Dusting off the backpacks in Morocco


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Africa » Morocco
January 10th 2010
Published: January 20th 2010
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Marrakech - Zagora - Essaouira - Fes - Agadir - Marrakech

Morocco has always conjured up certain images for us; images of snake charmers, crowded markets, camels and losing ourselves in hidden alleyways. We had been wanting to see whether Morocco would live up to these expectations for some time now and with Marrakech only 3 1/2 hours by plane from London it is an easy winter escape. Morocco was previously part of our round-the-world ticket but British Airways stopped flying there before we had a chance to make it and we ended up cashing it in for a weekend in Rome instead.

This time there was nothing stopping us. We booked our tickets 6 months earlier, arranged the time off work and started planning a brief backpacking stint through some Moroccan highlights. Our easyjet flights would take us to Marrakech and from there we had 11 days to see whatever we could manage. We knew we wanted to get to Fes and Essaouira as both had come highly recommended, and we had high hopes of managing a brief trip out to the desert but as usual we had no set plans and our only plan was to try not to travel on New Years Day.

On arrival in Marrakech we were pleased to see that the sun was shining and we'd be able to loose our fleeces and scarves that had become our standard uniform in the UK. We got a taxi from the airport to our riad, or as close to our riad as a car could manage and as our driver didn't speak English and our Arabic isn't up to par he just gestured towards an alleyway, and off we headed. After walking down the alleyway for some time, amongst fruit and spice vendors, pedestrians, cyclists, people with carts and motorbikes coming at us from all directions we were approached by a young boy, who knowing we had little choice, led us through backstreets to our riad. Once we got there we gave him a generous tip as it was our first one and we didn't know what the going rate was. However, this didn't stop him from standing there and arguing the point until we gave him more, he was obviously clued in to the fact that we'd just stepped off the plane and were new to all of the tipping intricacies that come with the territory when in Morocco.

After checking-in to our riad we decided to go and have a look at the central area of Marrakech and find some lunch; we strolled through the medina, the souks, the central square Jemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia Mosque, all of which we would be well-acquainted with by the end of our stay in Morocco. We also sat down to our first Moroccan meal in a restaurant just off the square, tagine, cous cous and oranges in cinnamon.

Immediately Marrakech is full-on. A settlement almost one thousand years old, Marrakech is known as the 'Red City' for the colour of the buildings and medina walls and is an eclectic mix of cultures and people. There are people wanting you to buy orange juice, look at rugs, have paint your hands with henna, eat in restaurants and all the while you are surrounded by motorbikes, horses and carts, cyclists and pedestrians. It is also easy to lose yourself in the narrow, twisted alleyways of the souks so it can be quite intimidating but we loved it. We didn't have much time though so we made plans to leave Marrakech the following day
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Between the Atlas and Ourzazate
and would aim to become better acquainted on our return.

Our riad arranged for us to leave at 7am on a trip to the "Sahara". It would involve driving 8 hours in each direction and a camel ride to the camp. If they had sold it on the fact that we would get to see some amazing scenery, drive through many Moroccan villages, go over the highest pass in North Africa, see date plantations, visit kasbahs and stay the night in some dunes near Zagora we would have been happy with the trip. However we were promised a camel ride into the middle of the Sahara and when we got there we were surrounded on three sides by settlements and the forth by mountains. The dunes were pretty but we had seen bigger and cleaner (the dunes we had all come to marvel at were also used as the toilet so there were footprints and bits of toilet paper littering the dunes) and if Lara hadn't gotten up before sunrise on her own accord we would have missed the one thing we had really wanted to see.

The camel ride was quite amusing for awhile (however not at all necessary as you could have easily gotten there by car) and quite painful after an hour or so especially on the second day. And the 16 hours of driving were made less pleasant by the constant loud conversation by the Mancunians behind us which revolved around which nightclub they'd be going to when they got home, who would pick up the booze for their party and how they hadn't worn any makeup for a whole 12 hours now. Despite the conversation the drive was worth doing for the scenery alone. We passed snow covered peaks, plantations of palm trees, uninhabited deserts, kasbahs and hundreds of Moroccans going about their daily business. We also visited the film town of Ourzazate where movies such as Babel and Sahara had been filmed.

We arrived back in Marrakech late and dirty. Lara had camel drool all over her clothes and we were both in desperate need of a shower before our trip to Essaouira the following day. The next morning we headed to the bus station pretending we knew where we were going and already had tickets so as not to have to tip for something that we could figure out ourselves.
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We stayed the night, in a tent in the dunes near Zagora
We bought tickets and got on the bus which was apparently leaving in 5 minutes. We could tell as soon as we got on that we weren't heading anywhere soon as we were the only 2 people on the bus but we'd already paid so we just sat and waited. Eventually we were joined by 2 Brits who had also fallen for the 'we're leaving in 5 minutes' thing and spent the next hour or so chatting with them until the bus did leave an hour and a half after we got on it. The positive to come out of this was that we spent a large part of our holiday hanging out with Dan & Ruth which was a God send when our flights were cancelled, but we'll get to that part later.

On arrival in Essaouira we decided to head to the medina and try and find the riad Lara's parents had recommended, but all we knew was that it was in the medina and had views of the sea. Somehow we managed to get there but found on arrival that they were fully booked (it was New Years Eve after all) they were kind enough to find us a lovely place nearby though.

The current city of Essaouira was built in the 18th century but there have been settlements in the same site since prehistoric times due to its natural harbour. The fort was built by a Portuguese king in the 16th century and it creates a barrier between the marina and the wild Atlantic Ocean below. It is essentially a pretty fishing village which has become a popular tourist destination and has plenty of riads and hotels for those who visit. We felt at home in Essaouira as soon as we had arrived.

We spent the afternoon of New Years Eve strolling through the beautiful seaside town, watching the sunset over the nearby islands and watching the waves crashing on the rocks below the port before we met Ruth & Dan for New Years dinner and drinks. We headed to Cafe Taro which is an extremely cool rooftop bar which is one of the few bars in Essaouira and it was full to the brim with foreigners and locals alike all celebrating the New Year. We also bumped into one of Al's work mate's Anna who we knew was in the area but we didn't know she'd be in Cafe Taro.

After New Years we had a further two days in Essaouira and these were spent eating amazing seafood, enjoying walking through the souks, sitting next to cannons in the old port walls and and doing a little bit of shopping. We also managed a few more meals and drinks with Dan & Ruth before we boarded an overnight bus to Fes.

We have been on many overnight bus trips in our time, have had 30 hours with sacks of potatoes under of feet, constant break downs and snoring companions, however this was up there with the worst. It was due to the teenage football team who were seated directly behind us and for some reason were very excited. They clapped, they sang and they chanted for almost 12 hours straight. The bus driver would stop every so often and yell at them but nothing would stop them and so even with ear plugs we managed to get very little sleep.

Our lack of sleep would explain being tricked by a local on arrival in Fes who said he would show us a cafe and then took us to the tanneries instead. It was a good time to visit the tanneries though as the sun was out and there was no one else there, so we watched the men putting skins in different coloured tubs of dye for 1/2 an hour or so. They gave us mint to sniff to reduce the smell given off by the tannery but as it was early and the sun wasn't too hot the smell wasn't too bad. We have heard that they use goat urine and pigeon poo in the dying process but this was hearsay so don't take our word for it!

In Fes we did much like we had done in Marrakech and Essaouira, walking through the medina, visiting the souks, a little bit of shopping and a lot of drinking delicious mint tea. We caught the sunset from the North Borj with lots of locals and made friends with some local boys who wanted us to take photos of them.

The following day the weather was starting to turn but we managed to walk through the Fes el Jediddistrict before the rain came. We also bought our tickets to the train station the following day and made friends with a cafe tout, Abdullah. We were highly entertained by his ability to speak the right language to the right tourist, he based his assumptions on features and clothing, and he was right most of the time. We stumped him - but then we do all the time - and most of the touts guessed Al was Spanish - it was quite funny listening to him telling a little girl that he didn't want to buy an umbrella in Spanish, while we were in Morocco!

The next day we left rainy Fes for what we thought would be our last two days in Marrakech. The train journey was uneventful except for a slight mix-up where we'd gone along the wrong tracks and had to turn around and head back again, we thought this would be somewhat dangerous but no one else seemed remotely concerned. The train was comfortable with old-fashioned carriages in which you sat face to face with your fellow passengers and they were all a lot quieter than the boys on the bus from Essaouira so it was a pleasant journey.

In Marrakech we found a cheap hotel near Jemaa el F'na and met up with Dan & Ruth for what we thought was their last night in Morocco. They were concerned about the snow in the UK and that our flights would be cancelled - something we hadn't heard anything about. We ate in one of the open-air restaurants that spring up in Jemaa el F'na every evening and serve a range of dishes that you share. We ended up having a few beers in Grand Hotel Tazzi near the square before wishing them luck with their flights for the following day.

The next day we went to see some of the sights of Marrakech before we departed. We visited the Marrakech Museum which is in a beautiful old building with a large tiled courtyard in the centre, the building itself is worth seeing more than the displays but if you pay 60 dirham you get entry to the museum, the Medersa Ben Youseff and the only building of Almorovid origin left in Marrakech. Medersa Ben Youseff is the only Islamic building in Marrakech that non-Muslims can enter. It is centred around a huge tiled courtyard with a reflective pond in the centre and all the rooms overlooking the courtyard were bedrooms of the Islamic students who lived and studied there.

On our way back from the Medersa we received a text message from Dan who had said their easyjet flight had indeed been cancelled so we set off for an internet cafe to discover that ours too had been cancelled and the next available flight out of Marrakech would not be until Sunday at 8pm, so we had an extra three nights in Morocco. A further night and a few beers in Grand Hotel Tazzi and we decided that the sensible option (?) would be to go to Agadir to an all-inclusive resort. This was a completely new experience for us, but we decided that as it included all food & drinks plus our accommodation it would be cheaper than staying elsewhere. Having checked the weather report we knew that Agadir was due to have some good weather and it was the closest place we could get to that we hadn't already been.

So off we set again and the four of us spent 2 nights in Club Almoggar - and aside from some children were probably the youngest people there by 3 or 4 decades but we got what we wanted - sun and a change of scenery. The all-inclusive holiday is a funny thing and we couldn't work out how people could manage it for 7 days. However there were some very funny events but what happened in Almoggar stays in Almoggar - let us just say that one of us can just think about what happened and laugh so hard she cries and that the other doesn't like to talk about it!

From Agadir we headed back to Marrakech with our fingers crossed. We knew there was further snow predicted for London but our dwindling funds and lack of anything clean meant we really wanted to get back. After one further night we heard the news that Ruth & Dan's early morning flight had been cancelled and we rushed to the internet cafe to see if anything was happening with ours. There was no news so we spent the day wandering around Marrakech and looking for wireless hotspots to check for updates. We didn't actually think we'd make it home that day and thought our flight would be cancelled until we were actually on the plane. It was only on landing in snowy Gatwick that we realised
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Ait Ben Haddoud
how lucky we had been as Ruth & Dan had had to reschedule their flight in two days time. Once home we realised we would have to go back to work the following day after a 2am arrival - and then we wanted to hightail it back to Morocco for some further travels!








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Ait Ben Haddoud
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Essaouira
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Essaouira
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Celebrating New Years

Cafe Taro, Essaouira


20th January 2010

Those photos are amazing! :)
20th January 2010

Thanks Mell!
It's not hard to take good photos in Morocco though!
20th January 2010

Wonderful photos, well done!
20th January 2010

Thanks Jon!
20th January 2010

Stunning photos
OK, I know it's been said but they are some amazing shots!
21st January 2010

Wonderful trip
What a wonderful trip and you two yravel so well together. At least you thawed out before going back. BUT please tell me what happened in Almoggar love Gran.
21st January 2010

Almoggar
I don't think Al would be very happy if I spilled the beans on a public forum...so I'll tell you later!
25th January 2010

Good memories!!
An interesting read. Certainly brought back fond memories and the images created by words such as riad, casbah, tagine, Essaouira, Berber, were powerful. Thanks Love Dad
17th July 2010
North Borj

Beautiful photos !
Hello ! I LOVE your photos of Morocco ! Thank you so much !!!
9th December 2010
Seagull, Essaouira

nice timing
lovely photo ...
19th January 2011

Blog of the Year, 2010
Congratulations! :) This blog was nominated one of the best of 2010, in the Africa/photography category. http://www.travelblog.org/Topics/27154-1.html

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