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This page was last updated 1 July 2008.
30. We arrived in Agadir, because Air Berlin flies here and it's at the Atlantic coast. Agadir was destroyed by an earthquake in 1960. No buildings survived, and Agadir now looks like they called up a building contractor, ordered some concrete (LOTS of concrete), and poured themselves a new town. No highrises fortunately, but it's still a faceless synthetic city. We arrived late, walked up and down their concrete (of course) Corniche along the sea, and checked into the Hotel La Petite Suede which I had booked. Ok but not great, and very close to a Supratours bus stop.
1. We boarded the bus to Essouira the next morning at 7:30. It's less than 200km but it took over four hours because the road is curvy beyond belief and crosses some hills with numerous switchbacks. We were both a little seasick when we arrived in Essouira.
We hadn't prebooked a hotel here, and a few hotels recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook were full, as is so often the case with LP listings. So we started wandering in the Medina (the walled old town) and quickly found the Riad Squizzi, an old Riad with simple rooms on three floors around a central courtyard. Riads are historic houses converted to guesthouses. They usually have very few rooms, grouped on one or two floors around a central courtyard, and they have far more atmosphere than a hotel. We got a two-room apartment on the first floor for 300 Dirham per night, or about 27 Euro. That's cheap for this kind of place in Morocco. It's operated by two brothers, and we chatted for a while over tea. One of the two speaks French, English, and German. Really nice place. (49 rue Cady Ayad, +212 66 783933.)
|White-washed buildings in Essaouira's souq||Spice vendor in Essaouira's souq|
Essouira's medina is a world cultural heritage site. It is a maze of little roads and passages, with whitewashed buildings, arches, blue window frames and shutters, with souks (bazaars) for fish and spices and jewelry and many other things. Artisans work in open workshops, everybody is friendly and relaxed, and there are almost no touts. If you tell someone that you do not wish to buy something, they'll stop bothering you - unheard of in bazaars in other countries. There is no concrete here, no garbage, no asphalt, and most importantly, no cars and no smell of exhaust. The medina still has its city walls, and the part facing the sea has forts, cannons, and crennellations. The view of the rocky coast is spectacular. The place also isn't overrun by tourists; locals far outnumber foreigners (at least they did when we were there, in early November). There are places along the edge though, especially near the northern city wall, that look much poorer than the rest - dark and crowded buildings, few shops, smelly, and many collapsed buildings. The beach here is empty, overlooked by the imposing walls and bastions of the city. We also walked the main beach to the southwest of the city, and watched people playing soccer or surfing.
|Essaouira's medina walls seen from the harbor||Fishing boats in Essaouira's harbor|
Essaouira's main square is near the sea, and leads out to the harbor and small wharf. The harbor is not some tourist attraction like in San Francisco, it belongs to the fishermen who take their boats out at night and early in the morning. You can then watch them unload and clean their catch, mostly sardines. You can buy fresh fish here and have it grilled on the spot.
We liked Essaouira so much that we decided to stay another day
here, and dropped Casablanca from our itinerary. Everybody confirmed
that Casablanca is a modern town like Agadir, and we certainly had
seen enough of that! We bought bus tickets to Rabat instead.
2. The road to Rabat is mostly straight. The bus stops a lot in tiny villages. There are markets with large stacks of plastic bags, donkey carts, and crowds of people with flowing robes, and the occasional camel carrying a pair of huge baskets across its back. At some stops beggars enter the bus and work the aisle with a monotonous chant. On the other side of the road was the most appalling shantytown with roofs made of plastic bags. The countryside was hilly at first but later became perfectly flat, with brown rocky fields and occasional little villages.
There was a rest stop, and suddenly we had to switch from our wheezing old bus to a big new one. So everyone rushed to get their bags; I had to pull mine out from behind a sheep bound so tightly that it could barely move its head. The new bus was so full that I had to stand, but got a seat at the next stop. Some 75km before Casablanca the road became a four-lane divided freeway that looked exactly like a German autobahn, right down to the markings, signs, and guardrails.
In Casablanca we had to connect again, to Rabat. The ride was fast and unscenic, and dumped us some distance away from the center, so we caught a cab to our hotel, the Royal Hotel. We had been in buses for over eight hours. After dropping off our bags we took another cab (in fact a big black S-class Mercedes limo) to Salé, the historic sister city of modern Rabat. We wandered the old town until the sun set. Especially the western part around the mosques is beautiful, all streets are narrow passages with only the occasional Kamikaze motor scooter scaring everybody. There are the usual hole-in-the-wall shops, souqs with booths selling everything from carpets to fish and live poultry, meat hanging from hooks, and playing children. I didn't see a single tourist in Salé besides us. But everybody was friendly so I didn't feel like an intruder - quite unlike my visit to the old downtown of Srinagar in Kashmir a few months earlier where I needed a guide to be secure.
Rabat is the capital of Morocco. It is a modern town centered
on Ave Mohammed V, a grand boulevard lined with tall palm trees.
On the northern end it turns into a long bazaar. There are lots of
enterprising young men here with large bootleg DVD operations. All
it takes is a few blank CDs, an old color printer, a plastic sleeve,
and they are in business. The other staple here seems to be shoes
in large piles on the ground, I wonder how they ever get a matching
pair from that. Big piles of remote control units are another favorite.
Rabat is friendly, easygoing, and modern but not synthetic like
Agadir; a nice place for spending an evening but not a tourist must-see.
We stayed here only because there are virtually no hotels in Salé.
3. We had bought first-class train tickets to Fès the night before. The trains are modern and fast. Unfortunately we got on the wrong one - both it and the one we wanted were late, and the electronic sign was showing our train already. Fortunately both trains followed the same route until Kenitra, where we got out 30 minutes later and connected with the train headed for Fès. A local who was also fooled and spoke Arabic and English helped us figure that out.
Fès has the mother of all medinas. It is huge and impossible to navigate. The map shows streets, some even approximating straightness, but that's a lie. It's all little passages, few wider than a few meters and most are so small that two people walking side by side will block it. And this is not a tourist market - there are a few tourists here, but the great majority is locals shopping. (This may be different during the high season.) The street layout with its countless dead ends and interconnected passages is so confusing that even locals get lost, or so we were told. To help tourists, there are recommended tourist routes marked with octagonal colored signs and English-language signs at points of interest, which is a true lifesaver in this maze.
|Courtyard of our hotel in Fès, the Riad Louna||Market, restaurant, and minarets in Fès|
Fès is actually three towns side by side: the medina, built in the ninth century; the kasbah (walled fort) from the fourteenth century, and the modern ville nouvelle from the nineteenth. The main attraction is the medina but we also walked across to the kasbah. Much of the walled kasbah is taken up by the palace, where the king spends some time every year. It's off-limits to visitors, and you can't even take pictures of the outside gate. I did and a soldier had me delete it. The kasbah also contains a seemingly endless market street, partly covered, and the mellah (Jewish quarter). Many buildings here lean so badly that they are propped up with large wooden scaffolds. The streets are very narrow, and the buildings have overhangs so that they almost touch at the second-floor level and higher so you couldn't drop a soccer ball between them.
I spent many hours walking in the medina that evening, mostly following the colored route signs. The routes are quite well-designed. Many shops are closed in the evening. As usual a lot of men wanted to be my friend, and help me to find the very best hammam (bathhouse), massage and aphrodisiac (these two somehow always seem to go together), and a selection of ladies of negotiable affection. I could have bought as much hashish as I liked, very good stuff from the Sahara I am assured. I bet a willing tourist could have very wild, and presumably costly, nights here.
We had booked a room at the Riad Louna the day before. Turns out that this wasn't simply a room. The Riad is well-hidden at the end of a short alley, behind an unassuming door, which opens up into a small beautiful garden with orange trees, sweet fragrant trees, a fountain, intricately carved and tiled colums and arches, and divans. We had the suite on the top floor, two large rooms with a separate living-room area nicely appointed with large sofas and Moroccan furniture. Four windows look out on the rooftop terrace, where breakfast is served. I write this in the main living room of the suite, fragrance wafting in through the open windows. The staff is very professional. Luxury. Costs 120 Euro per night.
|Prayer hall in the medersa in Fès||Mosaics and arabic script in the medersa in Fès|
4. After breakfast on the rooftop hotel terrasse, we were shown around the medina by a guide that had been arranged by the hotel. First we saw the south fort outside the city walls, which has a great view over the city. Back downtown, we saw the tannery, which is a large leather shop that overlooks the tanning pits. It's up high enough that there is no smell. The tannery itself is a very large yard packed with little pools filled with dyes; mostly browns but there are also blue, red, and yellow pits. It looks extremely picturesque but working conditions there must be terrible.
We also saw a carpet store (at our request, the guide wasn't the kind of commission shark who drags tourists through every shop in sight). We got the usual spiel with carpets rolled out and the intricate patterns explained to us, all in a friendly manner quite unlike the hard sells that had been tried on me in Istanbul. They had a sample loom in the back where we could watch three girls tie knots at warp speed. The carpets were much rougher than the ones I saw in Kashmir, even the silk ones. But the real surprise was the store itself. The house has the same unadorned rough walls and simple wooden door like every other house in the medina, but inside it's a palace with a huge octagonal hall in the center, with carved marble colums, latticework, mosaic tile floor, and a high glass roof. Carpets are stacked in the adjoining rooms, and some especially beautiful ones were hung on the walls. It was like stepping into a different world. I wonder how many other plain unadorned walls and doors in this medina hide palaces within.
|Leather tanning vats in Fès||Women's mosque in Fès|
The guide also timed our arrival with prayers at two mosques. Almost all mosques in Morocco are open only to muslims, but we could look through open doors. We could visit to historic medersas though. Medersas are Islamic religious schools, or in these cases dorms for the nearby university but with a prayer room. Both are now tourist \attractions and no longer schools. They have the usual open courtyard, with a pool or fountain, surrounded by intricately carved arches. Wooden latticework panels make it possible to watch visitors from the inside, but not the other way around. Arabic script adorns the wall friezes, and we learned to recognize the word for "Allah". The first medersa was beautifully renovated, while the second medersa was in very poor shape, scheduled for later renovation. (The city doesn't want to close all three medersas for renovation at the same time.)
We also saw the wood museum. A nice building, although the
exhibits are somewhat sparse. The view from the roof terrasse is
worth the price of admission though. Finally, we visited the main
museum, but there isn't much to see there. Nice garden though.
5. Today we'll cross the Atlas mountain range that separates the coast from the Sahara desert. Up to this point we have been visiting cities and crowded medinas, but on the eastern side of the Atlas, at the edge of the Sahara desert, the landscape is arid, the towns are small, and there are few tourist centers.
We got on the bus from Fès to Er-Rachidia at 7:00 in the morning. It was nearly empty at first, so we got good seats in front, but it filled up after a few stops and remained full. The scenery was great at first, we climbed to nearly 2000 meters on a very narrow road that wound it way up the mountains and through the green valleys of the Middle Atlas. Halfway to Midelt, the scenery changed, and the road went straight across a high plateau, flat and with little vegetation. But even here there are a few villages where people got on and off the bus. Near Midelt, one passenger in front takes boxes of soap, toothpaste, and rheuma salve from his briefcase, stands up, and launches into a long animated sales pitch, in Arabic, including demonstrations of applying soap to his face and bandaging a joint, improvised with strips of newspaper and plastic bags. Very entertaining.
Near Midelt the scenery became greener. A mountain range serves as a backdrop for Midelt, and we had considered staying there overnight because it looked scenic on pictures, and because it's halfway between Fès and Tinerhir, our next destination. But Midelt isn't scenic. It has a covered bus station, and the bus stopped there long enough for getting a bit to eat, but the town that we drove through was just a dusty row of houses. Stopping there to see the town, and using the next bus to Er-Rachidia, would have been risky too because our bus was almost full.
Er-Rachidia is not exactly a tourist destination. It's
convenient because the road to Fès crosses the Highway of
the Kasbahs that runs along the Sahara side of the High Atlas, which
we planned to follow, but there isn't much to see in the town itself.
The bridge over the river affords nice views of the mountains, now
all they need is a little water in their river. The Imilchil
restaurant serves good tajitas and the Er-Rachidia hotel right at
the bus station has comfortable rooms despite the ugly building -
although it can't begin to compare to the Riad Louna in Fès.
6. The bus to Tinerhir left 40 minutes late due to a dead battery. Several others were tried until one was found that worked. A shouting match that nearly erupted into a fight ensued when the spare battery turned out to be dead too.
The scenery here was just dry desert with the mountains of the High Atlas as the backdrop. They don't look so high from the road, which is at an altitude of 1000 meters. Occasionally the desert shimmers green where small shrubs dot the gravel. The gravel in other sections looks almost black. We passed through several oases before arriving at Tinerhir, where we caught a cab to the hotel we had reserved, the Hotel la Vallee right in the middle of the Todra Gorge.
The Todra Gorge is a canyon leading into the High Atlas mountains. There are several of these, but Todra Gorge is said to be the most scenic. We arrived early because the sun reaches the bottom of the Gorge only in the morning. The hotel is in a very small valley surrounded by huge cliffs dropping almost vertically. It's almost like staying at the bottom of a giant rock bucket with one open side. A creek runs by the hotel and disappears into the actual Gorge. There is also a road along the Gorge, which we walked.
|Todra Gorge||Festival restaurant|
The Gorge is absolutely stunning - sheer cliffs on both sides, rising vertically to heights of 350m right at the edge of the road and the creek, winding back and forth. There are fantastic views along the Gorge on distant mountains where it curves. After the entrance section of the gorge the mountains on both sides become less steep and more ragged. After a few kilometers, the water disappears, but the width of the riverbed and the many boulders prove that this is a major river at times. After 7km, we found the Festival restaurant in this otherwise barren landscape, and I had a good Tajine there. The sky had turned cloudy, for the first time since our arrival, but it didn't rain. After dark we went out once again, up the road to Tinerhir, away from all hotel lights, and enjoyed one of the most spectacular views of the stars and the Milky Way I had ever seen, like a perfectly black and starry blanket ringed by the mountain wall of the valley.
There are only three hotels in the gorge. At least ours has no electrical power and runs a generator, but only between 18:00 and 22:00 or so. Barely enough time to recharge the exhausted camera battery. The water isn't very warm in the morning.
|Berber boy in his family's winter quarter||Fields near Todra Gorge|
7. Before we left this wonderful place, we had arranged for a guide for another walking tour. Abdul, our guide, took us up the mountain and a rocky path that wound its way up some 400m, with fantastic view of the Todra valley and the nearby town. We also visited a Berber nomad family in their winter home high up in the mountains. They have small rock enclosures for sheep, more than a hundred crowded into a space half the size of my living room at home, crowded together to keep them warm. They also had a miniature space with hay that they use as a nursery for sheep. They live in caves dug into the mountainside, and make Berber rugs in a tent nearby. We were served tea, and let a small boy play with our electronic gadgets. The boy will never go to school, and will not learn to read and write. He was playing with an old tennis ball and a plastic bottle.
The hotel manager said that he often walks this trail with sandals, but we took our time with our walking shoes. Quite doable though. The best time for hiking is about 10:00-14:00 when the sun is high enough in the sky to reach the bottom of the valley. The guide cost 250 dirhams, but I don't recommend doing this on your own because the trail was often very difficult to follow.
|Panorama view when descending from the Todra Gorge trail|
We had also arranged for a grand taxi to our next destination, Ait Ben Haddou. It's expensive to do this by taxi, but we felt that for once we didn't want the hassle of waiting at bus stations, and wanted some decent leg room. Grands taxis are old Mercedes limousines, and normally they carry up to six passengers in three seats, two in front next to the driver, and four in the back. We wanted the taxi to ourselves. Something went wrong with the car though and we ended up sharing it with three women and a child for the first few kilometers. Then, in Tinerhir, they said that 500 dirhams isn't enough and they can only get us to Ouarzazate for that price, and haggling didn't make any progress (my French isn't great). So I broke off discussions and walked off to the bus station, and suddenly the price was back where it belonged, and we were on our way. I can afford the higher price but a deal is a deal. Before leaving Tinerhir, the driver had to register the tour and one of our passports with the police.
The drive was uneventful, and there wasn't much to see outside the few villages we passed, except near the end when we turned off the main street towards Ait Ben Haddou. The time passed quickly, and the cassette player played an arabic song to the tune of "Hotel California". Weird. The taxi was stopped at a police checkpoint, and the policeman started to inspect the car. Turns out that the braking lights didn't work, and our driver had to pay a penalty. I chatted with the policeman; nice guy. He asked where we had been, and when I praised Salé he said that he is from Salé, but likes it better here.
The Auberge Baraka in Ait Ben Haddou, where we had reserved a room the night before, turns out to be at the edge of the town, but the town is so small that it doesn't matter. It's simple, clean, and bright. The restaurant isn't very good - this was the first time in Morocco that we asked for jus d'orange and were served bottled, not freshly squeezed, orange juice; the brochettes (skewers) were tough and the fried chicken was deep-fried.
|Ait Ben Haddou from the top of the hill||Ait Ben Haddou at sunset|
People come to Ait Ben Haddou because of its kasbah. This is a
fortified town built up a hill, from mud bricks and straw. Few
people live here anymore, but the kasbah is well-restored because
it was used in several movies like Gladiator. In some places the
restauration does look like a movie set - although they did renovate
houses, inside and out, there are a number of walls that serve no
obvious purpose other than looking good from a distance. A lot of
well-hidden concrete was used to hold it all together. But this is
an original kasbah, not a synthetic movie set, and it is a great
place to see. It's in a very scenic location across a dried-up river
bed, and climbing up the narrow alleys and stairways affords many
fantastic views of the kasbah and the surrounding countryside. There
were a couple of tour groups, and some souvenir shops serving them,
but it's fairly unobtrusive and there is no hassle. Mont St. Michel, take notice.
I am glad we went to the trouble of staying in Ait Ben Haddou and
not in nearby Ouarzazate; we saw a wonderful place instead of just
stopping over in a convenient city.
8. Our last travel day. First we had ordered a taxi to Ouarzazate, because we can't be sure to find a taxi on our own early in the morning. The driver recommended Supratours, who have much nicer buses than CTM, and dropped us off at their bus station. The first bus at 8:30 was already fully booked but we got seats for the next one thirty minutes later. The road to Marrakech is quite spectacular - it crosses the High Atlas and reaches 2200m (Marrakech is at 475m). There are many great views of high mountains and deep green valleys. The road is curving all the time, winding its way up and down the mountainsides. Often no road could be seen outside the window, when we were driving so close to the edge that one could only see the bottom of the valley hundreds of meters below.
We had booked the Dar Soukina hotel in Marrakech from Berlin. It's much smaller and not as fancy as the Riad Louna in Fès but quite nice, with an orange tree in a shaded courtyard and a small but very nice room.
|Spice vendor in the souq||Fresh orange juice for 27 cents|
The medinas of Marrakech and Fès are similar, except that Marrakech is more polished and not as confusing, and sees more tourists. Noisy motorcycles replace many of the donkey carts that squeeze through the narrow alleys of the medina of Fès. We first went to the Djeema el-Fna, which is a very large open square, lined with many restaurants and souqs. There are many carts with orange juice, spices, and dried fruits and nuts. Lots of entertainment too - at one place I stopped to see what people are watching, and before I knew it I had a live snake around my neck. Besides snake charmers there are dancers, jugglers, and other artists.
When the sun sets, the whole square transforms into a giant barbecue dinner, with almost a hundred food booths and benches that serve all sorts of grilled meats, salads, omelettes, chickens, fish, tagines, couscous, calamaris, and lots of other foods, before the background of drummers and dancers. Everything is very relaxed and fun. We had brochettes (skewers) here. Very good, much better than the ones in Ait Ben Haddou. Djeema el-Fna is unique, medinas normally have very few and small open spaces, but this one is just huge. It's the heart of Marrakech. Strangely, Marrakech begins to shut down at 20:00, but Djeema el-Fna and the neighboring souqs stay open and crowded.
|BBQ booth on the Djeema el-Fna||BBQ on Djeema el-Fna from panorama terrace|
9. The Marrakech museum used to be the house of a very prominent citizen and minister at the turn of the last century. It's a huge palace with a large central courtyard, its own hammam (bathhouse), and numerous rooms and minor courtyards. Parts of it are used to show contemporary art. We were often amazed at the beauty hidden behind those rough windowless walls in the medinas but this one is just stunning in its grandeur.
The Ali Ben Youssuf medersa is another historical religious school, or actually its dorm house, like the one we saw in Fès, only larger. It has the usual central courtyard with a large pool, and a prayer room, but the rest of the building is divided into small dorm rooms, perhaps 3x3 meters each. They had seven students per room on average. The upstairs rooms are divided into two levels with a wooden ceiling and three wooden beams set horizontally in a corner for students to climb up. The rooms themselves are bare and many have no sunlight, but the public spaces are ornately carved and decorated.
The price of admission to the previous two also includes the Koubba Ba'adiyn, a shrine that predates the medersa. The central dome has been restored but the rest is just a few foundations and underground vaults.
Next on our itinerary was the Koutoubia, a huge minaret tower near the Djeerma el-Fna. It cannot be visited, like almost all other mosques in Morocco, but it has a little garden, slightly dilapidated, to sit and watch.
Marrakech's kasbah is to the south of Djeerma el-Fna. The first thing we saw was its mosque, and we stopped for some lunch at the restaurant across the street because it has several terraces that overlook the mosque. (Juices are great there.) Right next to the mosque are the Saadien Tombs, a little cemetery set in a nice garden. (Marrakech has lots of gardens.) Not much to see here though. Following Islamic custom, the tombs are unlabeled.
The al-Badi palace in the kasbah is now in ruins. It has a vast courtyard with two huge pools, and sunken gardens. There is a terrace with a nice view, and extensive dungeons (bring a flashlight!), but overall the only impressive thing here is its huge size. Parts of it got incorporated into the royal palace next door, which cannot be visited because the king stops by occasionally.
The next highlight was the Palais de la Bahia on the north-eastern end of the kasbah. This palace is beautiful, with green courtyards, colorful painted ceilings and tiles everywhere, fireplaces, carved marble columns, the works. This is what an Arabian palace is supposed to look like. Unfortunately it was fairly crowded with tour groups, and the machine-gun French explanations by the guides. Parts of the palais cannot be visited.
We also walked around in the adjoining mellah, or Jewish quarter,
for a while. Even considering that plain walls often hide beautiful
riads inside, this is obviously a quite poor place.
Morocco is easy to reach from Europe. Air Berlin has flights to Agadir and Marrakech. Maestro ATM cards work fine, and there are ATMs all over the country (except at Agadir airport, where there seems to be only one and that was broken). Morocco's currency is the Dirham. One Euro buys about 11 Dirhams. Prices in Morocco are typically 1/2 to 1/3 of prices in Europe for similar services, like good hotels, good restaurants, and transportation. There are often cheaper and more basic alternatives too. We spent about 50 Euro per day and person in the country, but without expensive hotels and professional guides and long-distance taxi trips it could probably be done for half that.
GSM cell phones work fine, even in small towns; except there is often no reception during long overland bus trips. We bought a local SIM card at the airport and used the phone to make advance hotel reservations the day before we arrived in a town. We spent some 70 Dirhams on long-distance cell calls in Morocco. Hotels were fairly easy to arrange, possibly because early November is not the high season. The time was perfect for us - sunny weather between 20 and 28 degrees C and few other tourists. It gets terribly crowded over the Christmas week, our guides told us.
We usually made bus reservations the day before, but the bus network is very easy to use and you can usually just get on the bus you want. Trains are reasonably modern, like German regional trains, but there aren't many lines. Most of our information came from the Lonely Planet Morocco guide book, but we had a Rough Guide too.
I have deleted my flickr albums because I no longer trust US cloud services.
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