Category Archives: Morocco 2011

The One With Hotel Amanjena – A Moment Of Sex And The City

It’s only fitting that, after a marathon of Sex and the City movies back-to-back last weekend that I blog about my very own Sex and the City moment in Morocco.

For the uninformed, the second movie of the highly successful stories of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, while was about Abu Dhabi – the “new” Middle East – the movie was mostly shot in Morocco, spread over a couple of cities. When I planned my trip to the North African country last year, many of my friends thought it was in honour of the movie.

Truth to be told, I had no idea until a few days before I was to leave for my holiday.

How uninformed I was! So while at Marrakech, having some off hours free in the afternoon, we decided to visit Hotel Amanjena, the beautiful palace-like hotel where Sex and the City 2 was shot at.

Hotel Amanjena at Marrakech, Morocco

The hotel was located some 10 km away from the medina of Marrakech (where we were staying at), and apparently no metered taxi will venture that far out. So we booked one. And upon arriving, the kind English-speaking concierge told us that we had better book the taxi for the return trip, for none will come this way. And so we did.

Was the hassle worth it? You bet. Upon knowing that we were from Singapore, the concierge wondered if we were “mystery shoppers” (the hotel was, apparently, operated by some company from Singapore), and proceeded to offer us a complimentary tour around the sprawling complex.

And what a sight it was.

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The One With Reflections At Essaouira – The Wind City Of Morocco

Essaouira - The Wind City Of Morocco

The crystal clear azure sky opened up, as if God was smiling down on us. Palm trees swayed in the light breeze, slightly dampened from the rain earlier that morning. Shrieking sea gulls soared high ahead, calling out to each other across a sleepy souq slowly awakened from its wet slumber.

That was how I remember my first (and only) morning in Essaouira, the wind city of Morocco.

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The One With The Woman At Vantage Point

The Vantage Point of Fez

It has been a long time since I last blogged about my travel.

I couldn’t remember the turning point, when this blog changed from a random collection of my thoughts and writings into a string of food review. It is very “me-too”, isn’t it? I miss the therapeutic effect of blogging; of writing words, conjuring puns, crafting punchlines.

It’s like shopping, without money spent.

So I thought I’ll start with my behemoth collection of my travel photos. How about featuring shots which really spoke to me?

The photo above was taken at Fez, Morocco. When I saw the woman sitting there, carrying her baby, lost in her own thoughts while staring into the distance, I was enthralled. What could possibly be in her mind? What could have happened to her that motivated this trip all the way up to this vantage point?

Perhaps she was escaping from her day-to-day life. And it struck me that, at that very moment, I was, too.

The One With Europe ’11 Day 8 – Last Day In Marrakech

Last Night In Marrakech

Is it time already? Time just flew pass us when you are having a good time. It was our final day in Morocco, and since we did not have much on our itinerary, it was decided that we will be having an entirely laidback time. Not that we have been really taxing ourselves in the past couple of days. The girls will be heading back to the grind of work the day after tomorrow, and I will be starting my Europe leg of my journey, so it was a totally welcomed idea to take things a little slower:

– Had a late breakfast on the terrace. Late was relative; we were up basking under the winter sun at about 9 a.m., and already the busy worker bees were buzzing all around our food, so much so that we have divert our savoury items – jams, tarts and the likes – to the next table. Bees seemed to be a prenenial problems in Morocco, no thanks to the sweet tooth, but at least it wasn’t flies or other disease-carrying bugs
– Hit the street to make our way to the Koutoubia Mosque, which was located near to our riyad. The mosque was grand to Moroccan standard; all stones and archway and the tallest minaret in all of Marrakech (though truth to be told, after Aya Sofya in Istanbul with its six towering minarets, it was hard to be impressed)
– A long stroll through the edge of the medina, where Moroccans lived their daily lives amongst countless shops of carpets, pastries and electrical appliances. I came to realise that, without its touristy elements, Morocco was just another country stripped off its cultural and diversity identity. It was for the benefits of tourism that the country comes to life
– Up next was the Bahia Palace (10 dirham for admission). Its entryway was uninspriring. In fact, the top-to-bottom display of multi-coloured carpets across the street was far more interesting than the nondescript sign of the palace.
– That was until we walked in, pass its garden of orange trees (oranges were so abundant in this country, it was a wonder the people don’t look a bit like oranges themselves)
– The palace was indeed a showcase of Arabic and Moroccan best arts. The mosaics and carvings and waterworks were impressive, befitting for a king of old with his four wives and 39 concunbines. One do wonder of that specific number. I am sure 43 times’ the lucky for the Sultan
– Much of the large palace compounds were cordoned off from tourists, but that did not deter me from spending some two hours snapping away
– Had a totally Moroccan lunch at a nearby complex of metal work. It was possible to spend below 30 dirhams for a meal of tajines.
– We walked then into the medina and chanced upon the Pastrier de Princes, one of the recommended pastry shops recommended in Lonely Planet. In a dizzy from the array of sweet stuffs available in the shop (I had a box of fifteen savoury Moroccan snacks all by myself only earlier in the morning), it was the tasty choice of “Da Prince” – a combination of tasty-looking ice creams – which took my dirhams. The portion was too big; despite my best intention and capabilities I only managed to finish half the somewhat ordinary ice-cream
– And so we were back to the riyad, getting ready for the hammam and massage. To my surprise, the same man who served us breakfast in the morning was also tasked to do my hammam. It was unnerving to undress in front of your waiter and to see him almost naked. The hammam experience itself was tepid at best. It wasn’t hot enough and was a far cry from my Turkish experience. Half the time I was left lying/standing/sitting wet from soapy water and God knows what else
– The massage was satisfying, though not in a style that I could appreciate. The massage ingredients were touch notch – I particularly liked the almond clay used for my face – and coupled with some classifical Moroccan music, I relaxed deep under the piles of towels. The massuess, however, could do well with shorter nails and lesser bracelets
– Some two hours later, we gathered and headed into the medina for our last Moroccan meal. Seated at a terrace overlooking the entire Dj emna el-Fna, with the snake charmers bleating way on their oboes and the crowd bargaining their way through the best deals, I looked at my plate of couscous and wondered if I will ever visit Morocco again

The answer? Probably, but neither Fez nor Marrakesh will be on my list. I dream of an endless vacation at Essaouria.

The One With Europe ’11 Day 7 – Sex And The City Of Marrakech

Cocktail At Hotel Amajena

Marrakech lived up to it’s name as the biggest imperial city. At every corner, you are reminded what you loved and hated about Morocco. Unlike Fez, here in Morocco, I’ll suggest you ditch your guidebook and go exploring. For the most unplanned for excursion yielded in the most surprising results:

– Now I understand why Lonely Planet suggested having a “lazy breakfast and suntanning at riyad terrace” before going for a “leisurely stroll in the medina”
– Breakfast at the crack of dawn at a sunny terrace on a winter morning was great. The selection here proven to be healthier (and lesser) than those in Fez, and I am glad
– As we went exploring the medina, the first thing I noticed was the endless stream of motorcycles roaring through the narrow alleyways. Unlike Fez, Marrakech was not a motor-free site. The fumes was intoxicating
– At almost ten in the morning, the medina was slowly clambering to life. Stall owners huddled by the pathway having a cup of mint tea, enterprising young men cajouled us for that early dirham, and yet more workers cleaned and dusted their goods for a day of business ahead
– And to the shopping. Goodness did we shop. The art of bargaining is a refined one, bestowed to the shopaholic few, and one that I wasn’t blessed with. Eventhough I paid a little more than I should, I have learned to accept that I pay what I think the good is worth for, and I think that brass bookmark is worth fifty dirham
– The market at medina was best viewed from a vantage point. As I sipped my late morning coffee, I looked across the flat roofs of medina short buildings and the multi-coloured stalls going about their trade, I felt… contented. To be here at this point of time making my own history. Not many people had that privilege
– Got conned by a snake charmer. For someone who has great fear for all things slithery it was absolutely dumb of me to be tricked. All of twenty dirhams, but still! I could get a nice shot glass for that.
– Had my first non-Moroccan lunch. Over pasta we wondered if we had enough going on to fill yet another day in Marrakech.
– Decided to visit Hotel Amanjena, the beautiful palace-like hotel where Sex and the City 2 was shot at. Discovered that it was located some 10 km away from the medina, and no metered taxi will venture that far out
– Upon reaching the hotel, we were told we better book the taxi for a return trip, for no taxi will come this way
– The concierge spoke perfect English, and upon knowing that we were from Singapore, he wondered if we were “mystery shopper” and proceeded to offer us a complimentary tour around the sprawling complex
– Wow, just wow. With only 39 rooms, every inch of Amanjena spells luxury and riches. We saw the seven archways where Carried stole that kiss from Aidan, and the couch where they shared a platter of snack. The legendary pool was the centrepiece of the hotel
– We were honoured to have seen so much of the hotel, including some rooms. To round of that entire SATC2 experience, we sat beside the pool and had some cocktails. I had two, including a Cosmopolitan, in honour of Samanta
– Made our way back to the medina, totally happy. Rested before venturing out to have a simple meal of roasted chicken and cheese omelette at a decidedly local cafe. For only thirty dirham. That’s only like 1/5 of what I paid for my Cosmo.

So what is left to Marrakech to explore? Some historical places, and then on for two spots of pamperment, back to back. I think mud face mask for mentioned at least once. Hmmm.

The One With Europe ’11 Day 6 – The Gorgeous Coastal Town Of Essaouira

Camel Ride At Essaouira

Traveling to different places open up your eyes to the possible impossible, to the never ending delights the world has to offer. Once in a while, however, you come across some place so unexpected it took your breathe away and you wondered where you stood in God’s creation.

Essaouira was one of those places.

I am waxing lyrical about Essaouira. It has without a doubt took over the top position as my favourite beach town. Phuket has little to match up to this gorgeous town painted in white and blue.

The lyrical part would have to come at another time; but here’s are some experiences from Essaouira:
– Sometime less is more. The less carb they serve at breakfast, the happier we became
– I have never seen a girl who become so excited over a couple of hardboiled eggs
– The alleyways of Essaouira gave way to bright blue sky and wide roads. It was drizzling the night before, and this morning, but heaven seemed to have cleared up in time for us to soak in the atmosphere of the town
– We knew, because of the rainbow which spanned across the sky. We were so blessed
– Seagulls, seagulls, many seagulls. I would be lying if I don’t admit I was scared of them shitting on my head. But all they did was to soar majestically across the sky and called out to each other.
– Strays, strays, many strays. Cats and dogs everywhere, and they seemed to know how to pose for pictures.
– Even though the town seem to be bustling with tourists, there wasn’t that tense touristy feel to it. The locals went on with their life; fishermen continue to tend to their boats, children kicked balls in tiny alleyways, old women sat at corners waiting for a dirham or two. Even the touts seem to be subdued. It was a great place for tourists
– The beach. OMG the beach. It was gorgeous. The Atlantic Sea was relentlessly crashing to the shore, but as it was low tide there was plenty of sand to trod on. Imprints everywhere – of humans, of horses, of camels.
– Oh yes, camels. How can you describe the fright when it first rises onto its four feet, as you took in the smell and sound of these gentle animals, and how they prowled the beach, carrying you, as they and their ancestors have carried other human over thousands of years? It was so poignant I almost cried.
– Oh the city boy in me!
– Then the shopping. It was cheap (though I discovered I paid too much for my pair of Moroccan shoes). I wasn’t hassled – that much – and I bought stuff. Yay.
– The seafood lunch. Everything was grilled fresh, though I suppose the chef did overdid ours with salt. But what with the white building and blue table clothes and crashing waves and serenading street drummers, it was an experience, certainly.

We left Essaouira half wishing to cancel a night in Marrakesh and spend more time here.

Essaouira deserved more pages in travel guides. I will be back.

The One With Europe ’11 Day 5 – The Long Journey To Essaouira

At Elizir Restaurant, Essaouira

The day dawned bright and early, as we have an early train to catch to Marrakesh, which will take some seven hours, before changing to a taxi for yet another 2.5 hours to the coastal town of Essaouira:

– Breakfast was the same old, same old. Honestly, one more of those couscous pancake and I will definitely throw a seizure
– Headed to the train station early and got ourselves some first class cabin. Had a wonderful time anticipating what lies ahead
– Realised that the train will stop at every station between Fez and Marrakesh, including Rabat and Casablanca. Can I say that, technically, I was at all these towns too?
– An argument broke up between the train staff and passengers. Rapid, harsh-sounding Arabic words were exchanged. I wish I could understand them. Some gossip will break up the monotonousity of the journey nicely
– The journey through the countryside was illuminating. Not living up to its a name as an African country, Morroco boasted more lush greenery, orange trees and rolling hills you would wag your fingers at
– Cacti farms; have you seen anything more ridiculous? Yet Morocco was full of them. I can only imagine they were farmed to collect water from deep underground
– Instead of a tree of goats which I very much wanted to see, I saw instead a tree full of… children. The irony was outstanding
– The outskirt of Marrakesh was full of dusty roads after dusty buildings. It was hard to get excited at so much dust
– It was one straight road from Marrakesh to Essaouira, even if it took almost 2.5 hours before we saw the sea
– Essaouira by night; what was it like? For one it was definitely a touristy town, yet the lack of threatening touts and milling tourists made a nice change from the scene that was Fez
– It was raining, so everything was bitterly cold. But when one seagull soared above our head with a lonesome cry, my heart soared. This was such an authentic coastal town experience
– Had dinner at the famous Elizir with a decidedly international crowd. Finally had some fish after nights of carbs and meats
– Headed back to the Ryad (we had the biggest penthouse all to ourselves), where the girls proceeded to finish up all the hot water leaving me cold. Gah!

All in all, a tiring day spent more on the road than on my feet. But we already know, for sure, what we will be doing tomorrow! Stay tuned!

The One With Europe ’11 Day 4 – The Missable Meknes & Volubilis

The Ancient Roman Ruin Of Volubilis

After the hustle and bustle that was Fez medina yesterday, we decided to take a break from all things Moroccan and made our way to Meknes, a town located some 60 km from the city. From Meknes, it is another 30 km to travel to Volubilis, the ancient outpost city of Rome.

If you think we are going to experience two cultures within one day, you are probably right. We did, but not in an entirely satisfactory way.

– Headed bright and early to the Fes train station. Definitely more efficient than the airport, though not by much, but I am grateful nonetheless
– Journey was ultra short. We arrived in Meknes in 30 minutes flat. I almost thought we didn’t understand what our fellow cabin dweller was telling us
– Immediately got approached by touts right outside Meknes train station. Told us that Meknes medina isn’t open, and why not we go to Volubilis? Utter crap. We hailed a (blue) petit taxi and 8 Dirhams later, we arrived…
-…. to see a gigantic courtyard with canopied stalls to the left and ancient gates along an equally ancient wall to our right. The entrance to the medina was right in front of us, next to the museum, just like how Lonely Planet described
– And so we hurried into the medina
– We turned left and right, walked into blinding alleyways, utterly grabbed… by the nondescript stalls. This was like a glorified Chatuchak. Were we too pampered by the cultural assault that was Fez medina?
– Walked past the two biggest attractions of the place (a madrasah and a grand mosque) without even realising it until some helpful locals pointed them out to us
– In less than thirty minutes, we were out from the medina, somewhat deflated. And so we walked across the street into another promising looking sets of walls…
– …. only to be confronted with yet another Moroccan “place” (which means palace). Okay, it was rather grand, but once you have seen a palace, you have seen it all. Unlike its European counterparts, palaces are rather common here, even if you are only moderately wealthy
– And so we walked to the local market besides the medina, which was definitely more colourful and vibrant than the medina itself. Had a local sandwich by the roadside; no idea what I ate
– Arranged for a grand taxi to take us to the Volubilis and the neighbouring Moulay Idris. Time was about 11 a.m.
– The journey out had us gaping in wonder. I thought we were in Africa. So what do all these trees, sheeps, lush greeneries, quaint stone houses doing here? It is more… European than I thought
– Arrived at Volubilis. Time was about 11.45 a.m.
– Used the toilet. Was told to “tip” “as I wish”. So I gave twenty cents Euro. Had another fifty cents forcefully taken out of my hands. You think your toilet was a spa? Bastard conman.
– Wondered around the ancient Roman ruin. There was a group of (primary?) school students on a school trip here. One of the teachers told us they were from Tangier, and asked if he can introduce an English student to us? Utterly charmed
– Back to the ruin. I love Roman architecture. All those linear lines and right angles made for great photography.
– And so I snapped, and snapped the stones against the giant, green backdrop.
– The girls were done in a flash. I guess after Rome and Italy, this wasn’t that impressive to them. But for me, I felt one with history. I blame that to the absence of milling tourists and aggresive touts
– Made our way back to the grand taxi. Time was about 1 p.m. Half signaled, half asked that we wanted to have lunch at Moulay Idris
– Was brought up to this vantage point overlooking the pious, Islamic city nestled between two hills. Was rather charmed by its Santorini-like appearance.
– Asked again about lunch. Was told not possible, we can only drive through the town centre.
– Drove through the town centre. I do think the day-to-day Moroccan life can be rather… normal
– Back to Meknes medina in a jiffy. Time was about 2 p.m. So we paid 300 dirham for a 3-hour service. Bastard conman.
– The girls got distracted by some roast chicken and so we walked into a decidedly local eatery, much to the amusement and giggles of pack of girls
– Had the biggest chicken. Cannot finish it
– Back to the train station, and the famous Moroccan efficiency hit again. Train was late for an hour. Took the non-express train. Smelly toilet.
– Reached riad at 6 p.m., our hammams and massage were ready, so we hurried to dump our things for a spot of pamperment…
-…. only to realise I didn’t shower before my massage. I didn’t even have time to wash my feet. Utterly grossed out by myself. Otherwise, the session was delightful (though I would like to point out my blissfulness was punctuated by the gaily laughter from the wet girls next door at the hammam
– Ventured into Bartha town for dinner. Immediately got hustled by endless touts. Studiously ignored them until we turned around the corner leading to the medina
– To be greeted by a sight so delightful, we immediately settled down at a roadside cafe callled Thami’s. Great food at 1/3 of the price we usually paid. Immediately vowed not to eat at “palace” restaurant again

And with that my third day in Morocco drew to a sluggish end. The next day will be spent almost entirely on a seven hour train ride into Marrakech, and then a two hour taxi ride to the coastal town of Essaouria.

Hmmmm white Sudanese racing camels

The One With Europe ’11 Day 3 – The Old & New Fez

The Vantage Point of Fez

Exploring Fez was an assault to the senses.

Despite the popular advice that getting lost in the medina of Fez is half the fun, I would strongly suggest that you go against the conventional wisdom and hire yourself a (reputable and official) tour guide. Not only he can help you to navigate the most puzzling of mazes that was Fez Medina, you’ll be able to look at all the right spots in two sweeping routes across the centuries-old market.

And when you thought you are done with the endless unexpected alleyways and stalls selling everything from camel head to rainbow-coloured leather, there’s another excursion by car round the Royal Palace and up the vantage points to the south and north of the city.

Fez, in all senses of the word, is a living museum. Steeped in history and culture, the old and “new” Fez were bustling with some 60,000 inhabitants. Everything mentioned in my Lonely Planet came to life; traders riding donkeys while talking on mobile phones, children turned their corner of the medina into a makeshift soccer pitch, acrid-smelling tanneries with their rough workers, spiraling minarets jostled for space with countless satellite dishes and of course the infamous Moroccan touts.

It’s a feast for the senses you should indulge in, unhurried.

The One With Europe ’11 Day 2 – An Evening In Fez

An Evening in Fez

The day was spent mostly on traveling from London to Fez.

It was remarkably nice morning out in Notting Hill. We did a big breakfast at Mike’s Cafe, and then popped across the street for The Travel Bookshop, made famous by Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in the movie Notting Hill. Never had I been so tempted to shop so much during a holiday. It would be rather silly to drag my books all over the place so I planned to return on my way home.

The journey from London into Fez has been nothing short of being remarkable. Some quick notes to be expanded later on:
– Never had I seen a budget airlines so determined to make money out of its passengers. Incremental revenue is one thing, but to trawl the aisle selling one product after another really irked me
– Had an insightful time at Fez airport. Let’s just say the Moroccan didn’t put much store to efficiency. It was also a tale of woes for the overbearing lady who lost her somewhat demented husband at the airport. The officers didn’t have to laugh so much
– Everyone jabbered in French, Arabic and Berber (the local language). Not that I could tell any difference. It just felt strange and rather overwhelming at times
– The journey from the airport, a good 30 minutes, took us through the French district, the “new” Fez and finally the Fez Medina. It was literally like stepping back in time as modern buildings and sweeping boulevards gave way to cramped alleyways and dark corners
– The Moroccan men like to loiter. A lot. They were literally standing everywhere in the street.
– Our accommodation, Ryad Alya, was amazing. Everything you saw in Sex and the City was real. Never had I been so amazed by a hotel.
– The staff was amazing too, particularly one local chap named Mahmoud, who is a medical student in the local hospital, speaks good English, loves sport and always up for a good cup of tea. That he is good looking of courses helped with the ladies
– The locals loved their tea; generously sweetened with sugar and spiced with mint. At last count I had four glasses of those sweetness before bedtime
– Dinner was at a lavish restaurant nearby. At EUR28 per person it was expensive, but it was an euthentic Moroccan experience; great food, impeccable service (despite the language barrier), live classic music, all within a cozy courtyard of a dar.

It was late nigh before we finally hit the bed. Fez in the daylight will be a photographer heaven. I can’t wait.