Travel in the Time of Covid Part III – Casablanca

Our Overseas Adventure Travel trip (OAT) started and ended in Casablanca. I’ll admit it, that old Humphrey Bogart movie was my introduction to Morocco. Truth be told, though, the city wasn’t quite what I expected. Of all the places we visited, Casablanca was my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong. It is a perfectly fine city. It’s just that, like many large financial centers, it is crowded, and multiple areas have been torn up because of new construction.

Anyone who only visits Casablanca and thinks they have experienced Morocco is oh, so wrong. Morocco offers much, much more. For my other Morocco posts, I had a difficult time deciding which photos to post and which experiences to highlight. Casablanca presented no such challenge.

Casablanca’s main attraction is the very beautiful Hassan II Mosque, located on the edge of the Mediterranean.

It truly is a magnificent structure, displaying the usual attention to detail found in other Muslim/Arab structures, like the Alhambra.

It is easy to forget that a very modern city surrounds the mosque, but all you have to do is turn your back on the Mediterranean to see less inspiring, more utilitarian structures.

As is the case with synagogues, mosques have separate areas for women worshippers. Both Jewish and Moslem women pray from the balconies. I can’t help but wonder if it is because women deserve to be closer to heaven?

I absolutely loved strolling along the beaches of the Mediterranean, and wished we’d had more time to do just that.

I would imagine during normal times, there are many wonderful restaurants in this area, but Covid definitely narrowed our choices. For our last night we were on our own for dinner, so three of us discovered Urbano, a lovely Italian restaurant where we had the entire restaurant to ourselves.

The return trip to our hotel was indeed an adventure. Before departing, I remembered to grab a business card from the front desk. Good thinking, right? Well, the business card had the NAME of the hotel, but NOT the address, and to our dismay, we discovered there are TWO Radisson Blu hotels in Casablanca. Although Joanne was able to converse in French with our taxi driver, that still wasn’t enough. We needed to call our “lifeline”, Mostafa, who we affectionately dubbed “Dad”. With Dad’s guidance, we made it back early enough to finish packing and have a drink at the bar on the hotel’s top floor.

Tip for future OAT travelers: be sure you have your guide’s cell phone number when you venture out on your own.

This is the last of my Moroccan memories. For those of you who would like to learn more about this intriguing country, I invite you to take a look at this YouTube video, which “Dad” played for us during a bus ride.

Happy travels!

Travel In The Time of Covid – Moroccan City of Fes

Because of omicron, our only “traveling” these days is in our minds, with a memory boost from photos of days gone by.

We fully recognized how fortunate we were to be able to have ONE international trip in 2021. Before the borders slammed shut two months later, we spent three glorious October weeks touring Morocco. Sadly, as of late January, 2021, Morocco’s borders remain closed.

During our trip, our focus was on experiencing this fabulous country, so my blogging fell way behind. What better time to write about the three previously neglected cities of Fes, Marrakech and Casablanca than over the next few days, when there is little else to do in New Jersey but cook, eat, read or shivver.

Fes

Although I devoted one blog post to our spectacular Fes riad, we were too busy enjoying the wonder and glory of that city for me to blog about it.

Every souk in Morocco is quite an experience, but I think the one in Fes is the most elaborate and labyrinthine. Even Mostafa, our excellent guide, needed help from a local guide to get us through the marketplace.

You see just about everything in the Fes souk. Take a look: The head mounted outside the stall is thought to be proof that the vendor sells authentic camel meat.

Somehow, we managed to make it through the trip without being offered a sample.

You are probably wondering why I included the next visually unimpressive photo. Don’t worry. I’m going to tell you. That equipment you see on the trucks is for shooting the next Indiana Jones movie. Timing, however, is everything in life. Had we arrived a day later, Harrison Ford might have been on site, and perhaps we would have caught a glimpse of the action. Of course, what is far more likely is that the entire area would have been blocked off–probably with those barriers you see on the left. Anyway, watch for that cafe in the movie, and remember, you saw it here first.

Weddings are a HUGE deal in Morocco. Like Indian weddings, they go on forever…and necessitate multiple clothing changes. The souk has a whole area devoted to shops like this one, selling wedding caftans, which, as you can see, are LOADED with bling.

Weddings are expensive events, and not just for the bride and her family. You see, it is customary for the future groom to present his intended with baubles, including a jewel encrusted gold belt, as part of the marriage proposal. That is her “insurance policy” in case the marriage goes south.

During our time in Fes, we had dinner with a Moroccan family, who graciously showed us the video from their niece’s wedding. The bride changed her caftan SIX times during the many, many hours of the ceremony! Because of the colossal expense, our hosts told us many brides opt to rent their outfits.

Take a look at how narrow some of the passages are in the souk. They veer off into different directions, acting as natural protection from foreign invaders, of which there were many, back in the day.

Hint for future travelers: When I purchased my Sketchers, my purchase was placed in a bag that can also function as a backpack. When I tossed it into my luggage at the last minute, I had no idea how much I would use it! My regular backpack proved to be too heavy and HOT on my back, and this freebie from Sketchers was perfect for the trip.

Here’s another hint for future travelers:
When you visit the tannery, bring along either Vicks or Tiger Balm to dab under your nose, unless, of course, you think the stench is part of the experience that you don’t want to miss. Although the guide will give you a sprig of mint to hold under your nose, I definitely needed something much stronger. I don’t know how the workers can stand the smell of the hides being dyed and softened with materials like pigeon urine!

Like the rest of Morocco, Fes is a city of contrasts. After spending the day in the centuries old souk, we felt like we had time traveled when we arrived in the modern part of the city. Look at this beautiful avenue, complete with motorized vehicles the kiddies can drive. When we visited Ouarzazate a few days later, THEIR avenue included larger play vehicles, for kids of ALL sizes.

Our evening ended with a walk through this beautiful gate (one of MANY beautiful gates in the city) into another marketplace near our riad.

Our group can’t resist a photo op!

Volubilis and Meknes

During our three day stay, we had the choice of remaining in Fes, on our own, or taking the optional trip to view the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis, then visit Meknes, the imperial capital of the late, great Mouley Ishmael.

Since Mike has never met a Roman ruin that he didn’t love, it’s not hard to guess which option we chose.

Although it was interesting, I have seen many Roman ruins and mosaics, so I was more fascinated by Meknes.

Sultan Mouley Ishmael started Morocco on the road to greatness, after he ejected the British from Tangier. But that’s not his only claim to fame. He made The Guinness Book of World Records for fathering more children (888) than any other human, at least so far. No doubt it helped that he had about 500 concubines and 4 wives to share that monumental task! But what I want to know is whether he remembered all those names — of the kids AND their mothers. And how did he have the time or the energy to conquer so much territory?

With that huge a family, it is not surprise that the sultan went on a building rampage, utilizing Christian slaves to help construct his enormous structures in Meknes. When the slaves were exhausted, and thoughtlessly died on the job, he simply had their bodies tossed into the walls, to become part of the structure. To me, that’s taking recycling to the extreme.

I can’t remember whether this door was in Moulay’s stables or the granary (that’s what happens when you blog months after the fact–you forget so many details!) Whichever it was, it was massive, as you can see from the photo of one of the doors. It dwarfs my 6’3″ husband.

That’s all for today. Next post will be our memories of Marrakech.

Royal Air Maroc: Better Than a Magic Carpet!

My love affair with Morocco continues, but that will be a post for another day. Being a woman of my word, I will instead use this post to make good on my promise to report back on our experiences with Royal Air Maroc.

Faithful readers will recall that we flew business class TO Morocco, so that we could stretch out in the lay-flat seats and catch a few zzzz’s. We didn’t want to be totally exhausted when we arrived in Casablanca. As reported, business class was a luxurious experience with several unexpected bonuses.

Because our flight from Casablanca was scheduled to depart around 1 PM, we decided coach would be just fine for our return flight. And it was.

It is entirely possible that our experience was impacted by Covid, and when travel returns to normal, flights will once again be full. But not today. Mike and I had the row to ourselves, thoroughly enjoying having an empty seat between us. We didn’t feel cramped, the seats were comfy, but not as plush as business, and there was plenty of room in the overhead bins. The passenger in front of us had the entire row, so he was able to stretch out across all three seats.

Okay, so this was the first time I’d seen this really cool window feature. Instead of having a shade, there is a little button below the window that gradually lightens or darkens the pane, so you can be shielded from the sun’s brightness and heat, and still see outside.

Lunch was rather good. The orzo was sprinkled with cinnamon, the chicken had a delicious sauce and best of all, the wine was free! The second “meal” was not so good. In fact, it is as pretty pathetic and there was no accompanying wine to ease the pain. So, in addition to a guaranteed seat to yourself that has an almost infinite number of adjustments, you get much better food (and drink) in business class.

The seat back entertainment in coach and business is identical. Even if it were different, that would not have been a selling point for me because with my iPhone and iPad, this girl is all set. I keep the flight map on the screen so I can watch our progress, while bopping in my seat to my favorite music or reading a book on one of my I-thingies. Fortunately the seats have outlets, so I can recharge if the need arises. It doesn’t take much to make me very happy, and yes, wine helps.

In business class, we received a little bag with hand and face cream, lip balm, ear plugs, eye mask, a comb and socks. But guess what? People in economy also got a goodie bag. It only contained socks and an eye mask, (neither of which I EVER use) but still, that’s more than other airlines do for us folks in steerage.

Because of my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, we were able to use the Pearl Lounge at the very uncrowded Casablanca Airport, so our airport wait was quite comfortable.

Bottom line: Air Maroc worked out really well for us. We were able to fly at reasonable times. Those on the Air France return flight had to get up at 3:30 AM, and had a “box” breakfast. We got up at 8 AM, had a delicious buffet breakfast, and because our flight was non-stop, arrived at JFK about 15 minutes after the Air France Flight. Others on our trip had their flights changed multiple times. Ours did not. Best of all for OAT travelers, another member of our group was able to fly Royal Air Maroc and have the arrangements made by OAT, because of their code share with American Airlines. That would definitely been our preference! I must have had a new OAT rep, who was unaware of that option.

Ouarzazate

I know you are probably wondering how in the world to pronounce the name of this Moroccan city. Well, wonder no more. “Ou” sounds like our “W”, so when you come to Morocco and want to stay near the movie set for Game of Thrones, book a riad in “ WAR-za-zat”.

We spent two nights in Ouarzazate, staying at the beautiful Dar Kalifa. During the 1900’s our riad was the court house of Pasha Glaoui. This very powerful Bedouin chieftain was France’s ally against Sultan Mohammed V, and was instrumental in getting the Sultan exiled to Madagascar in 1953.

Unfortunately for France and the Pasha, the Sultan was beloved by many Moroccans. His removal resulted in unrest and uprisings in Morocco. As a result, de Gaulle reinstated Mohammed V (who changed his title from sultan to king) in 1956; simultaneously Morocco gained its independence. Pasha Glaoui had clearly made the wrong choice. So what became of this traitor? He traveled to Paris, knelt at the feet of in submission to Mohammed V, who forgave him. Their actions reunited the warring factions and made it easier for Mohammed V to regain his throne. Glaoui died of cancer in 1956, Mohammed V died in 1961.

I have to admit, it was pretty thrilling to think about all the history that must have taken place within the walls of our riad. It isn’t easy to find—you walk along some narrow passages to get there, but it is worth the walk to discover this spectacular dwelling.

Be forewarned: there are MANY steps in Dar Kalifa, and they all seem to be a different size.

Can you guess why Ouarzazate’s nickname is WallyWood? The dramatic scenery and the perfect lighting from sun filled days have made it a favorite spot for film makers.

Many of the locals work as “extras” in movies like Gladiator. Our local guide, Mohammed has been in several movies. Here’s his picture, so you can look for him in Season 4 of Game of Thrones.

Mohammed with his visual resume

Mohammed never had the opportunity to attend school. He spent his childhood ferrying tourists across the river on his donkey. Although he was never taught to read and write, he became fluent in English, French, Spanish and a few other languages, by listening to tourists he transported. I find that amazing—what an impressive and intelligent man!

Mohammed’s children: 2 girls, aged 13 and 6 and 1 boy aged 10, all attend school, and are teaching their dad to read. Mohammed told us he thought his family was complete, but his “coronavirus baby” arrived 8 months ago!

Most tourists visiting the area want to spend time in Ait Benhaddou, stopping at one of the two studios in town. Before Covid, Mohammed told us during high season Ait Benhaddou received more than 1,000 tourists per day.

Instead, we visited Asfalou Village, for what OAT calls “A Day in the Life”. There, we spent the morning with an extended family, visit their home, learning how the women make bread and the men make bricks.

For the afternoon, we visited the Women’s Association, a beneficiary of the Grand Circle Foundation. The Association’s objectives are to build women’s self confidence and to empower them. The women learn to bake cookies, which are sold to hotels and to tourists. We sampled some during our visit and they were so delicious, we all bought more.

While there, we all decorated our bodies with henna—even the men.

But the highlight, for me at least, was playing dress up. Unfortunately, my first choice for spouse was feeling under the weather that day, so I had to go with a substitute for this Berber wedding.

For you movie buffs, I’ll end with a list of some of the movies and TV shows filmed in this area.

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) The Man Who Wished To Be King (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Bandits, Bandits (1981)
  • The Diamond of the Nile (1985)
  • Killing is not playing (1987) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • Tea in the Sahara (1990) Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Babel (2006)
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
  • Game of Thrones (season 3, 2013)
  • Game of Thrones (season 4)

For the curious—the photo at the top of this post shows the artist doing paintings using a sort of “invisible ink”. He heats the paper over the flame to make the colors appear. This “invisible ink” , used for secret messages sent during French occupation, has been repurposed!

The Sahara

Once again, my image of what the Sahara Desert would be like only slightly reflects reality.

I didn’t expect to find this very productive farm amidst sand dunes.

The farmer’s father, once a member of a nomadic tribe, used ancient techniques to find water. The family hand dug two wells: one with salty water and the other with “sweet” water for drinking. They combine water from both wells for irrigation and livestock.

Farmer and friends. How many do you recognize? One outfit (caftan and scarf) was purchased in the Rissani market for about $20 US.

You might recognize Goldie from an earlier post. She given to me by Bonnie, my grand-niece, before the start of our trip. Photos of Goldie’s escapades have been making their way back to Massachusetts on a regular basis.

As you can see, one of the farmer’s goats was quite taken with Goldie.

Our camp was very comfortable. Although we didn’t have Wi-Fi, cellular service surprisingly, is available in the desert.

I expected the sunrises and sunsets to be jaw dropping, and they were. What I didn’t expect was to be drinking wine while watching the sun go down.

Mike went to another dune to take this shot of our group
Kris, Burke and Mike after the sun had set.
Sunrise, by the camp

Of course, a visit to the Sahara wouldn’t be complete without a camel ride.

Check out the eyelashes!

But who would have expected to find this swimming pool in the desert?

For 100 dirhams you can use the pool, get a non-alcoholic drink and use a towel.

We also visited another nomadic family. Unlike the farmer, this family doesn’t own the land they are living on.

According to Moroccan law, if someone can find 12 witnesses to attest that the family has lived on the land for 10 years, then the squatters become landowners. The catch? The 12 witnesses have to be around when the 10 years commence.

Say good-bye to Goldie. She found a new little girl to love.

There is so much more to say about this incredible experience, but I’m going to stop now and invite you to put the Sahara on YOUR bucket list.