A jaunt to Marrakesh, Morocco
“To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines.” So said Edith Wharton, in 1927. The war time British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill called Marrakesh the “Paris of the Sahara” and Yves Saint Laurent, once stated that Marrakesh taught him colour.
The prospects of spending a few days in Marrakesh this year was was exciting. What I looked forward to the most was the cuisine and warm weather.
The red city from the air!
As my flight from London began to hover and descend into Marrakesh Airport, a glimpse out of the window brought the “Red City” into view, so called because of the ubiquitous red mud used in virtually all of the city’s buildings.
Marrakesh is only a 4 hour flight from london but the airport seemed a world away from the sophistication of Gatwick Airport in Luton but certainly more modern than Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport. Memories of my first foray into North Africa began to seep into my consciousness. That trip was to Libya en route to Accra, pre “Brother” Gaddafi. I recall an airport littered with the remains of what looked like Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) but on closer inspection were really just Unidentified certainly never to be flown again boeing, goodness knows what. Airport personnel seemed to have been properly schooled in the art of rudeness and seemed obsessed in shooing us off quickly away into our connecting flight.
I could feel my body temperature rise a couple of degrees as Libya’s tripoli experience flashed through my mind. Thankfully that experience was not repeated.
My riad, (the name given to a traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard) had a car and a friendly driver waiting and within 15 minutes I found myself being welcomed heartily by a rather sophisticated Swiss national, the owner of the Riad terrase des oliviers.
My Odyssey with mint tea promptly began after the exchange of pleasantries. In my humble city of London tea would have sufficed, In West and other parts of Africa kola nuts or a cool glass of water would have done the trick. Certainly not in Morocco. It had to be mint tea and a handful of delicious sweets.
Mint tea was served in the court yard where the riad owner, spent at least 20 minutes in schoolling us on the dos and don’ts of Marrakesh. Under no circumstances were we to accept to be guided by a local when we got lost, especially by a teenager. He gave us a comprehensive list of the most popular and authentic restaurants and a brief lesson on how to haggle like a local pro!
Conquering the Streets
Armed with a map of the city, we set off within an hour of landing in Marrakesh to explore. That exploration quickly began to feel like a very very bad idea within minutes of walking out of the serenity of the riad into the souks of the old city. With the excepton of a similar experience on the streets of Dakar in Bangladesh, this seemed compared to anywhere else I’ve been to like madness mixed with an unhealthy dose of pandemonium and havoc! It seemed like we had newbies written on our forehead. We were game for anyone who wanted to make a quick buck by offering to take us to their “Uncle’s” shop or to where we could get the best tagine in town. The temptation to get stuck in a tagine was too much. I broke the first rule by tacitly accepting to be led to a restaurant we had heard was amazing but came to my senses quickly to the chorus of insults and indignation from the guide. Within minutes I’d bought a bag of mint for what by the end of the trip I realised was vastly over priced. Jumping helter skelter from one side of Marrakeshe’s narrow cobbled Biblical era streets to the other, playing Russian roulette with horse drawn carts, motor cycles and cars frayed my senses even further.
In Elias Canetti’s, The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a visit, he states “Travelling, one accepts everything; indignation stays at home. One looks, one listens, one is roused to enthusiasm by the most dreadful things because they are new. Good travellers are heartless.” Well time to live up to that!
Within a few hours we’d worked out that the trick to not getting hit on the streets by fast moving everything from horses to cars was to stay ruthlesly to the rule of walking on an imaginary straight line. Do not under any, well most circumstances make any sudden movements. Try not to gaze longingly into shops, look souk stall owners in the eyes or ask for directions. After a couple of days walking in the old city was a breeze and hardly anyone looked in our direction. The enemy has at last been subdued without fighting but conquered with love and acceptance!
Adrienne Clarkson once remarked, “Each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves.” Marrakesh offers travellers the opportunity to own a craft or two often made by hand and carved out of some natural substance.
The souks in Marrakesh are filled with wares, most of which are native to Morocco and touristy, however, a keen eye could also uncover things for sale that could elicit a slight scratch of the head. One such strange ware was a stash of vintage cameras I came across.
The digital camera is an incredible invention but there is something quite romantic about a vintage camera and to see a stack of them on sale in a Moroccan souk was surreal to say the least.
The Moroccan cooking pots above are not dissimilar to ones used in other parts of Africa. They are made of clay and are often used for slow cooking tagines. There is often no need to transfer the contents of the pot; it can be carried to the dinning table and you can eat directly from it. The cooking pot or tagine as its also called is amazing for conserving moisture whilst cooking as the steam condenses on the inside of the conical lid. The conical shape of the lid itself facilitates circulation within the dish helping to infuse food with spices and herbs to make flavours more intense. There are really few better ways to tenderise meat than to cook it in a traditional Moroccan cooking pot. I thought I knew what tenderised lamb tasted and felt like until I had a lamb tagine with potatoes. Tender in Morocco made in a tagine is really off the “tenderise” richter scale.
If your body is a writing pad and your tattoos your stories then you can henna your way through the souks of Marrakesh with ease. Henna I understand is made out of crushed leaves and twigs of the henna plant. Henna tattoos are of ofcourse not permanent and last for a few days. This particular design was imprinted, incredibly under less than a minute in the famous Djemaa El fna square and we managed to haggle the price down from a 100 Dirham to 20 Dirham (just about or under 2$). Well done!
Ikechukwu Izuakor once said, “To live without purpose is like to wake up in the morning, walk out of your door into the street without destination”. Marrakesh must be bereft of people without a purpose. The streets were full of the young and old; men and women; travellers and non-travellers all going about their business. Cyclists buzzed around like worker bees everywhere.
Finding our way onto the streets of Marrakesh was what fresh air is to life’s pessimist. We walked up and we walked down and finally we would walk straight into Marrakesh’s dying sunset. This ritual of spending hours on foot exploring every nook and cranny of Marakesh was never tiring but always exhilirating. Night often fell without sound or ceremony but one thing was constant. The excitement of dinner and where to go to find it!
Djemaa El fna
I am sure countless number of words have been written about Djemaa El fna. It is indeed the heart beat of Marrakesh and a hub for travellers and tourists. On my first day in Marrakesh, barely a few hours after landing I witnessed a friendly boxing bout between the two “gladiators” above. Everyone else around including the locals seemed just as amused as I was. Evenings were spent sampling some of the best food Morocco had to offer, including a dish of sheep’s head with its tongue, eyes and everything else very much intact.
I was fascinated by fruits in Morocco especially oranges, so much so that I had to share my experiences on them in a bit more detail here – Orange is the colour of Morocco.
Spices and Herbs
Morocco as I soon discovered was a haven for spices and herbs. There were hills or rather desert like dunes of spices in every souk I walked into. Dried ginger, black pepper, cumin and turmeric held sway. I brought back some mint (alongside a whole Moroccan tea set) and a small stash of saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.
The medley of Morocco’s spices forms the unique flavour of tagines and the ten most used spices in Moroccan cuisine are:
Cayenne (felfla), cinnamon (karfa), turmeric (quekoum), ginger (skinjbir), black pepper (elbezar), aniseed (nafaa), seaseme seeds (jinjelan), cumin (kamoon), paprika (felfla hlouwa), and saffron (zafrane).
My addiction to rice became very apparent in Marrakesh. Almost every meal was with bread which took a bit of getting used to. In the afternoons tagines were the order of the day probably after a series of cold and hot salads. Lamb and chicken tagines but, also beef and egg (above) were popular. Surprisingly I only had one couscous based meal which came with sausages. Every meal of course was deliciously washed down with a few cups, in my case of mint tea.
Food is always the number one factor I consider in travelling to any country. Morocco more than lived up to its reputation as a great place for some of the best food i’ve ever had. Marrakesh is just the first step in my odyssey with this country. Rabat, Fez, Casablanca and other areas of Morocco are all on my must go to places list. I can’t wait!