In March, I went on a spectacular vacation the likes of which I will probably never again experience unless I somehow win the lottery.
Brett’s mom planned an amazing Moroccan adventure for the three of us. We flew up (via Madrid) and she flew over and we had 9 days of an exotic luxury getaway.
We flew in to Casablanca, but our private driver, Abdou, immediately drove us to Fes where we checked into the Riad Salam, a 16th century home converted into a boutique hotel about 10 years ago. Ellen asked our driver to make sure we got the best rooms, and, man! did Abdou come through! We got upgraded to the Imperial Suite and the Sultan Suite, bth of which run about $500 PER NIGHT!! It was an absolutely stunning hotel with intricate mosaic work and fountains and woodwork. Our rooms were fabulous. Ours had its own sauna room in addition to the canopied bed and private elevator entrance.
The next day we woke up for our walking tour of the medina (the old city). Our guide, Hassid, was born in the medina and you would have to be to make any sense of the winding alleys (of which there are over 9,000). We wound our way deeper and deeper into the old city until we came to the souks (marketplace). There are souks for all the different goods and trades, so there was a spice souk, a carpenter souk, a leatherworking souk, and on and on. We visited a shop in each one to get an idea of the products they make. It was amazing knowing that all of it had been around since the 9th century.
The architecture in Fes is so intricate and detailed that I was inconstant awe of how talented the artisans were. I was thrilled to learn that we were going to go to the ceramic district for a tour of how they create the mosaics and pottery that Fes is famous for (the distinctive Fes blue is very reminiscent of Dutch delft). The ceramic district is actually a little outside of the city because the supply of natural clay comes from the nearby mountain range. At the co-op we visited, we saw the whole process from gathering and preparing the clay to forming it, firing it, embellishing it with silver and then painting it. Then we got to see how they created the
ubiquitous mosaics. They actually form them upside down! Each piece is meticulously placed face down in a form or flat and then when all the pieces are in place, it is covered in grout or fiberglass depending on if it is an inside or an outside piece. I knew I had to get a mosaic piece and I looked in their showroom for something small like coasters, but to no avail. Apparently small things like that aren’t worth the effort to the mosaic artisans. But there was a round trivet and I was able to negotiate with the salesman to throw in a free painted coaster and soap dish. Score!
After going back to the hotel to freshen up, we made our way to another nearby riad for Brett’s birthday dinner. On the way, we noticed some commotion in the street and our guide explained that it was a traditional Moroccan wedding. The bride was in a sparkly covered chair thing (called an amariya) carried by four guys. The groom got on a white horse and they held hands to the cheers and singing of the crowd. There were musicians behind everyone playing ghitas (Moroccan reed instruments kinda like oboes), and drums. After our dinner, our guide asked the wedding party if we could sneak a peek at the reception and they let us poke our heads in the door. That part was like American receptions in that there was a singer/band and all the dolled up girls were shaking it on the dance floor. The only thing that was different was the huge wedding couch with backdrop that the couple sits on for pictures. But they weren’t there when we looked because they were doing one of their 5 costume changes of the ceremony. Good grief!
Brett’s birthday dinner was very nice. We had requested fish for the dinner and the riad staff went out special and bought it. After we were finished eating, the staff went around turning off the lights. We were starting to wonder if they were sending us a subtle hint to get out, when they brought out the birthday cake with candles and sang happy birthday to Brett! It was so sweet! And the cake was yummy too- kind of like an almond tiramisu.
The next day was a day trip to Volubilis, an old roman site from the 2nd century. Apparently it was also the capital of the Roman Empire in northern Africa. You know me, I’m a sucker for old stuff so I was asking our guide questions and basically nerding out. I loved how Roman sites are so similar no matter where in the world they are. Same elements- forum, temple, baths, etc. Keeping with the Moroccan theme, this site had a lot more mosaics than I had seen while in Europe. They were spectacular.
On the way back to Fes, we stopped at the old royal granary and stables- where over 12,000 Arabian horses were kept for the king. Our guide, Mohammad, was hilarious and would steal our phones to take artistic photos and videos. I laughed the entire time.
The next morning we started out early for our big day of driving down south to the desert. We got to stop at lots of cool places along the way so it wasn’t too bad, but it was still about 8 hours in the car. Eek.
One of our stops was at a nomadic tribe’s camp. All the families were away from the camp watching over their sheep, but we got to meet a young woman and her beautiful daughter. She was helping her mommy with the laundry by washing this one pair of shorts in her very own tiny basin. It was adorable. My parents had sent along some tootsie rolls with Ellen so I gave her one and her mom helped her unwrap it and eat it. It was so fun. We saw inside their living tents and the tent with the bread oven. It was fascinating to see people who live like that and move every season.
After (lots) more driving, the terrain slowly became more and more desert-like. Finally, a little before sunset, we finally hit the sand dunes and pulled up to our camel caravan. We chose our camels and they hoisted us up. And up. And up. Getting on and off a camel is… exciting. They just keep unfolding. Their back legs come up first and then their front legs and meanwhile I’m holding on to the saddle bar like I’m on a bucking bronco.
After all three of us got up, our caravan guide took us out into the dunes. We mosied on for a little bit until our guide stopped us and we dismounted (and I almost face planted) and then he led us up a dune. Walking up and down dunes in the desert is hard. I was panting by the time we made it to the crest and we sat down to watch the sunset. We had picked a perfect day. It was clear, without a cloud in the sky, not too hot, and no wind to kick up sand in our faces. It was perfect. After the sun dipped below the dunes, we continued on our camels for a few minutes and made it to our luxury camp. I have to admit I was a little curious what a “luxury” camp was. I found out. There were 8 tents and a “restaurant” tent surrounding a campfire with cushions and pillows. Our tent had a queen size bed, sitting area, and a full bathroom complete with sink, flushing toilet, and hot water shower and of course electricity. What?! And there were no pipes or wires to be seen. It was incredible. After settling in, we went to the restaurant tent for our dinner of stuffed peppers, sheep, and roasted veggies. And the obligatory dish of olives that comes with every meal everywhere in Morocco.
After dinner, Brett went to the tent to sleep, but Ellen and I hung out around the campfire with the other “glampers”, enjoying the stars and the beautiful full moon. Soon, the staff brought out drums and we had our own drum circle going on (Ellen has rhythm!). After letting us mess around for a bit, the staff took the drums and showed us how it was done. They did some songs punctuated by gentle ribbing of the people around the fire and then we danced around. It was so much fun.
The next morning we woke up to watch the sunrise over the desert and I finally understood the colors of the “desert” background on powerpoint.
Our next stop was the “Hollywood” of Morocco where lots of movies are shot including Gladiator, Prince of Persia, and a bunch of movies from the 60s. On the way through the
Berber area, we stopped in a small town and ended up at a carpet store. The salesman was nice and showed us some traditional nomadic items before bringing out the carpets. Before we came, Brett and I had decided that if we found a carpet in our price range, then we would get it because we both really wanted one. We told the salesman what we were looking for and he brought out one that both of us fell in love with. It’s a Toureg tradition rug, about 2’x4’ and it has different textures, making it a foot massage rug. He explained the symbolism of each of the designs and after some pretty intense haggling, we had a deal. Before I could take a picture, they had wrapped it up for us so I’ll have to post a pic of it later. But it’s awesome. And the cool part is that as we were talking with the salesman, we found out that he had been an interpreter for Peace Corps in Morocco and he explained what PCVs do in Morocco (mostly education). Fun connection!
Having accomplished this goal, we made our way into Ouarzazate (WAR-za-zet) and our hotel, The Berber Palace. This is the same hotel that Tom Cruise, Leonardo Dicaprio, and other Hollywood starts stay in during their Moroccan shoots. And it was nice. We had a “lower tier” room, and it was still fabulous with all the amenities like little Moroccan booties, luxury soaps, and a fruit basket! I felt so posh!
After a great nights sleep on the most comfortable bed in the world, we left the next morning to visit the 13th century village that a lot of movies use as backdrops. Our guide was a member of one of the 8 families that still live in the old city and was actually an extra in Gladiator! It was very cool to see something that had been around for so long and was still used as a working village in addition to a movie set.
We left and drove through the high Atlas Mountains where we stopped at a small roadside shop to use the facilities and while I was wandering around, I met the cutest, nicest old man.
He owned the shop and we started chatting about all the tourists who come to stay with him and he takes them on hikes up the mountain. He pulled out his stack of pictures and was showing me when all of a sudden he said that he wanted to give me a gift because of my “Berber eyes and my warm heart”. He brought me to the jewelry section and picked out a Hand of Fatima necklace. The Hand of Fatima is everywhere in Morocco. It is present in both Islamic and Jewish traditions (called the Hand of Miriam), and is meant to signify luck, protection, and (for ladies) love. It was an amazingly generous gesture and I was floored.
Eventually we made it to Marrakesh and our beautiful dar (dar is a home without an inner garden, riad is a home with an inner garden). Dar Zamora had been purchased in 2001 by an English couple who hired designers and builders from Paris and other countires to make the hotel into an exotic romantic retreat. It was breathtaking. It was yet another homerun for Ellen the Travel Agent!
We had a delicious dinner there that night and woke up the next morning for our city tour of Marrakech. Our guide, Mohammad, was great. He was my favorite guide because he gave us so much historical context and we even had a fascinating discussion about superstitions and folk beliefs (like bad genies and good genies and how you shouldn’t take a child under two outside after dark because the bad genies will come for them, and that parents shouldn’t roll their strollers over the sewer grates because of the evil that lurks below). I learned so much about the history of Morocco and it was all completely new information. We don’t learn a lot about that part of the world in school!
We went to gardens and palaces and mausoleums, each more beautiful than the last. We ended up at the square where all the storytellers, snake charmers, and fire breathers are. We stopped at the snake charmers and a gy just walked up and draped a snake around me. Like usual… I then paid him a few more dirhams to bring out the big boys. He brought me to where an old man was playing a ghita and lifted a drum, under which was a black king cobra. Then he proceeded to smack the cobra in the face, ostensibly to get it to puff its neck and look more impressive, but it ended up making it mad (I would be too), and it started slithering toward me. It was awesome. I backed up pretty fast, but got a great video in the process. Then a guy with a chained monkey came and put the monkey in my arms. I loved the monkey. I did not love the chain with iron collar that the guy dragged the monkey around with.
For dinner, we came back to the square and had dinner at a hotel/restaurant our guide recommended and it was very nice. There were live musicians and then a belly dancer came out. She even pulled Brett out and he got to shake his groove thing (much to his mother’s and my amusement).
The next day was a day trip to the beach city of Essaouira (EE-sah-ware-uh). On the way, we stopped and saw GOATS IN A TREE!!!!! Yep, apparently that’s a thing. The goats climb the argane trees and hang out up there. It’s hilarious. In the wild the goats get up there and down all by themselves, but by the road, there were some enterprising goat herders who helped them up and down for the tourists. I didn’t even care. It was fantastic.
We also stopped at an argane oil co-op where we got to see the process of how argane nuts are harvested and turned into oil. It’s harder than it looks (they let me try and I totally messed up this poor lady’s nut).
Once we got to Essaouira, we met our city guide who walked us around and we saw the docks with the sardine boats and the square, and of course the souks. We even ducked into an old synagogue in the Jewish district and Brett got to uncover the Torah scrolls. For lunch we went to a seafood place and got fresh grilled sardines. Ellen was in heaven. They were good, but too labor intensive with all the bones. Give me a good salmon filet any day.
That night was our final dinner at Dar Zamora and when we woke up the next morning, it was off to the airport. This trip was so much fun. It was the first time that I had ever been to an Islamic majority country and I was really impressed with everything. Doing a luxury trip probably influenced my opinion slightly, but I still loved the feel of Morocco. The exotic mixed with the familiar. It was stunningly gorgeous. I liked Fes a lot more than Marrakech which I feel is just too touristy, but I would definitely go back. We met some really nice, interesting people and I learned so much. What a once in a lifetime experience!