Friday, June 7, 2013

Marrakech, Morocco - Wonder or to Ponder


Photo above: Panoramic view of Jemma el-Fna square and the souks from the roof top restaurant where we had lunch.

Step into the world of Arabian Nights...
I wanted to visit Marrakech, Morocco for as long as I can might have been an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations that implanted the idea in my head.
Nevertheless, fast forward a few years and there I was, in North Africa with one of my girlfriend, Winnie (I don't think she knew what she signed up for when she agreed). Not all of our experiences in Marrakech were glamorous so I would like to share with you our venturesome exploration into the mysterious City of Marrakech and its glorious Atlas Mountains.

First impression is always important to me so I had very high expectations upon arriving in Marrakech especially after all the great stories I've read. We arrived at the Marrakech Menara Airport in the wee hour and I felt like a sheep being lead through a maze. We tried to quickly clear custom control point, find our luggage, and hail a taxi to our hotel. As soon as we walked out the airport door, we noticed the handful of passengers that got off with us had vanished. It was just me and Winnie in a very foreign country with 4 very big taxi drivers and 4 very beat up vehicles in front of us. Panic started to set in a little (but I remember to remain calm and to look brave). The English speaking driver approached us (we were speaking in Chinese to each other - let's come up with a price quick, the guide book says the taxis here don't have meters, everything is on a bargain basis). So we asked him "how much to go to our hotel in the Palmeraie?" His response was "dirham or Euro?" We replied "in dirham" and showed him the address to our hotel. He glanced at our paper and formulated 600 dirham ($90 Canadian). In Chinese, I said to Winnie, "OMG, that's too much. I remember tips on TripAdvisor saying something like 100 dirham ($15)." He must have heard the 100 that I said in English and quickly said "no, this hotel is outside the City, it's far. How much you willing to pay?" We said "200". He said "no, 550". We said "no", and began to walk toward the airport door. He quickly said "what's your maximum?" We responded, 200. He said "how about 400?" We said "no, 300 is our max." He grabbed our luggage and with that, we assumed it was agreed upon and went into a smoke-filled, ripped seat, 30 year old car in which was his taxi.  There's a first for everything and this was a first for both of us - no meters? Beat up taxis? I burst out laughing as I recall these small details and Whassap Winnie.

As you can see from the two photos above, Marrakech was not a final destination for a lot of other passengers. The terminal was empty. I could essential hear my own voice echo in the large open space.
The first five minute of the taxi ride seemed ok and we felt safe as we were still in the vicinity of the airport area and what we later learned as the New City. Just as quickly as I had thought Marrakech is pretty safe and relatively developed and modern, we approached a giant doorway and fortress-type wall, we cut motorists off to go through the tall but narrow doorway. On the other side of the wall were very tightly built clay-colour homes and poorly lit streets with children playing outside and a lot of men sitting around doing nothing. At that point I wasn't so sure this was the Marrakech I had envisioned Marrakech to be. The road ahead was cracked with large pot holes and the ride was bumpy; and I was praying in my head please dont get a flat, especially in this part of town (may I remind you that I was in a vehicle that should be in the junkyard had it been in North America). A couple minutes later, I couldn't make out anything from my backseat window (it seemed we had crossed into an area where electricity was still light-years away) and my phone had lost signal. I didn't see any street signs or directional signs outside and surely couldn't make out anything distinctive as everything looked the same (same clay-colour homes and everyone was dressed in black or light grey with only their eyes showing). I remember asking are we almost there and the driver didnt answer. I was thinking oh crap this is what crazy people do before they kill their victims, they keep their silence until they find a deserted vacant lot. And then a glimmer of hope set in when I saw 'Pullman Hotel in 500m'. Phhhewww. When I saw the tree-lined driveway that leads to our hotel, I was immediately relieved. Winnie and I joked that night, okay we may have been ripped off paying 300 dirham to get here but at least he didn't drop us off in the middle of nowhere.  That night we both slept very well in our comfy king-sized bed.

Thankfully our hotel was everything and a bit more than what I had hoped it would be. The resort was a lot bigger than what the website depicts, fileld with 5 restaurants, an olive garden, an outdoor pool, a tennis court, a spa and plenty of golf carts to drive around. Our room was on the ground floor with an open patio, and a generous sized bathroom with a large spa shower. The only negative was the room smelled of sewage waste during the day.

 Entrance to the lobby of our hotel (taken the next morning).
Hotel Lobby


First full day in Marrakech, we woke up to the sound of birds chirping outside our room. We stayed at the Pullman Marrakech Palmeraie Resort and Spa. The Palmeraie, as I was told was previously an olive grove and then 5-7 years ago, foreign developers saw the potential the area has and started to build Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons and other highly recognizable branded hotels here. Our hotel was built in late 2012 so it was fairly new. The first order of business after having breakfast was to go to the hustle and bustle of Jemaa el-Fnaa (Djemaa el Fna) inside the Medina wall. The Medina is the old, walled part of town where life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. You have to immerse yourself in the massive open space and take in the smells, sounds and sights to truly experience it. To start, there are horse caleche (horse drawn carriage) rides right at the start of the square. As you make your way to the heart of the square, you are surrounded by snake charmers, monkey handlers, psychics, tarot card readers, women offering henna, and orange juice stalls which lead the way into to souks. You can pass an entire day, get lost (and not even know it), just by wandering through the narrow winding streets of the souks. The souks offer an unforgetable and new shopping experience for me personally - I have never been in a retail enviornment where there are uncountable number of traders such as carpet and lighting dealers and butchers' shops all within the same space. When I say butcher shop, don't picture your local Dean and Deluca or Whole Foods meat counter. It is literally half a pig and cow hanging in front of a hole-in-the-wall of a shop and smell of slaughtered animal lingering about. Shopkeepers approach you left and right begging you to go in to look at everything under the sun - magic powder claiming to be natural Viagra, wood carving, brass Genie teapots, pointed toe slippers (babouche), poufs, just to name a few. We were overwhelmed after walking into one end of the souks that we quickly made our way back to the square to look for lunch. After spinning our heads around a few times trying to pin point a decent roof top restaurant, we settled on one that had a great view of the square and a group of women selling beautiful hand woven straw bags. Our first Moroccan meal (excessively spiced grilled mystery meat and Moroccan meat tajine) was very foreign to me. I thought I was well travelled and have tasted a lot of unusal food (monkey brain, coagulated chicken blood) but I was not prepared for the game-y smell of the meat and the amount of fat that was in our food. There was also an unwanted cat that kept brushing up against us that made us both very nervous. Needless to say, we both bolted out of there, empty stomach. Remembering that we had arranged for a taxi to pick us up at 3:00, we slowly made our way out of the square to look for the driver in front of the KFC in which we had previously discussed as our meeting place. The taxi from the hotel was an intact newer Toyota and the driver was polite and spoke relatively good English so it was worth the 100 dirham ($15) each way, hence the reason we agreed to have him pick us up as well (to avoid getting into a crappy car and the whole negotiation process). We ate cheeseburger and sorbet and relaxed by the pool until dinner time.
The many walls and gates of Marrakech.

The gate to the Royal Palace of Marrakech

 Wall of the Old city (Medina)

Bab Agngou, built in the 12th century.
Park leading to Jemma el-Fna



The next day we had arranged for a local guide to take us to Jardin Majorelle (the Majorelle Garden that YSL and his partner Pierre Berge purchased in 1980) and other local landmarks such as Koutoubia Mosque, Bahia Palace, Medersa Ben Youssef, and Saadian Tombs. We had read that Marrakech is difficult to navigate and  we didn't want to waste our time looking on our own. It was a straight forward day as we had a 'man" with us to ward off unwanted attention. So I'll let the photos do most of the talking...
First stop: Jardin Majorelle



 Yves Saint Laurent Memorial
 Koutoubia Mosque (unfortunately we were not allow to enter as we are non-Muslims.)

 Inside one of the royal resident.

Back to the souks to learn about local crafts...

Local woman extracting oil from argan fruits.

 Silk Workshop

Men handling raw hides to prep them for leather goods.


Upon returning to the hotel, we booked ourselves an hour at the spa.
(The spa is right behind me int he photo below.)



Sitting outside our room, happy after our relaxing spa treatment.

Tajine Fish, fresh roti and mint tea with live entertainment at dinner time.


We saved the best for last.The third and final day was an adventure packed day that drifts effortlessly between thrill and tranquillity. Just an hour drive away from Marrakech lies the Atlas Mountains, an incredible stretch of 2,500 km across Northern Africa that stand tall next to Marrakech providing a home to the Berber population. Our guide had a full day planned out for us - camel ride, visit a salt mine, followed by a hike to get to the top of the high Atlas Mountain to a Berber village to have an authentic Moroccan meal. On tour to the mountains, we experienced the natural and unspoilt beauty of the region - coloured rock cliffs, natural waterfalls and mountain streams all provided spots of tranquility. It was a day filled with new sights and knowledge as we were provided a taste of mountain life and the meeting of new cultures. Follow along with the photos below. 


Started from the bottom...

 Now we are on top. We made it, we made it (with Miu Miu's, ovrsized hats and all). =P

Corn field

 Making our way through the rugged Berber village road with a running stream.


I don't know the official name of this Berber dish but it was delish. A phyllo pie filled with shredded chicken and toasted almonds.

We visited the New City in the evening. This is the modern and developed part of Marrakech with Western shops, night clubs and new condo development. We were craving a non-tajine meal so we went into a French restaurant and then had dessert at a French pastry shop next store (eventhough we were flying out to Paris the very next morning).

The taxi driver from the hotel to the airport was not very honest. He wanted 500 dirham but we were told by reception that 300 dirham is reasonable so we negotiated him down to 300 dirham. Upon arrival at the airport, we handed him two 200 dirham bills, and he claimed he didn't have change for 100 dirham and basically refused to give us any change. This was another beat up vehicle we were unlucky enough to be in - the door handles were all broken and only one side was barely accessible. 

Now that I have spent three full days in Marrakech, this includes using a squat toilet with no working plumbing and amenities, hiking the Atlas Mountains, eating some questionable meat, wandering through the maze of the souks, witnessing the processing of argan oil, and visiting a Berber home. I have mixed feelings about this city but what I can say is that Mareakech will always hold a special place amongst my many travel destinations. Marrakech is a place where visitors need to use their common sense and consider how they would act in a large city in their home country. Be well prepared that there will be many surprises along the way. Be smart and stay alert and you should have a pretty good time.
Now some tips:
  • Appropriate attire - In Morocco, a mid length skirt, jeans and t-shirt is fine. However, if you don't want to attract unwanted attention from locals especially within the old city walls, stay away from shorts, mini-skirts, and tight tank tops.
  • For women travellers - ignore hisses and comments and shrug off men wanting to chat or show you their shop. Just be polite and firm or ignore eye contacts. 
  • Cleanse and Relax - A dose of Marrakech’s tranquil side is the experience of a hammam. Hammams in Marrakech are prevalent and are one of the highlights of the city, ranging from cheaper public hammams to luxurious private spas. Public spas are common and much cheaper, a full body wash and exfoliation is completed in around an hour. Beware that the public experience is shared, but typically remains to same sex rooms. Luxury spas deliver a fully personable experience, with steam, gommage (scrubbing), full body massage, and full body and hair wash. Winnie and I opted to go to the spa within our resort and paid 350 dirham ($53 Canadian) each for the one hour private service.
  • Have a cup of Moroccan Mint Tea - learn the art of the tea ceremony and the proper way of pouring mint tea from a local Berber or enjoy a cup already made on a roof top restaurant or bar. Note: the cafe on the ground level of the Jemma el-Fna square is strictly reserved for men only.
  • Hire a local licensed tour guide - our guide was Omar and he operates his own company, High Atlas Walking and Trekking Holidays. Tell him you are a friend of Jacqueline and Winnie (the only two Asian girls he's ever guided) and he might give you a special referral rate.
  • Experience the Jemma el-Fna Square (The heart of Marrakech) - The Jeema El Fna Square sits proudly in the heart of Marrakech, prominently known as one of the world’s busiest market places and truly unique in the entertainment it provides. Wander through this maze of market stalls and enchanting entertainment which provides a true taste of Marrakechi culture. Orange juice sellers, snake charmers and monkey handlers fill the market during the day providing an environment to shops and visitors. By night the atmosphere changes and wild aromas fill the air, local musicians play and the hustle and bustle of the square can truly be enjoyed.
  • Shopping in the Souks - bring cash and cut everything they offer by half and then another half. The most you should be is 25% of what their original price is. For example, for a pair of babouche slipper, they will start off at 400 dirham, you divide it in half (200) and then another half to 100. If they say no, just get up and leave. Chances are they will stop you and agree. There are literally thousands of shops within the souks selling the same product so don't feel sad leaving empty handed.
  • Before getting into a taxi, show them the address or place of interest and negotiate to an agreed price. Remember, they don't have meters installed in any of the taxis.
  • Public washrooms (toilettes, as they call it) - if you are lucky, you might stumble upon a westernized facility with runing water, seated toilets with paper and soap. But you never know when you have to go or where you will be when you have to, so do yourself a favour and carry a pack of Wet Wipes and a couple pack of Kleenex.

Part of the mightly Atlas Mountains.


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Lane Crawford - US