Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Marrakech: Our first stop in Morocco

By Melissa at 6:42 AM
In all the hubbub of planning the first few destinations, Morocco somehow got the short shrift in terms of background reading so we had only a vague idea of what to expect. Our first stop was Marrakech, one of the former imperial cities founded in the mid-11th century. We knew that the walled medina, or old town, where we chose to stay was now mostly home to a mixture of expats and tourists who want the 'authentic' Moroccan experience and poor Moroccans. The wealthier Moroccans left the medina and moved into the Ville Nouvelle, which was founded by the French when they colonized Morocco. Since the 1990s, many expats have converted the nicer homes in the medina into riads, or guest houses. We chose a charming five-room guest house run by a French expat named Nicole. She was our guide to the medina and a wonderful one at that.

While Madrid was a lovely experience, it was great to feel the exhilaration of being somewhere so foreign and not knowing exactly what to expect. We arrived midday and were able to take in the full impact of our surroundings. Only a two-hour flight from Madrid to the medina in Marrakech was a world away. On our ride from the airport to the riad we drove for a while on the modern streets in the Ville Nouvelle before entering the medina through one of the large stone archways. Our little riad was reachable by navigating a series of mostly dirt alleyways. After adroitly avoiding the pedestrians and stopping every once in a while to make sure he could turn the corner, the driver parked the cab to one side of a small plaza and told us we had to go the rest of the way on foot. The streets initially felt uninviting--empty, extremely narrow, old, dirty, cracks filled with puddles from a recent rain storm. But once Nicole sat us down and gave us the city overview, we began to feel more at ease. Poverty in Morocco is quite widespread and the unemployment rate hovers around 30 percent. But despite being in the midst of such poverty, the medina is almost completely lacking of violent crime. You do have to be wary of pickpockets, as you do most anywhere, but we felt quite safe the entire time and were assured by Nicole, that we could walk anywhere day or night.

Kids playing in the medina
From Marrakech, Morocco

Exploring the medina was quite an experience. We've read, and Nicole reiterated, that we needed to resign ourselves to getting lost and enjoy wandering. She gave us a map, but insisted that we look at it a few times and put it away when we were out. This was going to be a big test of my ability to just let go and relinquish control, something I'm not always good at. Nicole showed us the way to one of the main streets, pointing out the landmarks at each turn that we should look for on the way back and sent us on our way. When we reached one of the main streets I can only describe the scene as pure chaos. Men, women, children, motorbikes, bicycles and donkey carts all surging down a street barely 10 feet wide. The kind chaos you find in third world countries that after a while reveals its rhythm; a little order in the disorder. In Marrakech, speed rules. If you get there first, you have the right of way. Goods from shops on either side spilled out into the street, inserting even more obstacles into the road. The motorbike drivers navigated with amazing skill, though people usually made sure to move to the side as they passed. You imagine that there are more than a few accidents on these streets. And the donkeys, pulling cart loads of vegetables, wood or tools barely even register that you exist so you have to keep an eye out for them too.

One of the many of donkeys
From Marrakech, Morocco

When we reached the main square of the medina, Jemma el Fna, the chaos was amplified with the addition of cars, trucks and horse-drawn carriages carrying tourists. The square is lined with shops selling souvenirs and there are stands selling tall glasses of the most delicious fresh squeezed orange juice I have ever had for $0.50 each. We wandered around awestruck for a while until we found the restaurant Nicole had recommended for lunch and were happy to grab a seat on the open third-floor terrace where we could observe the scene from above. Wow, we thought, this is why we travel!

Jemaa el Fna
From Marrakech, Morocco

After lunch we spent a while wandering around in the souks north of the main square and taking in the amazing explosion of colors around us. I wouldn't even dream of taking black and white photographs in this country, it would be a travesty. After only a few hours we were exhausted so we decided to try and find our way home from the souks instead of going back to the main square. If we could find the right streets it should only be a five minute walk. We of course spent the next hour trying to get back to our riad wandering into many dead end streets. But we finally found our way and happily collapsed for a nap in our room. Given the atmosphere in the medina it is quite a relief that the homes were constructed to orient inwards with few or no external windows. Each home has a door facing the alleyway it is located on and the rooms all face an internal courtyard, open to the sky above. Many of the guest houses have roof decks or pools for further respite from the noise and dust.

Spice and mineral souk
From Marrakech, Morocco

Nicole insisted that after our nap we go back to Jemma el Fna Square to experience it at night because the square takes on a completely different character. We had to go back out for dinner anyway so we hesitantly got ready and braved another excursion into the chaos. The streets were even more packed with people around 7pm as we made our way to the rooftop cafe where Nicole said we could grab a drink (more OJ and Moroccan mint tea) and watch the square be transformed as the sun set.

Jemaa el Fna at sunset
From Marrakech, Morocco

In the area of the square that had during the day been vacant or occupied by taxis trolling around looking for tourists to overcharge, about fifty food stalls were set up over the course of an hour. Each an identical booth consisting of a rectangular metal frame draped in yards of a heavy-duty white, plastic covering. Tables and benches covered with the same fabric were set up in front of each. Piles of raw kebabs, vegetables and seafood were displayed at the front of each booth, all set up in the same manner at each stall. Identically clad young men in white coats stood in front of each stall, yelling claims that they had the best and cheapest food in the square. After randomly deciding on which one we wanted to eat at we sat down for a delicious meal of Moroccan salad, kebabs and grilled veggies. We washed it down with more orange juice.

Jemaa el Fna at night
From Marrakech, Morocco

Food, ready to be cooked, in the square
From Marrakech, Morocco

Enjoying some freshly squeezed orange juice
From Marrakech, Morocco

After dinner we meandered around taking in the full nighttime medina experience. The square is full of street performers--storytellers, snake charmers, magicians, and men carrying monkeys on their shoulders, each with a crowd of people gathering around to see the nights entertainment. Other food stalls were full of apricots, dates, and other dried fruits. It makes you feel as if that this place has been more or less the same for many decades. It's one of the joys of travel--not only can you visit different parts of the world, but sometimes you can go back in time too.

Dried fruits and nuts
From Marrakech, Morocco

More food stalls in the square
From Marrakech, Morocco

Once we managed to get the hang of being lost in the medina we ventured out to a few other amazing places. We visited the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic school that is now a public museum. The courtyard is full of amazing carvings and is a nice, tranquil place to hang out. Next door are two other notable sites, the Marrakech Museum and the Qoubba Almoravid. In addition to the beautiful art and artifacts, the building where the Marrakech Museum is located is quite beautiful itself. The Qoubba Almoravid was constructed in the mid 11th century as a place where Muslims could perform the ritual washing necessary before entering the Ben Youssef Madrasa across the street.

The door of the Marrakech museum
From Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrassa
From Marrakech, Morocco

Ben Youssef Madrassa
From Marrakech, Morocco

After a few hectic but exciting days in Marrakkech we packed up our things, and headed out to the main square early in the morning to meet our guide Omar who we hired to take us and four others on a tour from the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert. We'll have pictures and a description of the tour in our next blog post.



More Marrakech Photos