"Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led"
My sister came for a quick visit in February before she started her fancy pants big girl job, and Colby was kind enough to agree to engage in some zone coverage with the girls while Brittany and I left them behind and jetted off to exotic Marrakech, Morocco (I can't tell you how much trouble I have remembering how many 'r's" are in each respective place name).
I really had no idea what to expect from Marrakech, but I knew I wanted to go in search of sunshine and spend time somewhere that we could take advantage of child-free travel opportunities. I looked at a few last minute travel websites and found a screaming deal for Marrakech, so we booked it and a couple weeks later were on our very first Ryan Air flight to Morocco.
Even though we were only there for three nights, we packed in enough experiences that I'm going to break this recap up into two parts. Today I'll talk about our overall impressions and our incredible intensive guided tour of the medina with Said from Marrakech Guide.
We arrived in Marrakech in the evening and after standing in a loooooong line at the airport to have our passports stamped, we met up with the driver that our riad had arranged and made the short trip from the airport to the center of town. Part of our package deal was three nights at the Riad Aladdin. We had no control over where we stayed, but lucky for us, it was a super charming riad with wonderful service and local charm. It was also in a great area, just a five minute walk to the Djema el Fnaa, and located in the Jewish quarter, right next door to the ruins of the El Badi Palace.
Once we were settled into our room, we decided to go out in search of food. The adorable man at hotel reception told us there were some good restaurants "down the road, that way" with a sort of vague gesture, but we figured we could find something. Unfortunately, we did not take the time to put up our stony armor against the locals and were immediately accosted by droves of Moroccan men offering to help us find our way to any number of establishments. By the end of our trip, we were pros at the shrug off and the unapproachable, icy stare, but that first night we were weak and allowed ourselves to be steered to a nearby "dinner and a show" restaurant. It could have been worse, we could have been sold into white slavery... The meal ended up being quite tasty--although definitely overpriced--but we loved seeing all the local singers and dancers while we ate and we got our first taste of the STUNNING tile work and decor that would dominate most of our photos from thereon out.
The next day we met Said outside of our riad and he showed us around his city. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get a guide at the beginning of your stay in Marrakech. The medina is a seemingly impenetrable maze of alleys and mysterious doorways, and while it does eventually manifest itself to a semi-coherent layout, it's terribly intimidating upon first, second and third glance. Our first stop was the striking and iconic Koutoubia Mosque, built in 1190. Because we are not Muslims, we weren't allowed inside, but the view of the exterior was perfectly sufficient to appreciate the unique architecture of the Moroccan mosques as opposed to those found somewhere like Turkey where tall, thin minarets and cascading domes are favored. The mosques in Marrakech had a moorish quality, which makes sense as the moors originally came from Morocco and travelled north into Spain to conquer new territory, bringing their architecture and religion with them. Said explained the vast and intricate history of Marrakech and Morocco patiently and with much repetition to help us understand his country and city in a way that showed his great passion and love for his heritage.
From there, we traipsed through the winding streets stopping to take photos of nearly every door, tile and window we passed. One of our favorite details was the beautiful Fatima's Hand that graced many doorways as protection against the evil eye. We also stopped into a tiny bread baker's shop--a nondescript doorway in a wall that led through a dark hallway, to a cavernous room with rows and rows of bread dough and a man sliding the circles of dough onto a paddle and into the fire. The local families each make their own bread dough, then bring it to the baker to be cooked. None of them are labelled in any meaningful (to me) way--but the baker and the families are able to recognize their individual loaves on sight.
Next, we visited the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college and dormitory founded in the 14th century and functioning through 1960. It was closed for two decades before being meticulously restored and opened to the public in 1982. Again, we went nearly crosseyed trying to take in all of the gorgeous tiles and plasterwork that covered every available surface. The vividness of the tiles is particularly impressive when considering that each color comes from natural sources, like cobalt for the vivid blue, and that many of them are still the original centuries old tiles.
Included in our ticket was the Marrakech Museum, housed in a 19th century palace, and displaying a variety of Marrakech art, traditional clothing and jewelry, pottery, and coinage. Just outside of the museum is the Almoravid Koubba, built in 1117 and the only remaining example of Almoravid architecture. It was the building outside of a no longer present mosque that was used for ablutions prior to prayer. The koubba was buried for centuries and only rediscovered in 1948 and excavated in 1952.
After all that sightseeing, there was no better recovery activity than a shopping spree through the souks. It was nearly impossible to get a decent picture that could accurately depict the organized chaos that is the Marrakech souk maze. The narrow alleys feed into one another with indecipherable street names tacked up haphazardly or not at all. Men, young and old, stand outside their shops alternately shouting and whispering enticements to visit their shops or comments on your appearance. A small doorway can hide a massive shop lurking behind the walls that you would never know existed if you didn't venture beyond the entrance. We came away with shoes, purses, teapots, inlaid boxes, essential oils, dates (the food--not the activity!), and more, all along with a down and dirty lesson in bartering. The short hand: cut the initial offer in half and then offer incrementally higher prices until you can find a middle ground. And don't be afraid to suggest leaving and checking other shops--that's often the trump card!
There was still a bit more to be explored in the city, so Said kindly offered to be our pack mule and led us to the beautiful and brilliant Bahia Palace. Bahia is actually the Arabic word for "beautiful" or "brilliant", and the palace was built in the latter half of the 18th century by a former slave who had managed the meteoric rise to Grand Vizier to the Sultan of Morocco and essentially ruled the country as the sultan at the time was just a young boy. Outside the walls of the palace is the dusty, chaotic red Marrakech, but as soon as you step through the gates, you are in an oasis of cool, white tranquility, surrounded by the works of the best Moroccan artisans of their time.
We ended our day with a quick spin through the center of town, the bustling Djema el Fnaa, but since we spent more time there the next day, I'll save those thoughts for my next installment. Until then, how about feasting your eyes on a few more amazing doorways?