Thursday, July 2, 2015

Voyageuse au Maroc

This weary traveler just got back from Morocco, and she would rather blog than unpack. Which means: lucky you! You get to read about my adventures in Marrakech that much sooner.

I arrived on Monday evening and took a taxi from the airport as close as I could to the riad where I was staying; inside the medina (old city) of Marrakech, there are many streets where cars can't drive. Which isn't to suggest that motorbikes and donkey-pulled carts can't drive on them, of course. Tip #1 for traveling in Marrakech: watch where you're walking at all times--sidewalks often don't exist. A man was waiting for me where the taxi dropped me off--this turned out to be Ahmed, an employee (and possibly the owner?) of Riad 34, who is basically one of the nicest humans I've ever met. But I didn't know that at the time, so I could only hope that the man leading me down several labyrinthine back alleys was telling me the truth. Tip #2 for traveling in Marrakech: bring a map, but remember that many of the smaller streets are uncharted.

Riads are essentially the Moroccan equivalent of a bed & breakfast--beautiful old houses with a center courtyard and large, airy rooms, which are rented to tourists. For the record, I cannot recommend Riad 34 highly enough. My room was beautiful, the courtyard was beautiful, the rooftop terrace was beautiful, the breakfasts were gigantic and delicious, and Ahmed, Rashida, and the other employees were sweet and gracious. I (unfortunately) didn't have time to go on any out-of-town excursions, but they can help arrange excursions for you, and the per-night cost of staying there was roughly the same as a dorm in many European hostels. If you go to Marrakech, you should stay at Riad 34.

That evening I befriended some Danish tourists who were also staying at the riad. In fact, I started off by translating for them. Ahmed speaks French fluently, but only a little English. The Danish tourists speak English, but not French. And apparently I speak both. I cannot tell you how much easier it is to speak French with people who are fluent in it as a second language. The people in Morocco speak French so clearly and slowly, whereas French people mumble and abbreviate and I don't understand a thing. Tip #3 for traveling in Marrakech: learn some French--it's a whole lot easier than Arabic. Anyway, the Danish couple and I headed to Jemaa el Fna to grab dinner. Jemaa el Fna is the large public square in the center of the medina, where you can find cheap and yummy street food, vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs, acrobats, snake charmers, and extremely persistent henna tattoo women. (Seriously--I once had to sort of run away from one of the women because she was grabbing my hand and trying to draw on it without my permission.) There are many restaurants on the square, usually with rooftop terraces for the view, and most of them are pricey. But my new Danish friends had been in Marrakech for a while, so they brought me to this place called Aqua. We sat on the terrace, ate some tagine, and drank some mint tea. Tip #4 for traveling in Marrakech: always drink the mint tea.

The view from our table (that's the Koutoubia Mosque in the background):

On our way back to the riad, we picked up the largest watermelon I have ever seen in my life--nearly the size of my torso--to give to Ahmed for his hospitality. (It was a few hours after the Ramadan fast had been broken for the day.) He immediately cleaned and sliced it, and between the five of us--Ahmed, me, the Danish couple, and a tourist from Hong Kong--we couldn't even finish half of it. Before bed, we all sat on the rooftop terrace and talked for a while, which was lovely. The next day the Danes headed to the Sahara to ride camels, so I sadly didn't see them again. And I have no idea what happened to the guy from Hong Kong.

But that's alright--I'm a capable woman, and I know how to have fun adventuring on my own, which is exactly what I did for the rest of the trip. Tuesday morning I got up early, had some breakfast, and headed to Palais de la Bahia, which was just around the corner. Tip #5 for traveling in Marrakech: hit as many of the historic sites as you can--they're gorgeous, and usually only 10 dirham for a ticket. Built for one of the wives of a 19th century grand vizier, Palais de la Bahia is amazing. Walls decorated with colorful tiles and intricate marble carvings, delicate arches, elaborately painted ceilings--I think pictures will do a better job in this case:

I thought Europe had a strong ceiling game, but I think Morocco might be the champion of ceilings.

After that I walked to Palais El Badi--the enormous ruins of a sultan's palace. Tip #6 for traveling in Marrakech: if it's inside the medina, don't take a taxi--you can walk. No ceilings here--just crumbling walls and dozens of spindly storks. Little did I know that storks make a creepy, alien-like clicking noise. It's true.

From there I headed to the Kasbah to see the Saadian Tombs. I believe I mentioned in a previous post how much I enjoy visiting burial places. The architecture was--once again--stunning, and there were lots of beautiful flowers as well. 

All that walking around in the over-100-degree heat finally got to me, so I stopped for lunch and then returned to the riad for a quick nap. By "nap," of course, I mean that I lay naked and unmoving on my bed for an hour, basking in the air conditioning, as I am almost incapable of sleeping during the day. During the evening I decided to return to Jemaa El Fna for more exploring. I meandered up and down the streets leading to the square, turning down any offers for henna, slippers, watches, caftans, and tea kettles with a polite "non, merci." When I was researching Marrakech online, lots of people wrote that the shopkeepers are aggressive and won't leave you alone. I didn't find that to be true at all. They certainly tried to talk to me and get me to look at their wares, but if I just nodded and walked away or said no thanks, they didn't seem angry. Plenty of other tourists to ask, after all. It was funny--a lot of the shopkeepers tried to pull me into a conversation by guessing where I was from, and almost nobody guessed the United States. I got a lot of Norway, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, and England, but no U.S. I wonder if it's because not many people from the United States travel there, or if it's because I have blonde hair, blue eyes, and I'm not fat. Who knows? Maybe both.

When the call to break the fast echoed from the mosques, the busy streets of Marrakech quickly lost their bustle. Just me, a few other tourists, and the stray cats.

I had dinner on the terrace of a quiet restaurant on the road back to my riad, and then I hit the sack.

Wednesday I once again awoke bright and early to take full advantage of my short time in Marrakech. By "bright and early," of course, I mean 8:15 a.m. I'm not very good at mornings.

I decided to walk the opposite direction and head to Medersa Ben Youssef, an ancient Islamic university that operated until 1960. (If some of my spelling seems odd, it's because I had a French guidebook, so I was mostly familiar with the French names for the sites. Medersa is Medrasa in English.) In order to get there, I had to walk through the souks--tight, winding, covered alleys with thousands of shops pressed close on either side. I am not personally a fan of either haggling or shopping in general, so my goal was to get through the labyrinth as quickly as I could; the good news is that if you do like haggling, Marrakech is your dream come true. There are lots of tourist souvenirs in the souks, but I saw lots of locals doing their shopping there, too--for clothes, pastries, fruits and veggies. Tip #7 for traveling in Marrakech: get lost--it's fun.

I finally found Medersa Ben Youssef, and it was everything my guidebook promised. Unlike most European or American historic sites, there aren't many recreations or glass cases; you can wander wherever you please in the buildings (almost), hopping in and out of rooms, exploring every corner. At Medersa Ben Youssef, I especially enjoyed the corridors with the dorm rooms.

I popped into Dar Bellarj, a nearby cultural center that Ahmed had recommended, to look at a photography exhibit, after which I headed to the Museum of Marrakech, which is right next door to the Medersa. The museum is in another old palace, so the building itself is quite a sight, not to mention all the traditional, pottery, weapons, jewelry, and clothes inside.

It was about time for lunch, so I decided to find the Henna Cafe--a restaurant and cultural center where all the proceeds are used to educate and aid local Moroccans. Getting there was something of a chore. I wandered in a direction I thought was the right way (it wasn't), a young man offered to guide me for 10 dirham, he took me in exactly the wrong direction, and then I turned around and found my way back to Jemaa El Fna. Tip #8 for traveling in Marrakech: all roads lead to Jemaa El Fna. From there I was able to navigate through the souks again and up to the cafe. I ate some crazy delicious khleer (cured lamb + egg) and watched their pet tortoise zoom around the patio. Though I did not partake, you can get a henna tattoo there from a reputable artist.

On my way back to the riad for another "nap," I stopped in the souks and bought myself a small lantern. I knew I wanted one souvenir, so I braced myself for a long haggling session, mentally reviewing the bartering skills I honed in China. (I realized that my "but I'm a student!" tactic isn't going to work for much longer.) Fortunately, I didn't really need my skills. The shopkeeper seemed happy to lower the price when I asked.

Everyone I spoke to in Morocco was extremely friendly. Undoubtedly many of them were trying to get me to purchase things from their stores, but some of them said that they wanted to practice their English, and I honestly believed them--I had long discussions with people without feeling pressured at all. Tip #9 for traveling in Marrakech: don't believe everything you read on the internet.

The lantern I bought looks a bit like this. Not something I haven't seen before, but I'm sure I got it for less money than I could have in the States, and the important thing is that I know where it's from. When nightfall hits Jemaa El Fna, lots of vendors set up rows of lanterns and light them--so pretty it's swoon-worthy. All the colors and lights appeal to my mockingbird sensibilities--shiny objects!

That evening I decided to grab street food for dinner at the tents in Jemaa El Fna. I figured that's something everyone ought to do once. I guess you should sometimes believe things you read on the internet; I was indeed served an appetizer that I didn't ask for but for which I was expected to pay. You know what? That appetizer was tasty. I'm glad I was served an appetizer that I didn't ask for. Tip #10 for traveling in Marrakech: take everything in stride.

One last freaking awesome photo of Jemaa El Fna, all aglow:

I bought a box of pastries for Ahmed before returning to the riad. Of course, he wanted me to help him eat the pastries, so we had pastries and tea, and we talked for a few hours in the courtyard. He wanted to know more about America, so we mostly discussed geography and politics. (I think I may have been the first American guest to stay there; he mentioned never having seen an American passport before when I checked in.) I learned the hard way that my political French vocabulary is lacking, but I guess that's just something I'll have to work on in the future. I jumped in a taxi early this morning, and here I am, back in Toulouse.

Overall I think two full days is enough time to see Marrakech, as long as you stay in the medina. I didn't bother going to the Guéliz--the newer, colonial European part of the city--because I figured I could see all the European architecture I needed to see in Europe. From what I understand, the Guéliz mostly consists of expensive shops anyway--not my cup of tea. Though there are supposed to be some beautiful gardens. Two full days is not enough time to see Morocco, however. All I want to do is go back and see Casablanca and the Sahara and Essaouria and Rabat and Chefchaouen and Tangier...

Bonus Tip: See more than Marrakech, lest the wanderlust get to you. 

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