When someone mentions Africa you think of poverty, despair, hunger and Bob Geldof. When you mention North Africa, you think of countries like Syria and the current conflict. But if someone said let’s go to Morocco what would you think? My initial thoughts were, here’s a country perched on the edge of the desert, I guess it will be dry. I couldn’t have been further from the truth and Marrakech was going to open my eyes to a continent that I had never seen.
Leaving Spain behind as we descended I spied snow-covered mountains in the distance. I turned to Elena and had to ask where are we? And why are there mountains in Northern Africa? My loving wife gave me a quick geography lesson. What I was looking at was the most majestic mountain range in Northern Africa. The Atlas Mountains separate the Sahara desert from the Mediterranean. It’s these very mountains that bring life to Marrakech.
Gone now are the terracotta roofs and lime white plaster buildings of southern Spain. Now the buildings take on a more earthen structure. Each building is looking the same in this monochromatic colour scheme of ochre, terracotta and mud. One would be forgiven in thinking that the buildings looked rather boring compared to Spain, but as I entered into the Medina which is the older, more congested and central part of Marrakech, I discovered that the facade was the front to something more beautiful.
Elena had decided to book us into a traditional Riad which is the home of the native people of Marrakech. Just as well we organised an airport transfer to our Riad, as the streets are so tight and so small, we had to stop and literally walk away through the narrow cobbled streets to find our abode for the next three nights.
As darkness crept in I wondered how I would find my way back to where the taxi had left us, but as we rounded a bend I spied a small written sign in English pointing to the lane we needed to take. Soon my fears were allayed as we were greeted by Alex and his family at Riad Slawi. After checking in and sampling my first Moroccan mint tea, we were given a hand drawn map that shows the way to the Central market Square, Jamaa El Fna. As it was getting dark we thought it wise to make our way to the square for something to eat.
It was here amongst the craziness that is Marrakech with its street buskers, telling stories of old snake charmers and the stalls filled with every trinket, that we discovered one of the most delicious traditional meals in Marrakech. A beef Tajine is a must for anyone trying traditional Moroccan food. There is only one problem with this dish and that is it’s too big. It’s massive and I struggled to get through it. And once again it’s washed down with more Moroccan mint tea. Morocco is it dry country and what I mean by that is that there is no alcohol, so every meal has the option of juice or Moroccan mint tea.
As night closed in and the roller doors came down on the shops, suddenly all my landmarks were disappearing and we had to make our way back to the Riad. Elena was starting to get worried that we may not find our way back but giving my homing bird GPS senses and reminding her of how I managed to get home totally drunk when in Huacachina Peru I managed to allay her fears.
Greeted by Alex on our return he wanted to let us know that our guide for tomorrow on our trip to the Atlas Mountains would arrive at 10 AM, but tomorrow the time will be 9 AM, as tonight will be the change for daylight savings.
I love breakfasts in new countries, you never know quite what to expect or what the traditions are, but here in Marrakech I found a new love and passion for freshly squeezed orange juice. We were served omelettes, toast and jam, and once again the forever present Moroccan mint tea. I was in heaven, this tea is addictive.
Our guide came all the way to our Riad and then guided us back to the same place where the taxi had dropped us the night before. The journey up into the high Atlas Mountains was going to take us over an hour. So we chatted to our guide and just took in the scenery. You’d be forgiven for thinking that North Africa was dry and almost desert like, but I was wrong, there is so much greenery here from the water run-off and snow melt from the mountains.
Elena, my ever loving travel agent had done a lot of research and found that we could ride mules up the mountain, so saddling up with our mountain guides, we slowly edged our way up on our surefooted steeds. In some places the path was rocky and steep and we just held on to the rope and let the mules do the work.
High up in the mountains we finally reached our destination, a small restaurant where we would stop for lunch. The scenery from up here was breathtaking. I’m really starting to fall in love with this country of Morocco. Once again we were served oversize meals of fresh green salad and another beef Tanjine.
Now it was a case of Newtons law, “what goes up must come down”, which meant that there was going to be a steep descent ahead. This time with fully laden stomachs. Our driver bought us a different way back to town and explained that tomorrow he would embark on a five day journey over the mountains and into the Sahara desert. It’s a trip that I would love to do but sadly time is always our enemy when travelling. I can’t wait for the day when we travel full-time.
As it was getting dark, we didn’t want to head too far into the Medina and have the fear of getting lost. So we ate close to home. Not that we needed much food as we were still full from lunch, so yet again another Tanjine. This time I thought I would change it up a little bit and ordered chicken.
Once again the best way to discover a new city is taking a walking tour. This time we decided rather than take the big group tour, we would hire a private guide and go with a group of half a dozen people. This way you find out a little more, and the journey becomes a little more intimate. You discover those little details that you might just miss in a larger group.
Walking through the Medina we discovered the spice markets, the colours were just a visual symphony and a kaleidoscope of beauty. Then we wandered on through the market of skins. Laid before us were hundreds of goat and sheep skins all bundled up for sale. The busy streets, lane ways and little shops were full of hustle and bustle. From ironmongers and blacksmiths, to tile cutters and stonemasons, it was like a giant step back into ancient times as we immersed ourselves deeper into the heart of the Medina.
Our guide wanted to show us how the locals made bread and also the traditional bathhouse known as a Hammam. They do have one for tourists which is mixed, so husband-and-wife can share the same experience. In a traditional Hammam, there is one for men and one for women. Sadly, once again time was our enemy, and we never got to experience this while in Morocco.
Having spent so much time in the Medina we decided we take a walk ourselves to the new are part of Marrakech. To be honest I was a little disappointed as this newer shopping area tainted my taste of all things traditional. Sure if you like high-fashion, high end goods, overpriced shops and air-conditioned malls, then this is right up your alley, but unfortunately it’s not up mine.
I was just getting used to Marrakech when suddenly the magic carpet ride was ripped from underneath me. This morning we’re up early to return to the airport bound for Portugal and get another country to explore. But Marrakech filled a void that was empty. I’ve been given a titbit of knowledge of a continent raw, and to me still unknown. We’ve now brushed the continent of Northern Africa and it’s left a sweet taste in our mouths.
Marrakech you are magical, Morocco you are magnificent.
We will return, we will come back for more of your famous Moroccan mint tea.