It has taken me awhile to get around to typing this one up, but I’m pretty much settled in Austin now, so there are no more excuses. Riki had been to Budapest years ago and I have been itching to explore more of Eastern Europe since visiting Prague, Vienna and Bratislava. Another cheap EasyJet flight from Basel made this possible. That and the incredibly cheap accommodations available. A morning flight in Basel got us to Budapest in time for a pho lunch on the way to our apartment. I hadn’t done much research on Budapest, mainly relying on Riki’s memories from 10 years ago to guide the way. So I didn’t realize how huge Budapest was going to be. Budapest is the combination of the two cities, Buda and Pest, with something like 2 million people. They, along with Óbuda (Old Buda) were combined in 1872 to form Budapest. During WW2 Budapest suffered a lot of damage, especially the castle area, where the Germans were barricaded. The Germans also blew up the bridges on the Danube to slow Soviet troops. Later, when the Soviets occupied Hungary, they rounded up many Hungarians and sent them to forced labor camps. Despite officially ending Soviet military operations in 1945, the Soviets managed to leave behind a government dominated by Communists. This led to revolution in 1956 and the return of the Soviets to crush said revolution. The first free parliamentary election wasn’t held until 1990 and the last of the Soviet troops left in 1991.
Here are some of the highlights:
Budapest’s House of Terror is a museum portraying to the horror events caused by Nazi Germany and the Soviets. As we were visiting Budapest during the anniversary to the revolution, the museum was free.
Riding the old trams. Budapest has an affordable 5 day pass which let us on buses, metro, trams and even boats. We partook in all.
Parliament at night, and from the water (via public boat). The changing of the guard was also interesting though just a coincidence we saw that.
Cheap restaurants. We ate as many types of food as we could and only had one meal that wasn’t great. Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian, American, Tex Mex, Thai, English, Indian, and of course Hungarian.
Walking St Margaret’s Island. A really nice park which I imagine to be even nicer when flowers are in bloom.
Kerepesi Cemetery was amazing. Way in the back the graves are a bit overgrown. There is a really interesting old hearse in the front of the cemetery with a video in English.
Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park and Heroe’s Square. There was a festival by the castle when we were there with lots of food and seemed to be medieval themed.
Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias church and castle hill is a must see. We went multiple times as the views are amazing both during the day and at night.
Budapest was a great place to visit. According to Riki, it has changed drastically in the last 10 years. It has plenty to offer for cuisine and culture and an equally fascinating history to go along with it all.
There is a very good reason Iceland, with a population of about 330k people, had 1.8 million international visitors in 2016 (Iceland Tourist Board). It is unlike any other place I have visited. With majestic waterfalls, the original geyser, bubbly hot springs and bright blue icebergs washing up on black sand beaches, Iceland offers unique scenes that impress and awe its visitors. That being said, it is not all scenic and natural like you might imagine, or conclude from the massive amounts of gorgeous pictures to follow. Massive deforestation began with the Vikings, and continued as land was needed more and more for sheep grazing, an important food source. The forests that do still exist are few and far between, making it necessary to import wood from hundreds of miles across the ocean. Not a cheap task. Iceland continues to lose more vegetation due to wind erosion, making it even harder to reforest. Iceland also hosts 3 aluminum smelters that depend on massive amounts of cheap hydro and geothermal power to provide enough energy to extract aluminum from imported alumina. While they do use renewable energy, a multitude of environmental impacts make it a controversial industry.
Despite these issues, Iceland’s tourism industry is booming and it is evident that it could spiral out of control quickly. A large part of the appeal of Iceland is that many of the main attractions are right along the ring road, are free and relatively easy to reach. Small buses ply around the ring road dropping off small hordes of people to quickly snap their Instagram-worthy shot before being shuttled to the next attraction. The Icelanders are fed up with their antics. Tourists are not respecting the landscape and a few even died this year while straying off the marked paths. Public pooping has even become a big problem. We witnessed first-hand a lot of poor behavior, ranging from flying drones in clearly marked no-fly zones, to getting dangerously close to the edges of waterfalls. To combat this, some of the sites have started charging for parking. I’m guessing they will use some of the revenue to construct more barriers and signs to try to control the flow of tourists. However, this may not be the best approach. They are preparing to attract more tourists, but not the right kind. They should be focused on the tourists who want to experience Icelandic life and culture, those that want to preserve the wilderness, not trample all over it. In this way, they may be able to prevent the “Disneyland” effect that is plaguing places like Venice and Barcelona. Perhaps they can follow Costa Rica’s example and focus on sustainable tourism.
Our 14 day itinerary can be found at Iceland in Two Weeks – Itinerary and Tips , but basically we started in Reykjavik and headed north to the Westfjords and then continued on the ring road clockwise, with a detour in the diamond circle and and day trip into the highlands. Here is a great map with lots of points of interest that you can even customize through Google maps: 14 day Iceland Itinerary Map. We skipped the Blue Lagoon, as it sounds like it has become a major tourist trap and certain members of our group don’t have the attention span to soak lazily in the water when there are photographs to be taken elsewhere. Its also insanely expensive. We managed a few hot pots instead (for free) and you can easily visit the local swimming pools in many towns.
It was a fabulous trip, where we didn’t think we could see something cooler, until the next day, when we did. Seals were the highlight for me. Riki obsessed a bit about capturing the Northern Lights. And the sheer amount of beautiful scenery was astounding. Hopefully, it will stay that way.
Back on the ring road.
Reindeer are non-native and there is a fixed number that are shot every year. We spotted these hunters in the highlands in the east. They half-joked that reindeer is the most expensive meat because the permits cost $700-1250 depending on the gender. And you have to hire a guide as well. We also visited the East Iceland Heritage Museum in Egilsstaðir which houses an interesting exhibit on reindeer. We saw a mink, another non-native species and Riki and I glimpsed an Arctic fox, the only native land mammal in Iceland. Seals don’t count I guess, even though they seem to spend quite a bit of time on the beach. Otherwise, it was a whole lot of sheep, some horses, and a spattering of birds.
There were thousands of photos taken on this trip between my parents, Riki and me. For more, check our Riki’s photo site at Riki’s Photo Website
Our two week Iceland road trip planning began months before our September flight. Iceland was expected to have 2 million visitors in 2017. Even though we decided to go after the high season, I read that accommodation can still be difficult to find as there just isn’t enough for all the people coming to Iceland. Thus, by June I had already booked our accommodation, flights and car. That was no easy feat, as we weren’t willing to spend an arm and a leg, nor were we willing to rent a camper van and rough it for two weeks. In the end, the accommodation dictated our itinerary. I tried to space our lodgings out by about 4 hours drive according to Google Maps. I thought this would be a reasonable amount to drive each day, with plenty of stops in between. I quickly discovered that 4 hours on the map can be up to double that depending on the road conditions, the quality of the scenery and opportunities for photos.
I decided to travel clockwise from Reykjavik (Point 12) so that we could be in the West Fjords (Points 2 & 3) earlier and hopefully get better weather, as it can get colder there before the south. We stuck pretty much to the original itinerary, until the last few days, when the weather took a turn for the worse and we had to skip the Westman Islands (Bed icon between Points 10 and 11) due to gale force winds and the ferry potentially being cancelled.
Iceland is easy to navigate. There are not many roads, and some are in less than desirable conditions, but they are well-signed and with the help of a good offline map (we love maps.me– I don’t get any compensation from them) you should have no problem getting around.
We never needed to use cash, but did get a little out at the ATM at the airport just for fun. You can use credit cards everywhere.
We made sure to get gas when we were in big towns, and stocked up on groceries as well, at Bonus and Netto. We brought a small cooler and ice packs with us as well. This allowed us to bring perishables in the car, as we never stayed more than one night anywhere, except Reykjavik.
Buy any alcohol you want at the Reykjavik airport duty free shop – it is far cheaper than the little liquor shops, which also have short hours.
Having more than one driver was also key to our trip, as a few of the days were quite long.
I booked all our accommodation on Booking.com (for their refund policy) and AirBNB (for the smaller towns). This gave me flexibility when some better accommodation did become available closer to our departure. Book in advance and shop around for car rentals. I ended up getting a great deal on a 2015 Citroen Berlingo from Northbound/Thrifty for about 82,000 ISK (before insurance and extra driver cost) for two weeks in September 2017. Similar cars from other companies were often twice that.
Every one speaks English. Icelandic words are long and look unpronounceable, but once you know a few of the basics, you can start to decipher the word, though probably never pronounce correctly. Here are a few key phrases that should help:
Day 1: Arrive Reykjavik airport (Pt A, southwest) 8 am. Pick up rental car and drive to Costco outside Reykjavik. Drive 191 miles (307 km) to Grundarfjordur (Pt. 1) via Snaefells Peninsula.
Day 2: Drive from Grundarfjordur to Bjarkarholt (Pt. 1 to 2, 194 miles/312 km) with lunch stop in Stykkisholmur. Alternately there is an expensive 3 hour ferry across Breidarfjordur.
Brjanslaekur harbor, West Fjords
Day 3: Bjarkarholt to Isafjordur (Pt. 2 to 3, 129 miles/208 km) with stop at Dynjandi waterfall.
Birkimelur hot tub
Day 4: Isafjordur to Laugarbakki (Pt.3 to 4, 222 miles/357 km).
Seals at lowtide in Hestfjörður
Day 5: Laugarbakki to Akureyri (Pt. 4 to 5, north side, 167 miles/269 km) via Vatnsnes peninsula for seal watching.
Low tide at Hvitserkur on the Vatnsnes peninsula in the pouring rain
Basalt fortress of Borgarvirki
Day 6: Akureyri to Husavik (Pt. 5 to 6, 92 miles/148 km) via Godafoss and Myvatn.
Lava fields of Dimmuborgir near Mývatn
Inside the Grjótagjá cave
Day 7: Husavik to Seydisfjordur (Pt. 6 to 7, 170 miles/274 km) via Asbyrgi and Dettifoss.
Hafragilsfoss just below Dettifoss
Yellow fields in East Iceland
Day 8: Seydisfjordur to Eskifjordur (Pt. 7 to 8, 46 miles/74 km) with day trip to highlands and Laugarfell for (dead) reindeer spotting.
Day 9: Eskifjörður to Höfn (Pt. 8 to 9, 151 miles/243 km) with stop at Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach.
Smooth rocky beach at Hvalnes Nature Reserve
Horse near Höfn
Day 10: Höfn to Vik (Pt. 9 to 10, 169 miles/272 km) with stops at Jökulsárlón and Skaftafell National Park. This was a long day due to lack of accommodation in the area.
Svartifoss in Skaftafell
Day 11: Vik to Birkikinn on the Golden Circle (Pt. 10 to 11, 89 miles/143 km) with stops at Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Hellisheidi power plant, Geysir and Gullfoss. Our original itinerary included the Westman islands, but due to gale force winds we were forced to skip that.
Stokkur geyser erupting
Skógafoss in the pouring rain
Seljalandsfoss in the rain
Day 12: Birkikinn to Reykjavik (Pt. 11 to 12, 74 miles/118 km) with stop at Thingvellir National Park.
I read a number of books about Morocco before our trip, in particular a few by Paul Bowles. While I had trouble getting through parts of his stories, I found his outsider’s viewpoint to be an intriguing glimpse into a incredibly complex country. Morocco has a deep Phoenician and Berber history, and the far southwest border of the Roman Empire even ran through northern Morocco. Then the Vandals and Byzantines came along in the 5th and 6th centuries. Arabic and Islam spread to Morocco in the 8th century and then it only got more complicated. Between French and Spanish colonization in the early 1900s, I got lost in the intricacy of who had what, when and how. And don’t ask me how Morocco and Western Sahara are related. That’s still an ongoing dispute. But one thing stuck out. Morocco’s diverse history has left it with an incredibly friendly population, who, while only a short distance from Europe, live a world away from the average European.
This is a long one.
We left the Erg Chebbi dunes and Hassilabied (near Merzouga) to head north toward Fes. Not wanting to rush, we planned on stopping in Midelt for the night just to break up the drive.
Having read about a tourist loop near Rissani that included a number of historic ksars, or fortified dwellings, we decided to check some out. Unfortunately, we found it difficult to find this route, despite following the one sign we saw. Fortunately, we saw a tour group stopping near Moulay Ali Cherif mosque and tagged along to an unidentified ksar, which has very intricate mud work.
Leaving Rissani, we headed further north into the Ziz river valley, which was no less than spectacular. The contrast between the green around the water and the never ending brown elsewhere made for some great photo opportunities. Plus, the flat topped cliffs and viewpoints helped a bit. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine the Ziz valley to be just as stunning.
Along the Ziz River near Meski there is a spot called the Source Bleu. For a modest 5 Dirhams (50 cents) you can enter the grounds, swim, picnic, and hang out. Well, only the boys were swimming. The women and girls were all involved in a group sing along in the shade. And the men were drinking tea in the little cafes. We wandered through the area and eventually ended up in a palmery where we found a crystal clear channel where women were doing laundry.
Jumping back in the car, we continued north through more incredible valley sights, eventually nearing the snow capped mountains again. We went through 4 police checkpoints this day, though were stopped at none. One, outside of a military town, even had spikes laid out ready to deploy. Riki wouldn’t let me sneak even a photo from my phone, so I have no documentation of these. I was going to be really stealthy, but that was vetoed.
Throughout our trip we encountered a feeling of things yet to come. For instance, huge, new gas stations that look fancy from afar, but when you get up close, you realize that the shop, cafe, and even service center are completely empty and have never been opened and won’t be any time soon. Entering many towns, the roads would widen, be dotted with oh so many street lights and speed bumps, and there would be nothing on either side of the road. The most fun were the gates in the middle of nowhere. Huge, ornate structures we could see from way off and would pass through thinking we were entering another town. And then there would be nothing. Not even a house. It is as if Morocco is preparing for major, instantaneous development.
We arrived in Midelt late afternoon and briefly hunted for the Sunday carpet souk (market) before deciding if must have only been in the morning. Then we hunted for somewhere recommended to us to eat, failed and then just settled on a place near the bus station. This was a fortunate find, as I had the best chicken pizza I’ve had in ages.
I upgraded us to a nicer hotel when we were in Midelt (13 Euro more). I thought that after two nights in the desert we may need a few extra comforts. We didn’t really need the rose petals scattered on the giant, sand-free beds, but the scalding hot water and English television were real treats.
We had been warned while in the desert that a few days earlier there had been a decent amount of snow on our impending route, causing traffic jams and accidents. Luckily, the roads were clear upon entering the cedar forest near Ifrane. We did spot some of the endangered Barbary apes in the snow along the road, but opted not to stop to feed them like many of the other cars.
We slowed long enough to get a few shots of the apes and the snow.
Ifrane is supposedly the Switzerland of Morocco. You can see why by the variation in the architecture and the vegetation – complete with mountain chalets. Wanting to get to Fes in time for a late lunch, we just did a driving tour and continued on our way.
We tried to do some birding just outside of Ifrane, but the lack of water in the Aoua lake made that tough. Though we did spot a big grey heron and another black and white bird from our travel guide.
Riki handled the entry into Fes like a pro. After what seemed like a hundred roundabouts, we finally found the dirt parking lot where we were to leave the rental car for three days, at the very reasonable price of 30 Dirham ($3) per night.
We spent the next two days wandering the Medina of Fes, taking in pretty much all the regular tourist sites. I particularly liked the Medersa Bou Inania and the Medersa Attarine. While we could not access as much as the one in Marrakech, they had the same intricacies on every surface.
Fes’s medina was much easier to navigate than Marrakech’s. Fes has a few different major routes that are pretty well marked. Each is color coded and tells you the destination as well. Since we were staying near the Blue Gate, we often just had to find one of these major routes and follow the zig zagged path back to our riad.
Riki often looks for unique art when we travel. It can be difficult to find things we like that are within our budget. But while wandering Fes, we ended up at the end of a very narrow alley in an artists’ coop. The man spoke French and we managed to ascertain that this guy, his two sons and a few other people all sold their art in this shop. Riki was drawn to the style seen below, and we bought one of the larger pieces as we felt it represented the colors of Fes better than some of the others.
I later purchased a small rug, where I wrongly asked if I could have tassels added to one side to match the other. The salesman said no problem and before I could figure out what he was up to, he started to unravel the end without tassels. I stopped him before he could do more than a few rows and decided to trim them myself later.
I was not particularly fond of visiting the tannery. The best views are from the balconies of the neighboring shops and if you don’t want to buy anything, the shopkeepers expect a donation for the necessary mint leave to cover up the stench. Despite our small donation, we were still hassled a bit while just trying to take some photos. And its awful to imagine having that job. The guys stand in chemical muck and pigeon droppings all day. Often times without any protective gear.
We walked up to the Merenid tombs one afternoon, a decidedly nice view, but had a very strange experience. By this time, we were used to being told we were going the wrong way and offered directions from people who were looking to make a few Dirham. But the little boy who we met at the top of the hill really threw us for a loop. He seemed to be all alone and we chatted a little in broken English/French and he pointed to where he lived and where he went to school. As we were leaving he asked us where we were staying and where we were going. We told him roughly and politely said we knew how to get there so we didn’t need any help. But that did not deter him and he proceeded to “lead” us back down the hill and into the Medina. This is where Riki and I tried to pull a fast one on him, thinking he would get distracted in the chaos of the medina. So Riki went one way and I went the other and agreed to meet at the Blue Gate. The kid continued to “lead” Riki and we weren’t able to lose him until we got in a taxi headed to the other side of town. Even then, he watched us go. He never asked for money, nor really said anything, just walked a few feet in front of us, quietly glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still there.
We had been eating 10 Dirham ($1) sandwiches for most of our meals, and mainly from the same stand. On our last night, the stand was closed so we went to the next one over. These sandwiches are basically grilled mixed meat with a delicious tomato sauce stuffed in a thick round bread. Easy enough. But as we watched, the cook took our raw meat slapped it on the grill and used the same hands to open the bread and then leave it propped up on the raw meat resting on his counter. We paid for the sandwiches, but were ready to toss the bread, until we realized, the bread is about 10 cents at another stall. We’ll just dump the cooked meat into new bread and be on our way. So that’s what we did and still with some apprehension we had our last supper in Fes.
The next morning we checked out and retrieved our car safe and sound from the dirt lot. We continued north and west to Volubilis, a Roman archaeological site. The drive was really beautiful, though we encountered the worst roads so far.
Volubilis is a Berber and Roman city from the 3rd century BC. Under the Romans, it grew and even had a basilica and aqueduct. The incredible mosaics of the fancy houses have been largely restored, though are sitting out baking in the hot sun with no cover. Not sure that’s the best preservation method, but it certainly makes for an impressive visit. There is a new museum on the site which really explains the history well and displays some of the artifacts found there. I have seen a number of Roman ruins, from all over Europe, but Volubilis was the best at really portraying how the city would have been. I’m not sure if that’s because of the extensive restoration they have done, or just the sheer amount of ruins and mosaics still left. Whatever it was, you can really imagine how the city looked under the Romans and how impressive it would have been.
After a few hours in the scorching sun, we heading south again to Meknes. We left our car under a tree and the parking attendant gave us a twig as a receipt. We checked into our room, which was little more than a bed in a cubby with an attached bath separated by saloon style swinging doors. And the whole room was directly over the alley below, with one little window at the far end. Luckily, we had little luggage and only stayed one night.
Road to Meknes
We found Meknes to be a much smaller city, with a lot of students and much more diversity. The souks had a more modern feeling and the medina much less crowded.
We got followed by a man who insisted on showing us a silver shop and the typical work they did there. It was neat, as they pound the silver in thin threads, but we weren’t really in the mood for any metalwork.
After mediocre food in Meknes, including tacos filled with french fries, Riki was excited to travel along the coast and find some seafood. We stopped in Mohammédia, just north of Casablanca to see the Atlantic Ocean and have lunch before returning to Marrakech.
Back in Marrakech we headed straight for the airport to return the car. Right outside the airport, we got hustled out of about $10 trying to fill up our gas tank, and even though we realized it was happening, we had no proof, and thus had to end our road trip with a bad taste in our mouths. We took the bus back to the medina and checked into a different riad, which had tiny kittens on the roof and a very picturesque courtyard. A much better way to end our two weeks in Morocco.
“Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes became a reality. He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.”
Our trips are planned according to when I can find the best deals and this trip was no exception. Flying out of Basel can be much cheaper than Zurich, especially if I get a cheap train ticket ahead of time. I managed to find a direct flight from Basel to Marrakech for less than $50. The return was about twice that, but it came to Zurich and had free checked baggage, which was necessary after the shopping we did – more on that later. I also booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com ahead of time. I found the rates to be about the same or cheaper than booking in person, and without the hassle of wandering around looking for a room, which is nearly impossible in the medinas we stayed in. I also booked the car from Hertz ahead of time, I got an incredible rate, and we even got an unnecessary upgrade. The last thing I pre-arranged was our camel trek. This was one of the things I was most excited for and wanted to be sure it went off without a hitch. But for that I just emailed three companies with good reputations online and chose the one who gave me the best deal. So, besides the flights, accommodation, car and camel trek, everything else was up in the air. More or less.
We took the earliest train from Zurich to Basel, which meant we had to walk to the train station because the trams were not yet running. No big deal though because we travel light and each had just a backpack for the 15 minute downhill walk. Luckily, security was light and we cruised through to our gate. Any delay with the trains or airport could have meant a missed flight, we were cutting it that close. Travel karma was on my side this time though, as unusual as that is for me.
We arrived in Marrakech and took the 2 Euro bus to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, we heard it so many different ways. From there we walked about 20 minutes through the medina to our riad. A riad is a Moroccan house with a courtyard. The outsides are nondescript but the insides can be very fancy. Many have been turned into guesthouses. Though we thought we knew where we were going, we still ended up a bit confused and were hustled by two guys who insisted on showing us the way and both getting paid, despite us declining their services. Not a very nice way to start the day. But we made it to the riad, dropped our bags and continued out into the medina.
The medina was a maze and we ended up in dead ends frequently, but that’s the fun of not having a set schedule. We found ourselves near the El-Badi palace right before closing and enjoyed the ruins of the late 1500s palace before heading back to the main square to check out the evening madness.
The next morning, we went to the Ben Joussef Medersa trying to beat the crowds, which we managed for about 5 minutes. A medersa, or madrasa (saw it both ways) is an educational facility, and in Morocco, often used for studying Islam. We visited a number of these, and I found this one the most impressive, as you can wander into the little courtyards surrounded by tiny, dark dorm rooms, which were used for sleeping and studying. There is an incredible amount of intricate woodwork, tilework and plasterwork, everywhere.
From there, we continued to wander the medina for the rest of the day, stopping at El Bahia palace in the afternoon.
El Bahia Palace is only a little over 100 years old, but it has stunning tiles and courtyards. The ceilings were really impressive as well, and it was a great way to get out of the heat for a bit.
Unfortunately, about half of Jemaa El-Fnaa square was under construction, so we didn’t get the full feel of it. However, there were plenty of snake charmers and monkey handlers to go around. I avoided these like the plague, as the animals are mistreated and these exploits should not be encouraged. We ate at one of the stalls (#1), but were weary from hearing about so many people being overcharged for things they didn’t want. We found the food ok, not amazing, nothing to write home about, oh wait, doing that now.
And then the real adventure began! We picked up our rental car, which was our first time renting a car in a foreign country. We got upgraded from a mini size to an economy sized Fiat Punto, but not until we were standing in the lot and the Hertz guy realized they definitely didn’t have the car we booked. We were a bit worried about renting a car, because 1) road conditions, 2) crazy drivers, 3) crashing, 4) not getting an automatic. But really, none of those things turned out to be issues and you can read about our road trip tips here 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip and our full itinerary here 12 Day Morocco Road Trip.
We drove over the Atlas mountains, which was stunning and perfectly doable in a small car. It is crazy to me for some reason to think of snow in Morocco, but sure enough, there was plenty up there.
Our first stop was Ait Ben Haddou, which is a ksar, or fortified village and a UNESCO site. You might recognize it from Game of Thrones.
The village is largely uninhabited, but there are some families still living in the old clay brick houses. The oldest part is from the 17th century. We found it to be incredibly interesting, but VERY touristy. For instance, it is free to enter, but if you happen to cross the river and don’t take the bridge, someone will try to hustle you for 10 Dh to see the inside of her house, saying that is the only way to enter the village. So, we went back across the river and took the main bridge to avoid this character.
At the top of the village is the old granary, which has excellent views, but staying vertical was nearly impossible due to the wind.
While Ait Ben Haddou was interesting to see, it is very small and we spent a little over an hour there, before getting back in the car and working our way towards the Todra Gorge.
With walls 160 meters (525 ft) tall and an opening slinking to 10 meters (33 ft) wide, the Todra Gorge is really a sight to see. We arrived just before sunset, but the red of the canyon was still striking in the shade. We opted to stay right next to the gorge, so that we could easily check it out again in the morning, in different light. A request from my photographer, of course. It is a popular place for climbers, but having no interest in dangling from little ropes over sharp rocks, we just used it as a stopover to the desert.
The last stretch before the desert was probably the one with the most contrast. We went from vertical walls of rock to mountains of sand, punctuated with palm tree oases in between.
We arrived in Hassilabied a bit early, as the roads were empty and smooth. Hassilabied is near Merzouga, which is the more well-known town for seeing the dunes here. I was hoping to visit the nearby lakes to see flamingos, but was informed that it hadn’t rained in two years, so well, there wasn’t any water, or flamingos. So we went exploring and found a small palmery along the desert and not much else.
After a welcome tajine lunch, we suited up in our head scarves and were assigned camels. Mine was named Jimmy Hendrix and proved to be a bit aloof, despite me bribing him with bread.
We rode about an hour and a half into the desert of Erg Chebbi, which features a dune about 150 meters tall (492 ft).
We made it to our camp in the late afternoon and were pretty impressed with our accommodation, except that the light in our tent didn’t work very well. There were a circle of lined tents to keep out the wind and sand, a round dining area and even a latrine. Much fancier than I expected, though if we had paid an arm and leg more, we could have had a shower too, but that was a different camp.
We spent our downtime sandboarding, playing cards and wandering the dunes.
We felt one night in the desert wasn’t going to be enough, so opted for a two night stay. This turned out perfect, as we were prepared for some downtime and needed a day off from driving. Though riding in the car was significantly more comfortable than riding the camels. We woke up at 6 to see the sunrise and then had a big breakfast before taking the camels further into the desert. We left the camels and our guide at a base camp and climbed the tallest dune, so that we could see Algeria, which was only a few kilometers away.
The border to Algeria is closed now, but you can still get a nice view.
We descended and had lunch at the other camp. We stayed there all afternoon because it was quite hot. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hendrix wandered off and it took our guide an hour to find him. Finding a camel in the desert seems to involve standing on the tallest, nearest dune and waiting for the camel to come into sight. Very high tech. We jokingly told the guide they need to get GPS trackers for the camels.
On the second morning, we once again got up for the sunrise, but it was cloudier. We returned to town, showered, though the power was out, and had breakfast.
Next stop, north through the Ziz Valley to Midelt.
More detailed blogs are coming, complete with the infamous Riki photos (of which there are 4,000 to go through). But for now, here is our trip report from our 12 day journey in Morocco. Check out 15 Tips for a Morocco Road trip as well.
We flew in and out of Marrakech, but this could be done from Casablanca as well, or even starting in Marrakech and ending in Fes (with a one-way rental).
12 Days in Morocco Itinerary (Short Version)
Arrive in Marrakech.
Drive 4 hours to Ait Ben Haddou. 2 hour visit with lunch. Drive 3.5 hours to Todra Gorge.
Drive 3 hours to Hassilabied (Merzouga). 1.5 hours on camel to camp.
Camel ride and climb Erg Chebbi dunes.
Camels back to Hassilabied. 4 hour drive to Midelt. Stop in Rissani to see kasbahs. Amazing views of Ziz valley. Stop at Source Bleu in Meski.
3.5 hour drive to Fes. Drive through cedar forest near Azrou with Barbary monkeys. Stop at Dayet Aaoua lake.
Drive 1.5 hours to Volubilis. 2 hours visiting site. 45 minute drive to Meknes.
Drive 2.5 hours to Mohammedia for lunch. Drive 3 hours to return car at Marrakech airport.
Last minute shopping and return to Marrakech airport.
12 Day Morocco Trip Report
Day 1: Arrive in Marrakech late morning. Bus #19 (20 Dh low season, 30 Dh high season) to Jemaa el-Fnaa. Walk to Riad dar Nael (270 Dh/night plus city tax, incl. breakfast) in Medina. Explore souks. Visit El Badi (10 Dh).
Day 2: Ben Joussef Medersa (20 Dh) to see amazing tilework and student dorms. Visit Ensemble Artisanal for handicraft market with fixed prices. Explored Kasbah neighborhood and went to El Bahia Palace (10 Dh). Bus from Jemaa el_Fnaa to Gueliz area (new part). Walked back. Ate at stall #1 on Jemaa el_Fnaa (90 Dh for 12 sticks of meat and vegetable couscous).
Day 3: Bus #19 back to airport to pick up rental car (Hertz via Holidayautos for $139 (1400 Dh) for 9 days, mini). Drive 4 hours to Ait Ben Haddou. Visit ksar and climb to top (free). Drive 3.5 hours to Todra Gorge. 7 police checkpoints. Check in to Auberges Cavaliers (190 Dh room, 100 Dh dinner, 50 Dh breakfast).
Day 4: Drive 3 hours to Hassilabied (Merzouga). 3 police checkpoints. Leave bags at Camels House (375 Dh/night in tent incl camel transport and all food/water). 1.5 hours on camel to camp.
Day 5: Sunrise in the desert. 1 hour on camels to base of Erg Chebbi dunes. Climb dunes. Lunch at other camp. Return to our camp for sunset.
Day 6: Sunrise in the desert. Camels back to Hassilabied for breakfast and shower. 4 hour drive to Midelt. Stop in Rissani to see kasbahs. Amazing views of Ziz valley. Stop at Source Bleu in Meski (5 Dh). 4 police checkpoints. Overnight at Riad Villa Midelt (350 Dh incl breakfast).
Day 7: 3.5 hour drive to Fes. Drive through cedar forest near Azrou with Barbary monkeys. Stop at Dayet Aaoua lake, but its half dry and has few birds. Arrive in Fes and park at Ain Azliten (30 Dh/night). 3 police checkpoints. 3 minute walk to Fez Dar (215 Dh/night plus city tax, incl breakfast). Nejjarine Museum right before closing (20 Dh) for woodworking exhibit and terrace views.
Day 8: Early to Medersa Bou Inania (20 Dh). Explored medina and souks. Medersa Attarine (20 Dh). Art shopping at Galerie Yessari. Through Jnane sbile park to Mellah, the Jewish quarter.
Day 9: El Batha Museum (10 Dh) to see handicraft antiques. Chouwara tanneries from viewpoint above (10 Dh to the door guy just to look – no shopping). Walked in El Andalus area and up to Bab Guissa and Merenide tombs (free).
Day 10: Drive 1.5 hours to Roman ruins at Volubilis and museum (10 Dh). 2 hours visiting site. 45 minute drive to Meknes. 1 police checkpoint. Parking at Place Lalla Aouda (20 Dh/night to parking attendant). Short walk to Riad ma Boheme (200 Dh plus city tax incl. breakfast). Explored souks and silverworks.
Day 11: Drive 2.5 hours to Mohammedia for lunch near beach. 2 police checkpoints. Drive 3 hours to return car at Marrakech airport (159 Dh in tolls). Bus #19 back to Jemaa el-Fnaa. Walk to Riad Riva (215 Dh plus city taxes, incl. breakfast). Wander souks and leisurely dinner.
Day 12: Last minute shopping. 40 Dh taxi to the airport. Bus price went up April 1 to 30 Dh / 3 Euro each. Long lines at airport and passport control.
Car and Gas: Fiat Punto, approx 700 Dh / $70 in diesel (not incl. $10 scam), unleaded was about 1 Dh/L more expensive (~9.50 Dh vs 10.50 per liter, March 2017)
Total distance: 1650 km / 1025 miles
Total hours: ~26 hours, with plenty of photo stops
Tolls: 6, all between Meknes and Marrakech, 159 Dh / $15.80
Police checkpoints: 20, most in the south, stopped at 0
My musings are based on the route below. I can offer little advice for driving in the cities, as we avoided Casablanca and Rabat on this trip. For more information about our itinerary, check out the other Morocco blogs (Coming soon).
Road conditions are good. Our economy sized Fiat Punto had no problems in the mountains or desert, though we did not go off-piste at all. The worst road we encountered was between Fes and Volubilis, where the edges were bumpy.
In the desert, the roads were generally smooth except where water occasionally passes over them. These are marked with this amusing cat-like sign.
Speed limits are well marked and range from 40/60 (in towns) to 120 (toll roads) km per hour. Police radar traps are frequent as are checkpoints. We met a couple whose fine for 68 in a 60 zone was about $20. Drivers will often flash at you to warn about upcoming radar traps. We were waved through all 20 checkpoints we went past, most of which were south of the Atlas mountains.
Gas prices are lower than in Europe. Diesel (Gasoil) was around 9.50 Dh/liter (March 2017) and Unleaded (Sans Plomb) was around 10.50 Dh/liter. There are plenty of gas stations along the main roads.
Moroccan drivers are not all crazy or bad drivers. We found driving in Marrakech and Fes to be hectic, but only a bit crazier than what we’ve encountered in Europe.
Passing and honking are frequent occurrences. Use your blinker when passing and honk to let the other driver know you are coming. Most of the honking we encountered was just friendly beeps alerting us to their passing.
Be alert at traffic lights. If you are too slow to get moving, you will get honked at.
Roundabouts or circles can be confusing. For the majority, you should yield to traffic in the circle and this will be evident by a normal red triangle yield sign. When there is a traffic light to enter the circle, you may be required to stop in the circle and wait for incoming traffic. If there is neither a yield sign or a traffic light, yielding is the best bet.
Watch out for animals and people in the road. Many of the rural roads are used by pedestrians as well as herds of sheep and goats.
Signs are in Arabic and French. Most roads signs are similar to those in Europe.
Avoid scams. We were the unfortunate victim of a gas scam at the Afriquia nearest to the Marrakech airport. Make sure the attendant resets the pump from the previous customer to avoid paying extra. We also read about scams involving people pretending to need assistance, only to take you to their friend’s shop.
Use an app such as maps.me for offline driving directions. We found this app to be generally accurate even though roads were rarely marked.
Rental agencies are required to provide 3rd party liability coverage. Consider booking your car with a credit card that offers additional insurance coverage for car rentals, so you don’t have to use the additional insurance offered.
For entertainment during those long hours, we found the Moroccan FM radio to be decent with a mix of English and Arabic songs. Bring a USB car charger to play your own music and to charge your phone.
Check the spare tire has air and there is a working jack before leaving the rental agency office.
Relax and don’t forget to pull over to enjoy the view (and if you’re Riki, take a few thousand pictures).
Thanks for reading, and check out the other blogs on Morocco for more information.
We had considered renting a car in Porto and driving south, stopping in a few places along the way and then dropping it off in Lisbon. Despite rental cars being dirt cheap in Portugal, we heard too many horror stories about bad driving and disreputable car rental companies. What sealed the deal was finding first class train tickets for only a few Euro more than regular ones – pays to book ahead. We brought a picnic along and enjoyed our almost empty car for the three hour journey from Porto to Lisbon.
Arriving in Lisbon, we walked in light rain to our apartment in the Alfama neighborhood. Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and one of the oldest cities in the world, with Pre-Celtic and Phoenician roots. Unfortunately, in 1755 a huge earthquake, tsunami and ensuing fires destroyed a huge portion of the city. The new part was built in a grid using more flexible methods to withstand future quakes. The Alfama is the oldest district and comes from the Arabic word meaning baths. It was the Moors’ whole city and is a labyrinth of walking streets and small cobbled plazas. It reminded me of the Albayzín in Granada, Spain – also with Moorish roots.
On our first full day, we opted to get a public transit day pass, partially because of the immense blisters on the bottoms of my toes, and partly because of the pouring rain. Our first stop was the Museu Nacional do Azulejos, which is a great collection of the painted tiles typical of the area. Riki took a ton of photos, which I assume will manifest themselves in some of his art in the future. The incredible patterns still adorn so many buildings in Portugal and the museum explains the process and history of the tiles.
From the museum, we took an incredibly packed tram to Belém, which translates to Bethlehem, a suburb about 30 minutes west of Lisbon. It is home to a number of national monuments and public spaces. The Belém tower is a UNESCO site from the 16th century. It was used as protection of the estuary and the gateway to Lisbon.
Just upriver from the tower is a monument commemorating the Portuguese discoverers. It shows Henry the Navigator and is made to look kind of like the front of a boat. Behind it in the plaza is a world map showing the routes the Portuguese took.
Since it was still pouring, we ventured into the free Berardo Museum of Modern Art. And while you can encounter some interesting artists here, like Picasso, Dali and Warhol, there are a plethora of pieces I just don’t get. The solid black canvas for instance. But that’s just me, and Riki. Those rooms we cruised through.
Still in the rain, we walked to the Jerónimos Monastery, where upon discovering the 10 Euro entrance fee, opted for the free church next door, which sported some amazing Gothic features, and the tombs of Vasco de Gama and a poet, Luís de Camões.
The weather was looking a bit better on our second full day, so we decided to take the train to Sintra. Sintra is an old resort town just outside of Lisbon. It is scattered with palaces and villas and was probably the highlight of our trip. The Pena Palace, a 19th century UNESCO site is probably the most iconic palace in Sintra. The palace is a converted monastery and was the summer residence of the kings. It is brightly painted with incredible Portuguese Romanticism architecture. Despite arriving just in time for the Pena Palace opening, we had to ride a very packed bus up the hill. Luckily, we were still able to beat the crowds and Riki got some amazing pictures without too many people.
After touring the palace, we used what little sun was left to explore the neighboring gardens and park. There is a microclimate in Sintra and the surrounding forests were lush and green. And in true Riki fashion, we went in search of good views.
And we found them, after climbing up rocks and through trees.
We then walked back up hill to the Moorish castle, a 10th century Muslim fort. It was an outpost for Lisbon and a control tower for the Atlantic and the north. The sun had pretty much disappeared by the time we got here. Though the views were nice, it should probably be visited before the Pena Palace, because it is not much more than a pile of rocks in comparison. There is an interesting archaeological site and the free binoculars let you check out the neighboring palaces.
We spent the following two days wandering Lisbon, eating octopus (Riki) and Pastels de Nata(me), a delicious mini custard found almost everywhere.
On our last day we discovered a market near Cais do Sodré where 20-something of the best restaurants are invited to have booths. You can order a dish (octopus if your name is Riki) from any of the booths and then sit casually at long tables. They even have a bunch of bars, so you can mix and match from all over. This is especially useful if not everyone wants just octopus.
The coolest free thing we discovered was the Núcleo Arqueológico da Rua dos Correeiros. A bank sponsors a guided tour, in English, under their building where you can see remnants from the 5th-3rd centuries BC. They explained the history of Lisbon providing fish for the Romans, the Islamic occupation and how the earthquake changed the way Lisbon’s buildings were constructed. They even have a 5th-9th century skeleton displayed in his final resting place. And the whole time you are walking around in the basement of a modern bank, trying not to hit your head as you wander through layers of history.
For our last meal, we went back to the Time Out market, so someone could have more octopus. The next morning we took a 10 Euro taxi to the airport, an unheard of thing for us, but when your $50 round trip flight leaves at 7:05 am, public transit is not an option.
Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there. And no warmth. But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind. And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures. I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.
Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception. I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted. This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag. But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked. And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer. But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.
We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip. Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food. Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come. We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating. And very good.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River. Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors. One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings. Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine. And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.
Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip. And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation. The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations. So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket. Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around. We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.
Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here. We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.
We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.
Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.
That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full. But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.
The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar. Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden. And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.” Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything. And roosters.
Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.
The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings. First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves. Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise. As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.
On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever. After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.
We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.