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.

On The Road Again

Who knew that driving all day could be so delightful? The scenery between Fes and the Sahara is varied and spectacular. It also doesn’t hurt that the nine of us are traveling in a bus that could transport more than forty passengers. We are up high, so we all get panoramic views.

This photo was taken from the window of the bus.

We had several stops along the way, including an opportunity to stroll through a forest.

Mike provides scale, to give an idea of the size of this Lebanon cedar.

My favorite stop, however, was our visit with the Barbary monkeys.

Don’t even THINK about touching that tangerine!
This monkey was much friendlier. She was fine as long as I was at her level, but when I stood up, I frightened her and she scampered off.

The hotel where we stopped for lunch had this beautiful map, which included our departure and destination, and stops along the way. I’d mark our route out for you, but it is too difficult to do on an iPhone. But I’ll give you a rough idea of our route: we started at Fes, on the top, by the palm trees and ended in what the map calls ‘Arfoud’, (Erfoud) near the bottom. Ultimate destination: off the map on the bottom, near the camels.

Outside of major cities, Morocco has few traffic lights. Instead, they have numerous traffic circles, (if you’re from Massachusetts the correct name is ‘rotaries’. We Massachusetts natives have our own special language).

I particularly liked the circle in Midelt, which highlights their #1 product. Can you guest what it is?

If you guessed “surgical masks” , you’d be wrong. Mostafa had our driver (Mohammed) go around the circle twice so we could all snap a photo of the “Big Apple”.

Our stay was at a lovely hotel close to the Sahara Desert. Although I am so sorry for the Moroccans working in tourism, I must confess it HAS been rather nice having these beautiful hotels and pools all to ourselves.

Most people would be delighted to see that huge, luminous full moon. Not us. Why? We were hoping for dark desert skies for our resident astronomer’s lecture the following night.

If you’re wondering why in the world I’m blogging rather than experiencing the majesty of Morocco, fear not. This is being written while on the bus heading to Ouarzazate. I’m using Verizon’s Travel Pass for internet connectivity. And I’m looking up from my phone frequently. And yes, as usual, my blog is several days behind our experiences.

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?