Morocco was a last-minute side trip during our Spain adventure. Since the sun-baked country is just a puddle jump across the Mediterranean Sea, I was determined to visit. And not because I wanted another stamp on my passport, but (a) I have never been to Africa, (b) my travel buddies absolutely rave about Morocco, and (c) I wanted to show my mother something other than just another well-trod upon European country, perhaps give her a small taste of the exotic. So – Morocco it was and Marrakesh, one of Morocco’s biggest and most colorful cities, seemed like a wonderful option.
I actually did do quite a bit of research prior to arriving so my itinerary wasn’t as “last minute” as I claim. For instance, I knew we absolutely must stay in a riad, and Riad Aguaviva was an amazing choice. Spending at least a full day in the medina was a resounding yes, and a hammam experience was an obvious bucket-list choice. Get those highlights crossed off my list and I would consider our Marrakesh adventure a success! (And maybe ride a camel, learn to belly dance and take a cooking class too, but those goals may need to wait for my next trip.)
Unfortunately, my mom and I were on limited time. Unlike my previous many-months-long trips when I had endless days to play, explore, relax and plan, we had exactly three days thanks to my two-week vacation limit at work. (No, I’m not bitter at all.) Following four nights in Barcelona, we flew to Marrakesh with Vueling Airlines and landed just after 10 p.m. Luckily, our previously arranged transfer was waiting and we were soon zooming down the city’s twisting, chaotic streets as our driver gave us the run down of our location. I didn’t understand a word he was saying.
Walking into Riad Aguaviva was a pleasant surprise. Our six-bedroom accommodation was tucked into a dark little alleyway. But behind the heavy, iron door was a tranquil, sandalwood-scented oasis. Our hosts – Jana, Simo, Fatima and Khalid – treated us like family and were always quick to offer suggestions and tips for navigating and visiting the city. The wading pool (too cold to swim in) was filled with fresh rose petals each morning and our bedroom, the applicably named Smara Room, dripped with ornamental refinement.
Simo, our magnificent cook, displayed mouthwatering, multi-course breakfasts on the terrace each morning, and they soon became a true highlight of our day. Riad Aguaviva was certainly a home away from home.
A bit about Marrakesh. Ancient Marrakesh is steeped in enthralling history. Once an important trading post, this prosperous center still serves as a link between the north and south, thus representing an alloy of Moroccan culture and religion. Walking through the Old Town, which is protected by 12 kilometers of ramparts, is a sensory carnival ride for explorers. Throw away your map and let your eyes and ears lead you. Yes, you will get lost, but that is all part of the fun. We certainly lost our bearings on many occasions, but the locals and vendors were happy to point us toward Jemma el Fna, the main gathering point of pretty much everything in Marrakesh.
Jemma el Fna, the captivating main square that serves as the commercial center of the Red City. Trust me, is an absolute feast for the eyes. A simple stroll around the square will reveal a tapestry of snake charmers, comedians, acrobats, storytellers, carnival games, henna artists, drummers and food and drink vendors of every shape and size. Sounds of daily life – the calls to prayer, clanging of finger cymbals, live music and the clip-clopping cadence of horses – provide another layer of sensory wonder. It’s an ensemble of both the crazy and the captivating, the strange and the sensational. Jemma el Fna is best to experience at dusk, when the clamor of activity reaches its climax and the setting sun casts a delicious, warm glow across the square. We sat on a lofty terrace of Cafe de France, a prime spot for absorbing the ambiance.
Branching out from Jemma el Fna is a fibrous network of souks. From carpets and snails to magic potions and cotton to textiles and baskets, these markets serve as the lifeblood of Marrakesh. Locals shop for daily essentials and catch up on community gossip while tourists flock to purchase all manner of souvenirs and spices. The narrow pathways are clogged with scooters, motorcycles, donkey carts and pedestrians, which add to the bustling
There are many, many souks in Marrakesh. From Souk Ableuh (spice souk) and Souk Smata (Moroccan slipper souk) to Souk Cherratine (the leather souk) and Souk Siyyaghin (jewelry souk), there is something for everyone.
Lanterns, tailors, cellphones, soaps and even animal hides if that’s what you are looking for. A shop owner may invite you in for a conversation and cup of mint tea, a common custom in this friendly city. Don’t be shy! The locals are a welcoming bunch; curious and friendly, their warmth just radiates from their cheerful grins.
Eventually, we escaped the souks and stepped back into the open square, blinking our eyes a few times to adjust to the sudden splash of sunlight. Mom and I sat down to try the ever-prevalent mint tea so famous in Morocco, but there are also a host of fresh-squeezed juice vendors too. (Tip: Order your tea without sugar if you’re not a fan of super-duper-sweet-concoctions.) It was when we were sipping mint tea in this extremely local cafe that my mom had her first experience with a squat toilet!
Visiting the pungent tannery district is a sight to behold. These authentic, foul-smelling tanneries are indeed a living, breathing artifact of Marrakesh. The tanning process consists of vats of liquids that are used to cure the hides of camel, sheep, goat and cow. Thought the tanneries are open to visitors, I recommend “hiring” a guide as they will talk you through the tanning process in an otherwise confusing setting. The guides, who are really just well-informed, English-speaking locals, meet you along the side streets, so it is not difficult to find one. Always, always set a price before entering, and make sure to have a fully charged camera battery.
Food lovers, like me, will salivate at the sights, smells and flavors of Moroccan fare. The original inhabitants of the region, the Berbers, introduced ingredients like olives and figs and later-century nomads brought spices such as saffron, cinnamon, ginger and cumin. High-end restaurants, sidewalk cafes and market stalls all serve local favorites like lamb skewers (and the occasional head), pigeon pie, couscous dishes and the savory delights of tajines. Typically lamb or poultry stew, the tajine’s name derives from the cone-shaped earthenware dish in which it is cooked and served. Though not customary, vegetarian versions are readily available and equally delicious.
One afternoon, we decided to experience a hammam. More on that experience in a later story. Let’s just say, it was an interesting, yet extremely weird, ninety minutes of our day!
After two days inside the walls of the Old Town, we were anxious to see what Marrakesh looked like outside of the city center. A quick look on the internet and we were soon booked on an excursion to the valley of Ourika in the Atlas Mountains.
We traveled through the Berber villages of Setti Fatma in a landscape filled waterfalls, rivers and an incredible medley of rich greens and sun-baked reds. Perilous wooden bridges crossed the rivers and small restaurants spilled onto the shores of the rushing river. We photographed cacti, climbed rocky paths up to a waterfall and lunched along the river. It was a refreshing change from the chaos of the medina in downtown Marrakesh.
I feel that I only brushed the surface of amazing Marrakesh, and I certainly wish to return to explore more of this North African region.