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Morocco

23 February 2014 24,255 views No Comment

The City

the medina

Marrakech is more than its central district, the medina, but the medina is the key attraction. And it’s a mess. Narrow winding avenues crammed with produce – everything from poultry pieces to individual shoes (go figure), rubbish piled up & floating around, no signs, no sense of direction, dust, dirt, donkeys, chaos. Messy it may be but the medina is bubbling with life, and when you want a bit of cool & calm there are lots of places to retreat, the most obvious option being your town centre riad.

riads

A riad is a traditional Moroccan house built around an indoor courtyard or garden. There are heaps of them all round Marrakech photo 4-12especially but also in other major towns. They’ve proliferated since some tourism-savvy Europeans clocked that visitors would pay premium to stay in boutique riads instead of hotels.
If you were to classify, a riad is bed & breakfast; it’s run like someone’s home with minimal services compared to a hotel (no minibar, 24hr reception etc) but the hospitality is fantastically personal and personalised. For me, the riads were a highlight of Morocco. They were extremely comfortable, conducive to spending lazing hours either on the roof terrace, in a lounge area or in the bedroom. If you only need somewhere to sleep and shower then this is likely a bit surplus but if you like to sprinkle your travelling with plenty of down time then a riad will be a great friend to you.
Our first in Marrakech, Riad Croix, was welcoming, cosy, stylish and the hosts couldn’t do enough for us. Riad Adriana, my second in Marrakech (Lisa left a night before me), was comparably far out of the medina and so more spacious. It was also beautiful, warm in decor and hospitality, a very relaxing space to be in, and they served the best tagine that I tasted on this trip.

around town

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the main square in Marrakech, lauded as the busiest square in Africa, this is where you find the snake charmers, henna painters, bubbling pots of snails and all the tourists. In the centre of the square are rows of food stalls, you see this sort of thing in Thailand too. Being vegetarian and pregnant, the indistinguishable menus and foodstuffs weren’t an option for me, but we were confidently advised by one witty tout that it’s ‘all the same sh!t, just different prices’. A ha ha.
Instead we ate in a restaurant overlooking the square, a shiny red-tiled building with lots of lanterns, squashy cushions and a mildly enthusiastic belly dancer. We got stuck into a Moroccan salad selection – aubergine, carrots, chickpeas, tomato & onions, lentils, potatoes – all cooked lightly and served in earthy dishes. Then first-night tagines for both of us which was a great start.

photo 3-2We took a quick look around the Palais Bahia. Only ‘quick’ because really it’s a fancy riad rather than a palace. There was some beautiful tile work on the ceilings & archways, some detailed stucco, and the whole place was shady & cool with lots of street cats prowling around.

If you’ve been in Marrakech for five minutes you’ll see the horse drawn carriages trundling around the city. The calleches are such an official transport they have give-way and parking signs around the city, which I found quite amusing. We took one from Jemaa el-Fnaa to the Majorelle Gardens and it was a novel way to do a short journey. I thought the Gardens were small and a bit odd. There are lots of giant cacti surrounded by pale grey stone, some big tropicals, and the paths you walk around have lots of bright blue fences. I suppose it makes sense but I didn’t stop to read any of the signs.

The Mountains

The Atlas Mountains begin approximately one hour out of Marrakech. I did a four day stay some years ago, and when you’re deep into the Mountains it’s incredibly peaceful, rust red and spacious-feeling. I recall that we could hear gentle bells clanging and when we looked out of the window it was the bells around the necks of the cows; cows that were grazing on the hill on the opposite side of the valley. Everything was so still and quiet that the sound carried that far with incredible clarity. Made you nervous to sneeze!
The Atlas Mountains settlement closest to Marrakech is Ourika, it’s a small village located on a river. There’s a good fistful of restaurants and accommodation, most with waterfront views or seating, those on the non-road side of the river have tiny bridges to walk across. Our day tour bus stopped on the way, firstly at a large ceramics shop, and then at an indigenous Berbere village that was about as authentic as a spray tan, but we appreciated the break. Once in Ourika we hiked up to a waterfall, following the path of the river. It was a steep and scrambly route, populated by tourists and their guides with lots of good humour and team spirit along the way. Up in the highest, steepest parts of the hill could see goats leaping around, showing off their fearless dexterity and making cute mewing noises. The waterfall was nice, and very satisfying to reach. I also liked the contraptions the dudes had made to keep drinks cool – alcoves with sort of sideways watermills that spat cold water over the cans and bottles positioned underneath, neat.
Back down in the village we had lunch – decent salad and couscous, chicken kebabs for Lisa, then drove to a market where it was too wet to get out (raining now) and onwards to Marrakech. An interesting sojourn from the city for a day.

The Ocean

A three hour bus ride from Marrakech, Essaouria is on the Atlantic coast. It’s well known as a good spot for wind and kit surfing so we should have been expecting a bit of wind, but of course we’re not that clever. The walled part of the town backs onto the coast and photo 4-9comprises some wide shopping streets, plenty of sun drenched places and lots of narrow, twisty alleys. Outside of the walls is the port full of multi-sized, blue fishing boats and then the beach opens out and stretches south to the next headland. We walked along the yellow sand but didn’t make it to the headland since we got distracted by a back-packer type beach bar with lots of sun beds, picnic tables and a promising looking menu of pizza and fries. It was a good place to hang because there was both kite surfing and camel action right in front of us and wet suited kite surfers strolling in and out of the bar. Oh, and there was wifi :)
When we walked back the wind had picked up and was whipping the sand around our ankles and knees. I got all Saharan style on the situation and wrapped my scarf around my head.

riad by the sea

photo 1-6Lise and I agreed that Riad Perle d’Eau in Essaourioa is one of the nicest places we have stayed on all of our trips together ever – and we’ve been travelling together for almost thirteen years. Perle d’Eau was another winning combination of brilliant hosts, beautiful space, and excellent service. A real draw for us was the rooftop terrace because the riad is right next to the ocean and consequently the views, the open sky and the fresh blowing air were lovely jubbly.

The Ocean pt ii

Agadir is known as the costa del sol of Morocco and when you see this beach you can understand why. Stretching for miles and miles, a wide expanse of pale sand with almost unbroken clean small surf, it’s pretty idyllic. Up a bit closer the beach isn’t superbly clean and in fact the water has a reputation for dangerous currents. But it’s not all over… There are numerous hotels that overlook the beach, and they range from local Moroccan affairs to full pizzazz Club Med get ups. So Agadir makes sense to me if you’re gonna fly right photo 2-12there, transfer to a swish hotel, and sit by the pool, beach, bar, garden, enjoying endless chill out remixes and Casablanca on tap. Away from the beachfront, and I mean immediately off the beach, not four blocks back, the infrastructure starts to crumble, the streets are dodgy, the concrete is voluminous and the accommodation & eating options are largely unappealing. So, back to the beach…

If you don’t have a waterfront hotel to relax in, or you don’t want to talk your way past security (like we did in the morning) then you can take your pick from the sunbed-n-windbreaker options that are set up at convenient intervals. In the afternoon we chose a brightly coloured set-up towards the port end of the beach. It was easy to choose a) because they had silk flowers in pots to go next to the beds, aah, and b) because the guys didn’t hassle us for business.
There’s enough distractions on the beach to keep you occupied. In addition to the tourists and touts there are local football matches, runners and dog walkers, plus the endless gentle surf that shows hardly any tidal change.

It’s about a three hour bus ride from Essaouria to Agadir, and from Agadir to Marrakech (perfect triangle!) so aside from the package tour it’s accessible enough if you’re keen.

Flavours

From what we saw, here’s the run down of a typical Moroccan meal. To start, a tomato, green pepper, garlic & coriander salad served with warm bread. Tagine for main course. My vegetable tagines usually included onion, carrots, potato, green beans, olives and I found that when the sauce was thicker & sticker, the whole meal was more flavoursome and satisfying. Dessert was normally sliced oranges with cinnamon. The best traditional meals I had were both in Marrakech at the first night restaurant on the square, and on my last night at Riad Adriana. Mint tea or whiskey Berbere was the other specialty. Mint tea isn’t complicated, but in Morocco they like to add lots and lots (and lots and lots..) of sugar, crikey it was like syrup.
When we went to Cafe Arabe we realised that perhaps there was more to Marrakech than we were finding on our un-researched, laissez faire ambles around the city. This was a swanky bar and restaurant with a stylish tourist crowd and lots of cash floating about. Not necessarily up our street but definitely nice for a change. I had some really good fruit juice cocktails, Lise kept it safe on Casablanca, and we stayed middle of road with our ordering from the Italian side of the menu: melanzane alla parmigiana then penne arrabbiata for me, carpaccio then lasagne for Lise. It was all melty and delicious.

cafes & homecooking

It was easier to find different places to eat in Essaourioa on account of the smaller, friendlier streets. Tara’s is a small cafe where photo 4-7we had a good lunch of bread & tapenade followed by fish kebabs and meatballs respectively. Patio is a candle lit, cellar-like restaurant with some nice features but the slowest service ever. We eventually had decent bowls of pasta with mixed vegetables followed by crispy apple pie and dense chocolate mousse that we shared.
We also ate in at Riad Perle d’Eau and were very glad we’d done so. It was a sociable set up with all the guests together around the table sharing the food from large dishes in the middle. The menu we had was a variation of the typical Moroccan meal: small servings of vegetable soup, tomato & green pepper salad, the meat eaters had a type of Moroccan pasta with veal & peanuts, I got brilliantly lucky with white fish (sea bream I think) cooked in the bag with vegetables, and then we all had freshly toasted creme brûlées. It was really impressive home cooking.

In Agadir it was tempting to fall for the tourist touting beachfront options. Trip Advisor came to our assistance and we found a really good place for our last dinner, Le Parasole Bleu, tucked off the main promenade. The menu was much more diverse than a lot of other places we’d seen or been to, and the quality of the food was excellent. I had endive, emmental, apple and hazelnut salad to start. I used to make this a lot (although with pears) and I’d forgotten how good it is, great texture. My main course was white fish (again, looked like sea bream) served with rice, artichoke and fennel – two of my favourite vegetables at the moment! and I finished with an apple pie on really thin, crispy pastry, heaven. Lise had a really dainty tart with lots of thinly sliced tomatoes, steak and chips – am told it was fab, and creme brulee.

hammam

Making it into any top ten list of ‘what to do’ in Morocco is visit a hammam. Lise had been to one in Istanbul and I’ve never been very keen but when we got to Riad Perle d’Eau and found they had a private hammam my interest was piqued. They incorporated the hammam brilliantly into the layout of the building, using the latent heat to warm part of the Riad and with a small tropical plant garden growing on top in what must have been nice, moist conditions. Inside the hammam was like a sauna but not as dry.

Picture taken from Riad Perle d'Eau on Trip Advisor since you don't need to see us being hammam-ed

Picture taken from Riad Perle d’Eau on Trip Advisor since you don’t need to see us being hammam-ed

Here’s how it went: we sat in there for a while getting warm, then the lady splashed water on us and we sat in there for a bit longer. When she came back in she washed us quickly with black soap all over and rinsed us, then a bit more warm sitting. After that was some of the major work, we lay flat on our fronts then our backs while she scrubbed us with exfoliation mitts. She really put some effort into it and there were chunks of stuff coming off (so gross, so satisfying). Then it was a mild scrub to slough away any final bits and lots of rinsing, especially under the warm rainfall shower that came on. We followed with massages and really we couldn’t have felt softer or been happier at the end of all that.

conclusions

It was a treat just making it to Morocco – a big tick on our joint list. And we both agreed how well it had worked out – Morocco was perfect for us on this particular holiday, with me four months pregnant, taking it slower than usual and not drinking. We enjoyed mooching around, hanging in our nice riads, doing short journeys and catching some sun. If we had been on our usual smash-it-hard pace for travel and good times I think we’d have been bored pretty quickly but maybe we’ll have to come back another time to check out whether that’s true…

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