“A Wonderful Experience!”

Trip to Morocco
Last spring, my nephew who was planning to study Arabic for two months in Fes through his university invited me to meet him in Morocco in August when he was finished.  I was facing a major birthday in the summer and decided that in lieu of bungee jumping, zip-lining and parasailing all on that same day to prove my ‘youth’, I would get my thrills by accepting his invitation.

Experience It! Tours
Friends who had traveled in Morocco recommended Experience It! Tours.  Aaron Johnson, living in Morocco, responded quickly and capably with online information and I was able to design my own itinerary, using the services of the tour company when and where I needed them.  The company arranged all of our accommodation including half board meals and most of our transportation and their rates for these services were very reasonable.  The information package they provide prior to travel is well-designed and complete in basic travel information about Morocco.  

My first stop was marvelous Marrekech with all its color and cacophony.  Devin met me at the airport and after he had several lengthy discussions with taxi drivers, a fare was agreed on with one and we zoomed off, the driver shouting some final verbal jabs at his competition.  He zigzagged through traffic and into the medina, letting us off at the edge of the Djemaa El Fna  where the late afternoon crowds were beginning to grow.   I trundled my suitcase across the big square, dodging Peugots and Renaults, donkey carts and motor scooters to a street and then a lane,  and then down a narrower alley to the riad where we were staying – (just a door in the wall?!) and arrived wide-eyed, and charmed.  Enchanted!  So pleased to meet you, Marrekech!

The rooms in this vintage riad  were simple but clean, and very efficiently and quietly air-conditioned.  After dark and Iftar (breaking fast), we were directed  to a neighboring hotel and I sampled my first tagine.  In the dimness, I didn’t recognize the  chicken liver…  

Our tour guide called later that evening to tell us that because it was Ramadan, sites would not be open as early, and we would be better to start later in the morning than we had arranged.  Another hour of sleep was so welcome!

Next morning after breakfast on the roof-top (and the fresh-squeezed OJ is heavenly!), Noury, an experienced and knowledgeable guide, and Driss, our efficient driver, showed us the major sites according to our preferences.  Our guide was invaluable in helping us find our way through and to particular shops in the souk. Our half-board meal plan with Experience It! Tours gave us the freedom to choose our restaurant for dinner and that added to our adventure.  We often ate looking out over The Square, lively at all times but especially after sunset, and we also sampled the cuisine and evening dining in the Ville Nouvelle.

Boulaaouan – “Day in the Life of Berber”
After a couple of days in Marrakesh, Driss drove us south to the  village of Boulaaouan.

Our accommodation there was the Berber House.  We were met by the master, owner, and creator of this enterprise, Mohammed, and his wife Fasia, brother-in-law, Moustapha, children Anir, Waldemir, Marowen…  They welcomed us to their home, decorated intriguingly with artifacts from the days of the Amazigh, and then served us traditional mint tea. Moustapha prepared the leaves, added scalding water and an iceberg-shaped CHUNK of sugar, and then poured, holding the silver pot high above the tea glasses.  He had Marowen sample the first glass to see if it was ready.  Moustapha was not eating or drinking.  

We did not eat or drink on the street or in public sites in consideration of those fasting during this month.  Restaurants were always available for meals, and we usually could find a place to screen an occasional swig of water.  But now, in a home with the family around, it was uncomfortable to be sipping a hot liquid while they laconically watched.  

Fasia cleared away the tea things, and then told me we would be making bread. ( Devin immediately disappeared to take a nap.) She brought flour, salt, yeast and water from the kitchen and we sat on the floor, each with our own basket sifter and large round pottery mixing plate.  Finally, six round, flat loaves of Moroccan bread probably made exactly as Abraham made it, were left rising.  Between mixing and shaping  the bread, we each made a tagine.  First the chicken and the seasonings were laid in a round clay base, then vegetables and more seasonings, and finally the dish was topped with a conical lid and placed on a charcoal burner.  While it simmered, we place our round, risen loaves in baskets, Fasia put on her floppy straw hat, and with the children gamboling around us, we left the house and walked down the rocky road to a door in the wall.  Inside, we stepped carefully through the goat enclosure and into a mud-walled room with the communal mud-brick oven built into the corner.  Fasia retrieved her stool from one of the cheeky little boys, and sat down to stoke the fire and scrape the cinders from the cast iron baking board.  One by one, she pushed the loaves into the heat, stacking the rounds on end against one wall of the oven when they were done. Waldemir and Marowen showed me goat kids and a hen nesting on the ledge above the oven, and women from the village came in to chat, Fasia’s sister, her mother, and then slender, shy Saadia, Moustapha’s wife of just 21 days.  He had proudly told me that she was a trained mid-wife from Agadir.   Each woman greeted me very hospitably and  we patched together some communication with my bits of French and their bits of English.   

When the bread was all baked, we took it back to the house.  Moustapha again was our host, tearing the bread in pieces and handing one to each of us to dip into the tagine in the center of the table.  The children ate with us, and yes, the best tagine in Morocco is one that you’ve made yourself, hot off the charcoal burner.  After sunset, the family gathered to eat again, a meal of soup, breads and cakes, and only then did the adults eat.

Before evening, Moustapha took us on a walk through the village.  He is the village storekeeper and he showed us his shop, a 5×10 ‘cupboard’ with every bit of space maximized.  On the wall is his small TV, and he told us that he learned English by watching English programs.  We walk on past hedges of prickly pear which mark property borders.  Using a pronged stick, Moustapha lifts off the ripe pears and Marowen whisks off the barbs. The boys are like frisky young goats, and Moustapha yells at them like a schoolmaster.  More people appear on the path we’re taking; everyone is going to the “well.”  Moustapha explained that deep in the earth above the village is a spring.  The water has been channeled to the village and it pours out of the rocks, an abundant flow from which the people fill their containers.  

Bedtime comes early and the night is hot.  A mullah sings a very long prayer over the mosque loudspeaker.  My room has a window and a door opening onto the inner courtyard and finally after midnight, I sacrifice privacy to open both and catch some cooler air.    Through the night, I am aware of people coming and going.  It’s the pattern of life during Ramadan.

The next morning, our careful driver, Driss, takes us on to Agadir.  I watch for goats in argan trees…  

We stay at the Hotel Timoulay,  a lovely, modern hotel with comfortable, well-designed, energy efficient rooms (the cardlock turns the lights on and off) and it really is a short, easy walk to the beach.  The sky was overcast the whole weekend, so the weather was wonderful for the fair-skinned, pleasantly warm but very little sunscreen needed.  This is a vacation destination for European families, and what a great beach it is for children to build kasbahs, castles and fortresses of all sorts!   It’s a great beach for all, with miles of sand-walking between the blues of the sea and sky and the brilliant white architecture of the Moroccan/French resorts. The staff at the hotel were friendly and gave excellent service, and the breakfast and dinner buffets were superb in variety and quality.    Fantastic French pastries on the dessert bar – unforgettable!  We viewed the new city from the ramparts of the memorial old city, explored the souk, so different from the souks of the medinas, and bought amelou and argan oil creams and soaps. 

We returned to Marrakech for a night and it rained an ‘au revoir.’  Next morning we boarded the train for the seven hour ride to Fes.  The route follows the coast past Casablanca, and then on to Rabat and Meknes.  Experience It! Tours had again arranged our accommodation,  lovely Dar Fes Medina, which turned out to be a few doors away from the home Devin had stayed in during his months of study.   We had a tour of the medina with Hakim, probably the best tour guide in Fez, who knows that ancient labyrinth and its history “like the palm of my hand,” he says.

Fatima, our excellent concierge, recommended the restaurant we chose for our last evening in Morocco, Dar Hatim.  Fouad and Karima, the owners and operators, have created a large,  authentic Moroccan dining room in their home.  Karima and her mother-in-law do the cooking, Karima and Fouad do the serving, Fouad chauffeurs guests to and from, and their friendliness and hospitality make this dining experience worth the high rating it has received.  I ordered the pastilla made with chicken and I am sure no better sample of this national savoury/sweet pastry can be found.  Karima’s attention to quality was also evident in the fruit she had chosen for dessert, sweet, large green grapes, and a perfectly and naturally ripe fig and nectarine.  After dinner, they gave us a tour of their home, a CD of the music they used that evening, and their e-mail address.  I hope I can persuade Karima to send me her recipe for zehlouk!

Without the services of ExperienceIt! Tours,  planning this trip would have been much more difficult.  To all the great people in New York and Morocco who made this opportunity  a wonderful experience,  SHUKRAN!   GOD BLESS YOU!

Lorna & Devin.

(August of 2011)