Morocco With Kids

Madrassa Ben Youssef

When I told people we were going to Marrakech for half term, many of them asked if we were taking the kids.

I’m not quite sure what they thought we’d do with them otherwise, but the answer was of course, yes.

Some people seemed surprised by this and quite a few expressed the opinion that perhaps it was better not to take children to Morocco. Reasons given included the dirt, the crowds, the hassling, the food and the threat of terrorism.

Well, I can now report that taking children to Marrakech is a breeze. It’s actually very, very child friendly.

View from the riad

We decided to stay in a inner-Medina riad; a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden or courtyard. Ours also has a little plunge pool on the ground floor with palms and banana trees around it and a large roof terrace on the top with a couple of tortoises wandering free.

The pool isn’t heated and at this time of the year it’s too cold for DH and I, but the kids jump in for a quick dip before bath time. Nutters!

The reason we chose to stay in a riad, rather than a tourist hotel is that we get the whole building to ourselves, apart from the staff. So we don’t have to worry too much about the noise our offspring like to make, or the tantrums caused by half term homework.

Also our accommodation is at the end of a maze of ever narrowing alleyways, about 10 minutes slow walk from Djemma el Fna and the souks. We been able to wander up there 2-3 times a day if we want to check out what’s going on a different times.

Opening the riad door

Marrakech has probably been the most foreign place we have ever visited as a family. At least half the people we have interacted with don’t speak English, and another quarter only have a few words or phrases (‘Asda prices here’ and ‘ Marks and Spencer quality’ feature commonly in the souks). Luckily DH has enough French to get by, and DD1 has enjoyed practicing what she is learning at school.

The people are very child friendly;  the little two in particular get lots of attention and we have had to explain to them why it’s suddenly okay for complete strangers to touch them.

Of course we’ve had to keep them close to us, DS in particular is a bit of a runner, and when walking through the souks everyone needs to keep to the side as the bicycles and motorbikes just come zipping though. But despite the crowds and traffic, we’ve managed not to lose anyone or get anyone run over so far.

Motorbikes in Marrakech

We’ve had to do lots of walking over quite uneven ground, and through some fairly dense crowds. There is lots for kids to look at but the people who have babies in pushchairs look like they are working really hard. I am pleased we are past that stage.

And while we are on the subject of kids looking at things, make sure you tell them never to accept anything from hawkers or stall owners. Once your child has something in their hands, or around their shoulders, you will be asked to pay for it.

This rule also applies to the snake and monkey men that dot the square; unless you want to be parted from your dirham, keep your distance. The man who owned the snake in the below photo wanted 100dh ( around £8) to drape it around each of our necks while photos were taken; we gave him 10dh.

Snake handling

 

A firm’no thanks’, while walking swiftly past will put off all but the most persistent stall owners. And anyone who follows you will eventually give up, as long as you keep saying no.  Just don’t slow down for or make eye contact with anyone trying to sell you anything.

And if you do want to buy anything, expect to haggle. Start by offering about 1/4 of what they ask for, and expect to meet somewhere in the middle. If you aren’t getting anywhere, walk away, 3/4s of the time the seller will call you back and accept your highest offer. We’ve only had one episode of stroppiness when we wouldn’t meet the price asked, and we got a better deal elsewhere.

Our major problem in Marrakech was feeding the kids, as DS  and DD2 are very fussy. They’ve basically lived on pizza,pasta and fries this week, and only a couple of the cafes around the main square offer these choices. Luckily these restaurants also offer a variety of traditional Moroccan dishes as well, so no one has really missed out. But our kids’ fussiness has meant that we haven’t been able to eat at the food stalls that are set up in Djemma el Fna from 4-5pm. If your children are game to try new foods, then eating at these stalls at least once during your visit is a must.

Food stalls in Djemma el Fna

We have eaten plenty of snacks from stalls though-dried fruits, nougat, olives and figgy paste- and none of us have come down with an upset tummy yet. DH and DD1 have eaten salad and we’ve all brushed our teeth with water from the taps. Marrakech really isn’t as dirty as you might imagine. The alleyways we’ve walked through have been fairly clear of rubbish  too, I’ve definitely seen worse in London.

The kids have been most affected by the plight of  the animals in Marrakech. Everywhere you look there are stray cats and kittens, often with obvious signs of injury or disease. On the plus side we have not seen any rats or mice and we have seen plenty of tourists feeding the cats hanging around restaurants.

Morrocan restaurant kitten

There are also plenty of stray dogs as well, and while the carriage horses look well cared for, some of the mules and donkeys are in very poor condition.

Most upsetting is the plight of of the captive reptiles. Chameleons, other lizards and tiny tortoises are kept in tiny, filthy cages in the souks and squares and appear to be for sale. Our children begged us to buy some so they could set them free but I’m not sure the ones we saw were in any fit state to survive in the wild and of course, buying these animals only encourages the sellers to capture and cage more.

Is it strange that our children feel much less empathy for the children they have seen living here? Having said that, the girls did decide that they were probably ‘quite spoiled’ after taking a horse and cart ride through the residential areas and seeing where people in Marrakech actually live. I think they thought everyone lived in riads similar to the one we are staying in.

Morrocan residences near the tanneries

We have spent a week in Marrakech and I think that has been enough. We’ve enjoyed our time here and are glad we brought the kids despite the food issue.

We’ve felt very safe as a family, despite the random traffic, have enjoyed the haggling and the sight seeing, and found the souks to be easy to navigate with children. Our advice would be to visit Marrakech and bring your children.

It’s interesting, different and family-friendly.

Kids in the ruins of El Badi Palace

 

 

 

The Gallery: Our Halloween

We love Halloween. It’s one of the highlights of the kids’ year and I have no problem with them dressing up and trick-or-treating their way around our neighborhood.

Some houses  display ‘No Knocking’ signs but there is really no need; most people only approach a decorated house on our block and the kids always come away with a bag full of tooth rotting sweets.

This year the discussions about costumes started when school went back at the beginning of September. And it was about them that I realised we had made a really huge mistake.

We were going to be away for October 31st, in a country where they just don’t do Halloween. The kids were devastated and we had tears and tantrums.

So here we are in Marrakech for Halloween week.
Djemaa El Fna at sunset

This is our neighbourhood.

The road to the riad

These are the closest things we could find to pumpkins.

Moroccan pumpkins

You can’t fit a tea light in them, so we’ll have to make do with lanterns.

Lanterns at dusk

We’ve bought a few Western treats with up to hide around the riad on the night itself, but we’ve also been sampling the local sweets.

IMG_4835

They are mainly fruit based; figs, dates and other dried fruits but nougat also features highly.

And there are plenty of Halloween creatures around. The stray cats are everywhere and are especially attentive when you are waiting for lunch.

Waiting for lunch

 

And then there are the snakes…

Snakes alive

 

We may not be having a conventional Halloween this year, but we think the kids will forgive us eventually.

Even if they don’t get to dress up and go door knocking, they are having new experiences and getting close up and personal with the locals.

Boy and snake

 

We’ve assured them that next year it’ll be all carved pumpkins and trick and treating again.

For more Halloween happenings, check out this week’s Gallery over at Sticky Fingers.

Sticky Fingers Photo Gallery

Morocco For October Half Term

Eight months ago I was sitting in fisherman’s cottage on the shores of a Norwegian Fjord. It was February half term and we had gone to Norway to see the Northern Lights. We were lucky and saw the Lights four times, but there was not much to do in the evening other than sky watch and we always managed early nights.

One night, as I was preparing to go upstairs, DH looked up from his iPad and asked me if I fancied going to Morocco. Yeah, I replied, why not?

But I meant it in a yes, sure, one-day-in-the-future sort of way.

The next morning I awoke to the news that DH had booked us a week in Marrakech during the October half term. That’ll teach me to not pay attention to my husband when he’s talking about holidays!

Jemaa el Fna

Half term has just crept up on me. We leave in three days and I’ve suddenly realised I’m going to have to dig out all our summer clothing again. We are all geared up for autumn here.  I haven’t got around to fixing my compact camera; the lens camera stopped working halfway through our European holiday and I need to download a shedload of books onto everyones kindles. I’m just not very organised at all.

It seems Morocco is a popular choice for some autumn sun. At the time of the year, the weather is good with highs in the late 20s/ early 30s and the flight is only 3.5 hours from Gatwick. We are staying in a small private riad a couple of minute’s walk from the main square and souks, and aim to have a relaxing, restful family holiday.

I’m looking forward to the sunshine but to be honest, I’m a little bit anxious about visiting Morocco with the kids. DD3 has form for running off and we are going to have to keep a close eye on both the little ones, while hoping the 10 and 11 year olds don’t attract too much undue attention. I’ve banned the short shorts DD1 was so fond of wearing during the summer as I assume it would be wiser for her to dress as a woman, not a child.

The food worries me a little too as DS, in particular, is a very fussy eater. DD1 is fine, but I’m really not sure how any of the younger three will cope without pizza and pasta on offer.  No one will starve of course, and we are going to take a box or two of cheerios and some muesli bars with us, just in case.

The girls are looking forward to shopping; they want to buy some slippers and jewellery and I fancy a tagine pot, although I have no idea if I’ll get it home in one piece. Is there anything else we should be looking for?

We’d like to see a few things in the area, and go on a couple of day trips too so if anyone has any recommendations for where to go and what to see in Marrakech then please feel free to comment below.

 

 

Visiting Liechtenstein

Liechtenstein

As we were heading westwards from Austria, we decided to spend the penultimate night of our holiday in yet another country none of us had visited; Liechtenstein.

Liechtenstein is tiny; only about 15 miles long with an area of 62 square miles,  just over 1/10th of the size of Greater London. It’s a constitutional monarchy headed by a prince, so is a Principality. The royal family live in a castle in the Alps and are often seen out and about. It’s also doubly landlocked ( ie is landlocked and surround by Austria and Switzerland which are also landlocked) so is geographically unique. To our untrained eyes, it looked a lot like Austria.

Hotel Oberland

We stayed in a Guest House  perched on the mountain side, looking down across the valley across the Rhine and into Switzerland. The road was a bit narrow with some impressive hair-pin turns but we made it in the end despite contravening an obscure give way rule, and annoying the locals by driving very slowly.

The view was stunning and ever changing. We would have been quite happy to spend the rest of the day sitting out the verandah watching it, but instead we had to drive back down the mountain in search of a ATM as we needed some Swiss francs to pay for our accommodation and dinner.  The road down was less hairy than the road up but we almost managed to leave the country accidentally twice  in our search for currency. Normally it wouldn’t be a problem but as we were driving a GB car and had left our passports back in the hotel, we decided it would be safer to stay put and did a series of probably illegal U-turns instead.

Parking space ‘downtown’ seemed to be an issue but eventually we found a space beside a supermarket.  It was marked ‘nur für Kunden’ ( Customers Only), so I sat in the car with the kids, ready to move if necessary while DH went off to find money and a postcard. The kids wanted to get out and run around but it wasn’t safe, so we spent 30 minutes singing along to English songs on a German Radio station. We did get a few weird looks but no one asked us to move on.

Then it was time to go back up the mountain and find some dinner.

In Triesenberg, the commune we were staying in, there were a couple of small shops, a pub with a traditional restaurant, and a couple of other restaurants. It was very hilly and the pavements kept switching sides of the road as we walked down to the local pub. DH and I had what was to be a final holiday beer, while the kids ran riot in the small square next to our table.

Beer Square Liechtenstein

We had a look at the menu but quickly decided that DS wouldn’t eat anything, so opted for a nearby pizza restaurant instead. The food was delicious but I had to try and resurrect my extremely rusty schoolgirl German and work out what Pilze were!

After that, it was back up the hill to the hotel as we watched the sun set over the valley.

Liechtenstein sunset

We all had a good night’s sleep despite the proximity to the road and the next morning’s breakfast offered something for everyone.

Then it was back on the road again. Barely ten minutes after leaving the hotel we found ourselves crossing the Rhine and entering Switzerland. It had been a brief visit to Liechtenstein , but we all agreed the views had been worth it!

A Stopover In Salzburg

Once we started heading back from our Balkan tour, we decided to try and drive through as many countries as possible.

We are all big fans of the film ‘The Sound Of Music’, so Salzburg  in Austria was an obvious destination, as parts of the musical were filmed there. We had a vague plan to visit the Mirabell Gardens where Maria and the children sang ‘Do Ri Me’, and eat Wiener Schnitzel in a traditional Austrian restaurant, but in the end we were thwarted by lack of time and stroppy children.

The journey from Zagreb to Salzburg took about five and a half hours with a stop for lunch and a couple of chances to stretch our legs, but whipped past with Mr Stephen Fry reading  another Harry Potter book to us.

Our accommodation was a bit of a shock after the hotel in Zagreb. The Star Inn was clean and convenient, but quite basic and seemed very cramped with three-in-a-room after our previous night’s hotel. We elected to go without the breakfast that they charged 20-odd euros a head for.

tunnel into the Old Town, Salzburg

We were only there for one night, so the lack of space didn’t really matter to us. As soon as we got the bags up to the rooms, we headed off to look around Salzburg.  Driving into Salzburg, I had been underwhelmed by what I’d seen of the city. But as we left the hotel, we were confronted by the entrance to the tunnel through The Mönchsberg, one the five mountains in Salzburg. It’s not a long tunnel and 5 minutes later we had walked through it and found ourselves in the Old Town. In contrast to the townscape on the other side of the Mountain, the Old Town is amazing. It’s surrounded by mountains with fortresses perching on them, and is crowded with churches, halls, colourful buildings and ornate fountains.

Pferdeschwemme Salzburg
After admiring the first fountain we came to, which used to be an old horse well, and staring at the many well dressed people standing around in front of what turned out to be the Concert Hall, we started wandering around the town looking for somewhere to eat.

Salzburg is both very charming and just a little bit twee.  The architecture, the Salzach River, the shops, the window displays, the pedestrianised areas and street performers had us mesmerised, and before we knew it we’d been mooching around for almost 90 minutes and the kids were complaining their feet hurt and their stomachs were empty-again.  Despite this they dragged us over to every window display featuring chocolate or Mozart; many of them managed to combine both themes because, of course, Salzburg is the birthplace and childhood home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  There is no way anyone could visit this city and remain ignorant of this fact.

Chocolate and Mozart in Salzburg

Finally we chanced upon Residence Square with its magnificent baroque fountain. There are marble horses snorting water in the fountain but the kids were fixated on the real thing harnessed to carriages in the square. DH and I were dragged over to meet the living, breathing  and very beautiful equines, got chatting with the driver and the next thing we knew we had embarked on a 20 minute carriage tour around Old Salzburg.

Carriage ride Salzburg

It wasn’t the cheapest tour, but the kids were a lot happier to stare at old buildings and statues while sitting down and DH and I got to discover a lot more of Salzburg than we would have on foot, as the lady driving the horses gave us a running commentary while we clip-clopped through the crowds.

After DD1 had just about wrangled herself a job as a stable hand and the kids had ascertained that there was a McDonalds in town, we said thank you to the grey beasties and went off in search of the Golden Arches.

Thank you pats for the horses, Salzburg
It was now quite late and getting darker, but we managed to find an open souvenir shop to procure our customary postcards and fridge magnets.

And then we saw it; the glow of an illuminated ‘M’ spilling out onto the cobbled street. The kids were overjoyed at the sight so we couldn’t really say no.

happy meal

Mozart may not have approved of our choice of dining establishment in his birthplace but at least everyone went to bed with full stomachs and when we woke the next morning, it was with the knowledge that we only had two more nights on the road before we got home.

11 Holiday Mistakes We Made So You Don’t Have To

Considering we were away for four weeks during our summer holiday, we did quite well really.

But we did make some mistakes that caused us problems along the way. Hopefully listing them here will prevent other people from doing to the same.

1. Pack for the climate you are going to, not for the one you are leaving. We really didn’t need the three changes of warm clothes per person, or the wet weather gear that I insisted we pack ‘ just in case’.

2. If you buy new clothes for your holiday, try them on before you pack them. Make sure they are comfortable and the right size otherwise you may be stuck with a bunch of unwearable clothes. This also goes for clothes you bought for the kids; you may love the new top/skirt/shorts you bought for them, but if your offspring decide they hate the colour you want to be able to pack something else instead.

3. Don’t forget your swimming togs, especially if you wear a plus size. If you are visiting Europe and are over a size 16 you will not have a hope in hell of buying new swimwear on the road, so will spend your entire holiday miserably sweltering in the mid-day summer heat while jealously watching your family cavorting while cooling off in gorgeous lakes, rivers and pools.

4. Take note of the expiry date of sunscreen if you are going somewhere sunny. Expired sunscreen does not protect as well as in date cream and you will feel just awful if one of your children ends up burnt.

5. Leave in plenty of time to get to your airport, ferry terminal or car train. We found Google Maps consistently underestimated the time it took to get places. If you are travelling a motorway, then check for problems before you set off. We were late for both our Eurotunnel connections but the good thing about this method of getting to the continent is that they always seem to be able to fit you in on a later train.

6. If you are travelling via Eurotunnel, do not let your kids open and close the car doors, play with lights, wind the windows up and down and listen to the radio while you are crossing. If you do, you will have a flat battery when it comes time to exit the train and will be holding up the people behind you. This must happen quite a lot as Eurotunnel has a specially built little tow truck that can be speedily reversed into the train and will have you sorted out pretty quickly.

7. Make sure you carry jump leads with you at all times, especially if you are travelling in countries that require you to drive with your lights on during the day. You will need them. It might also be worth knowing how to say ‘Please help, I have a flat battery’ in the relevant language for the country you are travelling in.

8. If you are travelling from Slovenia to Croatia,  be aware that the men standing by the toll booths trying to charge you a Euro to hand you the ticket are not officials. You can avoid having to pay by playing the dumb foreigner and saying sorry, shrugging  a lot and grabbing the ticket yourself before driving off.

9. Double check that the items you need to keep the kids amused in the car ( Tablets, activity books, CDs, food and drink)  are in the car, within reach of someone, before you head off for the day. There is nothing worse than hurtling smoothly down a German motorway with a bored or hungry child demanding something that you’ve put in the boot or roof box by mistake. Also keep the details of your next destination ( directions, booking number, contact details) close to hand of the adult who isn’t driving.

10. If you enter a country where you have to buy additional insurance at the border, then check that you buy enough that you have time on the policy to come back through that country on the way back too. Don’t assume you can buy the same  insurance when travelling in the opposite direction!

And finally,

11. If you are going to  let your kids eat icecream, always carry wet wipes.

Ice cream mess

 

One Night In Zagreb

For us, Zagreb was a bit of an incidental destination.

Originally we had planned to fly into, and then out of, Croatia’s capital city at the start and finish of this year’s summer holiday. When we changed our mind and decided to drive to the Balkans instead, we hung onto our hotel rooms in Zagreb for one night, and made it part of our trip home.

The four hour drive from Split to Croatia  was a fairly sedate one, mainly on motorway and broken up only the conclusion of our third ‘Stephen Fry Reads Harry Potter’ cd.

We did find the clouds sitting heavily atop the bare, rocky mountain range we drove alongside worth a photo or two though.

cloud topped mountains croatia

Zagreb was a much bigger town than we expected. The kids were ecstatic as we passed not one, but two, McDonalds on our approach. As far as they were concerned, this meant civilisation!

We stayed in the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, which has got to be one of the nicest places we’ve ever stayed, anywhere. It’s decorated in Art Deco style, the rooms are large and solid and it’s 10-15 minutes walk to the town centre. It’s probably a bit upmarket for the likes of us, but we really enjoyed our night in luxury there, and they could not have made us more welcome. They even had a valet to drive our filthy, crisp-packet strewn car to the hotel carpark for us. He didn’t blink an eye at the state of our vehicle, although he did try and climb in the wrong side to drive off initially.

Esplanade Zagreb Hotel

We originally booked two rooms, but they moved us into a beautiful suite and threw in a complimentary breakfast. The youngest two had to sleep on a sofa bed, but they didn’t mind and they loved the spa bath which was almost big enough for them to swim in. DH was happy because they had people to help get our luggage to our room and the children were happy with the WiFi that allowed them to enjoy an hour or so of Minecraft before we headed out to explore a little.

Esplanade Zagreb rooms

As we were only there for one night, we didn’t have much time to look around Zagreb but we did get out for a bit of a wander. We went next door and watched the fountain and colourful trams for a bit before heading towards the city centre for dinner. In the end, we couldn’t agree on anything we all wanted to eat ( the kids were tired and fussy by this point) so we just had a drink, walked back to the hotel and ordered room service. The kids were ecstatic to find fish fingers on the menu!

watching fountain in Zagreb

We all slept well; the beds were probably some of the most comfortable we’d had during the four weeks we were away, and we really enjoyed the breakfast the next morning. There was everything you could think of laid out buffet style, and hot dishes, such as eggs benedict and pancakes, were available to order. Best of all there were many other kids around, including a couple of screaming babies, so our lot weren’t the noisiest kids in the room for once.

Halfway through the meal, DS went off to the toilet, and came back wittering on about a ‘quiet room’ that he wanted to show us. So we’d packed, and DH was checking out, we traipsed after him to take a look. It was a huge ballroom, all decked out in white and crystal. When a staff member came along and caught us peering through the door, he ushered the kids in, turned the lights on and wanted to show it off to us. The kids got up on the stage and sung a few songs to enjoy the amazing acoustics but I was terrified that they would break something!

emerald ballroom

 And then that was it, our car was driven round and packed for us and we were off to our next one-nighter on our way home to the UK.

Zagreb is widely underrated as a place to visit in its own right, as most people probably fly in, then race off down to the coast to Split and Dubrovnik, but there are plenty of parks, museums and galleries to explore; we could have easily spent a couple of days here. And despite being vastly superior, the accommodation was half the price of the hotel we stayed in in Dubrovnik. It would be a great place for a city break, with or without children and we will definitely be back for more.