I’m pretty well traveled, so I’m well-versed in the ‘feeling foreign’ feeling. However, the out-of-place feels that overcame me upon arrival at Marrakech Menara airport were unlike any I’ve ever been privy to. For the first time I felt completely out of my element and all my senses were in overdrive. I was quite the jumble of ‘OMG I can’t believe I’m in Africa!’ mixed with ‘OY, don’t say OY. Don’t say anything to upset the immigrations man’. It was weird, but all 4 of the Traveling Yarmulkas felt it one and the same.
We arrived around 11pm in Marrakech, and were fetched from the airport by the shuttle service for Riad Jona. My first thought being ‘Thank God we are being shuttled!’ I read all over the internet that taxi and bus services from the airport are extremely scarce, so a shuttle service is quite necessary. I remember us all being extremely polite and quiet while in the van. I think we were scared to talk. Imagine that! 2 Schaeffs and 2 Diamonds SCARED TO TALK. That never happens! As we were leaving the airport parking lot, our driver stopped to shoot the shit with the parking man, they laughed, the ticket man passed our driver his water bottle to take a swig of, they laughed some more, and we were finally off. Germ and joke swapping on lock here.
My eyes were glued to the scenery on our dark drive in. At first glance, Marrakech looked like a combination of up scale manicured tree-lined streets mixed with an old time world I’ve only seen in Disney movies. One in particular. Then we stopped, got out in the middle of a run down street and were escorted through what seemed like a maze of tunnels until we arrived at Riad Jona. I could not stop turning around to make sure we were all there. Excited and anxious nerves unlike any other were ever-present.
Well, as soon as we stepped through the doors of our Riad every ounce of nerve dissipated. It was like we walked into heaven. We were greeted by the lovely staff with the most DELICIOUS mint tea my lips have ever tasted, and were introduced to the hospitality that is Morocco.
And so begins our whirlwind time in our gateway to Africa. Though we were not pleased to only have 4.5 days in this glorious country, and made a few very saddening sacrifices, we made the very most of our time. And, well, I’m here to tell you how you can get the best, and richest experience of two of its main cities and the Sahara Desert in just 4 days.
My biggest piece of advice for such a whirlwind trip is to…
Do Yourself A Favor And Snag Yourself An Escort.
This is a hard thing for me to say, being someone who loves to wander and explore and stop and document the life around me on only my watch. BUT, and that’s a big but, I can wholeheartedly say that having guides with us gave us a different glimpse into Moroccan life. One that we would not have seen (or ate our way through) had we been without. This was one of Cori’s must-haves, and I admit at first I was against it, but quite happy she stuck to her guns and sista and I tagged along. We had full days in both Marrakech and Fez, and in each we hired a tour guide to wisk us around.
Abdul from Marrakech Guided Tours fetched us from our Riad early on our first morning and we were ready to hit the pavement, err, the cobbled together streets of Marrakech. He was so soft spoken, calm, and pleasant right from the get-go. He knew that we probably had things we really wanted to see, so we discussed the day’s sight line-up and we were off. One area I was really interested in was the Jewish Quarter, or the Mellah. I was unsure about bringing this up until he began talking about the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Jews in the country. With that, I asked him about seeing it, and he more than incorporated it into our itinerary. He actually went on to tell us how it’s one of the most interesting areas in Marrakech, having a long and rich history, and spent a good amount of time walking us through.
A synagogue in the Mellah that is entirely run by Muslims.
A wide-eyed wander through the bustling alleys of the Mellah.
One of my personal favorite parts of the tour with Abdul was when we got hungry. We had worked up quite the appetite by the time it came time for us to get a nosh in. Between mosque and palace hopping, and gawking at the most exquisite tiling I’ve ever seen, my hangry face was showing herself. Yes, irritable Danielle was out loud-n-proud. She turned around though when Abdul took us to a spot that was swarming with locals. They always say, if you want to eat well, eat where the locals eat.
We walked into a little hole in the wall with a man in the doorway serving up piping plates of stuff we weren’t in any way sure of. I’ll admit, I think we were all a little bit weary, seeing old men sitting on buckets with chicken bones on the bare table, scooping slops of food with their hands, and communal water cups. But hey, I’ve eaten Pho out of a bucket on the street in Ho Chi Minh, so I was ready.
We ate chicken Rfissa with lentils, chickpeas with greens, Auburgine fritters, fresh bread, and drank water out of the smelliest communal table mugs. Amazing.
The aftermath. Satisfaction.
The traditional fare is always one of the first things I research when planning a trip to a new country, and I sure came with a long list of cuisine to indulge in. To me, food is the best way to really immerse yourself in a country and its traditions. In a place like Morocco it’s a bit hard to know what you’re eating, especially in an instance like this, when food is just being slopped. I am so thankful for having a local like Abdul to tell us exactly what we were eating, as well as translation services while on our own to help decipher the ingredients of an entirely foreign language.
After stuffing our faces, scouring the picturesque back streets of Marrakech, and getting lost in the souks, Abdul took us to one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been. The Majorelle Gardens, once maintained by Yves Saint Laurent, are adorned up and down, left and right in my favorite shade of blue. None other than Majorelle Blue. These botanical gardens are the perfect place to sit and relax, people watch and just enjoy the peacefulness that that shade of blue radiates.
Finally, we had to book our tickets out of Marrakech and up to Fez for after our return from the Sahara. Sista and I had done research on overnight trains, but apparently Morocco doesn’t keep their internet information up-to-date and we hit a dead end as there were in fact no overnight trains. Thanks to Abdul, our problem solver who swept us off to the CTM bus station to rejigger our overnight plans. He went above and beyond and was our voice in a pinch. From start to finish, Abdul was wonderful and an excellent find from hospitality to wealth of knowledge.
The Sahara Trek That Could Have Been Three Days, But Was Only Two.
The details of the length of our Sahara trek will come later so as not to ruffle up my feathers, but it could have been longer given the days of our stay, but that’s neither here nor there, now is it? Regardless, our trip through the Atlas Mountains was stunning and wonderful and surprising.
We booked a 2 day, 1 night trek roundtrip via Marrakech with Authentic Tours Marrakech. Our tour guide, Moha as we so lovingly came to call him, picked us up at 7:30am for our journey into the Sahara. Moha and I talked a lot while the sleeping beauties slept in the back seat for much of the early ride. We both had an Asian connection, he having lived in Japan for 10 years, and me in Korea for 3. And let me tell you, when you find another non-Asian Asian, you bond before you can say kimchi. So there was that.
The days of driving were long but so gorgeous. Winding through the Atlas Mountains we saw a side of Morocco we had no idea existed. Around one windy road the mountains looked like they were oil painted sand, and then around the bend were the most lush green mountains for miles. I had no idea Morocco bore such greenery!
We arrived in Zagora, where a Berber man quickly adorned us with shmatas to cover our precious keppies. Then came camel time. At this point we were still a bit confused because we were expecting the dunes you only dream about, but we saw some rocky grassy patches with dunes in the distance. But, mount Alibaba, MohammedAli, Abu, and JackBlack we did and off into the setting sun we rode.
We arrived at our camp for the night and were quite confused at first. We lounged until sunset was coming and then made the hilarious trek up the dune just behind our camp. But not without several questions. Do we keep our shoes on? Are there scorpions in this sand? Will somebody be waiting to take us on over yonder to where the real dunes are? All very important questions. We went with climbing sans shoes, and up we went to enjoy a sunset and yoga poses atop a Saharan dune, because that’s what you do in the middle of the desert with a pretty colored sky.
Left my Koko mark in the sand.
After dismounting the dune we headed back to our camp, where the Berbers played music, drank mint tea under the tent, and got us hungry for our tagine filled dinner. I was also provided the perfect setting to channel my inner Princess Jasmine.
When in an Arab desert.
The next morning we were back on our camel friends and off to drive through the Atlas Mountains again. Moha was a dear and saved the best for last. For our whole drive he was talking about kasbahs and harems, but we were still unsure about what a kasbah was, except for our only point of reference – rocking a kasbah. Turns out, a kasbah is a giant fortified city signifying wealth, and once housed many families within its walls. Aït Benhaddou serves as the biggest kasbah and still plays home to 4 families, one of which we got to visit with and lay our eyes on his wife’s beautiful handmade rugs. Not to mention, the kasbah has been the setting for many a Hollywood flick and television show, including Gladiator and that monster that I’m afraid I don’t watch, Game of Thrones.
Yes, two sista klutzes forded the river without falling in.
We returned back to Marrakech around 8 or 9pm that night, where our Riad was nice enough to let us hang out until our bus left at 1:30am. We gave ourselves a good face wash and costume change and then relaxed with the staff in between being antisocial while connected to our beloved wifi.
Fez Smells Like A Pungent Combination Of Donkey, Leather, & Saffron
After arriving in Fez at around 9am, we were tasked with finding a red taxi to take us to our Riad. The red taxis in Morocco are petit, and therefore only hold 3 people, so we had to split up for the ride over. Thankfully Moha had caught us at the bus station before leaving Marrakech and so nicely wrote the address to our Riad in Arabic for us. It came in tremendous handy after feeling a bit disoriented in a new city.
When we got to Riad Fez Kattani it was honestly the most magical room I’ve ever stayed in. We had a two bedroom suite again, but this time we had the entire floor to ourselves. We had a little living area with a couch, a central tea table area and our bedrooms off of it. We definitely felt like princesses now!
Once settled, we had arranged for our tour guide to pick us up from the Riad at 1pm. Raschid came to fetch us and off we went through the bustling labyrinth that is the Medina of Fez. But you see, we soon found out that this bustling would be short lived. For we had arrived on a Friday, and Friday is the Muslim holy day of rest. That meant everyone was leaving the Mosque after prayer. Within about an hour of being escorted through the maze, Fez was DEAD. There was no one around. No one.
Which brings me back to the Sahara trek. If you happen to find yourself in a tight schedule bind like us and Friday is one of your city days, opt for a longer trek. We could have done a 3 day / 2 night trek, traveled from Marrakech to Fez, and seen our luscious dunes. But, c’est la vie.
With a dead Fez on our hands, Raschid did his best to educate us on what we were able to see. Even amidst the quiet, I knew Fez was so beautiful in this down and dirty medieval sort of way. Instead of continuing on for the day, he dropped us off at our Riad, and instead we woke up bright and early the next day for the tour we had hoped for!
Saturday was a whole new Fez. It was smelly, had donkeys around every corner, and was alive with people going to market. Through the narrow roads, all our senses were percolating. From the beautifully tiled structures to the chicken fat laying on the side of the road, from the freshly picked mint to the stench of soaking animal skin in the 14th century Chouara Tannery, the juxtapositions were unfathomable. Fez felt like we had hopped into a time machine.
An entry to University of al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest university in the world, circa 859 AD.
Chouara Tannery circa the 14th century. Remember, sheep is cheap when you make your next animal hide purchase.
And finally, perhaps all of our favorite part of Fez was a trip to the compound where all of the pottery that is bought and sold is handmade, hand chiseled, and hand painted. We learned that all the tiles used in restorations or for sale in the country are completely chiseled by men who spend their day with a hammer and stencils in their lap. We learned how the clay is made and stored, how the dyes for the paint change, and how no two pieces are the same. Sista even got to try her hands on the pottery wheel and made half a baby tagine! Needless to say, we were all in heaven and did all our shopping straight from the source.
My sister, the potter, using two fingers to widen. Teacher’s orders.
With a slammed morning behind us, we headed back to the Riad to fetch our bags. We made our way through the souk, which was an entirely different type of souk than that of Marrakech. People in Fez use the souk for everyday life things. It’s where you go to buy your wedding gown, your meat for tonight’s meal, your bath oils and your handmade rugs, and to maybe see the head of a beheaded camel. It’s not so much a place to find your chachkies to take home like the souks in Marrakech.
And that concludes our whirlwind tour of Morocco. It was a jam packed 4.5 days, but we definitely made the most of it. The major attractions of note that we wanted to include in our stay were an additional day in the Sahara to include the dunes at Erg Chebbi, and perhaps the most heartbreaking to Sista and me, a trip to Chefchaouen. The blue city has been on our brains ever since she discovered it a couple months before our trip. But, thanks to Ryanair and shortening our time it was unfeasible.
Morocco has since etched its way into my heart. As the first Arab country I’ve visited, I was so overwhelmed with happiness to know that different faiths coexist in complete harmony and respect for each other. The people we met had such a warmth about them, and the hospitality is in a league all its own. Morocco, I will be in you again soon.
And that’s that! Have you been to Morocco? Did you discover any off-the-beaten-path gems you’d care to share? Since I’ll be returning, what new cities should I add to my must-see list? Please do let me know in the comments below.