Wednesday, April 8, 2015

And now for something completely different: Morocco!

A view down a major street in a new part of Marrakech
It seemed only appropriate. I got ripped off by the taxi driver when we arrived in Marrakech and tricked out of my change by the taxi driver who took me back to the airport. But other than these taxi drivers, and the many merchants who would usually ask for ridiculous prices to start a negotiation, the people we dealt with in Marrakech were generally quite wonderful and considerate.

Sally and I came here with Carol and Richard Henriquez. Since we generally travel on our own, this was a new, but very good experience that we will most definitely repeat.
My only real problem during the trip was that my new Microsoft Surface PC crashed on the third day and so I was not able to blog and post photos as we went along. So this post and the following stories are being written on my phone, to be transcribed later.
In total we spent 11 nights in Morocco-5 in Marrakech,  2 in Essaouira, 2 in Fes and 2 in Tangiers. I counted the nights rather than days since time was spent driving from Marrakech to Essaouira  (about 2 1/2  hours); Essaouira to Fes (about 8 hours); a train from Fes to Tangier  (about 5 1/2 hours since we hit a cow and seemed to stop for far too long at every station); and 4 hours flying from Tangier back to Marrakech. 
The train stations, like this one in Marrakech, were attractive modern facilities
We booked everything in advance from Canada except for the train which was a last minute decision. We found the train and plane travel reasonable. Although it was more expensive to arrange for a car and driver than a car rental, having watched the traffic chaos within the walled cities, I have no regrets about that at all. I could NOT have driven here!
The first time I have stayed in a hotel sprinkled with rose petals. Reminded me of a movie!
The price of accommodation varied, but was generally quite reasonable. Had we been 30 years younger we could have got charming accommodation in many riads for significantly less a night. But we didn't try. Instead we stayed in some very luxurious places for much less than we would have paid in other countries.

What most impressed me with the riads, (A riad (Arabic: رياض‎) is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden), was their juxtaposition with their surroundings. It was often hard to accept that such elegant accommodation could be located in such run down locations. It was like walking through a doorway in the 100 block East Hastings into the Four Seasons Hotel

Richard observed it will be interesting to see if these beautiful riads will one day gentrify their surroundings. Somehow I doubt it but who knows what might happen over time.

It is trite to say but it is hard to come to Morocco and not be overwhelmed by the contrasts. While we came here thinking desert we're leaving thinking agriculture and farmers. Carol could not get over how lush and green so much of the countryside appeared. 
Some other highlights were the beautiful restaurants we experienced although we will be happy to avoid Moroccan food for a while; the expansive Jewish cemeteries which reminded us of the significant Jewish communities that once lived here. I say 'once' since most Jews have left . 
While our guides often talked about the harmony that exists between the various religions here, in fact the Jews often lived and worked in the Mellah or ghetto outside the main community. Many worked in the jewelry business and today many of the small jewelry shops remain in what were the Mellahs.

Other highlights included the kind and exceptional service we generally experienced. When we went out for dinner the last night at a restaurant recommended by the hotel, staff walked us to the taxi who drove us to the restaurant and then picked up afterwards.We paid when he brought us back. With only one or two exceptions, we generally felt very safe.
As I wandered around the streets on my own, it was obvious I was a tourist, but people were kind with directions
While there were occasional glitches in our travel arrangements it is a fairly manageable place to visit. I constantly wandered off to explore, but rarely felt any sense of danger. Although you do need to kept your wits about you, especially amongst the street vendors in the souks who constantly hassle you whenever you start looking at their products.
You also have to be aware that the kids in the market area who offer to help you with directions, will expect payment. Moreover, whatever you give them, they will usually respond "That's nothing!"

You also have to be prepared for those who offer to take you to the tanneries or some other part of the markets. They can be very persistent and invariably when you arrive you're shown pictures on the wall of their supposed family who run the business. Maybe it is their family, but having had too many similar experiences in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere,  I became very suspicious.
But if you are in the market for Moroccan style goods, there are a surprising number of talented artisans making beautiful things by hand in tiny storefronts. Sadly, Sally and I are now in a disposition mode-not an acquisition mode-so did not buy the things we would have loaded up on 30 years ago!

While I will not rush back to Morocco, hopefully one day I will return. It is a fascinating country where you can enjoy good food, good accommodation, incredible sights and smells, and kind people. Just don't assume it is always hot and sunny. It isn't!

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