnoticeable trail intersections.  Most the time we tended to take the trail less traveled, so I was thankful Omar knew where he was going!  The view of the colorful hills in the distance was like a rainbow on land.  The reds contrasted with the greens, blues, and greys providing a picturesque landscape.

As we descended closer to the village, views of the women working the green terraces, kids playing soccer games, farm animals and shelters on the hillside were quite welcome.  The daily life of the Berbers and the villages are just amazing to me.  With the village tucked beneath snow-capped mountains, the image made me think of what it might look like in Nepal.

Eventually we made it to the road where we followed it past orchards to Ait Aissa, the village in which we were staying where most villagers earned their living through agriculture.  Kids sporting clogs and sandals played soccer with a plastic bottle where we turned the corner to find our riad, Dar Ameloin.  This house could accommodate several hikers.  When we arrived, only Nicki our lunch mate, had reached the riad sooner and had seeked out her bedroom.  Fortunately, hiking in the early season led to our choice of rooms as no one else turned up.  We picked one of three rooms with bed mattress rather than the rooms with sleeping pads that were just a few inches thick.  Testing out the mattresses, however, gave us second thoughts.  They were like bricks!  Omar suggested we pile a few sleeping pads on top of them, so that is what we did.  I’m glad the sleeping quarters were not full!

In the large dining room, Omar and fellow guides burned branches of juniper in the wood burning stove in an attempt to warm the room.  Most of the time, it just smoked the room, but if we huddled close enough we felt the heat.  While a shower would have been nice, leaving the only heat source for a communal bathroom with cold water was not an option for us.  Instead, we just hung out with Nicki as we were served soup, a tajine, and dessert for dinner.  Nicki was a teacher and artist from Australia.  She was in Morocco for a six-week art program that was starting shortly after her hiking jaunt.