Fiona MacCarthy

Memories and notes from a most delightful holiday in the kingdom of Morocco in September 2013

Pictures  Please click on pictures and follow through to collection of 100 photos which look best on full screen. a short comment is at bottom of each

Why Morocco

I like to learn while on holiday. Sights as to buildings and scenery must be pretty , educational opportunities included although not necessarily the lecture room kind,  cultural differences to be experienced,  exciting (flavoursome) food tasted and music (to be heard). To relax by a poolside at an all inclusive from which I no escape is not a holiday. To get all my requirements on a single holiday is difficult but Morocco ticked most of those mentioned here.

Okay okay I confess I was partially inspired by the movie Casablanca made in 1942 which was not filmed in Casablanca nor even in Morocco (Hollywood in fact as Morocco was run by Vichy France with German supervision at a time of World War).

My thoughts are grouped under the following headings

1)      Day trips from Marrakech (plus 1 night trip)

2)      Souks (the markets)

3)      Historical sites and gardens

4)      Food

5)      Beverages

6)      People

7)      Accommodation options

8)      Would I return?

9)      Boring facts (some)


Day trips from Marrakech

1)      Essaouria (coastal town)

From England came a couple, 2 other women and my good self and we together with driver and guide  headed off for the 160km westwards towards the coast (approx 3 hour trip with stops) on a tarred road. The red bricked buildings of Marrakech gave way to irrigated fields of rich coloured crops (lots of olives) which in turn gave way to poor soiled water barren land, scattered farm buildings and small goat herds attended by Plato’s lost pupils but maybe not. Stopping for what was elegantly called a “comfort break” followed by an Argan oil women’s’ co-operative using primitive technology later found in museums to grind out the nut from the Argan trees (owned by government farmed by landowners) into non sophisticated packaged but very desirable products. These are in the souks copied en masse or diluted and their integrity compromised on a large scale and purchase from a genuine co-op as established to help employment of women is encouraged. It’s also no more expensive.

At the last high spot viewing point before we dropped down to white painted Essaouria, the ground was littered by broken glass. Beer party? Probably not in this country where alcohol is restricted to tourist hotels. But then probably.

Many police road blocks checking for license and insurance although the worst driving came from trucks and the “big taxis” generally Mercedes with 3 people across front and 4 to the back. The penalties are meant to be severe and corruption less tolerable that it once was. These “grand taxis” (grand as in French form) are a popular form of longer distance drives and an alternative to the “petit taxis” for in town journeys.

At Essaouria we were guided through tempting silver workshops,(legacy of Jewish culture and also Saharan tribes preferred silver) a lacklustre small fresh produce market, and a multitude of narrow streets with many door frames indicating the religion of the former residents. All shops are small scale; the sellers less inclined to hyper ventilate their sales talk as we progressed through the streets than in the souks of Marrakech. A more calming experience. Artist abound and snooze.

The fish port was busier than my local North Shields port, the ranges of fish probably down to half a dozen varieties all being sold off in small scale ice free deals. The opportunity to buy direct from the fisherman perhaps but not the most efficient use of skills. Quaint photography-  see photos

The restaurant where we had lunch of fish which itself was a cross between a delicate plaice and a chunky cod was on southern outskirts of town and along a very much windblown beach.  Kite flying and kite surfing were popular although board surfing is said to be more popular further south Sunbathers were well sheltered.

Back to town to find a lovely business crafting wood from a variety of trees including the Thuya into pretty household items from miniature boxes to doors and tables.  If there are bargains to be had it is where the time input is high in relation to the value of material being worked.


Cascades d’Ouzoud

This day journey northwards  into the middle Atlas was about 3 hours long (to get there) with 10 other passengers from UK and the scenery reflecting more intensive large scale agriculture than that of the trip to Essaouria   before it too petered out to barren land and scattered goatherds stalking their minders . Arriving at the cascades (waterfalls) there was clearly a barrel of bricks of construction happening but no big tourist buses and surprisingly few tourists indeed. Two thirds of visitors were Moroccan and the downward path (as selected for us) loose soil and we quickly got to the bottom via some welcoming non pushy tea stop (its the mint tea everywhere). The falls are a delight in terms of their coolness of setting, refreshing spray and a great sense of peace. There was the touristy boat trip out to be closer to the falls themselves which loomed 330 feet upwards.  Also noted were the risk free young men who clambered out horizontally along the vertical cliff using foot and finger grips to get to a natural diving platform. No girls followed.

When several of our female group went undressing to bikinis they attracted much more interest than the white skinned males. It’s not as if anyone disapproved in an obvious manner but it was the absence of any Moroccan female shoulder flesh that set us apart.

On the way back up via the steeped path which we could have used to descend we had a choice (our guide took one which was excellent point to eat and photo the falls) of many small restaurants offering tajine cooking. Early to lunch meant better seating nearer edge but still the place was far from busy. Maybe too far for coach parties with too little in terms of side options en route.

There were some attention grabbing monkeys on the way open prone to grabbing offered nuts and climbing on shoulders. All very tame and quaint but would expect these same monkeys to get more aggressive when not fed. The campers may feel the brunt of any waywardness first though as there were many pitched tents along the path. The choice of alternative up and down paths gave good alternative viewing opportunities and our route choice recommended.  Please refer photos


High atlas and 4 by 4

A Persian couple from Germany, an English doctor of Asian parentage and me made up this 4 wheel drive excursion north eastwards although there was an accompanying vehicle of 3 other Brits. I suspect the arrangement is good in case of any vehicle problems as we ventured along roads without the ever so European idea of barriers to stop accidental plunges to ravines below. The driver was confident, the road dry and visibility good. The absence of oncoming traffic very fortunate.

The high mountains which attract winter snow were beautiful (please see photos). Berber villages with their satellite dishes mud wall exterior and simplicity of construction scattered the hill sides.  We would then descend into lush green irrigated valleys of fruit such as apples or dates.

Compliment of the day was that I “bargained like a Berber woman” before exchanging kisses with a Berber man clearly paid too much for a gorgeous necklace and who in an attempt of revenge offloaded an Elgar £20 note in a separate deal which I could not exchange in Marrakech but my local UK bank was quite happy to do so. Musing on whether that was a compliment or revenge. Had I made a good tough bargain. Who knows but its worth the money paid.


Fantasia by night

Our driver with 2 English women, a Swiss woman who was travelling alone and was rare to see another single traveller let alone female and a stereo typical German travelling couple with a  careful meticulous approach to their travel arrangements  but then stayed away from us or was that “and” instead of “but”.

A rather useless driver took (replaced for return) over an hour to get us the 20km to this Disney style Kasbah in the desert, Men in traditional attire on horseback were still outside to greet us as some 10 different groups of music playing singing representatives from different tribes and in respect of whom we would liked to have known more but they were keen this time around in their greetings. It felt good and sincere to be welcomed to where perhaps 250 tourists were gathered. We were distinguished by our lateness

We got our seats in an ever so long marquee divided into tented sections of 8 table’s approx with 8 seats each. There was a certain intimacy to our sectioned off marquee. The decor with wall and ceilings adorned with rugs was wonderful, the service prompt, the food sadly bland, alcohol was available, the same tribal groups now bored came around to sing and dance in a whirlwind.

The meal started with a good meaty broth, lovely bread followed by a rack of lamb most impressive in presentation and short in meat to feed 8: lucky we were 4. The couscous with chicken and vegetable was the blandest of all meals. The fruit platter was impressive and would have kept us dining for days and the peaches were a joyous delight of freshness and vibrancy of heel tapping taste buds enticers. Sweet biscuits and mint tea rounded the meal off.

The high point then was the acrobatic display by the horsemen we had seen earlier upon arrival who galloped around singly or in pairs jumping off and on their running horses. Not surprisingly they frequently fired guns into the air to show their enthusiasm. A custom we should adopt? The man atop a donkey provided the humour whilst the horsemen galloped. Subtle but effective contrast.

The belly dancing part of the show was too far away in the middle of the activity field around which we had gathered in seated attention.

It was an enjoyable night with extremes of quality entertainment (welcome and horsemen acrobats) and blandness. The setting was impressive. In summary a good night but not as great as it could be.

The above4 tourswere arranged by Abdul and part of 16 available from Marrakech. He met and greeted at airport provided hotel transfers and the prices were comparable with others available.  Highly recommended. His email and phone 00212 661461860


2) The souks

How to get lost will be the title of my first book when I decide to be honest on some of my limitations. If you are organised, follow a good map and avoid distractions like shops you will have no trouble. If you travel alone get into bargaining or even looking around the inside of a single shop or minor street then you will become lost. It’s worse on one’s own because suddenly there will be someone offering to help and then they will take you somewhere that may not be on your plans and their commission will be included in whatever you buy. As to directions I was recognising blatantly incorrect direction offered to me by my last and 3rd visit at the end of my week. There is a structure and organisation to the layout but there is so much of interest to disrupt any plan or intentions. The souks were a highpoint in learning and experience but I’m glad we have not adopted them here in the UK.


3) Historical sites and Gardens

This city has plenty of history, wonderful architecture, restored buildings and viewable ruins of stunning impact.

Maison Tiskiwin was a personal favourite in how an anthropologist from Holland collected so much from various tribes of the Sahara who are too frequently grouped into one. They are not. (as I now know). Pictures on link

The Bahia palace from 19th century is pretty with lovely ceilings. Was surprised at how many other tourists look at the floors and walls but ignore the less well lit ceilings.

The El Badi palace from 16th century is sadly mainly ruins but gosh they are impressive in what they still show. The dungeons are a must particularly what looks like solitary chambers.

Menara gardens (big pool with olive trees) were rather disappointing but on the tourist bus route.

Saadian tombs from 16th century were a haven of tranquillity in the centre of the medina. Guarded by cats.

Majorelle gardens are a collection of bamboo plants plus a great range of cactus plants from other parts of the world and the site of a lovely Berber museum charting the fashions of different sub-tribal groups. The ashes of Yves st Laurent are scattered in the garden as he liked it too.

Cats seem to be silent guardians of most old buildings although very skinny and extremely cute.


4) The food

Tajine evolves from taking the earthenware pot to the butcher or fishmonger and there were many stalls in the market, some with signs “do not photo” as large parts of animal on display. Then off for vegetables and spices into the pot and then home to prepare. Once prepared the same pot would be taken to Haman (the Moroccan sauna or more essentially a traditional cleansing routine) where it would be placed upon the charcoal embers to cook slowly. Then home. Slow cooked extra flavour without being chilli hot I found the food as prepared to be delightful. My first dish was fish tajine and had been there several hours when I arrived late at night at hotel was a pleasure. The monkfish on my last day at Terrace d’Espices was cooked fresher for me and still had comparable flavours in depth.

A Berber omelette at the cascades was an awesome delight as to what an omelette can and should taste of. Suggest googling the recipe as I have done. It takes longer to prepare and cook.

The filo pastry in the market coated in extreme sweet syrup was yummy and tasty and yummy again. Three is too many at one sitting but maybe I’m wrong.

Tomatoes, watermelons and peaches were so fresh in comparison with what we get here in the UK. Pizza base was fab fab in taste and the toppings good too.

Breakfast breads were French style often with sweet coatings. The cold meat and cheese platter in my hotel was okay for sandwiches and not much else. This was the only food disappointment other than the dinner at Fantasia. Dates abound but got none!!.

Desserts as offered as part of my half board option were a delectable delight and an alternative to the fresh fruit as often offered. Moroccans clearly have an extremely sweet tooth.

The chocolate pear at Terrace D’Espices was to die for but that is only my humble opinion as maybe the setting made it such an extraordinary comparative delight when I consider the wealth gap with the street below. That was a shock.


5) The beverages

Orange juice freshly squeezed at 4 dh in Jemaa el Fna (about 35 pence for 300 ml) was much fresher than any I could enjoy here.

The lemon juice (jus citron) similarly squeezed and in some museum venues lemons were dropping from trees came with sachets of sugar as it was so bitter. Such a contrast with bottled or canned lemon juice drinks.  The sachets put the drinker in charge of reducing the bitterness.

Wine was awful and suspect the best gets exported. At the hotel a bottle of Rose was about £16 which for posh hotel prices is not too bad but the quality in my opinion was poor.

Beer and the “Casablanca” label was not only cold but refreshingly tasty non chemical favoured and caused o unwarranted side effects.  Hotel prices were about £4 for 330ml.

Water is drinkable and bottle water easily available but stay away from hotel prices for same which can be 3 times the market price for a large bottle


6) The people

So many friendly men who were about 95% of hotel staff, 100% of our drivers guides, 100% of salesmen and dominated our interaction with the people of Morocco.

1 woman bus driver on the tourist bus was exceptional. Women do drive posh and poor cars although no female taxi drivers. The fashions on display in the shop window at Zara were quite different to that worn in the street. A country changing slowly as to attitude to women but very much early stages of change.

Tourists are encouraged to dress respectively when outside their hotels but the shorts and tops showed frequent disregard for that practise in Marrakech or Essaouira. It did not seem to be a problem in general although probably less tolerant away from main tourist places


7)  Accommodation

Travelling on my own I was influenced very much by safety. After trying to book flights and hotel on line I eventually went to a local travel agent (hays) and booked flight accommodation airport pick up and an evening meal option.  I price checked my eventual trip on line and it was comparable. Single supplements can complicate.

For Marrakech there are 3 categories of accommodation. All inclusive which were according to other travellers who don’t regularly use all inclusive very good.  Secondly a 3-4-5 star hotel such as I stayed in. I would describe the Red Hotel in Marrakech as 3 star limited services although the shared services (pool restaurants) with opera Plaza (out the back literally) make it more 4 star. The price suited my purse and there is a big range of options. Finally there is the traditional Riad equivalent to our UK guesthouse. I met many travellers who had used Trip adviser to select one judging the appropriateness of the comments of other travellers in relation to their own requirements. The advantage is atmosphere including getting there in the streets, centrality to the medina, the individuality, the local service and friendliness and it’s so different. I’d recommend a riad if travelling with a friend. Personally I’m not 100% if travelling alone but I’m far more confident than I was.


8) Would I return?

Yes but to the northern cities of Fez, Meknes with short trips back to Essaouria (relax) and maybe eventually a short trip to Casablanca and Ricks cafe (pop 3 million)

Most importantly this trip has opened my eyes to other travel opportunities in North Africa and there is so much I have not seen.


9) Boring Facts

The currency is the dirham (Moroccan) not available officially outside the country but available at the airport. The exchange rate varied somewhat within country and there were many places to exchange in Marrakech and most currencies were easily exchangeable. ATM machines abound but check they accept your card and what your bank will charge. I did not feel threatened or at risk but think a bit of plastic safer for longer stay holidays. Language in exchange bureaus was never a problem years ago in Asia and certainly were no problem for me in Morocco.

Train (3 hours) from Newcastle to Manchester airport.

Flight (4 hours and same time zone) from Manchester to Marrakech with EasyJet afternoon but return at midnight silly as no trains or buses. First morning trains at 4 am to Manchester Piccadilly where limited options on breakfast but better than airport where all shut except vending machines and twas cold in September

Temperatures Marrakech. August is red hot and September better with 33C approx dropping to low 20’s at night. Coastal Essaouria a lot cooler during day than MK and is windy

Red Hotel at Marrakech 70 bed sharing pool etc with Opera Plaza literally out through the lobby. Good value for money limited services and unreliable wifi while there. Less than 30 minutes walk from the medina. 20dh by taxi in quiet time and return 40dh (was always busy on road and me thinks that’s why price difference)

Half Board option upgrade at £5 per night handy to have and food good quality

Tourist bus runs based on 24 hour ticket 2 routes – handy for getting around more a tour of hotels. Stops near the Red Hotel (outside Opera plaza).

All prices mentioned above were as paid by me and no guarantee intended. It’s a country of many prices. Well worth shopping around