Sunday, March 27, 2016

Morocco: Marrakesh

Another action-packed day in Morocco! After not the greatest night's sleep (room is too hot, but keeping window/balcony door open means noise) I was glad breakfast was much better than in our last hotel. We boarded the bus at 8:30 and drove first to the gardens near the Koutoubia mosque and minaret. The minaret is Marrakesh's tallest structure, and the current mosque is built next to the foundation of the previous one, destroyed at the beginning of a new Berber dynasty to reinforce their power. The gardens were relatively quiet, with Seville orange trees bordering a lovely walking path. I think my favorite find was that one of the cell phone palm trees even featured fake dates to 'blend in'! We also met a group of traditional water sellers, men in elaborate costumes who would pass out water from their goatskin canteens in exchange for tips. While their profession is no longer thriving, they spend their days posing for and with tourists, who have given them coins from around the world that adorn their leather bags where the metal cups are stored.

Then it was off to the Saadian tombs, burial grounds for many of Morocco's royals from many centuries ago. The less important royals have mosaic-covered tombs on the grounds of the area, while the kings, queens, and royal children lie in three grand pavilions, each featuring mosaics, intricate plaster work, and painted cedar wood ceilings.

Next was the Bahia Palace, a Moorish-style palace that looks entirely ordinary from the outside. But step into the first courtyard, and you're greeted with lush courtyards with fountains, mosaics, and more plaster/stucco decorations. We meandered through the reception rooms, the ladies' quarters (including those of Bahia, the favorite wife), and the men's quarters. Each room had a ceiling of painter cedar wood in a different (very grand) style, so we spent much of the time looking up. A beautiful place.

I expected to be enthralled by Djemma al'Fna, the famed square in the heart of Marrakesh that is home to snake charmers, monkey trainers, henna artists, juice stands, and vendors of every imaginable trinket, but it really just made me a little sad. Granted we were there during the day, when it's not nearly as vibrant and busy at night, but the constant hassle by the vendors and the shakedowns for tips from the performers just felt icky. I had read about the Djemma and knew these pitfalls, but I had hoped to enjoy it more. Oh well. The walk to the square was along a street lined on both sides by horse-drawn carriages, each green and pink carriage drawn by two horses. For the most part they looked healthy, and our guide told us that each carriage owner typically has two teams, and he alternates them each day. He also said a veterinarian checks each pair in the morning to make sure they're faring well; if that's all true then it makes me feel a bit better. But I'm still a little leery.

The monkeys on chains dressed up in clothing and made to perform acrobatic tricks made me shudder, and the snake charmers weren't nearly as exotic as you might think. They batted at the snakes with a drum before beating the drum as some of the snakes listlessly reared up. Another man played the flute in the background. 

I was very glad to leave the square for our next destination, a Moroccan restaurant where we had a culinary demonstration and lunch. A lovely Berber woman showed us how to prepare the meats and vegetables that accompany couscous and then how to make the semolina balls themselves. It was fascinating. Semolina, white flour, water, and a lot of effort go into this tasty dish. 

We then ate couscous (not what we'd seen made, but previously-prepared versions) along with delicious Moroccan salads and cookies. It was a lovely, and filling, lunch.

Next we drove to the Majorelle Gardens, founded by the French painter and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. They feature gorgeous examples of desertscaping amidst a few water features and several gazebos. The deep indigo-blue villa is now a small but really impressive Berber museum featuring tools, clothing, and jewels. I really enjoyed the displays. 

Some of the group ventured into the medina for a couple more sites, but I had my fill of adventures for the day and headed back to the hotel for a nap. Sleep didn't come easily (hot room, noisy with the window open) so I checked email and got ready for dinner early.

Dinner was an optional excursion that I'd been on the fence about, but someone who had done it before raved about it, and I am glad I opted in. We started with a ride in a horse-drawn carriage from our hotel through the city to Djemma al'Fna to see the nighttime festivities before turning around and winding around back alleys in the medina until we finally reached an unassuming alleyway on a quiet street. A restaurant worker met us and took us the ~100 m down a winding, narrow passage with low lighting that felt a bit ominous. But then we turned the corner and entered a spectacular riad courtyard, where we were first invited to wash our hands in a luxurious sink with hand-poured warm water. As we dried our hands and fully entered the courtyard waiters handed our glasses of fresh juice, with crushed almonds lining the rim. A small pool with a stunning mosaic was backlit, adding the the allure of the scene. Four colorfully-dressed Ghanwa musicians played a rousing welcome song, inviting us to take photographs and join them to try spinning the tassels on their hats. It was a lovely welcome.

Once the musicians finished we were led inside to our table, with generous spacing between each person and lush cushions and chairs. The room was dark, lit by several Ramadan lamps in the corners and a few other low lights. The walls were a spectacular olive green color, and the whole setting was absolutely exquisite. There were only a few other occupied tables and our group of nine was by far the largest. The waiters filled our water glasses and took our drink orders while the maitre'd explained the tasting menu, which was expertly rolled and presented in our napkins. Once we ordered our choices he then rolled them up for us again, taking care to make sure the 'Enjoy your meal!' note was showing. 

The starters were eight different vegetable salads (which, when placed on each table explained the need for the generous spacing!), different takes on dishes that have become familiar during this trip - carrots, eggplant, zucchini, turnip, squash, and potatoes featuring heavily. As we enjoyed the salads and briouates (stuffed pastries), an oud/drum duo serenaded us with lovely music for the entire appetizer portion. Midway through the mains (tajines of various flavors/meats), a belly dancer with a lit candelabra on her head came in to perform. She returned as dessert was served (pastillas with fresh fruit and cream) and did a whirling dervish interpretation that was much more entertaining than the one in Istanbul, since it was an artistic/creative interpretation. We finished with mint tea as the Ghanwa musicians did one more performance, one playing a stringed instrument and the other three using their leather slippers and hand cymbals as instruments. All in all it was a fabulous experience, highly recommended if you're in Marrakesh. It was at the Lotus Privilege, and the whole time I felt like I was a member of a secret club, invited into an intimate setting for an exquisite evening. The only downside was getting home late with our earliest morning yet looming...

Along the Tischka Pass

Gorgeous vistas

Fake geodes for sale

Tagines for sale

Koutoubia Minaret

Water sellers

Foundation of the original mosque

Cell phone palm trees, complete with dates!

Saadian Tombs

The 'lesser' royals are outside

While the pavilions host the tombs of the higher echelon royals

Gorgeous stucco work

Very happy cats

Bahia Palace

Intricate design details everywhere you look.

The ceilings, different in each room, were a marvel.

I am particularly drawn to the arches.

Beautiful door

Complete with house guest

I was enthralled by these arches and the shadows they created

Approaching Djemma al'Fna

The stench along this stretch was unbelievable.

The Djemma in all its daytime glory

More water sellers angling for tips

Monkey handlers. Not impressed.

Lots and lots of juice stands.

These monkeys just looked so unhappy.

The somewhat listless snake charmers

And their equally listless snakes

Couscous demonstration

Semolina and flour and a bit of water (and a lot of labor) and you've got couscous!

The finished product.

Majorelle Gardens

Yves Saint Laurent memorial

It is quite difficult to capture non-blurry photographs from a moving horse carriage at night...

Ghanwa Musicians

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