November 30, 2016

Marrakech Travelogue Part 2

We woke up in the fog of jet lag and rain the next day just as the first call to prayer from the nearby mosque rang out. A place always has a distinct feel, smell and sound. Here, the sound is the Muslim call to prayer that rings out a few times in a day. It is melodic and powerful. I would always stop whatever I was doing to have a proper listen.

It was still dark after 7 am and no movement can be detected from downstairs but then we were getting in desperate need of coffee so we bundled for the 18 degrees chill and woke Isham, the reception on duty. We’ve noticed that Moroccans start their day quite late.

After a typical Moroccan breakfast spread of crepes, bread, cake, butter, jams, the most wonderful glasses of pure freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and mint tea, we asked for indoor sightseeing recommendations as the rain hasn’t let up. We were supposed to hire a guide for a day to bring us to the medina and other places of interest but because of the weather, we decided to postpone it another day.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle was decided and just as we were heading there in our raincoats, the skies began to clear. It would rain on and off on that day but there were moments when the sun broke out. It is just our luck that when it pours, we are always sheltered or could easily find one. It did not became an issue and didn’t hamper our leisurely sightseeing.

The blue garden in the middle of the red city is a nice introduction before diving into the chaos of frenzied Marrakech. Peaceful shady lanes and gurgling fountain lined with exotic plants and towering palm trees. In the center is a vibrantly painted art deco building with Moorish charms. It houses the Berber Museum. The garden is open everyday with an entrance fee of 70 MaD + 30 MaD for the museum. Although photography is not allowed inside the museum, the displays are worth springing the extra 30 dirhams for. After YSL’s death in 2008, his ashes were scattered there.

After a lunch of sandwich fromage, spicy beef couscous and glasses of chilled fresh orange juice at a roadside café outside Majorelle, we hailed a shared grand taxi to bring us to Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Founded in 14th century, the madrasa is a former Islamic college and the largest in all of Morocco. It closed down in 1960 and was refurbished and reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.

Ben Youseff is in the midst of the souks (open air market place) in the medina and because of the narrow winding alleyways, it cannot be accessed by cars. The taxi dropped us of the outskirts with vague hand gestures to go right in. “Very easy. Go straight, turn right, straight, straight, right, left, very easy.” We were skeptic and might have stopped listening after the “turn right” part but what the hell, we dove right in.

The word labyrinth in describing the medinas could get overused, but it is just apt. One foot in, one turn and you are in a zigzagging maze.

We have terrible sense of direction to begin with so we’re prepared to embrace getting lost in the maze. And even if we happen to be good withs maps, medinas are the sorts that defies maps. Google and Waze got nothing on its twists and turns. That would have been frustrating anywhere else, but in the treasure filled souks, it is part of the fun. First day in and I was already wondering how many handmade Moroccan goodies can I fit in our suitcase.

After all that we’ve read about the shopkeepers and touts, I’m surprised they aren’t too persistent and if we politely decline and thank their offers of getting into their shops to “just look”, we get a “shukran” (thank you in Arabic) back.

You’ll read a lot of tips and tricks for visiting the medina, but this could be the best travel tip I can dish out. “No open toed shoes.” Donkey pulled carts. Donkeys. Donkey dungs.

And when you hear urgent warnings of “ba-lak, ba-lak” in the cramped alleys, move right away or risk the real possibility of getting squashed by donkeys, and or carts.

We kept getting waylaid with pretty handmade things but at one turn, in our aimless wander, we actually found Ben Youssef. We excitedly paid for the 20 MaD entry fee per person and marveled at the exquisite craftmanship and zellij mosaic tiles. We probably spent some 45 minutes to an hour there exploring the area and marveling at the intricate structure.

We’ve walked off lunch by then and was getting hungry so we made our way out with the intent of finding the square – Djemaa El Fna. We followed the signs but the last one at the corner was scraped off. Several locals then pointed at several directions and one guy kept following us muttering “the square, the square”. We thanked him as we refused his directions and company but he stuck stubbornly to our side. This went on uncomfortably for a few blocks even when we pointedly ignored him that when a taxi passed by, we hurriedly got in it. That’s when he got kind of aggressive and slammed the cab door prompting a shouting match between him and the driver while we sat at the back a bit shocked. I was on the verge of crying!

I know it is different for everyone and we weren’t really hurt but it got frustrating for me and disappointing how there seems to be a collective effort from a few to mislead tourists. Get a guide if you can.

But that incident was soon forgotten as we got to the infamous Djemaa El Fna.

On the surface, the square is populated with a massive market, identical carts of freshly squeezed fruit juice vendors, veiled henna ladies who will grab your hand and paint on without warning, smoky food stalls, traditional water sellers and mobs of locals and tourists. We avoided the monkeys on leash and the snake charmers. It is a chaotic frenzy with so much going on! It is exciting and filled with interesting bits of culture. This is the Marrakech most people expect it to be, us included.

We sat there with cold drinks and pizza at one of the terraced restaurants content to watch and soak it all in until the lights changed.

CLICK HERE to go to Marrakech Part 1

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