I am so excited to announce my new online travel show…Travel Unplugged!!! Season 1 premieres April 29, 2015! For 8 weeks, we will take an adventure throughout the UK, Europe and the Middle East. The second trailer will be released in a couple of weeks and will explain the concept of Travel Unplugged & what you can expect. Be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel & blog! Thanks 🙂
Planning a trip to the majestic city of Marrakech? I recommend staying at the fabulous Riad Joya (designed by the eclectic & posh Umberto Maria Branchini). Featured on The Today Show’s 2012 “Hotlist”, this decadent riad captures the essence of different African cultures and each suite is light & airy.
Located in the very heart of the Medina (in the historical and protected area of the Mouassine quarter), Riad Joya is just a short walk from main monuments, the souk and Djemaa El Fna square (where you can buy spices, get a henna tattoo or take part in snake charming). You can also see some of the most exciting attractions of the red city, such as the Coranique School, the Koutubia and the Museum of Marrakech.This elegant boutique riad is a welcome retreat of peace & tranquility after spending the day exploring the chaotic Medina. I had the pleasure of spending 3 lovely days at this riad last year and can’t wait to visit again.
What’s a Riad?
Historically, it is a traditional Moroccan home with an open garden or courtyard. However, now most function as hotels/resorts. Riads are more inward focused. You won’t see large exterior windows. In fact, the exterior is rather plain and you are unable to tell if the home is upper or lower class. There are clay walls with a huge (and in some cases, ornate) door. Once you enter thru the massive door, you will be amazed at how lovely the interior is. This is where the magic happens..beautiful tiles & mosaics, water fountains, lush fabrics…riads offer you the opulence of a grand mansion combined with a cozy atmosphere. These lovely “homes” only have a small number of rooms (i.e. 5-10). Riads provide you with a unique Moroccan experience that you won’t get staying in a traditional hotel. You receive special attention & stay in beautiful surroundings. It’s like a slice of heaven.
Riad Joya will arrange for a taxi from the airport, train station, or other cities at your request. Your taxi will drop you off just outside one of the gates to the Medina. The streets are very narrow inside the Medina so no cars are allowed…only push carts, donkeys & mules. They will also arrange for a luggage porter to greet you at the gate and lead you to the riad which is just a few minutes walk away. My advice…do not try to find the riad on your own. The Medina has many streets and this riad is located off a side street from another side street. A 20 Dirham (which is about $2 USD) tip to a luggage porter is money well spent. Plus, this will allow you to take in the sights and sounds of the Medina while walking to your destination.
This riad surrounds a breathtaking courtyard that has a water fountain and beautiful plants & flowers. There are open lounge/sitting areas surrounding the courtyard. Each area makes you feel comfortable and relaxed.
Riad Joya is an elegant 7-suite luxury boutique hotel. Each suite has a theme based on a particular African region. The riad website describes it best, “The overall atmosphere is of an elegant private house where understated luxury fuses with eclectic style and bespoke service and attentions.”
This hotel also has a “Butler service” which offers tailored services “from the assistance with transportation and luggage, to recommendations of activities, Joya’s Butler is always ready to ensure that all our guests have everything needed for an enriching stay.” We were spoiled rotten! He anticipated our needs, handled getting our laundry washed & pressed; walking us to and from the hammam and inquiring about our favorite fruits & vegetables to help with dinner selection. I really needed him to come home with me 🙂
Each suite features a private seating area and large dressing room. The bathrooms are amazing!!! They are “all made in natural stones combined with the traditional tadelak, are bright and spacious and features large shower and a vanity corner.”
Be sure to check out the pictures on the riad website (linked above) or tripadvisor.com as each suite is different. Upon arrival, we are told we can pick from a variety of suites since the riad was not fully booked (fab-u-lous!). After we chose our suite, we were taken to our room and given time to relax before heading down for dinner. Words really can’t capture how wonderful this place is.
We stayed in the largest suite — the Dar Arabe…absolute luxury!
I was also given a tour and was able to photograph a few of the suites that weren’t in use.
The Tuareg suite (inspired by the Berber people). Love the eclectic look & feel of this room (even if it is the darkest suite of the bunch).
The Naos suite – in Egyptology, naos refers to that which is hidden and unknown inside the inner sanctum of a temple (source, Wikipedia).
The Domus suite…
The chef at the Riad Joya is PHENOMENAL! You can dine in their beautiful dining room or on the terrace (which is up several sets of very steep stairs). The riad provides a bountiful breakfast of fruits & pastries (you can request eggs as well) and a daily set menu.
The Hammam & Spa
What better way to unwind from a day of sightseeing than to enjoy a hammam & spa? Unfortunately, the riad’s hammam was out of service during our stay but they did set us up with an appointment at another hammam a short walk away (and the massage is fab-u-lous)! You pick between a couple of fragrant oils (my choices were “orange flower” and “jasmine”). Those magical hands lulled me right into a light nap. Want to know more about what to expect when visiting a hammam? Check out my Tale of 2 Hammams post.
If you are looking for the perfect place to unwind and relax during your visit to Marrakech, this inviting sanctuary is the place. Have insightful conversations over mint tea while learning about Moroccan culture from the locals. I must warn you that this riad is not suitable to those who are wheelchair bound or have mobility issues due to the amount of stairs. Other than that, this place is perfect. Centrally located with delicious food and an absolutely phenomenal staff, the Riad Joya is a wonderful place to stay during your exotic trip to Marrakech. So forget using hotel chain rewards points and enjoy the unique experience of staying in a riad!
Nikki’s Rating: Absolutely Wonderful 5
Rating Scale 1-5 (1 = GET OUT NOW; 2 = Seriously?; 3 = Eh, it’ll do; 4 = Fabulous; 5 = Absolutely Wonderful)
If you have read my blog post on What to Wear When Travelling Abroad, then you know I am a sucker for travel accessories…seriously. Magellan’s? Yep. ExOfficio? I should have stock. Is it all necessary? Nope. But, with the right essentials, your trip can go from stressful to stress free! To help you save a little time & money, I’m going to tell you my favorite travel finds. I have not been paid to endorse any products. With the exception of one item (which was provided to me free of charge to use & review), all products I list below were paid for by me.
- La Fresh Travel Wipes – Okay, these little packets are genius! La Fresh wipes can easily fit into your cosmetic bag & your purse while on the road. There are several “collections” but I like the Travel Wipes for Her collection that includes make-up remover wipes, anti-bacterial wipes, nail polish remover pads, hydrating lotion wipes, female hygiene & lens cleaning wipes. I even bought the canine wipes for my dog! You can buy them here.
- Packing cubes – I never travel without my packing cubes from Magellan’s. I’ve used the Stow-Away Collection since 2010 and love it! I had tried many different combinations to pack as much into my suitcase and keep clothes wrinkle-free. That is tough. And when the airlines started charging baggage fees, it became necessary to pack smarter. So, as I was browsing through the Magellan’s catalog, I came across these packing cubes and thought I’d give it a try…and it was worth the money. I use these cubes even for overnight trips because it allows me to organize everything in compartments and the Stow-Away Cinch Folders help to prevent wrinkles.
- Travel-size Febreeze, Downy Wrinkle-Release, & Lint Brush– I do not travel without these 3 items. Especially if you plan to wear an article of clothing more than once. I like to spray the Febreeze in my shoes and on my coat after each day of travel. While the packing cubes help with wrinkles, it doesn’t prevent them. The Downy Wrinkle-Release is my insurance that I have a way to get rid of wrinkles if I happen to be staying at a hotel that doesn’t have irons/ironing boards (that has happened too many times to mention). A small lint brush is insurance as well. You never know when you will need it. For example, during a trip to London back in 2008, I decided to buy a travel blanket for the flight. It seemed like such a great idea because it was heavier than the standard tissue blankets that they normally give you in coach. I was wearing a black cotton ensemble with a black wool coat. It wasn’t until I landed that I realized I was covered in green fur from the travel blanket (that I had washed thinking it would prevent this type of thing). So, I ended up spending the first evening in London at Tesco’s buying masking tape to remove the fur since I couldn’t find a lint brush. While you may never use it, I figure it is less stressful to have it than to spend your vacation looking for duct tape. You can pick up these items at your local grocery store, Target, Wal-Mart or drug store/pharmacy.
- Laundry Bag – I used to put my dirty clothes in the plastic laundry bags provided by the hotels. But, as I started taking trips that had me at multiple hotels in different cities, I felt like the plastic bags weren’t going to keep my suitcase “fresh”. So, I got the Magellan’s Bed Bug Laundry Bag in 2011. I like that it is lined on the inside so it doesn’t matter if you need to pack wet clothes & it contains any odors. This laundry bag folds up small so it doesn’t take up much room in the beginning and I’ve been able to put 2 weeks worth of clothes inside.
- Disposable panties & cloths – On a trip to Morocco in 2012, I packed disposable underwear and InstaCloths. It was my first time using either but as we were limited to one medium-sized bag for 10 days, I thought throwing out underwear during the trip would make room for all of my purchases. The disposable underwear worked pretty well. I even hand washed them once and they held together & were dry within a couple of hours. While they are not sexy, they are comfortable in a “granny panty” way. The InstaCloths worked well as a face towel for me and lasted several days (plus they start out the size of a nickel and expand into a full-size wash cloth once you add water). I didn’t use it as a wash cloth but my Mom did and said it didn’t last that long. So, I only recommend it for washing your face & removing make-up.
- Adaptors – When travelling out of the country, I always use Brookstone’s 6-Piece Adapter Kit with Snap-On Plugs. It’s a lightweight set of interchangeable adaptors that work for most countries. I’ve not had any issues with this since I started using it in 2010.
- Collapsible tote – One of the very best items you can pack on international trips! I got mine from Samsonite back in 2008. It folds up nice & neat and lays flat at the bottom of my suitcase. Then, while I’m travelling and buying souvenirs, I don’t have to worry about fitting it into my suitcase as I can use my tote as a carry on during my flight back.
Looking Fab & Safe on the Road: I go into detail about what to wear when travelling overseas in the blog post linked above so I won’t cover the same material here. However, I do want to include a few more items that I’ve fallen in love with since I wrote that article.
- Jersey fabric – This is the “must have” fabric to wear en-route to your destination. It is wrinkle-free and there are so many stylish outfits made of this fabric that you will look fresh & fabulous even stepping off a plane 10 hours later. I usually shop at White House Black Market, Magellan’s or Travel Smith.
- Yoga active wear – If you are looking to travel in comfort, I suggest yoga pants, a cute tank top & cardigan. This is usually my go-to outfit for international flights as I like to be comfortable & it allows me to layer. I usually purchase my favorite items at Athleta & Old Navy.
- ExOfficio Sweater Jacket – I absolutely love this waterproof jacket! It is so soft & very warm! I wore it in December while in Europe and felt completely warm & toasty. It packs up very small and converts into a neck roll if you want to bring it on the plane with you. I also love that it’s stylish as well & has a lot of safety pockets where you can store your money, keys & phone without worrying about being pick-pocketed.
- Clarks shoes – I must admit…Clarks makes a great shoe that keeps your feet cushioned from the harsh cobblestones you encounter while sightseeing in Europe. You can be on your feet all day in these stylish shoes. A couple of my favorites are the Wave.Cruise Mary Jane shoe that can be worn both casual & dressy; and the Haley Falcon which seems to replace the black Privo that I have worn. I like that it molds to your foot while providing great cushion to your soles.
- FreestyleXtreme – This is the only item that I have received for free. A representative from FreestyleXtreme contacted me after reading my article referenced above. She asked if I would review an item from their company (which offers a wide range of clothing & accessories for men and women). I have been trying to find a stylish flip-flop to wear on cobblestones so I thought I’d try the Volcom Black Happy Me shoe. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but I’ve worn them for the past couple of weeks and am in love! They are so comfortable & cute! I like that they don’t “flap” against the bottom of my foot making a loud sound as I walk. Also, the cushion is pretty solid since I can walk around in them for hours and not experience foot fatigue. I’m excited to take them to Italy & try them out on the cobblestones!
Go-To Gadgets: I like to travel light…which means I rely heavily on my iPad (and more recently my new Macbook Air). The following 3 items make travelling with my electronics simple.
- iPad Folio – I love products from Erin Condren. You can purchase personalized stationary, life planners, cards & iPad folios. Mine has my name & an inspirational quote on the front with a picture of my dog on the inside. It’s nice to have reminders of home while on the road!
- Apple adaptors – I have an iPad 2 and when I decided to stop travelling with a laptop, I needed a way to transfer pictures from my camera & iPhone to my iPad…which is where the Apple iPad Digital Camera Connector Kit comes in. You can plug the adaptor into your iPhone to easily transfer pictures or plug your SD card into the adaptor and load your favorite photos from your camera onto your iPad.
- Power Up – I use my iPhone a lot while I’m on the road…between taking pictures & responding to emails/texts, the battery doesn’t last long. Getting to a power outlet is not always possible so I started travelling with extra power-up packs. I’ve tested out quite a few items so far and there are 2 that I prefer: The first one is the 2600 mAh Universal Power Bank Charger that I purchased from Nomorerack on sale. The second is the Portable Travel Charger from Fat Cat Power. Both work pretty well and charge my phone fully. They don’t take a lot of time to charge & both are small enough to fit in my purse without taking up valuable space.
What are your favorite travel essentials? Is there anything I am missing out on? Let me know!
The Hassan II Mosque (named after King Hassan II) is the second largest mosque in the world (St. Peter’s Basilica can easily fit inside) and built partly on water. The largest mosque is in Mecca. It has the highest religious minaret in the world at 200 meters high. The mosque will fit up to 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 in the courtyard. It is magnificent! This is also one of the very few mosques open for non-Muslims to visit.
When you enter the mosque, you are given a plastic bag to store your shoes (as you are required to walk barefoot while visiting). As I stated above, the mosque is enormous with beautiful chandeliers and mosaics. In the center, you will see a glass floor that reveals the ocean below which is said to be a reminder of the Qur’an’s statement that God’s throne is upon the water.
In the basement is an ablution room (where you cleanse yourself of your sins) and an absolutely beautiful hammam with a large pool.
For me, the Hassan II Mosque was the highlight of Casablanca. If you visit Morocco, most international flights fly into Casablanca…my recommendation is to visit the mosque, then keep driving towards Marrakesh to start your adventure!
One of the items on my bucket list was to camp out & ride a camel thru the desert…and I am so freaking excited to have accomplished that! Who needs a SUV when you’ve got a sweet ride like that? After a magnificent camping experience (which I write about here — it includes a recap of how the night turned into the Morcoccan Blair Witch Project with alleged cow-sized scorpions…seriously), we wake up and hike the sand dunes as the sun is rising. Then, come back for breakfast and ride our camels from our camp site to the edge of the desert (about 45 minutes or so). The camel I rode is actually known as a Dromedary (because it has only 1 hump). What a great experience!!! I highly recommend you try it. The camels were very gentle and the ride was pretty smooth. I felt like a little kid at Disney World…all smiles and “more, more, more!” Honestly, this is one of my all-time favorite travel experiences. Kinda like my travel world is complete…until I find something else that I absolutely must do. Happy travels, y’all!
During my sunrise hike over the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert, I was approached by three adorable nomad girls selling trinkets. They spoke absolutely no English, but luckily, my guide was with me and able to translate for us. I was able to find out that they are between the ages of 8 and 9 and only one of the girls attends school (she lives in the city of Merzouga with her mother but visits her father in the desert on the weekends). I was also lucky enough to visit with and interview the women of a nomad family during my camping trip. You can read the interview here. I highly recommend adding a visit to Morocco and the Sahara Desert to your bucket list! You won’t be disappointed.
How can I adequately describe the Sahara Desert? Awe-inspiring. Magnificent. Beautiful. Serene. All of those adjectives and more. During our 8 day trip thru Morocco, we decided to camp out overnight in the Sahara. Upon arriving to the outskirts of the desert, we switch vehicles from a van to a 4×4 and visit the village of visit Khamlia, a village founded by freed slaves known as the Gnawi brotherhoods who play spiritual music. As we entered the tent, we were given mint tea then treated to a performance which was really nice! During the performance, they asked us to form a circle and dance…it sort of turned into the Soul Train line. It was LOADS of fun!!!
After the performance, we take a 4×4 into the Erg Chebbi dunes of the Sahara Desert to watch the sunset and spend the night in a deluxe Bedouin-style tent (because, um we aren’t really “roughing it” kind of girls). The tent had 2 twin beds (complete with mattresses on frames), bathroom (which included a shower) and sitting room.
After we get settled, we head over to the “dining tent” which was gorgeous. We were the only people in camp that night so it was kind of quiet but we ended up having a lot of fun. After a delicious dinner and great conversation with our guide, Tata, and driver, Haji, we walk over to an area set up with pillows, rugs, a small table, lanterns and music equipment (mostly various types of percussion instruments). Tata and the other guys working at the camp performed traditional songs and invited us to play instruments with them (and I am not ashamed to say that I channeled my inner Sheila E on the bongos…until they asked if I’d just like to clap instead…maybe it was too much, too soon and they weren’t ready for the funk I was bringing?).
I suggest EVERYBODY visit the Sahara. At night, it was so quiet you can hear a pin drop. There were NO CRICKETS!!! I’m so used to hearing them that it was a jolt to my system to be immersed in quiet and complete darkness. Once the lanterns are extinguished, you only have the moon & stars. Tata and I took a late night hike thru the sand dunes so I could take it all in. It’s hard to describe the experience…like you truly disconnected from the world (because you also can’t get cellular service). I don’t remember the last time I felt so relaxed and stress-free!
Once I got back to the tent, my Mom was ready to turn in. But she was having reservations about the tent because she had expected there would be a door. Yeah, it’s a deluxe tent…but it is still a tent…in the Sahara. I don’t know if she thought we were staying at the Ritz Carlton – Sahara or what. Now, I had prepared myself for the fact that I would encounter a bug or 2. I already had my Avon Skin So Soft and Off (courtesy of my Mom). She was okay until she thought she saw a bat. I didn’t actually see it but she claims she did and after that, it was a wrap. She came up with the game plan that we’d just keep the lights on in the tent to keep the bats away…but then the camp operators had the nerve to shut the power off at night (they said it is to conserve energy). So my Mom couldn’t keep the lights and now feared that bats would swoop in, turn into Dracula, and bite us. What would happen if we turned into vampires? We didn’t have any True Blood in our emergency preparedness kit (there wasn’t enough space with all the toilet paper).
Around 1am, I startled awake by my Mom screaming about scorpions. She’s got her flashlight on and pointed towards her face like it’s the Moroccan Blair Witch Project. I’m trying to figure out what is going on. I mean, I know she isn’t serious. I must be dreaming this. Did my mint tea have another type of herb in it? I’m confused. At this point, she has moved into my twin bed and made the proclamation that she will NEVER sleep in that bed again because there is a scorpion the size of a “cow” in it. But, before I could find Bessie the Scorpion and lead her out of the tent, my Mom wanted me to see if her arm was swelling. Sigh. After confirming that there was no swelling, I check the bed and can’t find the Velociraptor-sized scorpion. I did see a big cockroach though. Lest you think we are going to sleep peacefully together in a small twin bed, I’ve got news for you…we are not. Labor Layaway requires counseling sessions as well (wait, you don’t know what Labor Layaway is? well, you need to read my post Travelin’ Mr./Mrs. Daisy to find out). And, my Mom had to question why there was no actual door on the tent. You read that right. And, I’m sure that will go into the survey feedback she is working on right now. See, as you get older, things don’t have to make sense. A tent in the Sahara to young people means just that. But to older people? It means a cottage with a fireplace, butler and an exterminator on speed dial.
After we survive the night, we wake up around 5:30am to hike the sand dunes and watch the sunrise…and it is AMAZING! We see various vegetation and end up meeting 3 girls from a nomadic Berber tribe. I cover our time spent them and a nomadic family in my previous blog post, Life of a Nomad.
Once we complete our morning hike, we take showers, get dressed and head off to breakfast before going on our camel ride thru the desert. And I have to say that the camel ride was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Unlike the camels in Egypt, ours didn’t stink (so yay for that!), they weren’t temperamental and it was a very smooth journey. The nomad that owns the camels was very nice, spoke limited English and provided us with the experience of a lifetime!
After our camel ride was complete, we went 4-wheeling thru the sand dunes. THIS WAS AWESOME!!! I felt like a little kid! Speeding up and down hills, making crazy turns, trying not to get stuck in sand…what more can you ask for? But, all good things must come to an end. Once we finished playing in the sand, we headed back to the city, said good-bye to our camp operators and guide, then headed to Ouarzazate.
The life of a nomad isn’t an easy one. Sweltering heat, freezing cold, scorpions and snakes…these are just a few things to worry about living in the desert. I had the pleasure of meeting a nomad family during my visit to the Sahara. My first reaction was one of sympathy…but by the time I left, I felt humbled.
In order to get around in the Sahara, you have to either walk, ride a camel or drive a 4×4. As we were on our way to our own camp, we were invited to visit with an interesting nomad family. Luckily we had our fabulous guide, Tata, to translate and inform of us traditional customs.
I was told that there are 9 people who make up the nomad family I spent time with (a mix of men, women and children). What immediately struck me were the “structures” that were built for cooking, showering and shelter. I assumed that nomads were constantly moving from place to place with no sense of permanency. However, I found out that these nomads usually stay in a place for 3-4 months before moving on. The catalyst for the move is usually the fact that the food source (grass, etc) has dried up for the camels & animals they raise.
The Sahara covers 3.5 MILLION MILES. And while the popular thought is that deserts are dry & barren, the Sahara has pockets of areas that are abundant with food and water sources. However, these sources aren’t unlimited which is why nomads have to move on in search for new sources. They do tend to come back to the structures they built before…after enough time has passed so that grass has been able to grow again. Kind of like these settlements are their 2nd, 3rd and 4th homes.
The ladies allowed me to spend time investigating their housing structures and asking questions. I noticed that there were 3 separate sleeping quarters. One area was completely covered on all sides to protect them from rain and harsher elements, while the second was more open to allow for air during the hot, dry months. The third seemed to be a combination of the two…walled but open ceiling. I also noticed that there were a lot of toys…big wheels, bikes, dolls, Transformers, etc. The kids had plenty to entertain them. I don’t know what the adults do…there is no television. And they don’t seem to understand how much their life is lacking because they can’t watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
While these women did not have a lot of “wealth”, they were so gracious to offer us mint tea. Which seems to be typical of Moroccans. They may not have a lot of material things, but they are the most hospitable people I’ve met. You can count on being asked to stay for tea and cookies.
Since our guide knew this family, the ladies were open to answering my questions. And I had a lot. Below are some highlights.
Q. Why do you opt to live in the desert moving from place to place? Why not living in a city with a more permanent home?
A. This is what we know. We grew up as nomads and find the desert to be peaceful. Cities are too chaotic and noisy. Too many people and sounds. We like the solitude of the Sahara and not having to constantly see other people.
Q. How do you get food & water to feed your family?
A. We dig wells to get water. Once a month, our family will drive into Merzouga [the city right outside the Sahara] and get supplies. Mostly grains to make couscous and vegetables. We are also able to find food here in the desert which we will catch or gather.
Q. How do you get to Merzouga? Do you have a car?
A. Sometimes we are able to borrow a car from another family. Other times we use our camels to get us to the edge of the Sahara then ask for a ride into town.
Q. How do you earn money to buy supplies?
A. The men offer the camels to tourists for rides thru the desert. The women and children sell trinkets. Usually small toy camels or dolls that we make from scraps of cloth we are able to find.
During this time, a little boy around the age of 2 has started crying. His mother tells the guide that she is worried that something is wrong with his legs as he has refused to walk all day. We take a look to make sure there is no swelling, redness or tenderness. Then, the guide says that he will escort them to the hospital to have the boy examined. But, the mother says that she cannot leave without permission of her husband. She pulls out a cellphone (I know…who knew they had those? And the next question I wanted to ask was where she charged it since they had no electricity?) and tries to get in contact with her husband to no avail.
As we end our visit, our guide gives the mother his number with the instruction to call him once her husband came back so they could take her son to the hospital. He even offered to pay the medical bills.
The next morning, while hiking thru the sand dunes, I am stopped by 3 little girls. They told me they were 8 and 9 years old. When I asked if they went to school, only one said yes. She lives in Merzouga with her mother but comes to the Sahara during the weekends to visit with her father. During the time I’m asking questions, they have spread out their trinkets to sell. While I didn’t buy anything, I did give them some money so that I could take their picture.
I grew up with plenty of advantages…and the expectation that not only would I graduate from high school, but I would graduate from college as well. So, it was mind-boggling to meet children who don’t go to school. While it is hard for me to grasp living without electricity (I mean, I get the shakes when my iPhone dies and I don’t have a way to charge it for a couple of hours), there is a certain tranquility in being able to unplug from the world and just enjoy the solitude. No emails or text messages to answer. No demands. No stress. No noise (not even crickets…it is dead quiet). Just stars lighting up the sky.
While some children grow up and leave the nomad life, others are content to raise animals and move from place to place following in the footsteps of their forefathers. It’s an interesting life…one that I know I’m not strong enough to live, but I am smart enough to respect. If you ever have the chance to visit the Sahara (and I strongly suggest you do…it is unbelievable), please take time out to visit with a nomad family (but definitely go with a guide…don’t just show up saying, “Hi, got some mint tea?”). The next time I visit, I plan to take them supplies (grains, vegetables, toys for the kids, blankets, etc.). If you can, I recommend you do the same. As Oprah says, “pay it forward.” The great thing about that? You can pay it forward anywhere in the world.
As-salamu alaykum from Morocco! The adventure has officially begun. In fact, it started on the plane ride to Casablanca. During our flight, 2 things happened. First, I started reading “The Cadogan Guide to Morocco” by Barnaby Rogerson. This guide has a bit more color than usual guides. For instance, Mr. Rogerson says the following about sexual attitudes in Morocco, “Moroccans also tend to think of themselves as immeasurably more virile & potent than Western men. However chaste your intentions, why not pack some condoms beside the sun cream and romantic fiction?” Really, Barnaby? Stop it. Second, I noticed 2 young men taking pictures with an older gentleman who had just come out of the bathroom. I guess he is famous…kind of looks like the Dos Equis man. But I wasn’t sure and didn’t want to ask less the young men wanted to borrow my romantic fiction. And, it would be my luck that if I took a picture with this “celebrity”, he’d end up being the Moroccan Ron Jeremy.
My Mom and I are doing an 8 day tour through the Imperial cities of Morocco. I customized the trip thru Journey Beyond Travel (I will provide a detail review and rating of their services after the trip ends…but so far, it’s been a fabulous experience). The typical Morocco tour packages last a minimum of 10 days. But, I like to do “taster tours” of new places/countries before I commit a long period of time to touring. JBT and I crammed a lot of stuff into 8 days. Our first day consists of a stick-and-move approach to Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis and Moulay Idriss. I will tell you now that this is not for the faint of heart. It’s a very long day (11 hours from the time we left the airport).
Our driver, El Haj (known as Haji) is waiting for us at the airport to drive us around Morocco for 8 magnificent days. The Casablanca airport is an experience…and a test of patience. Allow at least a couple of hours to get your bags and clear customs. Also be aware that people will try to “help” you with your bags (even if you are at the car…they will just want to put the bag into the trunk) for a tip. Do not allow this to happen if you don’t have any Dirhams. Trust me. They will demand that you provide them with some money…to the point of getting belligerent. Either politely decline their help up front or be prepared to pay 10-20 Dirham for their assistance.
If you are itching to quote Humphrey Bogart and say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”…do it while taking the first road out of town. Otherwise, it’s not a city you want to dwell in. Casablanca is gritty. I’d describe it as a mixture of Cairo & Mexico City. It’s Morocco’s biggest city with a population of over 3 million people. In my opinion, the only thing worth seeing in this city is the Hassan II Mosque.
The Hassan II Mosque (named after King Hassan II) is the second largest mosque in the world (St. Peter’s Basilica can easily fit inside) and built partially on water. The largest mosque is in Mecca. It has the highest religious minaret in the world at 200 meters high. The mosque will fit up to 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 in the courtyard. It is magnificent! This is also one of the very few mosques open for non-Muslims to visit. When you enter the mosque, you are given a plastic bag to store your shoes (as you are required to walk barefoot while visiting). As I stated above, the mosque is enormous with beautiful chandeliers and mosaics. In the center, you will see a glass floor that reveals the ocean below which is said to be a reminder of the Koran’s statement that God’s throne is upon the water. In the basement is an ablution room (where you cleanse yourself of your sins) and an absolutely beautiful hammam with a large pool.
After leaving the mosque, Haji drives us to Rabat which is about 2.5 hours from Casablanca. Rabat is the capital of Morocco. We only spent 30 minutes here. Just enough time to visit the Mohammed V Mausoleum which houses the bodies of King Mohammed V and his sons King Hassan II and Moulay Abdellah.
Next stop…Meknes. A popular day trip from Fes, this city is home to the many creations of Moulay Ismail. The most popular one is called Bab Mansour…which is a great gate. Its name comes from its architect (who was a Christian that converted to Islam). The local story is that the sultan inspected the completed gate, then asked El Mansour whether he could do any better. Which is a Catch 22 because when he answered “yes”, he was immediately executed (source, The Rough Guide to Morocco).
Sultan Moulay Ismail had great achievements (conquering territories within Morocco so that they were all under government control for the first time in 5 centuries). However, he was also known as tyrannical and basically blood thirsty. He began his reign by displaying 400 heads (mostly captured chiefs) in Fes. Over the 5 decades he ruled, it is estimated that he was responsible for over 30,000 deaths (not including those killed in battle). He was known to kill indiscriminately in order to keep his subjects on their toes.
If only Idris Elba were here. We didn’t really stop…just cruised right thru the town.
More Roman ruins. Seriously. If you have been to Italy…or really anyplace in Europe, you’ve seen ruins. These are no different. Volubilis was once the Roman Empire’s most remote base. Roman rule lasted just over 2 centuries. Most Roman cities follow the same layout (streets with stores & cafes, huge homes for the rich and brothels). Volubilis is probably most well-known for being the key location for Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ.”
As we were on the tour, the guide was telling us about the brothels. I started to tune out because it was hot and I was thirsty. Next thing I know, the guide asked me if I wanted to see the “pennies.” I thought he had moved on to telling us about currency. It was hard for me to understand his accent at times. So, I said, “sure.” Next thing I know, he has led me over to see this:
It was at that moment that I realized he had said, “penis”…not pennies. The best Roman ruins is in Pompeii. If you have been there, I would suggest you skip Volubilis.
Overall, the day was filled with a good mix of the highlights of Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis and Moulay Idriss. If I had to do it again, I’d probably spend more time in Rabat and skip Volubilis, Moulay Idriss and Meknes all together. Have you been to these cities? If so, what did I miss that is a definite “must see”?
Planning a trip to the fascinating imperial city of Fez? I recommend staying at the Riad Laaroussa which is located inside the Medina. This 17th century palace is a welcome retreat of peace after spending the day exploring the chaotic Medina. My Mom and I had the pleasure of spending 3 lovely days at this riad in September 2012.
What’s a Riad?
Historically, it is a traditional Moroccan home with an open garden or courtyard. However, now most function as hotels/resorts. Riads are more inward focused. You won’t see large exterior windows. In fact, the exterior is plain and you are unable to tell if the home is upper or lower class. There are clay walls with a huge (and in some cases, ornate) door. Once you enter thru the massive door, you will be amazed at how lovely the interior is. Beautiful tiles & mosaics, water fountains, lush fabrics…riads provide you with the opulence of a grand mansion combined with a cozy atmosphere. These lovely “homes” only have a small number of rooms (i.e. 5-10). Riads provide you with a unique Moroccan experience that you won’t get staying in a hotel.
Riad Laaroussa will arrange for a taxi from the airport, train station, or other cities at your request. Your taxi will drop you off just outside one of the gates to the Medina. The streets are very narrow inside the Medina so no cars are allowed…only push carts, donkeys & mules. They will also arrange for a luggage porter (who will have a wooden cart) to greet you at the gate and lead you to the riad which is just a few minutes walk away. My advice…do not try to find the riad on your own. The Medina has over 9,000 streets and this riad is located off a side street from another side street. A 20 Dirham (which is approximately $2 USD) tip to a luggage porter is money well spent. Plus, this will allow you to take in the sights and sounds of the Medina while walking to your destination.
This riad surrounds a breathtaking courtyard that has 2 water fountains and beautiful landscaping. There are open lounge/sitting areas surrounding the courtyard. Each area makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. Tables surround the courtyard so you are able to eat breakfast or dinner in a lush environment.
The courtyard is also where you will find 3 of the Riad Laaroussa inhabitants. Mimi the Cat and her 2 canine companions are extremely friendly (and very lazy). If you are an animal lover, you won’t want to leave them at the end of your stay. Typically, Mimi & crew are waiting to greet you as you enter the courtyard and hang around long enough for belly rubs before dinner (and will stick around during dinner just in case you are feeling charitable & want to share). As you can see from the pictures below, they aren’t missing any meals 🙂
Rooms & Suites
There are 8 rooms (4 rooms & 4 suites) at the Riad Laaroussa. Each room has a theme color (we stayed in the Orange Suite). Be sure to check out the pictures on the riad website (linked above) or tripadvisor.com as each suite is different. Upon arrival, we were taken to our room and given time to relax before heading up to dinner. Words really can’t describe how wonderful this place is so I created a video. My videography skills aren’t that great (this is my first one) but I hope it captures how fabulous this place is.
The chef at the Riad Laaroussa is PHENOMENAL! You can dine in the courtyard or on the terrace (which is up several sets of very steep stairs). The riad provides a bountiful breakfast of fruits & pastries (you can request eggs as well) and a daily set menu. Want to learn how to cook the fabulous Fassi cuisine? Join the chef on her daily trip to the market and spend an afternoon in the kitchen watching her create delicious dishes for the evening. Make sure you are camera ready as the staff will stop by your table to take pictures then email them to you so you have a keepsake of your time in Fez.
The Hammam & Spa
What better way to unwind from a day of sightseeing than to enjoy the Riad Laaroussa’s hammam & spa? The massage is fab-u-lous! You pick between a couple of fragrant oils (my choices were “orange flower” and “jasmine”). Those magical hands lulled me right into a light nap. Want to know more about what to expect when visiting a hammam? Check out my Tale of 2 Hammams post.
If you are looking for the perfect place to unwind and relax during your visit to Fez, this is the place. Have insightful conversations over mint tea while learning about Moroccan culture from the locals. I must warn you that this riad is not suitable to those who are wheelchair bound or have mobility issues due to the amount of stairs. Other than that, this place is perfect. Centrally located with delicious food and an absolutely phenomenal staff, the Riad Laaroussa is a wonderful place to stay during your exotic trip to Fez. So forget using hotel chain rewards points and enjoy the unique experience of staying in a riad!
Nikki’s Rating: Absolutely Wonderful 5
Rating Scale 1-5 (1 = GET OUT NOW; 2 = Seriously?; 3 = Eh, it’ll do; 4 = Fabulous; 5 = Absolutely Wonderful)