Our road trip to discover Morocco all started with the Ryanair €9.99 winter sale, where I spotted an offer from Madrid to Tangier.
Usually we can’t find any deals from Lanzarote so when I spotted this flight I booked it on a whim. I had always wanted to visit Marrakech, despite our close location to Morocco from the Canary Islands it’s not cheap or convenient to fly direct. Binter offer a service but I haven’t found flights under 400 euro per person each time I’ve looked.
I researched the distances to drive from Tangier to Marrakech where I really wanted to spend a weekend for my birthday in late January. It was do-able if we didn’t mind driving between 200-300km a day and staying in some of Morocco’s cities along the way. Our 7 night stay from the 27th January to 3rd February 2016 was decided as Tangier – Casablanca – Marrakech – Rabat – Fes – Tangier.
We landed in Tangier airport after a short 1 hour flight and completed our disembarkation forms, had our passports stamped with our date of entry and registration number before passing through to collect our luggage.
As the Moroccan currency of dirhams is closed, we could only exchange our euros at the single office available in the airport. The rate was approximately 10 dirhams to 1 euro, a nice and easy conversion for working out the costs during our holiday.
Next stop was the Avis desk to collect our hire car. A friendly man promised us a nice car, we bought the additional insurance and headed out to the car park. A tatty looking Peugeot 206 was waiting for us with numerous scrapes, bumps, a cigarette burn in the seat and 80,000 km on the clock – we were definitely going to blend in with the locals.
It’s only 13km from the airport to Tangier, it was long enough to get a feel for how the locals drive, there’s pretty much no rules, the horn is used if you hesitate for a moment, horse & cart is still used by many for transport and pedestrians will cross the road into the moving traffic at any given time, we soon adapted to our new “urban” drive mode.
We spent our first night at the Atlas Almohades in Tangier, this hotel is right on the seafront opposite the beach and a short distance from the port & medina. The downside is that at the moment the beach is under construction for a new marina. If you wanted to access the beach, you had to walk through the construction site!
We found a great restaurant close to our hotel called Alibaba for our evening meal and the best Arabian breakfast of our trip at the Sea Rainbow café, just along the road in the other direction.
Facebook album: Tangier
In the morning we departed for Casablanca, armed with our directions from hotel to hotel and using the toll roads the distance was 330 km.
It was easy enough to retrace our steps back past the airport, where we picked up the A1 road. The peage stops were either to collect a ticket or pay a set charge between stations, paid in cash, they were very easy to use and apart from the herds of sheep grazing at the side of the road or death wish pedestrians crossing through the fast moving traffic, these roads provide safe and stress free driving.
There are regular “aire de repose” service stations, each with toilets, play area, petrol station, shop and restaurant. They varied in cleanliness, some were spotless with fabulous food and others we stretched our legs and moved on. Our regret was not ordering a tagine from one of the service stations, the Oasis Café in particular impressed us, it had a huge number of tagines cooking away on their individual charcoal pits and a huge oven where the most amazing breads were being cooked and tossed across the room to the waiters. We’d already ordered a kebab style sandwich which was delicious, when we realised almost everyone else was dining on tagines.
On reaching Casablanca we realised how hopeless the road signage is, once off the toll road they cease to exist. There are few road names and direction signs, we were getting a bit frustrated in the afternoon traffic and eventually switched on one of our mobiles to data roaming so we could at least find our current location, we were only 2km from our hotel and navigated our way there – those couple of minutes cost 60 euros, we couldn’t afford to get lost again!
The Kenzi Tower hotel was the only thing we liked about Casablanca, I’m sorry to be blunt but from what we saw of the city centre and coastline, it’s a dump! We walked down to the Hassan Mosque and back, after which we made our decision to eat in at the hotel where we really enjoyed their Sky 28 bar and Sens restaurant.
The following morning after breakfast at a café across the road, I persuaded Mike to drive the length of the waterfront in Casablanca. It didn’t improve with distance, the lighthouse has a shanty town surrounding it, the Corniche was dilapidated and uninviting. We struggled again to find our way out of Casablanca, eventually happening upon the toll road after about 20km of criss crossing the city.
The countryside was interesting, the majority of it is agricultural land. In the urban areas the land is littered with plastic bags and rubbish, poverty is evident by the housing and the main mode of transport is donkey / horse & cart. Shepherds with small herds of cows or flocks of sheep were grazing on scrub land. Even in vast open spaces there was always someone to be spotted, working, walking, or riding. The landscape changes dramatically in colour from pale stone, to lush green near rivers and earthy tones of pink and red. Children were evident no matter the time or day of the week, we wondered how many of them receive an education. Agriculture is everywhere, apparently this industry accounts for 50% of the work force, but is only 14% of the country’s GDP.
Facebook album: Casablanca
As we steadlily climbed towards the Atlas mountains outlined in the distance we began seeing signs for Marrakech – palmerie, a reference to the large number of palms growing in this area of Morocco. The outskirts of Marrakech felt smart in comparison to our earlier cities, we managed to find our hotel with only one wrong turn and was happy at the prospect of 2 nights in the same place, we might even unpack!
The Les Jardins de L’Agnal had a lovely and impressive Moroccan interior, our room had a pool view and after settling in we set out to explore the medina of Marrakech.
Nothing had prepared us for what would happen within the ancient walls, we were cautious, not visibly carrying a camera or map and inevitably we got lost fairly quickly. We were happy to bumble around and find our way, however the locals have other ideas. People approach or try to get you into conversation to establish what language you speak, they disarm you quickly, our first experience was a teenage boy who insisted on walking with us and taking us to the Jewish quarter when he told us there was a market on that day, just one day a week and it has the best stalls. He was friendly, with good English, he delivered us straight to his family’s spice shop! After drinking tea and purchasing some spices, we asked directions to find the main square and set off again. We were in a quieter street when a man on a bike passed us, he cursed, banged his chain and muttered that his bike was broken. Falling into step next to us, he wanted to make conversation and insisted on taking us a few streets to the “safe area”, before holding out his hand asking for money to help his wife and children. When we did give him a tip, he had the audacity to tell us it wasn’t very much!
We eventually worked out where the Place Jemaa el-Fna was as the sun was setting, perfect timing for eating from one of the street food stalls. By this point I was started to get a bit tired with the hassle, it just isn’t possible to stroll around and browse the stalls be it for goods or food, you aren’t left alone for a second. The stalls smelt fabulous, it was different to what we imagined, we thought we could just sample food from individual stalls but once seated, they bombard you with dishes of food and then argue about the bill at the end. Even when seated, sellers are still vying for your attention, with goods or sweet food for afterwards. I accept now that this is the way in Marrakech and medinas in Morocco, we just hadn’t been prepared for the onslaught of friendly persuasion, these guys are some of the best salesmen we’ve ever come across.
It was time to work our way back to where we’d left the car, just outside the medina walls, we were lucky each time we visited during our stay in Marrakech to find a space here, the kerb was painted red & white which we took to mean we shouldn’t park, however others were, so we just followed by example.
Overnight we researched online how to tackle the mentality of the medina sellers and “guides”, we had a plan for our second visit where we identified what we wanted to buy and how much we were prepared to pay for it. Mike wanted a leather bag and I wanted a teapot. We dressed in our “poorest” clothes and wore no watches / jewellery. We arrived at the medina mid morning, headed straight for the souk and this time we were able to stroll the narrow alleyways. It’s incredible that pushbikes and scooters fly down these passage ways, you really do have to listen out, and walk to one side so that you don’t get mowed down! After an hour of browsing we had identified the bag stalls we were interested in and made our way back to the one we thought most favourite from the shortlist. We were in luck, the owner was already engaged in a negotiation with another couple so we tuned in as we selected which bag was right for Mike. The other couple left, not having made a purchase. We asked for the bag we were interested in to be lifted down, we inspected it, there wasn’t a smell of pigeon poo, it was hand stitched, and the colour didn’t rub off – it had passed the requirements, now for the price. The seller told us that the price was 350 dirhams, this was already a result as Mike’s budget was a maximum of 500 dirhams, we counter offered 200 and agreed on 300. The owner of Anas came across as a good businessman, he was dressed in western clothes and explained to us that he prefers to sell his Berber leather goods at a fair price, rather than start with a high price and haggle. He went on to say the haggling method was a very tiring way to do business each day, to which we had some sympathy with. We asked for his card and how we could recommend him, so if you want a no nonsense leather goods stall in Marrakech, you can find Anas on Kennaria street, telephone 0651 0293 79. It felt right, the deal was done and Mike had found his bag.
I asked Anas advice for a teapot seller, was there someone with his ethics we could approach, he took us a few stalls down the street to a shop, but it wasn’t what I was looking for, he gave me a guide price of 70-90 dirhams for the 2 person teapot and left us to continue. I too had researched what I wanted, my teapot had to be heavy, a dull silver (not shiny), with a copper inside and in a pattern that I liked. We wandered into the Berber area, there was a stall with a man sitting down at the back and it had some teapots I liked the look of. Only when I asked for some assistance did he come forward, allowing me to browse without interruption. There was one pot in particular that I liked, he wanted 250 dirhams for it, it was considerably heavier than the lighter shiny counterparts. The negotiation began, he was a nice guy and we both bartered hard, wanting to reach the best deal. Part way through, he turned to Mike and asked how many camels he wanted for his wife! We reached an agreement, I bought my teapot made by the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains plus 2 glasses for 200 dirhams and he insisted on giving us 2 silver fatima charms for good luck.
We were starting to attract other stallholders attention now as we were carrying plastic shopping bags, so we made for the main square and a glass of mint tea refreshment at the Café Argana, which we returned to that evening with the promise of a table with a view for an evening meal. Marrakech had been fun, we’d learned a lot and we both felt we might return in the future, to use the place as a base to explore the Atlas Mountains and coast further south.
Facebook album: Marrakech
It was time to hit the road again, this time back down to the coast to stay in Rabat, for a change we had booked the best room available in a riad there, it was called the Dar Mayssane.
On reaching the medina of Rabat, we decided to park up and walk on foot to find our accommodation, this time a man asked if we needed help, he told us he was a surf instructor, we were only a street away and he insisted on walking us there, chatting all the way – what do you know, he wanted money for his 2 minutes of time too! After moving the car and negotiating our parking rate for the evening, we checked into our accommodation and set out to explore Rabat.
The beautiful Kasbah des Oudaias was just around the corner, we ignored the offers of help to guide us around and made our way inside. There was a lovely atmosphere in the walled gardens, groups of local musicians had gathered to play and people were enjoying the ambiance in the late afternoon sunshine. We wandered the narrow alleys painted blue & white before taking in the view over the beaches.
Crossing over the road we headed back into the souk area of the medina, we weren’t hassled and were able to comment on the various goods as we passed by the stalls, leather jackets and rugs featured heavily in this area. We popped out the other side and found ourselves in an awkward spot, it was a street market with a narrow pavement set between a tram line and the medina wall, we tried to navigate the bustling crowds and find our way back around the to Kasbah, but began to feel nervous that we were going to run into trouble if we continued along this way, it was an ideal scenario for pickpockets. We reversed our route back through the souk by which time it was dark and we needed to eat.
Le Dhow was lit up in front of us, as this was one of the recommended restaurants by our riad so we boarded the boat for our evening meal.
Facebook album: Rabat
The following morning we were hesitant, do we explore more in Rabat or head on to Fès? We decided on Fès, this was a Unesco Biosphere city, with lots of interesting buildings within the medina and we also wanted to explore the tanneries.
We made good time and arrived on the outskirts of Fès late morning, we had booked another riad so we had a comparison about this type of accommodation. Within a couple of junctions we kept being plagued by men on scooters who would pull up alongside Mike’s driver window, tooting, shouting and gesticulating if we wanted the medina. We had no maps out or were even lost at this point, we were simply following the signs for the centre of the city. These guys were intimidating, beeping, gesturing for several junctions, each time one gave up, another would start. We didn’t know it, but this was a sign of things to come.
We decided to find the medina, park up and wander to locate our riad. The first walk in, men just kept asking to take us to the Jewish quarter, they didn’t want no for an answer and we definitely didn’t want to go with them. We retreated to the car, consulted our map and began to drive, this time we found the road our riad was off. A man with a yellow jacket and whistle commanded us to stop by blocking the road, he asked where we were going and then said that we should park in a space by him, we did. We negotiated a rate to leave the car secure overnight, he then told us to go with a guy who would walk us to the riad. Neither of us wanted to get our cases out of the car at this point, we didn’t need a guide as we knew the riad was just a few metres down a passage, he walked with us anyway.
We arrived at the entrance to the riad where another young Moroccan man was waiting on the doorstep, he asked if we had a reservation and he gestured for us to enter. Our unwanted guide, then began to sell us on a tour of the tanneries, he kept pushing, insisting that he would come in an hour, we declined. A man at the bar gave us the usual forms to fill out, which we did, then a different man arrived and insisted that Mike had to go outside with him and move the car, he told me that I should stay inside. We both went, feeling really uncomfortable now, what on earth was going on here? We were told that the parking man would return our money, however after a strong argument with the guy telling us to move the car, he didn’t make a refund. The man got in our car with us and insisted we drive 4 car spaces down the road, or our car wouldn’t be there in the morning and we would need the police. As he got out of the car in the new parking place, we locked the doors with us inside and after a quick conflab, decided that we had to abandon any thoughts of staying at this location. We told him we weren’t staying under any circumstances, to be fair he looked quite shocked that we should feel this way and tried to persuade us, but our minds were made up, for the first time I felt scared and unsafe.
We retreated to a shopping centre on the main road looking for somewhere to have lunch and use WiFi to find somewhere else to stay. Next door was a 5* hotel which was to be our sanctuary, we booked a room and stayed inside, neither of us wanted to try and explore the medina for a third time! I was very disappointed, this was a place I had really been looking forward to visiting, but quite honestly it wasn’t worth risking our safety for.
If you are adamant about visiting Fès, then do so with an official tour guide, one recommended by your hotel and a person that should be wearing the authentic guide card.
We enjoyed an impromptu afternoon at the Palais Medina & Spa, chilling out and catching up online.
Facebook album: Fès
I was unsure where we should head for our last day, we had to drive from Fès to Tangier, and I really wanted to visit Chefchaouen which is a pretty town in the mountains on the way. The issue was that this would be 370km by country road and not the faster & more secure toll roads we’d previously been using. We already knew that signage in the cities was completely lacking and we wouldn’t have any internet access for navigation if we got lost. After some consideration we decided to go for it, I spent an hour or two downloading screen shots of the route and Mike decided to trust in his iphone map navigation to at least get us out of Fès.
We set off on Mike’s phone instructions which took us in the complete opposite direction to my carefully calculated route map! We stuck steadfastly to the route, past the cemetery, into the lower section of the medina, the streets were getting rougher, narrower, and we kept on thinking it was right, eventually we ended up on dirt track which was then blocked off with a pile of earth, worse was we didn’t know how to get out of here! Turning the car around we started negotiating the tiny streets, the navigation was no help as it now couldn’t access the internet to calculate a new route. Slowly using our wits about us we managed to find a way back to some sort of main road, we decided just to circle the medina on the outside until we could pick up a sign for the right direction. By luck we found one of the roads on my route map and we were on our way out of there, I have absolutely no desire to revisit Fès.
Within a few minutes we were on a country road and could breathe a sigh of relief, it was lovely, there were cute donkeys grazing freely, people working in the fields and we relaxed, it was going be slow but we’d enjoy the journey along the way.
We discovered so much about Morocco during this journey, at each water stop donkeys were being loaded with barrels of water, they were that used to the task they were either plodding along by themselves or had small children riding them home. Women were washing clothes in the river, draping them over walls nearby to dry in the sunshine. Once the water had been collected the donkeys were then engaged in carrying large bundles of wood or heaps of mint.
When we were driving through one town, the traffic stopped for a funeral procession to pass through, it was quite moving to see the men chanting carrying the body up over the fields whilst the women stayed behind as their religion prohibits females from witnessing the actual burial. We also got stopped at one of the police check points, there are many normally on entry or exit from towns / villages, after a few questions we were waved on our way.
We stopped at a roadside cafe at a viewpoint, the food smelt amazing but we were holding out for lunch in Chefchaouen so we ordered a coffee and mint tea to perk us up, the cost 12 dirhams, just 1.20 euros and service with a friendly smile. Sometimes the going was slow, large lorries would struggle up the steep hills and Mike was starting to yearn for a straight road without twists and turns.
We reached Chefchaouen by mid afternoon, stumbling upon a parking place in the road we went in search of the two squares in town. The smell of food cooking from the Place El Makhzen was amazing, we were waved over by one of the owners to a spare table, and requested kofte kebabs, which are ordered by the weight of meat required. The place was buzzing with locals, I spotted a couple looking for a table and gestured for them to use the other half of ours. I noticed the woman mentioning the bread which had been delivered to the table, she didn’t look happy so the guy dashed off, only to return with a huge flatbread some moments later. She was delighted, and he insisted on us taking half of the bread which he explained in French was typical of the region. It was made from an integral grain and really tasty, it was a good accompaniment to our meat served with chopped red onion sprinkled over the top and a spicy red sauce for dipping. When we finished, he popped 4 tangerines on our side of the table and wished us a bon journee, they were sweet and juicy. This gesture really touched me, he asked for nothing in return and simply wanted us to enjoy the local produce.
We had a wander around the Place Uta el-Hammam after lunch, the minute we neared the medina the attention started, sadly we decided to continue our journey so that we would arrive back in Tangier before dark. I have some regrets about not exploring this beautiful blue painted city in more detail, our experience in Fès was too fresh, we just couldn’t face another medina encounter at the time.
At Tetouan the road became a dual carriageway which made overtaking much easier and we began to increase our km per hour. It felt good to reach Tangier, the place where our adventure had started, this time the city felt familiar, we checked into the same hotel, and enjoyed another dinner at Alibaba and breakfast at Rainbow café before flying back to Madrid. As we handed our car back, we checked our trip metre, we had driven a total of 1601 km during our week in Morocco.
Facebook album: Morocco
Morocco had been a blast, we’d really enjoyed exploring, eaten some fabulous food and not missed an alcoholic drink with our meals. We had learned a lot about the way we want to travel in the future. We discovered that we definitely want our own navigation available, be it via a MiFi or Sat Nav device when out of our own roaming coverage. We also like the comfort and convenience of a good quality hotel rather than rustic and traditional accommodation and just occasionally we may seek the assistance of an official guide when required.