Morocco Mania – I had been viewing this itinerary on WOW Club’s website for quite a few years. In 2013 I nearly signed up for it but the dates didn’t work and I went to South Africa instead. This was my second trip with a women’s travel group and through this post, I really want to tell all those who are apprehensive of travelling solo with a women’s group, that rest your worries aside, it is real fun.
So once again I had my bags packed for another adventure. This time I didn’t even bother to find out details of my roommate. The first thing about travelling with a women’s group, while it is attractive to get a solo room all by yourself, try to share accommodation. It’s not that you are stuck with that one person throughout but it is great to have someone to come back and talk about the day’s experience than calling someone at home to offload. Talking to a stranger is often quite relaxing. God knows you may never meet her again.
The adventure began right from the first flight. Our trip coordinator had asked me to book a flight which had an 8 hour layover at Dubai. But I insisted on taking the risk and booked myself on a later flight which just had a 75 minute layover. I slept through the entire flight, only to wake up and realize that we were way past the departure time of my next one and still hovering in the air. Blame the fog at Dubai airport. Once we landed, there was a mad dash as everybody was trying to look for their onward flights. I found my flight number on the charts but there was no status. I probably had stopped breathing till I reached the gate and someone called out my name. It was our WOW buddy. She recognized me through my passport photo! Though I am sad that I resemble that horrible photo. I was informed that I had been off boarded and put on the flight for the next day but the Emirates lady at the gate was kind enough to make a few calls and get me and my luggage on the same flight as the others. Phew! As I sank into my seat I realized how I would have missed the entire trip had I been put on the next day’s flight as the tour would have moved to another city. Some start!
We landed in Casablanca and that is where we actually met all members of the group. A motley group of 11 from 29 years to 79 years of age and with a buddy who was just 21. The one thing common though was the passion to travel and have a good time. Our tour guide Saleem met us at the airport. He was a jovial person who gave us a flavor of the Moroccan sense of humor through his wisecracks right from our first bus ride to the hotel.
The first discovery all of us had as we checked into our hotel in Casablanca was the lack of bath room privacy. There were no locks and the bathroom door was transparent which meant that we really had to ensure we were singing out loud while we were inside! This was observed in all hotels we checked into throughout Morocco. An insight into the bohemian culture I must say. Our first evening at Casablanca was pretty relaxed where we spent time getting to know each other a bit more over a glass of wine and had our first encounter with Moroccan Brochettes (Skewers) and vegetable soup which was so pasty that our group called is baby food for the rest of the trip.
The next day we moved to Rabat. On the way we saw a historic water reservoir and the Bab-Al-Mansour mosque. The city of Rabat was experiencing a citizen protest against the UN General Secretary that day and hence we couldn’t see the King’s Palace. However we got a good flavor of the peaceful exertion of democracy. Have never seen a mass protest will millions participating on one street and kids playing on the beach right on the street next to it.
From Rabat we headed to Meknes for a quick lunch. This was the first of many Moroccan lunches we were to have. Typically on the menu was Moroccan Salad and Tagine (veg or non-veg based on preference). The tagine is a combination of meat and vegetables cooked in a peculiar conical covered vessel which is called Tagine. The Moroccan salad is made of cooked vegetables and not raw veggies. Very similar to some of the Indian dishes specially the aubergine and the zucchini.
After a sumptuous lunch ( we didn’t know that we would have an overdose of these dishes in the next few days) we headed to the ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis, which was set up sometime in the first century AD and abandoned by the 11th century. Now a UNESCO heritage site, the ruins surrounded by beautiful mountains were marvelous to see.
We headed to Fes after Volubilis and spent the night there. The next morning was a delightful walk through the Fes Medina through some of the narrowest lanes in the world. We had the pleasure to enjoy the magnificence of Moroccan architecture in a Madrasa (not in use anymore) and ancient houses and mosques through the lanes. The medina reminded me quite a bit of the busy lanes of Banaras. From meat to vegetables to copper utensils, souvenirs, carpets, trinklets, you name it and the Medina had it. There was a wedding lane as well which specialized in wedding related stuff, yes you got me right- it was the band, baaja , baraat lane!
The Fes blue was ubiquitous in the architecture and we realized it was not restricted to just pottery. We also got to visit a pottery centre where we bought some authentic Moroccan blue pottery and a Berber carpets outlet that looked like quite a hideout just based on how we got there through the lanes. Don’t ask me for the name of the outlet or the route but one thing about buying carpets in Morocco is that you should bargain. Start at 50% of the quoted price and the rest depends on your need and negotiation skills. As Saleem, kept reiterating, the best place to buy authentic Berber carpets is Fes. Though you would get them in other places in Morocco as well but the quality is not the same. We did agree with him after seeing the stuff in other outlets in Marrakesh and Ouarzazate as well. Dinner that night was at a traditional joint with a dose of Moroccan music and belly dancing.
One day is not enough in the beautiful city of Fes but we had other things to see. Our next day was perhaps the most exciting day of the trip where went from the snow in the Atlas Mountains to the sandy dunes of the Sahara desert. Our destination was Erfoud which took us on a fascinating journey through the snow covered mountains, stopping over for some photos on the slippery snow and a coffee stopover in the very European looking Ifrane.
We left our bus at Erfoud and headed in smaller SUVs to Merzouga to experience the Sahara desert. Saleem made sure we wasted no time so that we didn’t miss the sunset. We just made it in time. The bumpy camel ride over the dunes gave us some sores but it was hilarious as we clung onto the camel back for dear life. Surprisingly the camels did not have names. The guides asked us to give them names and most of us named them after the Bollywood Khans especially considering the fascination Morocco has for Shahrukh Khan. The sunset was mesmerizing as anticipated. The Sahara dunes are more pristine than what I have seen in Rajasthan and Dubai. This is probably because they do not allow vehicles to go over the dunes to preserve their natural beauty. Though we didn’t want to leave, the desert began to look scary after the sun set and we headed back to our resort in Merzouga.
Tired but satisfied, we retired that night with promises to see the sunrise in the morning. While many made promises, only 3 of us ended up on the terrace at 5:30 a.m the next morning to witness the sunrise. Words cannot describe the beautiful hues we saw, take a look at the picture below.
Our 5th day was spent travelling quite a bit through the arid region viewing some Kasbahs, phantom villages, hundreds of irrigation wells, tunnels, gorges and the fortified village of Ait Benhaddou till we reached the door of the desert Ouarzazate. All these villages and kasbahs were made up of adobe bricks (bricks made with organic material including mud, straw and cork) which add to the durability in the dry climate. We stayed at a Kasbah hotel in Ouarzazate with some of the best views of sunset and sunrise from our rooms. Ouarzazate is also famous for the film studios like Atlas Studios which is one of the largest studios in the world.
Movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven etc have been shot here. We got a glimpse of the studios as well though we didn’t go inside. All this was a great insight to us of the traditional history and culture of Morocco after the more international Casablanca and Rabat. We were now ready for the much awaited destination Marrakech! I was specially looking forward to it as I wanted to experience a traditional Moroccan hammam in Marrakech.
We reached Marrakech in the evening and immediately headed to the Jemaa El-Fnaa square for a taste of Moroccan street food. The square was resplendent with performers, shops, food stalls. Unlike what we had read about it being extremely crowded and need to be careful about your belongings and getting lost, the square was not as intimidating. Or maybe the rounds of Lajpat Nagar in Delhi have prepared me for all kinds of crowds in the world! Do try the brochettes and lamb chops if you are not up for any more tagine in Morocco. Satiated with the happy dinner and merry experience of the square we headed back to the hotel looking forward to our next day in Marrakech.
The highlight of the day in Marrakech was a visit to the Koutobia Minaret and the Bahia palace. The Bahia palace had an art exhibition going on so apart from the beautiful architecture, we also got to see some of the handiwork of eminent Moroccan painters. A visit to Marakech could not be complete without buying some authentic Argan oil, one of the prized exports of Morocco. Saleem took us to a pharmacist who gave us a good insight into the various varieties of oils and spices and ended up selling us quite a few bottles of oil.
Finally we were left at the square for some self-time. Since I was bent upon the hammam experience and hounded Saleem to find me a traditional one (not a touristy spa types), he actually found me one and I utilized my free time at the Hammam. The Hammam experience is unique and needs a dedicated post. I came back to the group glowing and feeling as fresh and pink as a baby after the hammam. We had a very enjoyable girls’ night out that evening at a café and were more than glad to not repeat a traditional dinner that by now we had become really tired of.
Our last day in Morocco was to be spent in Casablanca. We were really looking forward to see the Hassan II Mosque. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world. It is also open to visitors. The spell-binding architecture of the mosque is beyond words. The use of colors, the finesse of the engravings, the chandeliers, the ceilings, and every part of the mosque is a piece of art. While it had more of a cathedral feeling to it, I was totally mesmerized by what I saw.
We had a relaxing lunch at the Corniche next to the waves of the Atlantic Ocean after which we headed back to our hotel to dress up for our farewell dinner at the famous Rick’s café in Casablanca. Though a bit overrated, it was a cozy place with the owner herself coming up to every table and checking personally if people were having a good time. Be careful of the wine you order there, check carefully and do not go with their opinions as the attendant was quick to open up the most expensive wine on the menu when we had ordered something else. Anyways, it did not dampen the evening and we could laugh it off later as we headed back to our hotel to pack up the memories, the souvenirs and the delightful Moroccan humor to take back home with us…
- India is synonymous with Shahrukh Khan in Morocco. Probably like at one time Raj Kapoor was the face of India for Russia. So even if you are not a Shahrukh fan, do remember the names of some of his movies for a conversation on the road. Conversations could be like – hello, Kuch Kuch hota hai, no no My name is Khan, really, Jab tak hai Jaan!!
- Knowing a bit of French will last you a long way in Morocco. One of the members of our group was adept in French which was a blessing to us and she ended up acting as a translator for the group at most places!
- All the hotels we stayed in Morocco did not have any locks on the bathroom. At one place there were no doors as well (just a pillar to mark the bathing area). While that makes it an ideal honeymoon destination, if you are not sharing the room with a romantic partner, ensure that you brush up your bathroom singing skills. Maybe it’s an orientation to the culture of public hammaming.
- Harmless flirting is popular in Morocco, right from vendors on the street to the chef in a posh restaurant, people do not mind indulging in a bit of flirting. However take it in your stride and just keep it to a comment or two. Do not try it yourself with the locals.
- Sense of humor is available in plenty. From our guide to the restaurants to the shops, we got huge doses of it with a quip here, a joke there and so on. That makes Morocco an endearing destination and something to bring back with you from there!