27 nov – 2 dec 2019
So… here we go again… A solo backpacking trip in West Africa. Sounds familiar? It’s a continuation of my trip in 2014, but now I have an awesome job to go back to (so no unlimited travel time; 3 months max), and a most wonderful wife, which makes even a three week solo trip seem awfully long. Thankfully she’ll be accompanying me for my first four days in Marrakesh. That does mean I’ll have to spend ten days or so retracing parts of my previous route to Senegal, but the delayed goodbye and the chance to show her Marrakesh are worth it.
Saying goodbye to my parents at the airport involves my mom eating Moroccan meatballs in honor of our trip, followed by lots of hugs and waves and handkisses. Thankfully the flight to Marrakesh is easy enough. When we fly over Casablanca, we can even make out Casablanca’s famous Hassan II mosque, with its 210 meter tall minaret and capacity for 105,000 worshippers. My mom’s awesome zoom camera works as a handy binoculars from 10km altitude.
Landing in Marrakesh, we unfortunately fail to find the decently priced bus to the city center (it’s not signposted, and conveniently hidden behind the taxis), and can’t find any “petit taxi” using a meter, so we end up paying almost 20 euros for a taxi from the organized taxi stand – about three times as much as the bus would have cost. Apparently there are also 2 streets called “Derb Jdid” in Marrakesh, and Google Maps sends us to the wrong one, so we end up seeing more of Marrakesh’s medina (medieval inner city) than we planned. After finding the correct Derb Jdid, and dropping off our bags, we check out the central square of Marrakesh, Jemaa el Fna. It’s evening now, so it’s full of food stalls, with incredibly persistant hawkers trying to get us to eat at their stand. We have some snails followed by grilled fish; the herb-filled sardines are particularly tasty. Today is the first day of the Marrakesh Film Festival, and there is a big screen showing King Kong on the square. Thousands of people are watching it, which unfortunately leaves little place for the usual mayhem of musicians, theater, storytellers et cetera.
Apparently, the name of Marrakesh’s most famous palace, La Bahia, means The Beautiful. It’s the purpose of our first visit the following morning (after yet another medina detour looking for an ATM, which turns out to be right next to the palace). The late 19th century La Bahia certainly earns its name, although I think my company is even prettier 🙂
Right next to Moroccan palaces one will usually find the Mellah, or Jewish neighbourhood, since Morocco’s Jewish population traditionally supported the king or sultan in exchange for his protection. Now that the Jewish population has almost completely left the country after the foundation of Israël, the Mellah’s tiny houses and narrow alleys mean it attracts only poor residents. Its only remaining synagogue is closed, so on we go.
Our next planned destination, the Medersa (Quranic school) Ben Youssef is also closed, for renovations. Nevertheless we have a lovely afternoon stroll around various parts of the medina, enjoy a tea with pastry, and circle back to the madness of Jemaa el Fna. After a delicious chicken/almond tajine (Moroccan stew) and a fruity sangria on the hotel rooftop, the after dinner dip extends into a long night’s sleep after all the walking we’ve done.
The first day of December – meteorologically speaking, the beginning of winter – is indeed a bit chillier than the two preceding days, which had been sunny and warm. Some locals assume we’ll want to visit the leather tanneries, since today is the day of the week that the Berber people come from the mountains to work on the cow hides, rather than the city Arabs who work on goat hides on the other days of the week. Once there, we get a guide, who seems a bit in a hurry, although we do get a close up view and an explanation of the tanneries. At the end, the guide of course drops us off at a leather goods shop, where the shopkeeper ofcourse demands unrealistic prices for his goods. After already having bought some spices at inflated prices, we aren’t game, so the guide will have to be paid by us rather than receive a commission from the shopkeeper. After a walk through a residential part of the medina – during which we rescue a hopelessly lost elderly Belgian couple – we visit the Moroccan Carpet and Textile museum in the Dar Si Saïd palace. It belonged to the brother of the Grand Vizier (basically a prime minister to the Sultan) who built La Bahia. Dar Si Saïd is smaller than La Bahia, but at least as beautiful, and much, much calmer. The museum does a great job of showing the process of carpet and textile making, and the different styles of carpets.
Afterwards, we spend some time in the Souk (covered market), with a newfound appreciation for the wall-sized carpets being traded, mostly wholesale and some to tourists with deeper pockets than us,.
In the evening, there is more theater as the film festival draws a slightly smaller crowd. We enjoy the weirdness of old musicians, musicians with a rooster on their head, a group of Moroccan style drag queens dancing to flute music similar to what the snake charmers play, fairground games, and more. We also sip some spicy tea, eat more herb-filled sardines and snails, and have some fun trying to outsmart the salesmen. We finally make our way to one of the music instrument shops, were we meet an enthusiastic young instrument maker who takes genuine pride in showing us all kinds of instruments; we come away with a type of hand drum called Def, which has a dry sound when played one way and a nice bassy reverb sound when played another.
The following morning, we feel that we have “played out” the medina, so we enter the gardens of Marrakesh’ central Koutoubia mosque (fairly pretty) and the “cyber park”, an andalusian style, abundantly green and quiet park that also houses some facilities for IT companies. It ends at the old city walls, after which we shop around at the Ensemble Artisanal. The building that houses it is fairly pretty, but lacks the charm of the medina. Nevertheless, it’s a refreshing break from the medina: just craftsmen and -women plying their trade, making beautiful products and offering them at realistic prices, without any hassle or pressure.
Finally, we have some tagine and drinks at the Café de France (which everyone seems to use as a reference point regarding locations on Jemaa el Fna), and from the rooftop terrace, we can see rainclouds rolling in. Sure enough, on our way to the hotel to pick up our bags, it starts raining heavily. At least that gives us an excuse for the wet faces when the time comes to say goodbye…