We arrived in Marrakech on the first day of the Moroccan Arab Spring.
Not the best timing. The series of anti-government protests began in response to oppressive regimes throughout the Arab world (North Africa and the Middle East), as well as growing support for democracy.
Fortunately, due to its status as one of the region’s more liberal authoritarian systems, the movement in Morocco remained largely nonviolent. King Mohammed VI (who has reigned since 1999) has enacted various political, economic and social reform projects in an effort to meet the demands of the people and evolve with them. So far, it seems to be working.
The magic of Morocco can be felt immediately.
Dry, sultry air. Regal palm trees. And a palette of pastels to rival a desert sunrise. The standard greeting, Salaam alaikum (“Peace be with you”), is particularly lovely.
The enchantment extended to our lodging in the Kasbah, the central part of a town or the old city. Riad Sabah was owned by a French man, Hans, and his Moroccan wife, Sabah. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses, typically built around an inner courtyard or garden. Unassuming from the outside, stepping inside one of them is like being transported into a fairytale.
Once settled in, Sabah invited us to the foyer where she treated us to delicious mint tea. It was served in a standard pewter teapot with small glasses on a round pewter tray. As we sat sipping our tea, time immediately slowed down. The hassle of our red-eye flight, instantly forgotten. We were now present – in a new world. We observed the riad’s unique details: ornate woodwork, genie-like lamps, and windows with colored glass that transformed streaming sunlight into a brilliant kaleidoscope.
Moroccans are famous for their hospitality. The beloved tradition of brewing and drinking tea is an expression of that, as well as a sign of friendship.
After our tea, we climbed up four flights of stairs to the expansive rooftop, offering several seating areas for guests to relax. That’s when we heard the unmistakable sound of any Islamic country: the call to prayer (adhan). The distinct melody is a chant of sorts, delivered by a muadhan five times a day. Muslims pause from their worldly matters to participate in mandatory prayers.
The call, coming from the minaret of the Kasbah Mosque (a.k.a. Moulay el Yazid Mosque), echoed through the air. It was a sound we hadn’t heard since our wanders in Turkey. In listening, we were reminded how much this ritual sets the tone of Muslim life.
Indeed, Islam is more than a religion, it’s a culture.
The rooftop became our starting point of every morning in Marrakech. We enjoyed a bountiful breakfast: bread with butter and jelly, tomatoes and olives (for a Mediterranean touch), a small glass jar of yogurt, and freshly squeezed orange juice.
We were then ready to spend our days sightseeing, wandering the labyrinth of the Medina (historic district), and immersing ourselves in Moroccan life. By far, the best place to experience the vibrancy of Marrakech life is in Djema el Fna. The city’s main square holds a cacophony of snake charmers, tea pot clankers, henna ladies, monkey tricksters, tassel hat dancers, drum beaters, and much, much more.
We visited the lively square at least once every day and typically returned for dinner. There are countless street food stalls – no names, just designated by numbers. A few of our favorite dishes included the vegetable soup and chicken cous cous at #42, lamb tagine (Moroccan stew) with fresh bread and olives at #117, and the spice cake with ginseng tea at #70.
Different vendors call out to tourists, beckoning them with their most entertaining English sayings. “Free air conditioning!” one laughs (all tables are outside). “See you later, alligator,” says another with a big grin.
Outside of Djemma-el-Fna, Marrakech offers an array of other “new” experiences.
As creative directors, we loved taking in the gorgeous architecture – including the city’s numerous palaces. Bahia Palace is a sprawling 19th century palace and well-preserved historical site. It was created by Minister Ahmed bin Musa to commemorate his wife, Bahia, whose name means “brilliance.” We spent a couple of hours exploring the exquisite courtyards, abundant gardens and grand rooms featuring incredibly ornate ceilings.
Another impressive former palace houses Dar Si Said, the city’s oldest museum dedicated to historic and contemporary Moroccan art. While its display of antiques, weapons and other ancient objects are impressive, we found the building itself to be the most intriguing aspect.
Same with historic site Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former Islamic theological college that once housed nearly 1000 students. Like our riad, an understated entryway provides the portal to a beautiful other world with only an inscription that reads, “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded.” The aesthetic of the 14th century historic site has been compared with the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. We loved imagining the opulant hallways filled with bustling, aspiring professionals. The nearby Museum of Marrakech and Saadian Tombs are worth visiting as well.
Aside from sightseeing, wandering is a big part of our approach to travel.
The souks within Marrakech’s original fortified citadel walls of the Medina are an ideal place to wander. Souks, found in most Arab and Muslim cities, are some of the oldest marketplaces in the world and have been the center of trade for thousands of years.
On more than one occasion, we got lost in a maze of over 3000 stalls selling everything from tapestries to tea sets to spices. Live animals abound: roosters for sale, mule-drawn carts transporting goods and lounging cats. In between gawking at the sights, we became quite adept at dodging the rampant mopeds that precariously speed through the narrow streets. We also learned to politely ignore the constant “yes please” of shop owners.
In Morocco, the concept of “browsing” doesn’t seem to exist.
This is true of other Arab and Muslim countries we’ve visited as well. In the U.S., we can go shopping all day, not buy anything, and likely, not even interact with anyone. But from our experience in the souks of Morocco, that seems nearly impossible.
Similar to the food stall hecklers in Djemma-el-Fna, shop owners can spot tourists a mile away. Once you make eye contact, or take the slightest pause in front of their goods, be assured you will be promptly and emphatically be engaged. An invitation to tea can easily transform into an hour long conversation about Moroccan culture, world affairs and eventually, the goods that are for sale.
Since we were traveling for over a year, we had no intention of purchasing anything anywhere. However, as Western tourists, we understood we were an easy target. We know when many foreigners see us, they believe we are automatically wealthy. Many individuals, typically men, also approached us to be a “guide.” In hindsight, it may have been worth it to simply pay a stipend just to put an end to the barrage of requests.
Eventually, we learned to smile, shake our heads – add a firm la, shukraan (“no thank you”) and keep walking.
When needing directions or information, we most always sought out local women who seemed genuinely interested in helping us. Not merely interacting as a potential business or financial opportunity.
Yet we did not take offense as we realize this is simply the culture. Many are simply trying to make a sale so they can provide for themselves and their family. We’ve found this same type of “hard sell” culture in other places as well – parts of Southeast Asia, such as Vietnam. It takes some time to get used to. No doubt, the persistence can be tedious and makes it hard to simply take in the scene.
As with all travel though, it’s just part of the “new and different” experience. We’ve learned to embrace challenges gracefully, instead of resisting, which makes things much more enjoyable – or at least less stressful.
When we had our fill of “yes please,” we found respite at one of the many relaxing parks throughout Marrakech.
In palm tree lined Place des Ferblantiers, we sat on a shaded bench and watched people come and go. We couldn’t help but notice the difference in clothing. Older men and women typically dressed in traditional robes, while younger generations took a cue from Western culture. Like Moroccan shop owners, we were able to recognize tourists right away – either toting huge cameras, wearing shorts or dressed for a safari.
We spent one afternoon in Jardin Majorelle, a botanical and landscape garden created by French artist Jacques Majorelle. A labor of love 40 years in the making, it fell into disrepair after his death. In the 1980s, fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent, another Frenchman, purchased the property and restored it to its original beauty. When Saint-Laurent passed away in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden here. The street of Jardin Marjorelle has since been renamed to Rue Yves Saint Laurent in his honor. We found it interesting, but not surprising, that most of the tourists visiting here were French.
Towards the end of our visit, we got a glimpse of an entirely different side of Marrakech through an expat perspective.
Meeting up with an American friend of a friend, we left the chaos of the souks behind to enjoy the casual elegance of expat hangout, Kosybar. In the heart of the Medina, the rooftop oasis made us feel like we were at a trendy wine bar back in the states. Afterwards, we enjoyed dinner at L’Avenue, an upscale restaurant serving Italian-French cuisine.
Clearly, it wasn’t just the riads and palaces in Morocco that offers portals into other incredible and unexpected experiences.
On our last night in Marrakech, we headed back to Djema el Fna for one last food stall dinner. Afterwards, we made our way to the outskirts of the square, at a vantage point near the Place de Foncauld. Away from the hawkers’ sight line, we observed the happenings without interruption. For an hour or so, we took in the scene trying to determine if was lively or utterly chaotic.
Perhaps, it was simply magical.