Expressly Marrakech

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Monday, January 16, 2006

For some reason it seems that most of the places we have been are a little less exotic and mysterious than we expected they would be. Marrakech broke that mold. When we first wandered into the main square, the place Jemaa el Fna, we felt as though we had been transported into a three-ring circus. Up to this point, our Moroccan experience was fairly tranquil, but as soon as we stepped foot into the heart of Marrakech we felt as though we should have packed purple turbans instead of tan travel pants. This large and mostly pedestrian area is the beating heart of the city and a place that has attracted both travelers and locals for centuries. Naturally, we couldn't resist.

If Rabat is the political capital of Morocco, and Fes the spiritual and intellectual center, then Marrakech is the place where Moroccans (and tourists) go to have fun. Indeed, Marrakechis are known to other Moroccans as "the fun makers." So, after checking into our small but comfortable hotel, we naturally ventured toward the excitement and into the heart of the beast. Our hotel was just off a small, neon lined pedestrian street, crowded with chawarma kiosks and ice cream parlors (glaciers, in local parlance), a street that, like several others, pours into the Place, a convergence of a number of small alleys and broad avenues culminating in an enormous, irregularly shaped square. Even before we edged close enough to see the square we could both hear and smell what we were heading toward. From quite some distance away, smoke wafted past our noses, and the dull roar of a crowd mingled with higher and more discernable tones of instrumental music. When we emerged into the Place, we were all stunned. By day, the place is a veritable buffet of street performers, arab style - snake charmers, monkey tamers, acrobats, musicians and dancers set up shop, each with their own entourage of touts, hawkers and gawkers (soon to be hit up for donations) watching and listening. By night, the Place transforms into what seems to be the world's largest barbeque - amidst blaring electric lights and swirling smoke storms, dozens and dozens of makeshift restaurants, thrown up every night from mobile carts, grill up innumerable brochettes of chicken, beef and lamb while dishing up servings of tajine and couscous for more discerning palates. Other booths serve steaming bowls of Moroccan soup for twenty five cents each, or freshly squeezed glasses of orange juice for thirty (the carts are piled high with the enticing fruits), or glasses of spicy mulled tea and a strange Moroccan spiced chocolate pudding for forty. Given our meager budgets and hearty appetites, this place was just what we had in mind.

Our first stop was the soup vendor who coyly wooed us into his soup tent with a smile and some heavily accented English (Texan was the effect he was shooting for, but let us assure you, we knew he wasn't from Houston OR Dallas). The tasty red mystery soup was accompanied by some sticky fried bread-like product that had been sweetened by honey. Next up was a booth that specialized in more substantial dishes where each of us selected a different main course that consisted of meat of one form or another. Cori ordered lamb meatballs, Steven ordered a chicken tajine, and Leo indulged with a grilled mixte, or collection of various fried meat kabobs. Desert was hardly necessary after our feast, but we did swing by one of the many orange juice vendors who poured three tall glasses of fresh juice for less than a dollar. After spending more than our fair share of dhirams we waddled back to our hotel room to drift into a collective food coma. It is hard to eat so well for so little money and not think highly of a place.

The next day we made our way to the other end of the city and were able to meet up with another friend from the US: Andrew Day. Andrew, and his girlfriend, Mary Beth, were among our most cherished friends in Chicago so we were naturally eager to meet up with Andrew when we learned that he too was planning to spend a few weeks in early 2006 in the Arab world. Mary Beth, a dedicated public school teacher, was not able to pull away from her work, but we were nevertheless pleased as punch to cross paths with a pal from our former life.

Once we met up with Andrew we commenced our visit to Marrakech in earnest. Our first objective was to find the Saadian Tombs where, as the name would suggest, many Saadians are buried. The tombs were constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries and were erected not too far from the center of the city and very closely situated next to several of the largest mosques and palaces in the city. Despite their impressive size, the tombs are actually quite difficult to find if you don't know what you are looking for. Fortunately or unfortunately, Moroccan streets are always full of people who will gladly take visitors to whatever they are seeking and promptly request a small tip for this service. In our case, long before we were lost or even remotely in need of his assistance, an eager nine year old appeared and quickly ascertained what we were looking for. He accompanied us on our journey for about half a block and then pointed us toward an arrow that said Saadian Tombs. At this point, the young entrepreneur rudely thrust out his hand and flat out refused our half a dihram tip when offered because he seemed sure his 'services' were worth at least five dihram. Naturally, we withheld the offering and made our way independently into the tomb.

As we soon discovered, the children of the Saadian family never went to bed hungry. Set within a large walled-in area of the city the Saadian tombs are an excellent example of elaborate death chambers and extravagant public spending. Several large temples surround a moderate sized garden that is, at least in the warmer months, filled with roses, citrus trees, and towering palms. When we got there the garden consisted of bare trees, stray cats, and a lone lemon tree that had clearly received more attention than the other parts of the garden. Each of the four main tombs within the Saadian tomb complex contained a series of ornate marble sarcophagi under cedar roofs that had been inlayed with gold accents. The craftsmen also threw in the requisite number of koranic verses made from both intricately placed tiles and carefully chiseled plaster. The tomb complex was impressive, but the thing that impressed us most was the fact that the tombs sat right in the middle of the city for centuries completely walled-off from public view by a later dynasty. Our guidebook suggested that the residents of Marrakech didn't even know about the tombs until 1917.

After another short walk and a few more annoying interaction with eager and too helpful 'guides', we found ourselves at the entrance of the Palace Bahaia. Our guidebooks indicated that this was one of the main sights in the city - indeed, so lavish was the interior and so lush the gardens that Marshal Lauyatey, the head of the Franco-Moroccan government during the French Protectorate, chose this as his home - so we gladly laid down our 20 dihram per person and went inside. All indications were that this famous palace had been inactive for many years, but in addition to the expected number of tourists, we counted several elaborately adorned patrons passing quickly in and out of the main gate. We were a bit confused by all this coming and going at first, but as we got closer to one of the main rooms of the palace we quickly understood the source of our confusion. It seems that the palace and its unique blend of ancient and mysterious Moroccan splendor had attracted a semi-local film crew who had set up in the main room of the palace to shoot a full feature film. Judging from the colorful costumes worn by the women and the large metal swords carried by all the men we figured the movie was something of a period piece. There were no sword fights being enacted when we passed through, but we did catch a glimpse of what looked like a fairly heated argument between two men over what we gathered was the female lead. Such as it is, our Arabic left us guessing.

Once we had taken our share of pictures in the Bahai palace, we crossed to another corner of the city and went into the museum el badi. Marrakech has two main museums and from what we could gather, the el badi was reputed to be the better of the two. If what we gathered was even remotely accurate, museums are not the strong point of the city. The el badi consisted of a relatively meager collection of artifacts and architectural pieces from across the country dating from about 1700 to 1900. Our view was that you could see more ancient and impressive displays of Moroccan craftsmanship in the rest of the country. Many of the museum's specimens were out-done by doors, cabinets, and woodwork found in-use all over the city. Perhaps sensing our relative disappointment, the museum docent offered us a secret peek at a section of the museum that was not normally open to the public. We figured his offer would eventually lead to us giving him some money, but not wanting to leave disappointed we decided to play along. The docent moved the guard ropes to the side and told us to proceed down the hall into the concubine's chamber. Once inside we agreed that the concubines had obtained better real estate than the ancient relics of the city. Oddly, the concubine's quarters looked quite similar to the madrasses we had seen in Fes with multi-story living quarters opening onto a square and elaborately crafted courtyard. When we had taken about as many pictures as we could muster, Cori checked the guidebook and confirmed our suspicion; the concubine's quarter was actually a standard part of the museum tour and was included with the tickets we had purchased. Naturally, we thanked the docent on the way out, but the tip he expected was not forthcoming.

Tuckered from our peregrinations around the city, we made our way back to the Place and seated ourselves at one of the many terraced cafes overlooking the organized chaos of the performers and food vendors below. We were able to seek nourishment while watching from a distance the scammers, the beggars, the hashish-pushers - exactly the kind of vantage point one eventually craves after being subsumed in that crush of humanity. Steve and Andrew ordered coffee and a quick snack, but Leo and Cori decided to go all out and request a local delicacy: pigeon pastilla. Pastilla is an amazingly overpriced food (we weren't unanimous as to whether it was better classified an entree or as a dessert) consisting of layers of flaky philo dough, between which are sandwiched pieces of pigeon (we were lucky they took out the feathers and the cluck, although many bones were left for our discovery) and spiced with cinnamon, almonds, and a dusting of powdered sugar. Leo gave the concoction a thumbs-up, Cori gave it a thumbs-down, and Steve was just grateful to have another coffee.

The entrance to the souks, or the markets, was virtually next door, so our next item of business was to peruse the souk selections and take in the ambiance without being perceived by vendors as having too great an interest in any one thing so as to merit their attempts at salesmanship. As in Fes, the Marrakechi souks really are an exotic trip into the Arabian-night myths that fed our imaginations when we were kids; we almost expected to see magical flying carpets and genie-in-the-bottles being sold from every stall. In reality, what we were offered was more quidotienne but still quite colorful. For sale we saw musical instruments of every variety, iron-crafted lamps, rich silks in varied patterns, pointy leather shoes in every color of the rainbow, pharmacies laden with powders, creams, liquids and spices, olives stalls piled high with more than twenty different types, richly decorated carpets rolled into tight bundles, silver teapots and gold-leafed cups for serving, and fashionable jellabas for him and for her. We spent about an hour wandering the cramped quarters of the souks, but we could have easily spent three more just taking it all in.

When we emerged from the souks, with plenty of mental images to carry away but sans any tangible evidence of our being there (read: we won against the onslaught of vendors), Andrew suggested, quite sensibly, that we ought to investigate the Ville Nouvelle and perhaps seek out an appropriate dinner venue there. So, with no great adieu, we piled into a beat up old Mercedes converted into a taxi, and we headed downtown.

The Ville Nouvelle, or new town, is a collection of modern offices, lavish hotels, and yet another set of tourist-oriented bars, restaurants, and shops. As is often the case, newer Marrakech means cleaner and nicer with a slightly higher price tag. We had our sights set on a restaurant that had received consistently high marks from our guidebooks, but what we hadn't anticipated was that the newer part of the city would operate on a more European time table. With some effort we finally stumbled upon the restaurant (whose name had recently changed) only to discover that the doors wouldn't open until 7:30. Never missing an opportunity to enjoy a nice glass of wine, Leo quickly suggested that we make our way to a nearby hotel lobby to grab a quick drink before the restaurant opened. In light of our other options, this seemed like a good plan.

There are certainly more chic places to imbibe in Marrakech, but by our standards and in the opinion of the wait staff and clients in the bar we soon wandered into, the gin joint we happened into was among the more trendy places in town. The proprietor clearly positioned his bar to attract both westerners and the particular breed of Moroccans who think that westerners are cool. Through the dim lighting and a pair of flat-screen tv's played a continuous but silent version of Phil Collins Genesis tour circa 1987. Mirrors and black laquor were the decor of choice and Steven thought he caught sight of a member of the kitchen staff sporting an actual walkman. By all accounts Leo and her quest for a simple glass of house white had transported us back to the mid 1980's.

After paying our confused waiter for our wine, beer and two waters, we promptly made our way across the street and back to our chosen restaurant. By this time the place was not only open for business, but we were actually told that we could only be seated if we promised to be up from the table in less than 90 minutes. Because the crowd that had gathered was an even mix of both tourists and locals, we figured that this minor imposition was tolerable.

The feast that ensued once we did finally get seated was well worth our effort. Predictably, Steven opted for yet another of the many Moroccan tajines and Leo chose brochetts of chicken, lamb, and beef accompanied by saffron rice. Andrew and Cori shared a mixture of chicken rice and vegetables. Apparently the people that the hostess was expecting to take our place cancelled their reservation, so when the main meal was done we all shared some warm beverages and Moroccan pastries. As we sipped our mint tea and savored our sweets, we made grand plans for the following day that included car rental, lots of driving, and maybe even a little skiing.

As soon as the next day came, however, it was clear that our plans were not going to come to fruition in the manner we had discussed the previous night. During the night, the sky of Marrakech had filled with thick dark clouds, and by the time we finished our breakfasts the city was wet with rain. All indications were that this would not be a brief thunderstorm, so we adjourned to a local coffee shop with Andrew to formulate a new plan of attack.

As is our want, we discussed several hundred alternatives, but with Andrew and Leo in the mix we eventually came to a suitable set of conclusions. We all agreed that an entire day of sitting in the 'salon de the' was untenable and that even if the clouds and rain never let up we should at least make an effort to see something. Our many guidebooks suggested that if we made our way back to the new town we could either rent a car or catch a grand taxi that would take us into the mountains. As shocking as it may seem, Morocco has a few fairly well regarded ski resorts not more than a few hours drive from Marrakech. None of us thought skiing was in the cards for the afternoon, but we reasoned that a nice drive through the mountains might afford some interesting views of the countryside.

After the requisite amount of haggling and continued indecision we finally determined that a grand taxi would be the way to go, and by about noon we found ourselves in the back of a late model Mercedes heading East out of Marrakech. In addition to the ski resort we had set our sights on, there was also a string of small villages and towns on the way into the mountains that seemed promising. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side; rain turned to sleet which soon became snow. Before we knew it the Mercedes was climbing through the high Atlas Mountains in several inches of fresh powder.

Despite the crummy conditions, the drive itself and the entire afternoon for that matter was quite lovely. Ensconced as it was in flakes, the Oukaimeden valley would have made a nice postcard. There was something particularly striking about vibrantly green palm trees and other lush tropical looking plants amid a wintery wonderland of snow and slush. At several points on our journey across the valley and up the mountain we asked our driver to stop the car so that we could snap a few photos. We are certain that Andrew's rendering of this odd and exotic scenery turned our better than our own, so if you want to get an idea of what it looked like take a look at Andrew's web-site (

As the car climbed higher it became clear that the weather would cut our journey short. We were all enjoying the drive quite a bit and Leo and Steve took every advantage of the opportunity to pepper the driver with myriad questions about Moroccan society and its politics. Not too far from the turn-off for the ski resort, however, a police vehicle had blocked the road and we were forced to circle our wagons. In retrospect, with the rapidly deteriorating driving conditions, this was the more prudent outcome.

Fortunately, our mountain excursion was only half complete. On the way back don the mountain our driver asked us if we wanted to stop off at an authentic Berber house. Having come across several tourist-ready 'native' houses we were naturally a bit skeptical, but in light of the weather and the lack of other options available once we returned to Marrakech we decided to play along. After another thirty minutes or so on yet another mountain road we soon found ourselves at the home of a Berber family that seemed to enjoy a fairly respectable position in the Berber village of which it was a part. This particular Berber house was also the place that other Berbers in the area came to have their wheat and other grains ground on the village mill. In impressively good English the elder son of the Berber house led us on a small tour of the house and its surroundings. He demonstrated how their family had harnessed the power of a local stream to turn their mill-stone and he also told us that for these services his family took 10 percent of all the grain they ground.

In general, the conditions of the Berber house were decent, but it was very clear to us that life in a Berber village would be very difficult. After just a few minutes in the cold damp environs around the house we were all a bit chilly. Our tour guide, however, who did not enjoy the benefits of a down jacket and high-tech synthetic fibers, seemed completely comfortable. Our experience with the Berbers once again reinforced the fact that by world standards, we Westerners are frightenly soft and fragile. Even after sharing a cup of mint tea with the family and taking the obligatory stroll through the small handicraft market that abutted their home, we were cold enough to almost run back to the car. As was expected, we gave the family a small tip to thank them for thier hospitality, and were soon in the car heading back into town.

When we got back to town the rain and sleet had subsided and we were free to enjoy wat we thought would be our last night in the city. What we had not yet realized, was that our procrastination and indecision about what to do after we returned Leo to Casablanca would take us back to Marrakech two more times. Nevertheless, convinced that this was our last supper in the city, we decided to splurge a bit. During a nighttime stroll his first night in the city Andrew had happened by a sign that pointed to a restaurant that served Thai food. Andrew was not 100% sure about where in the city he had been when he noticed the sign, but as soon as Steven learned that there was a hope he would obtain a bit of his all time favorite cuisine, he was more than willing to accompany Andrew as he re-traced his steps. After a pleasant 20 minute stroll, Andrew had once again found the sign that advertised authentic Thai cuisine. A large arrow pointed down a long and foreboding corridor, but with the chance of getting his hands on a tasty curry Steven ignored his apprehension and boldly led the way. The long and narrow corridor eventually wound its way to the entrance of what from the outside looked like a large commercial building or warehouse. Once inside however, we were immediately and completely dumbfounded - Andrew had struck gold in Marrakech. In any large US city the decor and ambiance of this out of the way Thai restaurant would certainly skyrocket its reputation to superstar status. Inside what had once been some sort of small mansion or fancy riad the owner of this obviously new restaurant had erected the perfect blend of Asian flair and Arabian decadence. Deep shades of red and orange combined with at least seven fireplaces created an atmosphere that was at once both intimate and grandiose. The centerpiece of the room was an odd and somewhat frightening waterfall-fireplace that bubbled water around the edges of what could only be described as a large circular torch. To warm this rather large open interior several free standing gas patio style torches had been set-up in a manner that was in keeping with the general theme of the room. Again, if you want to get a good idea of what this place really looked like you should take a peek at Andrew's web site; he is far better with a camera than any member of the Peterson/Parobek clan. Reluctantly, we bid farewell to Andrew that night and turned in early in order to catch a train to Casablanca the next morning.

After discovering that we would not be able to get to Cairo until the 29th of January we decided to arrange a camel trek into the Sarah desert. The jumping off point for such excursions is on the other side of the Atlas Mountains, so we ended up spending two more nights in Marrakech as we passed through on our way to and from the desert.

In the final analysis, Marrakech turned out to be our favorite Moroccan city, but after so many comings and goings the bloom was rapidly and predictable fading from the rose. The central square that had so captivated our attention on the first night had become a bit tiresome and over the top. Nevertheless, its cheap food and nearly free entertainment pulled us back for a few more fresh juices and tasty couscous platters. All things considered, Marrakech is the jem of Morocco and a city definitely worth a visit.
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