Morocco – 10 days of mayhem and magic
Morocco has fascinated travellers for centuries and me for decades. As part of our 50th birthday celebrations in June in 2016 I was determined to finally tick this one off the bucketlist and how glad we are that we did! We spent 10 magical days in Morocco and relished every minute.
Its a fairly large country with notoriously slow and complicated transport, so with a limited number of holiday days available to us, we managed to spend our maximised our 10 days as best we could for the time of year.
Morocco is a fascinating mix of Berber, Islamic and African influences and has been occupied for lengthy periods by both the French and the Spanish Moors. It’s an intoxicating melting pot of languages, food, architecture and design. The labyrinths of the imperial cities of Meknes, Fes and Marrakesh contrast with the dramatic gorges and oasis of the tranquil Atlas Mountains and the vast and vibrant dunes of the Saharan desert beyond ( Sahara means ‘desert’ in Arabic).
There are a number of things you need to consider when planning a trip to Morocco. READ PLANNING TIPS FOR MOROCCO HERE
We decided to stay in only 3 places – Marrakesh, Imlil and Fes, with day trips to others. I tried hard to include Essaouira on the coast but it would have involved some long and tedious backtracking to Marrakesh and in the end it seemed best to leave it, and the whole coast, for another trip.
Our 10 magical days went like this :
Days 1 – 4 Marrakesh
We flew into Menara airport from Charles De Gualle in Paris mid afternoon after an easy 4 hour flight. The airport is small and undergoing development but we were out with our Riad driver in less than 15 minutes.
Flying into Marrakesh is exciting. Seeing the changing landscapes of ocean, desert and then exotic urbanisation, its one of those destinations where you just know you’re ‘not in Kansas anymore’. The drive to our Riad (Hotel) was interesting and the driver took time to show us where New and Old Marrakesh meet and the various gates to the Medina that we passed. We parked near the Western Gate and were led down a small alley and through a pretty but unassuming door. And WHAM! EL Fenn.
Since staying at El Fenn I’ve discovered that it is owned by Richard Branson’s sister and her friend and the high standards of that families’ enterprises are apparent; excellent service, stunning decor and lovely food – a simple avocado and tomato salad left me in raptures. It’s also in a great location and an easy walk to many of the major sites. For more information and to book your stay CLICK HERE
Things to do in Marrakesh :
Explore the Medina !
Possibly the best market shopping I have ever seen. The medina is heaving with goods ranging from fresh camels’ hooves to funky woven pom-pom baskets and everything in-between. There is very little cheap chinese crap and the stall holders are friendly and surprisingly non-pushy ( the carpet sellers tend to be the worst and live up to their global reputation). It’s easy to get lost though and I tended to stick to a handful of streets near our Riad, even though I have a good sense of direction and was armed with a phone and a map.
Beware of charming young boys offering to show you the way! They deliberately send you in the opposite direction and then of course you have to pay another young man, no doubt in cahoots, to help you find your way home. At no time did I feel unsafe or alarmed and felt largely that people are more interested in going about their own business than worrying about (yet another) blonde foreigner.
Filled with colorful walkways, ponds, cactus and plants as well as a beautiful shop with hand-made goods, the Majorelle Gardens are a lush, garden estate designed by Jacque Majorelle and maintained by Yves Saint Laurent. Jacque Majorelle left to Saint Laurent one of the more unique collections of flora and fauna of this era. Even though Morocco is no longer under the French protectorate, this originally French creation is one of the most beloved areas in Morocco. There are also some great shops and cafes in the surrounding streets.
Surrounding the Medina is the thriving area known as New Marrakesh that comprises many high-end new hotels, homes, shops and restaurants. We spent a night out at the amazing Comptoir Dara for dinner and a show and ended up having drinks with the Londoner’s on the next table back at the beautiful Sofitel, all lit up in Pink with a huge outdoor bar and shishas.
DJemma El Fenn Square
The famous town square seen in so many magazines and articles does not disappoint. Whilst quieter in Ramadan, the whole place goes crazy at the breaking of the fast with food vendors and various snake charmers, fortune tellers, monkeys & musicians transforming the city center into a medieval circus.
There is an endless lists of fascinating sites to visit. The Saadian tombs mausoleum comprises the corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty that originated in the valley of the Draa River. El Bahia Palace in Marrakech is a beautiful building and an excellent example of Eastern Architecture from the 19th century. The Koutoubia Mosque and Gardens is the largest mosque in Marrakech. The Old Spice Market and The Jewish Quarter are both worth a visit and, as corny as it might seem, a ride in one of the many horse and carriages can be a good way to get an overview of the whole medina.
Days 4-6 Imil ( High Atlas Mountains)
A scenic 90 minute drive and we arrived in the village of Imlil at the foot of Mt Jbel Toubkal in the Toubkal National Park. Imlil is a popular stopping off point for nature lovers and trekkers before ascending and descending a variety of tracks across the Atlas and as a result is full of trekking companies, guides and pop up shops selling trekking equipment and new and used hiking gear.
The Kasbah is a 20 minute walk up through a walnut grove behind our porter, a donkey. Not for the old or unfit but not impossible for moderately fit people, it was certainly a different approach to a hotel for us!
The Kasbah has extraordinary views over the entire Valley and is a truly magical place to spend a few days. I would describe the room decor as ‘rustic luxury’ – every comfort has been considered, including a spa bath in our room, but don’t expect the latest fixtures and features from Architectural Digest.
The food is cooked by the local staff, all men, and is wholesome and satisfying. Being off-season we were initially worried the place might be a bit quiet for us but after a few days of listening to the babbling brook passing beneath our balcony along with the call to prayer reverberating throughout the valley 3 times a day ( they tell me they are a bit more casual in the country and sometimes forget the other 2) and exploring the surrounding valley bursting with cherry, walnut and apricot trees, we were soon in a hypnotic stupor and completely spellbound by our location.
If you are looking for a higher standard of luxury, and have deep pockets, then you can stop at Richard Branson’s Tamadot which is about 20 minutes down the hill, however for us 6 months later we still talk about this as one of the most amazing places we have stayed. Truly breathtaking.
Day 6 – Marrakesh
Back to Marrakesh for a quick over-nighter and this time we stayed in another stunning Riad called Riad Tarabel, a small newly renovated hotel run by the most charming French man, Laurent. The decor is straight out of french Vogue and we really had such a delightful stay, albeit brief. It’s also in a very nice and relatively upmarket location in the Medina with some fantastic shopping right on its doorstep.
We managed to have dinner at Nomad, one of Marrakesh’s best restaurants where we ran into some Brits who had been staying up at the Kasbah.
A fun night and the last to leave, with an escort provided by the restaurant to ensure we did not get lost.
I could spend a month in Marrakesh ( and so could you). I thought it might be a bit tacky and overblown, but in fact it’s managed to strike the perfect mix if old-vs- new.
Days 7-10 Fes
On to Fes on the train, a 7 hour trip via Casablanca.
I was hoping to be able to stretch out and nap but upon boarding I was dismayed to see two other people in our 6 berth cabin, a young man and a young woman, both travelling alone.
However, we started chatting to both of them and to this day John and Osama still exchange messages. Turns out he is a student dentist ( John went to dental school as well) and has a great sense of humour, so I had to listen to those two idiots giggling like school boys for 5 hours straight.
The young woman was a midwife travelling home to see her parents for a few days and both of them were incredibly friendly, interesting and gave us some great insights into the way of life for young people in Morocco today. Don’t ever say that Muslim women are worth less than men in modern Morocco. Sara assured me she does whatever she wants, whenever she wants! And no, she was not even wearing a head scarf.
John knew little about Fes and was unsure as to why I was ‘dragging him all the way up there’ when Marrakesh was so much fun. But it took less than an hour upon arrival to realise we had arrived somewhere very special and completely different; the most complete living medieval cities in existence and to many the most precious of all of Morocco’s treasures.
We stayed at Karawan Riad. Just when we thought we could not see anywhere more beautiful, Karawan takes things to another level again. A former palace restored by its French owners over 11 years, it captured our hearts within seconds. Faultless service and sumptuous food only added to the glory AND we were the only guests ! We truly could not believe our luck.
Do not hesitate to stay here if visiting Fes! CLICK HERE
Things to do in Fez
The charms of the Medina are many. Seemingly blind alleys lead to squares with exquisite fountains and streets bursting with aromatic food stands, rooftops unveil a sea of minarets, and stooped doorways reveal the workshops of tireless artisans. It’s an intoxicating mix of sights, sounds and smells and we spent hours just watching the old men going about their business creating incredible quality goods and wares.
We saw men making hair combs from camel bones, weaving fabric from the fibres of Cactii, hammering silver plates and copper pots by hand and from memory, and the last remaining weaver of Damask that has been shown on French runways in recent years.
Karawan organised the most amazing guide, a man John was convinced was the Mayor as everyone wanted to shake his hand and stop and chat. He was a tall, genteel man with fascinating stories and anecdotes and he was determined to make sure we were learning and listening with endless quizzes along the way, not only about Fez but about Morocco, Islam and various world events as well.
I truly don’ t think we have ever had a better guide before or after.
Technically still in the Medina, the famous tanneries are located near the Karaouine Mosque and are an absolute must. Young men work tirelessly each day to using centuries old techniques to treat, tan and colour the, cow and camel hides with products like Pidgeon poo, Saffron and Indigo. There is a big leather co-op overlooking the Tanneries which offers great views and a vast array of good quality products. We really wanted a white poof but they had sold out so had one made for us and delivered to our Riad the next day ( we paid about aud$40 – they are around $300 here in the shops for Chinese made ones).
We were warned about the smell and handed large bunches of mint to sniff but, being a holiday period, production was low so really the smell was fine.
- Historical Sights
Whilst Fes-el-Bali ( Old Fes) is the core fascination of the city, it’s a good idea to do a quick trip up to the Meranid tombs which has a panoramic view of both the old and new areas of Fes ( see top photo).
The Mellah, built in the 15th century when the Jews were ousted from the ghetto, and Ville Nouvelle an area of tree-lined boulevards constructed by the French in 1916.
If you are lucky enough to be in Fes in early June it hosts the World Sacred Music Festival each year which would be just incredible.
Day trip to Meknes
Another city that was once the capital of Morocco, Meknes is an hours drive from Fes and is a city that is relaxed, unspolit and hassle free.
The 17th Century sultan Moulay Ishmail dreamed of creating a royal capital here to rival Versailles. He employed an army of bricklayers, black slaves and several hundred captured Christian slaves, to build a 120km long town wall, in addition to dream palaces, massive stables, hanging gardens watered by a four-hectare pond, and immense storage sheds. After almost a century of construction, he left behind one of the most beautiful cities ever constructed in Moorish-Arabic style.
At the entrance to the medina is Place el Hedim, a popular meeting place, with fancy street lamps, food stalls, fountains and a mock-Andalusian arcade housing shops and cafés.
We also visited the the man made lake and the Stables – once home to 12,000 horses and 12,000 slaves – and were saddened to find them closed when we arrived. However a fast thinking security guard offered to be our guide and showed us around with great pride and showmanship, complete with well thought out photo opportunities and styling! We killed ourselves laughing at this character and marvelled at his knowledge and ability. Another kind and gentle soul who relished sharing his precious kingdom with us.
Day Trip to Moulay Idriss and Voulibis
Moulay Idriss holds a special place in the hearts of all Moroccans and is to Morocco what Lourdes is to the Catholics. Named after the founding father of the Kingdom of Morocco, Moulay Idriss was also the first Muslim and is believed to be a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. It has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries thanks to the tomb of Moulay Idriss and the hot springs that are believed to be holy. Non-muslims however are not able to enter the Mosque where the tomb lies.
Nearby is the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage site built around the time of Christs birth. It has featured in a number of movies and is quite a wonderous spot to visit on the open plains.
This day trip can easily be combined with Meknes.
At the end of the day
Morocco is incredible. Everything you ever thought and so much more, it is one of those place that gets under your skin and stays there for a very long time. It is probably in my Top3 most amazing destinations and I have spent many months, scheming of the next trip, the next locations and how to drag all our family and friends back with us.
If you have ever been curious about Morocco I urge you to go, especially if you have had little experience with Islamic countries and/or perhaps a little fear of them. Its safe, fascinating, and very friendly and will open your eyes to a whole other world that we are seldom shown in the western press. If you have 10 days that you can spend in Morocco then this itinerary could be perfect for you.
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