3 Continents, 4 Countries, & 6 Cities in 24 Hours! #FlashbackFriday

So far, I haven’t exceeded this record that I set back in 2011. To be honest, it was a little too much, too fast. 

Skopje, MacedoniaThis was a new personal best. Skopje-Sofia-Istanbul-Casablanca-Fes-Sefrou and all in time to give flowers to my sweet wife on Valentines.

What’s your personal best? Comment below.

I was pretty proud of the hell bent for leather nature of this trip.

From Skopje I took a bus to Sofia where I said hi to Tim and Peppy and then caught an overnight train to Istanbul. That day I caught a flight from the Asian side of the Bosphorus to Casablanca, Morocco thus leaving Europe going to Asia and then to Africa.

Sofia, BulgariaFrom Casablanca, I caught the train to Fes where I then took a taxi to Sefrou. Once in Sefrou, I just caught my breath and spent a lovely ten days with my wife and her family (though, it can be exhausting to be around the family- but that’s normal with in-laws, right?)

So – Europe to Asia to Africa
Macedonia to Bulgaria to Turkey to Morocco
Skopje to Sofia to Istanbul to Casablanca to Fes to Sefrou
Not bad for a day’s travel.

Total distance: 4090 Kilometers

I’ve gone further in a day, but not covering as many countries, cities, and continents.

 

 

Istanbul
Istanbul

Night Train Istanbul to Bulgaria

Casablanca Morocco

Fez Medina Fes Morocco

Casablanca Morocco – Much more than just Rick’s Cafe #slideshowsaturday

Casablanca is famous for the movie, and most espeically for Rick’s Cafe. I admit it – it was one of the first places I visited when I got there. At the time, I had no idea I would end up getting married in the Sahara… However, there is more to Casa than just Rick’s just as there is more to North Africa and Morocco than the Sahara Desert.

Casablanca is the largest and most important city in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in Africa. The King Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in North Africa and the third largest in the world. With a regional population of more than 6.8 million people,  there are numerous embassies, consulates, shopping malls, and the widest variety of food choices anywhere in North Africa. Casablanca was a port of the Phoenicians and the Romans and today is home to the Mohammad V International Airport – so if you are flying to or from Morocco – chances are that you will be in Casablanca at some point. While the old medina in Casablanca isn’t as magnificent as that of Fez or Marrakech – it is still a lot more exciting than walking around most other places and you will get a great feel for Morocco as you explore it. The waterfront offers some amazing seafood and grilled meat options. There are fine hotels in Casablanca and then there are really overpriced ones and finally there are run of the mill, share the toilet with the other guests hotels. I’ve stayed in the hostel and stayed in some of the most expensive riads and frankly…the biggest difference was that the wifi was free in the hostel and the people were friendlier. Middle of the road, hundred euro a night is your best bet in Casablanca.

I didn’t realize this until a couple of years after I left Morocco, but I wasn’t the first Damitio to live there. There were Damitio’s brewing beer in Casablanca from the 1930s until 1956 when independence from France was gained. It turns out I wasn’t the first Damitio to live in Hawaii either – we seem to get around.

Here are a few pictures from this magnificent place.

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Riad Jnaan Sherazad and other overpriced Casablanca Hotels

Hotel rooms in Casablanca are generally crappy and overpriced. I know this not because I’ve stayed in them all, but because when we had to go to Casablanca a few days ago, I asked all of my Moroccan and expat friends if they could recommend a good mid-range place to stay. While some of them told me where not to stay, no one actually was able to recommend a hotel. (Update: After I wrote this I was actually given a 4 star recommendation that looks quite nice – Idou Anfa Hotel Casablanca )
hotel in CasablancaSo, I turned to TripAdviser – what the reviews generally said was that no one is happy with their hotel choice in Casablanca. They are all overpriced, crappy, and generally not worth the money but since Casablanca is the business, commercial, and to some extent governmental center of Morocco (at least for – me the American Consulate is there), we are all forced to go there and pay the prices they demand.
In this case, I had a chance to do a third party review of a place that I would never have visited because just by the price, I knew it would be a bummer. However with someone else paying, I didn’t mind seeing if it might live up to the expense. We confirmed our stay for two nights at the Riad Jnane Sherazade in Casablanca and set off!
On the phone before we left, I asked the manager the best way to get there. He told me that if the taxi didn’t know the hotel, just give the street address. From that I assumed that it was a well known place. If that was the case, the taxi drivers at Casa Voyageurs were all pretending to not know. Nor did they know the street – Rue de Belgrade. We finally found a driver who knew the place who offered to take us there for 5x the price the manager had suggested (10 dirhams) and then a second driver who agreed to take us after he dropped off the lady in the front seat (who was going 10 kilometers away) and then charged us for her trip there and back so that we ended up paying 50 dirham anyway but with a longer drive. A word of warning – there is one honest taxi driver in Casablanca and he’s very old – he may not last much longer.
hotel in CasablancaAnyway, we’d looked at the hotel’s website and despite the annoying automatic pretentious music it began to play and it’s flash heavy interface – the place looked great with big rooms, a lush private garden, balconies, plus games and reading material for guests. I figured we would try their in house restaurant one night and of course enjoy breakfast in the morning. Rooms were priced at $140 to $300 per night though if you choose to stay there, the link I’ve provided above will get you cheaper rates.
Upon arrival we were met by a friendly doorman. It started to sort of fall apart from that point. The touristic tax they included on the room was double the official rate, when I inquired about dinner I was told that we could pay 300 or 400 dirham per person (an outrageous amount for what they were offering in Morocco) and that even though the rooms were in the top tier of prices for Casablanca accommodation that not only was there no complimentary breakfast, but there wasn’t even complimentary water or coffee. Breakfast (a simple one I was told) was 17 Euros per person – which is roughly triple what a great breakfast costs at the cafe down the street. Even when I told them I was doing a review for a third party, their reaction was stolid – which on one hand I admire, but on the other was just such incredibly mercenary bad business practice that I’m certain my jaw dropped. Frankly, if someone tells me they are reviewing me – I would at least offer to provide them with complimentary breakfast so they could write about it (and a complimentary dinner for that matter) but these guys – no way. Old school bleach blonde Moroccan manager sucking down cigarettes in the lobby while the portly French affected Moroccan owner told me “Children aren’t normally welcome in our hotel”. To be fair, I saw that it wasn’t listed as ‘child friendly’ but didn’t realize they meant they didn’t want kids there. In my inquiry, I had mentioned we were bringing our month old daughter but no one had said it was any sort of problem.
hotel in CasablancaWhile there was wifi in the hotel, they wouldn’t provide me with the password but did point out that I had a cable port in the room. This worked but eliminated any idea of working in the lovely garden or on the patio. The reading material in three languages consisted of old free airline magazines and French fashion magazines from the 1990’s. There were also a dusty set of French encyclopedias in the drawing room (which the owner and clerks smoked in but which, when I lit up a cigarette in, I was told to go out on the patio…).
I should really point out that despite the name – Riad Jnaan Sherazade isn’t actually a riad at all. Instead it’s a villa built in 1956 and decorated in the style of a Riad. The decoration is quite nice and so is the villa though it is in need of some thorough cleaning and a bit of renovation. While the website touted top of the line sheets and towels, I found them to actually be sort of course towels and the sheets to have a texture that I associate with a thread count of 150 or less. Most of my friends who own mid-high range guesthouses, riads, or hotels insist on a minimum of 250.
The balcony was large and looked out over a lovely garden where twenty or so businessmen were drinking and conversing in the evening. They were obviously having a private function as we seemed to be the only guests staying. While I debated whether to pay the outrageous price for dinner or breakfast, I found myself looking at TripAdviser where the majority of the reviewers mentioned the dinner as being ‘good’ but way overpriced and the breakfast as being a rip off. That was enough for me- if you are considering buying breakfast or dinner at Riad Jnaan Sherazade – I recommend you see what TripAdviser has to say first. Who knows? Maybe it will be worth it – but I wasn’t willing to chance it. We had two nights and I wanted to have enjoyable meals both times – which we did – elsewhere.
The mattress was hard. My wife and I both woke up with sore backs. The shower, tub, and dual washbasins in the bathroom were fantastic. Hot water, good pressure, and clean toilet.
The television was fairly dated and got the free local broadcast channels only – no satellite, no cable. It sat on what looked like an old wooden microwave stand. When I asked about the games they specifically mentioned on their website (Monopoly, Chess, Scrabble, and Cards) I was told that they only said they had them since most of their clientele are businessmen who don’t have time to play games. When I mentioned that they listed them on the website they told me “Yes, but we don’t have them.”
The price they list for the hammam was so beyond what the hammam next door charged that I didn’t bother to inquire why – maybe they include a happy ending for the businessmen – but I doubt it since nothing was free at this place despite the high prices. The mini bar in the room contained small bottles of water and bags of chips that sell for 5 dirhams listed at 50 dirhams (about 5 Euro or $7.50) each. A placard placed in the room said that it was against the regulations to bring in your own food or water. Since we didn’t want to drink the Casablanca tap water, we smuggled our own bottled water in like criminals. Some of the reviews on TripAdviser say that the desk actually stopped them from carrying bottled water to the room!!!
The air conditioning worked well. The plugin internet connection was fast. The room was quiet. The doorman, by the way, was great.
Overall – I would say this is a 3-star hotel (clean, quiet, no bugs, free internet) with 5 star prices (and they rate themselves as 5 star as well) and 1-star guest treatment. The main reason I say this is because of the mercenary nature of the pricing, the complete lack of value for money and the indifferent attitudes of the desk manager and owner. Even ultra budget hostels manage to provide coffee and drinking water and can tell you what is interesting in the area without having to probe like a detective.
We won’t be going back. Instead, we will be looking at the many other options among this Complete List of Casablanca Hotels

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul

Our flight from Casablanca landed about 50 km from Istanbul in the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. It’s not nearly as convenient as Ataturk Airport but it services a lot of discount airlines such as Air Arabia. While not a huge airport, it does have a lot of domestic and international flights coming in and going out.
Since we hadn’t checked any bags, I was hoping we could get through customs quickly and be among the first one’s there. Of course, it didn’t work out like that because I forgot to stop and buy the $20 tourist visa required of Americans. Hanane got through and when it was my turn the immigration agent sent me back down the hall to the visa agent. Where I got one of Turkey’s new visa stamps. It turns out they don’t like foreigners to work there for 90 days, take a ferry to Greece, and then come back so they’ve started a new policy that allows a multiple entry 90 day visa which says clearly that the visitor is not allowed to work. After it runs out you can renew for 45 days, but then you can’t renew for 180 days. It’s an attractive stamp in my passport.
vias afor Americans in Turkey, visa for Moroccans in Turkey
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, cheap airlines, Istanbul, Turkey, cheapo airlines
how to get from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet in Turkey
Shuttles at that time of the night average at 30 Euros per person. A taxi is 85 Euros. The one I’d arranged was supposed to be 10 Euros each. I hired the freelancer for 20 Euros each
transport from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet
If you arrive at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport during normal hours you can take the HAVAS airport bus for 10 lira to Taksim and then take a taxi for less than 10 lira or tyhe funicular or tram for 1.5 Turkish Lira to Sultan Ahmet.

Budget Airlines in Turkey and Morocco – Air Arabia

We are back from Turkey now and in Morocco again. It is just a few days until Ramadan begins and we are going to celebrate most of it up in Sefrou with my wife’s family. It’s a mixture of feelings to be back- part sadness and part joy, for her anyway. For me, I always suffer a bit of a hangover when I get back from travels. This time, a part of it is because I’ve realized over the time I’ve been in Morocco, that I really don’t like being here, the good news is that we won’t be here for long but I’ll talk about that more in future posts, but for now, I want to start giving you the details of our trip to Turkey.
To find great flights to Turkey look at Flights.Vagobond.com
For Hotels be sure to check Hotels.Vagobond.com
 
We decided to make our first foreign trip together (and Hanane’s first foreign trip of her life) to Turkey for a couple of reasons. The first was that while it is difficult and expensive to get visas to most foreign countries for Moroccans, Turkey is just the opposite. Moroccan’s don’t need a visa for Turkey. For me it was a $20 visa fee on arrival and for her it was just a walk through the immigration line. Another factor was that I didn’t want her to suffer culture shock too terribly and I thought that since Turkey is an Islamic country with a secular government, it would be familiar enough to not be overwhelming and yet different enough to be mind expanding. Of course, I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey, so that also played a part.
Finally, and perhaps most decisively was the fact that we were able to book tickets from Casablanca to Istanbul for both of us for $767 U.S. which comes out to less than $200 per person one way. We found our flights through Air Arabia, a no frills discount airline which provided us with an affordable foreign vacation from Morocco, which isn’t necessarily the case for many other destinations. Since I’m certainly not a rich man, this made it possible. During our trip we managed to do just about everything we wanted to. We spent 17 days in Turkey, traveled thousands of miles both to get there and within Turkey, ate most of our meals in restaurants, did plenty of tourist activities, and bought souvenirs for Hanane and her family. Grand total including airfare was 1866 Euro including the trains between Fes and Casablanca and everything in between. When you subtract the airfare and put things in dollars, that means we were spending about $40 each per day when we averaged it out.
cheap airlines in North Africa, cheap airlines in Turkey
We had actually arranged to couchsurf for 14 of our nights but our hosts didn’t work out on a staggering 11 nights due to family illness, pregnancy, work, or other changes that life provides. This was disappointing to us since we both take committing to hosting as a serious responsibility, but we went with it. In total since we were spending an average of $30 per night for hotels and pensions, that would have saved us an additional $330 + which would have lowered our daily average to right around $30 each per day and probably lowered our food budget since we would have been more likely to self cater from grocery stores instead of eating lunch and dinner out all the time. I think if everyone who had agreed to host us had, we would have actually spent right around $20 per person per day. The good news though, is that since I worked my ass off and insisted that we scrimp and save in the months before we went, we had enough to cover ourselves and the freedom of hotel rooms was pretty nice for us and led us to some wonderful experiences we might have otherwise missed.
 
 
 
cheap airline tickets to Turkey, cheap airline tickets to Morocco
During Ramadan, if you fly from Casablanca to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport, you can get a fare that is even less at just $109 each way with Air Arabia. Okay, so much for the airfare, airline tickets, and travel budget numbers…tomorrow, I’ll start detailing the trip itself.

From the Gare de Fes to Mohammad V International Airport by Train

train station in Fes, Morocco
The new train station in Fes is beautiful. It’s so different from the dark and dingy little place I arrived at the first night I was in Morocco what seems like twenty years ago. Hard to believe it hasn’t even been two years yet. time goes slowly in the 12th century. Inside the station, we had some time so we went upstairs to a fancy coffee place and talked about what we hoped our trip to Turkey would be like.
House in Fez, view from Fez Apartment
Boarding the train we found ourselves in a very nice shared cabin with plush seats, cold air conditioning, and a very nice Moroccan family sharing the space with us. Since I had my internet connection with me, I wrote a couple of articles and actually managed to pay for the train trip while we were on the train. It took us just over six hours. Paying for first class in Morocco is always worth the extra money since the 2nd class cars often have AC that doesn’t work and you most often find yourself crammed into a compartment with 8-10 other people as opposed to the 1st Class which comfortably holds a maximum of six. The difference in price between first and second class for this trip was only about $15 U.S. for both of us.
train from Fes to Casablanca, train to Mohammad V International Airport
Our tickets were 165 dirhams each for first class to Casablanca Voyageurs Train Station. From there we had to book two more tickets to Mohammad V Airport for 40 dirhams each. Maybe someday they’ll sell direct trains to the airport from Fes, but the transfer is unavoidable at the present time. For the short trip to Mohammad V from Casa Voyageurs, second class is just fine.

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