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Next destination: Marrakech, the pulse of Morocco.
From Casablanca, we purchased two train tickets to Marrakech (168DH/$21). A few sweaty hours later, we arrived and asked a taxi driver to take us to the riad (guest house) we had booked in advance -- Riad Abbassia (online at ). Our taxi driver did not have a meter in his car and thus after negotiating what seemed a good price to us (200DH down to 100DH ($12.50)), we accepted the ride. The price didn't seem too bad since the guest house offered a pick up for 10 Euros and we had no clue how far away we were. Unfortunately, by the end of our stay in Marrakech, we found out that the ride should have cost less than 20DH ($2.50). GRRR.
When we arrived at Bab Boujeloud, one of the many gates to enter the fortress of the medina, we were greeted by the riad host, Mustafa, who guided us through a maze of streets, and took us into his gorgeous riad. We had no idea when he turned on a tiny little mud street and stood in front of a gigantic arched wooden door that behind it there was such
a beautiful guest house. It was truly a hidden gem. To welcome us, Mustafa ordered the maid to prepare mint tea. He served it Moroccan style (pouring from high above the glass so that the tea could oxygenate) and proudly gave us information about Marrakech. He also drew us maps for how to enter and exit the medina, which was very helpful. Because we were his only guests, he told us that he would like to give us a free upgrade to a suite. Woohoo!! The Emerald suite became our home away from home, a Moroccan paradise. It was in fact a duplex with a beautiful balcony and a sweet, sweet, sweet bathroom and tub. Pretty suite for 60 Euros ($84). 😊
The sun and heat are unbearable in Marrakech at midday so we took Mustafa's advice and retired to our suite to relax and take a much needed bath. After a few hours of taking it easy, we ventured out of the hotel and into the labyrinth called Marrakech (over 9,000 winding, unnamed streets), with no particular destination in mind.
We were immediately greeted by a young child, Hassan, who spoke both English and French. The guide
books warned us about little kids so we tried as best as we could to ignore him and reject his company but he was tough and would not leave us alone. He kept asking questions and kept following us acting as if he was guiding us through the medina. When he had walked with us enough, in a harsh voice he said "give me money now." David handed him 2DH ($0.25) for his company and hoped that it would get rid of him but he raised his voice and demanded 20DH ($2.50). We kept walking and he kept following us, shouting 20 dirhams. We ignored him but he kept following us demanding more money in a loud voice. Still we walked on... GRR.
We, somehow, found the Ben Youssef Medersa, the oldest Koranic school in the Maghreb. For 30 DH ($3.75 per person) we got entrance to the Medersa, Almoravid Koubba, and the Marrakech museum. Everything was beautifully decorated with detailed cedar carvings and intricate tilework. Then we entered the labyrinthine souks in search of good deals, ancient palaces, and delicate gardens.
After making countless turns and twists on unnamed and unmarked streets, squeezing next to ancient walls
to allow donkeys to pass, jumping out of the way of motorcycles speeding through streets barely wide enough to avoid an accident, we miraculously ended up on the famous Djemaa el Fna (the main square, also know as La Place). Wow. Never have we seen such a spectacular scene. Add Djemaa el Fna to our top ten must see places in your lifetime list!!! It's a carnival of snake charmers, storytellers (with sprawling crowds of on-lookers), nomadic traders (and all their bizarre concoctions), entertainers (jugglers, belly dancers, singers, musicians, acrobats, and contortionists), and monkey handlers (animal cruelty in action, see Meknes entry for a video). There are food stands all around offering delicious meals (and disgusting meals), juice booths, fruit booths, pastry booths, and vendors selling every imaginable Moroccan item, not to mention the shops offering all the knock-off Louis Vuitton/Chanel/Gucci purses, belts, shoes, and watches. How bazaare!
Laure got a henna tattoo on her foot and on her hand at the Djemaa el Fna. Unfortunately, we overpaid considerably -- 250DH ($31.25) (negotiated down from 400DH ($50) for what should have cost 100DH ($12.50)). GRRRRR. The old lady got the best of us with her long winded complaint about
the price of black henna ink, how the tattoo was going to take so long and she wouldn't be able to tattoo anyone else before dark, and how she was an old lady just trying to support herself. David's attempt to walk away didn't work because she called him out on it, asking why he was being so angry and rude to a poor, old lady that was just trying to support herself and was offering a fair price. GRRRR. After pulling at our heart-strings and looking into her old, withered and puckered face, we gave in. Laure was very happy with the tattoo, so that's really all that matters. We think... but that annoying feeling that we got completely ripped off persistently invaded our thoughts afterward.
From La Place, we could see the Koutoubia Minaret, towering above the city at a staggering 70 meters. This is fabled to be the most perfect minaret in Northern Africa and it certainly does not disappoint. And for those people not so architecturally-inclined, it's a pleasant and beautiful monument surrounded by a beautiful garden.
Other monuments that we visited were the Saadian Tombs, a decorated sight in a high-walled enclosure shaded
with orange trees. While this might be more interesting to a history buff, it's just a blip on the radar screen of Marrakech. We’re not quite sure why this place was listed as a must-see sight in our guidebooks. Hmm. Nearby is the eroded Bab Agnaou entrance to the Royal Kasbah. Despite looking battered, beaten, and a bit broken, it still radiates a feeling of antiquity, and displays a decorative script reading "Enter with blessing, serene people."
We also visited the Majorelle Garden owned by Yves Saint Laurent. This is a small, tranquil retreat from the madness of Marrakech boasting verdant groves of tropical plants, a cactus garden, and an art deco pavilion painted in cobalt blue. Compared to other places in Morocco, this garden was amazing, however, compared to our tropical paradise home in Miami, it didn't even compare to some front yards in our neighborhood.
We continued to wander around and at one point, when we were hopelessly lost and exhausted from hours of walking in the heat and battling our way past shop owners grabbing us and trying to get us to enter their shops, we were about to give up and ask for directions.
But then we found the tanneries! A local approached us and guided us through the tanneries and explained the process of converting raw hide into a finished good. We walked right up to the vats where camel, sheep, goat and cow hides were soaked in pigeon poo, then transferred to several other vats for conditioning and coloring, before being worked on and turned into finished leather goods. Not only did we get to walk directly in the tannery area, we also went to a rooftop and got to see the entire scene from above. The guide also showed us a room where they were actively working on the hides, removing fat from the leather with a grim reaper-like blade. Of course the guide dropped us off at a store where they tried to talk us into buying something, or anything, but we politely refused and walked out. The guide was waiting outside and declined the 20DH ($2.50) that I offered him for his 20 minutes. Because the visit was reasonably hassle free, we were thankful we had something to do, got directions on how to get back to the main square, and he said he would share the donation with
others working at the tannery, we ended up tipping him 50DH ($6.25).
We ate dinner at one of the many food stalls back at La Place. No, we didn't eat anything too bizarre (camel testicles, goat eyes, goat brain, etc). We simply ate vegetable couscous (20DH/$2.50), chicken tagine (25DH/$3.13), and merguez sausae (20DH/$2.50). We ended the night with a mint tea (10DH/$1.25) and took a taxi back to the gate of the medina (this time 50DH/$6.25), where we followed the map Mustafa drew for us to find our riad.
Home sweet home!! We can't emphasize enough how much having a wonderful place to escape to after a hectic day in Marrakech played into our experience. If you're going to spring for a nice room in Morocco, make it there! Riad Abbassia is a piece of paradise in the madness of Marrakech!
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