24 hours in Marrakesh 

Our whole trip was planned around visiting the African continent. Marrakesh was our gateway to Africa and in spite of its proximity to Europe, it is worlds apart.

The action in Marrakesh is all around the medina. We stayed in one of the riads in the medina (Riad Azalia) and we would strongly recommend it.

Djamaa el fna is bursting with energy throughout the day. It starts building up slowly during the day with a few street vendors selling snacks and juice. 

During the day we visited the Bahia palace and Madrasa. Both are spectacular in terms of brilliance of architecture.

We also walked around in the medina and souks, bargaining and haggling our way to some good shopping deals.

As the heat subsides the square transforms into a market, street theatre and food court all at once. Eat at the food stalls but be prepared to be assaulted by the vendors trying to get your attention and business. It’s almost too much and not everyone’s cup of tea, but worth experiencing. Just be sure that you keep track of what you eat- they might try to overcharge you at the end of the meal- don’t hesitate to argue!

With an idea of what we were in for, for the next few days in the new country, we headed out of Marrakesh the next morning, for our road trip in Morocco!

With just 24 hours in Marrakesh, here are some things are should definitely be on the itinerary:

1. Visit Djemma el Fna and walk through the medina and souk

Djemma el Fna is the main square in Marrakesh. It’s where the shops, food stalls are. While its fairly quiet during the day, it comes to life as the sun goes down! Food stalls, shops, dancers, henna artists, snake charmers- you name it and you’ll find it here!

2. Visit the Bahia palace

While extremely touristy, it is quite pretty inside and worth a visit. Most of the boards inside are in French, so if you don’t speak it, download Google translate offline- it makes the visit a little more meaningful.

3. Visit Madrasa Ben Youssef

It can be tricky to find, but it is worth the effort. Once the largest madrasa in Africa, it is still beautiful, though not in use any more.

‘You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded’ reads the inscription over the entryway.

4. Try tajine

It is ubiquitously available, and is delicious!

5. Drink (lots of) mint tea

It seems counter-intuitive to drink hot mint tea in the heat, but it is amazingly refreshing! Served sweetened or unsweetened (on request) it is wonderfully aromatic and works brilliantly as a pick-me-up! Plus, the tea pots are so pretty!

A night, and a day, in Fes

Fez (or as the locals call it: Fes) was the second city we decided to visit in Morocco. Read about our drive to Fes from Ouzoud Falls in our post here.

Although we spent barely 24 hours here, we learnt some valuable life lessons that we hope will help future travelers to Fes, freak out a little less!

1. The alleys of the old town are scary, dark and narrow, but people seem to be basically honest.

We got in to Fes fairly late so had to wander about after 10pm, looking for a place to eat. While the walk to the first open restaurant we found, was uneventful, we did get lost getting there so it felt like it took forever. When it was time to head back, we were all already on edge, and the dark made the unfamiliar streets look even more sinister. On the narrow unlit alley leading to the palace complex, we were followed by two young men, who looked like they were up to no good (in hindsight- they were probably regular looking guys, but at the time…). They barely spoke, but the fact that we were being followed into a dark, blind alley did nothing to ease our anxiety. While our friends battled with the door (we had 12 keys to try to find the one that fit, in the dark, with hands that shook), the two of us figured we’d find out what they wanted. After a few heart-pounding moments, in which we asked them what they wanted and one of them just smiled (i was convinced this was the end…) it turned out that all they wanted was a private spot, since they had a couple of girls in the car parked at the end of the lane. Perhaps in a different, more familiar place, we would’ve shrugged off the entire incident, our inherent dread heightened the drama of the whole situation to epic proportions! So the bottomline is – try not to be afraid and believe in the basic honesty of people, before assuming the worst. While I’m not saying don’t be careful- thats definitely top priority, perhaps don’t exaggerate the danger of the place, just because it is new.

2. When looking for a guide for the city, do NOT choose the first local who offers his services.

Most guide books recommended engaging a guide for a few hours, to walk around the medina, they can be a great source of local stories and valuable tips. We’d also seen this in Marrakesh, so figured we’d maximize our time in Fes with a local guide. Unfortunately all the contacts of our host were busy for the day, so we decided to walk out on our own. We were stopped a few feet from the Riad by a man offering his services as a guide- promising to show us the sites. While he was hard to understand, we thought we would manage and were lucky to find him. 15 minutes into our walk with him, it slowly dawned on us that we were being led around by a local, who probably knew nothing about the history of the place, but knew the streets and figured it was a good chance to make a quick buck. While he probably would’ve taken us to the market eventually, we didn’t wait to find out. Thanking him halfway we let him go and found our own way to the main street. There, we tagged along with a legitimate guide from the Dream Sahara Group , after we politely told him our sob story, and it was very gratifying! We learnt all about the market and city, and the kind tour group leader (Ismail Ingrioui) and guide didn’t accept a single dirham in the end. Moral of the story: find a real guide and make your visit to Fes really worth it!2.JPG

That being said, we had a great time and here are a few things we did, and one could do, with just one day in Fes.

1. Drive through Atlas mountains

While the drive from Ozoud Falls to Fez is long (~6 hours) it provides some spectacular views of the high Atlas mountains.1b.JPG1.JPG

2. Stay in a palace

Airbnb offers some very interesting options- including the opportunity to stay in a palace on its way to being completed restored and opened to the public. We stayed at the Mokri Palace, which is on its way to being completely restored by Yousef, the current heir. Definitely a highlight of our trip!2.JPG4.JPG3.JPG

3. Walk the medina and get lost

Walking in Fez medina is an experience, not to be missed, but not for the faint hearted. As with most medinas in Morocco, it is narrow and busy, but the wares on display are fascinating and it is a real effort to keep from buying anything. Food, clothes, brass wares, leather goods, they have it all! It begins at the Blue gate and keeps going..14.JPG7.JPG9.JPG8.JPG

4. Oldest library in world

While not yet open to the general public, it is quite awesome to be in the proximity of the oldest library in the world, carrying books from the early 9th century! Read more about it here. We were a few months too early so couldn’t go in, but even standing outside and peaking through the bars was very exciting!6.JPG5.JPG

5. Take a break at Cafe Clock

After a long and hot trek through the madina, Cafe Clock sits right by the old water clock and offers a haven in which one can sit, eat and look upon the skyline of the city (and they have free Wifi!). Their iced mint lemonade is perfect for parched throats and their food is delicious!10.JPG11.JPG12.jpg13.JPG

Fes is a fascinating city, make the most of it!

1.jpgHow often do you find a city with both, Berber and Arabic signs!

A taste of Morocco and Portugal, in 8 days

With about 10 days to travel, starting in Barcelona, we decided to attempt to see Morocco and Portugal, one for its exotic and unexplored nature and the other for the food, wine and castles! As far as our trips go, this was probably one of the most ambitious, therefore punishing, itineraries we have come up with.

While future blog posts will describe, in more details, the individual cites explored, this is a brief description of what we decided to put ourselves through, how we managed it and loved (almost) every moment! Below is what our final plans looked like.

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Here’s how we actually accomplished it:

Barcelona – Marrakesh: Flight, Ryanair, $41.50/head, 2 hours.

Rented a car in Morocco: $200 for 3 days, approx. $60 for gas.

Marrakesh – Fes, via Ouzoud falls: 9 hours. Great views of the High Atlas mountains, though try and get to Fes before full dark, the roads are not always well lighted.

Fes – Chefchaouen: 4 hours. This time we crossed the Rif mountains, which were different, but no less beautiful.

Chefchaouen – Tangier airport: 3.5 hours. Not so scenic, but it was a means to an end. One thing to be very careful of is the port in Tangier where the ferry is from. Tangier has 2 main ports, one in the city and the other, Tangier Med, an hour away!

Tangier airport – Tangier Med: Frantic taxi ride, $40, probably overpriced but we were fairly desperate!

Tangier Med – Algeciras: Ferry, FRS $30/head. Crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and set eyes upon the Rock!!

Algeciras port – Lisbon: Bus, Alsa $80/head. The bus station was right at the port and the bus arrived right on time. The first bus took us to Seville, where we had 1.5 hours to wander around and get something to eat (and drink). The next bus took us directly to Lisbon.

Uber has come to Portugal and for more than two people traveling together, it is often cheaper to get an Uber instead of taking public transport- something we learnt over the course of the 3 days there.

Lisbon – Sintra: Train, CP $2.10/head one way. In Sintra, we walked around and took Uber to the Pena Palace: $8-10 from the center, compared to $5/head, one way, in a tuk tuk or $5/head, return, for the bus.

Sintra – Cabo de Roca – Cascais beach: Instead of waiting for a bus to take us to the rock and another to take us to Cascais, we took Uber, and asked the driver to wait while we took photos at the Western-most point in Europe. The whole trip cost $35, which worked out only about $3 more than it would’ve if we had taken the buses, and saved us a lot of time, which we had precious little of to start with, anyway!

Lisbon – Porto: Train, $25/head return, Booking the tickets in advance helped with the lower price.

Finally, Lisbon city – airport: MyTaxi (another taxi app, which lets you reserve a cab in advance). My flight to Barcelona was at 6.30am so it was too early to take the Metro, which starts around 8am.

So, it is definitely doable, if 6 hours of sleep are about enough and the hunger to see and do more remains alive! At the end of a very long week, we had taken all possible modes of transport, seen and done things we hadn’t even imagined, and still didn’t think that we had had enough!

 

 

Food guide for Morocco: eat and drink the best the country has to offer!

Food is a big part of our travel experience. Morocco was no exception. The country has influences from the Arab world and Europe and the food reflects that.

Drink mint tea

Alcohol is not readily available in Morocco but we didn’t miss it much during the hot afternoons/evenings where mint tea became a ritual. It is usually served in the typical tea pot and is available sweetened and unsweetened. We liked the unsweetened version better as it wasn’t too sweet.

A variation to the traditional mint tea, was a brilliant mint lemonade served chilled which we tried at Cafe Clock in Fez. Highly recommend it

Eat Tajine

Throughout the country the most ubiquitous food is Tajine. Tajine is a Berber dish named after the earthen pot in which it is cooked. Generally, it is a slow cooked stew with meat and/or vegetables in the special earthen vessel. We tried some at Ozoud Falls and the portions were huge. 1 of the pots served 4 of us.

In Marrakesh, we tried some Gourmet Tajine and it was fantastic. We tried a beef tajine with onions, plums and egg and a chicken tajine with onions and cashew at Cafe Chegrouni overlooking Djemaa el Fna. The caramelized onions in both added a great flavour to the whole dish. The portions were smaller but the taste was special.

Traditional lentil soup (Harira)

Harira is the traditional soup that can be had as an appetizer or a main (larger portion). It was one of those dishes which looks unspectacular but tastes great.

 

Eat snails at a street vendor

Eat a bowl of snails for 2-3 dh on the streets of Marrakesh, Fez or Chefchaoun. We tried some in Chefchaoun and enjoyed it thoroughly. The texture takes a little getting used to and is a bit gelatinous. It was served with a broth on the side to which the vendor asked us to add chili flakes. The combination was delicious.

Goat cheese

The northern part of Morocco (Chefchaoun and above) is famous for it’s goat cheese. We tried some bread with the goat cheese and honey and it was delicious. It was at a small non-touristy restaurant. Communication was hard but at the end we got a chance to try something we hadn’t seen on the menu at bigger restaurants

Prickly pear 

Found on the cactus plants all over the country, the prickly pear is quite refreshing. We tried some while walking around the medina in Fez and at 1 dh it was tempting to eat many more. The fruit is fleshy and doesn’t have a strong flavour. Make sure you don’t touch the thorns and the vendor serve you.

 

Moroccan Coke

Not as sweet as the Coke in the US and also less fizzy, but perfect for the hot afternoons.

Intrepid travelers: road tripping in Morocco!

Our first real adventure in the continent of Africa and we coundn’t be more excited for it!

After a hectic 24 hours in Barcelona, we flew to Marrakesh on Ryanair, at 7.30am to make the most of our first there in the new country. At $45/seat, it was a steal! A quick 2 hour flight later (Morocco is 1 hour behind Spain), we were in Africa! Disembarking from the plane, directly onto the runway (!) we could walk right up to the terminal building.1.JPG

The heat was almost tangible as it settled on us, giving us a taste of what the next few days would be like. The Riyad (hotel) had arranged for someone to pick up us- which is recommended, since with the number of people offering taxis right outside, you’re never sure where you will be taken and how much it’ll end up costing you once you get there!

We spent the day in Marrakesh, the experience was an assault to all senses- it was hot, loud, smelly, bright and colorful – and reminded us strongly of home! The people did not leave you alone for a moment- there was always someone to sell us something or direct us to the next tourist spot, or just to ask if we were from India and say Namaste! More about Marrakesh here.
The next morning, we were driven back to the airport where we picked up our car for the next 3 days. While extremely cheap (we paid no more than $200 for 3 days), the car came with no frills, at all. The doors and windows were manual and there was no air-conditioning or GPS. Google maps also doesn’t let you download Morocco road maps offline, so this was going to be an extremely interesting few days. Also as we discovered very soon, while in theory all the roads are named or numbered on the map, there are almost no numbers on the road itself! Most of them are labeled with the next big city, so thats something to watch for as well. Finally, while we were happily using T mobile all over Europe, it isn’t free in Morocco, so no turn-by-turn navigation. Undaunted, we decided to drive around the country for the next 3 days! On the bright side, the roads in Morocco are good and well maintained, so it wasn’t a bumpy ride.

First stop- Ozoud Falls. They are the most photographed falls in the country and make a nice day trip from Marrakesh. Getting out of the city proved to be quite a task, there was the manual car to get used to, rules of the roundabouts to learn and lots of motorcyclists to avoid. Our brave and fearless driver rose nobly to the challenge and we left the city and reached Ozoud with no unpleasant events.2.jpg

The falls themselves are quite pretty and fairly touristy. We chose to look at them from the top only, instead of hiking to the bottom and taking Morocco’s version of the “Maid of the Mist” tour, since, as always, we were pressed for time. Lunch was delicious, in a small local restaurant. Read more about our food and drink in Morocco in our blog here.

Our next aim was to get to Fez, in one piece, and hopefully before nightfall. Our fairly smooth journey was interrupted just once, when we were pulled over by the local traffic police, for crossing a solid white line to overtake the slow car holding up our progress. While blogs from other tourists had warned us that the police tended to focus more on tourists, actually being pulled over was a completely different experience. We spoke no Arabic and only enough French to ask if they spoke English, so communication was minimum. They asked for our passports and the papers of the car (which we understood) and we sat with bated breath, awaiting our fate. This is one of the few times when the Indian passport has worked in our advantage- since on realizing that we were “Hindi” (the Arabic word for Indian), they disdainfully let us go, warning us not to do it again. I’m not sure how different things would’ve been, if we had had American or European passports, but I’m very glad we didn’t have to find out! Of course, we have no photos from our brief brush with the law, but I’m sure if we did, our faces would be quite a sight to behold!

Getting to Fez took us across the High Atlas mountains with spectacular views of verdant valleys and sandy brown mountains.3.JPG

By nightfall we were close enough fortunately and had only a long stretch on the well lit A-road (motorway with toll) so reached Fez in good spirits, around 9pm. The airbnb we had for the night was supposed to be a palace that was being restored by the current owner and finding it was another interesting task! When we finally did, it was at the end of a single lane, extremely windy road that would’ve been impossible to navigate without our host. After all the effort, it was totally worth it- the place was indeed a palace and we had an entire wing (the red palace) to ourselves! That night and the next day were an adventure of their own- read about it here.4.JPG

Chefchaouen, which is Berber for “look at the horns” since the mountain tops around the city look like goats’ horns, was the next destination and was a 4 hour drive away, so we left around 3pm from Fez, again to attempt to make it there before it got dark. The road leading out from Fez was a 1.5-lane state road, which meant when a vehicle approached us, the smaller of the two would have to drive onto the verge to let the other pass. This made for 1-2 unnerving hours of driving for our brave and fearless driver, but he manfully drove on. This time we cross the Riff mountains and saw vast stretches of darker mountains with taller darker trees- quite beautiful to behold.5c.JPG

We also had some interference from the local wildlife, but nothing much to worry about!5.JPG

Our first sighting of Chefchaouen, disappointingly did not show an entirely blue city, but it was pretty nevertheless, nestled in the middle of towering mountains.6.JPG

In the evening, exploring the old city gave us our fill of blue-ness of Chefchaouen.7.JPG

Our final long drive was to Tangier airport, and was the least picturesque of the drives. A great breakfast of the local goat’s cheese and bread made up for it a little!

The roads, as we had seen so far, were quite good, with long stretches of highway that allowed us to reach our destination well on time. Tangier airport was a surprise- it was so windy that it was quite difficult to stand up straight, handling any luggage was another challenge altogether! Here, we returned the car, bid good bye to our faithful companion of the past 3 days and took a cab to the port to get on the ferry to Algeciras.8.JPG

This is where the next brief adventure began, since halfway to the port, we realized that the one we were headed to, wasn’t the one we needed. The boat to Algeciras was to depart from Tangier Med and that was 50km away from Tangier city, which was where we were! Our cab driver, fortunately (and after promising a payment of 40 Eur) agreed to take us there- thus our road trip continued!

The drive from Tangier to Tangier Med was along the coast and gorgeous!9.JPG

Relieved, and a little wrung out from all the adrenaline, we boarded the ferry to leave Africa and continue our explorations on the next continent!10.JPG

Morocco- you were beautiful, unexplored, unexpected, raw, exciting, exhausting, overwhelming and we loved every single minute!

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