Expat Chronicles: Marrakesh Express

The recent school break gave us a week to explore more of Europe and parts south, so we journeyed off for a couple nights in Marrakesh and three more nights in Lisbon. Both cities offered sunshine and warm weather, which was a welcome respite from the enduring cold and damp of London. Marrakesh and Lisbon are the perfect destinations for mid-February. The flights are quick and affordable, you don’t have to break the bank to enjoy either city, and you can bring along your summer wear.

On quick trips like this, a little planning can go a long way toward making sure you get the most bang for your buck and your time. In our case, my wife Susan handled all that. She did a masterful job arranging everything, lining up the right flights and lodging, and ensuring we got the maximum experience for the minimum price. It ain’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

We flew to Marrakesh first, which is about a three-and-a-half hour flight from Heathrow. We arrived around 5:15 p.m., or what seemed to be about closing time at the Marrakesh airport, at least for international arrivals. We were among the last passengers to get through customs. The lines weren’t long and they moved fairly fast as these things go. We called ahead and had a cabdriver meet us there (well, Susan did) because it’s the easiest way to secure transportation and it also ensures you don’t have to negotiate a price with a cabbie on the street – and believe this, lots of things are negotiable in Marrakesh (hint: never pay the first price for something in one of the markets. Talk ‘em down).

We stayed at a riad in the Medina, which means we stayed in a traditional Moroccan house in the walled part of Marrakesh that dates back 1,000 years or so.

My quick take on riads is that they’re what houses should be everywhere, if only the weather would allow. The exteriors are non-descript; just front doors tucked into the alley walls. You enter into a small foyer that’s equally non-descript. Next, you walk through a short hallway to an attractive, open courtyard that in our case had a patio, some chairs and a large lemon tree. The courtyard is surrounded on all four sides by rooms. The riad has two floors and a rooftop accessible from a staircase. Our rooftop had lounge chairs, buckets of sunshine and gorgeous views of the surrounding rooftops, city and mountains. You could probably cross the entire Medina by hopping from one rooftop to the next, and more than a few feral looking cats seemed to be doing just that. Obviously, these kinds of homes won’t work in regions with a lot of rain and/or snow. But for warmer climates, I can’t imagine a better living experience.

The Medina was an experience in and of itself. Its streets are basically narrow, mazelike alleys that are impossible to navigate without some kind of a map. Cars can’t fit down these alleyways, but motor scooters and minibikes can – and there are a shit-ton of them. They zip past within inches of your body at unreasonably high speeds, one after the other, constantly. It’s all very nerve wracking, especially when you have kids prone to drifting every which way. You need to stay tucked tight to the walls to be safe. And even then you’re not so sure you won’t get clipped by some wayward scooter in a hurry to get wherever it is it needs to hurry off to.

The Medina is also full of locals trying to hustle a little money out of your pocket. This is to be expected in any tourist destination, but it’s writ large in the Marrakesh Medina. Locals can spot a tourist from 80 miles away and are not shy about approaching you. Mostly, they volunteer to show you how to get through the maze to some place important: the square, the markets, the mosque, the museums. Little to no English is spoken here, at least by those who don’t work in the hospitality industry. But everyone knows how to say “Square?” and “Mosque?” and “Museum?” As in: We will gladly guide you to one of these fine places for a small, negotiable fee. As a tourist, your best bet is to just smile, nod, thank them and move along. They all seem nice enough, and they are used to being rejected by wary tourists. It’s a numbers game, like any sales job. Hit up enough people and you’re sure to make some coin. All in a day’s work.

The Medina will seem exotic to most westerners, and that’s part of its charm. It’s a must-see if you want to get a true sense of Marrakesh, its culture, food and history. In many respects the Medina seems timeless, as if the only things that have changed through the centuries are the clothes and modes of transportation. Carts pulled by mules still deliver goods to the markets (called souks). Many of the tailors use foot-operated sewing machines because there’s no electrical hookup in their shops. Some souks are set up in cave-like structures that keep the hot sun out. Women are expected to dress modestly, and many of the cafes and tea houses seem populated only by men. You smell the same kinds of spices that people probably smelled hundreds of years ago. It was a great learning experience for our daughters because they got to see things you just don’t find in America or Europe.

Speaking of spices: One of the reasons I personally wanted to visit Morocco – other than a chance to experience part of Africa and check that off the list – was the food. We had eaten Moroccan food in other cities and looked forward to seeing how the locals did it. We ordered the standard native cuisine: tagines, breads, cous-cous, olives, etc. Tasty, tasty, tasty. None of our previous experiences with Moroccan food can compare to what you get in Marrakesh. Honestly, it was all delicious. The ingredients were fresh, the dishes were flavorful without being overspiced, everything was well executed and presented – and it was cheap. One particular standout was an aromatic and olive-rich chicken tagine Susan ordered at La Mederesa. I also had some of the best falafel I’ve ever tasted at a lunch place near the markets.

Many of the restaurants in the Medina don’t serve alcohol, I assume because of religious beliefs. But we did find a French-Moroccan place on our second night that had a full lineup of beer, wine and cocktails. The food was first-rate and the rooftop views of the Medina and surrounding neighborhoods and mountains were nothing short of amazing. We happened to finish our meal around 8:30 p.m. and wandered up to the rooftop just as the evening Islamic call to prayer was about to begin.

The call to prayer (or Adhan, according to Wikipedia) is an Arabic-sounding chant, almost like a song, that comes over a loudspeaker in the mosque tower, which was located only a few blocks away from the rooftop. The Adhan reaches a large swath of the city and is fascinating to western ears. Also fascinating: At the same time the call to prayer was floating out into the city, the rooftop stereo system was playing “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. It was a real weird dynamic hearing a sacred Islamic call to prayer floating behind a ‘70s pop hit about a lovesick guy who doesn’t want his woman knowing how lovesick he is.

The museums were another highlight. We went to three of them in the Medina: the Orientalist Museum, Photography Museum and Marrakech Museum. The first two offered very cool works of art by Moroccan and European artists – we even saw a Salvador Dali painting in one of them – as well as cafes, rooftops, shops and clean restrooms. Entry fees were minimal, maybe the equivalent of 7 or 8 euros for adults, and it’s worth the money if for no other reason than the museums are really good places to escape from the madness of the Medina and chill out for a bit. They’re also not that big, so they’re easy to get around in. The Marrakech museum was mostly devoted to historical artifacts, which was a great way to learn about the city.

One interesting side note from the Photography Museum: many of the photos from the 19th Century showed Moroccans with dark skin, like you find elsewhere in Africa. But the Morocco we saw was mostly populated with lighter-toned people, similar to Arabs. My assumption is that European colonization, mainly by France, helped create a whole new ethnic demographic. Moroccans and Namibians are both African in the same way that Icelanders and Armenians are both European, even though they have vastly different physical features.

When you spend a couple days in the Medina and its immediate surroundings, you get the sense that time and progress are secondary concerns, something for other people and cultures to deal with. It’s easy to find yourself wondering whether Marrakesh has dared dip its toes into the 21st century – and if not, why not. Luckily, Susan researched other sections of the city. It turns out you can find areas of town teeming with modern hotels, shopping plazas, restaurants, apartments, chain stores, etc.

One of those areas is called the Guéliz, or “New Town.” We headed there on our final day to kick around for a couple of hours before flying on to Lisbon. I have to say, there was a certain mindless comfort I got from sitting in a posh, sleek, modern part of town that could have been anywhere else in the world. I’m sure a lot of western tourists stay there just for that sense of comfort. I’m glad we chose to stay in the Medina, but I’m also glad we saw this other part of Marrakesh before hitting the road.

A couple of parting pop culture notes:

  1. People of a certain generation will remember “Marrakesh Express,” one of the hits from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s first album. A couple friends/siblings mentioned it when I posted some Marrakesh photos on Facebook. So I did a little research. Turns out that, yes, the song is about a train ride Graham Nash took from Casablanca to Marrakesh more than half-a-century ago. Alas, we did not take the Marrakesh Express on our trip there.
  2. I’ve had a minor fascination with Morocco ever since I first saw “Casablanca” decades ago. I always equated Morocco with romance, mystery and exotica, filled with intrigue and shady characters. Turns out, there is plenty of intrigue and mystery here, at least for those of us who grew up in the American suburbs. We didn’t see Rick or Ilsa. But we did find a gin joint, and a few shady characters.

Here’s looking at you, kid….

(A separate blog on our Lisbon experience will follow in a day or so. This Marrakesh thing went on longer than I originally intended).

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