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Our riad in Marrakech- our little heaven

Flight: We flew in from the USA with Royal Maroc to Casablanca. Flight went smooth, new airplane, movies, and I even got my Gluten free meal ). Landing and checking out was good. Be prepared with an address in Morocco, as you will be asked to provide one at the immigration. We provided the name and town of our first Riad.

Money: Morocco is a cash based economy. Almost everywhere, they would prefer cash, even in some of the riads. The most popular currency are Moroccan Dirhams and Euros. They will also accept US Dollars. An easy calculation to make if you’re from the States, is to divide DH by 10, and that’ll roughly give you a general idea of the price in $. Be prepared with cash. We brought cash in $ and € and changed them into DH every once in a while. In the markets and local restaurants, museums and vendors- you definitely need local currency. They do not like credit cards, but some high end places would accept them- so ask in advance if you know you’re short on cash. Another option is to withdraw money from ATM machines in Morocco, but then you have to find out about the foreign transaction fees, and if it makes sense to you. 

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Munching Prickly Pears in Taroudant’s market. Prepare MD.

After passing airport immigration, after the baggage claim, right before stepping outside the building, we changed some $$ to local Dirhams, enough to get us started.

You’ll be reading a lot about haggling in Morocco, which is very true. Except in museums, restaurants, and riads, prices everywhere else is almost always negotiable (including taxis).

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Market day in the Berber town of Asni

We were welcomed by our driver who waited for us outside.

Car + driver: I was debating whether to rent a car or hire a driver, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. While it maybe more expensive, given all the benefits, the difference in $ is so worth it.

  • We got a spacious car with enough room for all of us, a big trunk to our 5 trolleys and a few more bags, and even a place to charge the phone in the rear (on top of the charger in the front).
  • Landing in the morning after a long flight, and driving almost a whole day to our first destination, would have been hard. Having a driver allowed us to relax, get much needed rest as we were jet-lagged.  
  • We made sure to have an English speaking driver, so he explained stuff, pointed out interesting things along the way, and we were able to ask him questions about Morocco and his life.
  • Our driver communicated with locals when there was a need to find places. He also contacted our Riads ahead of time, letting them know when to expect us.
  • In some places, cars can’t enter the Medina, so the driver took care of dropping us off, parking outside, and of course, he always filled the car with gas (never with us, as to not waste any of our time). So we never paid for gas or parking.
  • It is unfortunate, but on and off the highways, there are lots of policemen, both for security reasons, but also for… money. We have been stopped a few times on different occasions. Our driver needed to produce some papers (I counted 5 different papers), and the officials took their time checking the papers very thoroughly. They also checked and open the emergency kit, checked dates on some of its content. Our driver was very organized and seemed like he knew it was coming, so he got a “pass”. We have met with other travelers, both independent drivers, and those who had a driver. They weren’t so lucky. Police would stop them, threaten to give them a ticket and a fine of 500 DH, or they could choose to give “baksheesh“. At any case, the tourists that had a driver (baksheesh paid by the driver), didn’t pay anything. So we had our peace of mind. Don’t want to scare anyone, and many do choose to rent a car, just reporting on our experience.
  • A driver allowed us flexibility, independence of when, and where to go and stop (to take pictures, for example), and to be spontaneous.

Our great driver was Loutfi, who worked for Jalil Benlabili from Morocco Unplugged. Best to get in touch with Jalil via Whatsapp:  +212 629809359, moroccounplugged@gmail.com.

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A spontaneous stop on the way to Taroudant

Having said all that, our driver was not an authorised tour guide. He may speak English and know things, but he wasn’t allowed to enter the Medina and show us around, but rather wait outside. Also, our driver was a Fez guy, he knew a lot about the northern part of morocco and the desert, and while he knew how to drive to some major places using the highways, it was his first time driving with us to other destinations.

Conclusion: do your homework: once you know your general itinerary, read TA forums, Lonely Planet, travel blogs, and be knowledgeable about your destinations. Also, on your way, interact with locals. Not only is it one of the best things about traveling: learning about the local culture, but also getting good tips about places worth visiting, eateries, etc. Read my posts to find out about the special places we visited, thanks to locals.

Riads: Riads are traditional Moroccan houses with an interior garden or courtyard, that turned hotels. All of the riads we saw and visited (even if we didn’t stay over) were beautiful, and wonderfully designed. I would search on TA/Booking websites some riads, would then look on the map where they’re located, and finally contact the riad by email, to find out prices, and specifications (especially since we needed 2 rooms, was breakfast included, local taxes, do they accept a credit card. etc’).

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Our riad in Essaouira

Getting around: Before leaving to Morocco, I made my family download onto their cells two apps that were very handy: Maps.Me and Google Maps. They’re both a navigating platform that work offline as well. I downloaded maps of the areas where we were going, marked on the maps different points of interest (our Riads, potential restaurants, attractions), and very easily shared those points with my family, so it all transferred to their maps.

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Our driving itinerary

The apps were useful when we entered the Medina to navigate our way inside. Also marked where the driver was waiting for us outside, so it’ll be easy to find him. Finally, sometimes we would split, so we marked a place on the map where we could all meet later. That technology is great!

Also- Unless you speak Moroccan-   French is your next best thing. Almost everyone speaks French. But between a few words in Arabic, a few in French, Google translator, English and body language, we managed just fine. To bargain, you only need to write down numbers 🙂

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Navigating the narrow alleys of Marrakech

Cell Phones: Yeah, don’t forget those 🙂 but also, bring your chargers, and a portable battery. If you travel with a group (aka- 3 young adults), bring more than one battery. We didn’t purchase a sim, but used free WiFi. A good app for communication via wifi, very popular in Morocco, is Whatsapp. I contacted and talked with the riads, and driver, while still in the US, via Whatsapp. There was free WiFi in all of our Riads and many restaurants and cafes. Remember, our driver helped with his phone when there was a need to communicate over the phone

Weather: We visited Morocco during Christmas break, so along the coast it was wonderfully pleasant, and once we got up to the Atlas mountain it was cold. So depending on which area in Morocco you’ll be and the time of year- please check online, and bring suitable clothes. And… sunglasses. Lots of sun.

Responsible Tourism: Responsible tourism means, among other things, to be aware and have meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.  That’s the kind of travel we usually try to conduct. That is why we chose to experience a few activities that allowed us to be exposed to local traditions, away from the beaten path, while supporting locals by spending our $$ with them. This was a win-win.

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I’m accumulator of photos. I’m interested in patterns, shapes, colors, history, and it’s change throughout time. Maybe that’s why I fixate on doors (and knobs, and windows, and floors/roofs, and…).

I’ll let my photos speak.

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This is my favorite. Which one’s yours?

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Ok, not a door. Still love it.

 

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We arrived in Essaouira at night. No cars are allowed in the medina, so the car stayed behind in the large parking lot, and we walked our way through the big gates of the old city, pulling our trolleys behind us. At this point, it was very helpful to have the cellphone GPS with us, as we navigated through the narrow alleys. Also- check out the map at the end of the post.

Finally- our beautiful Riad, that’s actually part of the old wall that surrounds the Medina. Our beautiful room had the most fabulous view. Through the window, part of the ancient wall, we had an amazing vista of the ocean. Waking up to THAT… Oh mine! Riad Perle d’Eau.  Breakfast was great- served on the rooftop, with (what would be a staple in Morocco for breakfast) M’semen (local crepe), eggs, fruit, and coffee/tea. The Riad owners were very friendly and helpful.

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This is what we saw from our room window, every morning

We stayed in Essaouira 2 nights. The small Medina is easy to navigate and is vibrant and much fun. SInce there’s so much to see, let yourself to be absorbed with this town, and here’s what NOT TO MISS:

Synagogue Slat Lkahal

A somewhat restored synagogue that served the Jewish community in Mogador- old Portuguese name for Essaouira, that was built in 1850. The synagogue was a center for many social and religious aspects of Jewish life, as witnessed by the photos on the walls. Morocco is known for its good Jewish-Muslim relationship and as we travelled we have witnessed respect, love and compassion to the Jewish minority in Morocco. Slat Lkahal is located in the northern end of the Medina, in the heart of the Mellah (the original jewish area), and is just one of other synagogues in Essaouira. Synagogue Slat Lkahal.

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Visit the old port

A mosaic of little fishing boats, fish stalls, ropes, nets, ships, seagulls, fishermen, and Moroccan mamas going out to purchase their fresh fish dinner. The sun is shining on it all, the sounds are taking over, as well as the smell, the wind, and sometimes the light spray of the sea, if you’re standing close to the water. Breath and feel alive. Charming.

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Fresh fish anyone?

Salut Maroc- Riad and restaurant

You absolutely have to visit this place, and especially before sunset. Grab a table on the rooftop, order some light food and mint tea, and get ready for the most stunning sunset. They usually have live music as well. Get there an hour before that, and just tour around the Riad, all the way up to the rooftop, to discover the gems of dazzlingly intricate tilework and splashes of color (stairways, ceilings, floors, walls, tables, heck- even the restroom). I couldn’t stop taking photos. It’s definitely psychedelic. Salut Maroc.

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lobby from above

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Salut Maroc rooftop

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psychedelic corner on the rooftop

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Even the toilet are mind boggling

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Epic sunset

Climb up to see the city line from above

Climb the old Portuguese ramparts, enter hotels and climb up to their rooftops (I recommend the views from Riad Mimouna, Skip the rest of the hotel, go straight to the roof).

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Old cannons, cobbled stone and the ocean

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From the rooftop of Riad Mimouna- 360° views

Wonder the local quarter (both morning and night market)

Lose yourself by strolling around the non touristic areas of Essaouira within the Medina, and out. Observe the bustling life of the locals, buy and eat authentic food at the night market. Try the Harira soup from the vendor, or local moroccan crepes served with honey, nutella, or Amlou (almond spread mixed with honey and argan oil). Go for the spicy olives!

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Local

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Local night market. Of course we filled our bellies with these goodies.

What else do I recommend?

-Chill with tea at African Roots cafe. Great vibes, great music, friendly staff.

-Share a lamb tagine, Moroccan tomato salad, or Pastilla (traditional chicken filo pastry pie). With so many eateries, it’s hard to decide where to eat, and you’d wish you had more time to try them all. I advocate for the ones that look the most humble, and unassuming.

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The son of the owner is watching the tagines. Can’t get more authentic than that.

-Adore the doors and entryways. I’ll have a whole post just for that. I’m obsessive.

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Winter break is the perfect time to leave the East Coast chill and visit warm, golden Morocco. We landed in Casablanca airport, peeled off our layers, and set out to the sun, where Loutfi, our driver, waited for us.

We were off to Essaouira, and though according to Google maps the ride would take about 4.5 hours, in reality, like driving elsewhere in Morocco, it takes more time, especially if you like to stop enroute.

So stop we did. We first freshened up in the old portuguese town of El Jadida where we found a cool rooftop with ocean view and good mint tea and pastries. Le Lokal

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Le Lokal, cute rooftop

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At Le Lokal, mint tea, small pastries, and well… coffee, to handle the jet lag

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Colors of El Jadida

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We stumbled upon the community bakery where  women deliver bread to be cooked in the wood-fired oven

When it was time for lunch, and after some more driving, we arrived in the city of Oualidia, located beside a natural lagoon. There, we had the freshest seafood with a tranquil seaview backdrop. Ostrea 2.

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This small town boasts the freshest mussels

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Serenity at Ostrea 2

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Ostrea 2, Oualidia

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Leaving Oualidia, to Essaouira

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YES I can

I have not been writing in my blog for quite sometime. I really want to share some nice moments, like our summer in Tuscany, etc. I will, but it’ll take time. Because…

The cold air has been gushing in, almost at once. I can’t postpone it no longer. This week it has to be done.  Revolutionize the closets: bring back those bulky winter clothes, and tuck the summer back into its corner, till next year. 3 kids, 3 wardrobes. one more for the parents. All by the end of this week, otherwise, we’ll all freeze to death. I also need to buy a new fire detector to replace the out-of-order one. And a charger to the computer. And buy a gift to a friend’s birthday party. And start thinking and preparing for Friday’s dinner with friends. We are social, after all. These are just random tasks that change every week.  I know every mom faces those tasks.

Then there’s the everyday, full-time job tasks of every week that don’t change: regular laundries, food shopping, cleaning, cooking.

And the specific jobs we received from our other boss – the school teachers:  projects, exams, homework. No, I don’t do and won’t do my kids’ homework for them. I talk about those projects that I was directly ordered by the teachers to do. You know, the ones about sitting together with our kids and collecting family memories and making a presentation. You know, the one where you receive a letter from school that starts with “Dear Parents…”. And as for exams and homework, I need to be on top of everything and remind, remind and remind, and even lend a helping hand when needed.

The automatic pilot that drives the kids around town to their sports activities, music, friends. That same pilot also stands with a virtual hammer to insist that the kids practice for their music lessons, and at times get into a vocal fight over it.

And the talking, knowing, inquiring the kids about their day in school, their friends. Listening to stories. Reacting.

And then there’s the every-once-in-a-while work to do. The “real” work, for our dear Boa.

Finally, for my own sanity and secluded bubble, there’s that English course I’m taking, where I have to produce 2 formal essays every week, based on research and backed by citations. Books, notebooks, pencils are scattered across the dining table.

I am not complaining. In fact I consider my self very lucky. I am only explaining what every mom already knows. The obvious.

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