Marrakech me if you can...

Trip Start Oct 24, 2010
Trip End May 10, 2011

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Where I stayed
Hotel Aday

Flag of Morocco  , Marrakech-Tensift-Al Haouz,
Monday, November 22, 2010

Floating above the ocean with Europe shrinking behind us and Africa slowly growing on the horizon below, the reality of our trip set in. A light, jovial and free feeling sent tickles down our spines as we boarded the first major leg of our Star Alliance RTW flight package. Lisbon was lovely, but we both felt an itch, an anxiousness to move on to more exotic, challenging locales. Ha, be careful what you wish for! Morocco will deliver!

Touching down in Northern Africa brought the desired excitement, as the condensation crystals on our slightly frosted airplane window caught the setting sun's light and suddenly ignited like drops of amber. Oh, le Maroc! Where to begin?! Ignoring the taxi touts (who insist, despite our knowledge otherwise, that the local bus is broken, not running, etc etc) we made our way through the Marrakech airport terminal. The architecture provided an intro to Moroccan ornament at an extreme scale. The terminal looks as though it were cut from one huge sheet of white concrete then unfolded like a monolithic paper snowflake with snipped, curving openings for windows and doorways. Stopping at an ATM, we attempted to withdraw dirhams (the local currency), only to be rejected by the defunct machine, its screen flashing angry Arabic letters in bright red, then translating in English: "Transaction No Honourable". Almost as though by some divine abilities, the machine could detect that my bank card belonged to an Infidel (the term used here to describe non-Muslims)...or even worse, a woman! Quelle horreur!

A pleasant conversation with a Parisian man at the airport bus terminal proved to be perfect practice of the French language we thought we had forgotten (French is the second official language in Morocco, after Arabic). All those hours spent in Mrs. Keoseian's language classroom came flooding back, facilement! Even Stefano, who claims he can't speak French but really can (it's in his Canadian blood I suppose), started to "Parler" with ease.

The bus ride was short and painless, an anomaly in our travels, but more on that later...
We jumped off at the last stop, the sky dark overhead. Heaving our packs over our shoulders, we headed in the direction of the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech's main square. The feeling of approaching the Djemaa el Fna at night was utterly surreal and something neither of us will soon forget. We stayed up late that first night just chatting about the experience and reliving that first magical, bizarre introduction to Morocco.

As we turned the corner and entered the square, we heard the deep thumping of drums in various rhythms. A thick plume of white smoke hung like a shroud over the huge, teeming space. The name Djemaa el Fna is often translated as 'Assembly of the Dead' and in those first moments entering the square, I could have sworn the smoke and drums were pounding out some primal call to the spirits. Strings of white lanterns glowed like milky pearls above the crowds of people and steaming food carts packing the square. Stacks of sticky dates, oranges, fragrant spices, snails, bushels of herbs and innumerable other edible oddities filled the countless carts and stalls. The high pitched wail of the snake charmers' ghaitahs sang out like whiny, mesmerizing oboes, as the charmers lulled their cobras (yes, real cobras) into a trance-like dance across red carpets dotting the square's perimeter. A giant open flame leapt with a sizzle from the center of a meat cart, promising charred but flavorful kebabs of every imaginable meat, producing an equally tantalizing smell. Nearby, a table proudly displayed an alarming array of roasted sheep's' heads, their mouths wide open, frozen as if eerily crying out their last pleading bleat. Old men in long robes with pointed hoods shuffled slowly through the masses in pointed leather slippers, as groups of veiled women floated by, obscured in dark fabric, save for the glint of an eye caught in firelight. Just when we thought we'd entered a different century entirely, young couples in faux Gucci and Prada attire and bleached jeans slalomed through the pedestrian crowds on motor bikes like angry hornets, marking the visible paradox between traditional and contemporary Morocco.

The weight of our packs eventually snapped us out of our fascinated trance and we set out to find a hostel or guest house for the night. We have decided for this trip not to book any accommodations in advance (except for Christmas high season in India), so each location bears the initial challenge of finding a temporary home. In Marrakech I'm embarrassed to admit we quickly fell victim to the first of many scams, by accepting an offer from a tout offering to show us a beautiful and cheap riad (Morocco's trendiest accommodation option, a riad is basically a converted upscale house built around a lush central courtyard). Our 'guide' led us through an exhausting maze of streets and staircases, showing us grimy and overpriced hotels (not the promised riad in his phony brochure) where he would surely get a large commission were we to accept the offer to stay. Finally we managed to break ties with the relentless tout, but only after we paid him a hefty tip.

On our own, we managed to find a great little place called Hotel Aday, located down a side street near the Djemaa. The owner, Hassan, was kind and informative and displayed fair fixed prices on the lobby wall - a rarity in a haggle-happy country. For 110 dirhams a night (approx $14 USD), we got a clean but small room on the fourth floor with a double bed, a sink and a window. The rooms in Hotel Aday are arranged around a narrow vertical open courtyard, like an atrium. There is a roof terrace with laundry lines, bench seating and a great rooftop view. There is a communal shower on the third floor and a toilet on each level. The bathroom on each floor opens on to the central courtyard, but they have one unfortunate architectural detail - a large opening above the door, presumably for ventilation, but decidedly not ideal for acoustics. In what can only be explained crudely (and I do apologize), this resulted in what we architects like to call the EFS effect, or the 'Echoing Fart Shaft' effect - meaning all noise produced in the toilet is amplified and then projected into the five stories of vertical common space. In a country where intestinal issues are travelers' most common 'souvenir', the Hotel Aday (and many a backpackers' dignity) could have perhaps benefited from an, um, acoustical consultant.

Anyhow, potty jokes aside...Once we had settled into our room and washed up, we ventured back into the Djemaa, our noses and hungry bellies leading us towards the open-air food stalls. Our first stop was at one of the juice stalls. A cheery man peeked above a towering wall of stacked oranges, grapefruits and lemons, as if hiding behind a citrus fortress. For a couple of dirhams, we sipped cold and refreshing glasses of fresh squeezed jus de pamplemousse, the tart pink grapefruit juice quenching our parched throats. After wandering up and down the food aisles and eying the tasty fare on offer from each vendor, we plunked down at a long communal table in front of a bustling stall. A waiter tossed a dirty menu to us like a frisbee and another slapped down two paper place-mats and a basket of khoubz (palm-sized rounds of flat bread) before inquiring, "Oui??" We rattled off an order of Salade Moroccaine, Olives, Aubergines, Couscous avec Legumes and Chicken Tajine. The aubergines won our vote for best dish that night. The thick cuts of fire roasted eggplant were perfection when scooped up with a hunk of slightly sweet bread (no utensils - just hands) and dipped in a mysterious vinegary and spicy tomato sauce. We retreated to bed thoroughly stuffed, inspired and excited to explore Marrakech by daylight the following morning.

A muezzin's call to prayer boomed through a nearby loud speaker at first light and sent us jolting out of bed. We should be used to this though, as we stayed in several hostels in SE Asia located near mosques and the amplified morning adhan (call to prayer) became a sort of backpackers' alarm clock when traveling in Muslim countries. Once fully awake, we hit the winding streets in search of the famed 'Whisky Moroccain' - which is actually just sweetened mint tea - no booze allowed. The Moroccan mint tea is usually served in delicate glasses full to the the brim with fresh mint sprigs and a small metal tea pot of green or black brewed tea. The tea is often premixed with plenty of sugar and then poured dramatically from an arm's height into the mint-filled cups. It is delightful and perfect to drink at any time of day. They say you cannot do business in Morocco unless it is done over a pot of mint tea, and I believe it. Every carpet seller, tanner and tout will relentlessly try to lure you into their shop for 'just a cup of tea and a look around' - but beware, should you decide to partake and not buy their wares, you will be in for a hassle of epic proportions. As an aside, we plan to make our own (slightly less sugary) version of this delicious beverage next summer and serve it chilled, on ice. Yum!

Potent tea coursing through our veins, we decided to tackle the labyrinth of streets in the souq. As we approached the Djemaa el Fna en route to the souq, we were amazed by its transformation by day. It was less crowded than the night before but it still ebbed and flowed with intense energy, people, animals and music. Impromptu tables were set up throughout the square with the most bizarre array of people and activities. A dentiste, or tooth-puller more accurately, had set up a card table under an umbrella and proudly displayed a heap of human teeth in various states of decay and size. Have a sore tooth? Sit down and this chap will yank it right out with a nice dirty pair of pliers, as crowds of bystanders watch. Story tellers spun animated tales to enraptured groups, decorated donkeys brayed, and musicians in traditional costume clanged their gnaoua (metal castanets) and bobbed their tasseled fezzes (traditional hat). As we explored, we kept our hands firmly rooted in our pockets for fear of the lightning fast 'henna ladies' who are notorious for grabbing your unsuspecting hand and quickly scribbling a henna (plant dye paste) tattoo on your hand and arm before you can even protest. Then, of course, they demand a high price for their 'present' to you. We also found out that these ladies often use a toxic mix of henna and PPD (illegal chemical hair dye) called 'black henna' which produces a darker color tattoo, but has potentially harmful effects.

Another stall boasted an equally harmful product but it lured us near nevertheless - the snake charmers! As we leaned in close enough to snap a picture of the nimble cobra (before it managed to snap at us!), poor Stefano was grabbed by one of the snake handlers and bedecked rather unwillingly with a white cap and a live snake several feet long. Despite the smile (grimace?) on Stefano's face in the photos, I can assure you he was not a happy man in that moment. Of course as soon as we tried to de-snake and depart, the charmer grabbed us and demanded money. The handful of dirhams we produced was not adequate and he launched into his rehearsed fit of rage/disgust/public humiliation etc. Recognizing this schtick (we witnessed it countless times that same morning as other tourists fell victim), we begrudgingly doled out a few more dirhams and made a run for it.

Once the Djemaa had been crossed, we arrived unscathed but somewhat rattled (snake pun intended) at the souq...

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Don Sullivan on

Glad to see you both are enjoying your adventure so much. Marrakech is such a cool city and it looks like you took it all in. All the best over the holiday season. Don

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