After a long flight we finally arrived in Marrakech. It had been over 30 years since Perry was here during his student days in Europe and he was eager to see what had changed. Right from the start it was clear that things had improved dramatically in terms of infrastructure. The airport had just opened 2 months before and was air conditioned, modern and efficient - not words often associated with African airports! The drive into town revealed clean streets and newly paved roads with modern building dotting the route. Once we reached the walls of the old town things started looking more authentic. The red city walls still guarded the inner medina where the buildings had not changed much in hundreds of years. We passed the famous Mamunia Hotel where the stars all stayed in the 60’s and came to one of the outer gates where we disembarked and walked the last bit into the pedestrian only street. The architecture reminded one of a fortress with high crenelated walls, narrow winding streets, low slung buildings (none more than 2 stories as dictated by law). Soon we had manuvered our way to our “riad” (traditional home).
We were welcomed into the inner courtyard after winding through some narrow passageways which keep the cool air in. The decoration was charming with large carved lanterns, a small pool, and lots of green plants in the open sky center of the building. We were served the traditional Moroccan mint tea which was flavorful and refreshing. We were then shown to our room which was tastefully appointed with nomadic carpets, beautiful carved furniture, a four poster bed, and a gorgeous ensuite bathroom all overlooking the inner courtyard one floor below. After a quick shower and a change of clothes we descended to a fabulous home cooked meal consisting of a platter of appetizers and tagine (also the name of the clay pot which this specific dish is cooked in). Our tagine was full of spices and fresh flavors with tender lamb, fresh vegetables, potatoes and rich juices to soak up the accompanying bread. A great culinary start to our journey. Dessert was fresh orange slices with cinnamon sprinkled over them which was a perfect way to round out the meal. We took a short stroll to the nearby historic square called Jemaa el-Fnaa where we watched the full moon rise over the Koutibia Mosque’s minaret which is a famous landmark. Snake charmers, food stalls, storytellers all served to liven the atmosphere of the square and we felt the thrill of experiencing an ancient living culture come alive before our eyes. As we drifted in and out of sleep that night we heard the calls to prayer echo through the ancient streets in the early morning hours and knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore!
The next day our local city guide, Mohammed, met us and heaped us plan our day according to our interests. We started off on our walking tour in the early morning and made our way the covered markets and alleys reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar but in a more lively open street scene. Our first stop was a fantastic example of Moroccan architecture where the founders of the city established the royal tombs of the tribe of Siad. As we walked among the tombs we witnessed amazingly intricate carvings of wood, ivory, mother of pearl and more all inlaid into geometric patterns in the roof and walls. The cool inner chambers gave a nice break from the summer heat outside in the well tended gardens full of wonderful scents like orange blossom and rose. Next it was off to the Jewish quarter called Mellah where we witnessed craftsman plying their ancient trades such as leatherwork, jewelry and much more. There were even some synagogs still standing. Walking through the old medina gave us a real sense of the living history of Morocco. Many tribes have come and gone followed by Arabs bringing Islam, Spanish and Portuguese pushing back, and later French colonization. One still feels the French presence here from the language to the legal system. Morocco gained its independence in 1956 and has a king who actively rules the country.
After a tasty lunch in the bazaar we headed back to our hotel for a swim and waited our the heat until sunset where we ventured back out into the streets which were coming alive after Ramadan. Ramadan is an interesting time to travel in Morocco. Following the lunar calendar it changes dates every year but the one thing that is consistent is that practicing muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. For the traveler in this period this means the streets are much quieter than usual, fewer restaurants are open to the traveler, and the evenings come alive with anticipation as the fast ends and people pour out into the streets to celebrate. We enjoyed the quieter streets during the day and it was great fun to feel the energy at night as the feast started with the boom of the canon signifying the end of the fasting period. One special meal we enjoyed was at Amal Center which was founded to support women in need. As it was Ramadan their normal cooking class was not in session but instead they offered a nightly feast which featured wonderful barbecued meats, various types of rice and vegetables, fresh fruits and juices, and more. We all filled our plates and ate in a communal style once we heard the canon signal. It was fun to meet locals and share in this tradition.
After an exhilarating stay in Marrakech we headed to the Atlantic Coast to the town of Essaouria where a steady sea breeze keeps the town cool evening summer.
Goats climbing argan tree
En route we passed fields of irrigated palms, enormous olive trees, and the local star - the Argan Tree. For those of you not familiar with the oil of the argon nut it is one of the most sought after skin care products in the globe. We stopped in a women owned co-op to see how the oil was extracted using the traditional method of grinding stones.
The oil is then used in a multitude of ways including infusions with orange blossom (our favorite) as a skin cream, as a food product mixed with almond oil called Amlou (think nutty Nutela), and much more. After stocking up on various delightful products which will come in handy in the desert environment, we continued on to the coast.
Grinding argan nuts in traditional stone mill
Arriving into laid back Essaouria was like traveling back into the 1960s. It was totally laid back with street artists playing music on funky banjos, tie dye head wraps, and a cool beach scene with kite surfers screaming up and down the waves along the beach front. The old town is contained within a walled city and unlike unruly Marrakech these streets are laid out on a grid pattern so you can’t get lost. It is a small town full of artisans, restaurants, hammams, bakeries and cafes. We checked in to our lovely “riad” which was built around a historic courtyard and set out to find dinner.
As most of you know, we are foodies but we eschew the trendy restaurants in favor of low key, preferably home cooked meals. Essaouria is renowned for its wonderful fresh seafood and we soon encountered numerous fancy restaurants with beautiful settings and high prices to match but we just weren’t feeling it so instead we walked to the old port outside the city walls and lucked into a wonderfully simple shack where locals and a few travelers were dining on freshly caught fish cooked on site over mesquite grills. It was just a simple place with plastic tables and chairs set on the ramparts by the sea with a breeze blowing in. The catch of the day was displayed in ice crates and choices included sea bream, sole, crab, shrimp, and calamari. We selected our favorites and the staff weighed them on the spot - $35 for 3 people including fries and a drink. Soon we were feasting on the most tender white sea bream, crunchy blackened grilled calamari, sweet shrimp, and were seated at a shared table with some other travelers. One of the magic things about travel is the serendipitous experiences one has - we met a couple from France and a half British half German solo traveler who by chance had grown up in the diplomatic quarters in Istanbul. We hit it off immediately and soon were exploring the town together in search of gelato (scored some great home made flavors) and then discovered a totally cool roof top bar overlooking the city that was low key but had live music and great atmosphere. We sat overlooking the city sharing travel stories and listening to wonderful local music called Gnawa which emanates from Africa. The rhythms were hypnotic and the band wore these great fez hats with a ball attached t a string on top so that when they swirled their heads to the beat the ball went round and round their heads. What fun!
We left the breezy coast behind and drove into the stunning high Atlas mountains to the base of Mt Toubkal, the second highest peak in Africa.
Here we lodged in a small mountain village in a traditional lodge made of stone. Up on the terrace we had great views of the valley below and the snowy peaks above.
We enjoyed a delicious home cooked meal of clay pot chicken and vegetables followed by fresh watermelon. the next morning we set off on an easy trek up the valley through groves of walnut trees following a rushing mountain stream. It was so peaceful and green - like a garden in paradise - the temperature was just perfect. We stopped by a local home for lunch where we enjoyed on of the best meals of the trip featuring the local specialty, rfissa (msemen bread with lentils and chicken cooked with turmeric).
After lunch we made our way back through the village to the mountain stream and back too our lodge where we enjoyed a crisp bottle of local Moroccan rose which was quite nice - thank to the french colonial presence there are some very good wines here in Morocco. We met some nice travelers at our lodge that evening and shared a meal with them as they told us about their epic 2 day trek to the summit of Toubkal. Good fun!
We started exploring the Sahara Desert by a 4x4 vehicle, driven by a fabulous local guide named Tata. He took us for a fun drive into the deep sand to reach our nomadic camp set at the base of the dunes. The sky darkened and a fresh rain lightly fell on us as a refreshing welcome to this magical spot.
We dined in the large bedouin tent on delicious tagines and local dishes and then we were serenaded by a great musical group playing drums, dancing and singing. Later we fell into our spacious air conditioned tent (can you believe it!) and slept deeply dreaming of caravans and spice traders.
Inside our tent @ Sahara
We awoke before dawn to set out by camel into the Sahara Desert so we could watch the sunrise unfold across this vast landscape. As we left our tents we brushed the sleep from our eyes and looked to the stars above. There’s nothing quiet like the stars viewed from a desert landscape. They shine so brilliantly that they actually light the ground beneath one’s feet. We crossed the camp to our awaiting camels and met our nomadic guide, Hassan. Hassan showed us the ropes and soon we were heading across the sand dunes in the early morning light.
The landscape before us was fascinating. Undulating sand dunes rose from the valley floor towards the High Atlas Mountains in the distance. The shapes, the snaking ridge line, the solitude, the silence, the light, all combined to create a mesmerizing atmosphere. The rhythmic back and forth atop the camels’ hump, lulled us into a trance. It was like we were starring in our own version of Lawrence of Arabia. We looked the part as well with our turbans and scarves wrapped around our heads in the local style of the Berbers.
When we reached the base of Erg Chebbi, one of the largest sand dunes in the region, we disembarked from our “ships of the desert” and kicked off our shoes as we began the trek towards the summit in the early morning silence. At first, the footing was solid and we made good progress on the compacted sand as we followed the ridge line skywards. Soon the sand became powdery and more difficult to negotiate but we made steady progress as the sky illuminated with pre dawn light. The sand felt wonderful under our bare feet like a powdered dust one sprinkles over french toast.
Jordan shot ahead and was soon at the summit urging us onwards to greet the rising sun. When the sun finally rose above the horizon, the entire range of sand dunes took on a pink hue followed by a deep golden tone. The valley below us came alive as the sun’s rays hit the green palm leaves in the river bed miles beneath us.
A wandering dog suddenly appeared amongst the dunes and soon joined us as we mounted our camels for the return journey to camp. We marveled at the small plants that were able to take root in the desert sand despite the lack of water. Here and there we found green plants and straw colored grass which the camels feed on as they cross the desert.
When we reached camp, a sumptuous breakfast awaited us including fresh preserves, crepes, wood fired bread, local olives, fresh eggs and strong coffee. It is amazing how much you can accomplish before 7 a.m.!
After breakfast, we bid farewell to our hospitable camp staff and jumped into a 4x4. We sped across the desert keeping our momentum to power through the deep sand. Soon we arrived at a nomadic encampment where we were quickly surrounded by excited children. The kids knew that our guide, Abdelkader aka Tata, had a bag full of goodies and a good natured tug of war soon ensued with the kids vying for the position to shoot their small hands into his bag of goodies. After the chaos, we were welcomed by a family who had established their temporary shelter high on a ridge overlooking a dry riverbed. Life here is tough, water must be drawn from a well over a mile away and carried back to the camp. The headman of this encampment had two wives and eight children to support and their only source of revenue were the goats they were raising in this barren landscape.
Our Sahara guide Tata took us to visit a family
Next, we travelled to a nearby village, Khamlia to meet a group of local musicians. Their history is fascinating as they are former slaves from Ghana, who gained their freedom and established a settlement in this remote corner of Morocco. Their music is called Gwana and they are famous for their music festival which takes place each year in July. We were welcomed into their music chamber and they were soon playing an assortment of local drums, castanets, guitar, etc,… They wore traditional dress and danced as they played their rhythmic tunes. Once the music got started they invited us to join them in their dance and we had good fun learning the local steps. You can listen to their music on our website.
Our next stop was at a local woman’s house in Merzouga where we were treated to a cooking class. Our hostess was named Naima. She was well educated and spoke fluent English which was a bit of a surprise considering how remote her village of Merzouga was. She had a dual degree in English and Sociology but her real talent was in the kitchen. She showed us how to make a delicious local dish called Madlfuna also known as Berber pizza. This dish consists of sautéed turkey breast, roasted almonds, onions and spices which are then laid into dough which is placed in a wood fired oven in the courtyard. The bread rises like a balloon as the dried palm leaves fueled the fire. Soon we were feasting on this tasty dish at her table as sipping on the ubiquitous mint tea. She also showed us how to make carrot salad and roasted eggplant appetizer. Dessert consisted of fresh dates from the local palms and sweet melon.