After a night on the floor of the Geneva Airport and a quick cheap flight over the Mediterranean, we arrived in Africa. Our first visit to the continent, which would have been our 2nd if the Egyptians hadn’t overthrown their president when we planned to go in 2010! The airport was bright and modern and the immigration line moved pretty efficiently, and I was surprised to see that he stamped the next to last page in my passport instead of at the front…until I remembered that Arabic reads from right to left! Fun fact for the day.
We arrived at our beautiful Riad a little while later, tucked a few alleyways deep in the east side of the Medina, near the Bab Ailen gate. Riads are old mansions turned small hotels, and it’s the only way to go if you want an authentic experience.
The housekeeper, Namja, was a highlight of our stay. She made wonderful food, taught me some words in Arabic to help get us around, walked us to the main street so we didn’t get lost, and was always there to greet us with tea after a long day of exploring. When I messed up our airline reservations, she literally held me while I cried in frustration and exhaustion!
How beautiful is the traditional breakfast they served us every morning! Fresh baked bread and Moroccan pancakes served with honey and jams, and fresh squeezed juice and coffee to wash it down.
After settling in at the Riad and securing a handmade straw hat, we set out on a mission to wander around the Medina. It’s tough to know where to start. The Marrakesh Medina is a 12-mile walled circuit that was built in the 12th century, and inside is a dizzying maze of streets and alleyways of shops, artisans, amazing food, weird smells, awesome smells, lots of shouting, museums, and more. The centerpiece is Jemaa el-Fna, the large open square that is hub of the city and a living, breathing UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Btw, this post will focus only on the Medina and isn’t necessarily chronological like the rest of my travel posts.)
I really had one thing on my Marrakesh shopping list, and the rest of the things I picked up were just details. Again, an adoption budget doesn’t leave you with a lot of room for shopping. But I have wanted a Berber wedding blanket since I knew what they were. My precious mother handed me $100 the night before we left on our trip and told me she wanted me to get one. What an amazing lady who understands me so well!
What is so amazing to me about these blankets is the almost incomprehensible detail, all done by hand. Berber tradition holds that a woman, leading up to her wedding day, would arduously create patterns of sequins on one side and weave traditional Berber patterns on the other. When she was happy with her husband and all was well, she’d wear the blanket with the sequins facing out to shine in the sun. If she was upset with her husband and wanted him to know it, she’d wear it with the woven patterns facing out. It’s very easy to spot the authentic ones from the new, mass produced ones. The reproduction is the one next to my right food that is bright white and machine-made of cheaper cotton, whereas the authentic ones are handmade of a thick wool and are darker shades of off-white and tan. Some other dead giveaways to a reproduction are the strips of Berber weaving that traditionally are on the back are instead on the front, it’s lightweight instead of heavy and bulky, the patterns of sequins and tufts are too symmetrical, and it’s missing the two black pieces of twill that the bride uses to tie the blanket around her shoulders.
Let me tell you, I can haggle a price. And I love doing it. After popping into several shops, I struck up a great relationship with this man, Fouad Mejbar. He had a great sense of humor and we had a lot of laughs throwing prices back and forth at each other. Two days later I happened to walk by his shop again, and he immediately remembered me and came out and gave me a hug (and of course told me to come back and shop!) What I also loved about Fouad is that he didn’t try to pass off the new ones as the old ones, even if he gladly would have sold me a reproduction! I reigned victorious with this beauty, and for just $80, which I thought was a totally fair price. Below is a photo of his shop, Chateau Berbere. He is located at 4, Rue Moussaine and you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. We shared a cab one day with some lovely British folk who later walked us to Souk Zrabi and suggested tea on the roof of cafe they had really enjoyed. Sure the souk is touristy, it’s what it’s basically there for these days after all, but it’s wonderful.
A few more of my favorite daytime Jemaa el-Fna photos before we change gears to night time at Jemaa el-Fna:
And then there’s Jemaa el-Fna at night. It’s when this place really comes alive. Dozens and dozens of restaurants pop up with traditional Moroccan food, calling to you in whatever language they think you might speak.
Pastry carts are pushed by peddlers who practically shove tongs and a box in your hands for you to pick out your favorites. Henna artists get a little more pushy, snake charmers play their flutes a little louder, and the history of the Berbers stay alive with storytellers passing down centuries-old legends.
In addition to securing my wedding blanket, I also really wanted to get a henna tattoo. I wish I could have opted for one that covered my whole arm, and maybe I could have haggled down to a cheap price for a big one, but there was something about this artist that made me want to just let her have the price she first asked for. Or maybe I was just too tired to bargain. A little of both probably. There are dozens and dozens of henna artists all around the square, and with us being a slow time of year, I was happy to pay her full price.
When it’s time to find a place to eat, there are SO. MANY. CHOICES. And if I can just say, don’t be one of those people who is scared of eating street food. First, it’s tradition and you’re not really doing Marrakesh if you don’t eat here at least one night. Second, if these restaurants were making people sick, do you really think locals and tourists alike would flock here every night?
Each stall has a designated employee whose sole job is to wave menus and try and get people to sit down and that their stall, and not one of the other 60 stalls serving the same thing. “Same sh*t, different stall!” they say. After wondering around trying to make a decision, we decided on stall #100. The guys who work here were so nice and we loved talking to them about their city. I wish I could remember this guy’s name, he had us laughing so much that we came here two of the three nights were in the country!
This delicious spread, plus a complimentary glass of mint tea at the end of our meal, set us back about $8.
They insisted that we stand up here and get our photo with them, the chef even plopped his hat on my head. I hope we can make it back one day to see these guys again; even if they don’t remember us, they are great ambassadors for their city and we won’t forget them!
Of course we ended dinner with a box of pastries from one of the passing carts! And goodness I loved my henna. She sprinkled glitter across it when she was finished. We basically speak the same language.
To keep this post realistic, I also have to say that before you go, make sure you read up on ways to keep yourself safe while you’re there. Petty theft and scams aimed at tourists are rampant. Even as savvy as we are, we almost got into trouble one night when we got turned around trying to get to the Square and a kid started following us, insisting he was personally walking us confused tourists to our destination, then threatening us if we didn’t pay him for his troubles. But a little common sense goes a very long way, and as long as you don’t act like a moron, you’ll be safe and have a great time. Insist that an employee at your hotel or riad walk you to the Square at least once, and take photos of landmarks between your hotel and the Square to reference; it’s inevitable you’ll make at least one wrong turn!
Stay tuned for the next post from our time in Morocco, which will be about our day trip to the beautiful Ourika Valley!