DAY ONE (February 17th 2023)
Well, here we are finally. I don’t know how many years Marrakesh and Morocco in general have been on my bucket list. I guess it started with Mounia, my classmate and friend when I arrived in the French Lycée of the Netherlands aged 14. Her father was the ambassador of Morocco to the Netherlands, so it was also my first taste of diplomacy. I remember going to their national day with Mummy in an international hotel in The Hague and being really impressed.
I also had a Moroccan boyfriend Aziz during my year before last at High School in boarding school Bonnelles. Morocco always seemed so exotic, oriental and I could quite see myself lounging around in ornate palaces and stunning gardens by fountains, clad in silk pyjamas 1001-night style overindulging in dates and fragrant mint tea…and probably a lot more knowing my overactive imagination! In all events Morocco and been on my list for long but each time got postponed waiting for more time to really tour the country, maybe even with a minivan, surf boards on the roof from Atlas Mountains to the coast taking in as many places as possible. So, Christmas 2022 I decided that come what may I would get at least a taste of Morocco in 2023. I opened the computer and there was a great offer for 4 days Marrakech in February. My great friend Andrew was just back and strongly recommended it so here we are (Olivier and I) at Schiphol airport at the crack of dawn for our 4-hour Easy Jet flight to Marrakech on February 17th, 2023.
It was a full flight and actually only took three and a half hours to Menara International airport. It is only as we were landing amid the red-soiled arid environment that I remembered, that yes, this is also Africa. Not the deep Africa I lived 10 years in, but still Africa. Very efficient, modern airport and even got a stamp in the passport (I still love that!). They took their time letting us in with many detailed questions which made it exciting but before we knew it we were through and our accommodation had arranged a hotel taxi to take us down town, to the medina and our Riyad (more on what this is later).
We enjoyed the company of our very friendly, talkative driver who speaks good French. French is their second language after Arabic of course, followed by English and Spanish. He mentioned how cold it had been the last two days and that the roads in the Atlas Mountains behind us had been blocked due to heavy snowfall. I commented on his nice four-wheel drive, and he explained the different permits (his is a tourist taxi and can go anywhere in the country, others have permits only for the city or up to 50 kms around the city).
Billboards with photos of the King Mohammed VI everywhere, his Father Hassan II of course was a long time on the throne almost forty years, but his Son is well-liked though more conservative than his Father was. Almost all women wear the hijab but as the driver said, “it is a modern country and school is obligatory for all”.
As we zigzagged the narrow roads full of motorbikes- most of them towing a trailer- and donkeys and carts I was glad we had not rented a car. So, our Riad (traditional house or palace with garden or courtyard) is in the Medina (fortified citadel) so basically the old town of Marrakesh. As the car pulled to a stop it looked as if we had been dumped in the middle of nowhere as the road stopped here but there was our lovely host waiting to greet us and guide us to our riad named “Amegrad”.
Cars can’t drive through this part of the Medina, so it’s all little motorbikes, which come tearing round corners. He guided us through this little passageway, past lots of beautifully ornamented, wooden doors (surprisingly low), you really have to duck to enter. Ours opened onto a beautiful inner courtyard with orange trees laden with fruit, and lots of mosaic in the blues and the yellows, and beautiful wrought iron chairs. Absolute bliss. We were invited to sit, famous Moroccan hospitality and enjoyed a delicious mint tea with some amazing local powdery pastries, I love them! Our host got out the map and helped us situate. I love it when you can do everything on foot. His French was not very good, but his English (and Spanish) were great! Our bedroom is on the first floor, overlooking the courtyard, you literally remove a big padlock from a beautiful door with a huge metal bar that you pull aside, I can imagine the owner accessing his harem! Not a huge room, but beautiful with rugs and silk cushions and wonderfully exotic, so much nicer than I had expected for a mid-range price. No heating of course so lovely warm covers and a perfectly hard mattress, my favourite.
It’s about 17 degrees during the day and the tourist season is just starting up. We unpacked, donned our walking shoes, and set off on an orientation mission, both pretty convinced we would get hopelessly lost in the maze of little streets, so we just went with the flow and sure enough arrived in the famous souk and were soon surrounded by spices and argan oil, leather, jewellery, embroidered fabric and so much more. You really don’t know where to look. There is just so much and it’s noisy and different smells everywhere. It is not oppressive or threatening or even aggressive. Everyone is very friendly, sure they try to sell, but not aggressively. Sure, you need to be aware of pickpockets like in any crowded area, but I never felt threatened, aggressed and everyone just seemed very relaxed, it didn’t feel dangerous at all.
As the guides recommended, in the medina in particular, you dress conservatively. I didn’t see any girls (including tourists) with tight, short skirts or things like that. Most women wore long flowy dresses. Some younger tourists do apparently have to be aware, but I am nicely classified as respectable Mother (hopefully not yet Grandmother) and get little smiles and nods by older Moroccan women.
By now it was 2pm (we are on same time zone) and we realized we were hungry and still searching for the big square Jemaa el Fna. We settled at a terrace and had a falafel mix and some Moroccan salads, which was exactly what we needed. There were cats everywhere and quite a few red ones, and I had a red cat curled up at my feet, which made me think of our kitten RED. It was good we were already informed that you have to pay cash practically everywhere.
Fun to watch the locals. Men and women alike mostly wear the long-sleeved, often hooded gowns and women cover their heads.
Tourist-wise as I said it’s not high season yet, but there were a lot of different nationalities, especially French and Spanish from what I can hear. Turns out the square we were looking for, Jemaa el Fna ,was just round the corner. It sure is big and busy with so much going on! Fruit juice sellers, peacocks and monkeys all dressed up and snake charmers, bands and groups playing games, like a colourful circus.
It all seemed friendly but if for example you take a photo (I took one of the snakes) they hassle you for money and are not fobbed off by just one coin, they get quite aggressive. I found the poor monkeys on leashes too sad for words.
They gave a tourist a peacock to hold for the photo and wrenched his tail open, not the most animal-friendly place.
Anyway, we have only been here a few hours, so we just let is all wash over us and wandered from street to street quite shell-shocked in a pleasant way.
We then decided to see a few things and made our way to the Museum of Photography, which was interesting in its own way. I mean, not big or earth-shattering, and often it is the buildings housing these museums which are the most beautiful and interesting factor with the many courtyards and lavish ornamentation. It was lovely to wander around.
We noticed many people entering a building which turned out to be the Youssef Madrasa Koranic school, also a palace built for the Sultan. Of course, all of this does remind me of Granada in Andalucía (where I lived and studied for a year beginning nineties), and I had not made the connection with the Moors here and that much of what we see was indeed inspired by the glorious Alhambra in Granada. The breath-taking stucco, the fountains, the mosaic, the myriad of rooms giving out onto a beautiful courtyard. By the time we’d done all of that we were suddenly exhausted. So, we sat down for a cold coke for an extra boost before we went to the museum of Marrakesh. Same thing, the artifacts are only quite interesting but the building itself is the real interest. The inner courtyard was well worth the visit. We then got sucked up into the souk again and it is very easy to get extremely disoriented (particularly for Olivier and I, rather lacking in basic sense of direction). It’s huge, and goes in all directions, inside and outside and you just keep going and going and going. What I find incredible is how so many vendors can actually make a living selling the same thing as there are stands after stands of the same items.
I realise I really am a chameleon. When I’m in the south of France in Vaison-la-Romaine (where my Father-in-Law lives) I can vividly imagine myself living there in a long white flowing dress, gathering lavender, doing meditation and running retreats and here I quite fancy myself as a Sultana lounging in silk and finery, dripping in jewels amid fountains and mosaic terrasses, indulging all the senses.
My daydreaming helped me cope with sudden tiredness as we despaired of ever finding our way out of the souk, we did get up at four o’clock this morning. Anyway, suddenly we were out and oriented ourselves by the visible landmark of the Koutoubia Mosque looking very romantic in the haze, it must be about 17, 18 degrees, which is quite cold for them, but lovely for us.
From there we walked back to the main square along the park with many horses and carriages, past all the many attractions. We are fit to drop, but found a perfect terrace. Here most restaurants and nice bars have a roof terrasse above the noise and the crowd which makes for amazing views and people spotting.
We were lucky as ours was perfectly suited to see view first-hand this crazy square, there is so much going on I could have happily sat there for hours. There are very few places that serve alcohol but, on the Jemaa el Fna square, there are people who pass out cards and sort of whisper to you that place so and so serves alcohol which makes it seem highly illegal. We are very happy not to drink, they have lovely fresh juices. I had one with lemon, ginger, and cucumber.
Dinner was divine, I had a fish tajine and Olivier a lamb one and it was just perfect sitting there, soaking it all up and watching everything going on. We wandered back to our place and Olivier was amazing and we did not get lost. We stopped to get some bottles of water and popped into a patisserie to get our dessert and bought some delicious Moroccan pastries to eat in our room. The owner actually lives the summer months in Maastricht and speaks fluent Dutch, so we had a lovely chat and boy were we chuffed to exit the labyrinth and chill in our bedroom. Chill is the word, we were glad for our jumpers as it is a lot cooler at night and no heating, so we snuggled up, answering messages, writing cards, and then into bed. And that felt good.
We slept like babes. We looked up Riyad and it actually means a garden and is basically an old house with rooms spread around the inner courtyard. Most of them in the Medina here are used as bed and breakfast. They don’t have the hotel status. And there’s a very clear rule. If there is enough room for a minimum of one tree, it’s a ‘riad’ and if not it’s a ‘dar’. Ours has five bedrooms but we were alone for breakfast served by a smiley oldish Moroccan lady. It was delicious: freshly pressed orange juice, which was divine, coffee with hot milk, and then two sorts of like little pancakes, one was cooked with milk and the other without, and then a sort of ‘bread’, toasted, quite compact, served with butter and jam. I have no idea what it was. I do need to look it up. Not actually gluten-free but worth the discomfort, as was the yogurt.
Off we set with our pathfinder Olivier. We meandered our way through the Medina, looking for the Jardin Secret, which is set in one of the oldest riads of the Medina, a stunning old garden laid out according to the description of paradise from the Quran featuring plants from all five continents. It is famous for the very clever use of water irrigation, not a drop is lost. We started with a guided tour of the tower, which is the highest point of the Medina, bar the mosque. Nothing of course can be higher than God. The guide was great and spoke French and English. It was pretty hazy so sadly we could not see the breath-taking backdrop of the Atlas Mountain range all around us. Mount Toubkal at 4165 m is actually the second highest point of Africa after Kilimanjaro. We saw the Sultan’s office with an opening in the roof so he could hear the guards up there, it’s the “telephone Arabe” (the grapevine). Our guide explained about the marble floor and the Moroccan secret polish made with black soap and eggs. He also pointed out the stunning Bulgari terrasse where they come to party once a month.
We admired the beautiful striped ceiling in the Sultans office: red for the desert, green for the cedars, blue for water and white for purity. We also now know that cedars are only found in three places in the world, Morocco, Lebanon, and Canada. There was a compluvium and the water is redirected to the gardens.
Everything is very ecological. It was an absolutely lovely visit. From there we first popped by our place to change because it’s now about 23 degrees in the sun. I am struggling with my usual digestion issues but tried to made abstraction and sit as often as I can.
From then on, we headed to the Bahia Palace built in the mid to late 19th century with its intricate courtyards. It is of course beautiful but somehow less splendid than I had expected but I guess I am spoilt after living a year in Granada amongst all its marvels, in particular the Alhambra. For me the soul was missing, it felt too new, too renovated, or maybe it wasnbecause there are suddenly hordes of tourists which come and go in waves. I just didn’t feel it and sat on a bench in the shade trying to imagine how it would have been before. Olivier and I keep losing each other, but thankfully, always find each other again. As in most places, (I remember Rome), I spend most of my time staring at the ceilings, I just love all the ornamentation. I find it gorgeous. The delicate stucco, the painted doors, the brass lamps. That’s what really seduces me. From there we headed to the Badia palace, which is the fortress, but stopped at a terrace in the sun for some sardines for me and chicken pastilla for Olivier.
The Badia Palace, though principally in ruin, tickled my fancy a lot more. It is absolutely huge, and I loved it, the okra walls, the layout, the orange trees planted at a lower level, so their crowns were just a bit higher than foot level and did not block the view of the buildings though still creating an oasis feeling. We saw a film showing how it was at the height of its glory and sure enough it was inspired by the Alhambra and gardens and was absolutely breath-taking. There were lots of holes in the walls, which did have us perplexed but after seeing the film we believe it was the mosaics which were removed to be used elsewhere. There are stork nests everywhere housing particularly noisy mating couples. Anyway, we enjoyed it very much. It felt very, very special.
Next stop was the renowned Saadian tombs. The Necropolis for the Sultan who built the Badia Palace, and all his family.
We queued up to admire the stunning marble chamber of 12 pillars, which is the main room. And the other rooms were also lavishly decorated. Though shattered, we happily wandered around, very happy we’d seen all we wanted to see this day. We found a cash dispenser because everything is cash and then meandered on to Koutoubia Mosque and went right up to it this time and watched men and women enter through their separate entrances. I am very happy with all these fresh juices on sale everywhere, I love in particular the pomegranate juice they squeeze in front of you (it looks like hard work), wonderfully full of antioxidants of course. We enjoyed it on a bench with a view on the mosque and slowly made our way back to our ‘riad’ to put on something warmer for dinner tonight. Felt good to rest the legs and thank goodness for walking shoes. Suddenly felt a bit nauseous. Maybe I didn’t eat enough, I’m just so enthralled by everything I see I do not really feel hungry. Or it could be all the motorbike fumes in the narrow alleyways. Or then again it might just be an excuse for a few mouthfuls of the bars of crushed nuts they sell in the streets everywhere. I certainly felt a lot better after it.
Wrote in my diary gathering energy to go out again. We are not going far as we’ve decided to try the restaurant, which is just around the corner, which we found almost by chance. We walked past it a few times, but I was convinced it was shut. And then while Olivier was googling restaurants, out it popped out with a glowing recommendation.
We rang, it was open from seven and it was superb. An absolutely wonderful gem of a restaurant and central courtyard, an oasis of calm you would never have imagined from the outside. It was classy. Great chat with the waiter who turned out to be the owner. The manager is traveling and since Corona they’re struggling to find quality staff. So basically, he’s running it and serving as well. I don’t know if it was his wife in the kitchen but the two of them managed to keep the stream of dishes going as the place slowly filled. No alcohol in this top range restaurant but enjoyed a delicious fresh beetroot and orange juice. The menu was perfect. I had a mix of Moroccan cooked salads, then a delicious fish couscous and a selection of refined Moroccan pastries (I love the orange blossom) served with piping hot mint tea. It was absolutely perfect. So there we are. That was a very satisfying day two.
Suddenly it’s a lot hotter at 24 degrees. I was quite agitated during the night. I guess an overwhelm of sensations. Your senses are literally bombarded by impressions all day long. Gentle wake up and chanting. Another divine breakfast. Today with an egg dish instead of yesterday’s cake. We got chatting with a lovely British couple who I recognized from the restaurant the night before. Barry a top range photographer (National Geographic etc) and Hannah, his wife, journalist and editor, of Sunday Times Magazine. Anyway, it was one of those lovely connections. They also have a very international family, a house in France and they shared tips on Essaouira where they just had a family gathering. Talking about international families this morning we realised on our Kennedy app that Kylian was in Seattle, Dylan in Vilnius (with his Dad), Shannon in Amsterdam, Nico and co in Miami, Alex in London, Louisa Cambridge, parents in Montigny / France and us here. All over the place.
The British couple also recommended the spa in the Riyad they were in before in Marrakech as we were looking for one for tonight. We exchanged contacts. These warm, spontaneous connections really feed my soul and bring me such profound joy, the special treasures of travel (and we have stayed in touch, and I interviewed Hannah on my podcast/YouTube channel “Fabulous after Fifty!”).
Anyway, we walked over to their much fancier and larger Riad which was really beautiful but felt more like a hotel and I realised how much I enjoy the quiet and typicalness of ours. Anyway, their hammam is for guests only and the ones recommended were quite far off so we have dropped that idea for now and set off on our 40 minute walk through different areas to get to the renowned “Jardins Majorelle’. It was interesting to walk out of the Medina and into a normal city, modern, vibrant.
The Jardins Majorelle were saved from takeover by a property developer by no other than Yves Saint Laurent and his husband Pierre Berge. There is also a YSL museum on the compound which is sadly shut as we visit seen they are preparing the next exhibition.
You had to buy the tickets to the park online and select a slot. It was well organised and very popular judging by the queues. The gardens themselves are not huge and house many exotic plants from all continents but it is the design of the gardens against amazing yellows and ochres many tints of blue and of course the deep vibrant “bleu Majorelle” of the buildings, pots, vases etc which make it so stunning. Jacques Majorelle was a French artist (died in 1962), son of famous designer Louis Majorelle. You have to hustle bustle a bit with the crowds in order to get photos free of people, but we really enjoyed it. Berge also created a museum of Berber Art, with lots of clothing which added to the charm.
Anyway, we took our time, wandered around, took lots of photos before walking back through the new city with malls and all the latest brands. We stopped off at the covered artisanal market for a break and an omelette and to rest our feet and other parts. I was looking forward to some shopping but by the time we stood up, almost all the shops were closed. I get too overwhelmed in the souk to shop and end up switching off and just enjoying looking and am not searching for anything in particular. We did go to a local plant guy (three generations of pharmacists) in the souk and got some argan oil in various formats. Back past the beautiful Koutoubia Mosque and the crazy square (Jemaa el Fna) and were rapidly swallowed up once more by the souk, looking for “la place des épices” I had heard about.
It was indeed a lovely small square with more baskets than spices and an eclectic array of small animals like baby tortoises and tiny chameleons and enjoyed a pomegranate juice for our daily boost of antioxidants. We then spotted a fabulous roof terrace at le café des épices and a beautiful corner seat in the sun. Delicious fresh oranges and cinnamon for me and coffee cake for Olivier with smoothies. We certainly feel we’re filling up on sun, warmth (24 degrees) and vitamins. Hum…leafing through my guidebook I realized I had forgotten about the carpet museum which I had liked the look of, next time…
Shattered we then decided we also wanted some rest time and made our way to our riads quiet roof terrace and soaked up the sun there for an hour of chilling and reflecting.
One little anecdote I wanted to mention was at lunch, as I was sticking my stamps on my postcards. The woman in the shop had cut the stamps off a sheet, on the back of which was the photo of the King. The waiter picked up the little pieces from the back of my stamps and scolded me on cutting up the photo of the King saying: “you know, you can’t do that’. I explained I hadn’t cut anything; it was the back of the stamps, and he was pacified but interesting to see the crime of “lèse Majesté” still in vigour and be able to chat about it.
We’ve managed to reserve for tonight in the other restaurant extremely close to us, also recommended this morning by Hannah and Barry called Pepe Nero, which looks straight out of an exotic fairy-tale. Top of the range from all points of view, the decor, the food, the service with friendly immaculate waiters a glance away. The setting is sumptuous with tables beautifully decked along a large pool filled with floating rose petals, and they serve alcohol! Though I barely drink anymore, it was the sort of meal and place I felt deserved to go all the way. I had a delicious local bean soup I had not yet come across and the best vegetable tagine I’ve had so far. It was perfectly cooked in a divine sauce, and we finished with a selection of the delicious delicate little Moroccan pastries that we love so much. The price was in line with the quality but hey, it is our last night and we saved on the hammam anyway…
We then chilled in our room. I wrote this. The trip has been a whirlwind of colours and sensations and will probably soon feel like a dream.
and the next day was then Monday the 20th, and we were awake before our 9:00 AM alarm. We packed up and gently got ready before going down for our last breakfast in the pretty tiled courtyard amidst the fountain and orange trees. No holding back on the lactose and gluten today through my intestines could do with a break. We enjoyed the selection of local breads and pancakes and a friendly chat and goodbye to our host before being driven to the airport by the same friendly and talkative taxi driver we had on our way here.
26 degrees today, the landing in February Amsterdam will be harsh. Departure perfectly organized at this modern airport, and we did not even have to remove the liquids from hand luggage. Bought some fun stuff for the kids. Olivier bought me a beautiful silver ring and I also treated myself as I also fell in love with another one which I actually thought was a cat (and am badly infatuated with our 8 month old ginger cat RED, but once I put my glasses on in the plane I realised it’s not a cat, but a desert fox, a Fennec -also very special-) and the girls also convinced me that I looked beautiful in this very elegant Moroccan blue blouse which then also ended up in my purchases.
The flight was full and judging by the luggage I was not the only one who had been shopping!
Then all we could do was relax and enjoy our flight home.
And lucky us, Anne Sophie who landed this morning from Thailand and had just collected her car, offered to pick us up and drive us home: what luxury!
Very grateful for this amazing trip to Marrakech.