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A Week in Magnificent Marrakesh, Part 2

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In Part 1, you can read about our initial impressions of Marrakesh and how different it is from "home". It's those differences, and the amazing beauty of the place, that made us feel that we could have stayed on a lot longer. In fact, if it were only closer to a beach, we could imagine buying an old Riad and making it our home. There is just something special about the place that both of us struggled to put into words. Maybe it's exactly it's "otherness" that was so appealing. But add to that the heady stew of amazing food, friendly people that speak English, cups of welcoming mint tea at every stop, and the dazzling beauty of the architecture and gardens and you have a truly tasty dish.


The Medina is a "shabby-chic" wonderland. It's dusty and dirty and noisy and chaotic but its also layered in history and that history reveals itself everywhere you look. It's called the Red City because so much of the plaster covering the old walls is "red". It seems more orange or pink to me.

The most prevalent and interesting architecture, in our opinion, within the Medina are the Riads and Fondouks. Riads are family homes, palaces with a small "p", that are similar to homes we've seen in many hot climates. They have central courtyards, usually with a fountain or pool, around which the rooms are built on two or three levels. Many have been converted to hotels and they are absolutely lovely, cool, and relaxing places to escape the heat and hustle of the city. Most serve dinner and you can arrange to eat at them even if you aren't staying there.

Fondouks, or caravanserai, originated as hotels to house merchants coming to the city to sell their wares. Today, many remain as artisan workshops and peaking your head into them is fascinating. Some are old and rundown and full of artisans of a particular type, such as leather working, while others still house less "artisan" workshops like the one we saw making wooden crates. A few have been refurbished and are both workshops and retails places. All of them are fascinating for the intricate woodwork of their railings and roofs and the layers of history built up since the 16th century. Also for the ability to watch the skilled craftsmen at their trades.

As in our last post, the close quarters and intimacy of the Medina is hard to capture. Tiny streets barely wide enough for a donkey cart, low archways leading to endless dead-ends off which the Riads and Fondouks are located, envelop you in the sense of community that exists where all classes of people live shoulder to shoulder and beautiful, expensive hotels share street fronts with the humblest of abodes. It feels incredibly egalitarian when an actual Mercedes shares the street with a Moroccan Mercedes (aka donkey cart).


We didn't visit all of the palaces and tombs of Marrakesh but limited ourselves to the most fabulous ruin, El Badi, and the most fabulous intact palace, Bahia Palace.

Literally "the incomparable", the palace was influenced, ironically, by the Alhambra in Granada, Spain that was built in the 12th century by the Muslim conquerors from North Africa. It is now just the walls and ruins but the scale of the place is immense and hints at the grandeur that once was. Reputedly, when finished by Saadian sultan Ahmed el Mansour the sultan asked his court jester what he thought and he replied "It will make a great ruin". And so it has. The central courtyard has immense sunken gardens filled with orange trees and long pools and it is surrounded by monumental walls and reception buildings. In the back, is a complex of storage and servant quarters.

It's most famous inhabitants now, however, are the storks that roost on its walls.

Built in the 19th century, the palace is not old but it is a magnificent example of Moroccan architecture. Composed of many courtyards and rooms, there is an airiness and light to the place and the gardens are colorful and cool.

The doorways and windows are all painted and intricately carved.

The detailed craftsmanship is as magnificent as anything we've seen outside of Spain. In particular, the Zellige tile work, the carved and painted wooden ceilings, and the amazingly carved plasterwork are spectacular. If you can't plan nine months ahead to visit the Alhambra, this is the next best thing!


No trip to Marrakesh would be complete without a day trip to the Atlas Mountains.

Home to the Berber people, whose history I will let you look up on your own as it's lengthy and interesting, it is a fascinating place where traditional ways of life still exist and are revered. They are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people we have ever met. The High Atlas range is closest to Marrakesh and has the tallest peak, Toubkal, with an elevation of 4,167 meters (13,671 ft). It is filled with traditional Berber villages.

We arranged for a tour that took us to the small Berber village of Imlil where we hiked around the valley to a waterfall and then to a Berber house for a typical lunch of salads, bread, tagines, and fruit. It was a wonderful day.

We stopped on the way at an artisan workshop where Berber women were demonstrating how Argan Oil is made. The oil comes from a nut that is harvested, peeled, and then ground. Each woman is demonstrating a different step in the process.

If being used for food, the nuts are roasted first. The oil is very flavorful and nutty. No part is wasted. The leftovers after the oil is extracted are formed into small rounds that are used in the hammams (Arabic baths) as skin scrub.

Imlil is a beautiful village situated in a high valley beneath Toubkal. With a river running through it, it's amazingly lush.

Donkeys, as in Marrakesh, are still an integral part of life and sheep roam the villages.

Hiking around the valley gave us spectacular views and led us to the waterfalls. The water is so clean and clear!

It is the source of water for much of the irrigation in the valley and there are miles off irrigation channels along the paths.

Finally, we reached the other side of the valley and it was time for relaxation on the rooftop terrace, mint tea, and lunch! Our guide was a local of Imlil and lunch was at a relatives home.

As you can tell from the length of these two posts, there was so much we loved about Marrakesh and Morocco. We will definitely be back to explore it further in the years to come, inshallah.

Posted by mrb430 03:52 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

A Week in Magnificent Marrakesh, Part 1

We're not in Kansas anymore!

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Marrakesh has been on my bucket list for something like 30 years. I've long had a fascination with the colors, the furnishings, the food, and the romance of the place. I'm not sure how it started, probably on my first trip to southern Spain after college and seeing the Moorish influences there and wondering about the culture of origin. I made tagines, collected colorful tiles, and went so far as to decorate an entire room in my house in Philadelphia with deep red walls, leather-covered window seats, tapestry throw pillows big enough to sit on, fabrics in golds and purples, and ornately painted tables - oh Morocco, you've been with me a long time! Finally setting foot in North Africa, it did not let me down.

Scott's approach to Morocco was a bit more subdued. He was hesitant, a bit worried about our safety, and not relishing the idea of being harassed and harried by hawkers constantly. If your only information is gleaned from guide books for Westerners and blogs by Westerners, it's easy to get a worrisome picture of the place. It was a bit like my feeling upon embarking on our journey down the Baja Peninsula. Excited but mixed with not a little trepidation. Luckily, the result for Scott in Marrakesh was the same as for me in Baja - it quickly won him over!


You've heard of culture shock, of course, but we have come to believe that, really, what you're feeling upon landing somewhere totally foreign is environment shock. It goes beyond culture because usually you feel it before you've even had a chance to experience the culture. It's that feeling we've had everywhere we've landed that isn't Western - Central America, South America, North Africa, even Croatia. It hits you because everything looks different. The architecture, the streets, the cars, the people - they're just not like what you have at "home". It feels alienating and not a little frightening - if you let it. But we've come to realize the signs and symptoms and know that we just have to give ourselves a few days in the new environment and it will start to feel "normal".

We arrived in Marrakesh late at night and thankfully arranged transport from the airport with our Riad (hotel). But driving into the old quarter, the Medina, at night, everything was closed, the streets were dark and winding, and young men were hanging out everywhere. We drove past the main square and went on and on through narrow alleys for what seemed like another 20 minutes. We asked ourselves, "what did we do?", "where is this place?", "what have we gotten ourselves into?" But we had seen this before in Cartagena and in Barcelona where vibrant shopping streets close up at night with steel doors covering the entries and dark, deserted emptiness taking its place only to come back to life the next morning. So we reserved judgement, trusted our research, and arrived at the most fabulous hotel to the most welcoming staff and a glass of mint tea to calm us down. The next day the streets were alive, full of people, and felt totally safe. We were a 20 minute walk from the main square but that walk was part of the excitement of staying in the Medina. Passing through the chaos of sight, sound, and smell as you wander and inevitably get lost in the souks, shopping areas, is an integral part of the Marrakesh experience.

The spice shops are truly amazing. They make these pointed cones with a playing card to smooth the edges.

The pastries in Marrakesh are not to be missed. Many are filled with nuts, pistachios or walnuts, and almost all are soaked in honey. They are delicious! Taking pictures like these is a funny endeavor. Most vendors welcome pictures but you can tell who the grumpy ones are as they have "No Photos" signs on their wares. One pastry guy, of all things, had a beautiful display but wouldn't let Scott photograph it?! Maybe he felt about his pastries like museums do about fine art - who knows. In a way, they are.


Another certainty in the souks is that every kind of conveyance comes through those narrow alleys. Donkey carts, bicycles, motorbikes, tuk-tuks - they have it all. To avoid being run over, keep right!

Perhaps the hardest part is the young men. In stereotypical middle-class, white America (in which we were both raised), young men of color hanging on street corners is not a good thing. But in a culture where women are not seen outside the home as much at night and most homes don't have air conditioning or television, hanging out outside watching the world go by is just something to do. Putting aside your own discomfort and accepting a different way of doing things is an essential part of travel.


All of that being said, there are a few things very different about Marrakesh. First, the ever present young men and, shockingly to us until we got used to it, children - innocent children you're thinking - LOVE to mess with tourists. The favorite game is to tell you to go in the complete opposite direction of where you want to go and get you lost in the Medina. There is a constant chorus of "the big square is that way" accompanied by insistent finger-pointing. They will even offer to lead you there and then take you on a rambling course into the far reaches and abandon you. We heard from so many people that were so angry about this - we kind of found it funny. All of the guidebooks caution to not accept directions from people on the street. If you're lost, they say, ask a shopkeeper who is marginally more likely to steer you in the right direction. We say, use Google Maps! Amazingly, it works even in the depths of the souks and it is critical to direct yourself to where you're going.

The "big square", Jemaa el-Fnaa, is certainly not to be missed. During the day, it's all vendors and showmen with their monkeys and snakes.

At night, it's just a big party with tons of food. This was the only part I was nervous about. I had read tons of things about how crazy it is and to be really careful and if, in the end, it was all just too much, you should escape to one of the many restaurant terraces overlooking the square and observe from a safe distance. After all of that build up, we were nervously excited to go and having finally worked up the courage one night, we, well, felt let down by how non-scary, non-threatening, and non-chaotic it was! We were ready for an adventure and we got the equivalent of the State Fair midway. Yes, there were big groups of people hanging around but they were either at sing alongs or playing put the ring on the bottle.

The most chaotic part is the food area. There are young men in front of each stall trying to get you to pick theirs over all of the others that serve exactly the same food. They are persistent and, if you let them be, annoying. We decided to take the advice we'd read and engage them in a friendly way and politely but resolutely decline. They were such jokesters and we had a lot of fun with them once they knew that a.) we weren't going to be offended or rude and b.) we weren't just not eating at their stall we weren't eating at any stall.


The second favorite game is to innocently intercept you on the street, engage you in innocent conversation ("Where are your from? Do you like Morocco? How long are you here?"), and then say "Have you been to X? You know it's the last day it will be here. You must go. I will show you where it is." And off you go to the tannery that's closing tomorrow, the Bedouin market that is only once a month, the mosque that is only open to outsiders for one day, and on and on, only to find you are being taken to be taken advantage of. We learned this the first day, the hard way. Looking back on it later, and reminiscing about our innocence that first day as it happened again and again, we could only smile. The best guy came up to us and said "Hi! Remember me? I work at your hotel. Have you been to the Bedouin rug market yet? It's just around the corner! You can't miss it - it's closing today!" He couldn't have known we were staying at a very small Riad where we knew all of the staff well or that we'd already fallen for this once and learned from our mistakes. And yet, we almost fell for it again! It happens so fast and they are so nice and seem so trustworthy and helpful...until you realize, wait he doesn't work at our hotel! nothing is sold for only one day in Marrakesh! thanks but no thanks, we'll be on our way.


But that first day we did fall for it. The target was the tannery that would be "closing for the season". Well they hit the right target because I wanted to see the tanneries but hadn't really known how we would get there or how we would tour them and couldn't believe my luck that we'd get to see them on the last day so off we went with the very nice and helpful young man who reassured us he would guide us there without a tip. Of course, he just happened to run into a guy he knew who actually worked there and who would take us the rest of the way so he could continue on to where he was going before he met us. So "very nice and helpful young man" number 2 took us through the tanneries in about five minutes and then onto the "Artisan Market".

This is part of the "scam". The least threatening guy with the best English gets you on the hook and then hands you off to the next guy who you'd probably never go with voluntarily but since your "guide" says he okay you believe it. It's really an amazing system perfected to play on Western stereotypes. And I put "scam" in quotes because at the end of the day you aren't ripped off or put in any danger and you do get to see what you wanted to see, you're just delivered to a place where the people they work for are selling their goods instead of the thousand other places selling the same goods.

There are a number of tanneries in the northern part of the Medina (and no they don't stop production tomorrow). Leather is worked and dyed manually using traditional methods of soaking the hides in pits, stomping it to make it soft, and laying it in the sun to dry. Be forewarned, the tanneries are smelly, dirty, and pretty disgusting places. For tourists, they give you a handful of mint to put under your nose. They call is a Marrakesh "gas mask" and it really works! Do not enter a tannery without it.

You see the raw leather being moved all around the Medina on donkey carts, aka a Marrakesh Mercedes, destined for the many leather workshops where it is cut, polished, and sewn into consumer goods.

So, looking back, we had to smile. We got to see the tanneries, I funded a family of four for a year with the leather jacket I bought, we learned a valuable lesson, and got to see an amazing example of social engineering masquerading as salesmanship. How about that jacket made of the softest suede in my current favorite color! It really is excellent quality and it fits like a glove. Sure, I might have bought the same coat for the same price in a mall in Kansas but I wouldn't have the story to tell.

Deciding how you respond to these situations will make or break your visit to Marrakesh. We decided to embrace it. After all, we don't want to be in Kansas. You can't see street scenes like these from a cafe in Kansas.

Check out Part 2 where we go exploring.

Posted by mrb430 06:35 Archived in Morocco Comments (3)

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