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Published: September 22nd 2019
Few desires, happy life ~ Moroccan Proverb
Today we were travelling southwest from Tangier to Marrakesh
After arriving by bus from Chefchaouen that morning and spending the day in Tangier, it was time to travel to Marrakesh on an overnight sleeper train. We shared a meal with a local family, jumped into a minibus and drove to Tanger Ville (Tangier’s train station). We arrived fairly late (10:30pm), but our train wasn’t leaving until 11:30pm, so we had a bit of time to spare.
There were very few travellers waiting at the station, so I was surprised to encounter an overly zealous (dictatorial) train guard implementing a strict boarding protocol. Apparently everyone had to board each carriage in the order of their cabin, as this would reduce – if not eliminate – the potential for congestion. However, he failed to take into account our primal urge to check out the other cabins as we boarded, and to chat along the way. There was gridlock in the carriage, and old mate wasn’t happy.
He had a few other idiosyncratic behaviours that were on the cusp of sociopathic. For a start, he chained and padlocked the doors between carriages, apparently to prevent people using
toilets they weren’t meant to use. Each carriage had two toilets, which should have been sufficient for our overnight trip. Unfortunately, one of our toilets had no water, so a suggestion was made to remove the chains from the doors to allow access to other toilets. He refused.
It was also very hot and stuffy inside the carriage, so a suggestion was made to open the windows to allow fresh air to circulate. He refused. However, he did inform us (with great aplomb) that windows could be opened once the train had left the station. Old mate loved his rules.
Anyway, we stowed our packs in our four berth cabin and settled into our bunk beds. Blankets were provided but we didn’t need them, because the internal heating was off the scale. There was always the option of asking old mate to turn the heating down, but I’m sure there was a heating rule he was following. It didn’t really matter, because the gentle roll of the train soon had us asleep.
We woke early and gazed out the train window as the sun rose over flat agricultural plains. The landscape was arid, which was a significant
change to the fertile topography in northern Morocco. We sat on our bunkbeds and caught up on travel writing as the train sped towards Marrakesh. The sun was out, which was a good sign. Would today be the first hot day of our holiday?
As we approached Morocco’s Red City we prepared our packs, squeezed along the narrow walkway that joined the cabins of our carriage and stepped onto the landing at Marrakesh’s train station. We walked to the nearest taxis, loaded our packs on the roof (without any ties) and headed towards Les Trois Palmiers, our hotel in Gueliz – one of the more modern districts of Marrakesh. It was too early to check in, so we dropped our packs at reception and headed straight to Le Nostalgique, a tiny restaurant just around the corner for breakfast. We were limited for time, as we had a traditional Moroccan hammam
(traditional bath) and massage to get to at 11am. We had fresh msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread) with apricot jam and mint tea, and it was just enough to sustain us for the day.
We’d booked an early hammam
and massage to compensate for the fact that our rooms
would not be ready until 2pm. This would allow us to scrub down and relax after the overnight train (we hadn’t showered for 24 hours)! We finished breakfast, jumped into a taxi, sped towards Riad Mogadoor Opera, rushed through the front door and made our way down to the spa level.
After being issued with bathrobes, we stripped down to our bathers and settled in a long thin room with stone benches along each side. Because we’d arrived early and there were no other customers, we were allowed to prepare together. We poured steaming hot water over ourselves, then lay on the stone benches and relaxed. I would’ve preferred the temperature in the room to have been much hotter, but I think I was allowing my hammam
experience in Turkey to cloud my judgement.
After a while we were taken into separate rooms and scrubbed. A guy in his underwear came in and splashed water all over me, rubbed me with soap, scrubbed every last piece of dead skin from my body, rubbed some type of lathering soap all over me and then splashed me with water as I lathered and washed myself – it was a fantastic
way to recover from sleeping in the top bunk of an overly hot train.
I was then instructed (with gestures) to put on my bathrobe and led into a relaxation room, where I waited a few minutes for Ren. It was quite cold in the room, and not very relaxing, but there was a heater that I managed to turn on which took the cold edge off the air. After lying on reclining chairs in the not-very-relaxing relaxation room, we were led into a massage room where we had the most relaxing of massages. I’ve never been a fan of massages, but I actually managed to enjoy this one!
Feeling suitably clean and rejuvenated, we jumped into a taxi and headed back to our hotel in the early afternoon, and as luck would have it, our room was ready. We dragged our packs up to the second floor, reorganised ourselves from the overnight train and then headed out into the warm Marrakesh sun. It was the first time we’d been comfortably warm since our days in Casablanca.
We dropped our clothes at a small laundrette just around the corner from the hotel, then settled at an outside
table of a small corner cafe for mint tea. I quickly backtracked to a bakery we’d noticed on the way, picked up some pastries to have with our tea, then relaxed in the sun and gazed at the hive of activity in front of us – a typical Moroccan streetscape.
As we browsed our Marrakesh notes, we realised we were very close to a modern art gallery we’d planned to visit. Our map wasn’t the best (or maybe it was our map reading skills), so when we set out to find the gallery, we were a street out with our navigation. However, all was not lost, because we stumbled upon another gallery (Siniya 28) in the same street as our corner cafe, and the subject matter was indigenous Australian. Siniya 28 also had a detailed map of the local galleries, which led us to the gallery we initially set out to visit – David Bloch Gallery. With its focus on urban graffiti, we felt immediately at home, and we loved the art on display. When I asked if I could photograph the detail notes of a particular work – Sans Titre (Untitled) by L’Outsider – the gallery owner smiled
and invited me to photograph whatever I wanted, and to post my photos to as many online forums as I could. It was free advertising for him, so he was more than happy to give me free reign.
I was entranced by this graffiti, and I was particularly drawn to the artist’s pseudonym. Born in 1984, Yann Le Berre (alias L’Outsider) lives and works in Brittany, a region in north western France. Despite suffering from acute dyslexia, he constantly works with letters and words. I could see why he regards himself as an outsider. Graffiti fascinates me, especially the spontaneity of artworks in public spaces. Banksy is a master of this. Unfortunately, the price tag for this untitled canvas was a little inflated. At €4,790 (just under AUD$7,000), it would have lost its raison d’etre
hanging from a wall in our schoolhouse. It was created in a public space, and that’s where it needed to stay.
We made our way back to Les Trois Palmiers, settled in our large comfy room and caught up on our travel writing before heading out to dinner in the early evening. We opted for Hotel Caspian, a sister hotel only a few
doors down the street. And as an added bonus, the place served alcohol – a rarity so far on this trip.
We settled at an outside table at the hotel’s Bistro La Saveur Restaurant and ordered a few drinks (beers for me and White Russians for Ren) before moving to the food menu. I ordered the chicken tagine
with preserved lemon, new potatoes and green olives, while Ren opted for the lamb tagine
with artichoke, green beans and red olives… and both meals were incredible! As the cold night air started wrapping itself around our shoulders, we finished with mint tea and retired early.
When you run a small business, work commitments can pop up at inopportune times, and overseas adventures are not exempt. Over the years we’ve found most issues can be addressed with a simple email or short report, but we woke this morning to a major development that required considerable work on our part. To make matters worse, we had to email a number of particularly large documents to a government department, and the hotel wifi was not strong in our room. The only place that had strong wifi was the hotel lobby, and I
hate working in busy hotel lobbies. We knew this meant losing valuable time in Marrakesh, but we had no choice. Bugger!
We had a late breakfast (around 9:30am) and worked between our room and the lobby until midday. In the bedlam that followed, I forgot to take notes during the day, so my memories are not as strong as normal. Oh well, it’s impossible to plan for work-related scenarios while travelling, and it’s a very first world
problem to have, so I’ll say no more about it. 😊
We decided to walk to the medina, and I’m so glad we did, because it allowed us to experience the modern life of Marrakesh’s Gueliz district on the way. We left the hotel around midday and arrived at the ever-visible Koutoubia Minaret about 30 minutes later. This 70 metre high tower became our navigation landmark whenever we were lost in the medina, which happened often during our initial days in Marrakesh. The sky was also blue, which allowed us to capture the minaret and surrounds in sunlight – another rarity so far on this trip!
Our Lonely Planet guide included a half-day walking tour of the medina which we
decided to follow. It offered an incredible insight to life inside this eye-opening and mesmerising place, and I’m so glad we persisted. We left the Koutoubia Minaret and its tranquil surrounding gardens, made our way across the busy Avenue Mohammed V and suddenly found ourselves in the mayhem of Djemaa el-Fna, the medina’s main square. Far out! This place defied reason. We wandered among the loud manic vendors, drawn to those with large crowds of onlookers, but avoiding the snake charmers and monkey handlers. The square is immense, and by the time we’d crossed it we were ready to sit down with a cup of tea. We stumbled upon Café France, the starting point for many medina tours, so we decided to relax with a mint tea on the cafe’s upper tier.
The spectacle of Djemaa el-Fna from the upper tier was amazing, and well worth the slightly inflated mint tea prices. After capturing a few panoramas and pondering the menagerie of life below us, we descended from the upper tier and continued our walking tour of the medina. As we slowly inched our way out of the main square on route to the Mouassine Fountain, we tasted some
peanut brittle from one of the many stalls along the way, and it was so delicious we ended up buying a bar.
It’s easy to lose your way as you navigate the labyrinth of narrow lanes that snake their way through the bustling medina, and the hordes of tourists trying to make sense of the place (including us) make navigation a whole lot harder. We wandered through congested souqs
(markets) and past medieval funduqs
(merchant inns) on our way to the ancient Ali ben Youssef Medersa (Quranic School), only to discover the college was closed for renovations. However, we managed to put a positive spin on this, because our journey through the medina was as meaningful as every destination we reached.
The last destination of our walking tour was the Maison de la Photographie (Photography Museum), a converted riad (a traditional Moroccan home) with a rich photographic history of Morocco spanning 1870 to 1960. We loved this place, and we especially loved the museum’s rooftop cafe with its 360 degree vista of the medina. We settled at a table and ordered mint tea, which we enjoyed with the peanut brittle we’d picked up earlier in the day. Having
walked non-stop for three and half hours in the heat of the afternoon sun, we were in need of something cool and refreshing, so when a waiter walked past with a bowl of fresh strawberries and yoghurt, we couldn’t resist. And it was heavenly.
Feeling suitably refreshed, we made our way down from the rooftop to the museum’s ground floor, where I picked up some postcards and signed up to receive the museum’s photo of the month
. I needed some help from the friendly staff to do this, as the instructions were in French. I thought I could bumble my way through, but I just couldn’t work out where to type my email. Clearly my year of French in Year 7 has not withstood the test of time.
The afternoon was getting late, so we decided to make our way out of the medina and catch a taxi back to the hotel, because we needed to be back by 6pm. This was much easier said than done! We were on the eastern side of the old city, and we needed to get to the closest gate (Bab Doukkala) to Gueliz on the western side. We snaked through the
maze of narrow lanes, asking for directions every 100 metres or so. The friendly shop owners and souq workers were incredibly helpful. I thought my mispronounced Arabic (“Bab Doukkala? Bab Doukkala?”) was leading us astray, because there were times I was convinced we were walking in the wrong direction. But people seemed to understand. They would smile, point down a small lane and say “Walk this way for a few minutes and then ask someone when you get to the big arch.” They knew someone would be there to tell us which lane to take next. After many questions, directions and smiles, we emerged through Bab Doukkala into modern day Marrakesh.
I was moved by the friendliness of locals in the medina. However, I will follow some sage old advice and remain silent about the lack of friendliness displayed by many of the tourists… If you can’t find a kind word to say about someone, don’t say anything at all. Your silence will be noted
The roads outside the medina were choked with traffic, and it felt like we’d emerged into a world of complete and utter chaos. Despite the plethora of taxis around us, we struggled to
find one willing to take us to our hotel. Drivers were sitting on the side of the road in groups, and when we approached them, they would quote inflated prices for the short journey to Gueliz. We eventually found a driver who quoted a normal price, and it was such a relief to be inside a taxi and speeding towards our hotel.
We headed back to the medina for dinner at 8pm, this time via a public bus. We were dining at the open air food stalls in Djemaa el-Fna, so we were returning to the madness of the medina’s main square. The place was humming – there was so much more life and activity in the square at night! We settled at the cramped and crowded Stall 41 (noting all the stalls were cramped and crowded) and shared a very mediocre meal.
Paper sheets were placed over the long narrow table, and these were anchored with baskets of khobz
(traditional round bread) and plates of olives, salad and harissa
(chilli and garlic sauce). Plates of skewered meat and vegetables were then placed in front of us by the efficient but not very affable waiting staff, along with
plates of couscous and vegetables. Plates of fried calamari followed, and not once during this hurried meal did I stop and think “Wow, that was fantastic”. This was bland food at its worst. To be fair, the food stalls were heaving with tourists (us included), so the poor guys were flat out. Nonetheless, the staff at Restaurant Beldi Bab Ssour in Chefchaouen (where we dined two nights previously) were also flat out, but the food they served was extraordinary.
We clambered out of the narrow bench seats of Stall 41 and wandered the Djemaa el-Fna, taking in the heady atmosphere of this rambunctious place. The day had been long, so we decided to relax in a cafe overlooking the square. We climbed to an upper level of Zeitoun Café, settled around a large table and started ordering drinks. The sore throat and head cold I’d picked up in Chefchaouen had now stolen my voice, and the waiter noticed my predicament when I tried to order. He suggested a spiced tea for my throat, and I was touched by his concern. I never imagined we’d encounter such friendliness and warmth.
His suggestion was an absolute winner. The spiced tea
was incredible, and very soothing for my throat, especially when I added the honey he brought to the table. We would have loved to relax for a while in the cafe, but it was getting late and we were leaving Marrakesh in the morning, so I gulped as much of the tea as I could before we jumped on a public bus and headed back to our hotel. It wasn’t long before we were asleep. SHE SAID...
Today we were travelling from Tangier to Marrakesh
, by overnight train.
After a lovely dinner of delicious chicken couscous
at the home of our minibus driver’s sister, we made our way to the Tangier train station to catch our overnight sleeper train. I love train travel and enjoy overnight sleeper trains, but there’s always a small jot of apprehension about the condition of the bunk beds, sleeping arrangements and the toilet situation.
The sleeper carriage had small compartments which sat off a long walkway, with four bunk beds in each. We shared our compartment with Tracey and Meewun who were thankfully very easy to share with. The toilet was more sanitary than expected, our compartment was clean and
the provided pillow case and sheets were crisp… so that small jot of apprehension disappeared within minutes of boarding the train! 😊
I always take the upper bunk but I couldn’t quite work out the ladder access, so long-legged Andrew catapulted himself up there. And for only the second time in all our train travels together, I took the lower bunk. I normally get very cold on overnight trains, so I had brought many layers. However, our carriage was like a sauna, and we ended up leaving our compartment door open all night. There wasn’t even the slightest security concern with an open door, because most of the compartments were taken up by our group, and the carriage was run with military precision by a slightly scary and very vigilant old guard. 😊
Very unusually, I wasn’t lulled into a joyful sleep as soon as the train started moving... so I wrote for about an hour. But even when I eventually fell asleep, it wasn’t the usual deep sleep I enjoy on trains. I woke up a handful of times when the train stopped at a station or when it seemed to jolt excessively along the tracks. However,
in comparison to the others in the group who had also struggled with the heat on the train, the four in our compartment seemed to have slept relatively well.
Delightfully, because our compartment door had been left open and it was east facing, I woke naturally at 7am just before sunrise. It was fabulous to wake up before anyone else and use a relatively clean toilet and prepare for the day. Andrew woke too, and while he sorted himself out and Meewun did yoga stretches in the walkway, I watched a glorious bright yellow sunrise. It’s one of those magical travel moments that even at the time, seemed suspended in time. And I was so entrenched in the moment that I forgot to take any photos of it.
It was so peaceful watching the Moroccan fields and little settlements zip past us as we all greeted a brand new day. It was very obvious that at some point overnight the earth had turned a reddy brown – the reddy brown of the Atlas region. We had decidedly left the lush green north behind us. The earth looked stony and barren, but an occasional olive grove or wheat field
had been wrestled from it. Little red mud brick villages blended into the earth, and their only prominent feature was the village mosque which was usually painted white. We were careering along reddy brown landscapes to the Red City of Marrakesh.
Our arrival in Marrakesh in southern Morocco began the second leg of our journey. We disembarked from the tiny confines of the sleeper train and caught taxis from the train station to our Les Trois Palmiers Hotel in Gueliz (in the French Ville Nouvelle area). It was still far too early to check in, so we stored our bags at the hotel and marched off to breakfast at Le Nostalgique – a very local cafe around the corner. We had a choice of two freshly made breads – harcha
(round semolina bread) or msemen
(flaky Moroccan flatbread). We both chose the msemen
, with apricot jam for Andrew and honey for me. It came piping hot off the griddle at the entrance to the cafe and was totally delicious! Andrew had a mint tea and I had an avocado shake – I’m really falling in love with this rich but refreshing drink.
Given we’d just come off an
overnight train with no hope of getting our hotel room until after midday, Andrew and I had the brilliant idea to go to a hammam
(traditional bathhouse) in the late morning while we waited for our room. However, breakfast was taking very long and we were getting late for our 11am hammam
appointment. And Khalid (our group leader) wanted to give us a briefing before we left (we had two free days before we regrouped again to start our next trip), which was delaying us even further. We ended up rushing to pay the bill and literally running out the door to catch a petit taxi. The petit taxis have been different in every Moroccan city we’ve been to – they are a sandy beige colour in Marrakesh.
was at Raid Mogadoor Opera, but we’d been warned that there were three different Raid Mogadoors in Marrakesh, with two confusingly close to each other near the train station. Even though we were utterly baffled about which Raid Mogadoor we should be at, thankfully our petit taxi driver knew the exact one we wanted. The hammam
was in the basement spa of the hotel, and we were told we
were the only two guests that morning… which meant we didn’t have to be segregated by gender! It was lovely sharing the first part of the hammam
with Andrew. We were asked to lie on heated marble slabs, and once we’d started warming up, we were required to douse ourselves in hot water… with the process repeated a few times. It might have been because we were the first clients, but the marble stone slabs weren’t anywhere near as hot as they had been at the hammam
We were then separated for our soaping and scrubbing sessions – done by a man in his underwear for Andrew and a woman in disposable underwear for me – I was asked to take off my bathers top, but luckily I could keep my bathers bottom on (unlike in Turkey where I had to be fully starkers!). The woman couldn’t speak any English, and well, my Moroccan Arabic hasn’t advanced past hello and thank you… so I assumed the oily substance I was slathered in was black olive soap. I was then thoroughly scrubbed with a very rough loofah type scour. After an absolute rinsing (which involved hurling hot water
at me with force), she applied a black clay mask, but strangely didn’t leave it on long at all before I was rinsed again. After a quick argan oil application, I was wrapped in a robe and shown to another room where Andrew was already relaxing with a herbal tea. This should have been the perfect post-hammam relaxation, but it was let down by the room being freezing!
Due to the language barrier, we were a bit lost in translation about what was happening next, but we were eventually shown to a massage room. I enjoyed the massage very much, and given Andrew definitely isn’t a message type of person and he also loved it – it must have been good!
I was very glad we’d chosen to spend a few hours at the hammam
on our first day in Marrakesh. However, I wasn’t sold on the concept of this spa-hammam cross-breed. It was a half-hearted attempt at both concepts, and the execution was sorely lacking. I’d much rather have a full spa experience OR a full traditional hammam
experience. Having said that, we’d been travelling for two weeks and it felt rather good to feel squeaky clean!
And there’s also something rather weirdly humbling and comforting at being washed like a child again. 😊
We caught a petit taxi back to our hotel and were happy to find that we could check-in. Our next task was to urgently find a laundry service. With that mission accomplished, we walked around the lovely sun drenched streets of Gueliz and sat at a random corner cafe and ordered mint tea. We’d passed a small bakery around the corner, so Andrew ducked back and bought some pastries to have with our teas. Cafes in Morocco are refreshingly relaxed about pastries from other establishments being enjoyed with their teas.
It was a gorgeous warm afternoon, so we decided to stay local and explore more of the surrounding area. We dropped into the Siniya 28 Gallery, which was oddly placed in a building that felt like an apartment block. And even more oddly, we realised it was an exhibition of Australian art. However, it wasn’t a very welcoming space (the Australian owner was complaining loudly to a friend on the phone) so we didn’t linger long. The David Bloch Gallery, on the other hand, was a joy to explore. It had
a street art collective showing, and I loved most of the pieces. My favourites were by SWIZ, a French street artist whose work was beautifully geometric and angular; and a playful illustrative piece by Alexone Dizac.
It was so lovely having such a relaxed and slow paced first day in Marrakesh, but if truth be told, we were only allowing ourselves this downtime because we knew we had quite a bit of time in this city – this was only the first of three trips to Marrakesh. Plus we had planned a big day of exploring the old part of Marrakesh the following day. We stocked up on water and smooched around our seriously large hotel suite for another hour or so before we had to gather for the first farewell dinner of the trip – Deb, Sue, Tracey and Meewun were leaving the next day.
In keeping with the slow pace we’d all enjoyed that day, and the fact that they had a well-stocked bar, we agreed to have dinner at Bistro La Saveur at the Caspien Hotel just next door. We sat in the still warm and sunny courtyard, but the evening wasn’t going as planned
because a few people were running very late… so Andrew ordered beers and I had delicious and super strong White Russians while we waaaited and waaaited. But thankfully, when we finally ordered, the food arrived relatively quickly. We ordered two tagines to share – the chicken tagine
with preserved lemon, green olives and potatoes, and the lamb tagine
with artichokes, beans and red olives. Both tagines were utterly delicious, and we ended the meal with strong mint teas.
We had a bit of an unsettled night as Andrews’s sore throat had become a cough, and my stomach didn’t seem to have liked the lamb dish at dinner. However, we had the luxury of a sleep-in which made things a lot better. We wandered down to a late breakfast and faced a small buffet with tables laden with traditional Moroccan salads and cold cut breakfast items, jars of cereals, a variety of French and local bread, cheeses, jams and honey, and many plates of pastries and cakes. My slightly upset stomach wouldn’t even let me look at the savoury food items, so I tasted a few of the cakes… but just couldn’t resist having a few serves of my all-time
favourite Moroccan bread – msemen
with honey. The mint tea here had a particular smoky flavour I didn’t enjoy, so I also couldn’t resist a couple of hot chocolates from the coffee machine.
We had to unexpectedly respond to a few work issues that morning, and we also had other housekeeping items like picking up our laundry and sorting out our packs to attend to. So we had a much later than anticipated start to our day of exploring the old quarter of Marrakesh.
On the whole, the Les Trois Palmiers Hotel was a comfortable stop to regroup and refresh ourselves for the next part of the trip. My only gripe was that despite being on the 2nd floor, we had no wifi in our room – which was very annoying when work emails had to be attended to. But by a happy accident we realised that if we left our heavy wooden door open and sat on the corner of the bed closest to the door – we had a clear line of vision to the router at reception through the open atrium – and… voila! wifi! It was a weak signal, but still enabled some emails
to be sent. 😊
We left our hotel in Gueliz at midday and decided to walk rather than catch a petit taxi to the medina. The 30 minute walk was very enjoyable and straightforward – after spotting the iconic Koutoubia Mosque minaret landmark in the far distance, we simply walked towards it. Our walk gave us a good indication of why Marrakesh was called the Red City. Every building on every street was painted a hue of red – from terracotta red to browny red, and everything in-between.
We began a Lonely Planet self-guided walking tour of the medina at the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque. Set in a plaza with gardens, the red stone minaret and mosque were quite stunning in the bright midday sun. The beautiful minaret was the famous prototype for the Giralda minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville (which is now the bell tower of the Seville Cathedral), a place and city I love very much.
We then walked 200m or so to the very famous Djemaa el-Fna Square. The huge square is well known for being a circus spectacle as well as an old world cultural icon… and it was full of
all manner of humanity and activity. On one end of the square there were rows of permanent stalls selling dried and fresh fruit, along with men spruiking weird and wonderful juice combinations. Smaller makeshift stalls were selling plastic toys, local crafts, souvenirs, exotic smelling incense and perfumes, and offering henna painting and tarot card readings.
In the open square there were a motley crew of street performers of various talents, ring masters trying to hustle customers for fair games like ‘fishing’ for a bottle with a circular hook on a rod… and very sadly, there were snake-charmers with cobras in baskets, and scared chained monkeys who were being thrust onto tourist shoulders ‘for photo’. The animal cruelty was seriously hard to witness, so we did not stay long. Plus all the while, I was very aware of the number of policemen on horseback as I was of the number shady characters with shifty eyes loitering in corners.
We’d already decided that the best way to absorb the true scale of the square was from a high vantage point. There were many cafes ringing the square with inviting terraces and balconies, but I’d previously read that Cafe France was
a winner, so we were lucky to get a table on their second level terrace from which to watch the circus below with a mint tea in hand.
Suitably rested and revived, we continued the Lonely Planet walking tour. We walked into the 12th century ochre-walled medina with the intention of spending a few hours getting lost in the winding and chaotic lanes and alleys. We started at the seemingly endless mosaic of vibrant souqs
(markets). As in other large medinas we’d visited, each souq was devoted to a separate trade – fresh produce, dried rations, cooked food, spices, pottery, woodwork, metalwork, leather, carpets etc.
The hustle and bustle of a souq is like nothing else. It has a way of hitting you with force and dragging you along its dark interior… totally immersing you in the process of gawking at stalls stacked full from floor to ceiling. Seeing locals shopping for their weekly groceries with as much enthusiasm as mothers and daughters conferring over wedding dresses, made me feel like we were in the nerve centre of Moroccan life – and I love being in the nerve centre of a community.
We were still full from
breakfast so resisted buying any food, despite the delicious fragrances and odours wafting through the air in those narrow walkways. However, our resolve dissolved when we walked through the area selling cakes and sweets dripping with honey... which were also attracting swarms of buzzing bees! We both have a huge love of nut brittle, and can never refuse a sample – and the samples ALWAYS procure a sale from us. The sesame and peanut brittle gave us a boost of happy energy for the afternoon.
We left the circuitous crowded souqs and asked directions to get to the funduq
section of the medina. Funduqs
are old world caravanserai
(traveller’s inns) and buildings of commerce. They are slowly being converted into boutique hotels and contemporary shopping spaces, so it was nice to see a few un-renovated ones in their original form. A giant wooden door led into a central courtyard within a double storey wooden building, and little rooms held craftsmen working on leather, turning wood, or selling specialised antiques items like old locks or scales. Corners of the courtyards still held dusty items from centuries ago.
Despite the medina’s reputation for being chaotic and frantic and full of
pushy traders, there was an energy and atmosphere within its walls that I really appreciated. And weirdly, the chaos played a role in making it feel charming and welcoming. I need to make note of the fact that we found all the traders and locals in the medina extremely friendly and helpful. They were so willing to assist two lost looking tourists with a Lonely Planet guide in their hand… sometimes before we even asked for help. And I should also should note that as much as I valued the experience of the medina and souqs in Fes, I very much preferred the souqs and medina in Marrakesh!
I loved the diversity of experiences in the medina. Once we’d left the souqs behind, every street and alley was different. It was a melting pot of light commerce, residential and religious spaces. We could walk for hundreds of metres on totally empty lanes, but turn a corner and face a sea of people navigating a main thoroughfare.
We had been walking for a few hours and were closing in on the main objective of our walking tour – the famous Ali ben Youssef Medersa. A medersa
is a Quranic
theological college, and the Ben Youssef Medersa is the largest medersa
in North Africa. It’s considered to be one of Marrakesh’s most beautiful buildings, and I’d been really looking forward to exploring it… but it wasn’t to be. We turned a corner to see a big ‘closed for renovation’ sign. 😞
Swallowing our disappointment, we decided it was time to escape the hot bustling streets for a little while. So we headed to the Maison de la Photographie de Marrakesh, a photography museum that holds exhibitions of old photographs and filmmaking in Morocco. The gorgeous old white and green converted riad (a traditional Moroccan home) was showing a stunning exhibition of sepia and black and white images. It was a beautiful way to gain a slightly better understanding of the Berber and Arabic cultures in the country.
The museum building also had the cutest little rooftop terrace on the fourth floor, with a beautiful view over the medina and beyond… as far as the Atlas Mountains. We were in peak travel happiness mode! We ordered mint teas and a treat of fresh yoghurt with luscious strawberries. This was a real find of a place, and I can’t recommend
it highly enough. As the sun shone on the snow covered Atlas Mountains in the distance, and as the afternoon call to prayer echoed across the city… I had to acknowledge that I was well and truly under Marrakesh’s enchanting spell. 😊
We reluctantly left that heavenly rooftop oasis and started making our way out of the medina. Medinas can be crazy busy, and there are invariably bottlenecks at small intersections and at every old gate into and out of the place. This was only Day 11 for us in the country, but we knew how to surf the crowded souqs like pros… when to surge forward with the crowd, and when to stand back and wait for the next wave! And it was always a relief when we’d made it through the other side… kind of how toothpaste must feel in our squeezey hands. 😊
After many more directions were sought, we walked to the Bab Doukkala gate and departed the medina. But we then realised we hadn’t really left enough time for our walk back to the hotel for a 6pm meeting. So we caught a petit taxi and only just arrived back in time for
the Intrepid Travel group meeting for our next trip – South Morocco Discovery
. All but four of the 14 of us from the first trip were continuing on, and we were joined by six new group members – Mike (UK), Sien (Belgium), Jasmin (Australia), Bonnie (Canada), and Amy and Ella (Canada).
That evening we headed back to the carnival atmosphere of Djemaa el-Fna Square for the group’s first dinner together. We caught a red public bus to Djemaa el-Fna, and the vibe at dusk was very different to earlier in the day. Much fuller with thronging crowds, the square pulsed with activity. All the exhibitionist and carnival type activities had doubled in number and size, with the added din of different groups of traditional musicians also thrown into the mix. The stallholders seemed far more dubious and shady than they had been during the day, and there appeared to be an oddly high number of stalls selling portions aimed at increasing male potency – advertised loudly as ‘turbo charged viagra’. 😲
As we walked further into the square I could see a street food bazaar had been set up, and an unmistakably delicious smell of smoking grills was
filling the air. Khalid had picked Stall 41 for us. It was a set menu of five small dishes which we shared between two people. Very disappointingly, the food was mediocre and the portion sizes were miniscule. We started with a bowl of olives, khobz
(traditional round leavened bread), harissa
(chilli and garlic paste) and a small bowl with three salads – classic Moroccan salad (chopped tomato and cucumber with a vinaigrette), cucumber salad and a potato salad. Then followed a roasted capsicum and slices of roasted eggplant, accompanied by a fried potato cake thing. Then a small bowl of couscous with a piece of boiled carrot and another unidentifiable root vegetable. The four tiny skewers I’d been looking forward to the most were dry and way overcooked. And then lastly, we got a couple of calamari rings and ended with a mint tea. Without a doubt, this was the worst meal we’d had in Morocco to date. 😞
The spectacle of eating at the Djemaa el-Fna Square had obviously overtaken the quality of the food. It could have been that we just picked a very average stall, but given Khalid had been very good in his restaurant choices
until that point – I’d guess that most stalls has substandard food which was geared towards tourists.
While the Djemaa el-Fna felt like a very shallow touristy spectacle, I had to keep reminding myself that the food bazaar, the snake-charmers, the magicians and the love-potion hawkers had been here for hundreds of years. They had existed to entertain the locals and caravanserai convoys that came from all over Africa, the Middle East and Europe… long long before our mass tourism groups were even a travel concept.
Khalid suggested we roam around the square for a bit before returning to the hotel, but we’d seen enough of the square, so a few of us walked around the corner to Zeitoun Cafe for another drink. We ordered the spiced Moroccan tea which was very delicious! We could easily taste coriander seed, black pepper and cinnamon, but there were other flavours we couldn’t recognise. The waiter noticed Andrew was sick and losing his voice, so he brought him a container of honey to have with his tea. It was such a kind gesture.
We decided to catch the public bus back to the hotel, but ended up waiting for about
an hour at the bus stop. Even though we were tired, we rather enjoyed people-watching and observing Thursday night life in Marrakesh. We got back to the hotel very late and ended up staying up even later to pack for our hike into the High Atlas Mountain the next day.
Marrakesh was the fourth of the country’s Imperial cities we’d visited, and if one Moroccan city gets all the tourist media attention and limelight, it’s definitely Marrakesh. As a result, I’d had some preconceived ideas of what it was going to be like – which is unfair. Luckily, it was far more bustling, cosmopolitan, intriguing and delicious than I had expected. With its array of ochre-red buildings, strong striking light, mosques, souqs and welcoming atmosphere, Marrakesh had me in the palm of its hand within a few hours of our arrival.
I can’t wait to come back and experience this city again, to walk more of its streets and observe more of its ways from a cafe terrace … with a mandatory mint tea in hand of course.
Next we travel south to Aroumd, deep in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains.
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