Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Morocco - Marrakech


Desert, ocean, mountains, mules, goats, camels, tagines, couscous, pastilla, people, religions, cultures – this is just a taste of what I got to experience in Morocco for 10 glorious days.   

It was an unbelievable trip that exceeded my expectations and even re-wrote my (mis)perceptions of the country.  

My Moroccan stories will unravel over a multi-part blog post as I recount the many highlights of this magical place and trip.

The Trip
Not feeling 100% confident in being able to adequately see Morocco by myself, I joined a small culinary tour of the region, led by an amazing woman, Peggy Markel.  Peggy has a diverse background that makes her the perfect hostess to see, experience, taste and dive into the culture and cuisine of Morocco.  If you ever have the opportunity, I highly recommend taking a trip with her for an immersive look into a place you likely wouldn’t be able to provide for yourself.     

The group of 9 participants hailed from most parts of the US, as well as Canada. There were enough doctors to fill a hospital, and enough retired people to get a sizable group discount from AARP.  It was a lively, well-traveled, foodilicious bunch who was up for the energy of the souks and they weren't afraid of getting their hands dirty picking the freshest of the fresh in the gardens or using knuckles, fingers, and palms for the perfect kneading of homemade oven baked bread.

Arriving into Marrakech, the airport was much more orderly than I anticipated with a clean, bright, tiled terminal where I expected the chaos of a hot, open, aired room with grabbing taxi drivers and tour operators trying to make a buck like in Mexico or Belize. Once on the streets of Marrakech, the pulse began with cars, buses, taxis, donkeys, and horse drawn carriages navigating the wide, flat streets in frenetic harmony with the many locals on two wheels balancing their prized possessions of children and the next day's meal on their handlebars and backs.

The landscape is a sea of orange as is mandated by the city with over 100,000 date palm trees dotting the landscape and adding rugged splashes of color outside the old city walls.  I was staying in Palmeraie, the so called "shi-shi" area of Marrakech where the royals and rockers go when they want to get away from it all.

Our home away from home was Jnane Tamsna, a lovely oasis reached by driving down small dirt roads, past kids playing soccer in makeshift (and make believe) fields.

Each room has its own unique touch, given by the multi-talented owner Meryanne whose art and design background put me in a beautiful African suite.  

The rooms are spread across the well maintained living gardens, built by Meryanne’s husband Gary.  Gary took us on a personal tour of his pride and joy to see the many fresh herbs and vegetables growing across the property, while also interjecting comments on what we should eat that week for lunches and dinners given certain thriving productions of beans and mache.

I hadn't even unpacked before I had a hammam appointment lined up.  Every village in Morocco is always guaranteed 3 things - a mosque in which to pray, a communal oven for baking bread and a hammam for bathing.

The hammam I went to was a lovely round, tiled room that enveloped me in warmth the second I laid down on its wet, welcoming tile. A small, but sturdy Moroccan woman then proceeded to wash me in ways I didn't know were possible for the next 45 minutes. There were many buckets of warm water released over me in a tidal wave of tranquility. The scrubbing portion wasn't quite as tranquil as she took a Brillo pad full of what seemed like thousands of tiny blades with little needles and bore into my skin with a relish I only use on my worst grease laden pan. Though I was sure blood must have been oozing out of every pore of my body, I knew a bucket of refreshing water would be washing over me shortly. The scrubbing was long forgotten after my Moroccan goddess gave me a luxurious hair washing.  A final (and surprise) cold water rinse ended my first Moroccan hammam and I have to say it was ten times better than the one I had in Turkey where I felt a bit used and abused at the end.

Old Town
We made several visits to experience the mayhem of the Medina.   I was told that the Medina has 300,000 shops, but not 100% sure that’s accurate, though I don’t think it would be too far off given the vast scale of the market. 

Alleyways wind into spokes of more narrow passageways, each with a multitude of vendors selling everything from clothes to jewelry, cookware, bags, art, rugs, shoes, food, spices, and many decorative items for the home.   

Everyone beckons you to come look in their shop as you try to navigate the people, bikes, scooters and occasional car clipping your heels.

I had to get a when in Rome purchase.  You know that item when you’re there in the middle of the cultural excitement, you think, yes, I think I’ll take up smoking when I get home and purchase this hookah.  I pride myself on avoiding that purchase, but I did buy a pair of Aladin like slippers, called babouches.    Actually I do plan on wearing them when climbing the stairs to my laundry room, and honestly they’re quite comfortable and cute with different colors and removable tassels.

We also visited the beautiful Medersa Ben Youssef Koranic kids school.  The tile work was amazing, but the tiny rooms the kids had to pile in for sleep made my Paris apartment look like the Grand Palais.

The Marrakesh Museum was previously the defense minister’s house in the late 19th Century and is now a beautiful, newly restored web of more beautiful tile and artwork.

The market chaos reaches a full force frenzy in the square called Jemaa el Fna where you see everything from snake charmers to trans gender dance performances, and then the occasional man selling teeth or pictures with their monkey.

It was quite literally difficult to get pictures of everything because Moroccan people are very sensitive to have their pictures taken and some won’t allow it, and the one’s that do, often expect a fee.

I thought I could snap a picture of the snakes from a distance, but the Moroccans are everywhere and one came chasing after me for money even though I was nowhere near them.

We could always find our transportation home from the market by looking for the Koutubia Miniret, which stands 210’ high over Marrakech.  No other building can be taller so it’s easy to spot, and always marked the conclusion of our time in the souks, but don't fret, there's much, much more to come.

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