(I was going to title this post Walk the Kasbah, but thought better of it.)
In late October, M and I had the opportunity to once again travel without our kids (thank you, Mom and Dad!!!), so we chose somewhere on our long list of to-gos that we thought would be considerably easier without children along, and so we were off for a three-and-a-half-day trip to Marrakech, our first time in Africa.
We arrived Thursday evening, having flown from London Gatwick direct to Marrakech. The airport feels really new, and was beautifully designed to reflect the city and its traditional arts and craftsmanship.
A driver sent by our riad met us outside with a sign. When we reached his car, he offered us each a pomegranate. We accepted them graciously, but then sat there dumbly in the car, wondering how in the world you open and eat a pomegranate. Did he expect us to do this in the car? Our phones didn’t work, so there was no googling it, either.
He drove us into the medina, the old walled city. The drive across the city at sunset was gorgeous—everything glowed pink.
“OMG CAMELS!” I excitedly whispered to M as we drove past a few gathered in what may have been a parking lot, probably just for tourists.
One of the owners of the Riad al Massarah, Michael, met us at the taxi dropoff point by a mosque. He walked us the rest of the way, through their local souk, pointing out landmarks to help us find our way back on our own next time. A porter took our bags ahead for us.
Once inside the riad, we relaxed in the very peaceful centre courtyard with some mint tea and Moroccan cookies, while Michael chatted with us and told us all kinds of helpful tips. Then he gave us a tour of the place and showed us our room.
We had arranged to have dinner there in the riad that evening, since we’d be arriving around 7:30. We ended up dining with two women about our age who work for the U.S. Embassy, one in London and one in Romania. The one who lives in London actually lives really near us, which is kind of amazing, given how big London is.
We were served a classic Moroccan dish, chicken with preserved lemon and olives baked in a tagine. We also enjoyed Moroccan gris, which is like a rose wine. Alcohol is not readily available in Marrakech. Some restaurants offer it and some don’t. You certainly can’t see a way to buy it out in the medina, and you wouldn’t drink it out in a public place. We didn’t have trouble finding alcohol, but you need to be discreet about it.
On Friday morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast up on the riad’s roof terrace, which might be the most peaceful place in all of Marrakech.
The breakfast each morning was fantastic. Fresh-squeezed orange juice, coffee, fresh fruit, yogurt with granola and honey, traditional Moroccan bread (which we were served at just about every meal), the best eggs I’ve ever had, and these delicious square fried pancakes, called msemen.
More photos of our riad:
We decided to spend the rest of the morning exploring the neighborhood we were staying in, called Bab Doukkala. It’s primarily residential, not touristy at all, and filled with locals out doing their daily work, shopping and eating at the souk (market) stalls.
Walking around the medina reminded me a lot of Ubud, Bali—stressful when walking through the dusty, narrow streets, with a constant feeling of anxiety because I’m 95% certain I’m going to get run over by a motorbike.
We wandered around the alleyways and took in the sights, sounds, and smells of life in the medina.
M: “Hey Beth, look straight up.”
“OMG why is there a turkey on the roof? And why is he flapping his wings and acting like he’s about to fly down and peck my eyes out?”
That was a new experience. Free-range roof turkeys.
Speaking of poultry, the chicken from the butchers here is really clucking fresh.
There are lots of cats running around and sleeping on parked motorbikes, and carts pulled by mules, but we saw fewer than five dogs our entire time. A local told me the city had pretty much gotten rid of dogs because of rabies. Now people are allowed to have them if they can afford to keep them and get them vaccinated, but they are not common.
Cat biker gangs all over the place, though.
Michael had told us about a shop worth going into, which has no sign out front; you just have to see where he marked on the map and look out for the number 144 above the door. You go through the unmarked door and it’s multiple levels of beautiful home goods. Apparently interior designers from all over the world shop here. We wandered around and cursed ourselves for having no way to get anything back home, particularly a stunningly gorgeous tiled patio dining set.
We listened to the midday call to prayer from the shop’s roof.
Then we had lunch at one of the restaurants Michael recommended, La Terrasse. After climbing several sets of stairs, we emerged onto a beautiful terrace, as the name promised. Fresh juices, mezze, roasted vegetable couscous, and the most delicious fig and saffron cake with salted butter caramel sauce: everything was delicious, and the atmosphere was relaxing after the hectic streets below.
After lunch, we headed for the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, a 16th-century school that is a gorgeous example of classic Moroccan building design.
We got a bit lost along the way, though M won’t admit that. If I could choose one word to describe the old city of Marrakech it would be “labyrinthine.” It’s an absolute maze. More than once we found ourselves wandering around winding paths between tall walls with no idea how to get back to where we could see a landmark of some kind.
To make things more confusing, local men purposely try to mislead tourists, calling out in French and English that the place you are heading is closed or that way is a dead end, or “Looking for [nearby tourist destination/landmark]? That way!” You never know if they are telling you the truth. If they are, and you accept their offer to lead you there, they will demand money. But they may be pointing you in the opposite direction, just to mess with you. (Another tip: never accept the offer of someone to be your guide.)
You know that scene in the Jim Henson/David Bowie/Jennifer Connolly film “Labyrinth” where the voices are all calling out “turn back, you’re going the wrong way!” when she’s actually going the right way? Yeah, it felt exactly like that.
We eventually made it to Ben Youssef, and it was open, unlike some “helpful” young men warned us along the way.
Afterward, we visited the Maison de la Photographie, which is a beautiful old riad exhibiting vintage photographs of Morocco.
I even found a photo of a door I had photographed myself earlier that day, so I’m pretty sure this means my photo will be worth a lot someday; I’m taking bids on it now if you’re interested in becoming an early collector.
We walked all the way to the Saadian Tombs, but this time, the man who told us they were closed was, unfortunately, correct.
We’d done a lot of walking by this time, so we took a taxi back to the dropoff point near our riad, and then spent a little down time relaxing on the riad’s roof terrace, drinking a glass of gris, watching the sky turn everything pink, listening to the evening call to prayer.
We had dinner reservations that night (helpfully arranged for us by our riad) at Al Fassia, a popular restaurant known for its classic Moroccan cooking and run by women. The caramelized pumpkin tagine was a no-brainer choice for me.
More of our Morocco trip to come, stay tuned for Part 2!