Highlights: Morocco 2019 September 'Sea to Sahara' small group tour
Updated: Dec 8, 2019
Morocco is one of my favourite countries to spend extended time in - when I first came here in 1986 I recall thinking that it seemed to incorporate 'everything' within its compact borders, tucked up into the north-western-most tip of Africa.
This year I led two 18-day tours around the country on programs I designed after living here for extended periods over the last 4 years, (including eight months living in Fez, and studying Arabic language, 2017/18). This photo essay captures some of the highlights from the September Tour with eleven awesome women from Australia.
What does Morocco conjure up for you? Carole in Marrakech surprised herself!
Mediterranean shores with ancient Phoenician and Roman cities scattered along an awesome Atlantic coastline. Three mountain ranges whose inhabitants speak, dress and create beautiful artefacts distinctly different from one another. Wind-rippled golden dunes at the edge of the Sahara desert where Berber tribesmen have mingled with Sub-Saharan Africans to form a culture whose music reflects an exotic Sufi tradition. And legendary cities whose very names - Fez, Marrakech, Casablanca and Tangier - provoke a tumbling of images, imaginings and, for those fortunate enough to have experienced them, memories which, like a favourite scent, are impossible to forget the feeling of - long after the details have slipped from memory. Morocco has it all
Casablanca is our starting point. When the present King's father, King Hassan II, built the eponymous mosque on the Atlantic shores in the late C.20th, he created not only the 3rd largest mosque in the world (after Mecca and Medina), but majestically articulated the dreams of a country released by his father, Mohammed V, from the yoke of colonisation.
In 2019 our Sea to Sahara tours headed towards Tangier, a city often neglected on tours because it requires a 5 hour drive north. For me, it's 'a must' not only because you'll meet the most exceptional Tangerine to share his city with us for a whole day, but our luxurious and historic hotel, two nights of exceptionally cultivated dining, the fresh Mediterranean air, light glistening off the white kasbah and the diversity of cultural life here makes it a city to savour long after you've left.
In Tangier we visit a synagogue as we continue our exploration of Morocco's vast history. After 1967, Morocco's significant Jewish population were largely resettled in Israel, abandoning homes and shops in the areas which came to be known in each city as the 'Mellah' - interestingly, despite its formidable Jewish population, Tangier did not actually have a mellah - unlike all other areas of Jewish population in Morocco.
Surprising the Tangerines with a dawn dip in the Mediterranean before heading over the Rif Mountains (L to R : Anna, Kathy, Fiona, Evi and Amanda). The Bay of Tangier
Driving from Tangier to Chefchaouen we pass the turn-off to Tetouan, and if time permits, we can, as we did on the second tour in October, stop for a brief guided walk through the ancient medina in the town from which that great traveller of the medieval world, Ibn Battuta set forth in the 14th century. On a more leisurely tour we head straight towards the blue town of Chefchaouen, famed for its indigo streets and, so they say, world's best hashish (did you know that the local street code for this is 'coriander' ?)
Two ladies, two cultures. Living side-by-side, the woman on the left dressed in traditional garb of her Berber people of the Rif mountains, and a lady of Arabic descent wearing a gelaba, a traditional robe with a pointed hood (unique to Morocco), still used as an overgarment for street wear by men and women, young and old, city and rural.Chefchaouen
Morocco has four imperial cities. Its capital, Rabat reclaimed its C.11th glory and today is an elegant and surprisingly quiet city with a 1000 years of history surrounding it. So too, Meknes (below) the C.17th imperial home of the Berbers whose lineage hailed from Rissani in the Saharan south. Together with the nearby ruins of Volubilis, the largest Roman site in Morocco which reached its zenith in the C.2nd, we get to take in an incredible expanse of history in one day
Being silly in Meknes! (above) Built by the C.17th sultan whose stated aim it was to outshine the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, you have to imagine magnificent stallions stabled here whilst just across the way in a subterranean mirror image of this vast enclosure were prisoners destined for the slave markets, snatched from the shores of Europe by Barbary corsairs.
When we arrived in Fes after a long day of travel there were sighs of awe and admiration all round as we were welcomed by the Gallic charm of the well-stocked Dominique.
Rooftop Riad Dining in Fes. After a warm day of driving and fossicking over ruins, cool beetroot soup followed by the delicate flavours of Atlantic seafood were a welcome repast as the lights of Fes' 9400 streets twinkled below. All of our hotels are chosen for ambience, authenticity, beauty and hospitality, as we usually dine at least once in our accommodation, especially after a busy day. Photo: Fiona delighted at the prospect of French bubbles!
Evi, above, gingerly avoids the lamb skins whose scoured and cured hides have been brought from the tannery and dried on nearby hillsides before being brought by donkey to artisanal dyers who hand-colour each skin in Fes, famed for its fine leather since the 10th century when the first tanneries were built - one of the main reasons for Fes' location on the river of the same name. Fes is the perfect place to indulge in a little shopping - especially if you're thinking of having a jacket made to measure, as most of us did on this tour.
We left Fes early morning, after 3 nights in the medina, ascending the Middle Atlas mountains where we stop for a wild and wonderful lunch of grilled lamb chops sliced straight from the sides of meat hanging outside the grill restaurants. Voted by many as one of the best meals on the tour, we tried to repeat this repast at a later location, only to learn that the Middle Atlas really excel in their barbeque skills. We definitely had better luck with dates.
Amanda (above) deciding which of Morocco's 40 varieties of dates she'll indulge in as we drive into date capital of Morocco - Erfoud
Just practicing (above) We spent our first day in the south leisurely exploring Rissani, having made sure that our tour aligns with one the only two market days in this great Saharan centre. It was the perfect opportunity to buy our headscarves (below) Rissani
I think this gorgeous photo of Helen, below, needs a caption competition !
Today, day 8, we enjoyed lunch with a French ex-pat resident of Merzouga who shared her love of this country with insights into culture, cuisine and fashion - yes! another shopping opportunity. Mint tea, sweet pastries soaked in honey ... it's time for some serious poolside lounging before we set out for our sunset saunter on our camels.
Saharan views (above) - Evi and Maria poolside in Merzouga
Yes! that's our Rose (above) setting out on our sunset camel trek to our tented camp
Is this everything you dreamed of in a luxury desert camp? A night under canvas with A/C and hot and cold running water, Gnaoua musicians (gnaoua is the word used to describe the Africans from Mali and Sudan, who having adopted Islam, eventually combined it with their own tribal religions to create a sufi-like practice with mesmerising music that plays all night long, sending adherants into a trance-like state), linen on the table at dinner and a sky full of stars.
Sunrise in the Sahar. Not everyone could be roused from their giant beds in their luxury tents - but for those who made it, with cold sand between our toes and the distant call to prayer, the solitude was perfect for a little meditation and Fiona's Daily Downward Dog
Worth it ... Gill, Maria, Fiona, Kathy and Amanda with our camp in the distance and cameleer keeping an eye on us.
Always a little sad to leave the dunes behind, but so much still awaits us - we're still only 9 days into our 18 day journey. Today we head for the magnificent Todra Gorge. Unlike most tours which nudge into the gorge for a quick walk about before hopping back on the bus to get between Merzouga and Quazzazate in one day, we take an extra night to spend deep inside the gorge at a unique accommodation with excellent food and wine, and spontaneous outbursts of song by the staff!
The Subiaco Post Newspaper makes its Moroccan Debut in the Todra Gorge
It's time for a Big Break - what better place than the only permanent oasis in Morocco, a beautiful area called Skoura, located strategically at the confluence of two rivers whose waters feed the palmeries which have enriched these dwellers over generations. Dates, roses and vegetables make for a rich culture of kasbahs and riads and relaxing gardens
Gaye's relaxing by the pool after her rose-scented hammam (or 'Turkish bath')
Refreshed by two sublime nights in Skoura we're ready to take on Marrakech. There are two ways to reach this legendary city, founded 1000 years ago. We opt for the High Road, via the UNESCO World Heritage Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou, so as to enjoy the spectacle of the High Atlas mountains with the constantly-changing geology and dramatic gorge views.
All this driving makes one hungry! We lunched royally on lamb and chicken tagines full of toasted almonds, dried apricots and pineapple, prunes, sultanas and figs stuffed with walnuts, a scattering of sesame seeds and fresh thyme.
The High Atlas, like every other region in Morocco, has evolved its own distinctive textiles, and none more so than rugs which are woven or tufted by village women in almost every home. Using sheep, goat and camel fibres, and often, just, the natural dyes of saffron, mint, rose, and mineral salts, each woman weaves patterns which reflect both her personal and tribal history
Sonja drives a hard bargain with Mohammed - his ultimate compliment being 'you are half Berber'! (with a pretty gorgeous kilim in the background). Most of us took the opportunity here to avoid the souks of the cities and enjoy the performance by a true High Atlas man where the rituals of mint tea and the too-ing and fro-ing of bargaining resulted in many beautiful rugs being loaded into the back of our bus!
No one can pretend that it's an easy days' drive into Marrakech from the south. So the sense of relief at arrival is certainly heightened by the smoothness with which we arrive into town, are met by men rolling carousas (luggage trolleys), and leading us towards the riads which will be home for the next three nights ( we were a group of mainly single occupancy rooms, so as most traditional riads have between 5 and 8 rooms we needed to occupy two close-by riads in a couple of city locations)
One of our Marrakech Riads - both had pools which was a delicious respite here as we struck a couple of days of unseasonally hot weather.
If it looks as if we just move from one delicious meal to another - well ... here we are enjoying lunch in a slightly out-of-the-way part of Marrakech medina - house specialty? Saffron -infused tagliatelle with gremolata and a sprig of thyme
followed by an equally fragrant experience at the Museum of Perfume (below) - where, yes it must be said, we really did linger too long amidst the clouds of scent being prepared for our individual orders of argan oil infused with rose and lemon.
With two full days to explore this 'edge' city we spent the first in a leisurely way, with a guided walk to the Bahia Palace, Saadien Tombs and Koutoubia Mosque in the morning, followed by food and perfume and then a dash to the rug souk before making our way back to the riad to rest and relax.
On our second day in Marrakech, after a morning spent exploring the labyrinthine souks, and taking advantage of our riad pools in the afternoon, tonight a special concert in a wonderfully-restored riad of great historical importance in the heart of the medina, at Mouassine, where the oud player and his lustily throated partner treated us to songs from the bygone age of Arabic rule in Andalusia.
The Jardin Majorelle, and since 2018, the Yves St Laurent Museum are, I feel, two destinations which are so complete and engrossing in themselves that one doesnt want to overlay their experience with anything much else in the same day, so we leave it 'til the third moring to spend time here before a restful drive towards Essaouira, our last destination, on the Atlantic Coast
Moroccan mint tea should be served with as much frothy bubbles as possible, and here in the Jardin Majorelle it is indeed a performance art!
Our last two days of touring are spent in Essaouira, another UNESCO World Heritage medina, where we were able to stroll leisurely and unhassled in the fresh Atlantic breeze. last-minute shopping, fabulous silver jewellery artisans and exotic food offerings amongst many highlights as huge Atlantic sea gulls swirl past.
Ready to dine out in Essaouira
And here are Rose and Gaye at El Jadida, another Portuguese sea post on the Atlantic coast as we nudge closer to our final night on the tour, back to Casablanca.
Sea to Sahara and back to Sea. An epic journey, with few stones left unturned.
To Prof. Fiona Stanley, Evi Ferrier, Maria Stannage, Dr Carol Bower, Amanda Bower, Gill Lewin, Kathy Mikosza, Gaye Wotherspoon, Rose Millmore, Sonja Tuohy and Helen Close, thank you for your humour, strength, forbearance through unseasonal heat, sore rumps from 2 hours of camel riding (sorry!), and the wisdom and stories you all brough to make this journey so memorable.
If you're interested to know more about two new tours to Morocco in 2020,