Intrepid Travel’s North Morocco Adventure Tour

Each year I asked the listeners of Amateur Traveler to vote on a destination for a small group trip. Let’s ignore for a moment how crazy it is to let strangers or mostly strangers vote on where I spend my vacation.

This year’s trip was the second trip to Morocco. We did this trip with Intrepid Travel. I have previously traveled with Intrepid to China, Cambodia, India, Southern Africa, and southern Morocco. This year’s trip was to Northern Morocco. It was Intrepid’s North Morocco Adventure tour.

Table of contents: (Hide)

Itinerary

The northern Morocco intrepid tour starts in the city of Casablanca and then travels to Rabat, Meknes, Moulay Idriss, Volubilis, Fez, Chefchaouen, Tangier, and Marakesh.

Casablanca

The Intrepid tour starts in Casablanca, it doesn’t spend any time there. If you want to see Casablanca, you must come in a day or so early. I arrived a day early so that I could see the city. That also gave me a day to play with if something went wrong with my travel arrangements. Much of Casablanca is a modern city, but there is still an old medina in the city as well. 

I met up with two of my fellow travelers at the airport, Marcy and Cindy. We had arranged for transportation from the airport with Intrepid. I understand that it’s not that difficult to get from the airport, but after long international flights, seeing someone with a sign with your name on it is a comforting experience.

I had specifically arranged the tour so that it would not overlap with Ramadan when people in the Muslim world fast during the day. My experience is that fasting people can get a bit grumpy. I had not thought through that arriving a day early meant that I actually arrived on the last day of Ramadan so finding restaurants open that evening was a bit more challenging. After a few failed attempts, we found, a restaurant near our tour hotel that was a combination butcher shop and restaurant where we could easily get kebabs. A dinner of kebabs and bread and drinks was seven dollars total for the three of us. Morocco is not an expensive destination.

Casablanca marketCasablanca market

The next day, we were scheduled to meet with our tour group at dinner. Before then we set out to explore the city of Casablanca. We investigated a local market near our hotel. I love exploring the market where the locals actually shop. We then walked to Rick’s café, which is named after the café from the movie Casablanca. Is an upscale establishment and lunch would have been three times as much per person as our total dinner was the night before so we opted to skip it on this trip.

We grabbed lunch instead at a nearby shopping mall right on the coast in Casablanca. Then we walked along the coast to the largest mosque in Casablanca, the Hassan II Mosque. This is the only mosque in the country where non-Muslims are invited to visit. Sadly, we had not done our homework and did not have reservations for a tour. They were sold out for the day of our visit. The green roof of the mosque is something we would see repeated everywhere we went in Morocco. The green is to remind the faithful of paradise. 

We met our tour group and our guide Ayoob at 6 o’clock in the lobby of our hotel, the Hotel Imperial. I passed out tour T-shirts and we did a few quick introductions before heading off to dinner. In a subtle foreshadowing of the walking we would do on this trip, we headed to a restaurant that our guide said was “only a mile away”. Intrepid tours tend to be active. 

The roup in RabatThe roup in Rabat

Rabat

The first morning of the trip we got up early and took taxis to the local train station. Our guide had previously purchased tickets. We boarded a train to the capital of Rabat. Our tour of Rabat was going to be rather Quick so when we arrived, we stored our luggage at a nearby restaurant ordered our lunches, and then headed out to explore the city for about four hours.

We walked a little over a mile from the train station to the Hassan Tower and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The Hassan Tower sits in a forest of incomplete columns and what was supposed to be a mosque built near the end of the 12th century. The caliph, who commissioned the mosque, Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, died before it was complete and his son did not see the need to complete the monument started by his father… nor has any ruler since seen the need.

Mausoleum of Mohammed VMausoleum of Mohammed V

The Mausoleum of Mohammed V is the last resting place of the last Sultan and the first king of Morocco. Mohammed V played a key part in Morocco gaining its independence from France and Spain. he was the grandfather of the current king of Morocco, Mohammed VI. The mausoleum has ceremonial guards and a wonderful view of the coast and of some of the very modern buildings in Rabat such as the Mohammed VI Tower which is the tallest building in Africa.

Kasbah of RabatKasbah of Rabat

Andalusian GardensAndalusian Gardens

We walked along the river from the mausoleum to the Kasbah of Rabat which is a walked fortress filled with white-washed buildings. The area was built by Muslim refugees from Spain who fled to Morocco after the Spanish reconquest. The area has great if very windy views of the coast as well as a beautiful garden inside the walls called the Andalusian Gardens.

From the Kasbah, we returned to the restaurant for lunch walking through the old medina of Rabat. The Kasbah and the medina are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This trip is very focused on these centers of old cities. The tour included a visit to 5 UNESCO sites (sites considered significant to the heritage of the world). Of these, all but one was a medina. 

Moulay Idriss

After eating the lunch we had pre-ordered, we took the train from Rabat to Meknes and then jumped in an array of blue cabs (each city has its own cab color) for the drive to Moulay Idriss.

Moulay Idriss is named for Idris I who was a grandson of Mohamad. Idris, I arrived in the area that is now Morocco around 789 AD. He was fleeing Mecca after a failed Shia uprising against the Abbasid Caliphate. Idris I conquered large parts of northern Morocco, brought Islam to the area, and founded the city of Fez. He is often considered the founder of Morocco. Moulay is an honorific that translates to “Our Lord”.

Idris I is buried in a tomb in  Moulay Idriss. As it is a mosque, we could only see it from the outside and had to stop at a barrier past which no non-muslim or donkeys could pass. 

Moulay Idriss is a small town built on two hills that look down on the Roman ruins of Volubilis. Upon the arrival of Idris I, the mostly Berber inhabitance of Volubilis abandoned the city for the more defensible town of Moulay Idriss. 

We stayed in a guest house in Moulay Idriss. Most of the group hiked up the hill to see the sunset over the city. 

We also had a presentation after dinner of local music. The presentation was interesting, but we had no translation of what the group was singing about. We could not tell if they were singing the same song over and over again or if, more likely, there is a limited range in the local music. I retired before the rest of the group and apparently missed a dance performance by our guide Ayoob and Jim (one of the more adventurous members of the group). 

VolubilisVolubilis

Volubilis

One of my favorite sites that we saw on the trip was the Roman ruins of Volubilis which is a UNESCO site. This city thrived for at least 700 years and was originally the southwestern corner of the Roman Empire. After being abandoned during the Middle Ages it was damaged by a major earthquake in the middle of the 18th century and was mined for stones to build the city of Meknes. Most of the excavations at the site were done during the time of French rule (1912-1955). 

There are not a lot of buildings still standing at the site, except for a triumphal arch and part of a basilica. Our guide was able to point out the layout of the city and several large houses owned by wealthy merchants along the main routes. Numerous mosaic floors have been uncovered.

VolubilisVolubilis

One of the main reasons that I enjoyed the visit is that the city sits just below Zerhoun mountain on a hill overlooking productive agricultural land. One can easily see why the Romans were attracted to the area. Excavations have shown the remains of occupation going back 5,000 years. We visited in April and the area was covered with wildflowers as much of Northern Morocco was during our visit. Our guide told us that the name Volubilis and the name of his nearby village of Walīlī both come from the local “oleander” plants.

Meknes

We traveled from Volubilis to Meknes via taxis from Volubilis and had a very quick visit. Meknes is an imperial city although it is less well-known than the other three: Fez, Rabat, and Marrakesh. The city was the capital from the late 1600s into the early 1700s. We visited the mausoleum of the longest training, Moroccan sultan Moulay Ismail Ibn Sharif.

We then made our way through the twisty streets of the Meknes Medina (a UNESCO site) to an unmarked door. Inside was a cute little restaurant whose specialty was camel burgers. After our lunch, we took the train to Fez where we checked into our hotel.

Fez

In Fez, we stayed in the Nouzha Hotel for two nights. On the first night, we ate at a new French Bistro, Bistrot des Saveurs, which gave us a break from Moroccan food for the evening. The restaurant was across the street from a grocery store. I am apparently not the only one who loves exploring grocery stores when I am visiting a foreign country.

In the morning we started with a visit to the royal palace. We took pictures of the formal gates before walking to the Mellah (the old Jewish Quarter). The city of Fez had a large Jewish population for more than a thousand years, but that number has dropped from 22,000 or so around 1940 to less than 150 today. 

We then boarded our van and drove to Borj Sud which is a fortress south of the old medina. The medina of Fez is one of the oldest in the country and is quite large. 70,000 people live in this old part of the city and it is broken into numerous neighborhoods. We had a local guide Meryem (@guide_of_fes) who had grown up in the medina.

Our first stop was a large pottery factory where craftsmen were making pottery on a potter’s wheel in one building, while others were incorporating metal work, glazing, or assembling large pottery mosaics. There was, of course, also an opportunity for shopping. This factory used to be located in the medina but had moved nearby and had modernized. 

Our first stop in the medina was at one of those non-descript doors, but behind it, we found a riad that had been turned into a beautiful restaurant and guesthouse. Meryem told us you never know what will be beyond a door in the medina. It might be a hovel or it might be a mansion with a pool.

We explored the medina after lunch visiting the dorms for the university which is thought to be the oldest school of higher learning in the world. The University of al-Karaouine was founded in 789 as a madrasa. Non-muslims cannot enter the university itself but can peek in from the outside. We were allowed to enter the Madrasa Bou Inania which was founded in the 1300s as it was no longer in use. 

We visited a caravanserai in the woodworkers’ neighborhood which had been turned into a museum showcasing the woodworking art. This would have been full of travelers and their caravans that connected Fez to nearby cities and countries.

Chris ready for a desert adventureChris ready for a desert adventure

Chris ready for a desert adventure

We did some more shopping at a textile store. They had a working loom in the shop where they demonstrated the process of weaving. They also showed us how a traditional man’s garments would prepare him for the long hours on the caravan

We walked through the colorful dye street where artisans were dying cloth. All the dyes were created from local plants. Our guide pointed out some of the colors and where they came from like yellow from saffron, purple from beetroot, and green from sage.

dye street of Fezdye street of Fez

And we visited the well-known and incredibly smelly tannery. As we entered, we were given some mint leaves to hold under our noses, but the smell was too much for a group of high school kids who left with some of the girls almost in tears.

Fes tanneryFes tannery

If you want more colorful photos than we took, the best time of year to visit the tanner is apparently in May when some of the local wildflowers will be used for bright blues, reds, and yellow dyes. There was, of course, the opportunity to buy leather goods from purses to luggage to leather jackets.

restaurant in Fezrestaurant in Fez

restaurant in Fezrestaurant in Fez

For dinner, we returned to the medina to another riad. This family-run restaurant is in the house where the matriarch was born. We were allowed to play a little dress-up in local garb. This would have originally been a home for the extended family of aunts and uncles. It had the traditional central courtyard surrounded by smaller rooms which would have housed the individual families.

Our host demonstrated the unusual way that the Moroccans pour tea for a guest. They lift the teapot more than a foot above the glass during the pour. The more welcome the guest, the higher the pour.

ChefchauenChefchauen

Chefchauen

Chefchaouen, often referred to as the “Blue Pearl” of Morocco, is a picturesque town nestled in the Rif Mountains. Even if the city did not have its well-known color it would be a beautiful setting. 

We took a bus from Fez to Chefchauen where we spent 2 nights at the Hôtel Ziryab, a lovely small hotel near the top of the city and at the base of the mountains. The hotel had a pool but no elevator. 

ChefchauenChefchauen

There are numerous stories for why the city is painted blue. The story that our tour guide told was that after the independence of Morocco was gained the city was depressed both economically and spiritually. The local imams recommended painting the city blue to remind people of paradise. Painting the city blue certainly did increase tourism which helped the city’s fortunes to improve. 

personal fashion shootpersonal fashion shoot

It is a very beautiful city and is used for numerous fashion shoots. We encountered one as we toured the city, but Holly and Sierra, from our group, were also able to book their own mother/daughter fashion shoot with a local photographer through Airbnb experiences. 

ChefchauenChefchauen

ChefchauenChefchauen

The town’s medina, smaller and less hectic than those in larger Moroccan cities, invites leisurely exploration. As you wander through the narrow, winding streets, you’ll encounter charming houses adorned with vibrant flower pots, quaint cafes, and local artisans selling handmade crafts and textiles. It was nice to have time to wander on our own through the city. The medina only has a few streets that run its length so it is easy to find your way through it as you explore its streets and back alleys.

ChefchauenChefchauen

There is a mosque located up the hill from the city that many in our group hiked up to in the evening to see the sunset over the city. I hiked up there in the morning instead, as the sun broke through the fog that still clung to the mountainside.

Tangier

From Chefchauen we took a bus to Tangier which is located on the coast where the Straights of Gibraltar meet the Atlantic Ocean. We took a van around to the coast where we explored a lighthouse, the Cave of Hercules (not much to see), and a local beach (windy). 

We visited Tangier’s medina which is on a hill overlooking the port. I am told that the medina is often crowded with tourists who take the ferry from nearby Spain but it seemed manageable on the day of our visit.

Tangier medinaTangier medina

Our group opted for an optional experience. Our bus driver had a friend who will, for a price, host you for a more traditional local dinner. This proved to be a highlight for many of the members of our group. We had a chance to experience a local meal and to peek into a local home. We hung out for a while after dinner as we killed time before our late-night train to Marrakesh.

That night we spent sleeping on the train in compartments of 4 people. I have taken 4 different night trains on Intrepid trips and this was much more comfortable than the trains in India and China.

Marrakesh

The final stop for our trip was Marrakesh in Southern Morocco. Chefchauen is known as the Blue City, but Marrakesh is sometimes known as the “Red City” for its red sandstone buildings. 

We took taxis from the train station to our hotel which was the Le Caspien Boutique Hotel. We waited for a bit for rooms to become available as some of the ladies on the trip headed to the medina for half a day pampering at a hammam. They found that once you got over sitting topless in a group of friends the experience was wonderful. Julie said she would add whatever the local equivalent of pampering would be on all future trips. This was an optional experience that cost $75.

 

In the afternoon, we met up as a group just off of the huge main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa for a guided tour of the medina. Our guide Ayoob was also our local guide for this as he lives in the city. The main square is a riot of color and sound. It is filled with crowds of tourists and locals, food vendors, and snake charmers. In the evening the square features dozens of pop-up outdoor restaurants. 

On our tour, we visited the Ben Youssef Madrasa which was built in the 1500s, and stopped at a local spice shop where we were introduced to various local spices. I picked up a bag of ras el hanout which is used in the Moroccan chicken recipe that I got from my son-in-law.

The medina of Marrakesh, unlike those in Fez and Chefchauen, is flat. You would think that would make it easier to navigate, but your path is often interrupted by people on motorcycles or even by bike tours. Depending on your personality, this medina is easily either the most energizing or intimidating.

Our tour ended with a group dinner on the roof of our hotel. 

Post Trips

While I flew home the next day from Marrakesh to return to work, some of our group lingered in Marrakesh to go hot air ballooning or took a 3-day extension, also with Intrepid, down into Southern Morocco to Aït Benhaddou and a Sahara desert camp.

In FezIn Fez

Who is this tour for?

This is an active tour. I would not suggest this tour for you unless you can walk about 10,000 steps a day, carry or wheel your luggage about half a mile, and carry it up 2-3 flights of stairs. This is a trip for people who want to see a lot in a short amount of time. It is a tour for people who love exploring an old medina and who are ready to make new friends doing it.

This Intrepid Travel tour took us through Northern Morocco, starting in Casablanca and visiting cities like Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh, offering a mix of historical sites, vibrant markets, and cultural experiences. #morocco #intrepid #tour #travel #vacation #trip #holidayThis Intrepid Travel tour took us through Northern Morocco, starting in Casablanca and visiting cities like Rabat, Fez, and Marrakesh, offering a mix of historical sites, vibrant markets, and cultural experiences. #morocco #intrepid #tour #travel #vacation #trip #holiday

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *