Fréjus, France

Fréjus, France
Aqueduc Romain

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Marrakech

Marrakech is truly a wild, vibrant city! It would be easy to get overwhelmed by all the sights, sounds, and smells but that was also what made it so unique and exciting. The city has a population of over 1 million people and there is action everywhere, but the medina is truly the heart and soul of the city. The medina (which means "town") is surrounded by walls built starting in the 12th century, with a half-dozen gates (or entrances) and a maze of streets that make getting lost an everyday occurence. The real goal was to make sure that even if invaders were to breach the walls (it never happened) then they would got confused in the maze of narrow streets going every which way. The streets are mostly brick and traveled by pedestrians, bikers, motorized scooters, donkey-pulled carts, horse and carriage, and where wide enough, cars. And cats, I've never seen so many cats in my life! There doesn't seem to be any one type of transportation that takes precedence over any other and humanity is moving everywhere in every direction. Amazingly, I saw very few accidents (they usually involved a scooter) as there seemed to be an invisible rhythm to which everyone moved. I got it down after a day, and really enjoyed walking through the narrow streets, though I was constantly worried about Irie when she was with us. She did get a bit overwhelmed by it all.

Three other things worth mentioning. One, watch out if it rains, which it did while we were there - drainage gets blocked and the narrow alleys don't allow in the sun to dry it out. And if there is construction... double whammy. On the alley from our Riad to the Square they had dug a massive hole (probably in an attempt to fix the drainage system) and there was literally a half meter of passage and even the scooters were driving through this logjam which after the rain was a muddy mess! Two, it was very cool to hear the call to prayer 5 times every day. It gets broadcast throughout the city over loudspeakers and I captured it one evening from the rooftop of our Riad. Three, the doors: old doors, big doors, short doors, mosaics, iron, wood, you name it, and many doors can open smaller for humans and bigger for (in the past) donkeys, etc. You could make a book of just pictures of doors, but more remarkable is the calm that hides behind them. It's a tale of two worlds in the cities of Morocco: the craziness of the streets and shops, and the tranquil oases that lie beyond.

The real center of activity is Jemaa el Fna square (meaning: "Place of Executions"), labeled as the busiest square in Africa (or even the world).
It is a bustling place where caravans used to come to trade on their way to or from Timbuktu. Today it is full of story tellers, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and dancers. Shops and restaurants surround the square and great views can be had from the rooftop terraces of a few of these restaurants. At dusk the food stalls come out and the smoke from all the cooking can be seen from afar. To the north of the square is the famous Kaotoubie Mosque though non-muslims are not allowed to enter. It was also built in the 1100's and stands high above the medina. It is a must to wander into the Souks (literally: "markets") and shop for lamps, carpets, silver, spices, gems and fossils, jewelry, pottery, music, food, etc.
When you do, get ready to be annihilated by every vendor. I like to haggle, so find it fun, but it can be very intimidating. I found that a smile and a firm "no" worked just fine, and to keep on walking if I wasn't interested in their wares. Once inside, my rule is the same as shopping for a car in the U.S. Don't let them know how much you want an item and always be ready to walk away. We got them to come down from their initial prices at least half, and once 80%. We DID end up buying a lot of stuff, and we had a good time doing it. If bargaining isn't for you, there are also "artisanal markets" that have listed prices that are firm. They are worth visiting even if just to get an idea about fair prices for items you might be interested in.

An aside about monkeys: Our first morning after arrival we walked through the narrow streets into the square needing to exchange money. Before we could even realize what had happened a monkey handler had a monkey sitting on Irie's arm. We said, truthfully, we have to go to the bank, and got Irie away from the monkey. But she was enchanted - she had just had a "cute" monkey sitting on her arm! She was also very curious about the snakes, though we learned that the cobras have their mouths sewn almost completely shut to avoid bites which means they starve to death rapidly so we did not go near that entertainment. After getting money she decided she wanted a picture with a monkey so we went back to the original handler (there were lots to choose from) and before we knew it she had multiple monkeys on her, then they were on me.
It's all blurry now, but as I was arguing with the guy about how much money to pay for the privilege of taking pictures with our own camera (he wanted $25), Lisa came over and informed me that she got bit by one of the monkeys!!! I gave him $5 and said take it or leave it and we headed immediately back to our Riad to clean the wounds. The Riad owner called a doctor he knew and then had Taria, one of his employees take Lisa to the public clinic where she got two rabies shots. She had to get another shot a week later when we returned to Marrakech, and still needs one more here in France next week. Scary stuff, to say the least. We were informed that most of the monkeys are vaccinated (for this very reason) and that being bit by a dog here would have been a much worse situation.

The food was delicious. Breakfasts at the Riads consisted of fresh-squeezed OJ, coffee and tea, breads with various spreads (jams and honey), hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt. A perfect start to each day. Tajine is, along with couscous, a national speciality, and we had it at least once each day. It is named after the special pot in which it is cooked and served, and consists of a stew usually containing one meat and various vegetables. Delectable! The food stalls at night in the Square were a lot of fun. All the vendors have workers trying to woo you "in" to their tarp-covered piece of concrete. Luckily, the owner of the Riad where we stayed advised us to avoid the buffets as the food often sat out for hours, and it was a great piece of advice. We found a place packed with locals that served deep-fried fish, eggplant babagnoush, fries, hot peppers, sauce and bread which, while a bit fatty, was soooo good and it cost the three of us about $10 total. We also liked this place that served a Moroccan veggie and chick pea soup (with wooden spoons that made us wary of their cleanliness), and sticky sesame honey twists called chalakia. The three of us would eat there for about $3, total! We all fell in love, especially Irie, with the sweet mint tea that is served everywhere. They would serve it at every meal, while bargaining for carpets, at the food stalls, anywhere anytime. It can be green or black but is loaded with fresh mint and sugar cubes. They make a big deal out of pouring it into one of the upright glass glasses that are used (instead of mugs) from way up high in the air, then mix it back into the pot until the color and taste is just right. Then all the glasses are filled and everyone drinks. We bought ourselves a set.

Finally, to get out of Marrakech for our long drive over the Atlas Mts. and into the desert, I had to get a taxi to the rental car business AND DRIVE BACK INTO THE MEDINA ALONE! I can't possibly impress on you readers what that was like for me, a stranger to the medina 3 days ago, to find my way back into the medina through the right gate and to the Riad. It was crazy enough driving in the modern part of the city, but to do it in the maze of ever-narrowing streets and to get it right the first time was an admittedly proud moment for me. When I walked back into the Riad, both Lisa and the owner seemed a bit surprised to see me. Obviously, following the same route back out of the medina was far easier.

4 comments:

William said...

Another great post. I don't like cats or monkeys so I would not want them climbing on me. I don't know how well we would do in that environment, especially without any foreign language skills.

Looks like a great time was had by all.

I know the feeling of driving to an unfamilar place, as I have done it often.

Love
Mom & Dad Browne

Anonymous said...

Rick - in my mind I can smell the food cooking. Any correlation to the number of cats?

Ken

Rick said...

Ken, just wait....next post will show you some cats and what they are dining on....Since the monkey bite occurred on day 1, we had no trouble forbidding Irie to pet cats or dogs, a real challenge for her.
Lisa

P.S. Rick added two videos to the post.

Anonymous said...

Bonne Année!

Thank you for all the effort you are putting into this site. It is so enjoyable. I am thrilled to hear about all your adventures. Hope you are recovered from the bite and the bike. We were in Bend, OR for Christmas, so go figure.

Hugs to you all.

Cherise