We headed to Morocco over the New Year's holiday from our home in Germany. From the time we visited Seville, Morocco has been on our list. During that trip in 2002 we drove all along the southern coast of Spain and kept seeing signs for the ferry to Morocco. But we chickened out at the time. We had heard many great things about Marrakech (Marrakesh) so that became our first foray into Morocco and also Africa.
We ended up spending six days in Marrakech in a rental house. Unfortunately, our experience wasn't super, because Doug came down with a miserable cold that then got passed to Erynn and Greta. So out of the six days we only got about three days of uninterrupted site seeing.
The city was nice, but incredibly touristy and a bit overwhelming. In terms of "traditional" tourist sites, the city is pretty lean. If you want to get ripped off buying some local handicrafts or get a picture with a snake around your neck then this is the place. Or if you don't smoke and want to be choked by exhaust fumes, then this place is perfect. The main museums are incredibly pretty, but empty. So you go in and see impressive rooms and mosaics and that's about it. We took an day trip excursion into the High Atlas Mountains, that was interesting (read: glad we did it), but wasn't all that spectacular.
So in summary, we visited, we enjoyed many things, but no desire to really go back. If you don't get sick like we were then two to three days is plenty to see everything.
For full resolution photos from the trip to Marrakech click here.
Erynn found a great Riad on the web owned by a guy living in the US. The place came with a valet, cook and supervisor. The place was completely refurbished and not too far from the main square (Jemaa el-Fnaa).
As you can hopefully see from the photos it was a pretty nice place. However, I'll describe the drawback for western visitors. The day time temperatures in December and January were comfortably in the 70's Fahrenheit. i.e. very comfortable. The issue is that the Riad structure is meant to stay cool in the summer when temps are well over the 100's. So the place never, ever warmed up, and was extremely cold. So you have to have full winter kit to be in the house and almost shorts and a t-shirt when you go outside. Breakfast was in the courtyard every morning in near freezing temps. We would have been much better off (especially with a baby) staying in a hotel in the new town. A bit further walk/taxi, but much more comfortable in winter.
On our arrival, our valet, Moulay, got us oriented into our house. He then walked us into the city center for dinner. Basically, any walking down any street in the old city you see variations on the above photos. People either selling stuff or making stuff.
On our second we walked around a bit and visited the Museum of Morocco housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace. It was essentially empty and the main draw was the ceiling and walls. The museum was right around the corner from our house.
Most of the second day we just walked around. It was the only day all of weren't sick and we were pretty fresh. It was a beautiful day and we had fun though we all got sore throats from all of the exhaust fumes from motor bikes screaming down the alleyways.
The largest square in the Marrekech is the Jemaa el-Fnaa. This place has been trying to separate travelers from their hard earned money for nearly 1000 years. Our valet gave us a good introduction to the place, which was basically to avoid the hawkers at all cost. The place would fill up throughout the day with food carts, trinket sellers and people wanting you to get photographed with various things. Things like monkeys, snakes, people dressed up in various costumes, etc.
Next to the main square is a long queue of horse drawn carriages. The guide book and our valet offered a reasonable price range. I imagine it comes with the territory, but in almost everything we did someone tried to take advantage of us. It's ok to be a little aggressive, but this guy wanted like 5 times what was reasonable. I was so dumbfounded that we just walked away. Then he asked what we would pay, and he accepted my offer. Later Moulay told us that was still way, way too much. That didn't help. Otherwise, the ride was enjoyable.
The carriage ride took around the perimeter of the walled city and into the new town.
After the carriage ride we crossed the main road to the picturesque Koutoubia Mosque. None of the mosques in town are open to the public so we just spent a little while walking around the grounds.
The best thing about the grounds as far as Greta was concerned was the pigeons. She was once again enthralled by the pigeon hunt in a foreign land. While she was in ecstasy I continued to snap photos...
On our way back to the main square for lunch Erynn decided to receive the most expensive shoe shine in history. And it was terrible. Clearly we would have to step up haggling game for the duration of the trip. All was well when we went to our favorite restaurant (I think we ate there 4 times) and I took the coolest picture of Greta ever.
We took a lot of really cool photos on this day, and I've only posted a few here. Please go check out the full gallery of photos here.
On our third day we ask our valet to take us into the High Atlas Mountains for the day. The ultimate objective was to look at a famous waterfall, the Cascades d'Ouzoud.
On the way we stopped at the Monday Market in Aït Ourir. The town is at a cross roads and river between the mountains and Marrakech so the market was packed with locals and Berbers coming down from the mountains to trade. Our driver parked on the other side of the bridge and we walked with an unbelievable mass of people to the market.
Walking into the market was a bit of sensory overload. Our first stop was the slaughter house. Erynn and Moulay walked in and yelled at immediately. Even Moulay was surprised by the reaction. I think they were offended by the photo, a women and a baby poking around their Halal process. That was just the obvious stuff, but I'm sure we made many other faux pas in those 30 seconds.
Of course, it didn't get bad until we saw the goat heads for sale then in another place little boys burning the hair off the heads. With a blow torch...
Not everything was shocking. We particularly liked the donkey parking lot and looking into all of the non-butcher related market stalls. The place was a warren of sights, sounds, and smells we have never experienced before.
Here are just some fun, colorful photos. I think one of our favorite things was the yummy bread that was everywhere and with every meal.
Moulay was very proud of his Berber heritage so he had one last stop for us before heading to the waterfall. We stopped along the road at a model Berber house. Above are photos of the kitchen (left), flour mill (center) and a woman making bread (right).
Oh wait, you wanted to see the waterfall? How about lunch first. Actually we stopped at a very nice place along the road called Restaurant la Vallée. Our place was inside, but most of the restaurants along the winding river road were outside like the right photo.
Needless to say the waterfall is a big tourist draw. The area where you park was jam packed with vehicles and development. Moulay actually had to ask a couple times where the entrance to the path was. I think the buildings and bridges get washed away periodically so it changes often. There are no signs. The left photo shows the establishments at the base of the hill and lining the path up. The right photo shows our fearless guide, Moulay, embarking on his expedition.
Most of the path winds through the entrances of many of the restaurants and trinket shops. Once again you get the sense everything washes away during rainy season. And it is fairly steep and challenging with a little kid on your back...
There are a few levels to the falls, and Moulay would only take us to the first one. It was a pretty brisk walk, and for a North African it was pretty cold. Doug was sweating like a pig, but no matter. So we were resigned to taking a couple photos at the lower falls, which were less than dramatic and not quite all the effort.
We proceeded back down the hill, someone coughed in Doug's eye, and the infamous sickness of Marrakech began the next day...
We went to the Atlas Mountains on New Year's Eve, and not knowing Doug would be sick the next morning went back to the main square for a nice dinner. We didn't go to our usual place (mistake) for a chance at a better view. The view was good, but the service and food were not.
The theme for Greta during the trip was having constant access to the Moroccan bread and a pen to draw. At our normal restaurant, the waiters plied her with pens constantly. At this new place there was not a pen to be found. So Doug left dinner on a great search for a pen. Unfortunately, it was prayer time and only one shop was open. The result was that we got a 10 cent BIC pen wrapped in string for like $10. I love being a tourist...
The best part about being sick in Marrakech is having dinner in the dark and cold... sarcasm. The meal was delicious and prepared by our house cook, but just not very comfortable. Since it was January that also meant Doug had to find a rowing machine in town to rack up meters for the January Virtual Team Challenge. Probably not a great idea while sick...
For a couple days we were bedridden and resorted to taking photos of our holiday destination from the rooftop terrace. In the left photo you can just barely make out the High Atlas mountain range in the distance.
Doug rallied for a couple hours and we were able to go to the Ben Youssef Madrasa that was near our place. The building no longer houses the Madrasa, and it is mostly empty leaving the amazing mosaics and architecture to admire.
Our last serious endeavor of the trip was to take a walking tour with Moulay. He showed us the Bahia Palace, the Jewish Mellah, and some other crafts areas. The Bahia Palace was packed with tourists and mostly interesting for the courtyards and ceilings. Greta was more interested in the cat she found in the entrance courtyard.
Moulay took us to the synagogue in the Mellah section of town. The Mellah was the traditional Jewish quarter, but has since past its prime after many Jews were driven out. Moulay didn't know much about the synagogue and I don't think the host spoke much English. So we snapped a couple photos and paid our respects before leaving.
As mentioned often, Moulay was proud of his Berber heritage so he took us to a number of Berber craftsmen including the wool dying facility. It was a very manual affair and probably not too environmentally sound. But the resulting colours were really cool. After the tour Moulay left us to seek out lunch so we went back to our favorite place overlooking the main square.
Later that night we decided to visit the Photography Museum of Marrakesh to watch the sunset. The museum came highly recommended by everyone. However, Greta was being a bit of a pill and we were exhausted, so we just walked around a bit and headed back to our rental. I think the whole next day we just crashed in our place and waited for our flight home. Marrakech had its way with us...
© 2013 Doug Rathburn