Our walking tour of Rabat and Temara

Our final stop on our tour of Morocco was Rabat, the capital city. Now, lots of tourists miss Rabat out in favour of Casablanca or Tangiers but to us Rabat looked more interesting. We planned a day or two into our itinerary but didn’t book anything. When we looked at accommodation in Rabat we were a little shocked at the prices and actually considered missing Rabat out completely. Rabat is the capital of administration of Morocco and consequently has lots of expensive business hotels and unfortunately no budget options. Because of this we opted to post a public trip on couchsurfing amnd luckily we got two offers. Accommodation sorted, Rabat was back in our itinerary.

We got the train from Meknes to Rabat which was a nice scenic 2.5 hour journey. We arrived into Rabat Agdal train station and had a nervous 10 minutes waiting for our host to appear. Luckily, Imad did appear and then we spent an hour traversing the city to reach Temara. Temara is almost a city in its own right, but is really an expensive suburb of Rabat with lots of shops and beaches. After a quick break and some tea at Imad’s home, we set out for Rabat. Travelling around Rabat is a logistical nightmare thanks to the roadworks, congestion and reliance on taxis. We walked to the right place to get a grande taxi and then we piled into an ancient Mercedes with 3 other passengers and the driver. Fitting 7 people into an estate car is not something we will be repeating in a hurry, but when in Rome…

Not quite a taxi. Somebody get this man a mule

Rabat is a big city with an old medina, a french colonial district and the new town. We were happy to have Imad as a tour guide and not need to use our favourite app Map.me to find our way around. We walked from the taxi rank, through the medina and to Oudayas an old fort perched upon a large rock. Here we watched a multitude of kittens and cats playing and sleeping in the gardens. Then we walked up to the top of the old fishing town to see the view of Rabat plage. Yep Rabat has it’s own sandy beach on the Atlantic coast, with surf schools galore. Like the rest of Rabat this area has a really relaxed atmosphere and lots of swimmers and sunbathers.

Rabat plage

The next stop on our tour was the Mausoleum of King Mohammed the fifth and the Tower of Hassan the second , which is situated above the Marina and surrounded by ancient Roman columns and beautiful gardens. The mausoleum itself is a very grand building decorated with ornate wood carving and fabulous mosaics. It is guarded by 8 guards from two different types of police, who are quite happy to have their photos taken. They definitely don’t stay as still as the Beefeaters. Later we retired to a cafe to rest and recaffeinate with some of our hosts friends. The people of Morocco are very friendly and interested in meeting new people from different cultures. We enjoyed chatting and drinking coffee, but it felt somewhat strange sitting in a bar without alcohol and lots of young people smoking and drinking coffee. Soon it was time to head home for a fabulous homemade chicken tagine and discuss plans for the next day.

Us with a very smiley guard

Our second day in Rabat was a little more relaxed. We picked up some harsha (semolina bread) with chocolate spread and went to a café for breakfast. Then it was off to the beach! We had seven to choose from, so Imad took us to his favourite one. A beautiful sandy bay surrounded by luxurious houses. It was a great place to relax, sunbathe, and swim in the refreshing sea water. Imad had to usher us from the beach to visit one of his after school clubs as part of the scouts. The children were learning traditional folk dances from different parts of Morocco, and as usual the young boys weren’t keen to dance, and they definitely didn’t want to link arms with a girl. After watching how it was done we joined in with the large group dance, which was great fun, although I doubt we will win any competitions.

Some our new friends after dancing to traditional Moroccan music

Our final evening was spent wandering the streets of Rabat and Rabat marina. We were all pretty tired from the walking and swimming so we returned to our hosts for a delicious dinner of kefta tagine. In the morning we would be getting up early to catch a train back to Marrakech so we got a fairly early night. We are both glad we spent some time in Rabat and enjoyed couchsurfing and meeting locals. 

An explosion and some old stones

Our next desitnation on our tour around Morocco was Meknes. In order to get there we premiered a new mode of transport: the Moroccan trains. The network is mainly limited to big cities and stretches between Tangier, Fes, Marrakesh and Agadir. The trains are clean, comfortable and good value for money. We payed 44dh for the 45 min journey from Fes to Meknes.

We thought finding our riad would be straight forward: the road was marked on our map (though without a name) and the riad existed only once. It ended up taking us at least half an hour and three locals to find it. When we finally reached it it turned out we had come the back way missing the instructions on the booking confirmation and signs from the other end of the medina.The room was very spacious and for the first time in a week we had an ensuite bathroom.

Meknes is a fairly big city located about 30km from two major tourist attractions: the village of Moulay Idriss which houses a mosque and the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss I. and Voulubilis, an old roman city.

Most tourists do them either together or on their own as day trips from Fes which means Meknes is a lot less set up for tourists. The medina is geared for locals and is completely lacking signs or maps like in Fes or Marrakesh. The whole atmosphere is different and prices in the shops are lower but accomomodation is a lot more expensive. Overall it was still cheaper to stay here than to travel from Fes for two days and go on a daytrip to Voloubilis.

On our arrival day we headed straight for the medina only to get lost very quickly. Our map was only of limited use partially due to the lack of signs at squares and gates. We managed to find a big metal souk with many forges, welders and blacksmiths producing a vast variety of iron goods. Eventually we found our bearings and the exit with the help of a friendly shop keeper. Getting lost in medinas can be exciting if there are interesting things to discover. If you get lost in the housing part of it it becomes boring very quickly. In the evening we had a lovely picnic on the roof terrace with fresh bread and pastries from our local bakery.

The next morning started with a very unplessant surprise: the melon we bought from a market the day before had exploded inside our daysack which (along with the contents) was covered in melon slush and seeds. Ted very narrowly escaped by being at the top of the contents. Otherwise he would have had a rather unpleasant washing experience. Despite all washing and cleaning we ended up carrying a bag smelling of rotting melon with us for the best part of the day. Understandably Ted decided not to take his usual seat in the backpack and stay behind in the riad (at least he got some blogging done 😉 ).

There are three options to get the Moulay Idriss/Voloubilis from Meknes: grand taxi, bus or private tour. Due to the costs and budget restrictions we found ourselves waiting at the bottom of the hill near Bab Mansour to catch bus number 15 to Moulay Idriss. The ride takes about 50min and the bus leaves on the hour at both ends. A ticket for the whole journey is super cheap and costs only 7dh per person (grand taxis are about 50dh per seat!). The only downside was that we had to stand since there were only about 20 seats on the bus but space for 40 standing.

There are various websites as to where to catch the bus but we recommend getting it from the bottom of the hill of Bab Mansour since this is a major bus hub and even has an office! None of the places the driver stopped at had a citybus sign or any hint of being a bus stop. They seem to stop anytime upon request though. The common sign for this was hitting the side of the bus. This was also a signal for the driver to open the back doors at any stop.

Bus doors that never did quite fit this bus

Voloubilis is about 4km outside Moulay Idriss and can either be reached by taxi or walking (or hitchhiking if you are lucky). We chose to go for a nice walk along a single track road past fields of olive trees which took us about 40min.

The entrance fee to the impressive ruins of the roman city is 10dh per adult and 4dh for children (the usual rate in Morocco). At its hay day, the city covered an area of 42 hectars most of which surounded by walls. It’s wealth stemmed from cereal and olive agriculture around it which kept it going for 600 years after the romans left in 285B.C. There are two cafes and a little museum near the entrance which provided a much needed cool down after walking around for an hour and a half in almost 40 deg C without any shade.

The magnificent Volubilis

The main attraction are undoubtably the triumph arch, the remains of the capitol and the mosaics which are dotted around the big houses. Some of the mosaics are in impressive condition considering their age although some had been visably restored.

After two hours in the museum and a much needed refuelling and cool down we walked back to Moulay Idriss. We got there just in time to find the bus waiting near the village center. Since neither of us was in the mood for shopping and wandering about (as non-muslims we weren’t allowed into the main attraction anyway) we called it a day and headed back home.

One of the impressive mosaics

In the evening we decided to try one of the local ‘cheap eats’ from Tripadvisor with the hope of sampling the local speciality: meatballs. We opted for a place called Aisha due to its reviews and proximity to our riad. The restaurant consists of the smallest professional kitchens ever and two tables. The menu consisted of photos on a smartphone and we quickly decided on Harira, berber tajine and sweet and salty couscous with chicken. The staff was super friendly and we recieved our food faster than in any other place we have been to so far. The dishes were absolutely amazing! We can’t put it into words how good. They were in a different league compared to anything we have tasted in Morocco. For pudding we had a big oot of teaand some berber sweets and cookies to finish of this amazing meal. As it turned out in the end it wasn’t really a cheap eat: in fact thr pricetag matched the quality but we didn’t care; it was still great value for money. If you ever end up in Meknes you have to go there!!! Just prepare yourself that you might not get a table during peak tourist season.

After dinner we spoke to the chefs son (yes, it’s only one woman cooking) about spices and we ended up going to shop run by a cooperative of widowed women to by the special ‘king spice mix’ used in our mains and some Moroccan tea. 

The best kitchen to eat in in Meknes

We can’t wait to start trying to venture further into the Moroccan cuisine and trying more dishes out ourselfs.

If Ted’s got anything to do with it you should find something about it here.

I’m blue da ba di da ba di…..

Our next adventure into the mountains was to Chefchouen, which is nestled in the Rif mountains. Chefchouen is also known as the blue pearl due to the tradition of villagers painting their houses blue. This is rumoured to be from a time when jewish people used blue cloth to remind them of God. In order to get to Chefchouen we took a CTM bus from Fès. This cost 75 Dirham per person with an additional 5 Dirham per checked-in bag. The air conditiomed bus took approximately 4.5 hours and passed through beautiful countryside and what seems like the rather large bread basket of Morocco; we have never eaten so much bread before we came here.

At first glance Chefchouen was not blue enough but as we wandered up hill and through the gate to the medina we became surrounded by blue houses and doors. Our hostel for the next two nights was Hostel Maritiania, and even inside the rooms are painted blue. After a quick pit stop we headed out to explore the medina with some friends we had met. After the initial disappointment we were impressed by the blueness and found ourselves taking photos of blue alleyways left, right and centre.

Blue alleyways

Blue doors


And more blue alleys

The vibe of Chefchouen is somewhat more relaxed than the big cities. Here, people often welcome you in spanish, and unbelievably, they aren’t trying to sell you anything! We quickly fell back into the habit of being able to browse in shops and look around town without any hassle. We were even invited into a communal oven where one villager explained how they were preparing ingredients, which would be used to make cakes and pastries for upcoming Ramadan.

Photo time in the communal bakery

The next day we got up early and took a taxi to Akchour falls within the national park. The taxi wasn’t cheap, costing 150 Dirham for up to 6 people each way, but we recommend it. One way to ensure you have a ride home is to ask the taxi driver to collect you at a certain time. This didn’t cost us any extra but there were also plenty of taxis waiting to collect weary walkers at the end of the day. We had planned to walk from Akchour up to the petite and grande cascades. Unfortunately, we missed a fork in the path and walked up a steep craggy hillside for 45 minutes before coming across the other main attraction, the pont de dieux. The bridge of God is a natural stone arch formed high above the gorge. It was amazing to see, but we didn’t linger long in the baking sun as we really wanted to see the waterfalls before we caught the taxi back that afternoon. On the way down we stopped for a quick mint tea and a late pick-nick breakfast of bread and goats cheese.

The bridge of God

With fuel on board, we set off up the path to the waterfalls. The path is a pretty good gravel and rock footpath but in places it is a little steep and slippery. We bypassed the collection of cafés around the small waterfalls and carried on straight up the path. Somehow we managed to turn right upstream and miss the main footpath. Instead we ended up crisscrossing the river and ducking under low branches through the forest. We found the path again after around 30 minutes of pretending to be intrepid explorers, and the walk became much easier. We reached the big waterfall in time for a very refreshing swim in the freezing cold plunge pool beneath it. We dried in the sun before walking back down to the road just in time to catch our taxi and wait for our travelling companions. We had read about rip off cafés and large amounts of litter but actually we were pleasantly surprised by the abundance of bins and many of the cafés were a little pricey but offered good quality food in a tricky location. 

Les grandes cascades

When we arrived back in Chefchouen we freshened up and watched the sunset from our roof terrace.

Later, we  went for an evening wonder around the medina and got chatting to a shopkeeper who had been to Glasgow and Edinburgh. We agreed to have a look at his rug shop, where we stayed for about half an hour. Usually we don’t spend this long in shops, but we had mint tea to enjoy and met a lovely crazy Irish lady too. The shopkeeper did his best to sell us a rug but eventually he gave up and went for a smoke. Chefchouens position on the edge of the Rif mountains makes it perfect from hash tourism. The rif mountains are famous for marujuana plantations and it’s legal to grow the plants as long as you aren’t selling the products. Obviously mountain areas are near impossible to police, and much of the marujauna ends up on the streets of Morocco and Europe. We were offered hash by lots of people and saw the plants growing less than 100m away from the footpath in Akchour. To us at least it seems that marujuana has given the people another income and therefore a slightly higher standard of living.

On our final day in Chefchouen we followed the crazy Irish lady’s advice and walked to see the Raas el ma. This is a waterfall just outside the medina and felt like a place where locals gathered. The women of Chefchouen bring their clothes and carpets here to wash them and dry them in the sun. The riverside has been developed and has signs in arabic and Spanish explaining how the river was vital for producing flour and that the mill buildings are still there today. It’s a lovely place to relax in a café or wander along the river. From here we walked up to the Spanish Mosque where many tourists go to watch the sun set over the blue pearl. Next we had a quick lunch and boarded a bus back to Fès and waved goodbye to the beautiful blue village.

Matthias and Ted enjoy the view

A new hope

When we arrived in Fes after our 9 hour taxi ride we were both pretty miserable and fed up with Moroccans.

Luckily this all changed very quickly once we met our couchsurfing host Taoufiq. He offered to host us for two nights in his flat in the new town. This was the first time we met a local privately and went to their place so we were a little bit anxious. Taoufiq welcomed us with the best tea we tasted and we felt at home immediately. We felt honored as he gave us his bedroom instead of the sofa. After showers we had a light dinner and we spend some time with his children helping them practice their English and our French. Taoufiq then took us out to the Merenid tombs and some ruins on a hill in the north of Fes overlooking the whole medina. Sadly we missed the sunset over all the chatting during dinner but it was still a great view. All the minarets were lit up and we could hear all the buzz of the evening shopping. 

On the way back he decided to invite us to one of his favourite restaurants that serves the best pastillas in town. The food was super yummy! Back in the flat we spend the rest of the night talking about life and people in Morocco and travelling around the country.

In the morning we had a relaxed and yummy breakfast while discussing things to do and see in town. First port of call for us was the bus station as we needed to buy our tickets to Chefchaouen. From there we walked the remaining 4.6km to the edge of the medina. On the way we visited a supermarket for the first time in this country to get some ingredients as we volunteered to cook dinner for our hosts.

A bucket load of cheap pasta anyone?

Unlike the medina in Marrakesh (which is more or less a square with Jamaa el-Fna on one corner), the one in Fes consists mainly of two very long almost straight streets in east-west orientation with a lot of smaller derbs branching of. The whole atmosphere was a lot more relaxed than in Marrakesh too. Here you can actually look into shops without getting ushered in or harassed. People are a lot friendlier and we never once had a menu shoved into our faces like on Jamaa el-Fna. Obviously shop or stall owners still talk to you but they do so in a much nicer way which makes it easier to respond without having to worry that they will take your response as a sign you want to buy half their goods. They take the first ‘No’ as an answer and still say ‘You’re welcome’ even if you leave their shop empty handed after 10 minutes of browsing and talking.

Fes is famous for leather products as it is home to a few big tanneries. Obviously, we were curious to see them but when we eventually found them people tried to haul us through their shops and up their viewing terraces. Our aim at this point was actually going into the tanneries and we didn’t mind paying for it. We were put off by some person blocking the path, shouting at us in French and, as we persisted on our way, he ran ahead and closed the doors. Disappointed we marched off towards the metal souks. The workers there are masters in hammering copper and brass into teapots, sinks, plates, baking tins or useful object and then covering them with engravings.

In the evening, we had the most multicultural cooking experience. A Moroccan friend of our hosts who lives in Brussels had come to visit and decided to make chicken tagine with peas while we explained to the children the art of making Swabian Spätzle. This happened in a mixture of English and French with some help of Google translator. Inbetween all this, Samira and children taught us some basic yet useful Arabic which we expanded over dinner.

Our hosts, guests and us enjoying the first part of our yummy German-Moroccan dinner

After the kids had retired to their rooms, we learned that Taoufiq was running an organisation called Volunteering Nomads which looks after people in the Atlas mountains. They collect and distribute donations but most importantly organise medical support. Doctors volunteer and go to villages to see people who can’t even remember their last doctor’s appointment. This is all made even more difficult by the language barrier as many (especially older) people only speak Berber. Beside all this the organisation seeks to improve the general life of people in areas like (higher) education, setting up and running businesses or empowering women to choose who they marry. The stories Taoufiq told us together with his passion would have made us volunteer immediately had there been an opportunity to do so.

We were really sad to leave Taoufiq but he was going on holiday so had to move on to our next riad since decided to stay an extra day in this nice city. Before he left we got a lesson in making Moroccan mint tea and we went out and he and his friend helped us to buy a good quality teapot. Again we discovered that our riad was marked twice on our map and lucky as we are we tried to find the wrong one. Thankfully a friendly local showed us the way although he was worried about getting in trouble with the police since he was not an official guide. Once there we enjoyed the hot mint tea in the cool and amazingly decorated building.

View over the dying pools of the Chouara tannerie

After learning from Taoufiq that we have the right to go into the tanneries for a tour if we payed we felt encouraged to go back and try our luck once again. This time the shop owners were much nicer and we followed one of them onto a big terrace where he explained the whole tanning process and that they use natural ammonia from pigeon poo (there must be some big pigeon farms somewhere). In the shop we spent some time searching for the leather poufé we wanted (which proved to be very difficult due to our taste). We managed to find one later in a completely different part of the medina after almost giving up. Ted immediately claimed it as his throne!

Ted sitting on his throne aka le ballon

During shopping for dinner we tried another local speciality: khlia. This is bits of dried and smoked meat cooked either in its own fat or in oil. Stored in the cooking fat it can be kept for up to two years. It took us a while to work out that almost every stall sold it in buckets covered with fat (being able to read the arabic signs would have been handy). In the evening we had our first of many roof top picnics thanks to our tightening budget. Our joy got only slightly dampened by the very temperamental door lock to our room. In the end we had to abandon locking it in order to make sure we could back in.

After some big packing and a good breakfast we got the taxi to the bus station headed off to the mountains once again with restored faith in (at least some) Moroccans.

Watch this space to find out where we went 🙂

A trip to forget

After recharging our batteries in the mountains and a quick stopover in Marrakech, we embarked on a desert tour through Merzouga to Fes. Booking this tour was anything but simple. We went into several tour agency offices and enquired about tours they offered, only to find that they all offered a similar package. We asked for plenty of details including hotel names and time spent at different locations. In the end we chose to go with a company called l’espirit d’adventure, mainly because they had an office, address, website and existed on tripadvisor with ok reviews. We paid 1000 dirham per person for a 3 day two night excursion which would allow us to visit the places we had on our wish list. Neither of us were particularly keen on a group tour but considering the price and time, we decided to give it a go.

We got up bright and early ready to be collected from our riad at 7am. We waited outside knowing that sometimes Africa runs on a more relaxed timetable than Europe. We were starting to get pretty worried by 7:30am when finally a driver collected us. He seemed to know he was running late as he marched up the derb with us trailing behind carrying our luggage. We were happy to finally be on our way, when the driver pulled into a garage where 5 minibuses were parked. We were told to change buses but the organisation was awful. From what we understood, there was a manager and assistant manager sorting out groups of tourists from different tour companies and going on different tours. We were ushered onto a bus with a different company logo and began to worry about whether we were on the right bus. It wasn’t until 8:30 that the bus finally rolled out of Marrakech and luckily we were on the right bus.

We were hoping that would be the most disorganised part of the tour, but around an hour later our driver pulled over and said ‘10 minutes photo and toilets’. Maybe quite naïvely, we had expected a tour guide on our tour. Instead we had a driver whose English and French were both below par, leaving us clueless as to where we were and what we were photographing. The group was a nice mix of people from Brazil, Switzerland, Korea, Singapore, Canada, Australia and Morocco and we bonded over being in the same unguided bus. As time and tour progressed we passed some wonderful scenery and crossed the atlas mountains before arriving at our first proper stop.

View over the Atlas

The first stop was Aït ben haddou, a spectacular village built traditionally out of mud, straw and water. It is a famous UNESCO heritage site and has been featured in many films and tv series including Game of Thrones and Gladiator. It is currently under renovation to restore it after many of the buildings collapsed and hopefully once restored, more people will live there again. Aït ben haddou was once a major stopping point for the caravans that crossed Africa from Timbuctu to Marrakech. We went around the village to see the traditional Kasbahs; the name given to a house with four towers. Kasbahs were designed so that one man could live with his four wives, and each wife would have their own tower thus ensuring peace between different berber tribes. We found it very interesting to walk through the streets but unfortunately our guide rushed us through and did not allow us to climb to the top of the hill where the oldest part of the village still exists. The older part was built of stone and the only remaining building is a food store which was used to protect the food, women and children if the village was attacked. We were really disappointed not to make it to the top but our guide assured us that later in the day we would have more time to visit the festival of the rose in the Draa valley, so we started to look forward to that instead. For lunch our guide ushered us into an overpriced hotel which we quickly left in favour of a snack bar and a pizza.

Back on the road again we were looking forward to the next stop at the festival of the rose. The Draa valley is famous for growing roses which are used to make rose water for cooking and perfume. As we drove through one of the towns we could see the festival tents and hoards of people coming and going. We asked our driver how long we would stop for, only to be told ‘not stopping’. We were so disappointed that we had been convinced to speed through Aït ben haddou and then spend the rest of the afternoon in the minibus. Our driver maybe pitied us a little and stopped for 5 minutes at the horse arena. We were just in time to watch a competition where lines of men on horseback charged towards the judges before simultaneously firing their guns into the sky at the last minute.

Horse riding show at the valley of the rose festival

Before we knew it we were back on the bus driving towards Dades Gorge where we would spend the night. We had looked up the hotel in advance but due to the change of bus company, we were a little apprehensive. Unsurprisingly, by this point, we arrived at a hotel of a different name and in reception the hotel owner attempted to pair up single travellers into same sex groups in order to use fewer rooms. This did not go down well at all and had we been in the same boat, we would have been very angry. Our hotel room was acceptable although not the 3 star standard we were promised. The best part of it was the double length pillow which was great for a pillow fight. Dinner was fairly average but gave us a nice opportunity to get to know our fellow travellers. Breakfast was much the same and we discovered that the room standards varied greatly; some people had only one pillow, no shower or no hot water.

Day two of the trip took us from Dades gorge, through Todra gorge and then on to Merzouga. It was another very long day in a minibus and this time with less impressive scenery. Todra gorge was an interesting stop to see a palmerie and village where berber carpets are made. We then walked up the gorge and saw rock climbers attempting to climb the craggy sides. Our tour guide for the valley was much better, but unfortunately our driver was still impatient. We had a short stop for lunch and then drove through hundreds of kilometers of desert littered with a shocking amount of rubbish. It was really sad to see how little they cared for the environment and even worse when our bus driver finished his bottle of water and just chucked it out of the window.

Our final night was to be spent in a desert camp in the sand dunes close to Merzouga. The tour office had promised us a chance to shower before riding camels through the dunes to reach our camp and private tent. Instead we were taken to a large house without showers and given very little information on what to take with us for the night. The camel ride however, was a highlight. We shared a romantic camel who we named Jamal the Camel. Ted even got a ride too!

Group photo with Jamal

At the camp we were told we would be sharing a room in the tent as a group, so 16 of us in one room. Not quite the private room we wetepromised. We were thoroughly exasperated and frustrated by all the lies at this point, but luckily we could climb a sand dune and relax a little as the sun set. Afterwards we had an uninspiring dinner and sat on a dune watching the stars and listening to some some berber music played by a small band around a pitiful fire. Not looking forward to sleeping in a room of 16, we asked if we could sleep under the stars and spent the night snuggled up under a full moon on a carpet. 

Erg Chebbie dunes just before sunset

Sunset over the dunes

We were woken at 5:30am to ride back through the dunes as the sun rose and have breakfast back at the house. From here we were put into the slowest taxi bound for Fes. Our taxi went in convoy with one other and we waited again and again for the other taxi to catch before we eventually made it to Fes around 9 hours later. Both taxis went to different hotels so we could not understand why we had to wait for them.

We would not recommend this tour to anyone unless you just want to get to Merzouga and Fes as cheaply as possible without seeing much on the way. We were so disappointed by the lack of organisation and the multitude of lies we were told that we have decided to visit the office on our last day in Marrakesh and complain. We will let you know how it goes…

Hello! Excuse me! Good price!

It seems everyone in morocco has been bitten by an entrepreneurial bug. But we guess that’s what happens in a country with low wages and fewer opportunities. Tourism plays a major role in the Moroccan economy and rightly or wrongly this entrepreneurial spirit has over flowed into the tourist sector. We have found it impossible to walk around the medina in Marrakesh without calls of ‘hello’, ‘excuse me’ etc, which are a bit of a nuisance. Every shopkeeper seems desperate to make the next sale and even a glance in their direction is an invitation to flog their wares. After a few days it is possible to tune out the persistant shopkeepers and restaurant staff but it certainly takes a bit of getting used to.

So much choice, so little suitcase space

Unfortunately these eager salesmen aren’t all innocent. In just a few days, we have come across some unscrupulous individuals with scams or money making ploys which we would like to share and hopefully help you avoid:

  • Young men offering to take lost tourists where they need to be (or the man thinks they want to be) – we were victims of this when trying to find our riad on the first evening. We asked for directions in a shop but got lost again and a young man took us to our riad. We offered him 20 Dirham which he refused due to a tear in one corner of the note. He asked for English money, but since we only had coins he didn’t want this either. Eventually our riad owner came out and threatened him with the tourist police before he finally gave up. Or so we thought. We met him again a few times and each time he asked for money but we stood our ground and gave him nothing. To avoid this unpleasant situation we suggest asking women and shopkeepers for directions or arranging transfers to your hotel.

  • Streetfood sellers offering freebies – in many of the large squares there are carts laden with sweet treats or people selling macaroons. Many will offer you a free taste before asking for a ridiculous amount of money in return. One old man asked us for 150dh for two macaroons! We managed to haggle the price down to 30 which was more acceptable to us but still not cheap.

  • Taxi drivers dropping tourists off a distance from their accomodation and getting a friend to show them the way for a fee – not something we have had happen but this seems quite common.

  • Paying money for photos – many of the musicians, snake charmers and monkey handlers in the jamaa el fna watch for tourists taking photographs and will chase you asking for money. It’s not worth it at all, and you have to question the ethics of keeping snakes to dance or monkeys on chains.

  • Tourist prices – it’s worth being aware that every shop seems to have 2 prices for everything, from bottled water to clothing to tagines. In some cases it seems fair that tourists should pay a little more, but when you realise the price is being inflated ten-fold it starts to seem a little unjust. We suggest shopping with the locals and being cheeky when bartering, start as low as 10% of their original price. We strongly recommend shopping around before buying and venturing further into the depths of the medina. We ended up there almost by accident and saw people in workshops acctually making and selling things in one place. This should be a lot cheaper than the tourist souks nearer to the main square and we would be happier paying more when we know the actual craftsman earns it.

That’s all we have come across so far but we are sure we will find more to add. Our best advice would be ‘nothing is free, expect to pay for every service and fix a price you are happy with at the beginning’. Happy bargaining!

Berber Matthias

Escape to the mountains

After four days in the busy city we desperately needed a change of scenery so we packed our bags and headed for the Atlas mountains to a village called Imlil. Despite its size it is very touristy with lots of accommodation because it is the basecamp for everybody who comes to climb Mount Toubkal. With 4169m it is the highest mountain in north Africa and according to our host and former tour guide Jamal the most difficult in the whole of Africa due to its steep ascent.

Ted enjoying the grand view including Mount Toupcal

There are two ways to get from Marrakesh to Imlil: shared grand taxi or bus and taxi. The grand taxi goes directly all the way and is the easiest and most convenient mode of transport. The standard rate is 50dh per seat from the taxi rank in the city. You shouldn’t pay more than that unless you want more space, or the taxi for yourself. We opted for the more adventurous way and boarded the public bus 35 to Tahanaout. This costs 7.5dh pp. The taxi rank towards Imlil was on the main road after the big (and only) roundabout. Our bus driver dropped us there and helped us to get a taxi. Our driver asked for 10dh each which we didn’t argue about since it was cheap (for us at least). That’s still more than the locals seemed to pay but we didn’t mind. We thought the taxi would go all the way to our destination but we had to change again in Asni. The driver was very helpful and got us straight to another cab for the last leg. This time it cost us 15dh pp. Overall the journey was 35dh cheaper in total than the grand taxi.

The scenery around Imlil is grand with lots of peaks some of them with snow. We stayed in Dar Atlas in Ait Souka about a kilometer from the center of Imlil. It only has four bedrooms but comes with a big roof terrace. Our only negative point was the rock hard bed. The owner Jamal welcomed us with with fresh mint tea and gave us plenty of information about walks in the area. Since we arrived around lunchtime we headed straight out to see the cascades des amis just outside Imlil. The walk took us along one of the countless irrigation channels through a forest up to Aroumd, the highest village of the valley. From the path back down to Imlil we had a snack break in a half finished cafe next to the waterfall. The only downside of this place was the owner trying to overcharge us at the end but we managed to resist.

In the evening we had the best and biggest tagine yet in our dar; lovingly cooked by Jamal’s wife. The meal also included a salad starter and a fresh fruit and tea for only 60dh each! We immediately decided to be a bit lazy and eat in every night.

The next day we were woken up by a big but short thunderstorm. Following a superb breakfast we decided to do a walk around the mountain behind our village. At first we climbed up to the pass and over into the next valley occasionally taking shelter from sporadic showers. By lunchtime all the clouds had disappeared and we were merrily marching down towards a village called Tinerhourhine, sitting nicely above a wide riverbed. The people in this area are mainly berber and live off the land. Our path was fairly well signposted until we hit a village with dozens of similar looking paths everywhere so we struggled in every place to find our way through a maze to get to the path we could see on the other side. We had the slight suspicion that the locals removed the way markings to confuse hikers without a guide and then tried to earn money by showing them the way. We managed fairly well until we got to Ikkiss. After accepting the offered tea on a nice shady terrace overlooking half the village, we were lost for our way out and accepted the help of two girls who lead us down what looked like the refuse stream down to the river. This was definitely not the official route but on the other side was the way we needed to be on. After paying the girls some small change and crossing the water we encountered a man in the forest offering to show us the way. This all seemed like a well set up scheme to prey on guideless walkers. On our walk back across another pass towards Aguersioual and Imlil we saw a lesser kestrel and many other beautiful birds with we could not name. Overall the walk took us 7 hours including some pathfinding, a tea and a melon break. We were tired and sun burnt but it was totally worth it.

We spend the whole evening chatting to Maia from Australia who is on a backpacking trip quite similar to ours. You can find her exciting blog here.

Rainy view onto Imlil

The berber village of Tinehourhine

We spend the whole evening chatting to Maia from Australia who is on a backpacking trip quite similar to ours. You can find her exciting blog here.

On our last full day in the Atlas we walked through Aroumd again but this time continued up the valley towards the mighty mount Toubkal. Some misreading of our maps lead us through forests, terrace fields and apple orchards for an hour before we found that the path actually followed the rocky and very wide riverbed. It zig-zagged up on one side into the Toubkal National park. We followed it until we reached the pilgrimage village of Sidi Chamharouch at 2350m. This represents roughly the halfway point between Imlil and Les Mouflons, the aptly named mountain refuge from which all ascents of the mount Toubkal peak start.

Mosque and white rock of Sidi Chamharouch

Sidi Chamharouch is built around a white rock and mosque. According to a legend the rock fell on the residence of a saint and therefore pilgrimage can help cure female infertility and rheumatism.  People also believed that anyone suffering from mental diseases could be cured by visiting the ‘king of devils’ at sidi chamharouch and sacrificing a chicken or lamb depending on the severity of their condition.

Sadly we had to move on from this idyllic valley and back to Marrakesh since we wanted to go and see some desert. This time we ended up with an Englishman in a grand taxis since there were no taxis going to Asni.

We are both excited and anxious about this trip as it is our first group trip. Watch this space to read and see how it turned out.

Greater woodpecker

Unknown blue bird

A palace, tombs and a lot of sweat

The beginning of our time in Marrakech was a whirlwind and to be truthful we were feeling a little drained. We felt we needed to slow down and take in a bit more of the city so we decided to visit the Bahia palace, a hammam and the Saadian tombs over the next two days. This left us plenty of time for relaxing and drinking tea in various cafés.

Ted enjoying the patisserie and tea expertly poured by Matthias

A small selection of the sweets on offer

The Bahia palace directly translated as the magnificent palace, was built in the 1860’s by Morrocos best artisans and later used as the residence of the general of the French protectorate. We enjoyed meandering around the tiled courtyard, marvelling at thecarved ceilings and wandering in the gardens but it was not as magnificent as we had hoped. Still worth a visit and a contrast to the badi palace.

One of the courtyards of the Bahia palace

The Saadian tombs are a collection of 170 tombs dating from the 1600’s which were rediscovered behind the mosque purely by coincidence. The tombs were constructed under Sultan Al-mansour who believed he would take his court and possessions with him into the afterlife. The most impressive part is the Chamber of the 12 pillars where Al-Mansour is buried but also quite interesting is the mausoleum of his mother which is highly decorated. We queued to see the chamber of the 12 pillars and had only a brief time to admire the extravagant decoration. It was hard to beleive that after being boarded up this site in the centre of Marrakesh lay hidden for hundreds of years.

The chamberbof the twelve pillars

Our first experiences of a hammam are certainly something we won’t forget and although we didn’t use the public hammam like the locals we both felt we got a rather authentic experience. Traditionally hammams were used like a public bathhouse with women and men visiting at separate times. A typical visit would include a steam room followed by a body scrub and thorough washing. For an extra fee a massage can be included and an attendant to perform all of the scrubbing and washing. Locals usually pay 10-20 Dirham for entrance and around 50 Dirham for an attendant to wash and scrub them. As usual the tourist price varies with hammams offering all sorts of treatments and price tags. We would both recommend a visit to hamam ziani where prices start at 150 Dirham for a steam, scrub and wash. We opted to include a 40 minute massage too and negotiated a special deal of 200 Dirham each (unfortunately Ted wasn’t allowed in and he wouldn’t have wanted his fur scrubbed anyway). We had slightly different experiences, so we would like to share both a male and female hammam experience with you:

For the ladies: I was led into a changing area and offered very skimpy bikini bottoms before being led into a domed room lacking steam. A motor started up and the steam flooded into the room, here I relaxed, unable to see the other side, until a lady came and took me by the hand. Next I was lathered up and washed (pretty sure no one has washed me since I was a child). Then the attendant asked me to lie on the marble bed and proceeded to scrub my entire body until she couldn’t get any more skin off, tickling my feet in the process. Afterwards she repeated the washing process and led me to the massage room. The full body massage was indeed full and included hitting the soles of my feet, massaging my stomach and also a facial massage. Covered in massage oils (including the miraculous argan oil) I was led back to the washing area where my hair and body were thoroughly washed. After drying my newly polished body, I relaxed in the chillout room waiting for Matthias and mint tea.

For the men: First things first; men only wear a towel around their waist. Nothing else and nothing underneath. This was put on me by the attendant while I got changed. After a quick shower I was led into the domed steam room to relax and soften up. Unlike Zoë I didn’t hear the motor. The attendant got me after about 10min for the scrubbing. Lying on a thin plastic mattress, I got scrubbed from neck to toes. It felt a bit strange to begin with but I got used to it quickly. The scrubbing was followed by another shower and then we moved to the other room for the massage. This was my first ever full body massage and the guy really went for it. He must have used half a bottle of massage oil. In comparison to my previous massages this one seemed to last for ever and was very relaxing even despite the strange smell of the massage bed. After the oiling I had another shower before sweating some more even though it took a bit for the steam to come back on. The only thing I wished for at this point was some shower gel or at least shampoo to get the oil out of my hair. One last shower completed my first ever hamam experience and I went back to get changed again.

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the back of the medina and watching the world go by while sitting in cafes. 

Sunset over Marrakech

Sunset over jama el fna

Our first taste of Marrakesh

After a 1 hour flight to London Gatwick, a 3 hour stop-over and another 4 hour flight we landed in our first destination: the buzzing and super lively city of Marrakesh. This was the first ever airport where our bags got scanned on the way out of the terminal and luckily we didn’t have any drones in our luggage. Our first challenge was to find the bus stand without any signs. We found it to the left on the other side of the car park after asking for directions, (and buying the most expensive bag of nuts ever) and fighting our way through the taxi rank. The bus to the center cost a modest 30 Dirham and dropped us about 300m from the big central square (Jamaa al Fna).

Ted and his new friend from Harrods, Gatwick Airport

We had booked a small but very nice riad through British Airways. It is called Riad el Farah and located near Badi palace and the Bab agnou. We were very warmly welcomed by the owner Mohammed with fresh peppermint tea. We spent some time talking and he shared his dinner (home cooked tagine with bread) with us. Our first dip into the local cuisine was very yummy and we learnt the delights that await at the bottom of the tagine.

Mohammed and his yummy tagine

On our first day we explored the stalls of Jamaa al Fna and the adjacent medina. The medina is a labyrinth of derbs (alleyways), backyards and cut-throughs stuffed with souks (shops). You can buy literally everything there apart from cars and houses. It is very easy to get lost in the medina, marvelling at the exotic products and great craftsmanship. Just be aware that shopkeepers or their friends try to get you into their shop as soon as you turn your head to look or start pointing at things. Half of them call out at you before that point anyway so we started training the art of looking-but-not-looking. The shops that impressed us the most were selling very intricate metal lanterns or all sorts of leather products. There was also a lot of beautiful pottery for sale. It was pity we are restricted by our luggage as we could have easily filled a suitcase (we might have to buy one at some point; the temptation is strong 😉

Inside one of the impressive lantern shops

We had to escape the medina tested our navigation skills by trying to find our way back to the riad which we found straightaway. Emboldened by the success, we went to see the grand badi palace.

This impressive building complex was built in the 16th century by sultan Ahmed al-Mansour. Sadly it didn’t last very long and was looted only 75 years after it’s completion. Today the walls are inhabited by storks and only few parts are still covered by a roof. Entrance is 10dh per adult (3dh for a child) and there are plenty of information plaques in english, french and arabic.

We highly recommend spending an extra 10dh to see the Koutoubia minbar. This is the prayer pulpit from which the imam delivers the sermon. This particular example represents the pinacle of Cordobian wood carvery and craftsmanship.

The vast bahia palace courtyard

The other thing one has to get used to in Morocco is the traffic. Millions of cyclists, scooters, motorbike-come-lorry, porters, cars and horse carriages share the streets and walkways. The handling skills of the drivers are impressive: they race down narrow derbs avoiding pedestrians, cyclists and stalls all while phoning or holding on to everything from a child to half a cupboard or 100 eggs. As a pedestrian this requires constant vigilance. The same has to be said about crossing roads.

As we both love Moroccan cuisine one thing we had our heart set on was learning how the locals cook and do a cooking course. We joined the cooking school at café Clock. Apart from us there was one American couple tapping into the knowledge of the head of cuisine Mohammed. After discussing the options, we decided on our dishes and went shopping. We ended up buying some spices for ourselves (chef quality at local price) as the opportunity was just too good. Back in the cafe we got our fingers dirty by making Moroccan breakfast bread and sampled it together with fresh fruit and delicious spiced coffee.

Under the watchful eye of our highly experienced and very nice teacher we prepared zalouk (smokey roasted aubergine), harira soup, tagine b t’mer w l’berlok (lamb tagine with prunes and apricots) and ghriba d l’sel (honey fassi macaroons). We really enjoyed the class and had a lot of fun and the resulting three course meal was scrumptious and well worth the time and effort.

So far we recommend a trip to this amazing and exciting city in which we will spend a few more days before heading to the atlas mountains.

Let us know your thoughts and ideas in the comments below.