I can’t get Morocco out of my mind. At every turn, it draws you in and holds you there. Maybe it’s the elaborate mosaic patterns everywhere. Maybe it’s the intricate doors that are works of art in themselves. They are scattered along plain, sometimes crumbling walls, but then open into beautiful homes and riads/guesthouses you would never thought imaginable. It’s a land of contrasts and mixed emotions. Most importantly, it’s the people who extend a warm welcome and with their gracious hospitality. I found myself immediately feeling their inner peace – even from those in extreme poverty. I am one of those forever hooked on this exotic country.
Reflecting on a tour I’ve designed is something I do constantly as we are traveling. I always say at tour orientation, “I’m responsible for the logistics and organization of this tour and the guides are responsible for the subject matter”. They know the country and can best deliver the information. So, it’s natural that my head is constantly swirling with thoughts like ….Is the group coming together as a team of travelers? Are the guides teaching the guests about the culture and history that surrounds a site or region? How is the pace of the itinerary? Do we need more free time to relax or go out on our own? Are guests experiencing and learning about the food of the country which is so integral to its culture? Are we delivering a quality experience? On and on…. It’s particularly true with this trip to Morocco because, well, it’s Morocco!
We arrived to Tangier in northern Morocco. After a walking tour of the medina (ancient walled city), we visited Cap Spartel at the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar where the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea meet. The lighthouse is on a promontory and marks the end of the cape, just 9 miles from Spain. The views of the coastline and sea were stunning. Below Cap Spartel are the Caves of Hercules which is an archeological site. We had a Berber man who grew up playing in the caves as a child, guide us and tell us his stories. There are two openings to the caves: one to the land and one to the sea. The opening to the sea is called the “Map of Africa” because it’s shape looks like Africa.
We headed to Chefchaouen, called the ‘Blue Pearl of Morocco‘. The city is nestled against the Rif Mountains that run along the northern coast of Morocco The buildings are painted shades of blue, some with intricate tiled designs, down cobbled streets and winding alleyways. This city is fascinating due to its unique charm, warm Berber people, its history and being surrounded by so much blue!
We hiked in Talessemtane National Park in the Rif Mountains one day with guides. The setting was beautiful along a river that was a clear turquoise-jade color. The color is due the run-off from the limestone in the area. We had two guests who were plant experts on the trip and helped make this hike a naturalist outing identifying trees, plants and herbs along the way. Then, we found a river-side cafe that happened to have tangines cooking right next to the path. Convenience for hikers who get hungry!
Onward to Volubilis, and the ruinsof a Roman city dating back to the 3rd century BC. The map shows the extensiveness of the Roman Empire at its height. This Roman city housed 25,000 people and became one the most important municipia (free towns) in its day. Set in an agricultural area, we toured the city – its wide main street for chariots, the remains of its houses with their intact mosaic floors and the beautiful Basilica still so well preserved. The local historical guide explained what life was like for the Romans who lived in Volubilis. So fascinating!
This is Bab Mansour, the main gate and entrance to the Imperial City of Meknes. There are four Imperial Cities in Morocco: Fes, Marrakech, Rabat and Meknes. The Imperial cities were once capitals of Morocco. The current holder is Rabat. We walked the ancient Meknes medina and main square full of stalls, food vendors, street performers and traffic! As our guides said, when you cross the street, you say to yourself, “Praise God!” and go for it. Actually, they stopped traffic and guided us across the street on several occasions. We visited the main square with its many food stalls, street performers and A LOT of action. It was a precursor to visiting Fes and Marrakech but on a smaller scale. Claude led us to Aisha’s, a very, very small restaurant (as in one table with the kitchen in the back). We enjoyed Aisha’s specially prepared Moroccan lunch. She also explained how to make preserved lemons that were featured in her tangines. This was the first course of Harissa Soup. The food is sublime in Morocco with its unique spices combined with fresh vegetables, meats, olives, dried fruits, almonds served with a side of couscous and Berber bread (oh, the bread!). Nothing fancy, but authentic and probably one of the top two meals we had in Morocco. Thank you, Aisha!
I usually don’t write much about our accommodations but our stay at Palais Faraj in Fes was so memorable. The exterior was beautiful and the interior even more so. Every room was a work of Moroccan interior design at its finest. Quite a wonderful hotel if you are ever in Fes!
1The ancient medina of Fes is a labyrinth of 9000+ streets and alleyways – some so narrow they are just wide enough for you alone. Inside are the souks or marketplaces for any tourist to get lost and then be persuaded in to buying a Berber rug or a zillion other things. It’s a shopping mecca. Fortunately, we followed our guides through the medina and didn’t get lost although some would say that’s half the fun! One day in Fes was spent on a walking tour with a local certified history guide to learn about many of its historical sites. The emphasis of the tour was also on Arabic architecture and its intricacies. It is hard to imagine the many mosaic walls, carvings and ornate metal doors were all made by hand usually for a sultan. The palaces, mosques and religious schools are truly remarkable and the architecture is a sight to behold.
The tanneries of Fes are a must-see (and smell). Tanning of leather is a craft with traditions that go back thousands of years. And, they still do it the same way today! The tanning process turns animal hides into soft, rot-proof leather of every color. The odor comes from pigeon poop and other ‘organic matter’ that seals in the color. “Where do they get that much pigeon poop?”, one might ask. They buy it in the market, of course. To offset the odor, just hold a sprig of mint up to your nose. It works! Once tanned, the hides are passed on to the leatherworkers to make many kinds of leather products. Of course, this called for buying matching Moroccan shoes/slippers called “babouches”.
Lachen’s Fes Cooking class was so much fun! After a visit to the marketplace to buy ingredients, the work began. It was a fast-paced cooking class with a lot of teamwork and camaraderie. Chef Lachen taught us to make Zaalouk Salad; Briouates with Goat Cheese & Olives in Puff Pastry; Candied Artichokes with Preserved Lemons & Oranges; Lamb, Prune & Date Tangine, Charmoula (a traditional Moroccan marinade for fish or chicken kebabs) and Pastilla (chicken stuffed in filo dough sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar) . After all that, just sweet Moroccan oranges for dessert sprinkled with cinnamon. More than yum!
This is Dar Ayniwen our beautiful home-away-from-home in the Palmeraie district of Marrakech. Set outside the medina, it is a paradise behind its huge walls and gated entrance. What a delight! We were immediately entranced by the beautiful eclectic rooms, exotic grounds, impeccable hospitality, delicious food and an African bird sanctuary. It was a respite from the busy-ness of Marrakech. From here, guests had free time to visit Majorelle Gardens, the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, the Berber Museum and the Marrakech medina on their own. Museums and shopping – a great combination! Plus coming home to this wasn’t so bad…
Jemaa el Fna is the main square of Marrakech. It’s busy all day but really comes alive at night with food stalls, snake charmers, henna artists, musicians, dancers and animal acts. The group went on a culinary walking tour with our guide, Claude, to take in the culture and the authentic local cuisine of the food stalls. Claude wanted everyone to experience Jemaa el Fna like a local as this is the most famous square in Morocco. One of the best ways is also to sit just in a cafe, have a cup of coffee and people-watch. It is truly a sight to behold!
On to the Ourika Valley in the High Atlas Mountains and some downtime…on the way, was a special visit to Paradis du Saffron where a Swiss woman, Christine, recreated her life in Morocco by opening a saffron farm & garden for visitors. The saffron flowers are ready in November when the women harvest the pistils from the flowers. In order for it to be real saffron, look for tiny trumpets at the end of the pistil and a deep red color. Christine has gorgeous gardens with fruit trees, flowering plants, herbs, a bird sanctuary and sweet donkeys who loved our attention. We walked the Barefoot Trail experiencing varied textures on our bare feet. Then, a series of foot baths or pots filled with scented water of thyme, rosemary, rose petals, salt scrub ending with scented argan oil. Happiness is…!