10.24.2019 - 10.30.2019
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.
RIADS AND FONDOUKS
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.