7am we dock in the port of Casablanca. It’s still dark when we load the bus and begin our two and a half hour ride across Morocco to spend the day in Marrakech. We know little about Morocco other than the idealized picture of it painted by American cinema and media. The country recently (1993) allowed women the right to vote, run for office and other common liberties taken for granted most places. Casablanca is dilapidated and rather sketchy looking in the dark with trash littered streets and it’s stereotypical port city feel making us glad we decided to take the day trip.
The landscape along the ride is rocky with sparse brush, cactus and small trees dotting the way. The rocky mountains appear through the fog and remnants of old stone buildings sit next to mud homes surrounded by barbed wire every few miles of the sandy expanse. In the centers of some of the dusty fields sit lush green landscaped squares surrounded by fancy walls with mansions in the middle. Like an Oasis in the center of nothingness, most of the compounds had Olive tree groves as a boarder as if to stave off the hungry that might have made it past the wall.
The long desert drive is broken up by a stop at a small roadside cafe. We ordered a kettle of Moroccan mint tea and a chocolate tart. It was divine! It became our mission to find mint tea in the market once we arrived. After driving a little further, tall date palms begin to spring up around the road where we enter Marrakech nicknamed the red city due to the red brick construction of the area.
Marrakech is the fourth largest city in the Kingdom of Morocco and is located west of the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. The city was founded in 1062, by Abu Bakr ibn Umar, a chieftain and cousin of the Almoravid king, Yusuf ibn Tashfin. The medina quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Marrakech is one of the busiest cities in Africa and serves as a major economic center and tourist destination. It is one of North Africa's largest centers of wildlife trade, despite the illegality.
For centuries it has been known as the location of the tombs of Morocco's seven patron saints. Since the independence of Morocco, Marrakesh has thrived as a tourist destination. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the city became a trendy hippie mecca. It attracted western musicians, artists, film directors, actors, models, and fashion divas, leading tourism revenues to double in Morocco between 1965-1970. Yves Saint Laurent, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Jean-Paul Getty all spent significant time here.
We offload at Kutubiyya Mosque, the largest in Marrakesh, in the city center, snap a few photos and begin our travel through the Medina district. Starting at the main entrance we follow a cryptic alleyway to the Saadian tombs. Built in the 16th century as a mausoleum to bury numerous Saadian sultans, it was lost for many years until the French rediscovered it in 1917 using aerial photographs. The mausoleum comprises the corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty which ruled Morocco from 1549 to 1659. After learning some of their rich history and admiring the intricate carving that covers every inch of the facades we weave to the Bahia Palace.
The Bahia Palace is a grand building set in acres of gardens dotted with flowing fountains and stunning turquoise pools. The name Bahia translates to “brilliance”. Built in the late 19th century, the palace was intended to be the greatest palace of its time. Its vast court is decorated with a central basin and surrounded by four rooms for each wife and 12 rooms for the 24 concubines.
For lunch we visit Restaurant Dar Essalam down a tile decorated maze of stairs in the Souks. The atrium of this dim lit, underground seeming dwelling opens up to a 40ft elaborately crafted main hall where authentic Morroccan food is served with live music and talented bellydancers. A chunk of bread is served to scoop with lentils, eggplant, carrot, pumpkin and potatoes pureed to dip. Slightly spiced but not strong flavors, the first course is then followed by Chicken and olives in tagine clay pot served with couscous and various vegetables. The family style meal is rounded out with a bottle of red Spanish wine. After lunch we resurrected from what was becoming a cozy tomb and head to a local pharmacy where we learn about Argan oil and natural remedies. We purchased the nigella seeds for congestion, two bags of mint tea and a square of musky yet sweet smelling amber resin.
Once we have made purchases outside the masses, we enter the center-square bazar of the Medina, Jemaa el-Fnaa "the assembly of trespassers”. Holy Chaos! Snake charmers, monkeys, fortune tellers, spices, daggers, oils, tunics, juices and everything else one’s untamed mind could imagine were for sale / haggle. The market fingered off in every direction down alleys, dark passages and opened up into mini centers. A bird’s eye would have been helpful here.
With one hour to wander and shop we set off weaving between the stalls of brightly colored fruits and herbs. It’s insanely crowded and the vendors are constantly forcing their products on you. We buy a few items for family as we venture deeper into the alleys. Fancy beaded and embroidered shoes, colorful lanterns and shiny tea kettles are some of the most eye-catching wares hanging along the shop fronts. Scooters, motor bikes, donkeys and people weave through the space like liquid finding its level but mostly less gracious.
We find our way back to the main square without getting lost and snake charmers had started up with their tall dancing cobras and tawny scaled sidewinders. Trying to subtly take photos, camera at hip, a man with a chained baboon sets it on my shoulder demanding money to take it off. A second unseen ambushing monkey is placed on the other arm, we haggle price for unwanted monkeys on arms and take a photograph. Small bills inside tight pockets are a must here. Always seem like you’re giving the rest you have and the hassling will stop. We make our way back to the bus in the bustling crowd before we begin our three and a half hour ride back. Traffic is terrible as it’s Moroccan New Year. We sit still in traffic longer than expected and barely make it back to the ship before departure. Sighs of relief ensued during departure as we set sail for the Canary Islands.
Photos // Keith Ketchum Photography