For a long time we have been wanting to visit Morocco, hence we planned our European route with Morocco as a must see (even though it is not part of Europe!).
We had high expectations of Morocco, and in some ways it lived up to them, but it was not all great with a few disappointing aspects. (The food wasn’t one of them: see our blog on our Moroccan food experiences)
We had a few concerns about how the kids would cope, expecting it to very intense, busy and smelly. So after cruising around for a couple of months in the relatively comfortable western parts of Europe leading up to our time in Morocco, it was quite a culture (and temperature) shock arriving in the port of Tangier after a ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar from Spain.
Our first objective was to get to our hotel, only a short taxi ride away. Walking off the ferry we were first hassled by locals wanting to carry our bags. We didn’t need any help, and we were not falling into that trap. Then there were the taxi guys. Being experienced independent travellers and having lived in Bali for over a year we were well versed in dealing with taxi drivers. We had done our research and knew what we should be paying, so we were comfortable paying just above the going rate in order to quickly get a driver without a drawn-out negotiation.
We had booked a budget hotel in the old part of town (Medina), just for a place to rest before our overnight train. The hotel had not received our confirmation, so there was no booking, but fortunately, the room was still available. The owner was genuinely very friendly and made us feel relaxed and welcome in Morocco, bringing the customary welcome cup of mint tea.
For our first Moroccan meal we chose a basic restaurant on the square, randomly selecting one of the many that were pushing us for their custom. Just wanting to try a couple of local dishes, we chose a tangine and couscous meal and some kebabs. Pretty simple it seemed, but they brought out heaps of extras that we never ordered, bread, salad, chips for the kids, and rice. It was way too much food, so we sent some of it back, but considering that we were in cheap Morocco we didn’t think it would make a big difference. It did in fact, this small local joint ended up more expensive than most of our meals in Spain, and the food wasn’t that good. It left a sour taste in our mouth, and a lingering distrust of the locals, but it was a reminder to be more on the ball in touristy areas.
Our overnight train from Tangier to Marrakech left at the very inconvenient time of midnight, which had been changed earlier from the more suitable time of 9pm. The kids were still very excited about the sleeper train, and happily transferred from the hotel bed to the train. The train was better quality than we expected (except the toilet!) but it was still not easy to sleep on the hard bunk beds.
We had organised with our hotel in Marrakech for a pickup from the train station, again making the transition to the hotel simple with no taxi negotiations required.
Our accommodation was within the city walls, with a narrow laneway from our hotel leading to the busy lanes of shops. Once you step into the Riad, a traditional Moroccan home, the busyness of the street is completely blocked out. We did feel though that the sounds of our kids reverberated within the confines of the hotel. Especially when there was a refreshing pool to slash about in!
Marrakech was ‘apparently’ much quieter than normal because of the holy month of Ramadan. However, the streets outside our accommodation still seemed very crazy, especially with fast driving motorcyclists swerving between bicycles and pedestrians.
On our second day, we saw a person get hit – with a thud and scream! From then on we were always vigilant keeping to the side and out of the way.
We visited Jemaa el-Fnaa, the large main public square where all the action congregates. It was very overwhelming, and almost immediately a monkey was placed on Jetson’s shoulder. We knew to ask how much it would cost before we took the photo. “Pay what you like” he said, but he wasn’t happy with how much we wanted to pay. Oh well, bad luck he came across stubborn tourists not easily intimated, and he was lucky to get anything.
At the same time, Olive’s hand was grabbed and a henna tattoo was in the process of being drawn before we knew it. We very firmly told the lady we did not want it and we would not be paying for it, but not surprisingly she was still not happy when we let her finish and stuck by our guns and did not pay for something potentially dangerous (skin infections are common from dodgy henna) that we did not ask for.
It wasn’t all just hustle and bustle. Just a short distance away was the Bahia Palace, an oasis of quiet and cool when you step inside. As it was just next to where we were staying, we were able to visit just after it opened, and were able to enjoy the peace and quiet before many other visitors arrived. The beautiful moorish building design had similarities to what we had seen in southern Spain, but a surprise find when compared to the busy streets outside.
On another day we also visited the beautiful Yves St Laurent designed Majorelle Garden. Despite the expensive entry price by Moroccan standards, it was a very pleasant and colourful garden, with an interesting Berber museum.
We also spent some days out of the city to experience the “real Morocco”. It required a drive across the Atlas mountains, through the Tizi n’Tichka Pass to Ait Ben Haddou. The journey had been listed as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, so it was probably not the wisest decision to go with the cheapest car rental we could find, small old cars don’t do so good on windy mountainous roads.
Fortunately they have done recent roadworks to improve the road conditions, so it wasn’t as bad as expected, and we made the five-hour journey without incident, except a little car sickness.
There is not a lot going on in the quiet village of Ait Ben Haddou. The main thing to do is visit the imposing traditional mud brick kasbah, where many movies have been filmed, like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and even some Games of Thrones episodes.
There is apparently no entry fee, but a few enterprising locals have set up an entry gate to collect money from the tourists coming across the river. There is a nice hike to the top of the hill, where we relaxed for a while and enjoyed the view. We tended to sing ‘Rock the Kasbah’ here quite a bit.
We enjoyed the quietness of the town, with its peaceful river and sole main street, but especially before and after it was inundated with the day tripping bus crowds coming from Marrakech.
We had come to Morocco promising the kids a desert camel ride. We had assumed it would be easy to organise a trek when we got here, but Clare found it very difficult to get an honest price after some frustrating discussions with travel agents in town. There was a huge price range and very few details and vague descriptions of what we would get. We also got some online quotes for full days out to the real Sahara but we didn’t want to drive for many more hours and pay hundreds of dollars. We were already in a very barren desert landscape and just needed a ride around here.
Our hotel owner came through in the end. We paid more than all the other local quotes, but got an amazing sunset hour long trek in the nearby hills and along the dry riverbed. It was a very special and memorable experience and the highlight of our Morocco experience.
On our final day we took a drive along the desolate but beautiful valley, with views of oases and barren villages. We continually asked ourselves how people survive out here, and if they can why would they want to.
We were departing Morocco from Casablanca, a taxi for the 3-hour journey from Marrakech was the best option but expensive. Getting a reasonably priced driver was not easy. We forgoed the offer from our hotel and the local travel agencies, and finally negotiated a price with a local driver we came across. Maybe his price was too good to be true. We were relieved to find him waiting to meet us on the morning of our departure, but he then headed off in the wrong direction. Through broken English, we discovered he was not going to take us, instead swapping drivers with some random guy.
This new guy spoke no English, and we spent the trip worrying that something dodgy would eventuate. It didn’t, we paid the agreed amount, we made our flight to Amsterdam, and our trip continues.
As you can see, with all the good there was also some bad! However you look at it, Morocco was definitely worth the effort and will be a very memorable experience for the kids and us. We have lots of great souvenirs to prove it!