Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Dear Diary.....Ouarzazate (Morocco)

Dear Diary,

Day 3 of our tour took us towards the direction of Ouarzazate, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. It was a long drive from Marrakesh through the Atlas Mountains, where we made a few pit stops along the way and got the chance to admire the beautiful landscape all around. The highlight of the whole journey was catching a glimpse of the famous Tizi n’Tichka pass, a high mountain road pass located in the High Atlas Mountain at an elevation of 2260 meters above the sea level. This road, which is usually open all year round, can sometimes be closed when avalanches and heavy snowfall blocks up the path during winter. “Tichka” means “it’s difficult” and I can easily see how it got its name because even on a bright and sunny day in spring, it was still a slow and nerve-wrecking drive up the Tizi n’Tichka pass. We were glad to have a skillful driver who managed to manoeuvre the twists and turns of the windy and rather narrow road with little or no room for errors. The view of the vast barren hilly land surrounding the snake-like Tizi n’Tichka pass is absolutely stunning and we were in awe as we stood at the top to admire the view!

Small villages along the slope of Atlas on the left and the eroded colored rocks of Tiz Imguer on the right...

Barren ridges along the mountain roads..

The snow-capped mountains...

The famous Tiz n’Tichka pass

Lots of cactus on the slopes..

It was another short drive through the mountain roads before we arrived at a small restaurant for lunch. By this day, some of our tour mates have had enough of the Moroccan dishes and secretly sneaked out of the restaurant in search of other cuisines nearby. Our guide nearly had a heart attack when she realized half of our tour mates were not at their allocated tables and only managed to calm down after getting a message from them that they were having lunch at another restaurant located nearby. For the rest of us who stayed behind, it was a good time of interaction where we got to know more about each other and exchanged opinions on how the tour had been so far. I guess this is one perks of joining a guided tour - interaction with people from different parts of the world being brought together because of our common interest in travelling!

Getting a glimpse at how Argan oil is being extracted at one of our pit stop...

Souks on the other side of the road...

With high spirits and tummies filled, we headed off to the Ksar of Ait Ben haddou, a beautiful UNESCO site. This Ksar or traditional Mud Brick city, lies on the edge of the High Atlas Mountains and is made famous by its many appearance in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. As our van was unable to enter the narrow alleys, we were made to alight at the main road and had to walk a short distance to reach the river bank of the Wadi Mellah, located opposite to the Ksar. This location allowed us to come face to face with the impressive towering Ksar, which also spurred everyone to make frantic attempts to take as many photos as they can of the magnificent view! There were two paths to reach the Ksar - one was a short walk across a rather modern bridge and the other one was via some makeshift stepping stones placed in the river water. Thankfully, our guide chose to lead us across via the bridge. 

Can you spot the bridge that connects the river bank of the Wadi Mellah to the entrance of the Ksar of Ait Ben haddou?

The Ksar of Ait Ben haddou..

When we reached the entrance of the Ksar, we had to climb upwards on a rather steep path through the narrow streets and low arches before finally reaching the Treasury at the very top. We had been told that we would be rewarded with a stunning view at the top, however, it was so windy there that I could hardly keep my balance. One of our tour mates almost lost her cap to the winds in a futile attempt to pose for a photo at the top! Seeing no point in staying there and not wanting to be the subject of constant torture by the relentless wind, we decided to descend almost immediately after we reached the top. Overall, the Ksar of Ait Ben haddou looked quite impressive from afar, however we were quite disappointed by the lack of information about this wonderful place as well as how commercialized it had been with the presence of the many souks selling touristic souvenirs along the way. Nevertheless, the whole hike was quite an enjoyable one for me mainly due to the rather photogenic characteristics of the Ksar.

The low arches that we had to go through

The locals tending their souks along the walkway inside the Ksar of Ait Ben haddou

View from the top..

View of the opposite bank from the top...notice the makeshift stepping stones at the bottom of the photo..

It was rather late in the afternoon by the time we arrived back at our van. The cool air-conditioning in the van provided much relief to us from the scorching afternoon sun and the comfortable seats were much needed to rest our aching joints from the treacherous hike at the Ksar. With many of us drifting off into a sweet afternoon nap, we drove off to the last destination of the day at Ouarzazate (also fondly known as Morocco’s movie mecca for its movie studio facilities and the beauty of its locations).

The landmark that signals entrance to Ouarzazate..

Upon arrival, there was some miscommunication regarding this final destination for the day. Our itinerary showed that we were supposed to visit the cinema museum (a former movie studio), whereas our guide had been told to bring us to Kasbah of Taourirt (a fortress set against the backdrop of the Atlas mountains). After much negotiation and since the two sites were literally just located on opposite sides of the main road, our guide decided to split our group into two, with one group heading to the cinema museum while another group headed to the Kasbah. Being a huge movie fan, my husband and I opted to follow the group to the cinema museum. It was certainly an eye-opener to see the various props and makeshift sites that appeared on the various films and we certainly had lots of fun role-playing alongside these props. It certainly did help to have a guide with us to correlate the props and sites with the movies that they had appeared in. We were even brought to this room where there is a showcase of the filming equipment and even a mini theater featuring a short commentary about the filming situations that used to take place in this studio. All in all, it was a rather enjoyable time exploring the different areas of this museum although it would have been better if there were more information about it being made available to us.

Cinema Museum

Kasbah of Taourirt

Inside the cinema museum...

Old filming equipments..

By the time we are done exploring the cinema museum and the Kasbah, it was close to dinner time and time to check into the hotel for a good rest to prep ourselves for all the adventures the next day! This day had been an exciting one - from the adrenaline rush at the Tizi n’Tichka pass, to the many breath-taking moments at the Ksar of Ait Ben haddou and finally, the excitement at the cinema museum, this tour is starting to get more and more interesting! We are already looking forward to all the adventures lined up for us in the next few days to come! But for now, it is time to hit the bed...Zzzz....

Yours Truly,


Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Dear Diary.....Marrakesh (Morocco)

Dear Diary,

With a tight schedule to keep to for this day, our guide had informed us the night before that the hotel will provide a morning call to us at 6.30am and we would have to finish our breakfast and get ready to board the van by 8am - it was just too much of a hassle to have to keep to a time frame for everything!

The plan for the day was to head to Marrakesh, with a slight detour to the airport to pick up the misplaced-but-fortunately-now-found luggage of one of our tour mates who had flew in from the UK (the poor girl had to spend the night at the airport because of this!).

All in all, it took us close to 3 hours to reach Marrakesh and as we were driving into this “Ochre city”, the red walls of the buildings started to capture all of our attention. It was a totally different sight to that seen in Casablanca! According to our guide, Marrakesh has seen a huge tourism bloom in recent years, with many foreigners purchasing these red-walled resorts as their holiday homes. We could definitely see why with its distinctive sea of red-walled houses, where the beautiful modern architectural buildings complemented the old historic buildings, this place evoked a much more serene and calm atmosphere - a perfect place for people to have a nice vacation in! 

Colorful entrance to the restaurant..

The wonderful view that we had while dining at the terrace of the restaurant...

The first stop of the day was to a restaurant that had a beautiful terrace with a good view of the city. Prior to this trip, I had googled a list of food to try in Morocco and decided to try the beef tagine for this particular meal. It was definitely a good choice! As the clay pot containing the meat stew made its way to our table, the wonderful smell of it filled my nostrils and made my mouth water! With much anticipation, my husband and I eagerly tucked into the food. It was heavenly with the tender meat stew literally melting in our mouths, releasing the robust flavours contained in it! I can now totally understand why tagine has been rated the number one food to try in Morocco! 

The delicious tagine!!

..served in these cute clay pots..

After spending about an hour or so in the restaurant, with views that were truly a feast for the eyes and tummies filled with the delicious Moroccan cuisine, we made our way to our next destination - the Majorelle Garden, a botanical and landscape garden created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle. This place was later on purchased by fashion designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, which has now been thankfully opened to the public.

The iconic villa inside the Majorelle Garden..

Love the bold cobalt blue color used!

The garden is beautiful, however, it was packed to the brim with tourists! When we arrived,  all we could see was the long queue of people waiting to get into the gardens. Luckily for us, our tour guide managed to get us all in in no time (perhaps having prior arrangements with the people mending this place). The unique shade of bold cobalt blue used extensively in the gardens was a stark contrast to the red walls of the buildings surrounding it. The colourful floral and varied cactus species definitely added to the charm of the gardens. It would have been a joy to just sit and chill on the benches inside the garden if not for the hustling and bustling that comes with the loads of tourists being ushered in with every passing minute. Once we have had enough of fighting for space with the tons of people inside the gardens, my husband and I cut short our exploration and headed for the exit to meet up with our guide. There was after all no way we could properly admire the beauty of the villa or the garden when there is just a non-stop influx of people trying to get the perfect photo of themselves in front of the iconic spots. Perhaps our views would change if we were to visit this place again during the non peak period!

Spotted a bird on one of the cactus..

Other variety of cactus.. 

Another lovely walkway in the garden

From the gardens, it was a short drive to Bahia Palace and just as we were about to enter the palace, our tour guide realized that one of our tour mates was missing. You could literally seen the instant look of horror on our guide’s face and it was just moments ago that she had confessed that she was not familiar with the roads in Marrakesh and it would be a disaster if any one of us went missing. Our tour guide has previously explained to us that it is illegal for someone who is not from the city to act as guides for tourist. As our guide is not from Marrakesh, we were joined by another guide from Marrakesh. Without any means to contact our missing tour mate, our guide and the Marrakesh guide had no choice but to let us into the palace to wander on our own first while the two of them went on a frantic search for the missing person. 

The palace is certainly full of colors...

...and excellent workmanship! 


With no guide to lead us around the palace, we decided to take things into our own hands. We ended up being guides for ourselves - it was certainly an amusing sight as one of us read out the information about the palace stated on the Internet as we moved from one section of the palace to another! This was actually the first time in which the whole group actually came together and helped each other out. Unfortunately, it was difficult to fully understand and appreciate the history of the palace without a proper guide with the limited amount of information that we could gather on our own and it was not long after where we dispersed and wandered off to do our own exploration of the palace. Personally, the architectural design and craftsmanship of the palace is just stunning and the use of bold colours, especially at the back courtyard of the palace, just made the whole place radiate with charm! It was really a pity that not much written information about the palace was made available there. By the time our guide arrived back into the palace with our missing tour mate, it was near the closing time of the palace and hence there was no way the two guides could have walked us through the different sections of the palace. Nevertheless, I found myself enjoying the walk through the palace as although the Bahia palace was visited by many tourists as well, it was much bigger and hence less claustrophobic than the Majorelle Garden.

The back courtyard of the palace 

Filled with cold bold colors!

From Bahia Palace, we soon made our way to the Koutoubia mosque, whose name was derived from the Arabic word for “bookseller” - namely because sale of books and manuscripts used to be done near it. According to the Marrakesh guide, the first mosque built at this site was erected by the Almoravid. Subsequently, it was destroyed when the Almohads took over the rule of Marrakesh. In its place, they built another mosque, which was unfortunately found to be misaligned and not oriented towards Mecca. A second mosque was then built to overcome this error, hence making Koutoubia to be a double mosque. It was a pity that non-Muslim visitors were not allowed into the mosque but the exterior appearance of the mosque, especially that of the 77 metres tall minaret, was impressive enough for me to keep pressing down on the shutter button of my camera!
Koutoubia mosque

Our final destination for the day was to Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large square and market place in the old city of Marrakesh. We were given some time to wander around the square on our own and oh boy, this place is a huge maze and mess! The main square was predominately occupied by drinks seller, snake charmers and tents selling street food. Although fascinated by the range of activities happening at the square, my husband and I felt quite disturbed by the constant hassling by literally all the stall owners that we walked passed. It came to a point when we got so tired of dodging and saying no that we just walked straight pass them without even acknowledging them. To be honest, we did not feel very safe walking in the square and was in a heightened state of alertness looking out for pickpockets, snatch thieves and even the local women who are said to demand money after forcefully drawing henna on your hands. 

Orange juice anyone? 

The main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa during sunset..

Still, our curiosity soon took over our fears and we ventured deeper and deeper into the maze-like plaza. My husband, who had earlier on boasted of his confidence in being able to remember the route back, soon had his confidence wavered when we realised we were walking around in circles and appearing in places that did not seem familiar. Anxiety soon turned into panic when we realised that we are lost in the maze-like souks. Frantically, we started to pick up our pace and try to retrace back the path to where we started off. It was after a while of zig-zagging along the narrow alleys that we managed to come across a sign that pointed towards the main square, where we eagerly followed and only heaved a sigh of relief when we arrived at the main square and spotted the tall minaret of the Kutoubia mosque (the structure that we had made a mental note to look out for when we have to find our way back to the group meeting point). 

We ventured deeper...

..and deeper into the maze-like plaza!

Starting to get lost in this messy place...  

...and ended up having to frantically find our way out of this maze... 

That was it! We have had enough of the all the mental stress endured in Jemaa el-Fnaa and all that we want to do now is to board our van and head to our hotel for a good night rest! 

For this second day of our trip, there were still quite a fair bit of mishaps that happened but we could feel that everyone on this tour is slowly appreciating the need to be cooperative and to keep together as a group (especially after a stern warning from our guide on the way back to the hotel). Marrakesh, on the whole, was a much lively place with more things to see as compared to Casablanca with probably the main drawback being the lack of information on the various places that we visited. Still, things are starting to look positive and hopefully, this tour will get more interesting and fun for the next few days to come...

Yours Truly,

Related post:

Dear Diary.....Casablanca (Morocco)

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Dear Diary.....Casablanca (Morocco)

Streets of Casablanca!

Dear Diary,

It was after a period of deliberation that my husband and I decided to take the plunge and signed up for a 1 week guided tour to Morocco. As mentioned in my previous post, we usually prefer the free-and-easy style for our travels but we decided to do things differently for this trip (more on the reasons and main take-away for this decision in a later post :))!

Our journey began in the wee hours of the morning...

Being night owls, it was a struggle for my husband and I to wake up at the ungodly hour of 4am! Barely awake, we moved in a zombie-like manner to wash up and get ready to hop onto the taxi to the airport. Everything was a blur and I could hardly recall how I made it through the customs in such a drowsy state - my mind must have been a blank throughout! The short nap on the plane to Casablanca was much needed and we were totally concussed until the delicious smell of the on-board meal seduced us to leave the rosy dreamland and to open our eyes to reality. Hungrily, we devoured the food in seconds (it was after all breakfast time and we have not had anything to eat since 4am!). Satisfied in terms of sleep and satiety, we soon found ourselves becoming very excited for this trip - stepping foot on the African continent was never part of the plan of our Europe tour this time round but somehow we managed to squeeze this trip in :)

It was not long before we arrived at Casablanca and while on the way to the baggage carousel to retrieve our luggage, both of us could hardly contain our excitement - exclaiming and laughing like school children being all hyped up for excursion trips! However, upon seeing the currency exchange offices lining the walkway, we were soon thrown back to reality. As the Moroccan dirham is a closed currency, there was no way we could get hold of it outside of Morocco. I was certainly very uncomfortable with not having any local currency on hand at that point in time. While contemplating whether to exchange for some of the Moroccan dirham, I realized that I could access the airport’s WIFI! Thank God for modern technologies! After a quick search on the forums and checking with our guide (who was waiting for us outside the airport), we decided not to worry about money for now and happily we exited the airport to meet with our guide, a pleasant Moroccan lady.

The air was crisp and cooling and my husband and I were just soaking in the Moroccan atmosphere as we waited for our other tour mates to arrive. We were told that our group consisted of 16 people, with a few of them flying in from other parts of Europe and would join us at a later time. Excitedly, we boarded the minivan and was on our way to Casablanca! Aware of our needs to get hold of the Moroccan dirham and other essentials like water and snacks, our guide communicated with the local driver who swiftly drove to one of the random streets along the way which has a bank and supermarket located. Some of us waited in the van while the rest proceeded on to get what they needed. Soon, armed with everything that we needed, we made our way to our first destination - the Miami beach of Casablanca!

Lovely view of the lighthouse and the sea..

It was a scenic stretch and our tour guide led us to one of the restaurant along the street facing the beach where we all sat down to have lunch. My husband and I tried to explore the place after a quick lunch and were rather disappointed when we realized there was nothing much to do here. It was a further letdown when we saw that there was quite a bit of construction works being done at the other end of the street. This stopover was perhaps fitted into the itinerary just so that we can have somewhere to go for lunch. Nevertheless, it was quite therapeutic to just watch the waves hitting the shores of the beach :)

After lunch, we took a short drive to Hassan II mosque, the only mosque in Morocco that is opened to non-Muslim visitors. Our excitement to visit the mosque was dampened by a slight sense of annoyance when our guide mentioned that our itinerary only covered a visit to the exterior of the mosque and there would be a need to pay to enter it. We were annoyed not because we had to pay to enter the mosque but rather it should have been pointed out much earlier so that we could have exchanged for more Moroccan dirham for such expenses. Nonetheless, my husband and I decided to visit the interior of the mosque and to be more prudent with our remaining cash along the way till we locate another currency exchange office.

Hassan II mosque

Slowly exploring the exterior facade of the mosque..

Beautiful Mosiac

Hassan II mosque was already quite impressive from afar but it was only when we walked closer that we became aware of its majestic scale. However, there was some chaos just before entering the mosque as some of our tour mates had wandered off on their own and our young and perhaps slightly inexperienced guide was having a hard time keeping all of us together. Hence, about half of us entered the mosque first while our guide went on to find those who had wandered away. Wandering about aimlessly inside the mosque, my husband and I decided to stand near to a group with an english-speaking guide. According to this guide (and later on supplemented by our own guide), we realized that this mosque is the largest mosque in Morocco and second largest in size to the mosque in Mecca, an ambitious structure to be built in Morocco, commissioned by King Hassan II. It was also interesting to note that majority of the locals actually contributed to the construction funds of this mosque when the government lacked the funds for such a major project. Some unique features of the mosque include: the tower part of the mosque (minaret) is the tallest in the world at 210 metres; the building is built partially on land and partially over the Atlantic Ocean and the roof of the prayer hall is retractable (which illuminates the hall with daytime sunlight and allows worshippers to pray under the stars on clear nights). Most of the construction materials for this mosque was extracted from all over Morocco, with the exception of the Italian white granite columns and the 56 glass chandeliers and its grand interior is a matching fit to its magnificent exterior appearance and aura! A visit to Hassan II mosque was definitely the highlight of our stay in Casablanca and a walk inside this majestic mosque did us good in forgetting all the chaos and anguish felt prior to this!

Interior of the mosque (prayer hall)

The other end of the prayer hall..

Look at all the details!

The washing area located at the basement..

Still in awe of the awesomeness of the mosque, we soon found ourselves making a quick stop at the Mohammed V square. The square was, in my personal opinion, just a bustling square with LOTS of pigeons - certainly not a place we would want to stay for long as my husband has this fear of being whacked by an on-coming flying pigeon (it is still a mystery to me as to why he has such a fear in the first place...). Some of our tour mates were having quite a bit of fun posing and taking photos with the pigeons though and after they have had enough fun, we proceeded on to our hotel for a short rest.

Tons of pigeons at Mohammed V square..

Being the inquisitive type, my husband and I were not contented to just laze around in the hotel room and decided to head out to do some exploration of our own. Lo and behold, just as we stepped out of the hotel, we spotted a currency exchange office with rather decent rates. Hence, we decided to exchange for a bit more Moroccan dirham just in case we had other unexpected expenses like the one we had earlier in the day. We continued to wander about on the streets of Casablanca where we spotted a bustling street behind the city wall - it was the old town of Casablanca! Much as we were tempted to explore this part of the city, the fear of getting lost, the chaotic main road that we absolutely have no idea how to go about crossing it and the fears of not being able to rejoin the group in time resulted in us turning away from it. Now, thinking of it, we should have been more adventurous and at least take a quick peek so as not to have any regrets later on - definitely something for us to take note for our next trip to Morocco!

Spotted this lovely street art while roaming around the streets of Casablanca..

After the short rest, our group headed off to the final destination for the day - Rick’s cafe, a place made famous by the American black and white movie “Casablanca”. To be honest, the interior of this cafe is very nice and it was absolutely a great place to take beautiful instagram photos! But like any other famous cafes, the drinks were not cheap and there was a greater selection of alcoholic drinks than non-alcoholic ones (pretty ironic for a muslim country and a bummer for non-drinkers like me!). My husband and I were both coffee-lovers and we were quite disappointed when we were told that coffee and tea were not served at the time of our visit. It was pretty anticlimactic because it would have been such a wonderful experience sipping our much needed coffee in such a beautiful place! Oh well, we just had to make do with soda for now... It was not long after when people soon started pouring into the cafe and we could see that the waiter were quite overwhelmed with the crowd as they struggled to juggle between settling the bills for existing diners and taking orders from those who had just arrived at the cafe. It was at this point that we all decided it was time for us to call it a day and leave this chaotic place.

Spotted a rainbow on the way to Rick's cafe...

Here we the famous Rick's cafe..

Interior of Rick's cafe...where there is the showing of the film "Casablanca"

Look at the variety of alcoholic drinks available at the cafe...

After leaving the chaotic cafe, we headed back to the hotel for dinner (included as part of the package tour). It was a modest buffet spread and we were tucking into our food when one of the hotel restaurant staff asked us for our beverage choices. With no mention from the staff that these beverages would incur additional cost and us thinking that it was part of dinner, we randomly pointed to two bottles of drinks that they had on their trolley. After dinner, we went back to our room to rest for the night when suddenly we heard someone banging on our room door. Upon opening the door, my poor husband was instantly yelled at by the restaurant manager for not paying for the drinks that we had consumed. Bewildered and with no chance to explain ourselves amidst the angry yells of the manager, my husband had to raise his voice before the manager calmed down and accepted that it was all a big miscommunication. We were finally able to rest after settling the bill, with fingers crossed that no other “mishaps” will occur for the rest of the night.

Overall, it was a long and eventful day in Casablanca. Things certainly did not go as well as we had hope it would be with quite a fair share of chaos and random mishaps occurring throughout the day. To us, it certainly did not paint a rosy picture for this trip but it was after all just the first day - we can only hope that things will get better as the day goes by.....

Yours Truly,

Related post:
Guided tours or free-and-easy style of travelling?