Sunday, June 22, 2014

Moroccan Adventure: Part 1

At the end of May, Kyle and I met our friend, Jason, for an amazing trip to Morocco.  We spent a week there and had an incredible experience.  We saw a little bit of everything; big cities, small Berber villages, mountains, waterfalls and deserts as well as meeting some wonderful people.  

You would think it would be pretty easy to get to Morocco from Stuttgart, but the journey took a lot longer than you would guess.  Our flight left Stuttgart at 6am (ugh) and we had an hour flight to Amsterdam.  Our layover in Amsterdam was supposed to be 3 hours, but our flight was delayed and the layover grew to 5 hours.  We finally left Amsterdam and flew into Casablanca.  From there, we were catching a train to get to Marrakech.  Because of the flight delay, we missed the train that we were wanting to catch.  Luckily, there was a later train that we still had to hustle to catch.  It was a four hour train ride from Casablanca to Marrakech.  The train was nice enough, but it was pretty hot!  We had some great views from the train of dry, arid mountains covered by cacti and sheep grazing while being watched by shepherds.  That's not something we're used to seeing!

 We finally made it to Marrakech at about 8 pm (9 pm German time).  At the train station, we met up with a driver who would take us to our riad.  (A riad is a type of house that is built around an open courtyard.  Now, a lot of riads have been turned into hotels.)  We quickly figured out that Morocco is not a place that we would want to attempt driving!  They drive like no one else is on the road!  Our driver drove us through the old city walls to the medina, or the old historic part of town.  It was right about dusk and we heard the evening call to prayer as we drove past the Koutoubia mosque.  It was a really neat way to be welcomed to the city.  

The Marrakech Train Station

Once we arrived, we were served delicious mint tea in the courtyard as we waited for our dinner.  They served us an amazing meal of tomato salad, eggplant salad, harira soup, chicken tajine with lemon and olives, and an assortment of cute little pastries for dessert.  We were pretty worn out after the long journey, so we went to sleep early.  We were definitely looking forward to meeting up with Jason the next afternoon!

After a tasty breakfast on the roof terrace, we had a couple of hours before Jason arrived.  We didn't want to see too much without him, so we headed up the busy main pedestrian street to the huge town square called Jemaa el-fna.  It is a fascinating place to just stand around and people watch.  The square is bustling with people doing all sorts of things like snake charming, offering henna, selling fresh orange juice, selling dentures, dancing, playing music, showing dressed up monkeys, etc.  You have to be careful when taking pictures, because most of these people will want money if they're in the picture, and they have eyes like hawks!  The snake charmer caught our eyes, and before we knew it, Kyle had two snakes around his neck and the guy had Kyle's camera snapping pictures for us!  I'm sure glad it wasn't me that they put the snakes on!

Breakfast on the terrace

From the town square we walked to the nearby Koutoubia mosque.  The original mosque built there dates back to 1147, but has gone through many changes.  Most mosques can only be entered by Muslims, so we just admired the beauty from the outside.

We had just a little bit of time before Jason arrived, so we had a drink at a restaurant.  Muslims do not drink alcohol, so it's not all that common in Arab countries.  However, restaurants and hotels in touristy areas serve it to the visiting westerners.  Morocco actually produces some nice wine!

We hadn't seen Jason in almost a year when we took a trip to Croatia, so it was great to see him!  (We really missed his fiance, Liz, though!)  We headed to a restaurant overlooking the square for lunch.  For some reason our funny server kept saying stuff as if he were a goat!

Delicious cous cous with veggies

Our view from lunch

After lunch we headed to the winding, narrow streets to visit the souks (specialty shops).  The souks in Morocco are well known for their hand made crafts such as leather, metal work, rugs, etc.  It was so interesting wandering through the maze-like streets.  There were so many things to look at, and so many smells!  You have the yummy scents of spices and grilled meats followed by the smells of the donkeys that they use to transport goods...(You get the picture.)  Our bonus was that Jason speaks Arabic, making communication 100 times easier, and it made people treat us better as well.

The covered streets are a great escape from the heat!

One of the souks we visited was a pharmacy/herbalist.  They sat us down, served us mint tea and gave us a huge presentation about their products.  They had all sorts of herbs, spices, essential oils, teas and cosmetics.  If you have an ailment, they have a cure for you!  (They even have a tea for ladies only to give you "big tits," in the words of the pharmacist.)  We bought some tea and argan oil, which is produced in Morcco.

He cleared our sinuses with black cumin seeds in a was like sniffing horseradish!

After our shopping we toured the beautiful and intricate Ben Youssef Madrasa, which was an Islamic college dating back to the 14th century.  Pictorial representations are forbidden in Islam, so their architecture is decorated in intricate geometric patterns, mosaics, carvings and calligraphy.  The colors and patterns are really incredible.  

I spy a Jason head sticking out of the wall...

And a Kyle head, too!  (Jason's pic)

(Jason's pic)

We were all ready for a break after that, so we headed back to the riad to have some beer on the terrace before going to dinner.  At dusk, the huge town square becomes a night market.  Vendors come and set up temporary "restaurants" and entertainers come out to try to make some money.  We went to the vendor that was rated on Trip Advisor.  As we made our way there, we were bombarded by people with menus trying to get us to eat at their place.  I was glad to go to the one with the crowd since that meant that they had high turnover on their food, and it was less likely that the food had been sitting out for long, or even for a couple of nights.  (Which we heard was the case for some of these places.  Not good in summer heat!)  The food was very good, very cheap, and very quick!

Picking out our box of honey and nut pastries for dessert

The next day we ventured out across the old town to check out a different area.  It seemed much more like where the locals live and do business.  We walked through interesting food markets and some ancient looking buildings.

Bab (gate) Agnaou, 12th century

We also checked out the Bahia Palace, a newer 19th century palace and garden complex meant to exemplify Islamic and Moroccan architecture.  It was definitely a beautiful oasis in the middle of the busy city.

Reading up on the history

We had lunch on a sunny terrace next to the palace before making our way back to the riad for a little bit of rest during the afternoon heat.

Then we were ready to see the new part of town.  The "new town" has some really nice, impressive buildings, fountains, luxurious hotels, restaurants and sidewalk cafes.  It's probably where the young (and wealthy) Moroccans prefer to hang out.

Heading back to the old town, surrounded by historic red walls

We walked back to our riad in the old town and enjoyed some wine and a hookah before heading out to our amazing dinner.  (The hookah has flavored tobacco filtered through water.  Don't worry Mom, I'm not addicted :-)  The manager of our riad took us to a restaurant, just around the corner.  It was on a terrace overlooking the city.  There were musicians playing traditional music and belly dancers.  The food was delicious, but the view of Marrakech at dusk was the best part.  Hearing the evening call to prayer gives the city such an atmosphere.

Our amazing view at dinner (Too bad Kyle only had his iPhone with him!)

Jason's pic

If you listen closely you can hear the evening call to prayer in the video below.

We booked an excursion through the riad for our last day in Marrakech.  We were going to the Ourika valley in the High Atlas mountains.  It was about an hour and a half drive to get to the valley.  Along the way, we passed traditional Berber villages (the Berbers were the people native to Morocco), herds of animals and people walking alongside of their donkeys hauling their loads.  As we waited for our mini bus to come pick us up, we watched the people go by, preparing for the day ahead.

We stopped along the way to Ourika for some photo ops.  The rivers create lush, green valleys through the dry High Atlas mountains.

We also stopped at an pharmacy/herbalist shop and garden on our way to the valley.  They showed us how argan oil is made, went on a tour of the herb garden, and we sat through another spiel about their products.  (I din't mind too much.  It's pretty interesting!)  They offered a shoulder massage to us using the argan oil.  Jason was the only one that accepted their offer, which I'm glad I didn't since they had him take off his shirt in front of the group!

The traditional way of making argan oil

Beautiful views from the top floor

When we arrived at the Ourika valley, we met up with a guide.  Little did we know that we were going on a rugged hike up a mountain!  I expected a little hike, but the description of the excursion said nothing about climbing rocks and cliffs on the side of a mountain!  A lot of us were not wearing the proper footwear, including a lady wearing flip flops that looked about 8 months pregnant!  (She ended up going barefoot most of the time!)  However, it was a beautiful hike alongside a river that ended at a scenic waterfall.  The guide helped to hoist people up through the tricky parts.  During the entire thing, we kept thinking that this would never happen in America without signing a waiver!  Another funny thing was that all along the hike people were set up selling crafts and drinks.  People were trying to make money off of tourists at every turn in Morocco!

One of many shady looking bridges that we crossed

Tajines at a "restaurant" near the beginning of the hike

Jason enjoys the road less traveled...

I guess now I know that I can do anything in those shoes!

Traffic jam on the ladder!  One of the ladies coming down (with a different group going the opposite way) refused to go any further, so she turned around and went back.

We just climbed up from down there!

Along the river valley there were a bunch of restaurants that had tables set up along the river bed.  We ate lunch at one of the river restaurants, and were even serenaded after our meal.

Jason's pic

On our way back to Marrakech, we stopped to tour a traditional Berber house.  A guide showed us around.  His family actually lives in this house and he makes some extra money by doing these tours!

Churning butter

The kitchen (and a cat)

We had made reservations at a hamam near our riad for when we returned from our excursions.  Hamams are "baths" that are popular in Arab countries.  We all got the traditional hamam treatment, luckily in private, which isn't always the case at hamams.  First you change out of your clothes and they give you a tiny, funny little pair of disposable bikini bottoms to put on.  That's all...this is not for the modest!  (Jason was separate from Kyle and I.)  Then we went in a steam room and laid on a hot marble slab.  A lady first rinses you, then rubs oil on you.  You lay there for a few minutes while the oil absorbs into your skin, then she rinses you and exfoliates your skin with a scrubby glove.  Then she washes your body and your hair.  We were in the steam room for about 30 minutes total.  Then we went to a different room for an hour long full body massage.  It was a great, relaxing experience, especially after an afternoon of rock climbing!  (There are no pictures of the hamam for obvious reasons!)

We had another great dinner at a nearby restaurant that evening.  The next day we would be heading out on a two day excursion through mountains, desert and forest to slowly make our way to the incredible city of Fes.  Moroccan blog post part 2, coming soon!

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