Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Marrakesh, day 1

Last week we took a little train trip...south from Rabat...through Casablanca (just another big city so of no special interest to us, despite the fame of that old Bogart movie)...about 5 Marrakesh.  While the train rocked down the rails at a fast clip, I would not call this the Marrakesh Express.  The return train trip would take us through Fes and we probably should have stopped there for a night or 2 to check out the ancient city, but we skipped it and continued on back to Rabat.  Others in the marina did visit both Casablanca and Fes and recommended both.  We just weren't particularly interested in seeing anywhere except Marrakesh.

Shade canopies over courtyard
A cruising friend had shared with me a link to the blog of one of her friends who had visited Marrakesh just last year.  That couple had enjoyed their riad so much that we wanted to stay in the same place.  A riad is a Moroccan home, often a home of a wealthy merchant in years past, which has been converted to a small hotel.  The hotel we chose was the Riad Agurzame, which I found while attempting to make a reservation is sometimes also spelled Riad Aguerzame.  A riad typically has an open center courtyard with no roof.  The high-walled exterior is plain, usually stucco, and sometimes downright ugly; but the interior is quite different!  This is the typical Arabic style of architecture -- very plain outside and very nice inside.  Link to Riad Aguerzame

Bill at front door to our riad
We had pre-arranged taxi transport from the train station to the riad, but the taxi dropped us off a distance equivalent to several city blocks from the hotel, over near the Bahia Palace. The streets from that point to the riad were too narrow for cars so there was no option other than to walk.  A guy with a cart loaded up our bags and we followed him down the narrow streets and alleyways.  Our bags could have been rolled easily enough but the streets are dirty and dusty, so engaging the cart-guy was a good idea.  One of the 'main' streets was undergoing water pipe repair with dirt piles all around; good thing it was not raining or this would have been a muddy mess.  As it was, the construction work provided a good landmark for us to remember where to turn to find our hotel.  The cart guy made a left turn and we followed him down a street that was cleaner, the took the first right-hand turn and this placed us at the front door of the Riad Ajurzame.  I was glad we had arrived during mid-afternoon and were able to see the area during daylight; this helped us get familiar with the area so that venturing out later that evening did not feel too adventurous. 

Bill coming out of our riad onto street
Door to a newer riad
The entrance door opened into a small area, from which one goes to the right and then left into the courtyard.  The courtyard is never visible to the outside world from the front door. This particular entry door is situated very low; one must bend to step inside the riad.  I learned later that this low type doorway is a telling mark of an older building.  

Door to a newer riad
Only new buildings have doorways that have their threshold at street level.  There were no public water or sewer pipes when this area was first constructed several hundred years ago.  When the public water supply and sewer pipes were added later the only option was to run these pipes down the center of the narrow streets and alleyways, thus raising the street level substantially from the base level of the homes.  We asked if flooding was ever a problem as a result of the streets being so much higher than the homes and were told that flooding has never been an issue.  Guess it does not rain much here.

Courtyard of Riad Ajurzame

We were greeted by a nice quiet young man named Saeed and he invited us to sit in the courtyard and enjoy a welcoming beverage and snacks while he placed the luggage in our room upstairs.  The courtyard was lovely.  There were a couple of large orange trees and lots of plants, along with seating and lounging areas filled with low cushions.  As I wrote already, the courtyard had no roof and was open to the sky, but did have several large cloth canopy strips which provided welcome shade.  A very welcoming space.

Small section of rooftop terrace of our riad

Later I walked up to the terrace on the rooftop.  Several nice places to relax up there.

Looking onto courtyard from
window of our room

Bill looking out window
of our room into courtyard

Area at one end of courtyard of the riad
Lounging area and office at opposite end of courtyard

As Bill sipped his beer and I gulped a much needed bottle of water, soon we were joined by Aziz, who I believe is the manager of the riad, a very charming young man.  Aziz talked with us,showed us maps of the city, and provided ideas of things to see and places to eat.  Much appreciated by us because we did not have a tourist guide book for Marrakesh.  He also advised us about what to be careful about in the crowded areas; he was a fountain of information provided with a constant smile.  We agreed on a time of 8pm for dinner.  Then we went up to our room to freshen up before setting out to explore Marrakesh by foot.

Part of our room at Riad Ajurzame
Marrakesh is the fourth largest city in Morocco, and is possibly the most important of Morocco's 4 former imperial cities which were built by Moroccan Berber empires.  This region has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times; but, as I related in my last blog posting, the city of Marrakesh was founded in 1062.  Marrakesh grew rapidly and established itself as a cultural, religious and trading center for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.  Like many Moroccan cities, Marrakesh is comprised by an old fortified city packed with vendors and their stalls which is called the medina, bordered by modern neighborhoods.  Aziz told us that there are some 200,000 people living in the old city, an area that covers only 4 kilometers by 3 kilometers (2.5 miles by 1.8 miles).  That does not sound like such an impressive population number when compared to modern cities with high-rise apartments; but these people live either on ground level or up only 1 story.  So this is quite a crowded area of Marrakesh.  The city leaders have encouraged people to move out and many tall buildings have been built to accommodate residences, but the people prefer to live as they have for hundreds of years inside the crowded old city area.

A colorful wall of carpets for sale.
The major economy of Marrakesh is centered on tourism.  Tourism is strongly advocated by the King Mohammed VI, his goal being to double the number of tourists visiting Morocco to 20 million annually by year 2020.  Marrakesh is particularly popular with the French and numerous French celebrities own property in the city.  Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco.  In fact, there are some 18 souks in Marrakesh, selling literally everything one might want.  (Sorry to friends and family; we did not buy any souvenirs so don't expect any gifts from Marrakesh.)

The busiest square in all of Africa is located in Marrakesh: the Jemaa el-Fnaa.  And that is where we headed first.  The origin of the name of this square is unclear.  Jemaa means "congregation" in Arabic, which probably refers to a destroyed very old mosque.  Fana or fina can mean "death" or "a courtyard or space in front of a building."  So, the meaning could be "the congregation of death."  Another explanation is that Jemaa el-Fnaa translates to "assembly of the dead" which could refer to the public executions on this plaza around 1050 A.D.  Today this plaza is filled with vendors and food stalls, along with trained monkeys and snake charmers and various entertainers.  And pickpockets.  Lots and lots of highly skilled pickpockets.

Here is a photo of the Jemaa el-Fnaa which comes from the Wikipedia website.  This looks like an older photo because to me the area looks different today.

Lots of trained monkeys around the plaza.  Pay for photo.
Bill and I walked what seemed like miles, just exploring the old city and ending at the main square just after sunset.  We had been told that one must visit this plaza at least once during the daytime and again during the evening, as the experience is different during days and nights. As the evening deepened, the plaza changed to become more filled with entertainers.  The guys with the trained monkeys and the snake charmers gathered their animals and reptiles and left.  The entertainers took over the open spaces.  And the food stalls filled with customers seeking dinner.  

Masks must be a popular sales item.
These were everywhere.
We opted not to chance eating at any street vendors and stuck to recommended restaurants and cafes during our 4 days there.

Small group of African musicians and dancers

This guy REALLY wanted me to take his photo.
10 dirham, please.

Everyone here expects to be paid if someone takes their photo.  And never take a photo without asking permission first.  If they say okay, then agree on a price or you might find yourself with an angry man insisting on more than you wish to pay.  Helpful advice that Aziz had provided to us before we ventured out to explore.

A tajine.  The typical method of
cooking those delicious Moroccan
All that walking after a 5-hour train trip had worn us out and we were glad to get back to the riad for dinner.  We had arranged only 1 dinner at the riad.  I have forgotten what was served as an appetizer but do remember the delicious spicy soup accompanied by plump, moist and luscious medjool dates.  The main course was a tajine of turkey meat cooked with tiny grapes.  It was delicious!  The spices used were unusual. 
A dinner plate at the riad.  I liked this pattern and
would love to buy a set of these porcelain dishes.
These are manufactured in Fes.  I shopped for
these in Marrakesh but could not find this pattern.

The meal was accompanied by a delightful red wine made near Fes.  Okay, that was a surprise.  Had no idea that any wine was produced in Morocco.  And it really was good.  Aziz said we were allowed 2 bottles of wine with dinner.  Seriously?  We cannot drink 2 bottles of matter how good it tastes.  We told him to keep the second bottle for someone else.  Desert was a slice of 3 layered ice creams made there in the riad.  Decadence.  We enjoyed this meal very much and now I must buy a tajine!  
Judy and Aziz in front of Riad Agurzame

I did not take a cooking class in Marrakesh (although this was HIGHLY recommended), but I think I can learn Moroccan cooking on my own.  But first must buy a tajine.

1 comment:

  1. Marrakesh, Morrocco ... would love to visit there someday! Still enjoying your blog!


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