Review of tour
I recently returned from this tour that began on Jan. 21. Here are my thoughts. (I hope it's not too much information).
Our Tour Director, Gina Pillsbury, and local guide, Redouane (who was with us the entire trip), were outstanding. We had a very congenial group of experienced travelers, 16 in total — 4 married couples, 1 single man, and 7 single women, among whom were 3 groups of 2 — I was the only solo single woman. (One of the married women on the tour was Mazalea, a regular contributor to the Tauck Forum. It was great to meet her and her husband and spend time with them.) I would enjoy traveling with any of them again. We had great weather throughout the trip. Many early mornings were cool — in the low 40s — but the days warmed up to the 70s, and one day it hit 80.
The contrast between the modern areas of Rabat, Fes, Marrakech and Casablanca and the medinas - especially of Marrakech and Fes — is striking. Even in the modern areas of Fez and Marrakech, donkey carts and horse-drawn wagons share the road with Mercedes vehicles. In Marrakech, our horse-drawn carriage ride from the hotel to the Majorelle Gardens was held up for a while when the Marrakech Marathon passed by. (I saw that as a positive experience.)
We spent a lot of time in the souks of the medinas of the cities. In each of Fes and Marrakech, Tauck provided an extra local guide to make sure that we were not harassed, but more importantly, that we did not get lost. City residents shop in the medinas, which include food markets as well as shops selling everything from clothing to trinkets (many of which are probably made in China). We had to dodge motor scooters and donkey carts as we made our way through the warrens of the souks. We quickly learned the word “Balak!,” meaning “Watch out!”
Gina and Redouane made sure that we knew which artisans were authentic. The tour included planned visits to a ceramic factory, a herbalist, a carpet store, a leather tannery, a tailor, and a shop that made authentic Berber jewelry. Of course, after explanations and demonstrations of the process by which the various items were made, we had time to browse the shops connected with each of the artisans. There was no pressure to buy anything, but many of the group made many purchases in those shops, which, naturally, took a fair amount of time.
We had many group lunches in lovely local restaurants in medinas in Fes and Marrakech and in a private home in Moulay Idriss. We also had group dinners, all of which — understandably — featured Moroccan specialties. I like the Moroccan food, but after a while, it got tiresome. I really enjoyed the rib-eye steak that I had at the hotel in Fez and pasta dinner at the hotel in Marrakech.
The highlights of the tour for me were those that provided cultural insights. During our lunch in the Fes medina, we had a lecture by a professor of women’s studies at the local university, Fatima Amrani. I learned that the current King, Mohammed VI, has really moved the country toward modernization. He has spearheaded the development of a highway system. There were legal reforms in 2004 and 2011 (the latter following the Arab Spring) that established a sort-of Parliamentary Democracy — though the King still has the ultimate vote on anything — and granted many more rights to women. Although polygamy is still legal, after 2004, a man cannot marry a second wife without the consent of the first, and can’t marry a third wife without the consent of the first and second. He also would need the consent of all three wives to marry a fourth, which apparently is the limit. Women can also initiate divorce, and may be granted custody of their children. Under prior law, men automatically got custody of the children after divorce. In reality, most men control the purse strings, and can pressure their wives to do what they want them to do.
We also had the opportunity to visit a Berber family who lived in a village in the middle of a desert for tea. Tauck has just begun visiting this family, and the visits provide financial assistance to the family. The village was a cluster of small concrete homes, most of which sported satellite dishes on the roofs. (I didn’t see a satellite dish on the home we visited, nor did I see a television.) The family consisted of a husband, wife, and — I think - 4 children, the eldest of whom was a daughter who was attending university. The home had an outdoor courtyard, where the wife was baking bread when we arrived, indoor plumbing in a kitchen and small bathroom (toilet and sink), a room In which the whole family slept on carpets on the floor, and a patio on which we were treated to tea. The husband/father raised goats, that were housed in a pen attached to the home.
When we visited the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Redouane explained the process of performing ablutions before prayers and the actual prayers that observant Muslims pray five times daily. I found that visit quite interesting.
It seems to me that we had less free time on this trip than on others, and many more meals were included. It could well be that Tauck didn’t want us roaming around too much on our own, because it would be easy to get lost. Also, with the exception of Rabat, our hotels were not located in areas where we could easily walk to interesting places.
I enjoyed this tour, but it is not among my favorites. The best parts of the tour were the people — tour director, local guide and fellow travelers. It seemed to me that there was a lot of sameness to the tour — the souks of the medinas were similar, palaces with their beautiful, intricate carvings were similar, and the food was similar throughout the tour. I also felt that there was way too much time spent in shops.
And speaking of shops, I was told in one of the shops that Tauck visited that it was not necessary to declare a purchase when returning to the United States (where the official legal limit for imports is $800, which hasn’t changed in the 50+ years in which I’ve been traveling) because items purchased from artisans in a developing country were exempt from duty. However, I was skeptical of that information and when I returned to the US, when I was asked whether I had anything to declare, I responded, “I’m not sure.” I told the agent that I had goods of over $800, but explained that I had been told that items that I purchased from artisans in Morocco were not subject to duty. The customs agent told me that that wasn’t quite true — it depended on what the items were, and what the value was. When I told him what I had purchased and the approximate value, he calculated that the total duty would be about $5, and it wasn’t worth filling out all the paperwork for that amount, and he let me pass. So, buyer beware.