Stargazing in the Sahara desert

I went with Alejandro to Morocco, one of my dream destinations. We visited Fez and Marrakech, both with amazing souks and colorful souvenirs. We also did a tour in the Sahara desert with a camel ride, a visit to a nomad berber family and a night in the middle of the desert, under the starry sky.

 

MARRAKECH

We traveled to Morocco with Ryanair, with a change of flights in Madrid. We were lucky, because we found some cheap flights. In total, the 4 flights costed us around 98 euros!

When we arrived in Morocco, we arrived in Marrakech very late at night, so we decided to spend one night there before taking the train the next morning to Fez. Our first impression of Morocco was not so good, since some people saw us a bit lost with our luggage and started to follow us to mislead us with wrong information and ask us for money at the end. It was a cultural shock because we were not used to that. We knew the way to the ryad, but they told us that we were going the wrong way and after making us walk more than necessary, asked us for 20€. Of course we didn’t give them anything, but they got annoyed.

We spent the night in Ryad Hamza, in the old medina – 108 Sidi Boulougate. We paid 30€ for a double room for one night. We didn’t need anything fancy since it was just to sleep and since we had to take the train at 6:20 am  in the next day.

When we exchanged money in Malta for our trip, I asked specifically for Moroccan dirhams, but the girl gave me dirhams from Dubai by mistake! 1 euro equals 11 dirhams from Morocco but only like 3 or 4 dirhams from Dubai. During the first night/ morning in Marrakech we paid for the taxis with this wrong currency and no one told us the truth. We lost some money with this joke. Only the next morning, at the train station, when we were trying to buy the tickets, someone was finally honest and told us that we were using the wrong currency.


 

FEZ

Facts about the city:

Founded by Idris I in 789, the city of Fez was the capital of Morocco until 1912.

It’s a car-free city. Built in the 9th century, the Fez medina is a labyrinth of about 10,000 alleys that are too narrow for cars, with small artisanal shops selling all kinds of hand-made products and the only means of transporting goods inside the medina are mules or small chariots.

The red top hat that Moroccans wear, particularly in ceremonies and special events, is named the “Fez,” just like the city. Historically, the fez hats were exclusively hand made in the city of Fez by talented craftsmen known as “Trabshi.” The hats have become a symbol of the kingdom. Now they are produced in many places but the best quality hats are still those coming from Fez.

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The train ride was very long and it took us 8 hours to arrive to Fez. We passed other important cities like Casablanca and Rabat, but we didn’t have time to stop there. The ticket costed us 412 dirhams, which is around 40 euros. We stayed 2 days in Fez.

When we arrived, the same thing happened. The taxis cannot take us into the narrow streets of the medina, so we had to figure out the way by ourselves and we got lost again because these small streets all look the same and even with google maps, it’s difficult to get the right orientations. Some kids saw us with our luggage and they started to follow us, trying to take us to the ryad, but they were being very annoying and persistent. At one point, Alejandro was surrounded by like 8 kids asking for money, when we had given them money already, so we were starting to get scared. Finally we managed to find the ryad.

We stayed in Dar Chrif Idrissi, located in 32 Akbat Zerka Kettanin, Medina. We paid 39€ for a double room, one night, with a nice breakfast included.

We liked this ryad very much because the owner was amazing with us. We became friends with him and he gave us some tips and even invited us to go out at night with him. We went together to the new part of the city, to a bar, and we saw a Moroccan singer singing live and we tried Moroccan beer (it’s difficult to find alcohol in Morocco).

The terrace was also very nice, with a good view to the city. It’s weird to be there and listen to the sound that comes from the mosques calling people to pray 5 times a day. Moroccan people are super religious. Also, they love their King, because in every shop and every place we could see pictures of the King.

When we arrived in Fez we went to visit the famous Chaouwara Tanneries. Although the largest and most famous tannery is in Bab Ghissa, Chouara Tannery is said to be the oldest leather tannery in the world. These are one of the city’s most iconic sights (and smells), offering a unique window into the natural process of producing world-class leather using methods that have changed little since medieval times. In 2016 they underwent a year-long restoration to spruce up the crumbling environs surrounding the pits, including the viewing terraces. The colors are very nice!

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After seeing the tanneries, we bought some stuff with leather. I bought a purse and Alejandro bought a nice leather jacket. In Morocco, we really have to be good at negotiating prices! My god, they start with suuuper high prices and you have to keep pushing down and down and even pretend to leave so that they can finally offer a fair price. For sure they fool a lot of tourists. According to Alejandro, I’m super good at negotiating, I guess I inherited the skills from my father 😉

We visited Medersa el-Attarine. Founded by Abu Said in 1325 in the heart of the medina, the Attarine was designed as an annex to the nearby Kairaouine. The central courtyard displays the traditional patterns of Merenid artisanship, with magnificent zellij, carved plaster and cedar wood. Onyx columns flank the mihrab. Slightly smaller than the Medersa Bou Inania, it has been sensitively restored.

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We also visited Medersa Bou Inania. A short walk down Talaa Kebira from Bab Bou Jeloud, the Medersa Bou Inania is the finest of Fez’ theological colleges. It was built by the Merenid sultan Bou Inan between 1351 and 1357, and has been impressively restored with elaborate zellij (tiles) and carved plaster, beautiful cedar mashrabiyyas (lattice screens) and massive brass entrance doors. Whereas most medersas just have a simple prayer hall, the Bou Inania is unusual in that it hosts a complete mosque.

We also tried to take a sneak pick at Kairaouine Mosque and University (last picture above), but they didn’t let us in. This is one of Africa’s largest mosques in Africa. Founded in 859, the historic university of Fez is actually recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world.

This complex is the spiritual heart of Fez and Morocco itself. It’s so large that it can be difficult to actually see: over the centuries the streets and houses of the Kairaouine quarter have encroached on the building so much they disguise its true shape. Non-Muslims cannot enter, but the university library has recently been impressively restored and opened to the public in 2016.

After that, we visited Jnan Sbil (Bou Jeloud Gardens). These lush gardens are a breath of fresh air after the intensity of Fez’ medina. Although over a century old, extensive renovation and replanting have reinvigorated the gardens’ splendor, and locals come in droves to promenade the leafy trails, cool off around the grand central fountains and lounge beside the bird-filled lake – especially at dusk.

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We found this amazing restaurant (forgot the name) in the middle of the medina and it’s architecture and decoration amazed us. I think it was the nicest restaurant I’ve even been to in my life. The food was great too and the prices were very accessible. We loved the typical tagines and couscous rice with vegetables.

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We also visited the Royal Palace. The entrance to Palais Royale is a stunning example of modern restoration, but the 80 hectares of palace grounds are not open to the public. Visitors must be satisfied with viewing its imposing brass doors, surrounded by fine zellij and carved cedar wood.

We passed the Bab Boujloud, which is a gate that leads to the old medina. Surrounded by high walls, the Pasha Baghdadi square connects the medina with Fez el-Jedid. On one side of the square, you can make out the Bab Bou Jeloud, a beautiful monumental gate built in 1913 and the main entrance to Fez el-Bali. From this entrance you can see the silhouette of the Minarets of a mosque and the Bou Inania Madrasa.

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During these two days in Fez we tried to explore everything we could in the souks and old medina and we didn’t mind getting lost among the shops. On our first night we had dinner close to the gate of Place R’cif, which was close to our ryad.

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It was amazing to see all the shops with colorful things, I wanted to buy everything. Fez was a city that started by scaring us but we left Fez in love with the cities and its colors, smells and sounds.

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At night we took a Supratours bus from Fez to Merzouga. It took us 10 hours to reach Merzouga and the famous Sahara desert.

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I even vomited and everything, but it was worth the trip! We left Fez at 8.30 pm and we arrived in Merzouga at 6:30 am so technically, we spent the night sleeping on the bus.


 

MERZOUGA – SAHARA DESERT

Facts about the city:

The Sahara Desert is the third largest in the world. The first two are Antarctica and the Arctic. Sahara means ‘the greatest desert’ in Arabic.

The desert has gone through shifts in temperature and moisture over the past few hundred thousand years. Although the Sahara Desert is very dry today, it is expected that it will become green again in about 15000 years.

The Sahara Desert covers 3.6 million square miles. It is almost the same size as the United States or China. There are sand dunes in the Sahara as tall as 590 feet. There are several mountain ranges in the Sahara that get snow regularly. It’s not common anywhere else.

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When we arrived in Merzouga, we had no plan, we didn’t even have a hotel reservation. However, we were lucky because we decided to go to this hotel called Hotel Palais des Dunes, where the tour to the desert that we booked was going to start on the next day, at 5 pm. We talked to the guy there and he made us a really nice price! 40 euros per person for a room until 5 pm so we could rest from the bus ride, breakfast, lunch, tour 4×4 in the dunes in the afternoon and breakfast after the night in the desert. Amazing!

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The tour 4×4 was very worth it! We went with our guide, Ismael, and we visited a village with black people where they played songs and danced for us (we danced with them as well), we did rally in the dunes (very scary but exciting experience, to be driving so fast in the dunes – one time we even got stuck in the sand and couldn’t move the car and another time even Ismael got scared because he drove too fast and we bumped into the ground when we climbed down a dune). Very cool!

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We also visited a place where the french used to work to produce glass. We were very close to the border with Algeria, we could see it on the other side of the mountain.

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Another thing I liked was when we went to visit a berber nomad family in the middle of the desert. There were 2 or 3 wifes there from the same husband and lots of kids. It was very impressive to see the conditions where the kids were living. There was a little girl there with dozens of flies in her face, mouth and even eyes and she was so used to that that she was not even blinking!

They offered us some bread but we didn’t want to eat it because of the lack of hygiene so we just drank the mint tea that they prepared for us. The kids had a ball to play football and it was nice to see them playing with Alejandro and Ismael.

These kids don’t go to school and they speak berber so we couldn’t communicate with them, only Ismael could. He himself was a nomad when he was a kid, for 7 years. He said that despite the conditions, he was very happy living in the desert like that.

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After this tour we came back to the hotel to have a shower and at 5 pm we met our guide to do the camel trekking tour in the Sahara desert. We were a group of more or less 10 tourists. It was very cool the sensation of riding a camel in the middle of nothing but sand. The color of the sand is amazing and it’s even more beautiful at sunset.

When the sun was setting, we climbed a dune and we saw it from the top, before proceeding with our journey. We were on camels for about 1h30, 2h, until we reached our camp with our berber tents called haima, in a valley between the dunes, chosen because its isolation allows the absolute solitude of the group.

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We had dinner outside, in some tables that they set for us. The dinner was tasty, an ideal example of local cuisine and we ate around the fire. Then, at night, we could enjoy the overwhelming experience of silence and the starry night sky above you. It is an unforgettable impression. I never saw a sky so beautiful in my life! The sky was very dark, with no cities lights, and with thousands of stars everywhere. I saw two shooting stars, for the first time in my life!

We gathered around with the rest of the group around the fire while our guides played their instruments for us. It was the most spectacular night of my life and I loved the fact that I could share this experience with Alejandro.

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We slept in the tents that had a proper bed and even bathrooms. The next day we rise before the sunrise and we came back with our camels to the hotel. We stopped again on the way and we climbed another dune to see the sun rising, while our guide made a fire to warm us up there.

After the breakfast we took the bus to Marrakesh. The price that we paid for this camel trekking tour with one night in the desert was just 35€ per person, can you believe it? The most well spent money ever. The company with which we booked the tour is called Camel Excursions.


 

MARRAKECH

Facts about the city:

Although the majority of residents are either Arabic or Berber, Marrakech is very multi-lingual – from business people to shopkeepers – most will be able to pin-point your nationality before you say a single word.

Marrakech is referred to as the Red City, because of the shade of the walls surrounding its old town.

Though many Moroccan men and women still wear djellabas, or traditional loose-fitting robes with a hood, locals do strip down at the hammans – gender-segregated bathhouses peppered through Marrakech’s medina, where they clean themselves with savon noir soap and ghassoul clay masks.

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It took us even longer to get to Marrakech from Merzouga – 12 hours by bus! We got on the bus at 7.30 am and we arrived at 8 pm so we lost the whole day travelling. This time we decided to stay in a nicer ryad in Marrakech, to end our trip in style, so we stayed in Ryad Dar Alif located right outside the old medina – 17 Derb El Kheir Hay Salam, Mellah.

We paid a bit more, 136€ for a double room for 2 nights but it was well worth it. The staff was super nice and the owner is a sweetheart. She is a french lady that just moved recently to Morocco. The ryad had a nice indoor pool and a relaxing terrace on top.

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We started by visiting the famous Jardin Majorelle. One of the most popular locations in Morocco, the Jardin Majorelle is the creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle who spent 40 years injecting his passion and creativity into this magical garden. Complete with enchanting little lanes, magical trees and over 300 species of stunning plants and tranquil streams, Jardin Majorelle is perfect for those who want a break from the busy city and want to experience the Art Deco and Moorish influences in a relaxing environment. The garden was in ruins and the famous Yves Saint Laurent decided to buy it and make it look nice again and now the garden holds his aches in his memory.

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Then we went to the most famous place in Marrakech, the vibrant Jemaa el-Fna square. Somewhat of an open-air theater and museum combined, Jemaa el-Fna is the pulse of Marrakech. The daily square buzzes with snake charmers, henna tattoo artists and various other entertainers, while at night there are countless stalls boasting traditional lamb heads and fresh orange juice. Tourists flock here all year round to experience the true heart of the city and to discover the intriguing things the locals have to offer in this magical Moroccan square.

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The natural fruit juices were so cheap there (approximately 1€) that we were always buying them. We also had dinner in this square on our first night in Marrakech. Close to this main square, there’s the Koutoubia Mosque, with it’s big tower. The largest mosque in Marrakech, the Koutoubia is not only a spiritual center but a point of reference for international architecture. Setting the trend for buildings in Spain and Rabat, the beautiful 12th-century minaret is an example of the Moorish ornamental expertise: with characterful arches and rigid proportions, it’s an admirable piece of architecture.

Another place we visited were the Saadian Tombs. These tombs were created to stand as the final resting place of the many rulers and members of the Saadi dynasty. Rich in history, the Saadian tombs were rediscovered in 1917 after having been sealed up for centuries. Magnificently decorated with bright tiles, Arabic calligraphy, and intricate carvings, Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour ed-Dahbi certainly spared no expense on his tomb, making for a beautiful site for tourists.

In our spare time during these two days we got lost on purpose in the maze of souks in Marrakech. Labeled one of the most exotic and magical cities in the country, Marrakech boasts a full medina with typical winding souks and countless treasures, from bags, to ceramics. Whether you’re looking for literature, handicrafts, or food, there’s a street and an alleyway for everything. Tourists like us can get lost for hours in the labyrinth of enticing streets.

It was lovely to discover some locally made treasures. We bought more souvenirs for our friends (I also negotiated a lamp and a nice mirror for myself) and we went inside a big store that sold spices and teas and we bought some mint tea and some Moroccan medicine. We had lunch and dinner in the middle of the souks, eating more tagines.

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We went inside Ben Youssef MadrasaMadrasas, translating to schools, now stand all around Morocco as historical representations of the education of the past. This particular Quranic school, once the largest in North Africa, was dedicated to the teaching of Islamic law, and has stood since the 14th century. Guests can explore 100 tiny windowless student chambers and admire the medieval architecture, from the great courtyard to the richly decorated prayer halls. After almost six centuries, this medieval madrasa still has plenty of charm and stands are one of the key tourist attractions of the city.

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In the last morning before our flight we visited the Bahia Palace. The Bahia Palace was built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time. Set up at the end of the 19th century by Si Moussa, grand vizier of the sultan, for his personal use, this palace would bear the name of one of his wives. Here, the harem, which includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines. As the black slave Abu Ahmed rose to power and wealth towards the end of the 19th century, he had the Bahia palace built by bringing in craftsmen from Fez. This is the only palace open to tourists.

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We said goodbye to Marrakech in a garden close to the Jemaa el-Fna square, where we stayed there sitting on a bench for a long time, just absorbing the life of the Moroccan people and trying to take it all in. This was an amazing trip. Apart from the annoying people on the streets trying to get money out of you, the rest of the people were extremely kind and nice and the whole experience was incredible! This trip joined me and Alejandro closer together 🙂


 

MADRID (SPAIN)

To go back to Malta, we had to change flights again in Madrid, Spain. This time we had to spend a night there, because we only had a connection flight the next morning. We stayed in Hostal Alonso and we paid 35€ for the room. It was very well located, close to Puerta del Sol: Espoz y Mina, 17 3o. The lady was very nice.

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Since we didn’t have a lot of time in Madrid and we both had visited the city before, we just visited the main places like Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol, Plaza de Cibeles, Gran Via, etc.

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We stopped in a famous place where they sell churros con chocolate and in another place where we ate a lot of tapas (jamon iberico y queso iberico). We also visited a nice closed market with some restaurants. This time I actually enjoyed Madrid.

 

BUDGET:

  • Flights: 98€
  • Accommodation: 280€
  • Train from Marrakech to Fez: 40€
  • Supratours Buses: 30€
  • Camel trekking in the desert: 35€
  • Jardin Majorelle: 6€
  • Medersa el-Attarine: 2€
  • Medersa Bou Inania: 2€
  • Saadian Tombs: 1€
  • Ben Youssef Madrasa: 2€
  • Bahia Palace: 1€

 

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