Marrakech and Madrid (part 1: first time in Africa)

Saturday 

We took our well-worn path to O’Hare and through the security line. We made a quick stop in American Airlines’ Flagship Lounge before going to the gate. The flight itself was delayed an hour getting out of the gate but we were ultimately on our way through the night.

Sunday

We arrived in Madrid in time for our connection, having made up time overnight. After an easy transfer and stop in the lounge, we boarded our flight for Marrakech. The flight was short, but unfortunately the cabin was warm and slightly nauseating. But two hours later we were on the ground in Morocco.

First impression: the Marrakech airport is beautiful! They’ve made a lot of improvements recently and it shows. We made our way through customs and out to the sea of people picking up travelers. We found the person who would take us most of the way to the riad (or guesthouse) where we’d be staying. He had a van parked nearby; after some nifty maneuvering to get out of the lot, we were driven around the old city walls to an entrance on the north side. We were handed off to one of the riad’s employees, who walked us through the city to the riad itself.

Walking through the old city.

Check in was marvelous and easy, setting the standard for the outstanding service we had throughout our stay. We unpacked and then retired to an outdoor seating area for a nap. It’s worth noting that while the daytime temperatures went well into the 90s Fahrenheit, shade and light breezes made it a delight to sit outside.

We showered and changed for the evening, leaving for our food tour. The tour started in the Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakech. I was a little nervous about walking through the souks and likely getting lost, but we wanted to see them and I needed to get over myself. So we got directions from the hotel staff and set out. It turned out easier than I expected and we were never bothered on our walk. It took most of an hour to get to our destination where we met our guide for the evening.

Jemaa el-Fna near dusk.

The tour, focused on street food, was excellent! We made several stops along the way, eating sheep’s head, tagine, olives, bean soup and roll up pancake with onions and tomato, savory donuts, escargot, couscous with vegetables, sardine burgers, and two desserts (carrot orange yogurt, smoothies and pastries). We also saw multiple souks and checked out an underground oven where they roast sheep whole. Needless to say, we were stuffed by the end. We took a tuk tuk back to the riad after our guide explained where we were going. The driver got only a little lost but we made it back okay. We ended with a glass of wine on the rooftop before going to bed.

Monday

We woke up around 8:30am, mostly recovered from jet lag. We had a wonderful breakfast at the riad: breads, yogurt, jams, fruit salad, cheese, cake, and espresso. We used the time to plot our our day. Having spent the previous evening in the souks, we decided to instead explore Le Jardin Secret in the western part of the old city.

The walk to Le Jardin Secret was pleasant and the garden itself was perfect. We strolled around and found a place to sit for a while and people-watch. (It was worth it for all the Instagrammers taking meticulously posed selfies and pictures.)

After leaving, we walked to Ba Bouche for lunch. We enjoyed Moroccan salads, mixed skewers, lamb tagine, and mint tea. We ate outside and lingered for over two hours, just enjoying the temperature and ambience. Eventually, we left to go to the south end of the old city. Our first stop was the Koutoubia Mosque, which has the tallest minaret in the city. We stopped there to again people-watch around the mosque. It’s also close to the Jemaa el-Fna so we saw plenty of foot traffic in that direction.

Our next stop was the Palace el Badi, a 16th century palace now in ruins. We arrived maybe an hour before it closed, which gave us plenty of time to explore.

After the palace closed, we walked south to our final destination: Cafe Clock. Virginia had heard about it as a multicultural destination and we decided to go for snacks and dinner. They have different programs each evening, and that night was storytelling. As the sun started to set, they (two men and a woman) began. The first man explained that they were working to keep traditional oral storytelling alive and wanted to give us a flavor of how it had been in the past. Three people told stories:

  1. The woman told a story of the barber, the beautiful woman, and the judge and his daughter
  2. The first man told a story of the lumberjack and his wife, the king, and the prime minister
  3. The second man told a story in Arabic, which wasn’t explained but the performance was mesmerizing!

We profusely thanked the storytellers and called our riad to help us get a taxi. They were great as ever and sent us a taxi to get us all the way back. We enjoyed a little downtime on the roof before calling it a day. 

Tuesday

We woke up late and didn’t go down to breakfast until 10am. We enjoyed breads, yogurt, jams, fruit salad, cheese, cake, and espresso, and then set out for our destination.

We walked west out of the city wall and into the new city, which is much more modern but nods to the old town. We followed other tourists to the Jardin Majorelle and Musée Yves Saint Laurent, which had a combined ticket you could get at a discount. The Jardin was closer so most people started there. So we went to the Musée YSL which had a short line and got our tickets.

Visiting the Musée YSL was nice, though neither of us are such fashion connoisseurs that we fully understood the ins and outs of his vision. We appreciate good design, though, and found it at the YSL Cafe. We had a light lunch, sharing a couscous with beef and vegetables and enjoying good coffee. After lunch, we walked around the Jardin Majorelle and visited the Musée Berbere. It wasn’t as serene as Le Jardin Secret, but we enjoyed the variety of plants and the artifacts in the museum.

Having spent much of our time in the sun, we walked back to the riad for a relaxing afternoon out of the heat. The riad might have been the MVP of the trip — it was a sanctuary whenever we needed it.

We had our final dinner of the trip at the riad, which was wonderful! We had mixed salad with avocado, hearts of palm, rice, corn, tomato, olive, cabbage; roasted chicken with preserved lemon; couscous with vegetables (Parmesan-esque in flavor and texture) with harissa; and finished with pastille with plum. We also had a Moroccan wine: Chateau Roslane Cabernet/Merlot/Syrah 2015, which we enjoyed very much.

Wednesday 

We made a point of waking early to finish packing and have breakfast before leaving for the airport. We savored our last breakfast – breads, yogurt, jams, fruit salad, Moroccan flat bread, espresso – before settling up. As I was paying, Virginia found out we could purchase the small tagines they used for fruits, nuts, and jellies. So we bought four. Unfortunately, I’d already paid all our other charges and they asked for cash for the tagines. The riad manager drove us to an ATM to get cash for the tagines and then onward to the airport.

We quickly made our way through the lines – boarding passes, security, passport control – and into the lounge to await our flight to Madrid for the next part of the trip. We found we enjoyed Marrakech well above expectations and look forward to someday exploring more of Morocco.

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