1 week in Morocco

Originally for PassionPassport.com

After months of gloominess and rain in winter Berlin, a friend (talented Istanbul-Berlin photographer Helin Bereket) and I decided it was time for a change, so we escaped to the warmth of Morocco.

Morocco is a country for photographers, and I see photos  of it  all the time — colorful medinas, vibrant markets, exotic architecture, and impressive camel caravans through the desert. I remember thinking that it looked like a dream —  straight out of “1,001 Nights” — and most of my experience in Morocco lived up to that visual expectation.

Though Morocco may seem distant, most Westerners are more familiar with it than they realize thanks to movies and TV shows like ”The Gladiator,” “The Mummy,” “Game of Thrones,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and hundreds of others that are filmed at the Ouarzazate Film Studios. I bet if you pick a movie set in ancient Egypt or Palestine, chances are it was actually shot in Morocco.

Ancient Jerusalem set, built in the desert near the Ouarzazate Film Studios

Ancient Jerusalem set, built in the desert near the Ouarzazate Film Studios

Though representations of Morocco are often “picture perfect,” there are many factors that paint a more realistic picture of what to expect when traveling through this Northern African country.

What to Expect in Marrakech:

Minarets, markets, great food, gardens, the mild climate – This is Marrakech in a nutshell, and I loved everything about it. It wasn’t too crowded in December and I wish we had planned for longer than two nights in the capital city.

Marrakech’s most impressive sight was the famous Madrasa Ben Youssef – the former Islamic college decorated with colorful tiles. The site features perfect symmetry and is great for photography. Despite the pricey entrance fee, the Jardin Majorelle wowed us with its indigo-colored house that once belonged to the French painter, Jacques Majorelle, and later to the famous designer, Yves Saint Laurent.


Adventures in the Desert:

A visit to the desert is a must, and  you can book many different types of tours. If you stay in Marrakech, you can take quick one or two day tours that return to the city. However, we decided on the three-day, two-night tour from Marrakech to Ouarzazate, the ancient fortress of Ait Benhaddou, and the Atlas Mountains, before ending our adventure in Fez.

Fortunately, the abundance of options means that there are cheaper group tours and more expensive private tours available. Since we wanted plenty of time for photography, we wanted to have the opportunity to stop anywhere we wanted, so a private tour seemed to be the best option. We each paid 150 euros, which included  the jeep and driver, morning and evening meals, one night at a hotel, and another night in a luxurious desert camp in Erg Chebbi – a small sand dune next to the famous Merzouga.

The highlight of our time in the desert was approaching the Merzouga Desert from afar. I’ve never seen such a huge mass of sand appear out of nowhere. It reminded me of a surreal children’s sandbox. The dunes are best photographed at dawn or in the late afternoon and evening, when the piles of sand cast impressive shadows on one another.

Camping under the stars was a unique experience, though I suspect its luxury was not customary. We also rode camels at sunrise. The people who worked in the camp were friendly and talkative, and we spent the evening playing games and drums together, singing and telling stories.

Fun in Fez:

With one of the biggest medinas in the world and over 9,000 narrow streets, Fez has always been on my travel bucket list. I have to admit, I was hesitant at first to hire a guide but, in the end, I was really happy we did. Our guide pinpointed the nicest spots and  also managed to keep all of the persistent street “helpers” from bothering us. He told us a bit about his life, his wife, and his everyday experiences in Fez. We paid him 30 euros for a five-hour tour and it was money well spent. I know that people can get lost in Fez’s medina for hours on end so hiring a guide is always a good idea.

Fez’s most popular attraction is the ancient tanneries, where leather has been colored for centuries. A variety of natural, but quite stinky, ingredients, including bird poop, are used in the coloring process. The smell in summer is so strong that you’ll be given a mint leaf to avoid either fainting or throwing up. December’s cool weather helped mask the smell, which wasn’t as horrible as I’d expected.

I also enjoyed visiting the oldest university in the world — the University of al-Qarawiyyin — founded by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman, in 859. It is a common misconception that the university, once a madrasa (religious college), is open only for men – but, in fact, it has provided education for both men and women since it became a state university.

Nearby, the picturesque Madrasa Al-Attarine is situated just around the corner from the university. The unique geometrical architecture of the madrasas, with perfectly aligned tiles and symmetrical windows and doors are explained by the Islamic prohibition to the artistic depiction of Allah. In Islam, the mathematical symmetry of the religious architecture is the only way to “portray” God’s perfection and superiority.

Chefchaouen and Tangier

Taking busses in Morocco was an easy and convenient way to travel. The tickets are relatively inexpensive, the schedules are  well-suited for travelers, and the busses we took were new and comfortable. The journey from Fez to Chefchaouen, the famous blue city, is only a few hours long.

Known as the “Blue Pearl of Morocco” for the unique color of its buildings, the small town is a fascinating and vivid visual experience. The valley that surrounds it provides great conditions for growing hash, so there are people offering joints to passersby on every corner. Despite being picturesque, I found Chefchaouen’s streets quite repetitive and wouldn’t recommend spending more than two days there.

If you are a fan of saunas and baths, I’d opt for a local hammam experience – I had one in Chefchaouen and felt like a newborn after it was over.

We spent our last night in the port city, Tangier. Tangier became a mecca for the beatniks, European cultural elite, and musicians during the ‘50s and ‘70s.  

It soon became apparent that much of the ‘70s Western music we already knew  referenced the traditional Northern African melodies and used similar instruments. We spent three days driving through the desert and mountains accompanied by the sounds of local tunes, which could have easily been Jimi Hendrix, but were, in fact, were traditional Moroccan improvisations. Musicians weren’t the only ones drawn to Tangier: Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles spent their fair share of time wandering the streets, and William Burroughs even wrote most of his “Naked Lunch” here. Despite its storied past, there aren’t many remnants of its former glory, and its interesting history now lives only in memories, books, and music.

Bargain Hunting as a Way of Life:

Morocco is a country of bargaining. If you don’t bargain, you’ll lose money and feel fooled. Haggling is a part of Moroccans’ everyday life, and our guide in Fez mentioned that merchants actually don’t respect those who buy without bargaining. His wife, who is Spanish, learned the art of bargaining so well that she is now better than himself.

Don’t be surprised if the price of a small lamp or a bottle of argan oil at the market will drop from 50 euros to three in just a few minutes. Most Moroccan vendors are willing to take as much money as you’d like to pay but, since many tourists compare prices to the ones they’d find at home, they end up overpaying.

This makes it difficult to discern the true prices of certain items. Even those who are supposed to help (like travel guides and hotel managers) will sometimes still tell you the fixed tourist price. For example: a meal, which will cost locals the equivalent of a single euro, will be sold to tourists for eight. A carpet, which is probably typically sold for only 20 euros, might have a price tag of 100 euros or more for European or American visitors.  

Staying Safe:

Safety is always a top priority. I traveled with a female friend and, despite hearing some stories that gave us pause, we didn’t have any trouble while we were in Morocco.

Man advertising his teeth-pulling business at a local market

Man advertising his teeth-pulling business at a local market

As a precaution, always take basic safety measures, especially at night. For example: don’t walk alone down dark alleyways. It is hard to go unnoticed as a tourist in the Medina (the historical part of town), so be prepared to ignore the “helpers,” “guides,” and curious children who may follow you through the streets.

In most cases, the people who approach you on the street are harmless and only ask for money for small services like showing you the way to your hotel or helping you with your bag. Keep that in mind and make sure to have pocket change for times like these.

As a woman, I didn’t feel harassed or unsafe, but would still recommend being mindful of the local traditions and not showing too much skin. While traveling I tend to abide by the proverb, “In Rome, do as the Romans do,” or, in this case, as the Moroccans do.

Riad Sweet Riad:

We booked all of our hotels and riads (traditional Moroccan houses with interior courtyards) on the go and were able to organize everything online. The prices ranged from 12 to 30 euros per person per night, and so did the quality.

Overall, our accommodations were pleasant and welcoming, with friendly owners, beautiful and intricate interiors, and good food.

Speaking of food — when in Morocco be prepared to eat a lot of tagine, a slow-cooked savory stew usually made with sliced meat and vegetables. A complimentary tea usually comes with your food but, as mentioned earlier, most establishments used to visiting tourists will still overcharge. Alcohol is generally not served unless you’re staying at a hotel or deliberately go to a tourist bar. Although alcohol is forbidden in Islam, Morocco still has some lovely vineyards and produces varieties of local wine.

December can be an especially good time for travelers who want to avoid both the huge crowds and the heat. During our time in Morocco the weather was pleasant — 22-24C in Marrakech and in the desert — though there was some mild rain, cloud cover, and cooler temperatures in the north. Nights were considerably chilly, with temperatures in the desert dropping to almost 0C. If you travel to Morocco in December, pack a variety of clothing to cover all possible outcomes. I was definitely not prepared for the rain and snow in the northern part of the country, aptly called  Moroccan Switzerland.” Apparently, there is even a ski resort.

Our Itinerary:

  • 2 nights in Marrakech
  • 3-days, 2-nights on a Jeep tour in the desert
  • 2 nights in Fez
  • From Fez, there is a bus to the beautiful little town of Chefchaouen, famous for its blue-colored houses and hash fields
  • We ended the trip  in Tangier, a huge port city, popular with the European and American boheme and beatnik generation in the ‘50s – ‘70s.

Morocco is a place for anyone fascinated by vibrant scenes of everyday life, unbothered by smells and constant human interaction, and accepting of all cultures and traditions. Visually, you’ll be stunned and will likely bring half a market of souvenirs home in your suitcase.

My Gear:

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

Nikon D610 with Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24–120mm F4 G ED VR

Canon PowerShot G5X

3 days in Istanbul

If you ask me what’s the most romantic city I’ve been to, don’t expect "Paris."
For me the most romantic city I’ve ever been is Istanbul, Turkey.

On the roofs of Sultanahmet. Photo:  Van Vorobei

On the roofs of Sultanahmet. Photo: Van Vorobei

I don’t know what exactly attracts me in that 20-something-million metropolis, spread over two continents and divided by the sea.
There are so many things, which create that one picture – the imperial history, chanting of the muezzins, hundreds of cups of black chai, smell of the musk and roses in the old bazaar, crowded ferries, bloody sunsets over Bosporus, getting lost in the narrow streets of Taksim, going out in vibrant Kadiköy and taking a taxi from Asia to Europe at night. All these little impressions created a picture, which, undeniably, made me fall in love with this city.

Rainy night in Taksim. Photo:  Alen Palander

Rainy night in Taksim. Photo: Alen Palander

The portrait of the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of indipendent Turke, in a window of a reseidential building in Moda

The portrait of the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and the first president of indipendent Turke, in a window of a reseidential building in Moda

Istanbul is way too big and way too spread out to be able to discover it in three days. But if you are on a tight schedule, you have to set priorities. What is that you want to see – the historical touristic part or the everyday unbeaten paths and youth culture?

I can assure you that can do both (and we did), but if you don't want to be constantly in a hurry you should discover the city more gradually, over time. One can come here once in a while – from Europe it is quite easy and relatively inexpensive to do, thanks to the Turkish airlines rates and network. Talking about these airlines – they provide the best service (and are awarded for that on a regular basis) and honestly, I rarely flown better and felt more of a welcomed guest.

Istanbul is the only city in the world divided by the sea and placed on two continents – Europe and Asia. This noble city, currently most populous in Europe and 7th most populous in the world, was founded approximately in 660 BC and served under different names as the capital of many empires – Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman. The mixture of different cultures, religions, traditions, architectural styles and topography is probably what makes Istanbul one of the most interesting places to visit.

Cargo ship makes his way through the Bosporus at dawn

Cargo ship makes his way through the Bosporus at dawn

European Side

Most touristic sights can be found on the European side, mainly in the districts of Fatih (including Eminönü and Sultanahmet), Beyoğlu (formerly „Pera“) and Beşiktaş (yes, that’s why the football club is called like that).

Fatih is the place to discover history. The neighbourhood Sultanahmet with the most prominent sights – the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) and the Hagia Sophia museum, as well as the Grand Bazaar (one of the biggest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and over 4000 shops) and the Basilica Cistern (made extra famous to the Western Audience by Dan Brown’s novel Inferno and the movie of the same name) can be found here.

Blue Mosque seen from the window of Hagia Sophia

Blue Mosque seen from the window of Hagia Sophia

The mysterious interior of the Saint Sophia gave me goosebumps.

Spice market is situated next to the Grand Bazaar and offers a feast for your senses.

The hipper young parts of Fatih include the twin quarters of Balat and Fener – the equivalent of Kreuzberg and Neuköln in Berlin or Williamsburg and Bushwick in New York City (pardon me this rough comparison). If you want to sit in a cool café, discover local designers or take pictures of low-flying planes and colourful buildings – you should come here.

Could you catch a plane in between the buildings, like a pro instagramer?=)

Could you catch a plane in between the buildings, like a pro instagramer?=)

Beyoglu, separated from the Old City (Fatih district) by the Golden Horn, is the capital’s center of art, nightlife and entertainment. You can walk in the waterfront commercial neighbourhood of Karaköy, climb the Galata stone tower or have a great time in one of the bars in Taksim neighbourhood, with its main artery – the Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Honestly, since it was my second visit to Istanbul, I skipped Beyoglu almost completely, since – regarding the nightlife part – it is very touristic and I like to feel myself a visitor but not a tourist.

Galata Tower seen from across the Golden Horn

Galata Tower seen from across the Golden Horn

When it comes the Beşiktaş (the municipality, neighbouring Beyoglu) the most interesting part of it for the short visit would be the neighbourhood of Örtakoy with the beautiful neo-baroque mosque of the same name. Hint for photographers – the square nearby the mosque is a key place for the sunrise pictures. Another key historical building of Beşiktaş is the eclectic Dolmabahçe Palace, built in the 19th century to suit the modern European tastes of the Sultan Abdülmecid I, who thought that the Ottoman Topkapı Palace in Sultanahmet was too old-fashioned.

Örtakoy neo-baroque mosque. The best time to come here is at sunrise.

Örtakoy neo-baroque mosque. The best time to come here is at sunrise.

Asian Side

The Asian side is connected to the European by several bridges, but the best and most spectacular way to get there will be by taking a ferry from many stations – the usual most central stops are in Eminönü and Karaköy. The ferry system is a part of the public transportation in Istanbul, thus ferries are very regular and inexpensive).

Taking a ferry at sunset is an experience of its own. You will be offered the usual chai and can enjoy it on the open deck with the view of the city, opening to you from the sea. The trip from Karaköy station to the opposing Kadiköy will take no more than 30 minutes. This is a trip I could take on an everyday basis – definitely much better than being jammed underground in a usual subway.

Take a break...drink a chai

Take a break...drink a chai

Kadiköy is the name of the district as well as the popular neighbourhood within. The neighbourhood is a heart of Istanbul’s alternative nightlife, with many bars opened till late. The upscale waterfront neighbourhoods of Moda and Fenerbahçe are have great places for a relaxed stroll or a day on the beach.

The most famous historical sight of Kadiköy is the Istanbul Haydarpaşa Terminal, the train station on the sea shore, which was a connection point for the passengers of the famous Orient-Express, who wanted to continue their travels further to Asia. My desire to visit Istanbul in the first place was triggered by seeing the heroine of Audrey Tautou in the beautiful 2009 Chanel commercial, directed by acclaimed director Jean Pierre Jeunet, and shot in Istanbul. In this commercial Audrey takes the Orient-Express to Istanbul, meets a good-looking stranger and falls into his embrace at the Haydarpaşa train station.

If you feel more adventurous and want to discover further quarters of the Asian side, I would recommend getting off one of the stops in Üsküdar – the district, neighbouring Kadiköy.
We went to Çengelköy, a residential neighbourhood with a beautiful waterfront and many villas and palaces built during the Ottoman period.

Busy street life in  Çengelköy

Busy street life in Çengelköy

Another tourist-free stop was the historical Jewish neighbourhood Kuzguncuk, with its wooden houses, which reminded me so much of San Fransisco, and a breathtaking sunset view of the Örtakoy and the Old City in the distance.

In the sea offshore Üsküdar you will find one of the most hashtagged and photographed sights in the world – the Maiden's Tower. It is best photographed at sunset, with the gorgeous backdrop of the European side’s Old City. Several private boats take tourists to the islet, where the tower stands – I still think it is better observed from the distance though.

Another glass of chai with the Maiden's Tower in the distance

Another glass of chai with the Maiden's Tower in the distance

I can imagine reading about all the districts, neighborhoods and sights can be rather confusing.

Thus I also prepared my own list of Top-10 things to do in Istanbul over a short visit:

  1. Visit Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – standing just few hundred meters from each other, they both offer a perfect introduction into the history of Istanbul. Hagia (Saint) Sophia, first a Christian church, then a mosque, and now a museum has not only an almost 1500-year old history, but also a mysterious atmosphere, which left a huge impact on me. Blue mosque (Sultan Ahmet mosque), named so after the beautiful blue color, dominating its interior, is a working religious building and visitors should treat it with the according respect.
  2. Walk through the Grand Bazaar and buy some overpriced souvenirs. You can definitely find cheaper prices at a supermarket, but here you pay for the almost-cinematic experience.
  3. Climb on top of the Grand Bazaar or one of the surrounding secret roofs to have the most breathtaking view of Istanbul. This can be a tricky one, but it is definitely worth it. You can find ways of getting on top of buildings in Fatih by simply googling it. There are also several rooftop terraces at the surrounding hotels
  4. Drink 10 cups of black sweet chai in one day. I never drink sweet black tea, but in Istanbul it’s a must. I even bought a small glass as a souvenir. The usual price at any street café would be 1,5-2 Lira, an equivalent of 40-50 eurocents.
  5. Photograph a plane in between the buildings of Fener. I saw pictures of low-flyng planes on Instagram and always thought they are too good to be true. Nevertheless, after visiting Fener and seeing an airplane flying so low, I could almost hear a baby screaming in the economy class, I changed my mind and even took a cool picture on my own.
  6. Eat a kebab. Or three. Best hangover food ever. Not that I drink much, but kebabs in Istanbul are delicious. Might be problematic if you are a vegetarian though;)
  7. Wake up before sunrise to catch the first morning rays by the Örtakoy mosque. To be perfectly honest – I didn’t do it. I generally have problems waking up early. But the pictures I’ve seen were spectacular.
  8. Take a ferry from Karaköy to Kadiköy at sunset. This is probably my favorite activity in Istanbul. Enough said.
  9. Visit the Maiden Tower. Just to cross off your list one of the most hashtagged sights in the world!
  10. Go all the way to the posh Bebek district to have a (non-Turkish) coffee at the most picturesque Starbucks in the world. This might sound funny, but google that terrace. Bebek is one of the poshest neighborhoods, with many boutiques, upscale restaurants and bars. The Starbucks there with the view over the Bosporus is first class as well

Here is also short list of places, which I recommend:

For fine dining: Mikla and Leb-i Derya in Pera (Beyoğlu) both with a tremendous city view and great food.

For sleeping: Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet – an upscale, but absolutely amazing choice for those who appreciate art (original paintings and drawings of the famous Azerbaijani artists on the walls are museum worthy), service and privacy.

The entrance to the Ajwa Hotel Suntanahmet is sightseeing worthy

The entrance to the Ajwa Hotel Suntanahmet is sightseeing worthy

For drinks: Külhanbeyi and Alex’s Bar in Beyoğlu for classic cocktails, Kadife Sokak street in Kadiköy (Asian Side) for casual drinking.

For hipster culture: just head to Fener and Balat and wander around. I really enjoyed the Coffee Department coffee shop and roastery there with its Brooklynesque vibe.

For chai: atmospherically the best places to drink chai would be either on the ferry (they’d always offer tea to passengers) or in a small café in front of the Haydarpaşa Terminal in Kadiköy.

I really hope you enjoyed my little guide to Istanbul. In no way I am an expert and would love to discover this marvellous city again and again, but for those, who share similar tastes as me, I hope this will be helpful and informative.

I am very thankful to the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism for organizing this trip for me and several other instagramers. Check out the full VIDEO from our trip.

The next part of my Turkish journey – our 2-day trip to the hot-air-balloon region of Cappadocia will follow! Stay tuned.