Morocco, Far Away Country Right Next Door
If there’s a place I can say I’ve gone to so many times I don’t even know exactly how many, that place is Morocco. I’ve been there over a dozen times, first visit taking place more than twenty years ago.
Morocco is a place I’ve grown with. I’ve been a frequent visitor to the kingdom for the past twenty years, and always thinking about the next visit. You spend a few hours on the road, or an hour on a plane, and suddenly you’re in a totally different reality, one that seems so much further away than it actually is.
Usually we’d drive there, spending the first night on the road and crossing over to Africa on the early morning ferry from Algeciras to Ceuta, before entering Morocco.
This time we took a plane (thank you Diana’s frequent flyer miles!) and landed in Marrakesh, the Red City. We had a week only, so we decided to spend a couple of days in town, rent a car and drive east to Essaouira, and south to Ait Ben Haddou and Zagora. The mandatory trip to Merzouga’s Erg Chebbi will come at a later visit, as well as Chefchaouen, easier to manage when you’re driving from Portugal.
Marrakesh is a delight, in and for every sense.
We booked a room at the lovely Riad Farhan, in the thick of the medina. Easy to find it’s not, but the staff will take care of that, picking you up at the nearby Dar Basha palace.
The riad’s location is perfect for the walks around the medina. We spent hours going up and down the alleys, looking at the thousands of shops in the souk. There are a few places to stop along the way for a glass of tea, or a meal, and we took advantage of those too. We quickly became fans of Atay Food Cafe, where we’d make frequent stops. Night meals were taken at the stalls in Djemaa El Fna, and the time in between was spent visiting a couple of the city’s highlights: the lovely Jardin Majorelle, the YSL Museum, the mandatory Ben Youssef madrassa..
One thing I can tell you right now that’s different in Marrakesh is the number of that new class of travelers, the bloggers and instagrammers, you’ll find at these iconic places. Everywhere you go you’ll find them trying to replicate the photos of the bloggers that came before them. Same poses, exact same background for the shots. And even though is was a bit cold, there they were in their sleeveless shirts, their summery clothes. They suffer for their followers sake, that’s for sure.
We also visited the Jardin Secret, nothing to rave about when you’ve just left the Majorelle, and a quick tour of the tanneries. These are no match for the ones in Fez, at all, and I would skip both of these without a second thought.
Our riad was the perfect pit stop, always welcoming, almost always quiet. And we needed a few pit stops. It can get a little overwhelming.
Moroccans are master sellers, and you should come prepared for the constant calls, the ever present ‘Just to look’, or ‘Where are you from?’, or ‘How much do you think this is worth?’ and thousands of other ways they have to lure you into their shop and not the one next door, which sells exactly the same items. It can, it is, a bit too much. Personally I would be willing to buy more stuff if they loosened up a bit. But it is what it is, and they’re not changing. A few days of this and we were ready to move on to quieter places.
Essaouira, the laid back beach town
Get on your rental car and drive east for a couple of hours, you’ll land in Essaouira. You can take a bus, but driving in Morocco is another experience you can’t miss. It takes hours to get anywhere, as the distances are always huge and speed limits are very much enforced by the always present gendarmerie. They have radars all along the country’s roads, and will make sure you’re fined if you step over the limit. But the scenery is superb, the landscape rolling by feels like a movie, and crawling along the main street of the towns you cross fills that movie with thousands of extras going about their lives.
Essaouira is a very active fishing village, so you’ll be able to eat a ton of fish, with tables set up even inside the harbor, with all the craziness going on around you. For dessert you can feast on crepes, sweet sweet crepes, available at stalls around the main square. Bounty and Nutella for me, please 😃
The town’s medina is small, you’ll have no trouble finding your way around it. Merchants will nag you much less than in Marrakesh too, and that is a big plus. In the bigger cities it can feel daunting, here you’ll be able to look at what they’re selling easier.
Essaouira is also home to a famous world music festival, the Gnaoua World Music Festival, and every couple of minutes you’ll come across a shop selling CDs, and filling the street with the sounds of the world. Mostly Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen. That’s just fine by me, love them.
For the night we picked Palazzo Desdemona, a riad with art gallery and nice restaurant, again in the middle of the old town, easy to access from the sea front parking lot. A fine place, and another night of easy sleep.
It was time to hit the road again for a long day of driving. Back to Marrakesh and onward. As soon as you pass Marrakesh, the High Atlas is sitting in front of you, a snow capped wall. We would have to get over that wall to reach the lovely and much photographed town of Ait Ben Haddou.
The road starts climbing and we had our second brush with the police. The car rental guy had warned us about the Chichaoua policemen, hard on tourists. They were. We reached the mountains as the proud owners of a speeding ticket from earlier that morning. But the second time we were stopped left me with some hope.
We’d been trailing a very slow truck on the climb, together with other three cars. We got to a part of the road that was straighter and took that opportunity to take over the truck. All four of us. Of course there was a police patrol watching the whole thing, and we were all told to stop the cars on the side of the road. One by one we were called to the squad car, to deal with the fine payment. 400 dirhams, that was the sum we’d have to fork over. When my time arrived, I took the money from my pocket and handed it over to the agent, sitting on his car. The moroccan drivers already left the scene. As the agent picked up the receipt book, he spoke… ‘Expensive ?’ Hmmm, I thought, the door has been opened for ‘negotiation’. ‘Yes, very expensive’ I replied, waiting for the alternative sum. It was not my first dance with the local police, and ready to dance I was. He just looked at me, kindly warned me to be a little more careful next time, and handed over the money. All of it. All. I almost felt like kissing him, but instead got into the car and drove away. Happy.
آيت بن حدّو
Ait Ben Haddou
It’s a ksar, one that you’ve probably spotted in a movie, as it’s been used as backdrop for multiple productions. And, this time, we would get to sleep there. The place we picked is called Kasbah Tebi, a refurbished family house inside the ksar. Mohammed has taken some time to get the work done, and it shows. You’ll have the pleasure of staying in a candle lit room and have dinner by candlelight too. Yes, no electricity here, and that means no Wi-Fi either. No problem, it’s kinda nice to be off for a day.
We took a quick stroll up and down the ksar’s stairways, past the shop owners that are busy with dozens of Chinese tourists, all geared up with expensive cameras and colorful outfits.
Ait Ben Haddou is a magical place, even more so after the tourists all leave for the day. The town is visited by hundreds every day but, as soon as they leave, you have it all for yourself. As there’s no electrical power the sky looks amazing, with millions of stars all looking down on you.
Tasty breakfast early in the morning, and just in time. As we were sipping the last of our tea and juice, the tourists started pouring back into town, yelling so loud we thought we were being invaded. We said our goodbyes to Mohammed, who helped carry our bags across the small river, and it was time to hit the road one more time.
Moving along, further south, the road takes us past Ouazazate, and over a breathtaking mountain road, breathtaking, for the first hour or so, until one reaches the palmerie. Then it’s miles and miles of meandering road, palm trees as far as the eye can see on the river side, if you look to your left and mountainous desert on the right side of the road. Sleepy towns go by from time to time, and police checkpoints dotted along the way. Some of the towns have markets going on, and the main road is always busy with donkey carts, people carrying huge parcels, and almost no women in sight. It’s mostly guys.
And you reach Zagora. By this time it feels you’re in another country, a desert city, an outpost.
It’s much bigger than two decades ago, as it should, but still manages to keep a very distinct feel. Gone is the old ’52 days camel ride to Timbouctou’ sign, replaced by a modern, ugly, one. Why would they do that I have no idea.
Check in at La Fibule du Draa, the place where I always stay when in town. Price now seems a bit high for the offer, but there you go. The hotel has seen better days, and less competition, but it’s still nice, and you can even find beer and liquor in the bar, a welcome touch for those you like to have a drink by the pool. Maybe better during the summer, but there you go.
Everyone will try to make you visit the old jewish kasbah and adjacent sinagogue. Also next door, the mandatory shops. It’s hard to get away from the shops, I’m telling you.
We had a lovely lunch on the main street, Marjana Café (and travel agency and, to be found later, also a shop near the Jewish kasbah — told you it was hard), looking at the people going by. People watching is one of the cool perks of traveling, and Morocco is the perfect place for that. Sit down at any café, try to get a front row table, and you’re set for an hour of relaxing entertainment. On bigger towns you’ll be looking at other travelers, but down here it’s mostly locals.
At the end of the meal the owner came to our table and warned us about the people who want money to take you to the kasbah. Yes. His nephew would take us there, for free. Hmmm. At the end of the visit, if we wanted, he could also show us around his big shop. Sure. Maybe we’ll go, probably not, we told him. Anyway a phone call was made, to ensure he’d be there when we arrived.
We drove away and made our way to the next town, where said kasbah is located. Very slowly, taking in the scenery, not planning to stop. We saw the shop, and moved on. Suddenly Diana saw something that caught her eye, we made a quick stop to take a photo, and before we knew it a moped was parked behind us. The nephew had seen us go by, and decided to come after us. A quick word and we left. Back to the hotel.
It’s such a big country, and yet so hard to be by ourselves. No matter where you stop, on foot or by car, in the city center or on the loneliest of roads, somehow someone will show up with something to sell you. Always.
After another night of good sleep it was time to move back north to Marrakesh. This would be the hardest drive of the week over two mountain ranges. Nothing to report, apart from the pain that is to drive over seven hours straight. We were back in Marrakesh for the last night in town.
Time to go back to our usual restaurant, last shopping spree, and back to the riad. The bags weren’t even unpacked, no need.
A couple of birds slept inside our room, unintentionally, and couldn’t wait to get out when morning came. We said our goodbyes to the amazing riad staff, grabbed a taxi, and soon we were at the airport, ready to fly home.
While we waited to board we were already talking about our next trip to Morocco. It’s hard to stay away for too long.