In the last blog I detailed my first day in Morocco, a brief exploration of the beach side town of Essaouira. I was only in Morocco for 3 nights, so although I was only just getting my bearings in Essaouira, I soon found myself rushing off to Marrakesh. The short bus journey took 2 hours, the highlight of which a stop at a rural cafe, where I got my first taste of Moroccan mint tea. Also known as Berber whiskey (for the Berber people traditionally don’t drink alcohol), the mint tea was available in every cafe and restaurant and was always a welcome refreshment. When the bus eventually entered Marrakesh, I immediately noted the frantic nature of the place compared to Essaouira. Hoards of bus drivers approached me as I exited the bus, all vying for my dirhams. I managed to talk one driver into giving me a pretty good price, so I was soon on my way to the Riad (which is a traditional Moroccan house).
The Marrakesh traffic was mad, with lanes filled with motorbikes, taxis and cars. The driver insisted not to use my seat belt, which seemed standard among all taxi drivers I encountered. After being let out of the taxi seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I eventually found the Riad, and met up with my fellow New Zealand traveling companion Stefan. We decided to venture into the central market for dinner. The chaos continued as we followed the streets of Marrakesh into the market square. The place was crammed – with people selling things, taxis parked, motorbikes, cyclists, cars and horses. A bit of a difference to the relative calm of Essaouira. We made it to the market and the confrontational style of Marrakesh market owners was immediately apparent. Store owners will approach you directly, especially if you’re a tourist, to convince you to buy their stock or eat at their establishment. If you’re good at saying no it won’t be hard to resist, but if you’re soft, you could easily find yourself shelling over considerable amounts for trinkets and things you probably don’t need. Market owners will double the price of anything if you’re a tourist – so haggling and bargaining is absolutely necessary to get a good deal.
We walked around this for a short time, spotting local performers, drum circles and guitarists performing. Not staying long however, as too long a pause and you’re likely to be accosted by a local to hand over some dirhams. We eventually found a small tent to eat at, and to great pleasure I dined on my first Tagine. A Targine is a traditional Berber dish, named after the Targine pot that it’s cooked and served piping hot in, and is somewhat similar to a stew. It comes with a variety of meats such as Chicken, Lamb, Beef and sometimes Rabbit, with a spicy sauce, with olives and maybe dates and a few vegetables. They are delicious and a major culinary highlight for visiting Morocco.
Later that night we explored the bar scene in Marrakesh, which isn’t huge as being a mostly dry Muslim country, the majority of the drinking is partaken by the tourists. We found a pretty touristy piano bar and had a few cocktails by a swimming pool, before relocating to a more authentic local bar. Drinking the local beer, Casablanca, we made friends with a local musician working at the establishment, and attempted to jam along with his Oud guitar riffs. The night was slipping by, and it wasn’t until 1pm that we would leave the club, heading back to our Riad in order to get a bit of sleep before the day trip we had planned – which would be beginning at 7am the next morning. It took sometime to escape the bar without offending the locals (or getting into trouble), as a couple of men at the bar were attempting to sell us things we probably didn’t need – perhaps taking advantage of our tourist ways. We got home, but not before being followed by a random man. The walk to the Riad was definitely uncomfortable, due to this man shadowing us. We gave him a cigarette, made it safely into our Riad, and were happy to end the night. Perhaps a slight warning the Marrakesh is not the safest at night, if you happen to go drinking.
The next morning saw Stefan and I slightly hazily embarking on our day return trip to see Aït Ben-Haddou, a mud-brick ksar against a mountainside, the set of many famous films such as Lawrence Of Arabia, Gladiator as well as another Moroccan location for Game Of Thrones. A Unesco world heritage site, this ksar is one of the best surviving examples of pre-Saharan Berber architecture, built around 17th century (but propagated from very early period architecture from the area) It’s a four hour drive from Marrakesh to Aït Ben-Haddou, winding through the atlas mountains, some of the highest peaks in North Africa. We’d planned to join a tour group to travel to the mud-brick ksar, although due to a booking error on my travel companions behalf, we ended up on a private tour. I was slightly hungover from the night before and being stuck in a car for many hours with just Stefan and our driver-guide Mustafa initially seemed a slight disappointment, as I had hoped to meet fellow travelers via a tour group. But the private tour had it’s positives – Mustafa was a very educated and gave us plenty of information on the Berber and Arab people in the area. We stopped off at an abandoned kasbah along the way – a ruin on the outside yet nearly untouched in elaborate design on the inside. The landscape was spectacular and Mustafa gave us plenty of opportunity to stop and take photos.
Once we reached Aït Ben-Haddou, we first stopped for lunch, this time trying the cous-cous on a rooftop restaurant with a view of the ksar. Sometimes – sitting a spectacular spot such as this one, viewing an ancient architectural monument, makes one feel that are pretty fortunate, and also fairly undeserving of experiencing such sights. Our generation has travel so easy, you can start to take for granted opportunities to see parts of the world that our ancestors would have had no chance to see. Being among places of splendor can seem transcendent, but just as much they can be fairly unaffecting. To this extent, we finished our meal, eating one of the best oranges I’ve ever eaten (Moroccan fruit and vegetables are notably delicious) and then with a Berber guide we were taken through-out the ksar. Regular people were living their lives in this celebrated traditional structure, with tourists in groups milling through-out. We were taken to the of the hill the the ksar sits beside, and were able to gaze down upon the structure, as well as some of the Lawrence of Arabia film set that still remained. Mustafa would later take us down to stand among the film set – which was a big highlight for me. I was able to touch the construction, see how hollow it was, and noted that up close how not that convincing the paint work appeared.
Then it was time to drive back to Marrakesh. The next four hours I would drift in and out of sleep, gazing upon the Moroccan landscape speeding by. I had seen hidden parts of North Africa that only a few years ago I could not have imagined actually being in a position to see, but for such brief a time, it was hard to know whether I was really able to make the most of it, or truly appreciate it at the time.