Morocco, Spain & Portugal

desert-landscape-scenery-moroccoOn the heels of a fabulous ski season in Taos, Betsy and I headed out on a six-week tour of Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.

A series of flights from Albuquerque, and Dallas dropped us in Madrid where we caught a connecting flight to Casablanca.  We hired a driver/guide for the trip through Morocco planning on ending in Tangiers two weeks later before hopping the ferry to cross the to Algeciras Spain.  We plan to travel by train from Algeciras to Granada, then drive to Cordoba and Seville.  From Seville we’re flying to Lisbon.  After relaxing for a few days in Portugal, we’re flying to Bilbao Spain then driving to San Sebastian, taking the train to Barcelona, and visiting Figueres and Girona, before heading down the coast to Valencia.  Finally, we take the bullet train from Valencia to Madrid before returning home.  We’ll be blogging along the way, so please visit here if you want to tag along virtually.  

April 14, 15 & 16: Albuquerque, Dallas, Madrid, Casablanca

All things considered, we had an uneventful trip from Morocco to Casablanca via Albuquerque and Dallas. American Airlines continues on their losing streak as far as I’m concerned, they refused to route our bags through to Casablanca because, at their recommendation, we booked that portion of the trip from Madrid through Iberia, one of their partners.  They told us we were victims of a new policy introduced recently that doesn’t allow them to connect flights using different reservation numbers.  Ummm, perhaps they should have mentioned that at the time they helped us with the itinerary. Oh well, fears of a missed connection were misplaced due to the efficiency of the Madrid Airport, a very un-American experience, stunning space, excellent signs, friendly people, that allowed us to retrieve and recheck our bags in plenty of time to enjoy Iberia’s lounge before essentially walking right on to our final connection. We were picked up by our driver Muhammed (he said to call him Kikki otherwise half the people on the street will answer – lots of Muhammad’s in Morocco).  Tomorrow we’re going to church…well, mosque actually, a first for us, then off to Essaouira before heading to Marrakech. We overnighted at Riad Hamdani, nicely situated between the Casablanca airport and downtown. The Hamdani was isolated from the busy main road. Surrounded by gardens and replete with dazzling peacocks, cats, and dogs, the Hamdani proved a fine choice for recovering after the long connecting flights from Albuquerque. The hospitality we received a the Hamdani was excellent.

April 17: Casablanca & Essaouira

The following morning Kikki picked us up and delivered us through highly congested traffic to the primary Moroccan mosque downtown, located a short distance from “Rick’s Cafe.” As construction cranes and massive building projects were omnipresent in Casablanca, the advice we received that advised a hasty departure proved prescient, and we soon realized the mania associated with driving here mandated a private car – so far so good. According to Kikki, the mosque, completed in the 1990s, was made possible by a sizable tax levied on each Moroccan family. Speaking with locals, this was widely resented as many if not most Moroccans will never visit Casablanca and they generally do not have the means to afford these kinds of vanity projects. Nevertheless, the mosque was impressive. The building and plaza combined routinely accommodate as many as 125,000 people for a single service. The tour completed, we set out for Essaouira via Safi, both portside cities located on the Atlantic Coast.

After lunch in Safi and a full day of driving, we arrived at the Riad Heure Bleue located just inside the old walled city of Essaouira. The experience was somewhat existential, as the outside of the building betrayed the beauty found inside. A warm and hearty welcome by the manager that included traditional Moroccan mint tea and pastries preceded introduction to our third-floor suite above the souks that filled the ancient medina. Deciding to dress appropriately for their formal dining room, they greeted us with a champagne toast and an exquisitely prepared and romantic dinner.

April 17 – 19: Essaouira

We breakfasted in the Heure Bleue’s atrium in the morning before joining a private tour arranged by Kikki with a local guide named Hassan. This tour was delightful, both casual and simultaneously informative. Hassan took us through the port, and we walked among the many fishermen working on their boats and nets and passed the “fish cleaners,” a particular profession here. We toured the old fortifications, walked the ramparts, and then visited souks as we wound our way through the city en route to lunch. According to Hassan, this was the setting used for filming many of the segments used in “Game of Thrones – Season 3.” The tour guides in Morocco cleverly introduce you to souk owners with whom they have side deals that provide a kick-back for any purchases made by their clients, though they imply no obligation to purchase. After an excellent meal, Kikki picked us up, and we took a short drive up the coast to visit the “hippie” section of Essaouira, frequented in the 1960s by rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones who now serve as namesakes for places they allegedly stayed – lots of surfing and kite-boarding along this stretch of beach.

April 19 – 22: Marrakesh

What struck us most on the drive to Marrakech was the similarity between Morocco and Northern New Mexico. While the architectural style is different the materials of the thick-walled buildings are very similar, as is the landscape, especially as the Atlas Mountains come into view.  En route we stopped for a private Moroccan winery tour. Even though Muslims generally refrain from drinking alcohol (the exception being “Berber whiskey,” a potent distilled concoction made from maize, dates, and raisins, which we tasted – in keeping with the similarities reminiscent of tequila of course), they appear to have a burgeoning French-owned wine industry. Coincidentally we passed through a Berber festival complete with “attacking” tribesmen.  We arrived in Marrakech a bit later than planned and embarked on another private tour of the old palace and the souks there. Somehow our guide managed to avoid the realities of the souks we encountered the next day.

After our stay as tourists in Marrakech, we concluded that avoiding it in favor of other Moroccan options would be preferred. It’s much less appealing than Essaouira and, frankly, my lasting impression of the market and the souks will be the stench of urine and road apple catchers behind the horses that pull the buggies around. We stayed at one of the nicer hotels, the Es Saadi, great pools, gardens, restaurants, good spa with reasonable prices, etc. about a 20-minute walk to the central mosque, old palace, medina, and souks. The food here is good, they have beer and wine, etc., but the staff is just cordial enough. You’ll get better service in NYC. I think we did it right; namely, arriving late day for three nights with one full day spent in the Atlas Mountains and a beautiful dinner there, a private tour of the old palace in Marrakech, and a few hours to tour the souks is enough – mostly akin to a cheap carnival experience. Generally, the Moroccan people south of Casablanca have been amicable. My recommendation would be to head straight up into the Atlas Mountains, stay at Kasbah Tamadot, do some touring and hiking – it’s beautiful there. Thanks, Tara and Phillip for the driver recommendation – the experience has been dramatically enhanced as a result of hiring him for the two weeks.

April 22 – 24: Skoura

The day started pleasantly in Marrakech, a scheduled late-morning pick-up by our driver and filling breakfast with strong coffee. We headed up and over the Atlas Mountains for a relatively short but time-consuming ride through the twisty mountain roads, challenged with various construction, seemingly dangerous and thankless work here as the day laborers struggled through a dense fog of dust caused by the heavy trucks. The highway materials are harvested adjacent to the road with heavy equipment perched precariously on steep inclines, which appear ready to slide at any moment. Kikki, our driver, informed me that unions if they exist at all, are ineffective as any strike would be rendered useless by the jobless who are hungry for work and by corrupt police, part of the military, who would undoubtedly make protest difficult – so the working conditions are far from ideal. So far, police checkpoints have doted the highway every 20 kilometers or so. Kikki noted that, as the police are corrupt, a bribe is often the best way out of disputes. Most of the low-cost labor in this part of the country is performed by Berbers, who, while the original inhabitants of the region, are cast as second-class citizens by the Arabs who control the government. He suggested that the Berber people were better off under the colonial control of the French, then again he is a Berber. I understand that I know little beyond what I observe. Half-way through our ride, I realized I had left my passport and some money in the safe in Marrakech – stupid American. Kikki, always the gentleman immediately turned around, and we made a return trip to our hotel to retrieve them. We headed back across the mountains one more time, back through the traffic and dust with Kikki and Betsy enduring the delay much better than I would have under the circumstances. While the Atlas Mountains are not unusually high from an elevation perspective, the relief is outstanding, providing dramatic vistas. The mountains are rugged, and along the route, Kikki pointed out ancient but now abandoned Berber villages perched high on ledges and the tops of challenging to reach peaks. He said they built their communities there for safety and purposes of defense, but now most of the villages sit alongside the roadways and everywhere one will find themselves besieged by peddlers hawking trinkets (e.g., counterfeit geodes with crystals painted gold, bright red, or blue are popular). One becomes conditioned to ignore the fact that all of them are probably desperate for the few Dirhams it would cost to acquire them. “No” quickly becomes the most valuable and universally understood word in the English lexicon.
We stopped for lunch at a roadside café high up in the Atlas where an Indonesian crew was filming a movie. Kikki told us movies, due to the low cost of production and the scenery, were a big part of the economy here. Later, after exiting the mountains, we entered Ouarzazate, the capital of the province of the same name, which hosted many of the scenes for movies such as Cleopatra and Lawrence of Arabia; the set is now our equivalent of a theme park for tourists. Given the lateness of the day we were concerned that we would not make it to our hotel in time for dinner, when in fact, we should have been worried about finding it in the dark. About an hour after entering the desert Kikki veered off-road, and we found ourselves on a lightly traveled track bouncing along a hardscrabble road. After another 30 minutes or so we approached a lush oasis and there it was, Kasbah 123 Soleil, where we were greeted by locally costumed staff and taken to our suite. Unlike the hotel in Marrakech, the hospitality here has been overwhelming. The kasbah consists of what appears to be a combination of 6 – 8 rooms and suites frequented by primarily French families. It’s spartan in the sense that there are few amenities, but very peaceful and tranquil. Today will afford the time to kick back and relax before we pick up 4 x 4 and camel transport to our “luxury” desert camp tomorrow.

April 24- 25: Merzouga/Erg Chebbi

April 25 – 26: Erfoud

April 26 – 28: Fes

April 28 – 30: Tangiers

April 30 – May 3: Granada

May 3 – 6: Cordoba/Seville

May 6 – 10: Lisbon

May 10 – 13: Bilbao/San Sebastian

May 13 – 17: Barcelona/Figueres/Girona

May 17 – 19: Valencia

May 19 – 23: Madrid

May 23: Albuquerque

May 24: Taos