Years ago while watching Patsy and Edina escape to Morocco for a little vacay, a spark ignited in me. I’d never given the country much thought before then, but seeing them walk through the souk in Marrakesh was enough for me add the city to my Lust List. However, given that the probability of my visiting it someday was about as likely as … well, as my marrying a Norwegian, I snuffed that spark and went on with my life. Fast-forward a couple of decades: I did marry a Norwegian, and as fate would have it, Marrakesh was on his list, too.
Knowing how much we like to travel, one of Espen’s friends recommended Escape.no, a Norwegian-based tour guide company that he had used a couple of times. When Espen saw that it offered a guided tour of Morocco, it wasn’t long before he was booking our late-February getaway.
Welcome to Marrakesh!
We arrived in Marrakesh late on a Saturday afternoon with the rest of our group. Given the time, there wasn’t much to do beyond check in and eat dinner at the hotel. The itinerary on the website said that our hotel was near many shops, restaurants, bars, and the city’s largest shopping center — all of which might have been fun to investigate after dinner. Alas, this description must have been for a different hotel, as ours was nowhere near anything of note. Still, it was good to start getting to know all the other members of our group and relax before our big day in Marrakesh.
As our bus drove to the city the next morning, our guide, Anne, provided lots of background about Marrakesh and Morocco, as well as various points of interest as we drove by them. At least I think that’s what she talked about. The thing about using a Norwegian tour company is that everything is in Norwegian. I expected this, of course, and wasn’t the least bit nervous about it. After all, I’ve been living in Norway for 2.5 years, and my Norwegian has improved quite a bit. I figured that even though I might not understand everything, I’d get most of it. Hah! I was wrong. There were 24 in our group plus our guide, and to my untrained ear, seemingly 12 different dialects. When Anne shared interesting tidbits about what we were seeing, I managed to catch some of what she said, but my brain would begin to smoke once it started going too fast, and I’d lose it. Espen kindly filled in the blanks when necessary, but suffice it to say, I spent a lot of time wandering off to take photos or staring out of the bus window.
Our first day included a visit to the Jewish quarter, which introduced us to the markets; the Dar Si Said museum; and finally the medina, or old city, where we ambled through the infamous souk (market) — a maze of shops selling everything from live chickens to extravagant furnishings. Because we had such a large group, Anne didn’t permit us time to shop. Disappointing, yes, but with so many different people, she couldn’t chance staying on schedule. So we followed her like little chicks through the souk until lunch. After lunch, she said, we could stay behind and browse alone until dinner or head back to the hotel. Surprisingly, only Espen and I chose to stay behind to explore.
My good friend Ashley (hey, girl!) visited Morocco last year. When I told her that we were going, she warned against going through the souk without a guide. “If I hadn’t stayed with ours,” she said, “I’d be a Moroccan citizen right now, ’cause I never would’ve found my way outta there.” I passed the message along to Espen, but he was unswayed. We’ll be fine, he assured me. And he was right. We spent a fabulous afternoon wandering the twists and turns of the souk before finally making our way out to the plaza, where we wound our way around the snake charmers, henna painters, monkey tamers, and acrobats. And I could be wrong, but I think the rest of the group was surprised to see that we made it out of the souk when we met later for dinner. The market and plaza were together easily the highlight of the entire trip. It’s a feast for every sense. (A reminder: Click photos to enlarge. In many cases, there’s a description under the photo’s title.)
You’ll note there are no photos of the snakes or their charmers. There’s a reason for this: We’re both scared to death of snakes. Seeing cobras just out like that on the ground is enough to give anyone pause. In fact, the first time I saw one there on the ground, with its hood expanded, I mistook it for a carving and was very close to it until I realized that the charmers wouldn’t be playing music for a piece of painted wood. The charmers understandably expect payment for photos, and as an added bonus to interested onlookers, some of them drape smaller (presumably) nonpoisonous snakes around their necks while they take photos. That’s a hard no for me. Y’all know what cobras look like, anyway. Just know that if you ever go, watch your step.
Rockin’ the Kasbah
After the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh, we headed to the countryside, stopping first at a popular Berber souk, where virtually every Moroccan within a 20-mile radius shops for fresh fruit, veggies, nuts, roughly used clothes and shoes, and of course livestock of virtually every type. We followed Anne along the well-trodden dirt paths while she shopped for snacks and ingredients for her cooking demo later in the evening. Trinket sellers swarmed us at every turn, hawking cheap jewelry, “gemstones,” and whatever else they could carry.
Next was a visit to the family home of a man named Mohammed. His family has opened their home to tourists to give them an authentic lunch experience. Made in the traditional Moroccan style of clay and earth, the house also shelters their livestock on the first floor. Mohammed was away, but his wife, brother, and sister-in-law hosted us for a simple lunch of salad, bread, kebab, and the ubiquitous mint tea.
Our hotel for the next two nights was the Kasbah Angour Atlas Mountains Hotel, which, not unsurprisingly, has stunning views of the mountain range from which the hotel gets its name. After a tour of the facility, we had enough time to relax by the pool before Anne’s cooking demo and dinner.
After breakfast the next morning, we gathered for a guided hike through the terrain to a nearby Berber village, where we were served a delicious traditional tagine for lunch. After, those who wanted to head back to the hotel followed Anne on the road back. The rest of us, though, stuck with our mountain guide, Abdel, to trek across the canyon to the local adventure park, featuring suspended bridges and the only zip lines in Northern Africa. I’m happy to say I survived the hike up and down the canyon, as well as dizzying bridges. Crossing those things was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life, so scary that I looked forward to the zip lines. I wish I had been able to take photos, but I’d been advised to leave everything behind to avoid dropping it all into the canyon. Thankfully one of our group members took a few shots of us as we made our way across. Definitely not a bad way to celebrate my last day as a 52-year-old, and yes, I slept very well that night.
In Which Sonya Rides a Camel
After breakfast at the hotel and then lunch at the lovely Domaine de la Roseraie, we arrived in Terre des Étoiles. Described as a “minimal oasis in the Agafay Desert,” the self-sustaining eco-lodge features Bedouin tents for the guests (complete with private bathrooms!), swimming pools, organic gardens, and a restaurant. The erection of this oasis in Agafay brought birds and insects where there hadn’t been before because of the harsh conditions. Guests can enjoy yoga, spa services, and horse and camel riding along the hilly landscape before a dinner cooked using only ingredients cultivated onsite.
Anne managed to score times for those of us who wanted to ride camels. The hour-long tour took us to a scenic overlook just as the sun was beginning to set. Definitely not a bad way to celebrate turning 53 — especially since I got to enjoy riding behind Espen and his stubborn and frequently outspoken dromedar. After dinner, those willing to brave the frigid night air could hang out around the campfire, but Espen and I opted to return to our tent, where he learned that the only thing colder than the desert at night is a shower without hot water in the desert at night. Lucky for us, while we were all enjoying dinner, hotel staff tucked a couple of hot water bottles at the foot of every guest bed. Despite it being maybe 40 degrees, we slept like babies.
Not All Souks — or Hotel Rooms — Are Created Equal
Our sixth day in Morocco found us heading back to Marrakesh to visit Majorelle Garden. Yves Saint Laurent and his partner refurbished the property, and while it is a welcome green spot in Marrakesh, it’s not an especially interesting garden. Given a choice, Espen and I would have spent those two hours checking out the surrounding neighborhood in the metropolitan area of Marrakesh to window-shop and relax in a café, but the group had to stick together.
Our final stop was Essaouira, a port city lying on the Atlantic Coast, a few hours away from Marrakesh. Given the distance, we finally got to take advantage of a modern highway. To break up the trip, Anne arranged for a quick tour of a women’s co-op that produces argan oil and associated products. Needless to say, I couldn’t resist buying Moroccan argan oil while in Morocco.
On to Essaouira! The city is protected by 18th-century ramparts. One of Essaouira’s claims to fame is that the color purple was created on an island just off its coast. The other is that it was a hippie commune back in the 70s, with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix being frequent guests. Photos of Jimi in particular are everywhere, along with Bob Marley’s, which, I suppose, is supposed to add to the “chill” vibe. In fact, Jimi is reputed to have been a guest in the hotel we stayed in, the Riad al Madina, a converted mansion.
Which brings me to this: Everyone in the group paid the same per-person price for the trip. Yet because the hotel was a converted mansion, the rooms varied considerably. For example, one couple had a decked-out two-story townhouse with tiled floors and walls, while our room, complete with cracks in the walls, was dim and musty. There was one room that was even worse than ours, but that couple complained and got upgraded — to the last decent room. Anne had said that the rooms varied and advised us to suck it up and be happy for the others if we find ourselves in a crappy room. Call me crazy but I’m gonna guess that her room wasn’t a crappy one. One wonders why she didn’t ensure that the rooms weren’t so extremely varied, or why the company, through her, didn’t book a place that had comparable rooms. As it is, I feel like Espen and I got cheated.
Anne also spent considerable time describing the hammam experience and recommended a place a few streets away from the hotel. Many of us followed her advice and booked appointments through her. Getting scrubbed and massaged from the top of my head down to the tips of my toes felt fantastic … even if I couldn’t help but wonder what the place looked like when the lights were on. Any worry about cleanliness was only exacerbated when two of the men ended up with severe rashes all over their bodies. A word of advice: Bather beware.
As for the city itself, Essaouira is a seaside souk minus the character and variety of the souk in Marrakesh. Two days there were more than enough, and the platters upon platters of mediocre seafood at the inexplicably infamous Chez Sam on our last evening made for a lackluster end to the trip.
There were definitely some aspects of the trip that Espen and I would’ve done differently had we not been part of a tour group, but we still had a lot of fun together and we met some nice people. In the end that’s what it’s about. Will we ever go back to Morocco? Meh. I think this experience was more than enough. There are other places on our bucket lists that we’d like to check out once we’re able to travel safely again in a hopefully Covid-19-free world. I’m grateful to have seen the marvel that is the Marrakesh souk, though, and that I got to ride a camel — at sunset, no less!
Morocco was easily one of my favorite places to take photos. Between the iPhone and my awesome little Sony, I took at least a couple hundred shots. Below are photos that didn’t fit above but that I still wanted to share. Cheers!