Helpful Hints for the OAT Morocco Trip

We still have 6 days before our trip ends, but some members of the “Friends of OAT” Facebook page will be traveling to Morocco soon, and have asked for hints. This post is especially for you, but I hope it will be useful to others as well.

Options

  • Pre-trip to Chefchaouen- if it is offered, don’t miss it!
  • Optional trip to Tetouan – I’d pass on this one and spend time in Chefchaouen instead. You’ll see plenty of medinas and mellahs on the main trip. If you’re lucky, your guide will do what ours did, and take the slow, scenic route to Tangier.
  • Optional trip to Volubilis and Meknes – we enjoyed it, despite having seen mosaics in Sicily and ruins in Ephesus. Full disclosure: we are ancient history nerds.

Packing

  • The weather in October has been perfect so far. All that we’ve really needed is a light jacket. I will confess to wearing my heavier pants for the sunrise in the desert. I packed ‘em, so I’m using ‘em.
  • I didn’t bring shorts because I had read wearing them would be culturally insensitive. Having seen young Muslim women with all kinds of outfits, I have concluded shorts would have been okay in many places ( but not all).
  • I was prepared to be taking off my shoes frequently, so only packed slip- ons, no sneakers. The number of times I’ve had to remove my shoes – one.
  • Most of the riads and hotels have lovely pools, so it is a good idea to bring a bathing suit, especially when you are in the Sahara. We just got back from a very refreshing hour at a hotel pool located about 15 minutes from our tent.
  • So far, everywhere we’ve stayed has had a hairdryer. Some are attached to the wall; others are like what we use at home.
  • I thought I’d be rinsing clothes out in the sink. That would have worked out fine, but I had no place to hang them. I suspect our riad would frown upon my hanging my “small” (as they say in Africa) from their balcony.
  • Laundry service is available in Fes, Ouarzazate and Marrakech. So far, we have used the service in Fes. It was convenient, inexpensive and well done.
  • At times, it would have been nice to have my LUMIX 150 with its zoom. But those times were unpredictable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to carry it with me all the time. Bottom line? My iPhone takes photos that generally meet my needs, so I was fine leaving my camera at home. For the true photographers out there (we have one in our group), carrying the camera is well worth the additional weight.

Food

The food has been great. No one in the group has had digestive problems. Most of us have avoided uncooked vegetables, but one couple, who has lived all over the world, has been eating everything without any issues. Me, I take no chances. I eat what Mostafa, our guide, tells us is safe.

Miscellaneous

  • I didn’t need to bring packs of tissues. Every bathroom, so far, has had an adequate supply of toilet paper. Be sure to drop the used paper on the waste basket. Don’t flush it.
  • I brought Vicks VapoRub for the tannery visit. A little dab under each nostril helped to block the stench.
  • So far, it has been easy to charge phones everywhere, including the Sahara .
  • You CAN get cell service in the desert. Just no Wi-Fi
  • Be sure to bring a back pack. I also brought the bag my sketchers came in as a small backpack. I have used it more times than you can imagine.
  • If you want good quality scarves, buy from the weaving shop on Fes. If you don’t care about quality, then you can get a great deal in the market in Rissani. I did both.
  • I also bought a caftan in the Rissani market. It has been perfect for the desert! There will be photos in future posts. I’m not pressing my luck by uploading big files.

I feel so very fortunate to be on this trip. Perfect weather, great food, breathtaking scenery, once in a lifetime activities, welcoming, friendly Moroccans, congenial travel companions and excellent guide. Who could ask for anything more?

Fes: Did a Sultán Sleep Here?

There is oh so much to say about Fes, but it will have to wait till we get back to New Jersey. Instead, this post will focus solely on the incredible Riad Salaam Fes.

Although the neighborhood dates back ninth century, our riad is far more modern than that. Built in the seventeenth century, it is still owned by the same family. It WAS restored about thirty years ago, so like the country of Morocco, it successfully melds the old with the new. Even though the ceilings are high, and the courtyards cool the building, our room is equipped with air conditioning.

If you have ever visited the Alhambra, wouldn’t you agree that this riad resembles that beautiful fortress in Granada? The best part—our riad has all the modern conveniences, like up to date bathrooms and wifi.

It is not surprising that it took 16 years to complete the restoration. The attention to detail is mind boggling.

Check out our room. I ask you, is this not a bed befitting a sultan?

Half of the room. I couldn’t fit the sitting area into one photo.

Another modern convenience? A liquor license. Yes, in some Moroccan cities, you CAN enjoy wine and beer.

The panoramic view from the rooftop terrace, taken earlier in the day. No photos from our “happy hour”. By then, it was too dark and we were far too busy drinking to stop for a photo op.

You notice I said SOME Moroccan cities allow alcohol? Well, get ready for a story. When we arrived in Casablanca, Mostafa suggested that we buy wine there because it would not be available in Chefchaouen. Only problem: the Casablanca wine store was closed because of some sort of a COVID violation. Successfully reading the mood of the group, Mostafa went on a mission to get us some wine. On our way to Chefchaouen, we made a slight detour to Kenitra, coming up empty at three locations before Mostafa decided to change tactics. He started calling around to all his friends until he found one willing to purchase wine for us and deliver it to our riad. Is that not a truly dedicated and professional tour guide? We all feel very lucky to have him.

Bacchus smiled upon us in Rabat, where we were able to purchase a sufficient supply for our stays in the desert and Marrakech. Because both Rabat and Fes allow alcohol to be served, we couldn’t BYOB in those cities. Our Rabat purchases are sealed and stowed in the bus, to emerge as the need arises.

What better way to end this post than with a photo of Mohammed VI and his family?

So, did a sultan sleep in Fes? The answer is definitely yes. Not only was Fes once a capital city, but the King is here now!

On the Road to Rabat

I love that OAT allows their guides the flexibility to modify the itinerary. Yesterday, instead of driving directly to Tangier, we took the scenic route. We returned to Tetouan, driving through the lovely modern section, then along the coast, stopping in the resort of Smir.

It was off season, so all the shops and restaurants were closed, still it was easy to see why Smir would be a popular vacation spot. Sadly, the self cleaning, solar public toilet was also closed, so no video of its operation. You’ll just have to use your imagination.

Until this trip, I had no idea that Spain retained control of two cities in Morocco. Ceuta is almost directly across from Gibraltar, so ships passing through the Straits have to pay Spain for the use of that passage. We were able to see Ceuta off in the distance from a roadside stop, but weren’t able to visit this heavily guarded border.

The other Spanish city, for those with inquiring minds, is Melilla. You can Google it.

We stopped to catch a glimpse of the Rock of Gibraltar, but it was only visible through binoculars, so again, no photo, but that’s okay, because Tangier is more visually compelling.

Morocco is definitely a country on the move. Their new port in Tangier is the largest in Africa and is shipping out huge quantities of cars every day. We were able to view some of the Renaults and Peugeots manufactured in Morocco from a distance.

Our drive took us to the very windy spot where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean meet. Dave’s elf hat was on his head long enough for this shot to be taken before it went sailing over the cliff. And yes, it WAS a very steep cliff, but fortunately Mostafa is athletic, and heroically retrieved Dave’s hat.

Before the trip, I’d been warned that Tangier was dirty, crowded and a somewhat scary place. That may have been the case years ago, but it was not our experience.

Relaxing in the square in the medina

We walked up a very steep hill to visit the old Portuguese fortress and were rewarded with several spectacular views.

On our way to the fortress
Tangier’s old port can be seen from the fortress

Morocco really treasures their long, positive relationship with the USA. Our visit to the American legation offered further proof.

I sure hope this comes up as a trivia question one of these days!

As usual, my posts lag behind our experiences. Tomorrow we leave Rabat for Fes. Forgive any typos…no time to proofread.

Three Nights in Chefchaouen

It would not be accurate to say we spent three DAYS in Chefchaouen because during our stay, we spent one day in a local northern village and another in Tetouan.

I can understand why other OAT travelers are so enthusiastic about this pre-trip. (For non-OAT travelers, OAT always offered the opportunity to add additional days before and after their main trips). The scenery is beautiful, the food is wonderful and inexpensive, the accommodations are gorgeous, and the people are so happy to see American visitors. As we were walking through the Medina, the locals were yelling “welcome”, “hello”, and different phrases, including “happy wife, happy life”.

Moroccans are very proud that their country was the first to recognize the brand new United States right after we achieved independence.

At Chourafa, the owner told us that Eisenhower stayed in that very dwelling during World War II, back before it was transformed from a private house to a restaurant.

Owner of Chourafa, entertaining us with his stories.

One feature of OAT is home visits, where we have the opportunity to spend time with a local family, sharing a meal and learning about their day to day lives. Our visit was with Mohammed, his lovely wife Ishhane, and their two daughters, where we enjoyed this fabulous feast made from ingredients grown on their farm in a little village so remote even Google hasn’t found it!

Tagine
Kris and Ishhane with their assistant. Mohammed and his family built their house, including this kitchen.

It’s good we were so well fed, because after we left the village to return to Chefchaouen, we did a LOT of walking. It is a bit of a hike to get to Boulazaafar, the mosque that overlooks the city. Built by the Spaniards in the 1930’s as a way to make up both for the expulsion of Muslims after the fall of Andalusia in the late 1400’s, and for the Spanish invasions during the late 1800’s, it has never been used. Understandably, the Moroccans were a bit suspicious of the Spanish military’s attempt to make friends. Maybe they heard about the Trojan horse?

Okay,so it isn’t Hagia Sophia,but the location is pretty spectacular.

It is SO worth the 30 minute uphill stroll to get there in time to watch the sun drop behind the mountains.

From that vantage point, we could hear the call to prayer issuing forth from the 30+ mosques scattered throughout city.

Most of the other hikers were a bit younger than we were, by roughly 4 or 5 decades
Another vier of Chefchaouen: Different centuries coexisting. Women are doing their laundry in the stream and taking photos with their cell phones.

We were offered an optional trip to Tetouan, which all of us, except Mike took. Although the scenery on the drive was spectacular, in retrospect, I think I would have preferred to spend that time in Chefchaouen instead.

The optional tour consisted of a stop in a small Roman Museum, a walk by the palace, and through the Medina, the Jewish quarter and mella, and a seafood lunch in a restaurant across from the beach. Although enjoyable, I’d had similar experiences on other tours, so for me, additional time in Chefchaouen would have been preferable.

Next stop, Tangiers!

Chefchaouen

Talk about feeling welcome! The Moroccans were so excited that American tourists were visiting, they sent a camera crew to interview us. So, fellow OAT travelers in Morocco (I know you’re out there), tune in to channel 2 news tonight to see whether we survived the cutting room floor.

It was easy to be enthusiastic about Morocco. The people we have encountered have been so helpful and welcoming and our Riad, Dar Echchaouen, located in the old city, is over the top gorgeous,

If you’re wondering about the dog, he’s with me. Bonnie, my grandniece thought he should come along, so “Goldie” may be showing up in future travel shoots.

And now some history: Chefchaouen was created to be a secure refuge in the Rif Mountains for Muslim’s and Jews that Ferdinand and Isabella expelled from Spain.
First question: Why is Chefchaouen known as the Blue Pearl of Morocco? Take a look for the answer.

Dave, Mostafa, Kris, Tony, Mike, Terri
The Medina

Next question—exactly WHY are so many of the buildings blue? Was it because it was easy to extract blue from a particular blue plant or mineral was plentiful during the 1400’s? Was it because the color blue was thought to ward off evil spirits? Or did a former ruler just favor that particular hue?

If this were a multiple choice test, the answer would be “none of the above”. Buildings in Chefchaouen were painted blue in the early 2000’s to make the city attractive to tourists. And it worked! At least until Covid.

Hints for Future Travelers

To be on the safe side, unless you are flying non-stop to Morocco, get a PCR test. One member of our group was unable to board his Delta flight in Denver, which stopped in Paris, because he hadn’t had a PCR test. Interestingly, another member of the group flew from Denver on an earlier Delta flight and wasn’t asked to show proof (which was fortunate because she also hadn’t been tested). Both were fully vaccinated and showed their cards. The end result was Dave flew out a day later and met up with us late last night in Chefchaouen. Because he had purchased his air from OAT, they took care of his transportation from Casablanca to our riad. The moral of the story: it is better to have a test and not need it, than to have a “Dave adventure”.

And now the weather report for October travelers: it is glorious! Chefchaouen is warm during the day and cool enough for a sweater or light jacket in the morning and at night. Of course, this is only our third day here.