January 9, 2017

Marrakech Travelogue Part 3

We have booked our 3 days dessert safari leaving the day after so we had 1 more full day to spend in Marrakech.

We’ve already serendipitously toured the medina and has seen Ben Yousseff by ourselves the previous day, so we decided against a guide for the day. But if you go, and have limited time, a guide would be really helpful.

With nothing much on our agenda for the day, we asked our riad to arrange a taxi to bring us to Saadien Tomb. We were picked up by our driver right at the door. He parked just a couple blocks out and we could have easily found him but it was an appreciated thoughtful gesture and nice to start the day not worrying about getting lost.

Saadien tomb was sealed up for centuries until they were redicovered in a French aerial survey in 1917. The burial ground with 2 mausoleums and over 100 tombs scattered around the garden was well preserverved and has been restored to their former glory.

The Chamber of the 12 pillars mausoleum was spared no expense and was built from imported Italian Carrara marble with honeycomb muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) gilded with pure gold. This is the resting place of the Saadian sultan, princes and members of the royal household, including a few Jewish graves.

It is popular with stray cats and tourists for an entrance fee of 10 MaD. This is also where Kim got her first marriage proposal from a guide who speaks 7-8 languages. Declining the offer, we headed for brunch.

Brunch was a chicken tajine in Kasbah café just across the entrance of the tomb.

The weather is nice and chilly but sunny conducive for walking so we ambled down the avenue following some carriages transporting tourists and soon enough saw the minaret of Koutobia Mosque.

We knew then we were near the square and continued on for glasses of chilled freshly squeezed orange juice. So refreshing and cheap at just 4 dirhams a pop. We also always get extra half glasses if we oblige photo requests from the juice sellers. Shoot away then ha ha! As asians, we must really look so different from them to attract attention. To get less of the unwanted kind, I suggest that you dress properly with shoulders and knees covered. Morocco is still very traditional and a muslim country after all and it’s respectful to be well and decently dressed, well anywhere for that matter.

From the square we entered the souks again to explore more. I really wanted to see Souk de Epices or the Spice Market and I’m glad we did! It’s not too far away from the square really and it wasn’t difficult to find. We bought a few grams of menthol cystals and basically just got snap happy. There’s just too much to photograph.

To prepare for our dessert safari tour leaving in the morning, we proceeded to Carre Eden Mall in the new city to buy some supplies. A couple of local guys smiled at us and we smiled back. They then started weirdly following us around all over the mall and the groceries. That totally creeped us out and I was about ready to call the local police as we hightailed it out of there. As we wait for a cab, they passed us by but did nothing so maybe we weren’t really in any real danger. Still that was weird and made us be on guard and kept from being too friendly the rest of our trip.

Those kind of attention colored our Marrakech experience a bit but it wasn’t exactly horrible. And to be fair, we’ve met really friendly and kind locals who were generous with their time to help us out. 

November 30, 2016

Marrakech Travelogue Part 2

We woke up in the fog of jet lag and rain the next day just as the first call to prayer from the nearby mosque rang out. A place always has a distinct feel, smell and sound. Here, the sound is the Muslim call to prayer that rings out a few times in a day. It is melodic and powerful. I would always stop whatever I was doing to have a proper listen.

It was still dark after 7 am and no movement can be detected from downstairs but then we were getting in desperate need of coffee so we bundled for the 18 degrees chill and woke Isham, the reception on duty. We’ve noticed that Moroccans start their day quite late.

After a typical Moroccan breakfast spread of crepes, bread, cake, butter, jams, the most wonderful glasses of pure freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and mint tea, we asked for indoor sightseeing recommendations as the rain hasn’t let up. We were supposed to hire a guide for a day to bring us to the medina and other places of interest but because of the weather, we decided to postpone it another day.

Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle was decided and just as we were heading there in our raincoats, the skies began to clear. It would rain on and off on that day but there were moments when the sun broke out. It is just our luck that when it pours, we are always sheltered or could easily find one. It did not became an issue and didn’t hamper our leisurely sightseeing.

The blue garden in the middle of the red city is a nice introduction before diving into the chaos of frenzied Marrakech. Peaceful shady lanes and gurgling fountain lined with exotic plants and towering palm trees. In the center is a vibrantly painted art deco building with Moorish charms. It houses the Berber Museum. The garden is open everyday with an entrance fee of 70 MaD + 30 MaD for the museum. Although photography is not allowed inside the museum, the displays are worth springing the extra 30 dirhams for. After YSL’s death in 2008, his ashes were scattered there.

After a lunch of sandwich fromage, spicy beef couscous and glasses of chilled fresh orange juice at a roadside café outside Majorelle, we hailed a shared grand taxi to bring us to Ben Youssef Madrasa.

Founded in 14th century, the madrasa is a former Islamic college and the largest in all of Morocco. It closed down in 1960 and was refurbished and reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.

Ben Youseff is in the midst of the souks (open air market place) in the medina and because of the narrow winding alleyways, it cannot be accessed by cars. The taxi dropped us of the outskirts with vague hand gestures to go right in. “Very easy. Go straight, turn right, straight, straight, right, left, very easy.” We were skeptic and might have stopped listening after the “turn right” part but what the hell, we dove right in.

The word labyrinth in describing the medinas could get overused, but it is just apt. One foot in, one turn and you are in a zigzagging maze.

We have terrible sense of direction to begin with so we’re prepared to embrace getting lost in the maze. And even if we happen to be good withs maps, medinas are the sorts that defies maps. Google and Waze got nothing on its twists and turns. That would have been frustrating anywhere else, but in the treasure filled souks, it is part of the fun. First day in and I was already wondering how many handmade Moroccan goodies can I fit in our suitcase.

After all that we’ve read about the shopkeepers and touts, I’m surprised they aren’t too persistent and if we politely decline and thank their offers of getting into their shops to “just look”, we get a “shukran” (thank you in Arabic) back.

You’ll read a lot of tips and tricks for visiting the medina, but this could be the best travel tip I can dish out. “No open toed shoes.” Donkey pulled carts. Donkeys. Donkey dungs.

And when you hear urgent warnings of “ba-lak, ba-lak” in the cramped alleys, move right away or risk the real possibility of getting squashed by donkeys, and or carts.

We kept getting waylaid with pretty handmade things but at one turn, in our aimless wander, we actually found Ben Youssef. We excitedly paid for the 20 MaD entry fee per person and marveled at the exquisite craftmanship and zellij mosaic tiles. We probably spent some 45 minutes to an hour there exploring the area and marveling at the intiricate .

We’ve walked off lunch by then and was getting hungry so we made our way out with the intent of finding the square – Djemaa El Fna. We followed the signs but the last one at the corner was scraped off. Several locals then pointed at several directions and one guy kept following us muttering “the square, the square”. We thanked him as we refused his directions and company but he stuck stubbornly to our side. This went on uncomfortably for a few blocks even when we pointedly ignored him that when a taxi passed by, we hurriedly got in it. That’s when he got kind of aggressive and slammed the cab door prompting a shouting match between him and the driver while we sat at the back a bit shocked. I was a bit shocked and on the verge of crying!

I know it is different for everyone and we weren’t really hurt but it got frustrating for me and disappointing how there seems to be a collective effort from a few to mislead tourists.

But that incident was soon forgotten as we got to the infamous Djemaa El Fna.

On the surface, the square is populated with a massive market, identical carts of freshly squeezed fruit juice vendors, veiled henna ladies who will grab your hand and paint on without warning, smoky food stalls, traditional water sellers and mobs of locals and tourists. We avoided the monkeys on leash and the snake charmers. It is a chaotic frenzy with so much going on! It is exciting and filled with interesting bits of culture. This is the Marrakech most people expect it to be, us included.

We sat there with cold drinks and pizza at one of the terraced restaurants content to watch and soak it all in until the lights changed.

click here for MARRAKECH PART 1

November 21, 2016

Marrakech Travelogue Part 1

After an almost 30 hour transit from Manila via Qatar Airways with a layover in Doha, we finally struggled out of Menara International Airport. Utterly exhausted but couldn’t be less excited to finally set foot in one of our dream destinations – Marrakech! We’ve been looking forward to this trip since last year when we stayed at Hotel Figuerroa in Los Angeles (California) and was floored with its Moorish architecture and charm and decided right there and then that we are going to Morocco for our next trip. I am so happy we’ve made it happen!

We have over 2 weeks to explore the country and with the long haul flights, we have simple plans on our first day – check in, grab our first Moroccan meal and finally sleep on a proper bed. Pretty straight forward! And so we think.

Armed with a crude map drawn by Youseff - our bearded but soft-spoken riad receptionist, we set off to find dinner. The directions looked easy enough to navigate and follow.

We were ok for a few meters in the winding medina until we came to a fork in the road and hesitated to consult the map. That’s when a gang of kids mobbed us! They persistently offered to lead the way and cannot be shaken off.

Fresh off the plane dog-tired and on a different timezone, this is the last thing we want to encounter - a scam we've read so much about. We knew this scam but they still managed to get me lose my bearings, intimidate us and had us turned around. (Kimbee says to speak for myself). I blame it on exhaustion.

Their numbers were growing by the minute and when I asked the ladies or the shopkeepers for directions - which is supposedly how to get around that scam - they would tell us to just go with the kids. That’s when we decided to just go back to our riad, but even then, the kids were trailing us, sometimes even blocking our way. When we’re almost to our door, they figured which riad were we staying at and collectively started chanting the name of our accommodations like they led us there and started demanding money.

When Youseff opened the door and saw us surrounded by the kids, he instantly realized what just happened and started berating them in Arabic. They left but not without ruckus and some half hearted attempts at throwing stones at the wooden door. What a welcome from these little rascals!

We were resigned to eating whatever we could find in the immediate vicinity as we’ve passed some stores nearby but Youseff took pity on us, locked up and brought us to Riad Edwards himself and arranged for his brother to bring us back after dinner. Finally we’ve found our first Moroccan dinner of really tender juicy chicken tajine in orange and olives with dense chewy bread and a glass of Marrakech’s famous orange juice. We dined by the poolside in a beautiful courtyard with air perfumed of citrus. It was worth the trouble and quite possibly our favorite meal in Marrakech.

For 3 nights, we booked our stay at Riad El Jadide at the medina. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house, or sometimes even a palace (!) with an interior garden or a courtyard. Ours came with tiered terraces, cosy bhous (seating nooks) and a rooftop that encourages lounging. Definitely historic and authentic.

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