For our spring vacation, we decided to go to Morocco. The allure of the desert, the exotic cultural history, the souks, and the food were very tempting. We focused our route on the historical cities and 1 stop in the desert. Morocco’s capital has changed over time. Fes, Meknes (briefly), and Marrakesh have been the capital and currently, it is Rabat. The route we planned was 1899km/1120 miles.
For this trip, we decided to rent a car and drive a round trip from Marrakech to Casablanca, Meknes/Volubilis, Fes, Midelt, Merzouga (in the Erg Chebbi desert), Ouarzazate, and back to Marrakech. Except for our first night in Marrakech, we did not book any hotels ahead of time. We wanted to keep our options open since we had no idea what the driving would be like. Fortunately, everything worked out well. We had complete flexibility on each leg of the journey. To help us with this trip we bought the travel guide from Stefan Loose, a well known german language brand.
Days 1-2: Marrakech
The hotel, Riad Lyla, is very charming. A beautiful courtyard with a small pool, a bathing pool, not a swimming pool, however, it is now only for decoration. Our room is also very charming and large. The décor, architectural detail, and furniture make us really feel like we are in the heart of Moroccan culture. Also, the people were very nice. They went out of their way to make us feel at home and wanted to ensure that we were comfortable and well cared for. As we left to explore the city on our first morning they even gave us a large bottle of water. Very caring!
Exploring Marrakech was very much like what you see in a movie. Souks with merchants hawking their wares, eagerly trying to sell you something. Surprisingly there were a lot of mopeds running through the very narrow streets of the souk. We quickly learned to keep an ear out for their sound and move closer to a wall to let them pass. What was interesting to see was what all they carried on their mopeds, PVC piping, big bags of stuff. Once we became accustomed to it, it was entertaining to see what they dared to load on their mopeds.
The main square, Djemaa El Fna (dating back to 1050AD) is a feast for the senses. Fruits and vegetables for sale, slapstick comedy acts, even snake charmers and men with monkeys are all competing for your attention. UNESCO declared the Djemaa El Fna a Masterpiece of World Heritage in 2001 for bringing urban legends and oral history to life nightly. When I took this picture of the skit, the two “actors” came running to me and demanding money. I gave them a few dirhams but they wanted more. I refused and they went back to their skit. I later read in the travel guide that the Berber people can be uncomfortable with photos, and others see it as a way to get money from tourists. I avoided candid shots after this event!
We also visited the Bahia Palace, the best preserved of the two in Marrakesh. palaces Construction began in the 1860s by Grand Vizier Si Moussa and embellished from 1894 to 1900 by slave-turned-visier Abu Ahmed (a very nasty guy, you didn’t want to get on his bad side). In 1908 the palace’s charms attracted warlord Pasha Glaoui, who claimed it as a suitable venue to entertain French guests. They, in turn, were so impressed that they booted out their host in 1911, installing the protectorate’s resident-general in his place.
Day 3: Ouzoud Falls and Casablanca
We took the scenic route to Casablanca and made a stop at Ouzoud Falls. An impressive waterfall. We walked from the top to the bottom of the falls, walked across the river, ate lunch (Tajine chicken, what else??) and climbed the steps up the other side. The Ouzoud Falls are horsetail waterfalls with 4 tiers before landing in the plunge pool. It was definitely worth a stop here.
Once back on the road we went to Casablanca. Its a big, modern city with plenty of white buildings. We stayed at a french sounding hotel, Hotel Club Val d’Anfa. It was indeed a french hotel. They only spoke french in the restaurant. The night staff at reception were not exceptionally friendly. We were not sad to leave this hotel.
The next day we visited the Hassan II Mosque. This is one of the few mosques in the country where non-Muslims are allowed to enter. They offered tours in various languages and we joined the English tour. The mosque is situated on the coast of Casablanca and has a 690-foot minaret, the tallest in the world. The exterior and interior of the building were impressive. It was designed by a Frenchman, who wasn’t a Muslim. Most of the materials used in the construction came from Morocco. The doors are made of a mixture of brass and titanium (to protect against the corrosion of the salt air). The ceiling, made of intricately carved cedar, can be opened during times of worship. The massive building took 7 years to build, they had over 2000 workers and craftsmen working 3 shifts, 7 days a week.
On the way out of town, we stopped at Rick’s Cafe, but it was not very impressive. After a camera pic from the sidewalk, we got on the highway to Rabat.
Day 4: Rabat and Volubilis.
Continuing on we went to Rabat to see the Hassan Tower a minaret of the incomplete mosque and Mausoleum of Mohammed V. A 12thcentury project that was abandoned. All that remains are the Minaret and some 200 columns meant to be support structures for the mosque. Before leaving town we looked for a place to have lunch. We found a pizza/hamburger place and enjoyed the break from tajine. I really liked the hamburger, the patty tasted good and the bun was a pita type of bread.
Leaving Rabat we drove on to Meknes and Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a short visit to Meknes (for a short time it was the Royal City), we continued on to Volubilis, the sight of some Roman ruins, to spend the night. We found a hotel just down the road from the ruins, the Hotel Volubilis Inn. We walked in and asked if they had a room. They did. “How much?” we asked. After some consideration, the man behind the desk quoted 600 Durhams (about 55 Euros/$62). We took it without bargaining. According to our travel guide, the hotel was comfortable but had seen it’s better days. We can confirm that. The stay wasn’t bad, except for the lack of hot water in the room. But it was overpriced for what they offered. I believe we were the only guests in the hotel. When I checked out I mentioned the lack of hot water and they gave us a discount.
The next morning we wandered through the ancient streets. This was the Roman’s farthest reach into Africa. The site has homes with still intact heating systems, temples, and many mosaics still in the floors. I always like walking through ancient ruins and imagining life back then. It was an impressive walk through these ancient streets.
Day 5: Fez
Fez is the cultural and artistic capital of Morocco, at least according to our travel guide. It was a city with a medina and many souks, as is typical in Morocco. We did notice a slightly different quality to the souk area we walked through but it is hard to describe the difference, except to say it was less touristy. One difference was obvious – they had no mopeds in the narrow streets. Instead, they used donkeys. One of the locals said they are the taxi of the medina.
One thing we did differently here is that we wandered through some of the very narrow alleys of the Medina looking for different spots in our travel guide. Most of the sights were closed to tourists so we only saw the outside of the buildings. They were ornate but one can only get a very superficial feel for a place by looking at the exterior walls.
We made two stops at leather tanneries. Fez is a major trade center for leatherwork and for raw leather. Visiting a tannery is a smelly occasion. The process uses lime and pigeon poop to cure the leather. Visitors are offered twigs of mint leaves to hide the smell. On the second day, we visited the Jewish Quarter. What distinguishes this area are the balconies made of wood and ironwork.
We spent the night in a riad in the souk, Riad Dar Mansoura. It was nicely decorated and had the same welcoming courtyard as Riad Lyla (sans pool), but the place was a bit musty. The place would be more comfortable with some air circulation. Our room was also a bit musty and dark since it didn’t have any windows. Our room opened to the courtyard/reception, which didn’t give us a very private feeling, but they said all the rooms on the upper floors were booked. Oh well, it wasn’t bad, there were no parties going on the night we were there.
Day 6: Midelt
Since it was late in the day we decided to spend the night here. We stayed in a kasbah style hotel on the south side of town. It was our first stay at a kasbah. In spite of what you may read about kasbahs on Wikipedia, the only time we saw the word kasbah was in reference to a hotel. But they did look like fortresses.
The next day as we were driving to our next destination during we passed through mountains, moon-like terrain, forested terrain. It was like traveling through New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.
Day 7-8: Erg Chebbi
This was our desert adventure stop, and what an adventure it was! We drove to the town of Merzouga which lies on the edge of the Erg Chebbi. When I looked at the sand dunes I thought of Lawrence of Arabia, and also of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, but mostly Lawrence – maybe it was my headscarf.
We stayed at the Kasba Ksar Bicha. I met my Moroccan brother here, Said. He was the host of the hotel, a very nice, friendly, cheerful person. We hit it off right away. He made our night at the hotel a very pleasant stay. We had the day of arrival and the following morning/early afternoon to relax in the hotel. Said made sure we were well cared for. I’m never going to forget Said, my Moroccan brother. This hotel gets 2 thumbs up from us!
At 4pm on our second day, we set off by dromedary to our bedouin camp. The camel ride was a 3-hour trek through the desert. One thing was quickly very evident. Dromedaries are stinky animals! I was second in line, behind Kathrin, and every 10 minutes something escaped from the backside of these animals. I mentioned it to Kathrin during a break and she said she hadn’t noticed anything. Of course not, she was first in line! As bad as it was for me, it must have been worse for the animals. They were tied together in a way that the head of one was only 3 feet from the ass of the one in front, directly in the line of fire – yuk!
After the trek, everyone in our group of 10 had sore legs, but after 5 minutes of walking around, we were fine.
We arrived at our camp to find that we had a luxurious tent. It had a real bed, electricity, toilet/sink/shower. It was a hotel room in the desert. This was more than we were expecting since we booked the standard package! Shortly before dinner, we detected some other germans in our group and slowly all the german speakers (9 of us, or should I say 8 of them and myself) came together to talk about our travels. When it was time for dinner we went into the dinner tent and, much to the surprise of our host, rearranged the tables so that we could all sit together and continue the conversation. It was very pleasant. Afterwards, a few people asked me where I was from and that started new conversations about their travels through the states and how I came to Germany.
Day 9: Dades Gorge/Chez Pierre
Leaving the desert we decided to drive first to Todra Gorge, then to Dades Gorge and stay the night there. Fortunately, the German family from the desert was recently at Dades Gorge and recommended Chez Pierre. We kept this in mind as we set off in our rental car. Todra gorge was ok. A narrow gorge cut through a mountain with a street running through it. There was a hotel built on a high point of the riverbed. It seemed like a risky gamble to me but what do I know. The street was lined with makeshift souvenir stands selling everything from fossils to shawls, a disappointing distraction from the natural beauty of the place.
Leaving there we drove for a couple of hours to Dades Valley and Gorge. This was a more impressive place. The valley was green, the mountains on either side were rocky. The gorge was far less touristy. No vendors to be seen.
There is a well-photographed road in Dades, I would even say it is the iconic road leading into the gorge. do a search on Dades Gorge and you will find this road. So, of course, we had to stop for a photo. There is a hotel from which most of the pictures are taken. We considered staying here but the thought of sleeping on a cliff face was not a comforting one, plus the room was a bit sparse.
Once we were done we drove to Chez Pierre, a hotel that one of our fellow german desert campers recommended. It was an absolutely amazing experience! Dinner was a 5-course event prepared by a top chef. The ambiance and service were fantastic. Afterwards, we went back to our beautiful, comfortable room for a good night’s sleep. We both agreed that this was a perfect way to end our desert adventure.
We also both agreed that if you are going to visit one gorge/valley/natural park then Dades Valley/Gorge is the better choice. It was more scenic and you just can’t beat Chez Pierre!
Day 10: Returning to Marrakech
For the last leg of our trip, we planned a stop in Ouarzazate and Ait Benhouhi (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) before continuing on to Marrakech.
Ouarzazate is the Hollywood of Morocco. Movies including Gladiator, Sahara, Queen of the Desert, and Kingdom of Heaven have been filmed here. We took a tour of the film museum which had quite a few props and sets on display.
Stop two was at Ait Ben-Haddou. We only stopped there because in our travel book it said it was a UNESCO World Heritage site. But to be honest, it was an ancient village of mud/clay brick buildings inhabited by souvenir vendors. There is no longer any sense of what it used to be. However, for Game of Throne fans, this is one of the filming locations. It was used to portray the slaving city of Yunkai that Daenerys Targaryen laid siege to.
The biggest surprise of the day was our drive to Marrakech. It is a 200km/120mile drive that passes through the High Atlas mountains. Turns out that route is a very scary drive. Full of narrow mountain roads, quite often with no safety rail on the edge. Many miles of the road was unpaved due to construction and the edges were crumbling away. What should have been a 3-hour drive turned out to be a 4.5-hour, nail-biting ride. We were glad to see our hotel that night! This time we chose to stay at a hotel closer to the airport, rather than in the Medina. We didn’t plan on any sightseeing, just sleeping and preparing for our flight home. We stayed at the Amani Hotel Appart. It was a 3-star hotel with a small restaurant, which was fine because Kathrin was too tired to eat and all I wanted was a bowl of soup. At 8pm neither of us was interested in a big meal. So while Kathrin slept I had a quiet snack. Other than that we can’t say much about the hotel other than the clerk on the night shift was friendly and the bed was comfortable. Breakfast the next day was interesting. The restaurant isn’t laid out like a restaurant. Its more like a cafe for students, with reading corners, bookshelves, and small tables. But it served its purpose and we were able to spend a couple of hours sitting and catching up on the world before leaving for the airport.
There were two unexpected aspects of Morocco. Number 1, there are a lot of storks in this country! We saw them in Marrakesh, Fes, Volubilis. I also learned that they don’t pose well for photos 😉 Number 2, there are some annoying people in Morocco. Not enough to ruin our vacation mind you. Every time we got out of our car someone came to us and offered to show us to our hotel. Walking through the souks someone offered to show us around, take us to a tannery. As we passed a restaurant or shop in the medina they would try to pull us in to eat/shop/look. After a while, it became an unpleasant distraction. But not enough to ruin our experience. We had a great vacation.
If you would like to see more of my photos of our trip please visit my Flickr page.