A relaxing finish to a busy week – it’s 42 degrees in Marrakech at the moment so I’m writing this blog poolside…
Now I know some of you are probably thinking that this place looks a little flash for backpackers like us but Marrakech appears to have a significant oversupply of 4 and 5 star hotels. This definitely works in our favour, as this hotel is only AUD55 a night including buffet breakfast. Whilst it’s a great price there’s an eerie feeling to the place as it seems like only a handful of the 190 rooms are occupied. It is low season here now which is a combination of Ramadan and the high heat of summer so the high vacancy makes sense. But this morning we were sitting in the large restaurant having breakfast and we were the only guests in sight, so we started to draw comparisons between this place and the Bates Motel. Our final conclusion was that it’s not a family run hotel so we should be safe, although we’re still wary of the head of guest relations who stands way too close when she talks to us and continues to push for good reviews on TripAdvisor. Anyway I’m easily distracted, I should outline our adventure for the week.
One thing we have to confess is that this week we took the easy option, we did the typical Moroccan tourist thing by joining a week long guided tour. After 4 months on the go it was a refreshing change to just board the bus and not have to think about logistics and finding accommodation. We were also fortunate in that we scored a great last minute price on the tour, so it worked much the same if we did it on our own. The tour group was an interesting mix though. Of the 35 people on the tour, 17 were a group of older Brazilian women travelling together. Our guide started calling them the 17 “mother’s in law” because they complained so much. We also had a mix of backgrounds in the group so our guide had his work cut out for him, giving the commentary in English, Spanish and Italian. The funny part was that I was only 1 of 3 males on the trip and one of those was an 8 year old boy. We didn’t really mingle that much with the group and kind of did our own thing. Especially when it came to lunchtimes and they would all go for a sit down meal. We’d opt out and take the opportunity to head off and see some extra sights. For lunches we were making sandwiches at the breakfast buffets and then smuggling them out of the hotel restaurant. I know that sounds a tad cheap, but it also helped with reducing the food consumption. Ok it was mostly financially based… we’re cheap, but it’s just the smart thing to do.
Our first stop on the tour was Rabat which is the administrative capital of Morocco containing the king’s residence (Mohammed VI) and parliament. We went to the royal palace but tours within the palace aren’t permitted, so we looked at the front gate. The interesting thing is that the king’s mother and his sisters live there, and whilst the king works at the palace he opted to live in a residence on the other side of town. I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t want to be surrounded by all the women of the family! We also visited the Kasbah where we walked through the series of laneways whilst we listened to the mothers-in-law complaining about the number of steps in Portuguese. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese but it was pretty clear they were complaining. This was a reoccurring theme along the tour, but it didn’t bother us that much, we just did our own thing. Our accommodation all along the tour was nice, but one thing we found hilarious was that they all claimed to have fitness centres but they were either under renovation or they didn’t exist. It was a shame because we were looking forward to using some cardio machines since our walking was going to decrease on the tour.
The next day we headed for Volubolis which is an ancient Roman city which dates back to 40AD. The city is considered the best Roman ruins in Africa and was recently listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. There is a large section of the ruins that are yet to be excavated but archaeologists are progressively making their way through it. The ruins were unearthed by the great Lisbon earthquake in 1755, but the French started the exploration process in early 20th century. We had a local guide who walked us around the site explaining the layout of the town centre and features like the olive presses and public baths. It was amazing how the layout was so similar to Pompeii which is still fresh in our minds. The condition of Volubolis isn’t anything like Pompeii, which just highlights why Pompeii is so special, but it was still interesting to see. We headed to Meknes for some lunch and then took a tour of the fortified town centre which is also a UNESCO world heritage site. It dates back to the 17th century and includes a number of unique features for the time. The 40m ramparts, the large gardens and the extensive royal stables were highlights for us. We visited a Moroccan pottery factory which just happened to have an elaborate giftshop at the end. It’s a shame that we’re restricted with baggage limits but I guess it does prevent us from getting carried away.
We had 2 nights in Fez which allowed for an extensive discovery of the medina, which is said to be the best in Morocco. This was definitely the highlight of Morocco for us and I’m glad that we were with a guide because the medina was an absolute maze. I have a pretty good sense of direction, but after a few hours of walking to different sites I was completely disorientated. It also helped being in the group because you felt far less exposed to touts, pickpockets and aggressive shopkeepers. You’ll probably notice that we have so many more photos this week and it’s because we felt comfortable to have the cameras out. On our journey through the maze we visited a carpet factory, a textile factory and a leather tannery. It was pretty obvious that these places had kick-back arrangements with the tour company but very little pressure was put on us because our guide knew that we were backpacking and weren’t interested in buying souvenirs. The benefit of going with the tour group was that each place took the time to explain how their product was made and what made it special. We highly doubt that if we walked in on our own that we’d get such attention and a detailed explanation. One thing I was disappointed with was the tannery, as I’d heard stories about how they smell so revolting that they give you mint to stuff under your nose as you walk around. Well I was surprised that the smell wasn’t that noticeable and just came in the occasional waft. It turns out that the first part of the process is to dunk the hides in pools of water and pigeon poop. This concoction lasts 15 days, but the last 5 days is when the smell turns vile. The batch had just been replaced so our visit was relatively pong-free.
The journey to Marrakech was long and tiring. We made an early departure because we had 500kms to cover on the Moroccan back roads they call national highways. The journey was tiring because even though the coach was air conditioned, the 40+ temperatures outside meant that the bus was still hot enough to get sweaty. Plus some of the roads were windy as we crossed the Atlas mountains so some motion sickness was thrown into the mix for good measure. I think the worst part for me was how narrow the road was considering the volume of heavy vehicles using the road. Considering that most of the drivers (including ours) were doing Ramadan and hadn’t eaten or drank anything all day, I was pretty nervous about concentration levels but eventually had to realise that it’s beyond my control. I’m getting better with things like that, I’m going with the flow a bit more now.
Marrakech was stinking hot when we arrived so I was so happy to see the hotel pool. We had 2 nights here with the tour and then had to book 2 nights somewhere on our own, but considering the great price and the facilities we decided to stay put. In the time before the tour group departed back to Casablanca, we were taken into town to see some monuments and then we had free time in the town square to see the cliche Morocco entertainment like snake charmers and monkey tamers. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t do snakes. They’re gross and untrustworthy so we took a photo from a distance and kept moving. I then had a monkey thrown up on my shoulder while I wasn’t looking and the guy tried to take Anna’s camera to take a photo. Well no one is going to get their hands on Anna’s first love (not me… her camera) and I’ve seen the movie Outbreak, so with a swift movement I removed the monkey and we scampered off. I wouldn’t call chaining a monkey to you as “taming” it anyway. Some of the mistreatment of animals that we’ve seen here has gotten under my skin I think. Looking through the souks was interesting but since we’re not buying it gets much the same after a while.
All in all we have enjoyed our time in Morocco and we’ve both said that we’d come back to see other towns, but mainly to see it when it’s not Ramadan. I think the atmosphere would be much different. We fly to Ireland tomorrow and spending a week in Cork and doing the Ring of Kerry in a hire car. It’ll be quite the drop in temperature, but we’re quite excited to be visiting Laura who we haven’t seen since she left Australia over 18 months ago. Something tells me that our time in Dublin will be quite the party.
Fail of the Week
When we were roaming around the Marrakech square in the 40+ heat we found a juice vendor selling orange juice for 4 dirhams a glass which is less than a dollar. We ordered a glass and when he handed it over I started drinking as Anna paid. Well he did a sneaky on us and gave us the 10 dirham juice cocktail instead of just orange juice. It’s not expensive, but it is representative of all the little scams you have to look out for here.
Meal of the Week
Sadly this week we’re unable to pick a standout meal. The tour included dinner each night but each hotel served virtually the same thing. One thing we were surprised with was how bland the food was in Morocco and it didn’t really meet our expectations of spicy curries. Perhaps they tone it down to suit the masses, but you can only add so much salt and pepper to try and revive it. Ok I’m over exaggerating a little but I think you get the point. Same goes for the breakfasts… same old formula.
Our tips for touring Morocco:
- If possible avoid Ramadan! Everything closes during the day and the atmosphere is totally different.
- It’s definitely worth looking into guided tours for the typical touristy places like Fez and Marrakech. It’s easier and less stressful. If you book last minute you might find the prices are very reasonable.
- Always be on the lookout for scammers… they’re everywhere.
- Modest clothing for women is the best way to avoid unwanted male attention.
- Typically the medina is the most interesting part of town but you don’t need to stay in the medina. The new town is typically more comfortable.
- Alcohol is very difficult to come across and is normally only found at the larger hotels, and thus quite expensive.
Average spend for Morocco was AU$80.61pp per night for everything including the tour.