Welcome to the Spotlight, a brand new feature to the STA Travel Blog that shines a light on the experience of joining one of the exciting group tours that we offer for destinations around the world. This week, Erin Rigg — a former tour leader turned STA Travel Round the World Expert at our Portsmouth Branch — is shining the Spotlight on an 8-day tour that hooks around Morocco, called Morocco Kasbahs & Desert.
We’ve got eight action-packed days to experience eight places, starting in Casablanca, the city made by famous by Hollywood, and finishing up mesmerised by the snake charmers of Djemma el Fna, Marrakech.
Chalked in the middle we’ve got camel riding to a Berber camp in the Sahara, trekking in the Todra Gorge, and shopping for metal storks, leather slippers and — if you’re like the guys on this trip — a marble kitchen sink.
Sweep through the urban allure to the magic of the Sahara along the Morocco Kasbahs & Desert
And then there’s the fun of negotiating the mazes of the 10,000 un-named streets of the Fez medina! We’ll feast on dates and figs, lamb and pigeon pastries, and drink more sweet and minty green tea then you think you can handle.
But you can handle it, and you can do all of the above, on this circle through the heart of Morocco.
Hooking up in Casablanca
The group meets in Casablanca, where our fellow travellers are revealed for the first time. We have two newly married English couples on this trip, a pair of Australian sisters in their 20s, two American guys in their early 30s, a Kiwi guy and his Australian female travelling companion, (who say they’re just friends, but I have my doubts), our bus driver, Muhammad, and me.
So it’s a tight unit, the perfect number to spend this next week with. Tonight I’ve made a reservation at Rick’s Café — made famous by the film Casablanca — for a classy gin and tonic, a little piano music, and a delicious meal combining French and Moroccan flavours.
We hail a Mercedes taxis, with the door handles falling off (the story goes that Casablanca is where Mercedes go to die, their last breath employed as taxis), and place small bets to see who gets there first.
It’s an early night tonight; we’ve got a two-city hit tomorrow, so no time to waste.
The next morning, we rise early to enjoy a breakfast of strong coffee, and cream cheese and jam baguettes. We leave at 7am in our private bus, and make our first stop in Meknes, home of Imperial history and massive architectural feats. We work up an appetite on a local tour, before tucking into camel burgers for lunch.
We’ve got time for some shopping too, so I take some of the group to a shop that crafts metal, called Damascene. They make everything from vases to metal storks out of it. Even in the desolate valleys of Morocco they’ve got contracts with FedEx, so you can always get that stork shipped back to Manchester, if need be. Good thing for the Americans in the group, because they found a guy who makes fossilised marble kitchen sinks that they thought would look perfect in their kitchen in New Jersey.
We make a stop in the Roman ruins of Volubilis on the way to Fez, where our local guide graces us with stories of how Roman Friday feeding frenzies were peppered with visits to the ‘vomitorium’. Nice!
Find your way to Fez
The next few days are spent in Fez, where we spend two glorious nights. The first night we watch the evening call to prayer while sipping cocktails at the Sofitel Palais Jamai terrace, overlooking the entire city as dusk falls.
The unmistakable humour of Moroccan children is prevalent throughout the country.
Afterwards, we dine at my friend Fatima’s riad (a traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard), where we have a seven-course meal of national delicacies. The surprise treat is a flaky pastry made of pigeon and ground nuts, sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar — a dynamic little taste sensation!
We carry on until late in the night, ordering yet another half-bottle of wine, because 3 half-bottles sounds like a lot less than 1.5 full-sized bottles, for some reason. It’s all part of a good group bond!
The next day, everybody branches off to do their own thing. The Aussie girls go shopping in the souks, the Americans visit the tanneries, and the others go for spa massages and come back smelling like roses. It’s entertaining to hear the stories of who had the windfalls, and who got lost in the medina and had to have a 10-year old child lead them back to the hotel! Next stop: the Sahara.
Journeying into the Desert
We ride camels barefooted at sunset, with our heads covered with turbans, schlepping over the dunes until we reach our Bedouin desert camp. This is my personal highlight!
One hump or two, Erin?
We’re accompanied by Mumbarak, who cooks up a massive tagine for us. We dine under the stars, and we sleep under them too. We wake up at 5am to climb the dunes and watch the sunset — there’s no one for miles around, except for us and a few nomadic families.
The following day we’re making tracks again, driving out to the magnificent Todra Gorge. Here we have the option to hike through the rugged terrain and visit local nomadic families or, if you’re like the Aussie girls, you can stay by the pool and scribe postcards. Tonight we’ll be treated to an impromptu concert by the local Berber boys; drumming, clapping, and singing until we fall into a deep sleep.
There’s a considerate, energetic, and open vibe to the group. The Kiwi and the Aussie ‘friends’ sit extremely close together on the bus, and head off getting ‘lost’ in the souks whenever they can.
We have one more night in Aït Ben Haddou, where Gladiator was filmed. It’s here that we meet the warm and welcoming Action Couscous, a local with a glass eye who has been an extra in more than fifty films. He and his wife and sisters give us a couscous cooking class, and we eat a massive feast while enjoying the sunset over our own little Hollywood production.
All aboard the camel train! A must-do Moroccan experience.
All of the above has happened in 7 days, and there’s still Marrakech to explore! We finish this up with a tour around the medina, a few more massages, some last minute bartering for yellow leather slippers and silver hand-crafted jewellery.
At dusk we meander between the storytellers and snake charmers, and find our way to one of the steaming food stalls, where the boys make us a final night’s feast. It’s been one packed journey. Even though there are some exhausted bones, every one of the group joins me to watch the belly dancers strut their stuff late into the night.
About Erin Rigg: I left my native California in 2003 to teach English in Xinjiang China, which nurtured a love for meeting new people, discovering the world’s street food, and post rice-wine dancing. I’ve used those passions in my work as a tour leader, taking small groups of adventure enthusiasts through 13 countries! I’m now leading a new adventure with only one passenger — an Englishman from one of my Tibet trips, who’s turned into my husband. Proof that anything can happen on a group trip!