DM's Morocco and Spain 2014 Diary

Day 13 - Medina of Marrakesh

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

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18:59

We are relaxing just before dinner with the group, our last dinner of the tour.

We woke up at 07:40 and got ready for breakfast at 08:00. It was a bit late being prepared, so we hung out on the roof terrace in the cool morning air for a bit until it was ready. The repast consisted of baguettes and roti with jams and butter, plus a selection of corn flakes or chocolate cereal, and yoghurt. I hadn't had cereal for several days, so I had two bowls of the corn flakes, one with apricot yoghurt and one with strawberry yoghurt. A crunchy breakfast after so many days of bread and jam and boiled eggs was luxury.

00:04 (just after midnight)

We have just returned to our riad after the last dinner of the tour - a long and special event at a fancy hotel restaurant in the new town area of Marrakesh.

Winding back to breakfast, we assembled for the final walking tour of the voyage. We met the local guide, a man named Mustafa, wearing a light brown jellaba with the hood up, and short horizontal glasses. He led us out through the hectic streets to the prime ministerial palace Palais Bahia, which is the only palace in Morocco which visitors are allowed inside. He stopped on the street along the way to explain some of the history of the Berber kings and the palaces, including this one.

Entering the palace gates was an immediate breath of fresh air, as the traffic vanished, to be replaced by fruit trees and a peaceful courtyard. The only thing to dodge now were the hordes of tourists. There were dozens of huge tour groups of 40-50 people being led around by guides carrying flags and signs. I haven't seen so many tourists in one place since... probably since the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, actually.

Palais Bahia courtyard
Palais Bahia courtyard.

Mustafa led us through the crowds into the interior of the palace building. The first stop was a small courtyard in which several fruit trees were growing, including banana and orange. There were side rooms off the courtyard, some with doorways leading to other parts of the complex, and some dead ends. The ceilings were made of cedar wood and intricately decorated with beautiful geometrical paintings. The doors and window shutters were also painted cedar wood, some with geometrical designs and others with flowers. Mustafa explained that Muslims did not paint or depict any humans or animals - anything with a soul according to Islam - but trees or flowers are okay. He said the result was the geometrical patterns and also the development of calligraphy as an art form, in two forms of script: cursive and Kufic, which is more geometrical. I tried to move around a bit to get some photos without so many people in them, but quite literally every time I turned to go somewhere, another tour group would enter the courtyard and get in my way. It really was that crowded and busy with groups wandering through.

Bahia ceiling 2
Palais Bahia ceiling.

Mustafa led us through a series of rooms and told us stories about the prime minister who had lived here and his four official wives and 24 "unofficial" wives. Maria asked who chose the wives, and Mustafa explained that they were gifts of daughters from various tribes who wanted to build political connections with the prime minister. In one room was a raised wooden platform about five metres long. Mustafa explained that this was for a black eunuch slave to walk heavily back and forth on all night, making clomping sounds, just so that the master of the house could hear that a servant was awake and ready to attend to his wishes at any time of the night. If the stomping stopped, the master would know the slave had fallen asleep and would punish him.

Bahia fountain
Palais Bahia fountain.

Leaving the palace, we returned to the motorcycle riddled streets to walk towards the souks around the main square Jemaa el-Fnar. We passed a couple of museums, which Mustafa said were worth a visit for anyone who wanted to do so this afternoon during the free time on the tour, or who had extra spare time in Marrakesh, but we weren't going in them now. Instead we walked further along a narrow passageway lined with markets and tiny shops, until we got to the Photography Museum of Marrakesh, which we stopped in at for half an hour or so.

Medina of Marrakesh
Walking through the medina.

I thought this was an odd thing to visit on a tour like this, but it turned out not to be about the history of photography, but rather a photographic history of Morocco. They had lots of old glass plate negative prints from the 19th and early 20th centuries, documenting the looks of the different people of Morocco and of the places around the country. They also had a few autochrome colour images, and the man who introduced us to the place showed us an old stereo image of Moroccan people in a market square using an antique wooden stereoscope. The largest prints were close ups of the faces of various people, in their widely differing styles of dress.

After viewing the three floors of prints, we stopped on the rooftop terrace for a coffee and to absorb the view across the rooftops of the medina. It was interesting that the only buildings taller than three storeys that we could see were the minarets of the mosques, poking above the otherwise flat landscape of rooftops. Satellite dishes sprouted everywhere, pointing out the direction of some satellite over the equator to the south. The day was quite hot in the sun, but thankfully we had plenty of shade on the rooftop and the walking was mostly in the shade of the medina.

Medina silhouette
Evoking the photography of the museum with my own photo of the medina.

We left the photography museum after using the toilet there and Mustafa led us back, retracing our route a bit, until we turned out of the souks into the main square of Jamaa el-Fnar, which was not as busy as at dinner last night. There were snake charmers with cobras, hopefully with the venom removed, but we weren't taking any chances since Lahcen had warned us that sometimes they still had venom, and a snake charmer had been killed by his snake just a few weeks ago. So we kept our distance, and walked through to the pedestrian mall, saying goodbye and thank you to Mustafa along the way. There were also some men with monkeys in the square, and a lot of stalls of men selling freshly squeezed orange juice, which made sense in the heat of the day. Greg and Graham said they wanted to go find some lunch by themselves, so they departed here.

Medina arch
Souk near Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Lahcen led the rest of us to a restaurant where we left most of them, while Lahcen took us and Terry back to the riad to pick up things we wanted to mail overseas. Terry had bought so much bulky stuff that he was mailing a lot of it back home to Sydney, whereas we had the Morocco Starbucks mug to send to Allison in the USA and we figured it made sense to mail it from here rather than carry it back home and mail it there. Lahcen wanted to get us a taxi back to the riad, but that was complicated by the newly created one-way street it was on, which meant a long ride around to the far end, so we walked instead. After collecting our stuff, Lahcen grabbed a taxi for me and M., which already had a passenger in it, and negotiated a fare of 30 dirhams to drop us off at the McDonalds in the new town. He and Terry followed in another taxi. The drive was interesting, as we passed several parks along the main road, named as all main roads in every city and town across Morocco, Avenue Mohammed V.

After rejoining Lahcen and Terry, Lahcen led us to the post office across the road from the McDonalds. We went in, and it looked very different from an Australian post office, being a large empty room with a row of low counters with women sitting behind large electronic scales for weighing packages. At the front of the room was a table where some men were sitting. Lahcen talked to them and then came back to explain to us that the man who did the work was out having lunch and we had to come back later!

So we walked out to a nearby place a block away called Winoo, which Lahcen described as one of the two most popular eateries in this area of Marrakesh, together with a fish place we could see across the street. It made sandwiches and pizzas and that sort of thing, and had a huge selection of fruit juices. Looking down the list I spotted a thing called dwak juice, which I had to order merely on the basis of the name. I asked Lahcen what it was and he said a type of fruit. I also got a smoked salmon panino which came with "edam" cheese on it, but turned out to be some sort of finely minced blend of cheeses that was the same as what M. got on her cheese, tomato, and lettuce vegetarian panino. It was nice though, and a good change from tajines and couscous. I also had some chips with mine. The dwak juice was milky and nutty, with a hint of coconut to it, and fine textured pieces throughout, like bits of wheat bran or something. M. had a strawberry juice, which was thick and cold and delicious. While eating lunch we noticed people rushing through their meals, eating and then paying and leaving quickly. Lahcen told us that restaurants you just order, eat your food, and go, so they can get more people through the tables, but by contrast at a cafe you can just order a coffee and sit for hours.

After lunch we returned to the post office, where the man had returned from lunch and proceeded to pack our parcels for us in boxes, and had us fill out customs and shipping forms. He also calculated the postage and told Lahcen, who translated the cost to us, and said we should also tip him for wrapping our parcels. It seems he was just a guy who hung out at the front of the post office wrapping parcels for people, and then taking them up to the actual post office staff to stamp and send off. As we were leaving, the man complained to Lahcen that the tip we'd left him wasn't big enough, and Lahcen handed over a few more coins!

By now it was quite late and Lahcen had to return to the others at the lunch spot to sort out what they wanted to do and lead anyone who wanted to find their way back to the riad. He put us and Terry in a taxi to the riad and then went off to meet the others by himself. After returning to the riad, we refreshed a bit and then went out to walk to the Jamaa el-Fnaa and the souks.

The walk along the street from our riad to the old ruined palace of Palais Badi where the storks nest is really unpleasant, as there is no footpath and you have to be very careful not to get in the way of speeding motorcycles, men drawing carts, horses, and so on. But once you get out onto the main road there is a footpath, and then the pedestrian mall near the square is fairly pleasant.

Stork nest
Storks nesting on Palais Badi.

Once at Jemaa el-Fnaa, we picked a path to walk down through one of the souks, in an easterly direction. The path was about three or four metres wide, between numerous tiny market stalls and shops crammed together, with a patchwork roof covering it to keep out the sun. Sunbeams broke through gaps in the roof to illuminate the souk. We walked along for quite some time, and it seemed to go on forever. We must have walked several hundred metres in the same direction and there was no sign of it really ending, though it became a bit less touristy and more local far away from the square. M. stopped in a silver jewellery stall, picking one where the jewellery was locked in glass cabinets, rather than one which had jewellery simply out for display. The man in there was friendly and helpful and M. picked out a silver bracelet that she liked. The man got out a desk calculator and a small electronic balance to weigh the amount of silver, then punched in a price per gram and quoted a total of something close to 950 dirhams. He showed us a framed silver certification, which had hallmark stamps on it, and showed M. the matching stamps on the bracelet. M. offered 450, the man ummed and aahed, and M. later told me he rapidly punched in a bunch of other numbers, and she saw the total 440 flash up briefly before he cleared it. He asked for 500, but M. countered with 475, and after some deliberation he agreed. We concluded he must have been calculating the base price he would need to meet to make his cost price, so something under 500 might have been a pretty good deal for us.

Further along we saw a side alley that looked interesting, with several men working on making items out of leather. We walked down it and back again, passing about a dozen or so small craft shops, where men were gluing or stitching or cutting leather to make various things. Later on we saw a wood turner making small spun items on a manual foot-powered lathe, which was interesting.

Marrakesh souk
Exploring the souks, near Jemaa el-Fnaa.

We continued on, but eventually we turned around and started heading back to the square, trying to take cross alleys to find a way back that we hadn't walked yet. We ended up in some dead end sections where people were selling less touristy stuff, like second hand clothes. We emerged into an open triangular area full of people selling fruit, vegetables, and freshly ground spices. Sitting in the middle were women busy grinding the spices. Nearby was a section where people were selling live songbirds, tortoises, lizards, and squirrels, in cages. We even saw a falcon.

We found a cross alley and headed back that way, but it merged with the one we'd come up along, so we retraced part of our route. As we headed back towards the square, various stall owners kept calling out to us to come and look at their wares. One yelled, "Come, have look," and then added, enunciating very carefully, "Cheap... as... chips!" We wondered if some tourist had taught him that phrase.

In the souks
Deeper into the souks.

Eventually we emerged back into the square. It was hot and sunny out of the shade of the souks, so I looked at one of the orange juice stalls in the row of five or so identical stalls. The observant owner saw me looking and immediately gestured and called for me to come buy some juice. I got a glass of the juice and it was, as usual, delicious. While drinking, M. took a photo of me, and the stall owner gestured for me to come round the back and join him on his elevated platform for a photo with him, which we did.

We walked back to our riad, avoiding getting anywhere near the snake charmers, and bought another five litre bottle of water along the way. People kept inviting us into places and to come and see their shops and so on. It's hard to know who is genuinely being friendly and just wants to encourage you to look at their wares, and who might be trying to con you in some way. So unfortunately the best policy is just to ignore pretty much everyone.

Juice cart
Getting an orange juice.

At the riad, I showered off the heat of the day, then we went up to the rooftop terrace of the place to join some of the others who were mingling there around or in the pool. We had some time to relax, so Maria and I decided to open that bottle of white wine we'd bought earlier, which had been chilling in the honour bar fridge. We shared it around and finished it off before dinner.

We assembled a bit after 19:00 to go for dinner. Lahcen had organised dinner at a fancy hotel restaurant across in the new town for our final tour dinner, and a van to take us there and back. We drove about fifteen minutes to the Hotel Le Caspien, and went up to the seventh floor where they had a rooftop terrace (as pretty much every eating establishment here seems to have). It was very swank and the cool evening air was pleasant, but unfortunately there was a sewer smell escaping from somewhere on the roof. The staff tried to hide it with naphthalene or something, but that was almost as bad. We moved down to the ground floor and spent the rest of the evening there instead.

The restaurants here all seem to still allow smoking. Our tables had ashtrays on them, but thankfully nobody in our tour group smoked. Someone sitting outside by the pool smoked though, so we got a whiff every now and then drifting in the open doors.

M. and I ordered a half bottle of Medaillon Rose de Syrah, the middle priced of three options for rose. Someone else had ordered the cheaper rose on the recommendation of Maria, but the one we got was good too, with a darker colour than the cheaper one. For dinner I ordered tagliatelle with salmon in a tomato cream sauce, while M. ordered a Margherita pizza. Other people got entrees as well as mains, so we waited a bit while they ate, and had some of the very nice bread rolls with garlic butter that came out to accompany the meal. The pasta was excellent, hand made and cooked perfectly al dente, and the sauce tasty and delicious. M. enjoyed the pizza, which was very crusty. We didn't want dessert, but Jay ordered a raspberry mousse to have a bit and share the rest around, so I had a few bites of that, which was also very good. Jay also split a bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne with Jill, Michelle, and Anna, who all got very giggly by the end of the night. We didn't leave the restaurant until after 23:00, and Leanne had to be up at 04:30 for her transfer to the airport in the morning!

Before leaving, Lahcen gave a parting speech to the group, and Terry gave a response of thanks from the group. Ben gave Lahcen the guide tip which he'd collected from everyone. The van drove us back to the riad, which cost us 30 dirhams a piece, as Lahcen had hired it as an extra, not part of the tour. We arrived back just before midnight, and exchanged goodbyes with the people who would be leaving before breakfast.



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