Monday, March 30, 2009

Marrakesh, Maroc

Keenan and I just returned from a long weekend in the mystical city of Marrakesh, Morocco's Red City. We booked this trip back in January with a few things in mind: 1) a belated birthday gift (I turned 27 earlier this month!); 2) a sun vacation, as Keenan would have spent 5 months in frigid Europe; and 3) most importantly, some quality time together. We achieved two of the three: a birthday gift and quality time together. And for sun? What sun? We picked the furthest southern desert location within three hours flight time from London, and it rained off and on two of the four days in Marrakesh. It didn't spoil our time in Morocco though, as we had a great time in the medina, eating in Jemaa-el-Fna, hammams, and bargaining in the souks (markets)!

We arrived on Thursday afternoon and it was hot! Keenan has not walked around in a t-shirt and jeans since mid-October and appreciated the warmth on his bare skin. We stayed a cozy riad, which is a traditional Moroccan house surrounded by a central courtyard, south of Jemaa-el-Fna off a little derb (cul-du-sac). This is my second North(ern) African country, the first being Egypt, and I found Morocco to be more tourist-friendly. Perhaps it is the King's massive campaign to bring some 10 million visitors by 2010, but we didn't find ourselves haggling all day every day like we did in Egypt (India was the worst in my opinion) and the streets and main square were quite clean. My only complaint was the inefficiencies and the long queues at the Royal Air Maroc/Atlas Blue check-in desk at the airport. I swear, they must have spent 10 minutes per person at the check-in counter. Other than that, no complaints, Marrakesh was a nice excursion from London and we had fun.















There not much to see in terms of sights in Marrakesh. It's a city in which you are leisurely -- strolling through the old palaces and gardens, going to hammams (baths and massages), shopping, sipping mint tea on a terrace overlooking the landmark Koutoubia Mosque and the main square, Jemaa-el-Fna, where you find snake charmers, Berber drummers, entertainers, ubitiquious orange juice stands, and by night, it is transformed into a large food market. Some of our favorite food stalls include #29 where their main specialty is grilled sausages served with bread and a small tomato salad; #14 is all about fried seafood (yum!), and soup stand selling harira (3 dhs), a hearty Moroccan soup that reminds me of minestrone. Of course, being in an Islamic country, alcohol was only served at high-end restaurants and bars. We had drinks at KosyBar in the southern part of the medina and at Nawama on Rue Koutoubia, both very posh chill-out places playing Budda Bar-esque music.



If you are in a rush, you can spend the morning in the northern part of the medina which is where the main souk is as well as the Ben Yousef Mosque and madersa (Koranic School) and Musee du Marrakech. Here you can find leather Moroccan shoes, carpets, spices, lanterns, gifts, dates, jewelry, etc. Keenan scored a few items in which he bargained hard for: a jalaba, yellow leather slippers for me, decorative lanterns, and two masks. It's his thing -- to collect masks from our world travels. Then, you can break for lunch, followed by a southern tour of the medina, where you find the mellah (Jewish quarter), kasbah, Bahia Palace, and the Saadian Tombs. Just take it slow, and forget about the map. It's more fun getting lost within the walls of the medina. It's one of the things I love about Islamic cities -- getting lost in little alleyways in the souks and the medina. It's wonderfully chaotic.


While in Marrakesh, you must try a hammam - Moroccan-style. I sent Keenan to Hammam Ziani, a private hammam for a more traditional (read: public) experience. It was public alright, as at any given time, there were at least four to five men in the room with him. At least, that's what he told me. He ended his hammam with an hour massage. I declined the invitation to Ziani, as we had booked a private couples treatment at Riad ISIS for our final day in Marrakesh, and it's a bit too public for me, but he loved his experience at the hammam. He met me back at KosyBar and his face was glowing and rejuvenuated. ISIS was really nice. The decor of the Riad was a nice blend of Japanese zen and Moroccan minimalism with dark, straight edge furniture. Based on both our experiences, the ritual of hammam consist of three rooms with a small doomed roof and tile floors. We started with a shower in one room to open the pores, followed by scrub with sabon bildi, a black, oily, olive oil-based, gel-like soap, followed by a head-to-toe grommage, exfoliation of dead cells using a harsh glove, and then a final wash in a third room. We indulged with an hour-long massage, our reward after a "hard" day of bargaining at the souks.




If it wasn't raining on Saturday, Keenan and I wanted to take a day trip to either Eassouria on the Atlantic coast or to the Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains. Now we're back in London, and it was surprisingly sunny this afternoon. Overall, I'd highly recommend Marrakesh for leisure and relaxing, but if you want to see major historic sights, monuments, and amazing architecture, head to Egypt, or Turkey, which is our next destination, a belated honeymoon to Istanbul and the Turquoise Coast.

Here are some more photos from our weekend excursion to Marrakech.

From Marrakesh, Maroc

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