So this was our huge mystery trip for Christmas!
Morocco has been on my bucket list for years. When we moved to Germany it never crossed my mind that Morocco would be much more accessible, until almost a year ago when I was looking up options for spring break. As soon as I saw that we could get cheap flights to Morocco with Ryanair, I knew I wanted to get there ASAP. Winter break seemed like the ideal time since it gave us the best travel flexibility and wouldn’t be deathly hot. But as I was researching flights in the fall none of them seemed affordable enough and I was about to give up hope, assuming that the holiday travel price hikes would stand in our way. But then – on the day that I said to myself “I’ll check one last time before I give up” – there it was… affordable flights exactly when we needed them! It was meant to be!
One of my big reasons for wanting to visit Morocco, aside from just taking in the beauty of the country, was to get some cool items for our home. My two “must have” items were a rug and a hanging lantern, and I knew exactly what style I wanted of each. Keep reading to see if I found what I wanted…
Since it was an evening flight, Randolph worked a half day in the morning and I met up with him and our two travel companions at their work and we headed out to the airport. The flight from Frankfurt to Morocco isn’t so long – only about 3.5 hours. The customs line in the Marrakech airport was pretty crazy, though, so we were still there for a little while. But then, finally, we made it through and found the driver sent to take us to our riad. A riad is kind of like a Moroccan bed & breakfast. They’re family-owned and typically serve you a homemade breakfast. Something very interesting about Moroccan homes is that they don’t have windows facing the outside. You’re not supposed to be able to tell anything about the wealth of its inhabitants by the outside of the building, so they’re all plain concrete buildings. Instead, the windows open into the center courtyard, filled with trees and beautiful tile floors. I kind of like the idea of not being able to tell an inhabitant’s status by the outside of their home. At any rate, it’s very intriguing. To get to our riad, we had to get out of the car and then wind down some narrow alleys that looked like they couldn’t possibly lead to anything we’d want to go to. But then, all the way at the end, there was our door. And that plain building at the end of a maze of alleys was lovely inside!
The owner of Riad al Nour, Youssef, was very nice and so helpful the entire time. He started us out by marking some important things on a map as soon as we arrived. He directed us to the Jemaa el Fna night market for our first dinner. I’d had that on my schedule for a later day, but we just jumped right in to the craziness!
Off we went to the night market. It’s a large square filled with food stalls and as you fight your way through the crowd all of the restaurant guys are trying to lure you to their stall – some are quite aggressive. After checking out the options we went back to one of the chill stalls (i.e. no one yelling at us). We tried a pretty wide selection of food, including lots of seafood. And the orange juice! Soooooo good! I’d read about the orange juice in Morocco and it certainly wasn’t an exaggeration!
To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed by the market that night. It really is a different world and walking into a crowded square with people getting up in your face and yelling at you is a pretty shocking first experience when you’ve just arrived. And it probably also didn’t help that my energy level was pretty low because I was fighting a nasty cold. I was really just struggling to take it all in!
Our riad owner also warned us that night about the timing and loudness of the prayers being broadcast over loudspeakers from the mosques. The first one of the day was at 4:30 am and he wasn’t kidding when he said it was loud! It literally sounded like the speaker was in the room. The second one was just before 6am. I didn’t sleep very well, anyway, that first night because of my terrible cold and once the first prayer woke me up I never fell back asleep. It was a rough morning, haha. I did get a little more used to it each day, though: Day 3 I fell back asleep between them, Day 4 I only woke up for the first one, Day 5 I slept through both!
I heavily scheduled this day with the museums and sights we wanted to see in Marrakech. Within Marrakech, we always walked – nothing was far enough to warrant taking a cab. I’d also read that it is very easy to get lost walking in the Medina and the Souks (it is), so we made sure we came prepared. I’d marked all of our stops on Google Maps and even though we didn’t have phone service there, we could still open the map and see the blue dot indicating where we were. That said, we still had plenty of confusing moments because there are some alleys and walkways in the Souks that are not marked on the map or are incorrect. But we mostly did OK.
Also, one thing I want to note about the sights in Marrakech is that they (like everything in Marrakech) are quite cheap. I am so used to sights and museums costing a pretty penny for admission, even in cities that are generally cheaper. It’s one of those things that you just grit your teeth and fork over the money for the “privilege” to see beautiful pieces of history. This is not the case at all in Marrakech! On this first day we visited six historic sights and spent a grand total of 90 MAD each – which is only $9! For SIX admission fees! Some of them are only $1 for admission! So often I worry that tourists drive up prices to outrageous levels, making enjoyment of national treasures prohibitively expensive for locals, so I’m happy to see that this isn’t the case here. I’m sure that for some locals $1 isn’t nothing, but at least it’s not totally outside the realm of possibility.
First, we walked past Koutoubia Mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakech, which was first constructed in the 1100s. As non-muslims, we weren’t allowed to go inside, but it was still cool to see the outside and it’s surrounded by a very lush garden.
Our first official stop was the Saadian Tombs. These are extremely ornate royal tombs, dating to the 1500s. The most beautifully fancy room had a line to see it, with a guard yelling at people who were taking to long snapping photos (I loved that – keeping people efficient!). What’s crazy is that these tombs were sealed up by a later sultan and forgotten for hundreds of years. They are only accessible through a very narrow, single-file-only passage, so I guess it’s easy to see how they were overlooked for so long. They were only rediscovered in 1917, thanks to aerial photography. They were then beautifully restored to their full glory and opened to the public. On the bright side, being sealed up and forgotten actually helped preserve the stunning tombs, so they are in quite good shape.
There are several different styles visible in the different sections of the tombs, ranging in their level of detail.
Our next stop was the Palais el Badi. It was built by a Saadian sultan in the late 1500s, taking 25 years to complete, and consisted of the most expensive and luxurious materials available (gold, onyx, marble, etc). A future sultan removed all of those extravagant materials around 100 years later to use in his own palace, so what we see today it is much more plain looking and is pretty much in ruins. What does remain, though, is beautiful tiles!
On our way to the next palace we were visiting, we walked through the Mellah, which is the old Jewish quarter, and made a quick pass through Salat al Azama Synagogue. The synagogue was built in 1492 and is filled with beautiful blue and white tile work. That year rings a bell, right? The very same year that Spain sent Columbus off to “discover” the Americas, Spain also kicked out all Jewish people. The luckiest ones wound up in Turkey, who openly welcomed them, but many also settled in Morocco, due to its proximity to Spain. In Morocco, they were confined to living in “mellahs”, which were walled Jewish quarters. While this was initially seen as a positive situation, since it isolated them from Arabic quarrels that were of no consequence to the Jewish community, they became restrictive and ghetto-like. Eventually, the wealthier Moroccan Jews were able to moved out of the mellahs and into new neighborhoods, leaving only the poorest Jewish residents behind. This meant that the mellahs further deteriorated.
There are very few Jewish people remaining in present-day Morocco, and even fewer in the Marrakech Mellah. But you can tell it’s still one of the more poverty-stricken areas of Marrakech, which is saying a lot. There were run-down buildings and empty lots filled with concrete rubble and trash. It was definitely a rough neighborhood. I saw people complaining on travel review sites that the Mellah was run down and not worth seeing. If you want to see nothing but shiny glamour on your travels – yeah, maybe this isn’t for you. But I want to see the real neighborhoods. I want to see how real people live and struggle. I believe that traveling isn’t just for seeing pretty things, it’s for broadening your worldview and increasing your empathy for people with lives different than your own. So… I am glad that we walked through this neighborhood.
The next place we visited after this was a real gem – Palais Bahia. It truly lives up to its name (bahia means brilliance). This palace was built in the late 1800s and completed in 1900, much later that the other places we had visited so far. Interestingly, it was home to the sultan’s harem. What was most surprising to me about the palace is that each time you though you’d reached the end of the gorgeous rooms and courtyards, there were still more! In its entirety, the building is almost 20 acres (!), although only part of it is open to the public. Even so, what is available to walk through is quite large! Each section had a slightly different, but distinct, style. It’s pretty much impossible to capture all of the beauty and grandeur of this palace in photos, but I did my best. The amount of detail in the styling is incredible – ornate woodwork, painting, tiling, stucco, etc.
We ate lunch sitting outdoors at a little cafe – and had our first tagines of the trip! Tagines are a clay cookware that is round with a pointed top. And you use them to make the food called tagine, which is basically a slow-cooked Moroccan stew. There are many different varieties, but they’re filled with spices like turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron, and often contain dried or preserved fruits, like plums, dates, lemons, etc. The cone-shaped lid makes the steam rising out of the food drip back down, so you wind up with a very moist, flavorful stew. Essentially, it’s a super old-school, traditional version of the electric slow cookers that Americans love. And tagines make tasty food!
We had our first walk through the souks as we continued on. Souks are like big markets, with the tiny shops overflowing into the vast serpentine network of narrow, covered alleys. It’s pretty easy to get lost, even with Google Maps on your side. Google doesn’t know all of the paths. The souks are beyond intriguing. They’re filled with so many beautiful things. You sometimes almost feel like you’re in one of those Indiana Jones scenes where someone is being chased through a market.
The next sight was one of my other favorite spots of the trip – Ben Youssef Madrasa. This was an Islamic College, founded in the 1300s, and was once the largest school in North Africa. The present building was completed in 1565 and closed down in 1960.
The courtyard is the shining centerpiece of the building, with some additional rooms coming off it. It was so sunny and the tiles were in such beautiful, colorful patterns and topped with intricate stucco work.
You can go upstairs to look out the little windows over the courtyard, and when I went up there I discovered even more beautiful hidden nooks. So many details everywhere!
Another thing I really loved about our visit to Ben Youssef Madrasa was that we were able to get a truly unique souvenir there. There was a calligrapher who had a table set up in the courtyard where you could get your name written [phonetically] in Arabic. We thought that was so cool! So, of course, we got one that says “Randolph & Michelle.” I’m so excited to frame it and hang it in our house!
The last thing on my list for the day was not a very popular attraction. Like a lot of the architecture we had seen during this day, Douiria Mouassine is an example of Saadian (late 16th/early 17th century) style. Unlike the other buildings we’d seen, though, it wasn’t a palace or university. It is actually a house, nestled within the maze of the souks. And when I say “maze,” I mean it. We did alright with all of our other navigating (naviguessing?) during the day. But we could not, for the life of us, find our way to Douiria Mouassine. We kept circling our way through the same alleys of the souks looking for paths that only existed on Google Maps (not in the real world). Even though we’d been determined not to require the assistance of locals (who will take it upon themselves to guide your way and then insist upon a payment), we eventually relented when a young boy offered his directional guiding services to us. He led us there, we paid him, all was good. And yeah… we would never have found it on our own. Lesson learned: sometimes you need to just suck it up and ask for help.
The museum was empty except for us – they even had to turn on the lights for us because they had timed out in some rooms. This seems to be a very under-the-radar sight. And very new, actually. The house was purchased by its current owner in 2012, who discovered that hidden under decades (centuries?) worth of plaster and paint was beautiful historic painting and carving. I think the museum would have been better in bright daylight (it was starting to get a little dark by then), but it was beautiful just the same. It’s not a huge place, but it has a nice rooftop cafe that I imagine would also make it nicer to visit midday. There was a TV playing a video of some of the restoration, including the process of chiseling plaster out of the intricate designs in the walls. It’s so mind-boggling that anyone would have filled it in to begin with! This was actually the most expensive sight of the day, at $3. Some people might take issue with that, since it’s so small. But given that you’re helping fund a beautifully-done restoration that utilized traditional methods, Moroccan artisans, and local traditional materials… I was OK with that.
Since that was the end of our long day of sight-seeing (phew!) we were ready to have some dinner and relax! I had made a reservation for us at NOMAD, which serves what they call “Modern Moroccan,” a marriage of Moroccan and European cuisines. The restaurant seems to be on most lists of great restaurants in Marrakech, so it seemed like a good place for our one “nice” meal of the trip. Surprisingly, it is located in the middle of the souks, just off a busy little square. It was definitely very delicious and my platter of veggie dishes was so fresh tasting. The only thing that was missing from my meal was a glass of wine. Like many restaurants in Marrakech, they don’t serve alcohol. It seems that you generally have to venture into the new part of the city to find any alcohol (more on that later).
…which is what led to us venturing into the new city in search of wine. I had done a quick Google search to see where to get wine. We found a French chain grocery store that was not too far out of the way going back to the riad. When we got there, though, we discovered that they stop selling wine at 8 pm. It was well past that. Bummer. We had seen La Boucherie, a wine bar, nearby, so we wound up going there and trying some Moroccan white wine. It was OK, not amazing. We found better wine another day, but I’ll get to that later. We sat on the inclosed patio at La Boucherie, and it was very peaceful since we were the only ones out there. When I walked inside the restaurant to use the restroom, it was smoky and loud (live music), although I was probably extra sensitive from being sick.
That was the conclusion of Day Two and we went back to the riad to rest up for the exciting day ahead of us!
When the four of us had discussed plans for the trip we were all interested in doing some sort of day trip. We wound up deciding that Essaouira was most feasible. It is a small walled city on the western coast of Morocco, surrounded by beautiful beaches. Our initial plan had been to take the Supratours bus, which would have cost around $15 round trip. After talking with Youssef when we checked in at our riad, we decided to have him arrange a private car for us. It was shockingly affordable to hire a car for the whole day, even for a trip that was about 2.5 hours in each direction – 120€ total for all 4 of us. Even though that is about double the price of the bus, it was still very affordable and would be much easier. We got picked up/dropped off at our riad, set our own departure times, and had the freedom to make stops along the way if we wanted (you’ll see soon why that part was important!).
Just the experience of riding in a car outside of Marrakech was notable in and of itself. First of all, I’m simultaneously amazed and baffled by the way Moroccans drive. It seems so disorderly – floating between lanes, using left turn lanes to go straight. And don’t even get me started on what happens in traffic circles. For the first 10 minutes in the car the German inside me was horrified that no one was really following any of the rules that Americans/Europeans would consider pretty standard. Yet, somehow, it works. It is the most orderly disorderly driving you could ever imagine. I noticed a shocking lack of aggression in drivers, which I think is what made the lawlessness work. It was truly a sight to behold!
Aside from my fascination with the driving style, I was spending the car ride trying to take everything in as we drove by. On the outskirts of Marrakech we even drove past a dealership for John Deere tractors, with a large John Deere sign partially in Arabic! My grandpa would love it, haha. I wish I had been able to take a picture of it for him.
As we went along we drove through quite a few towns. And, even aside from our end destination, I’m very glad we made a day trip. I feel like it gave us a better picture of average Moroccan people and an average Moroccan life. There were donkeys pulling carts down the edge of the road. Lots of them. There was a dead donkey that had been abandoned on the side of the road once he was no longer of use to his owner. And motorbikes pulling giant, overloaded trailers. There were workers walking down the side of the road. And kids, too (who were probably also workers). There were families standing out in the sun tending to their sheep in the sparsely vegetated fields. There were dried up riverbeds. There were clusters of plain, crumbling concrete buildings that had clearly seen better days. There were smalls markets and butchershops in the towns, packed with people just trying to get by.
It kind of puts things into perspective, you know? Like, all the people who lose their minds over what color a Starbucks cup is or whether they get enough guac in their burrito really need to see how other people live. It makes you realize that, no matter what, we really don’t have it so bad.
Another thing I found interesting about the drive is that there were fairly regular police check points along the road. Traffic would slow down to a snail’s pace going through the check points, but we were never actually stopped. From the little bit of info I’ve found online, it seems that tourists are irrelevant to them.
Eventually, once we were nearly to Essaouira, we finally got to the location of our requested stop: the Goat Tree. I had seen pictures of this tree several years ago and they were filed away somewhere in some dusty corner of my brain, without remembering that it was in Morocco. I honestly don’t think that at that point I ever really thought I’d get a chance to see it. It wasn’t until I saw pictures again only a few days before our trip that I realized that it was not only in Morocco, but along our path. This is really the main reason why we wound up doing the private car instead of the bus.
A little background on the Goat Tree phenomenon: the goats are climbing in an Argan tree. They chew up the nuts and poop out the undigested seeds. Which are then collected and turned into argan oil. Yes, really! This is the traditional method, although that’s not how most argan oil is produced these days, since demand is far too high to wait for goats to poop out seeds. So don’t worry – that argan oil you just rubbed on your face and hair didn’t originate in goat poop.
This particular tree is right along the main road, so our driver just pulled off to the edge and we piled out. Since this tree is fairly famous, there were other people who had made the stop. As soon as we started walking over to the tree I saw that one of the men tending the goats was holding a little baby one. I was like a moth to a flame. I cannot ever resist a cute baby animal! He immediately handed me the goat and it was just the sweetest, softest little thing! Eventually, I let Randolph have a turn cuddling the goat, too. The men there were so nice; they took photos for us and even encouraged us to climb into the tree. As is typical in Morocco, we gave them some money before we left. They sure have a nice little business going showing off their goats to tourists, but it was well worth it for that awesome stop! We reluctantly said goodbye to the goats when a big tour group rolled up in their matching t-shirts and unrolled a banner to take pictures with… ugh.
It wasn’t much farther to Essaouira and we had our driver drop us off at the port. It was almost like going back in time. There were so many cool looking boats, of varying sizes. And there were boats in dry dock being built and repaired. As in, very old school wood boats that look like they are very, very old.
All along the pier fishing boats were bringing in their catch and taking it to the line of stands selling the super fresh seafood. There was quite a variety of fish and eels and even one little shark. There was a stand with raw oysters to eat fresh that I really wanted to go to, but we didn’t get a chance. I mean, it doesn’t get fresher than that, right??
Along the port is the old wall that runs around the city. We climbed up on it and walked a bit, taking some pictures of the view. The inner side of the wall is white and all the doors along it (storage sheds?) were painted a vivid blue. It was a really beautiful combination, especially in a seaside city.
We were in a bit of a hurry as we explored the port, since we only had a little time before we needed to walk to a different area to meet our ride for our next activity: a camel ride! We all wanted to ride camels while in Morocco, but my personal stipulation was that I needed to know that they were well-loved and well-taken care of. I did quite a bit of research and even though there are places in Marrakech that you can ride a camel (a little weird and suspect, since it’s a large city…), my research led me to Ranch de Diabat. They have a ton of glowing reviews on Trip Advisor and everyone on there agreed that these are happy and loved animals, plus the ride is along a beach. I was sold. It turned out to be even better that I had expected!
We did a two-hour ride and I loved every minute! First impression of camels: they are T A L L! I don’t think you can really get a sense of how tall they are until you’re standing next to one. Or sitting on one when it stands up… holy moly! What I love the most about them, though, is that they are incredibly sassy! I love animals with huge personalities, and these camels fit the bill. The noise they make is so funny – something along the lines of Chewbacca crossed with a violently grumbling stomach. The guide knows each of the camels very well and was having entire conversations with them while they talked back to him. It was amazing! He also told us some cool facts about camels: their feet are kind of like pillowy showshoes (for walking on sand) and they can eat razor-sharp plants without injury. They are truly fascinating. On our way to the beach, we passed by the ruins of an old palace built in the late 1700s that was used during filming for Game of Thrones (season 3, I believe, since that’s when they filmed in Essaouira).
Our camels slowly plodded along and we reached the beach. We stopped a couple times and our guide took some amazing photos for us. He really knew what he was doing! He led the camel-train into the water, which was both cool and disorienting. For about 10 seconds I couldn’t tell which direction we were moving because of the water swooshing around us.
Evidence of the hilarious noises camels make:
Eventually, we looped back toward the ranch and we said our goodbyes to those beautiful creatures. I am SO glad that I found Ranch de Diabat for our camel ride. It was truly everything I was looking for and then some. And I was so glad to meet some happy, loved camels. It was perfect.
Once the ranch’s driver dropped us back in Essaouira (a 5-10 minute drive) we wound up splitting up. Lunch was eaten (…and some gelato…) and Randolph and I did a little exploring. And I bought some Aragon oil!
We climbed around a little in the rocky area between the city wall and the water. The sun was starting to go down, so I snapped some nice pictures. When we were first walking on that beach/rock area I saw a ton of broken glass, which was a bit off-putting. But then I looked closer and realized that there were also some little bits of broken tiles, too. I managed to find two big pieces of broken tile. I think they’re from on the old wall, since one of them looks like what we’d seen earlier on the wall. I have no idea how old they are (possibly fairly old?), but they’re cool looking and I was very excited to find them.
Once we returned back to the riad we were in need of some dinner, but we weren’t looking to venture very far in search of food after our long day. Youssef and a couple of his friends were hanging out in the courtyard playing acoutic instruments and they graciously invited us to join them for some wine and music, knowing that it was a holiday eve for us (Christmas Eve). After we enjoyed a little relaxation, Youssef directed us toward an area near the riad where we could find good street food.
This area (Rue Bab Doukala, just inside the old city wall) was an excellent local food find! I will preface my description by saying that you definitely have to let go of any notions you have of Western health/cleanliness standards. I guarantee that any American Health Inspector would be horrified and shut these places down in 5 seconds flat. But 1. we made sure to only eat things that were well-cooked 2. the ingredients were insanely fresh and 3. live a little, right? Just don’t ever look too closely or think too much about it.
After assessing the options, Randolph and Dave settled on a grill stand that was pumping out smoky, grilled meat aromas. They selected some beef kebabs to have freshly grilled up and made into sandwiches in Moroccan pita-like bread. Since I don’t eat meat, we located the one seafood stand and I got a similar sandwich made with little fish cakes. I don’t know what was in those fish cakes, but between the spices and the smokiness from the grill – they were super tasty. Randolph declared that they tasted like little burgers (pretty sure that was the smoke and spices he was tasting). He and Dave were both in love with their own food. They were totally raving about it! We ate our food walking back to the riad and had very happy tummies. And I’m happy to say that none of us had any adverse reactions to eating street food.
I had kept this day relatively open on the schedule, knowing that we would want lots of time to spend shopping for cool things in the souks. The couple of things we did have on the itinerary were for in the morning, so we’d be free the rest of the day.
We started by going to Jardin Majorelle, which every Marrakech guidebook mentions. The photos of the vivid blue and yellow building are beyond enticing for any tourist, plus the fact that it was owned by a famous fashion designer (Yves Saint Laurent) for several decades.
I had been pretty excited for Jardin Majorelle because it looks so spectacularly colorful in pictures. To be honest, though, it was a bit of a let-down after everything else we’d seen. If it weren’t for the brightly colored paint, the building wouldn’t be anything interesting. After all of the amazing old Moroccan architecture we’d seen on previous days this was totally mundane. It was cool that it was surrounded by a garden filled with cacti and succulents, but it wasn’t nearly as big of a garden as I’d imagined. And at 70 MAD ($7) per person (just for the garden – $3 more for the tiny YSL museum), it was astronomically expensive compared to every other admission price we’d paid. I mean, I hate to quibble over a $7 admission price, but they know very well that this isn’t the going rate for attractions in Marrakech. They also know very well that all of the dumb Western tourists will pay it for the privilege of visiting the place with a famous fashion designer’s name stamped on it, and pretty colored walls that they saw pictures of all over the internet. They certainly have good marketing. Considering all the incredible, glorious architecture we’d been able to see for a mere $1 admission fee… this kinda screamed “tourist trap.” We took a few pictures (as best we could with the hoards of tourists packed into the garden), and left. I was disappointed. My advice is: go if you really want, but keep your expectations low.
After this, Kate went off on her own and Randolph, Dave, and I headed off in search of the Tanneries. This area of Marrakech feels pretty “real.”
This was the one time we wound up hiring a “tour guide” to show us around, since you can’t see inside the tanneries otherwise. I’d read up on the tanneries, so I knew what I was getting into. I knew that the guides give you a sprig of mint to hold up to your nose. It was not enough. The tanneries are outdoors in big concrete courtywards, enclosed behind walls. There are big piles of animals skins in various stages, and concrete vats built into the ground. You would think that the skins would be the source of the stank, but they’re not. Or, at least, not the most offensive stank. The worst was the fermented pigeon poop, used to soften the hides and loosen the hair. It. was. rank. I mean, A+ for using something eco-friendly and readily available but… it was putrid.
Like any unauthorized guide, he then dutifully took us to a leather shop and a Moroccan pharmacy (herbs, spices), presumably both owned by family or friends. We thanked them all for their time, paid our guide, and departed.
For lunch, we wound up at Café des Épices, which is off a square in the middle of the souks. It’s touristy, but we’d heard good things and knew where it was and it avoided the trouble of trying to find someplace else that looked acceptable. The one thing I particularly enjoyed there was spiced coffee. I honestly didn’t know that was a thing! I’m going to have to try making it at home, now, with this recipe I found. I always prefer my coffee iced, so I’d definitely be interested to try it iced, as well – I think it would be really tasty like that!
So. Now it was shopping time. We had to kind of psych ourselves up for the task, since we’d already gotten a little glimpse of how intense it could be. Shopping in the souks is an exercise in will power and mental stamina. The sellers are hardcore hagglers. It is tough to do if you’re not used to such a shopping procedure. I did try to do a little haggling, myself, but if you’re with men it seems the sellers will always default to them. So poor Randolph wound up doing pretty much all of it. By the end of the day I felt bad for him, since it gets really taxing after the first couple times.
My two “must have” purchases for the trip were a pendant-style metal lantern and a small rug. I knew exactly what I was looking for style-wise for each of them, so the trick was finding that.
Now, there’s certainly no shortage of lanterns and chandeliers in the souks. But the majority of them weren’t what I was after. I had a certain style in mind – something much simpler than most of what you see hanging in every shop. On our first full day when we walked through the souks I had seen one I liked. I took a photo and asked the price. It was, of course, way too high. When we returned on this day to bargain the price down, I discovered that the lantern was actually made of silver. Therefore, impossible to get down to a low enough price. The owner of the shop was quite nice and not at all aggressive, but I knew that there was no way I could get a silver lantern into the price range I was looking for. Because that was the only lantern of that style I’d seen, I would up feeling really bummed and thinking that I wasn’t going to leave Morocco with a lantern. Later in the day, as we were almost done with our shopping, Randolph spotted one in another little lighting shop. In addition to not being silver, I actually liked the style of this one better! We bargained the price down to under-budget and I walked away very happy!
Randolph was kind of terrified of rug shopping. The biggest problem is that because the rugs are folded up and stacked in the shops, you’re dependent on the shop keepers to even be able to look at what the selection is. We ventured into a couple small shops where the salesmen laid out their available options according to what I requested. I was looking for a runner to go under a long, decorative bench in our house. This proved a difficult request. After taking a few minutes to walk away and discuss, we wound up returning to the first shop for a beautiful little rug we’d seen. It is a traditional Berber Beni Ourain style rug, made of natural (undyed) sheep’s wool. It wasn’t quite as long of a runner as I’d been looking for, but I layered it over a woven fabric rug (…from Ikea, haha…) and it looks perfect!
We also wound up buying some leather goods, since it’s so insanely cheap there. Randolph found a gorgeous leather weekend bag and I found a little purse (and Dave got a leather backpack at the same shop).
I saw a lot of these type of baskets as we walked around and I’m kind of a sucker for things with a pop of color, so I got one for myself.
We also bought some gifts, but I can’t say anything about those yet, since they haven’t all been delivered to the recipients, yet!
I feel like we bought a decent amount, and I guess we kind of did. But that was the plan – this is why we went cheap and simple with our Thanksgiving trip. Because we knew we’d want to get lots of cool things in Morocco. We were limited to what we could fit into a small suitcase, though, so I wasn’t able to go too crazy!
After our brains were done with shopping and we couldn’t spend another second haggling, we made our way back to the riad with our purchases. We wound up deciding to go back and have more of the same street food as the previous night. I got my same fish patty sandwich and Randolph got his same beef skewer sandwich, but Dave went adventurous. He’d asked the night before if he could bring his own meat to be grilled and the answer was yes. So, this time, he went to one of the butcher counters next door and picked out what was think was lamb/goat chops. The meat at those butchers is extremely fresh. I’m pretty sure most of it was still walking on its own that morning. Unlike the previous night, this time we sat down at one of the tables next to the grill. The owners definitely remembered us from the previous night (it was pretty obvious, since this was not a touristy place at all), and seemed delighted that we’d returned. They really rolled out the red carpet, bringing all four of us mint tea (even though Kate & I brought our fish sandwiches over from the other stand). Other people eating there had mint tea but, unlike theirs, our glasses of tea were packed full of fresh mint leaves. The wonderful food and warm welcome will not be soon forgotten.
We also ventured back to the grocery store we had tried to buy wine at. This time it was early enough that the section with alcohol was still open. I bought a bottle of red wine, which we opened back at the riad. I enjoyed this one much more than the white wine from the wine bar. I wound up buying a bottle of Moroccan red wine at the airport duty free right before we left, which is now on our wine rack along with other wines from our travels.
Long before we departed on our trip I had reserved this final morning for a Moroccan spa experience. I tried to talk Randolph into doing it, too, but he declined.
I had booked a dual treatment: a traditional Moroccan hammam and a massage. A hammam is basically a super intense full body scrub. You’re in this little room laying on a heated stone slab. It was a bit hot for me, so the lady gave me a matt to lay on to buffer the heat a bit. The ceiling is a tall, egg-shaped dome, so cool condensation collects on it and then drips back down, cooling you off and keep the room from getting too steamy. She coated my whole body in some sort of mask and left me to steam for a little bit, then came back to scrub it all off. I think I can safely say that there was not a single inch of my body that wasn’t thoroughly exfoliated – literally. Once the hammam was over, I was led to a beautiful indoor fabric tent – the kind of big, drapey tent you would expect to see in a dessert. It was filled with piles of cushions and I spent a few minutes lounging in the cool air while enjoying water, mint tea, and coconut cookies. Then another lady came to take me back downstairs to my massage. It was so perfectly relaxing that I was on the verge of dozing off! When I left they even gave me a little goodie bag with my hammam scrub mitt and a bar of scented soap.
Randolph and Dave were waiting there at the spa when I was done. We had just a little bit of extra time to kill before we went to the airport. As we wandered through some souks we passed Terrasse des Épices, which I had just seen mentioned in a magazine at the spa, so we went there for a little snack and coffee. It was rather pricey, so I’m glad we weren’t looking to get a full meal there. This was definitely a restaurant intended for tourists, which was kind of off-putting to me.
After our snack we wound up back near Ben Youssef Madrasa and, after I made a quick stop for some postcards, we decided to go to the Musée de Marrakech. It had been on my list of “secondary attractions”, since the reviews I had read convinced me that it wasn’t a top priority. While it was beautiful inside, I do think I was right to put it farther down on my list. It’s a good place to go once you’ve exhausted all the “must see” sights, as we did.
After we left the museum, we spotted a man with a giant cart of undyed yarn. I had tried to find the part of the souks where you can see colorful yarn hanging, but couldn’t find it. So we followed the yarn cart for a while, but eventually gave up. I think this was a weirdly fun way to end our time in Marrakech, though: stalking a yarn cart.
We stopped back at the riad to get our bags, and headed off to the airport. After a few frustrations and delays, we got on our plane back and we were welcomed home with some lovely freezing rain. Thanks, Germany…
Another post will be coming very soon about our trip to Vienna for New Years! I promise that one won’t take nearly as long to finish up as this Morocco one. I just have way too many cool pictures from Morocco!