On the Marrakech Express

Marrakech, Morocco


After lollygagging around my hotel for a couple hours, Karem picked me up to take me to the Jemaa el Fna. Now I am still contemplating how to exactly describe the Jemaa el Fna. First and foremost it is a huge, huge square in the middle of the Marrakech medina surrounded by the souk, restaurants and the Koutoubia Minaret (more about that later). It originally served as a place of execution until the 19th century with the heads of criminals and other neer do wells displayed as a warning to the citizens to tow the line. (Which may explain the literal translation of Jemaa el Fna – “assembly of the dead”.)

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Musician in the Jemaa el Fna

Now, however, Jemma el Fna comes alive at night as the square fills with people on their evening walks and the area gradually becomes this frenetic carnival like atmosphere with lanterns lighting the area, drums beating nonstop and musicians playing high pitched flutes. There are fortunetellers, some rigged games of chance, acrobats and mimes and on and one. People gather around the more popular entertainers in a huge circle and seem thoroughly entertained by the antics. It was craziness.

And at one end of the square there was a large food court, lit by lanterns, where rows and rows of vendors were selling small plates of food to the people seated at the tables around their stalls. And what kind of food was for sale you ask? Well just about every kind of Moroccan food you can come up with. I saw everything from tiny little sausages accompanied by a spicy sauce (think little smokies) to fried fish, grilled shrimp, Moroccan bread (looks like a pita) stuffed with goat, beef or lamb meat, olives, steamed snails, cut up veggies and Moroccan soup. And I am certain there was more I missed. There was also fresh squeezed juices and vendors selling cookies and candies from a carts moving from table to table.

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Foods stalls at the Jemaa el Fna

Now while I found the “entertainers” in the square a little goofy and not my cup of tea (so to speak), the food court was another story. It was spectacular. And the best part of wandering around were the vendors themselves. These guys reminded me of the clever sellers in the Khan el-Kalil bazaar in Cairo. These dudes had a line for everyone and every situation in order to entice you to buy at their stall as you walked by. But the king of lines for the night, and perhaps ever, was the guy who said to me as I passed “Madame you stop and eat … no horse meat here … only organic donkey”. You may have had to have been there, but Karem and I laughed all the way to the other end of the square. It was pretty damn funny.

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Koutoubia Minaret by night across from the Jemaa el Fna

We ended up sitting and eating some little sausages (no idea if it was horse meat or organic donkey) with a spicy sauce and Moroccan bread. We then switched stalls and ate some grilled eggplant, olives, grilled shrimp and grilled chicken kebabs where I met a young couple from Algeria who happened to have only been married a week. The young woman had the most fabulous wedding ring (which is how the conversation got started because I pointed at it and said “c’est magnifique”) and as we chatted she informed me they were on holiday after their wedding. I then did my good deed for the day and taught them both a new English word for them to use back home… “honeymoon”. They had never heard of the term, but loved it and said they would use it back home. (I envision that the 2014 version of the English dictionary for Algerians will have the word listed as the word of the year….)

Anyway, after the truly wonderful meal, I called it a night, and Karem drove me back to my palatial pad at the La Maison Arabe.

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The Majorelle Gardens

The next morning, I met my guide for the day, Mustapha, and we set off for the Majorelle Gardens outside the medina walls. The Majorelle Gardens are a 12 acre botanical garden built in the 1920s and 30s by Jacques Marjorelle and later purchased by Yves Saint Laurent. (In fact his ashes were scattered here in 2008.)

The gardens were really pretty with birds everywhere, a variety of cactus in the garden area near the front, small palms, a lovely pond and bridges leading from one section of the garden to another. There were archways covered in numerous colours of bougainvillea and art deco building and pots. It was a lovely spot for an early morning stroll with the birds.

We left the gardens and headed back through the 11th century medina walls towards the center of the medina, stopping about a block past the Hotel la Mamounia (famous for having Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt stay there during their 1943 summit). We then set out on foot for the Koutoubia, which featured the stunning Koutoubia Minaret. (As usual in Morocco, I was not permitted into the mosque, but quite frankly I was fine with that because the minaret was the star attraction here.)

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The Koutobia Minaret

The Koutoubia Minaret is 70 meters high and dates to around 1150 AD. The top of the minaret features three large copper balls thought to have various meanings. Mutapha said that the balls signify the three religions of the world – Christianity, Islam and Judaism (apparently Mustapha is unaware that Buddhism and Hinduism are also religions). Whether Mustapha was right or wrong, (and I suspect he was wrong and only playing to the Westerner because my guidebook had all sorts of other meanings), the three globes were gorgeous as they glinted in the sunshine.

The minaret had a wide band surrounding all four sides near the top and the middle third of the minaret featured an alternating pattern on the four faces of the minaret including semi-circles and various Moroccan markings. It really was quite beautiful.

We walked around the mosque so that we could see all four sides of the minaret. As we walked, Mustapha took me over to the minaret and showed me how the architects could tell if the construction workers had made the minaret level. There was a notch placed in the side of the minaret wall about 5 ½ feet up. If you placed your chin in the notch and looked straight up you could determine if the minaret was straight or leaning. (No need for a level here.) I took the challenge, stuck my chin in the crevice, looked up, and yep it was indeed straight.

After numerous photo ops of the Minaret, we got back in the car, and Karem drove us to the Mellah (which apparently means “seller of salts”) and like the Mellah in Fez, was the old Jewish quarter of Marrakesh before all the Jewish peeps moved to Israel and France. And also like the Mellah in Fez, this Mellah was now inhabited by poorer Muslim folk.

Anyway, we arrived in the Mellah and got of the car just in time to be almost hit by a motorcyclist zooming by. Motorbikes, scooters and bicycles are everywhere in Marrakech and in particular the Medina, where riders zip in and out of the main streets and don’t really seem to care how close they come to hitting pedestrians. And while the street traffic is bad enough, what makes it particularly rough is that these guys also zip in and out and through the very narrow alleys and lanes that make up the Medina. I can’t imagine how many how many people are hit each day. (And yes, there is a story about that later.)

So alive and intact, we walked over to a residence in the Medina and took a look inside. The lower part of the house consisted of a tailor’s shop and the upper portion, complete with indoor balcony, was the residence. I am certain this place had seen better days.

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The Spice Market at Mellah

We then moved on to the area’s main market, which is apparently famous for the spice souke and let me tell you the notoriety was justified. As soon as we approached I could smell the heavenly aroma of fresh cumin. As we walked in the doorways there were mounds of spices in front of various vendor stores. Cumin, tumeric, paprika, rosemary stalks, pepper and on and on. Spice souks might be my favorite souk of all … there is nothing like it in the western world and the smell is decidedly middle eastern. It is a really wonderful experience.

We wandered through the Mellah past men selling live chickens and eggs and past butchers who would take the chickens and turn them into dinner if you preferred not to do the job yourself. We saw produce sellers, tailors and jewelers. There was something for everyone.

We finally left the Mellah (which appeared to be a little dirtier and a little poorer than the Mellah in Fez) and walked across the street and down an alley towards our next stop: the Bahia Palace. The walk was rather interesting as we passed through dirty and rather poor neighborhoods where flies discovered meat and produce and local “pharmacists” would sell you ever kind of potion and powder made from animal parts. (Apparently Marrakech has a large population that believes in potions and other black magic kinds of treatments. I saw a number of these shops.)

As we walked down a narrow alley, I stopped to take a picture of a beautiful door and a young man on a bicycle came flying around the corner and banged right into my arm and whipped me around in a complete circle. A couple of older men saw it happen and started yelling at him. The young man apologized profusely, but I waved him off and told him I was fine.

In the mean time, my useless guide was a mile in front of me and had missed the whole thing. I had by this point decided that my guide was kind of mailing it in. He was not really good about explaining the sites I was seeing (fortunately I had read my guide book so I was pretty familiar with the background of most places we were visiting). He was also an older gentleman who seemed to be rather biased against women (which may explain his lack of enthusiasm). Whatever the reason, he was one of the worst guides I have experienced and the first bad guide ever in all my trips to the middle east.

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Inside Bahia Palace

Anyway, we reached Bahia Palace (which my guide said was the name that Muslim men give to their first wife who bears them a son, which is interesting because Bahia means “brilliant”). The Bahia Palace was built around 1866 by Si Moussa, who was the Grand Vizier under Moulay Hassan (the sultan of Morocco at the time).

We reached the palace by walking through a long courtyard and into a small riad (a traditional Moroccan house with an inner courtyard). The entrance of the riad contained marble floors, beautiful floral designs on the ceiling and carved dark wood doors. The small entrance led to a beautiful rectangular courtyard surround by four rooms – one for each wife (Muslim men are permitted to take up to four wives.) Three of the rooms were rather plain, but each was painted with beautiful ceilings. The most elegant room, however, was reserved for the Bahia wife.

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A ceiling at Bahia Palace

A hallway leading from the Bahia’s room led to another courtyard with fruit trees and flowers. Next to the courtyard was a larger riad that consisted of two beautiful rooms featuring carved dark wood fireplaces, enormous patterned doors and painted ceilings. At the backside of the riad a large apartment had been built for a favored wife and included fireplaces, carved stucco and stained glass. Lovely.

We wandered out of the palace and down the street and made a quick stop in a pharmacy where they sold natural Moroccan cosmetics. Apparently this was a popular destination for tour guides to take tourists because there was a number of other folks in the place. After a quick demo from one of the young women, I made a couple purchases: real kohl eyeliner and some little ceramic pots that had been baked with rose petals and when you dampen the inside of the pot you get natural lipstick. Which may also explain why all the Moroccan women I see have the most beautiful colour of lipstick.

We left the pharmacy and made our way through the kasbah area of the Medina to the Saadian Tombs. The Saadians were an Arab dynasty that ruled parts of Morocco between the mid 1500s to the mid 1600s. The Saadian Tombs were surrounded by large rose gardens and fruit trees and consisted of two primary mausoleums, as well as the womens’ tombs and lesser known princes, which were outside and less than glamerous (although the tombstones are engraved with beautiful calligraphy).

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The Saadian Tombs (Ahmed el Mansour in middle)

The first mausoleum contained the tomb of Ahmed el Mansour; who was the Sultan of Morocco between 1578 and 1603 and is considered the greatest Saudi Sultan. His tomb was spectacular and featured three rooms. The center room contained Ahmed el Mansour’s actual tomb and was constructed with beautiful marble columns, an elaborate mihrab and gold painted ceilings. His brothers were also buried on either side of him.

The second tomb was similar, but the rooms were much smaller and less elaborate. (I’m still not sure who was buried in that tomb as my guide told me one thing and my guidebook said something else.)

After the visit to the Saadian Tombs, Mustapha wanted to take me to a shop to look at antiques. I nixed that idea and he didn’t seem too happy. In fact he walked even further in front of me as we went to meet Kalem. I asked him if he knew what a butthead was and fortunately he had no idea.

Our last stop of the day was a return to Jemaa el Fna for a walk through the souks. A long covered street, Rue Souk Smarine, ran through half the souk and then split into two paths, left and right. The main street was full of touristy shops with a mix of nut vendors (I bought pistachios and some peanut nougat), lamp shops and clothing vendors.

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Inside the Souke

We wandered down one of the split alleys and saw traditional Moroccan dress shops, blankets and bedding. In another direction we saw leather goods and rug shops. And in yet another area we saw produce and meats and men in food stalls selling goat meat sandwiches (complete with goat head display).

It was as always, a fascinating slice of life, but was not quite as interesting as the narrow alleys and din of the Fez souks in the Medina.

We ended the visit by wandering back across Jemaa el Fna past fortune tellers, a snake charmer who tried to get me to hold a cobra (uh NO), and some guy who had a display of teeth in front of him apparently to show that he was a very experienced tooth extractor.

Karem drove me back to my little slice of heaven, I said good-bye to my less than professional guide, and told Karem I would not need the car the rest of the day. I planned to spend a couple hours in the hammam and then have dinner in the highly rated Moroccan restaurant in my little mansion.

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Tea at La Mansion Arabe

Now about hammams. They are find all over the middle east, but the most famous are perhaps the Turkish hammams. Hammams are traditionally public baths, but in many hotels and riads they have incorporated hammans into the spa experience. I had made an appointment and had no idea what to expect. However let me use one word … AHHHHHHHHHH (think angels singing).

The experience was without a doubt the best spa experience ever. First the woman had me stand and she poured hot water all over me. Then she lathered me up with black soap and had my lie down while she turned on the steam jets and let me lie there for 10 or so minutes. Next came the heavy duty scrubbing. This woman literally scrubbed every party of my body. Then she hosed me down and applied a honey-argon oil mix to my body. Last but not least, she turned on the heat and let me lie there for another 10 minutes. My skin felt as soft as a baby’s butt. Seriously.

After the hamman treatment, I was taken to lie down, given cool tea and water and told to rest. This was followed by a one hour deep tissue massage. It was absolute heaven.

I followed this up with late afternoon tea by the pool and then dinner in the wonderful Moroccan restaurant. I then went for a walk around the neighborhood and called it a night.

Tomorrow it was off to Casablanca.

Author: lawyerchick92

I am a lawyer by trade, but long to be a full time traveller. My life changed for the better when my brother donated a kidney to me on October 14, 2002.

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