Arriving in Morocco was a complete shock to our senses. The heat and humidity when getting off the plane and walking across the tarmac almost brought us to our knees. We had spent two months in Spain with temperatures in the mid 30s with a cool breeze coming off the sea. Then we went to France, (Paris & Normandy) for two weeks, where we had an abrupt change back to lower temperatures (mid teens to the mid twenties) with cloudy and rainy days. For the first time since leaving South America (May 11th) we regularly wore our jackets and pants (instead of the usual shorts, t-shirt and sandals) and used our umbrellas and raincoats more than we would have preferred (like that matters!!!). Our two weeks in France acclimatized us back to Canadian spring and fall weather. Then when we arrived in Marrakech the temperature was over 40 degrees without even a slight breeze. It was a rude awakening for our sweat glands. We stood in the customs line, dragging our bags behind us, all the while hoping that there would be air conditioning at our riad.
Our riad sent a driver to pick us up, I am so happy that was prearranged. The riad was in the middle of the medina in Marrakech and the airport was about a twenty five minute drive from the medina. Without our ride and our riad host meeting us where our driver dropped us off inside the medina, there would have been no way we would have found our way through Marrakech, and further on through the medina’s labyrinth of narrow streets/alleys.
We were in complete culture shock during our drive to the medina. Everything had changed. Buildings that were once yellow, blue, green and browns had changed to the color of sand, white and taracotta. Peoples’ clothing changed from shorts, tank tops and sandals to djallabas (long, loose fitted garment), balghas (slip on leather shoes) and multicolored headscarves for women and traditional caps/hats for men. There were few dogs, but many cats and camels. How strange it was to see camels for the first time, and then to see them on street corners and boulevards. Palm trees lined the streets, men were pushing carts, and tan colored taxis (Mercedes Benz, all the same models) were speeding, honking and swerving in and out of traffic along with motorcycles (too numerous to even count) zooming by us breaking every safe riding rule you could imagine, including no helmets and infant passengers. Needless to say, it was quite a taxi ride to the riad, as we absorbed all the sights and sounds of Marrakech.
Once we arrived at the medina, our riad host, Siad, welcomed us to Morocco, grabbed one of our bags and started heading into the medina to lead us to our riad. We were all hot, sweaty and out of breath carrying our bags, trying to keep up with him as he led us through the labyrinth of the medina. By the time we arrived at the door, we were so relieved and finally were able to catch our breath.
Once inside The Riad L’Harmatten, we tried to take our bags upstairs to our room, but Siad, said “…no… wait …first hospitality…” (which we did not understand) and he led us to the courtyard area and had us sit down at a round nicely decorated tile top table. We were soon served dainties and mint tea (referred to as “Moroccan whiskey”, because most Moroccans do not drink alcohol). The tea was served in a beautiful silver teapot setting. Our mint tea had more sugar than fresh mint and it was served in clear glasses, with no handles, so the glasses were initially too hot to hold. The tea required a little getting used to, but Len liked it right off. We discovered after a few days in Marrakech, that traditional Moroccan hospitality is to serve guests mint tea from ornate beautiful silver teapots, often with very fancy glasses with decorative silver, gold and royal looking designs. Even how they pour the tea is special, like an acquired skill; they tip the teapot high above the table and then somehow pour it right into the middle of the glass, without spilling a drop. It is really quite something to see and from the way it is presented and served, it really does make you feel special.
Our riad was a traditional Moroccan riad; which is a mud-brick construction courtyard mansion, (that originally belonged to a prominent Moroccan family) which has now been converted into a guesthouse. It had a central courtyard/garden area at ground level, with an open air roof, with the upper floors looking down into the courtyard including a terrace on the roof. All the rooms face in towards the centre. At ground level, the courtyard was bordered with a guest room, kitchen and also some open lounge rooms filled with large sofas, many decorative pillows and large ornate round tables in the centre of each room. The décor was colorful and bright and all the rooms and corridors had large African made area carpets decorating the floors. The walls and floors were covered with many different tiling patterns and arrangements. Each guest room, including ours was completely unique with different furniture and décor. Getting to stay in this wonderful ancient building was a great start to our arrival in Morocco.
The best part of the riad for the kids, was Sophie and Carolyn, the resident turtles. The kids loved watching them slowly meander around the main floor, soaking up the sunshine, sometimes crawling under the area carpets to sleep and often making their way towards us to curiously look up at us and circle around where we were sitting.
Most of our time in Marrakech was spent wandering around the medina. The afternoons were very hot (high 30’s to low 40’s) so we usually hid indoors until later in the day when it got a little cooler. By the way, our room did have air conditioning, which we loved. During the day the Djemaa-el-Fna (or more commonly referred to as the “square”) was almost empty. You could walk straight across the square without anyone bumping into you and stopping you for handouts, or to buy small packets of Kleenex, bottles of water, trinkets, souvenirs or whatever item they were selling that day. In contrast, the square comes alive at night. Food stands appear out of nowhere; dozens of juice stands have long lineups, waiting for a glass of freshly made orange juice for 4 Dirhams (less than 55 cents Canadian). There are snake charmers (yes, with live Cobras!!!), acrobats, monkeys doing tricks, and of course the con artists trying to take your money. While walking around the square and the souks you have to have your wits about you. You have to always be watching for motorcycles whizzing by you, almost knocking you out. There are donkeys packed down pulling carts, or men pushing carts through the narrow streets, there are henna tattoo artists grabbing your hand trying to get more business and kiosk/shop/restaurant owners shouting out loudly, “…Hello!!! English???… come look for free!!!”. There are people everywhere, some just strolling around, street performers/acrobats, us along with others, who are very obviously tourists, locals, business owners, children, couples, police, horses with buggies for hire, street people asking for handouts and just about every kind of person in any circumstance that you can imagine. For the Moroccan people the “square”, medina and any public area become the social hub of the community. They come together to walk, talk, do business, play chess, eat and share mint tea.
On one of our walks through the medina we had the pleasure to see a woodworker at work in his alcove sized shop. He had a wood lathe powered by his foot and a rope wrapped around the spindle that held the wood. He was working with cedar, which he said was from the nearby High Atlas Mountains. He had very sharp chisels and spun the small branch of cedar and transformed it into two small necklace pieces, including a wooden ring around each of the pieces themselves (without cutting, gluing or clamping). It was amazing to see how he did this. He then gave one of each to Noah and Aurora. He said the art of woodturning as he demonstrated to us was brought to Marrakech by Jewish families whom had moved there well over 1000 years ago. The craft of wood turning then was passed within families, from generation to generation. Len was amazed to have seen how this was all done without any use of power tools, nor a single volt of electricity. Now when we look at the decorative spindle work of Morocco and other parts of the world, we will have a much deeper appreciation of it.
The sights and sounds of Marrakech can we overwhelming. The huge mass of people, the loud buzz of hundreds of people talking, shouting, the humming of motorcycles, the clip clop of the donkey’s and horses’ hooves on the cobblestone streets. Additionally, five times a day you can hear the call for prayer coming from the loud speakers in the minerats of the many mosques. The exhaust from the taxis and motorcycles, the scent of freshly cut lumber (cedar and other exotic woods from woodworking shops), the smell of horse/donkey manure, sweaty body odor, scents of incensce, spices and grills/smoke cooking up delicious foods, the smell of freshly squeezed orange juice. It is all so exciting, unique and wonderful.
On one day we took a horse and buggy ride. Aurora had been asking for a while, and we decided to give it a try. Len decided to stay back for quiet and get some work done so the kids and I went out exploring. We were told Morocco has many beautiful gardens, so we thought we would check one out. We stopped and explored the Jardin Majorelle. This garden was a gift to Marrakech by Yves Saint Laurent. When he died in 2008, his ashes were scattered throughout the garden. Walking in the garden was a treat. It was calm, quiet and shaded. No one was trying to sell you anything. We enjoyed walking through the garden looking at the huge cactus, palm trees and lily pads.
We were starting to need fresher air, space and a bit more calm than Marrakech was offering so we hired a driver to take us to the Cascades D’Ouzoud. We were told it was a 2 hour drive, but it turned our to be more like 3 hours each way. The three tiered waterfall drops 110m into the canyon of Oued el-Abid. Once there we hired another guide to get us to the bottom of the waterfall. We weaved our way down the mountain stopping periodically to take a picture or catch our breath.
Once at the bottom we were able to cool off with a swim. However, at the bottom, I noticed that the women were not swimming, they were sitting on rocks, fully dressed and dipping their feet into the water. Throughout the week I had noticed that the women were not running the shops, not cooking at the grills, not waiting tables….only the men were. Women were walking around the souks, arms linked together, tending to their children and chatting. There had been times I was asked if I was a man because I made a decision for our family. Well, seeing this, there was no way I was going to put on my bathing suit. Len and the kids jumped in and enjoyed the cool water. Len and Noah were even brave enough to jump off the rocks into the water. (Yes, I said Len. He actually jumped twice.). After about 45 minutes of playing in the water, it was time to make our way back up to find our driver. But first we had to stop and see the monkeys. These were the same monkeys as the ones we saw at Gibraltar. We were lucky enough to see a few baby monkeys hiding in the trees. Most have become so comfortable around humans that they will eat right out of a person’s hand. Probably, not a good thing for the monkeys in the long run, so we did not engage the monkeys in that way. We continued on our way passing small souvenir shops and cafes that lined the long, steep and tiring path back up the hill, until we came to the restaurant where our driver was waiting for us. We enjoyed a well deserved supper before driving back to Marrakesh.
As a bonus, our driver was very friendly and talkative. He shared a lot of social and political history about Morocco with us. It was a very informative and interesting time spent.
We enjoyed our time in Marrakech, and the multisensory experience of the medina. We also visited a former palace, which had been converted to a museum of art, culture, history and architecture. We enjoyed Moroccan cuisine such as tajine, couscous, pastella and a sampling of baking. There were so many restaurants in the medina, that we ate at different ones every night. We became quite comfortable wandering around the medina and before long didn’t worry about getting lost in the maze of little streets. We will take away many fond memories of Marrakech and the genuine hospitality of the people there.