Tuesday, August 9, 2011

First Visit to Marrakech

Now that we are back from our second trip out of town to visit Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Chefchaouen, I must do a quick write-up of our overnight trip to Marrakesh (Marrakech). Then I can allow myself to talk about our jaunt through the center of the country and the Rif Mountains.

Visiting Marrakesh can be done in a weekend, although, it will leave you wanting more. We will return, eventually. But there are so many more places to see.

I wanted to hate it – touristy, pushy sellers, and such – but I couldn’t. It was beautiful, it was fun, and our little oasis at Riad Bayti was just the relaxation we needed after a month in Casablanca.

First, I must mention the trains…

Morocco is a country with a wonderfully developed system of highways and trains. So, taking the train from Casablanca started out perfectly. We didn't get too ripped off by the petit cab on the way to Casa Voyagers; negotiating to use the meter helped considerably. We arrived early and since there were no seats next to each other in first class we opted to take our chances with second class. Now, we are always game for an adventure and I don't really consider myself a premier class sort, it’s generally twice the price, so I'd rather save the money and put it toward another trip. We knew we were doomed when the announcements started that the train (8:50am, first on Saturday) would be delayed. And delayed. And further delayed...

The train finally arrived at 10:50, the time of the usual second train of the day, so the chaos that erupted pushed us onto the train in standing-room-only for the three-hour trek. A smile will help get you someone's armrest to perch on, but it took hours before a woman got off at one of the intermediary stops, allowing me to sit. She had motioned for a man standing next to me to take the seat and seemed quite angry when he gave the seat to me.. I must get used to those cultural differences. Was it because I am clearly foreign, because I’m a woman.. I don’t know. I sat down and immediately fell asleep.

Once we arrived in Marrakesh we found another petit taxi and negotiated a good price to take us to the Bab Mullah - the Jewish quarter – and paid a local man a few dirhams to show us down the winding alleys of the souk to our riad. The heat was not unbearable and soon we were walking to the Djamaa el Fna Square and into the many souks to wander. The medina is manageable and relatively clean, cleaner than Casablanca anyway, and not so confusing that you necessarily need to hire a guide. It was the artisans who stole my heart; hammering iron lanterns, tanning leather, dying wool, the city is alive and while most of the crafts go to fuel tourist influx of cash, there was an authenticity. These are not cheap souvenirs.

So, we did end up finally buying a few pieces for our home that will remind us of our trip. I have a weakness for textiles and the carpets are just amazing. Through the long negotiation process Val got them down to below 1/3 the original asking price, so everyone was happy. The experience of carpet buying is fun; the setting was a beautiful old mansion, the tea was sweet and packed with fresh mint, and the salesman, Driss, was friendly and the haggling was tough, but going from 10,000 DH to 3,000 we felt satisfied with ourselves, and walked out with the most amazing carpet we had seen yet. Don’t try to haggle for carpets in Marrakesh if you aren’t up for the challenge.

For dinner, the lovely restaurant Tangia, near Riad Bayti in the Bab Mullah, is a wonderful option for a fancy meal out. If you are feeling a bit travel weary and are not sure your stomach can handle the food stalls in the square, Tangia’s pigeon pastilla is just perfect. Although, my sister once referred to the Moroccan pastilla as a chicken donut, the dusting of powdered sugar over the meat pie is really spectacular. The sampler of Moroccan salads will leave not one of your taste buds un-teased. We finished the meal with a lamb tagine with figs, no complaints to sip our tea and watch the belly dancers before retiring back to the terrace at Riad Bayti for the evening.

Sunday, we walked to souks, bought some fragrant spices and tea, and took a first-class train car home. I’ll go half as often if that means I have a seat and a drink cart to bring me some strong, hot coffee.

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