Morocco and the Sahara

Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff
Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff
I traveled to Morocco and The Sahara on a 15-day trip.  It was really magical, educational, and eye and heart-opening.  I had few expectations, and so for me, it was a true adventure that unfolded itself one magical day at a time… What I came to discover was that Morocco was a land of contrasts.  It is a Muslim country where most women’s clothing reflects the privacy of protection through either the traditional head scarf or the full robe and headscarf.  Many Moroccans live in riads, basic Moroccan traditional houses sheltered from view by a large wall, a door, and perhaps two small windows. These windows provide privacy and protection from Morocco’s challenging weather.  Once inside, you’ll likely find a courtyard with a fountain, many rooms, and apartments. I also found Morocco to be an open country.  Open in the sense that I found most Moroccan people to be very warm, friendly, and helpful. I noted that the country reflected tolerance and acceptance of all kinds of people, Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike.  I was impressed with a feeling of harmony everywhere that we went. In this travel post, I’ll let you experience the country as you see each location. In this way, I hope you’ll put Morocco on your trip wish list! Enjoy! Our first stop in Morocco was Rabat. In Rabat, we stayed at Villa Mandarine, which was marvelous.  It was an estate turned hotel whose owner’s passion was to grow fruits and flowers.  I felt that I had arrived in paradise.
Gardens at Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Gardens at Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Exterior of Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Exterior of Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Interior of Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Interior of Villa Mandarine. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

While staying at this blissful place in Rabat, we visited the entrance to the Royal Palace, Hassan Tower. It’s part of an unfinished mosque started by a 12th-century caliph. The amazingly well-preserved Kasbah of Udayas is shown in the photos below.
Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Street view Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Street view Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Entrance to Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Entrance to Kasbah of Udayas. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Then, it was off to Fez, which had fewer traffic lights and stop signs than Rabat. I got to experience a stay in my first riad! And what an experience it was. After walking through a long winding passageway in the medina, we arrived at  Riad Salam Fes.  I had no idea where we were going, but the video below shows what the immediate inside of the riad looked like when we arrived, and it was amazing. I felt that I had arrived and would soon meet Hercule Poirot on his next case in Morocco!! We visited the famed Al-Bou Inania madrasa in Fez and shopped for authentic Moroccan carpets. At The Chouwara Tannery, we saw how leather is cut and dyed using traditional techniques.  Then we browsed the Nejjarine Museum to see their wooden arts and crafts collection. There, we watched copper artisans work in Seffarine Square. Our tour ended that morning outside the Karaouine Mosque and University, the oldest continuously functioning university in the world.  After lunch, we walked through the Jewish Quarter, or mellah, which was built in 1438. That evening, we enjoyed a home-cooked meal as a local Fez family guest. That visit was a wonderful cultural experience and exchange. It was time to leave Fez and head to Erfoud.  I was excited because I knew that the night after that, we’d be staying at a Sahara Tented Camp. I was looking forward to that! We left Fez and arrived in Erfoud at this absolutely gorgeous hotel in the Eastern part of the Sahara called Kasbah Xaluc Maadid.  It was amazing.
Kasbah Xaluc Maadid. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Kasbah Xaluc Maadid. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

The grounds of Kasbah Xaluc Maadid. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

The grounds of Kasbah Xaluc Maadid. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

The next day, we explored the small city of Rissani on the edge of the Sahara and stopped at a fossil factory to learn more about this special activity, which is unique to this region. There, we wandered to a lively souk.
A scene in a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

A scene in a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Cookingin a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Cookingin a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

A bakery at a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

A bakery at a Souk. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

The next morning, we left Kasbah Xaluca Maadid and headed into the desert dunes for our sunset camel ride and stayed at Bivouac La Belle Etoile, a Sahara Tented Camp. Few words adequately describe this marvelous, adventurous journey into the Sahara.  We began by visiting a Berber family in their tent.
Visiting a Berber family in their tent. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Visiting a Berber family in their tent. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Next, we headed across the desert landscape to meet our camels for a sunset ride across the dunes.
A desert landscape. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

A desert landscape. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Here I am, ready for my desert trip on a camel.
A camel ride in the desert. Photo by anon.

A camel ride in the desert. Photo by anon.

At the end of our sunset camel walk, the camels dropped us off in front of Bivouac La Belle Etoile, our Sahara Tented Camps. To say I was excited was an understatement. I had to pinch myself to know if I was experiencing this. It was off to sleep after an amazing dinner and Saharan Desert Dance Party. To date, I can honestly say it was the most interesting, unique hotel room I ever spent a night in, and what an adventure! The next morning, it was off to Marrakesh, but first, one overnight on the way. We stayed at the Ait Ben Haddou at Riad Ksar Ighnda. In the morning, we visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a ksar (a fortified city), and a former Caravan route. With the ksar’s desert-dusted Kasbahs and maze-like passages, it took one way back in time. Next, it was Marrakesh. So once we arrived in Marrakesh, we found our way to another riad called Riad Bahia Salam. The riad was a few blocks from the main square in Marrakesh, but I must share with you that crossing the streets in Marrakesh in the Medina area reminded me a lot of my time in India. New Delhi had no traffic lights or stop signs but many bikes, motorcycles, and cars.  It was scary stuff, and crossing by myself would take a lot of practice and quick moves. In Marrakesh, we visited the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque, explored the Bahia Palace, and shopped for authentic Moroccan jewelry. We then wandered the medina and the square on our own. Then, it was goodbye to my favorite destinations. Marrakesh. Now it’s Hello Essaouira. Essaouira is like a seaside resort town with a huge fishing industry, as seen in the photo below…
Boats in Essaouira. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Boats in Essaouira. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

We stayed at Hotel Dar L’Oussia, and it was lovely. Essaouira is more low-key than any of the other places we visited and has an easy vibe. Essouria was a relief after three hectic days in Marrakesh, and I savored every sea breeze that passed my way. We took a few local tours, wandered their souk, and explored handicrafts available for purchase. It was time to leave the next day and go to Casablanca. This was to be my final evening in Morocco before I flew back home. We arrived in Casablanca late that day and spent most of our touring time visiting The Mosque of Hassan II, the third largest mosque in the world after those in Mecca and Medina. I’d be remiss not to add that we also passed Rick’s Cafe from the movie Casablanca, and I took a picture through the window of our bus.  It’s not the real Rick’s Cafe, but it was recently opened and serves as a great tourist attraction.
Rick’s Cafe from the movie Casablanca. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

Rick’s Cafe from the movie Casablanca. Photo by Sora Vernikoff

After a night’s stay at the Kenzi Tower Hotel, it was off to the Mohammed V Airport and then back home to New York. Morocco surprised, delighted, and proved to me that it’s a country of ancient, old, change, and progress. It’s inhabited by friendly, helpful, accepting people who love and welcome their visitors with open arms.  Don’t miss a chance to go to Morocco.  You, too, will feel and see the magic. Readers may also enjoy our reviews of A New Yorker’s Long Weekend in LondonNonna’s Kitchen in Hampton Junction, and Bar Italia Madison.

Morocco and the Sahara

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