This was the second time I’ve taken Ryanair flights. The first time was in 2003 when I was living in England. I booked a flight to Vienna for a pence and paid ten pounds for taxes that time. It was a glorious discovery for a college student. So when I realized that Ryanair is flourishing (not surprised) and has flights to North Africa, boom, I bought the tickets: $39 each way with priority boarding and a luggage check because I splurge!
I had debated on how to organize my Morocco itinerary. The places I really want to see include Fez, Marrakech, Chefchaouen, Essaouira and the Sahara desert. The obvious route is to go east from Fez to the desert and end up in Marrakesh. But a friend of mine decided to join me on part of this trip and she was flying into Casablanca. It meant that my route had to change accordingly. My new plan was going from Fez to Casablanca to Marrakesh then heading east to the desert and finally back to Marrakech. In the end, I am glad I took the latter route. If I didn’t get the chance to see Casablanca, I think I’d have a far less complete view of modern day Morocco. And more importantly, friendship and companionship trumps solo travel, always.
Day 1: Flight from Madrid to Fez (2 nights in Fez)
I almost messed up the trip from the get-go. I severely underestimated the time needed to get to the Ryanair counter of the Madrid airport. I showed up 45 mins after the suggested check in time. The lady took a concerned look at my sweaty face and said, “is it THAT difficult to find our counter?” As I was about to open my mouth to start begging her to check me onto the flight, she casually took the print-out ticket and my passport from my hand and checked me in with a smile. Life is much less dramatic than I often envision.
I got to Fez in the early afternoon. I had arranged a pickup to my riad (Riad Verus). A riad is a traditional Moroccan style house with a courtyard. Most of the hotels and hostels in Morocco are converted from old riads. These old houses are really cute. I stayed in riads most of the nights in Morocco.
After settling in my riad, I couldn’t wait to start my adventure out to the medina of Fez. The place is amazing. I bet it hadn’t changed in centuries if not more. People are passing shoulder to shoulder through these narrow meandering streets that are lined up with shops on both sides. I found my map to be absolutely useless within the medina. The narrow streets are too complicated to be navigated by map and I don’t think the streets are named. If they are, I couldn’t read them or recognized them as street signs. My GPS on my phone, however, provided me with an approximate location within this maze. It allows me to vaguely navigate towards the right direction.
I ended up taking a short tour of a small tannery that evening, too. I knew I wanted to see a tannery without lingering for too long as the stench in the tannery is often insufferable. Here’s one of three pictures I took in the tannery.
Day 2: Day in Fez
I basically had one full day to soak up Fez. I am sure I wouldn’t mind spending more time in Fez but I didn’t feel too rushed. I explored from Bab Boujloud (or the blue gate) on the west end of the old city to the Bab Khoukha on the east side of the city. I had some time to stroll through a garden park.
Moroccans were courteous for the most part. The shop keepers tout their products hard but back away when I gave a firm “no” with a smile. I was pleased that I didn’t get much hassle. Things you should know about walking around Fez:
1. They don’t bother solo male travelers or female travelers with male companions nearly as much as a solo female traveler.
2. Touting is much worse in Marrakech than Fez.
I walked pretty much all day around the city. At the end of the day, I found myself on the other end of the city and the sun is about to go down. The evening prayer calls are blaring from megaphones on top of various mosques and I was getting hungry. I found a nice looking and busy restaurant at a major intersection and sat down at the corner table with a view. I had no idea what to order so I looked around to see what other people were eating. That’s how I chanced upon this traditional dish of Morocco: Pigeon Pastilla. It is savory on the inside but sugar coated on the outside. The spice was unique and the pastilla was hot and delicious.
Day 3: Train to Casablanca (1 night in Casablanca)
In retrospect, Casablanca was an interesting break from the rest of my time in Morocco. Whereas Fez and Marrakech were busy and ancient, filled with small shops and narrow streets, Casablanca was busy and modern with streetcars and traffic lights. I met up with my friend and we headed out to the only place we both really wanted to see in this city: the enormous mosque Hassan II. Here are some pictures of it.
Casablanca has some great restaurants which makes sense as it’s a large modern city. There is also a lot construction going on around the city, which is a good indicator to the city’s prosperity. We had dinner at a restaurant called La Sqala. I had a lamb tajine which turned out to be the best of the three lamb tajine I’ve had on this trip. I love lamb and Morocco is a good place to get it..
Day 4: Train from Casablanca to Marrakech (2 night in Marrakesh)
Trains in Morocco are fairly clean (though I’ve pretty sure the toilet flushed directly out on the train tracks). It took us four hours to go from Casablanca to Marrakech. We stayed in Chambre Sonia Riad Dar Tayib for two nights. The host, Vincent, is fantastic. He arranged a taxi to pick us up from the train station and walked to the edge of the medina to pick us up (cars can’t get into some narrow streets). I highly recommend this riad, though you will find plenty of options in Marrakech and I am sure there are plenty of good places.
The highlight of the day (and probably the trip) is Ksar Ossaurran. I read about this restaurant which was casually mentioned in this blog. I was intrigued by the description of it. I figured that if I find myself in the neighborhood, I will check it out. And I was in the neighborhood. This place was downright awesome. It’s not easy to find, however. It’s best to use your GPS like I did if you are not familiar with the area. There was a small sign high up on a main street. From there, you have to go into some narrow dark passages to get to this dead end street. You need to knock at the gate of the restaurant quite fiercely. The first time we knocked, no one answered because our knock was too timid. We almost turned away until we decided to knock a second time with more vigor. When the door opens, you are introduced to a very different world inside the riad. Let me show you a few pictures.
Day 5: Day in Marrakech
There’s plenty of writing on what to do in Marrakech so I don’t need to belabor the details. I think my highlight of the day in Marrakech was people watching in the public square outside of Koutoubia Mosque after sunset. There were lots of kids running around kicking soccer balls while their parents and grandparents sitting on the curb side or on the ground chatting and laughing. It was a nostalgic moment for me as it reminded me of my own leashless childhood kicking around a worn out soccer ball on a concrete pavement with friends.
Day 6: Bus to Essaouira (1 night in Essaouira)
Essaouira is a cute little town and totally worth a day trip. I stayed here for one night.
The town was built on the waterfront with city walls surrounding the market. People are way more chill in Essaouira than Marrakech or Fez. No one was chasing us down to try to tout leather bags anymore. I almost felt like this little fishing village was kind of a little oasis from the bustling Moroccan life I witnessed in Marrakech and Fez.
Day 7: Bus back to Marrakesh (1 night in Marrakesh)
I booked a small group trip to the Sahara Desert (I prefer group trips to private ones which I find lonely and expensive) before arriving to Morocco, but received bad news that my trip was cancelled because the other two people signed up for this tour decided to back out. I started thinking how to occupy myself for three days if I don’t get to go to the desert. Then I received the good news that I got added onto another group. As an apology to my inconvenience, the travel agency subsidized my trip cost so I get to go to the desert for free. Oohoo!
Day 8 -10: Desert trip with a travel agency
The group I got put into was much larger. I was member number 18. The travel agent I booked the initial tour with was concerned that I wouldn’t like the large group and apologized profusely. I actually didn’t mind it at all. More people, more friends. I got up to meet the travel agent at 7am in morning. The travel agent brought me to the meeting point.
That’s when I noticed a little vendor selling breakfast to locals on the side of the street. The vendor has two large ceramic pots sitting half tiled on a metal rack. He ladled a mystery soup from these pots and customers dipped a naan-like bread in it and slurped up the food. They look very satisfied, and I was intrigued– perhaps more than I should have been. So I sat down at the makeshift table. It was split pea soup w/olive oil! It was delicious. When I finished, I noticed the guy who is cleaning the dishes are dipping everything into a bucket of very questionable looking water. Rinse, wipe, and back in the “clean” stack. I almost vomited instantly. Oh no!!! Why didn’t I notice that before I sat down? I was terrified that I would have diarrhea or contract hepatitis A, or both. Fortunately, I didn’t suffer either of them.
But a lesson learned: pay attention to how the dishes are cleaned before sitting down.
The rest of the day involved a long bus ride and hours of chatting with new friends in the tour group. The road crossing Atlas Mountains was narrow and tortuous. I prefered the driver to slow down a bit. This trip was very commercialized. Here’s the itinerary. It turned out to be a lot fun and I made some good friends that I still keep in touch with. Things to consider:
- You are covered for two breakfasts, two dinners and two nights of stay on this trip:
- first night we were put in a random hotel in the valley. I unfortunately had flea bites. A few other guests were also victims. I was told that it’s not unusual for this happen to low budget group tours.
- second night we slept in a large communal tent in the desert. A blanket and a pillow were provided. The dinner was provided in a even larger communal tent with probably 100s of tourists gathered from various other tour groups. A large tajine was brought out to be shared by a table of 15-20 people. No individual dishes or utensils.
- The more you pay, the better quality of service you get. I talked some other travelers who paid for a private tour. They had a separate campsite with private tents, table service at dinner, hot shower, private Berber music and dance after dinner, etc. If you are not into sharing your dinner or tent with large groups of people, you may want to consider a private tour.
- You will need quite a bit of cash. Even though the accommodations and dinners are paid for, you need to pay for lunch and water. And meals are costly since you have no control over where you will get lunch. Most of the restaurants served good food, but their prices are obviously inflated for tourists.
Day 9: Flight back to Madrid
I was a bit saddened to leave Morocco but also ready to go back to some tapas in Madrid. I think I may have gotten tajined out by the end.
A note of caution to fellow travelers:
When I was talking to a friend in Madrid after my trip, she told me that she actually had a horrible experience traveling solo in Morocco. She was followed by a Moroccan man who basically stalked her for two days in Fez. She ended up getting so scared that she shortened her stay in Fez and left with no appetite to travel to Marrakesh.
My friend’s experience is not uncommon. I am convinced that it is not a great idea to travel as a solo female traveler (or even a group of young female travelers) in Morocco. A group of college age girls in my desert trip told me that they got cat-called all the time in the medina of Marrakech. One time a ten year old boy approached them and asked, “how much for you?” That story really saddens me. Morocco has a lot young men loitering about the cities. These young men’s lack of respect for women, especially western women and female tourists in general, is bound to cause some serious troubles sooner or later. And I will be sad to see my predictions become true knowing that I have encountered so many very kind people on my own trip in Morocco during a lovely spring in 2017.
Have you been to Morocco? What was your experience like? Leave me a comment below.
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