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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 was lucky to have a short diversion and land in Hyderabad for a week. With no further ado, allow me to introduce my favorite spots:

*Temples. The two that were both beautiful, interesting, and served as a quiet place to rest from the bustling city:

Jagannath Temple

Located in the somewhat affluent neighborhood of Banjara Hills, a quiet part of town. I recommend visiting in the afternoon, before sun sets, when the colorful sculptures and intricate marble carvings are complimented by the lighting system. Also visit mid-week, when it’s not crowded. Take your time to sit, watch people, maybe meditate, then walk around and adore the characters in the little shrines.

Jagannath Temple at night

Jagannath Temple at night

So many colorful figures at Jagannath Temple

So many colorful figures at Jagannath Temple

Birla Mandir Temple

Located in a scenic environment at the top of a hill, the glistening white temple surroundings offer the best scenery of Hyderabad, as well as air and good breeze. The temple is a white beauty, with many artistic designs for the eye to take in. Be aware, that like many other temples in India, you will need to remove your shoes before entering, and leave them outside. Also, in this temple, phones and cameras are not allowed, and they are very strict about it.

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A view of Birla temple, built on top of a rocky hill, Hyderabad

*Architecture and views. Hyderabad is a city of contrasts. Full of old, magnificent buildings from different eras, up to the ultimate, up-to-date modern architecture. That is why, even by driving around the city, one’s eyes simply can’t rest but devour the sights of old and new, marble and glass, domes and geometrical designs.

Charminar

One of Hyderabad’s musts, Charminar (stands for the “four towers) is a monument built in 1591 by Mohammed Qutub Shah, the fifth sultan of the Qutub Shahi dynasty of India. A climb up the narrow, winding, uneven steps is quite the experience: awkward as you’re squeezed between people, and climbing very, very slow. Yet, the views from the tower, as well as the many architectural details that the structure presents, are well worth it (and the money they’re collecting).

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Charminar= the “four towers” are clearly seen from afar, high above

Charminar, Hyderabad

curves and arches at Charminar

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Islamic arches

Golkonda Fort

Somewhat of a drive from city center, this old fort (approx. 800 years) is the epitome of engineering. Be sure to take the full english tour to learn the many secretes that the fort holds with the interesting bits of historical information. Do it during  the day and don’t be tempted to stay for the lights show during evening, which was meant as a gimmick, but not a very good one for a non-Indian.

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Stepping on 800 years old stones

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The famous acoustic effect: A hand clap below the dome can be heard clearly almost a kilometer away

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Arches corridor

HITEC City

A few years ago, a new, modern city emerged on the flat prairie near Hyderabad, all clean shaped, glass and steel, built for the world leading technology, pharma, and financial companies. With those, came residential buildings, campuses, and all the rest. I recommend driving around and noting the amazing differences, and the contrast that is still evolving between the old city and the contemporary landscape.

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An example of the modern new buildings in HITEC City, photo by Veera.sj.

*Shopping and food. Oh, where do I start? Shopping is all around. Shops and bazaars seem to be the arteries and veins that connect and make the city a whole. Each sari and fabric store is filled with gorgeous colors and patterns. Restaurants and food carts all looked equally inviting. My suggestions are these:

Laad bazaar right next to Charminar, for all the bangles you could dream of. Allow time to wonder around and view people and sellers.

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Glass, metal, fabric wrapped bangles. You ask, they have it. I’m in there somewhere…

Shopper’s Stop at GVK One mallFor ethnic clothes, there are the markets, and the endless shops everywhere, but I found it easy to eventually shop at one of the local malls, where I could try the kurta on, and the prices were very decent.

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Of course there’s plenty of other stuff everywhere in the street

Bawarchi. Perhaps ze’ (french accent please) most tastiest Hyderabadi chicken biryani in Hyderabad.

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I asked for a fork, but I’ve learned to use my hand since then.

Minerva Coffee Shop. Despite the name, these guys’ specialty is their amazing thali, that kept on refilling itself. My kind of heaven.

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GREAT thali at Minerva Coffee

Of course, other kinds of street food were absolutely a delish: samosas being my top choice.

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Hyderabad street life

*indulgence. Make time for a good Ayurvedic massage, especially the scalp and head warm oil massage, or even a full body oil massage, completed with hot steam sauna. I’ve been to Senses, and after the massage I emerged as a new person. It was so good, that I made my husband take the massage the day after. Please remember though, this is India, so don’t expect any western style or standard.

*Thanks. It’s always wonderful to travel with a local, not to mention warm, generous people, who become friends. I’d like to thank you guys, for the wealth of information, guidance, and efforts: Sharma, Indira, Justine, Priya, Srihari, Vivek, Vamshi, Mapu and mostly to Amrutha. Shukriya!

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Hyderabad, 2015

 

 

 

 

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