I have just returned from my first adventure outside of Europe since moving here. Destination: Marrakech, Morocco. So how did this compare to my European adventures? Well, let’s see. Maybe we can start with some similarities. Old buildings- check. Plenty of other tourists to play the “guess where they are from?” game- check. Hmm. Ok. Well, I guess that is about it.
Conjure up the most positive image of the word chaos. That is where we will start. In the alleyways and streets of the Medina (old town), the sounds and the smells stood out the most. People everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Walking, standing, sitting, on carts being pulled by donkeys, on bikes, on scooters, cooking, selling, talking, singing… No such thing as strolling around leisurely- better be paying attention to what’s on all sides or you could end up getting clipped by someone on wheels or stepping into someone else’s fruit display. The roundabouts in Marrakech put the Italian ones to shame- imagine 4 lanes coming in at five or six places to the roundabout, with no lane markers or crosswalks. Traffic is comprised of pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, busses, taxis, small carts with donkeys, and touristy horse drawn carriages all seemingly doing whatever they feel like in regards to driving. It seemed to work just fine though!
The sounds- again, people everywhere. Now add in the high pitched “beep beep” of scooter horns, the donkey’s footsteps, the chickens in cages, the sizzle of meat on grills, the voices of shopkeepers trying to lure you towards their goods, the thawck of a cleaver cutting up oranges, with an occasional call to prayer heard citywide over the loudspeakers.
The smells- ran the gamut from donkey manure (one of my personal favorites obviously) to whole fish laid out on ice, cages stuffed with live chickens right next to the place where the dead ones were for sale… Piles of spices, baskets of fresh dates, meat cooking, bread baking, sweets and pastries, oranges and juice, mixed with some other less than ideal city smells.
The people-Marrakech showcased a mixture of very traditional Muslim dress with modern fashion. My favorite was a woman dressed head to toe in black, with magenta stiletto heels peeking out from underneath. The owner of our Riad is Swiss and has been in Marrakech for a while, and the owner of the running tour that I did is actually from Orlando, FL. The people on the street were generally friendly. I had been slightly intimidated by some of the reading I had done before the trip talking about the pushiness and crudeness of some of the vendors and people, but only once did anyone say anything super inappropriate to me.
We stayed in a riad, which is basically a bed and breakfast. Riad is a specific architectural style with solid outside walls but a large open courtyard in the middle. Most have a water feature of some sort so that air can cool by convection in the summers. I loved all of the small details of the riad and the way Veronique had it decorated.
The food- Carbs and meat. Carbs and meat. Carbs and meat. Breakfast was three different types of bread with honey, butter, or marmalade. Tagine cooking is a traditional Berber form of cooking that we enjoyed daily. Basically, throw some meat, some veggies, and some spices in and heat slowly- yummy stew with tender meat. The lid of the tagine pot encourages the return of the condensation to the dish so it does not dry out. Oh, and make sure you eat more bread with dinner! Olives accompanied every snack and meal we had and they were also really good. Somewhat softer texture and not quite as salty as what I’ve been getting in Italy. One night we had beef and veggies in a savory sauce, and another we had lamb with apricots, dates, and walnuts. Who knew you could make meat taste like dessert!?
Let’s talk about Moroccan mint tea- that stuff is delish. Take a light mint flavor tea, add a ton of sugar, and put it in an awesome teapot and drink it out of super cool small glasses and you are good to go.
Now, I know I lived in Florida, the land of oranges and whatnot. And I will never forget the day that I tasted the best orange juice of my life at Pepe’s in Key West. But, sorry to say, Flo-Rida… You lose. The orange juice in Marrakech from the street vendors was out of this world amazing. Although Marrakech is a pretty arid climate, it enjoys ground water which I think is good for growing these bomb dot com oranges. That is why the date palms do so well there. Jonathan, my running guide (more to come on him in a few), told me that the date palms are considered sort of sacred so you need government permission to cut them down.
So what did I do for three days in Marrakech besides carb up and get the caffeine jitters?
Walked around and took it all in. Ate when I was hungry, sat when I tired. Did not have an agenda. Visited the Saadian Tombs- these were built in the late 1500’s to house members of the Saadi Dynasty that ruled Morocco from 1554-1659. The graves in the courtyard house soldiers and servants of the dynasty. The detailed wood carving and tilework here was so intricate there is no way my phone could take pictures to do it justice. Also the rose blooms were the size of my face.
We also walked around to all of the different gardens in the city. Now, to be fair, my definition of a garden is certainly East Coast/Florida. Most of the gardens were rows of olive trees, little grass, and lots of litter. Hidden in one of them was a super cute bay pony tied to a tree. He nickered at me when I talked to him so of course I went over and pet him and let him lick my hand. Miss those horses.
There were also camels scattered about, but these are just for tourists. Also, for my vet friends, yes I am sure they were camels- not lambs or alpacas, ok people!?
Tons of horse drawn carriages filled the city. Interestingly (but probably not suprisingly) many of these cart horses looked a lot like the Spanish breeds with the same shaped of neck and hindquarters. Most were significantly shorter than an Andalusian but confirmation wise were similar (no mohawks on these ladies though!) All of the horses were shod and only a small percentage of them were lame. Most also had decent body conditions so that was good.
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest one in Marrakech. It is surrounded by a large plaza and is right near the large square. Could not go in but it was nice to look at and near our riad so a good landmark. The old city of Marrakech is surrounded by the wall and houses the markets, souks, riads, and alleyways. The new part of the city houses a Louis Vuitton and a Starbucks. There is a lot of money in certain parts of this city.
Jemaa el-Fna Square has been there since Marrakech was founded in 1070, and is host to many vendors, cafes, and entertainers. This area was a little overwhelming because there were definitely a ton of people trying to sell me stuff I did not want. Ignore them and pay attention to the acrobats, storytellers speaking to large crowds, snake charmers, drummers, and various stalls that are set up. There is something enchanting about listening to drums beat and watching a cobra dance around on the street. I did not like the monkeys in cages or on leashes. Made me sad. As the sun sets, it is a huge pop up food fair- people start setting up their tents and tables and grills and begin cooking all over. Combined with the sounds of the drums, flutes, crowds, and vendors calling out it was almost sensory overload.
I previously mentioned my running guide, Jonathan. His company is called Running in Marrakech (www.runninginmorocco.com). I scheduled to run a 10k with Jonathan one morning outside of the city in an area called Palmeraie. Jonathan was awesome- he is a running coach as well as owning this business, and he had tons of great information about Morocco. The Palmeraie area is all deserty palms that is slated for development. There are some big golf resorts out there, but mostly a ton of empty space waiting for money to come back to Morocco. Lots of money was being invested by Americans and Europeans before September 2001, and then as things were coming back some, the economy crashed in 2008. Now people are nervous due to some current events and the money has not come back. Jonathan was a great running companion and he was also nice enough to tell me that Marrakech is at a slight elevation (1200-1500 feet) when I was unusually winded while running. I think his business idea is brilliant, especially in a country that can be potentially difficult to navigate as a visitor with a language barrier.
Hmmm so I think that concludes the longest blog post ever. I would go back to Morocco but definitely check out Fes, Casablanca, and the Atlas Mountains on the next trip. PS- lots of the other tourists were Dutch and German and Swiss. Did not see or hear any other Americans.
Random other pictures: