Posted by: Gideon | December 27, 2009

Morocco with Kids: Fes, Marrakech, Ourzazate, Essaouira!

Gal (18 months) in Morocco

Post #27

This blog entry is about a fabulous trip we made to Morocco when our daughter Gal was 18 months old. It is some time ago, but we had such a great trip and learned so much about traveling with kids that it has held us in good stead as she and our other kids have grown older.

Morocco is one of the most fascinating countries I have been to. Great architecture, friendly people, fascinating history and maybe best of all, wonderful food.

We flew into Casablanca on Royal Air Jordanian – perhaps not one of the world’s great airlines but not bad nevertheless. Immigration was friendly and impressive, with a huge marble waterfall right there in the immigration room. After that we connected with Royal Air Maroc to Fez.

From the moment we landed in Morocco people were enchanted with little Gal, from the airline staff to the immigration officials. In Fez we stayed at the venerable Palais Jamais, one of the oldest and perhaps the most famous hotels in the city. Our room was a last-minute cheapie and overlooked the parking lot but it didn’t matter. The hotel was a palace – ornate public areas, and the best gardens we have ever seen at any hotel, with countless fountains and little pools. We ate one evening in the hotel restaurant – a memorable meal, with the highlight being the pastilla – a sweet pastry appetizer made with pigeon. Gal slept through the whole evening in her stroller.

Fez is a city made for exploring – and not with a stroller. We had with us a baby backpack, and it was our saviour. The Old City of Fez is a World Heritage Site, and is the largest intact medieval old city in the world. Guides are plentiful and we felt necessary,  as it is easy to get lost in the little lanes that make up the old city. We saw the tanneries, one of the best known sites in Fez, and wandered around the markets. We ate one of the most fabulous dinners of our life in an old Riad ( townhouse ). The whole floor was scattered with rose petals, we rested on cushions, and ate fantastic Moroccan dishes including pastilla, couscous (Morocco’s staple food of semolina, meat and vegetables) and various tagines, the famous Moroccan stews of meat and fruit, named after the distinctive cooking dish. Gal ate couscous and then fell asleep amongst the cushions.

In general, we found it a complete delight to travel with an 18 moth old – by nightfall she was tired and slept wherever we chose to eat dinner. By day she was the focus of attention of almost everyone we encountered, from the guides to the stall owners to the regular people in the street. Moroccans are generally welcoming and friendly to tourists, and all the more so to those traveling with young kids.

We took a day trip by train to the old imperial capital of Meknes and wandered around the great city walls, and then it was back to Fez again. The food continued to be a highlight of each day, and Gal was happy as can be eating couscous at every meal.

On day two we met Mustafa, a delightful young Moroccan who immediately became friends with Gal. Not surprisingly he offered to be our guide and since he and Gal were getting on so well we agreed. We hired him to take us to Sefrou – a day trip from Fez and a fine example of a non touristed Moroccan town with a great weekly market to boot. Sefrou had also once been predominantly Jewish, and this interested us as well. The visit was a great success, and Gal found plenty small kids pretty much her age to play with as well. All in all,  one of our best memories, mainly for the simple joy of seeing people going about their every day life in a non touristy environment, our great guide, and of course the fact that people were immediately attracted to Gal, who caused everybody to smile and become friends with us immediately.

From Fez we caught a flight to Ouarzazate- a nondescript city that acts as the gateway to the desert.  We went to the local zoo – very unlikely to appear in any tourist literature because as zoos go it was less than ordinary BUT Gal loved it and consequently so did we.  We have learned over the years that zoos and/or aquariums are great stops in any family holiday.

In Ourzazate we picked up our prebooked rental car- driving in Morocco can be challenging for a number of reasons – signage is in Arabic and French (not a problem for us as we do have basic French), and the mountain passes are high and the roads are narrow – you really need to be an experienced driver to feel comfortable crossing the mountains. We managed fine, though our single mistake was not taking our own car seat for Gal. The seat we hired from Avis was a disaster.  We worried most during our driving about her falling our of the seat, which happened every few hours. I would take a car seat next time!

Driving gave us complete freedom. We drove through the desert, stopping at various oases and villages such as Ait Benhaddou, which has become a film set. We slept in the little town of Zagora, surrounded by date palm groves and famous for silver smithing. Zagora has a huge sign at the outskirts pointing to the Sahara desert that shows how many days it would take to travel to Timbuktu by camel!

Driving through the Draa region we were amazed to learn that it is a huge center of rose petal cultivation and we stopped at stalls to smell the perfumes. Just incredible.

The food was consistently outstanding, and since Morocco was once a French possession, French bread is commonly available, as is La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow),  a brand of cheese imported from France that comes in triangular wedges that makes excellent sandwiches for kids tired of the local food! (Though it is true to say that Gal loved the loccal food and was happy to eat couscous every day!)

We drove to Marrakech via Telouet, home to one of the great Kasbahs (castles) of Morocco.  It is not old, dating back only about one hundred years, but it is a fabulous site, evidence of great wealth and power that lasted only a few short decades – the Kasbah is today slowly crumbling and is desolate. This is the High Atlas, Morocco’s great mountain chain and a site for fantastic  hiking. With Gal though, we decided against hiking and stuck to the cultural sites.

Marrakech is famous and we stayed in the Palmeraie, a suburb removed from the old city and home to some decent hotels. We’ll never forget the Jemaa el Fna, the main square of the city which comes alive at night with hundreds of food stalls offering anything from soup to whole sheep heads. We loved the atmosphere, ate at the stalls and saw amazing sites including snake charmers and circus performers. Marrakesh is beautiful and exotic and like the rest of Morocco, easy to visit and friendly.

We took a side trip to Essaouira, a few hours way and a world away from touristy Marrakesh. Essaouira is an old port city with a maze of streets, fortifications, a long windy beach and terrific accommodations. It is not a seaside resort though, and life is much more centered on fishing than any beach fun. We spent two great days  here, enjoying a very different slice of life.

Finally, after seventeen exotic and incredible days, we left Morocco. We only saw a small piece of the country, but it was enough to make it one of the greatest places we have ever visited. And traveling with Gal was a breeze – she was an easy child to travel with for sure, but our visit was so much richer because of her – people smiled and opened us to us as people and not as tourists, and that really made the experience so much more special.

Moroccans went gaga over Gal!

Travel in Morocco is not difficult. Tourism is well-developed, food is healthy and good, people are friendly. Our accommodation was excellent across the board, and ranged from top class hotels to small two star establishments. Car hire worked for us, but others may be daunted by the conditions, and language.  If you know French, life will be a bit easier but like everywhere these days, as an English speaker you’ll do fine. And don’t even think twice about taking your kids – it’s a breeze!

PS These days I’m designing fabulous family trips to Morocco. For more info on how I can help your family, visit here.

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