Marrakech, Morocco

[ 5 ] November 1, 2011 |

As we boarded our RyanAir flight from Seville to Marrakech it finally dawned on Al and me that were about to go to entirely new continent.  With Morocco only a few kilometers away from the Spain on its southern boarder we almost forgot that we were leaving Europe for the first time in six months and about to enter the cradle of civilization, the land of deserts and jungles, home to camels, gorillas, lions, and elephants.  We were going to AFRICA!

As our plane made its way down the Spanish coastline, over the waters around the straight of Gibraltar, and into the airspace over the Kingdom of Morocco, the change in scenery was shockingly apparent.  Beige, arid land filled the skyline.  Specks of green dabbed the valleys.  Not in Kansas anymore.

We touched down in Marrakech, stepped off the plane, and were immediately greeted by a gust of tarmac heated wind.  This is October mind you, the start of their winter – definitely in North Africa now.  Words in Arabic filled the air.  Yet another language we get to learn the basics of “hello”, “yes”, “no”, “good day/evening”, “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”.

Welcome to Marrakech

Veggie Salesman Catching Some Mid-day Zzz's While Beating the Marrakech Heat

After picking up our bags and exchanging our Euros for Moroccan Dirham we headed out to find a taxi.  We booked our accommodations in Marrakech through Airbnb (www.airbnb.com) and were able to find a terrific place right off Jemaa el Fna Square, Marrakech’s main square.  Arriving in Jemma Square was like stepping through a time portal.  On our left there were snake charmers lulling their king cobra snakes into a rhythmic dance through the sway and sound of their flutes.  To our right we had men with monkeys trying to persuade you to take a picture with their animal for a few dirham.  Pressing on to find our hotel we knew we would come back to explore more.

Stopping for Some Fresh OJ on the way to the Riad

After fumbling with our map for a few minutes, we knew we were going to need some help to find our hotel, Riad Dollar des Sables (www.riaddollardessables.com). A riad is basically a Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or terrace at its center.  This focus inward is an essential Islamic expression finding its way into how the old part of the city was constructed and organized.  Walking down the streets or alleyways within the Medina (the old town) you will find that everything looks nearly same.  The buildings are austere and flat with little to no windows on the exterior.  All you will find are doors of every shape, size and design – each unique.  This makes nearly every home look the same on the exterior giving a sense of equality while any lavishness is focused on the interior.  Riad Dollar des Sables was no different.  Nearly impossible to find on our own, we paid 10 dirham to a local boy to show us the way.

Marrakech's Medina "Roads"

Deep into the souk (a Moroccan bazaar of sorts), and down a few very shady looking alleyways, we finally arrived at an elaborately carved wooden door.  We ring the doorbell and are greeted by Sala, the house manager.  Entering a riad is truly a transitional experience.  Down a long corridor we go which finally opens into a beautiful atrium.  Riad Dollar des Sables is a lovely micro hotel. The riad has beautiful mosaic tile work and plasterwork carvings throughout.  The most pleasant aspect of the riad however was the people.  While it only has five rooms, the riad maintains five incredibly friendly full time staff – Cathy (owner), Mouna (chef), Mediha (maid), Fuoad (night guard), and Sala (house manager).

Riad Dollar Sables Courtyard

Our Room at Riad Dollar Sables

After settling into the riad, it was getting late and we were getting hungry.  We read online that Jemaa Square turns into a big food court at night with many stalls each selling their own special fare.  It was around 8PM when we finally arrived in Jemaa Square, and were certainly not disappointed.  From lambs head stew to some kind of escargot snail delicatessen, the food was definitely not your standard meat and potatoes (while they did have that as well).  Since the government regulates the prices in the square, there is quite a bit of price parity between vendors.  With a level playing field, the vendors only have their vigor and wit to draw customers in.  They can be a bit pushy at times but you soon get used to saying “La Shukran” (no thank you) quite often.  We settled on a small food stall and ordered up some standards – Moroccan salad (tomatoes, cucumbers, onions), Shish-Kebab (chicken, and lamb skewers), and grilled eggplant.  While probably not the most hygienic, we decided not to think about that and simply enjoyed the tasty meal.  Best of all it didn’t break the bank and only cost around 85 Dirham (around $10 USD) for the complete meal.

Jemaa Square at Night

Eating in Jemaa Square

Lamb's Head Stew, yum?

After our meal in the square we set off to explore a little more of our surroundings.  We soon found ourselves in the middle of what seemed to be a festival like atmosphere.  There were drum circles with local Moroccans standing all around joining in.  A few circles with some sort of play, storytelling, or reenactment going on – it was hard to tell without knowing the language.  Henna artists were peddling their skills here and there and men selling spices and incense on the street side.  And last but not least, the monkeys!  While it was sad to see the monkeys on a leash and used for touristic gain, I still couldn’t resist getting my picture with one.

Curious George

Just Monkeying Around

The next day we dedicated to walking around the Medina and getting to know the souks.  The souks are ancient marketplaces very similar to the bazaars of Turkey and Egypt.  You can find just about anything you could every want – from high quality handcrafted goods and wears to cheap knockoff products imported from China.  With our riad situated in the heart of the largest souk just north of Jemaa Square, we were able to explore the area quite literally from our doorstep.  The Moroccan souks are both very interesting and intimidating at the same time.  Moroccans are renowned salesman and will use just about every trick in the book to encourage you to come in and take a look at their goods.  Also similar to the Turkish bazaars there are no set prices – haggling and negotiating over every good is their way of life.  And since I am the furthest thing from a “shopper” after a few hours of haggling our way through a couple of shops looking for souvenirs, I had my fill and called it a day.

Marrakech Souks

Al Hunting through Berber Jewelry

Handmade Moroccan Clothing

Spices Spices Everywhere

Hunting for Buried Treasure

Moroccan Natural Lipstick

On our way back we ran into the riad house manager Sala on his way to drop off a tagine for that nights dinner and he invited us to tag along.  The traditional way of cooking in Morocco is with a tagine, a clay pot which acts as a crock pot.  We followed Sala to a local Hamam, which is basically a Moroccan Spa where men and women (separately of course) can enjoy a dip in a hot tub, steam rooms, or body treatment or massage.  Passing the door we walked around back, past stacks of chopped wood, down a few steps, then past an old man manning a few fires which heats the water for the hamam.  Sala quickly dug a small whole in the charred coals near the fire, placed the tagine in, and told us that he would pick it up in 3 to 5 hours from now in time for our dinner that night.  What a different world.

Cooking Diner in the Coals of the Hamam

The next day we decided to take it easy and check out the area surrounding the medina (old town).  For only about $20 USD we hired a horse and carriage to take us around for the day.

A Carriage Ride for Two

We rode past the famous Red Mosque with its iconic Minaret that can be seen from anywhere in Marrakech and to the Majorelle gardens (quaint bamboo and cactus filled gardens – nothing to write home about).

Marrakech Majorelle Cactus Gardens

Marrakech Majorelle Cactus Gardens

After a cruise through the city we ended our buggy ride in the new part of the city – the Gueliz district that was largely building during the French colonization period of the early 20th Century.  Interesting, but again nothing super spectacular.  We did manage to find the only sushi restaurant in town and sat down for a few bites, a bit tentatively at first.  I know your thinking – sushi in Morocco, come on – in the end the food was great and high quality to boot.

We were lucky and quickly made friends with Steven and Jana, a lovely newly married couple from Portsmouth, England who where also staying at our riad.

Steven and Jana at Jad Mahal

Always ready to jump on the chance to interact with other people and make new friends, we decided to meet up with them for dinner at one of the local restaurants that also featured a traditional belly dancing show.  Little did we know what the four of us were signing up for.  Upon arrival at Jad Mahal (www.jad-mahal.com), we were amazed at how modern it was.  Half night club and half restaurant it ended up being a night to remember.  We were somehow convinced to dance with some of the dancers, we ate lamb and couscous until our stomachs popped, and ended the night with a bizarre yet amazingly talented performance by a Michael Jackson impersonator.  A true taste of modern day Marrakech.

Belly Dancing in Modern Marrakech

Learning to Belly Dance

Our last day in Marrakech was spent relaxing and catching up on some work (blog, taxes, the fun stuff).  That night however was a whole other story.  During our four-day visit we got to be quite friendly with Fuoad, the night guard.  He was truly one of nicest people we’ve met thus far.  Despite his limited English, he would consistently go out of his way to make us feel at home.  On the last night, Fuoad had decided to do something special for us and wanted us to have an authentic Berber experience.  As we were the only ones staying in the riad that night, he invited us down to the kitchen – the heart of the Berber household so he told us.  So the three of us gathered in the small riad kitchen, Fuoad pulled up two poofs for us to sit on while he first showed us how to make Traditional Moroccan tea.  Having really enjoyed the sweet mint flavored green tea in Morocco thus far this was a treat and something we will surely bring back with us to the U.S. when we return.

Al Learning to Pour Moroccan Tea

Next up in Fuoad’s tutorial was Shisha!  Known as a hooka, nargile, or simply a water pipe in other Arabic countries, shisha is basically flavored tobacco that is smoked through an elaborate water filtration system. He stressed to us that it is “good to clear the head” and something that is indulged in with friends infrequently like a party or celebration or something.  Fuoad started by washing every piece of the water pipe for a good 15 min.

Fouad Prepping the Shisha

After putting humpty back together again, he cut up fresh lemon and fresh mint and placed them into the water.  Next he cut the apple-flavored molasses tobacco (which smelled amazing btw), into tiny tiny pieces and placed it in the top covered by a layer of tin foil which he poked a thousand times with a needle to let it “breath”.  The last step was to heat up the naturally made chunks of charcoal (slow roasted wood), which he did on the stove.

Heating up the Shisha Coals

Fouad Putting the Coals on Top

After 45 minutes or so of preparation, it was time to begin.  Both of us being proud non-smokers we certainly had big reservations but we decided to submit ourselves to the cultural experience and go with it.  It took a few times to get the hang of it but we managed to make Fouad proud and were most happy to simply see the smile that it brought to his face and the laughs that followed our obvious inexperience.  As a person who loathes second hand smoke, I have to admit it wasn’t terrible and was surprisingly clean and fruity tasting.  And while it certainly won’t be a habit we pick up anytime soon, it was a fun experience and above all Fuoad’s generosity of spirit made us feel cared for and at home in his company.

Fouad Sharing His Shisha with Us

Tags: , ,

Category: Blog, Destinations, Morocco, Pat's Blog

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Russ Porter says:

    Hey Pat and Al,
    Great pics from the newest let of your journey around the world. Thanks for keeping us posted on your journey. All our best to you.
    Russ and Karen

  2. Jordan Hinson says:

    This made me laugh again and again. I love that you bellydanced at the restaurant, and had monkey’s climb all over you. This makes me want to visit Morocco big time! Keep making friends. -Jor

  3. Frank Roby says:

    You guys are moving too fast! I missed my connection for you in Morraco and now you are already in Uganda! Linda and I will be in Kenya on Thanksgiving and Uganda the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Will you still be there? If you are able and interested, we’d love to get together. Also, if we meet, and there is anything you need from the U.S. we will bring it to you.

  4. Megan says:

    I think the monkey pictures might be my favorite….I know Alison didn’t let a monkey climb on her!!!

  5. Lily says:

    Hi Pat & Al,

    Loved (and still jealous) of your RTW trip! Very curious to hear about East Africa — hope you guys are having a great time! We’re thinking of travel plans for next year…Nepal is on our list for next October. Fancy meeting up in Nepal? Let us know if you are still planning on stopping in Sri Lanka.

    Safe and happy travels! Lily

Leave a Reply