Morocco (Marrakesh & Essaouira)

December 21, 2014 - January 1, 2015

with Andrew Chapman



Andrew, an English friend of my brother's (I'd say an "old" friend but that could be misconstrued!), invited me along on his vacation.  I'd been to Africa twice but not Morocco.  The trip was marked by illness on my part, but we managed to tour the animal market, drive around the country and eat well.  I also visited Marrakesh.  It was 55-65 degrees, bright & sunny.


I didn't understand at first why Andrew was vacationing in Essaouira, a fishing town on the coast, when Marrakesh was available.  Turns out he'd been to Marrakesh three times and had no desire to return.  I understood why after I was there a day.  He was looking for relaxation.  But since I'd never seen Marrakesh, I spent my first two days there before joining him.  He was so right!  Marrakesh was not relaxing because most of the local population in the tourist areas are just trying to separate you from your money.

Essaouira is picturesque, and authentic in its bustling fish pier.  It is also possible to buy a few pretty things at fixed prices -- no haggling!

However Essaouira is limited, except in its selection of restaurants -- seemingly infinite -- so we made a couple of road trips.  The first was a guided tour of an argan oil co-op, an animal market, and... not much else.  For the second we rented a car and I drove us around the countryside.

We also took a cooking course, and can now make you a tajine.

New Year's Eve was also our eve of departure.  We had a fine dinner and, more notably, talked to the Saudi Arabian couple next to us.

I'd have to admit the real amazement of the trip was Andrew himself, as I've never met such a worldly traveler.  It stems from three things:  he reads voraciously about the world, he travels a lot, and he is not shy to interact with fellow travelers while doing so.


Photo Highlights



Days 1-2: Travel (Boston -> JFK -> Casablanca -> Marrakesh) (Sunday-Monday, 12/21 - 12/22)

It began with a leisurely afternoon flight to JFK, but nothing much went well after that.  My boarding passes to Marrakesh were not honored in New York, so there was lots of waiting in lines (first Royal Air Maroc, then security).  In Casablanca, there was a 2.5 hr wait in the exchange terminal, which was about 55 degrees.  I was too exhausted to keep moving about, and thus did I catch a bad cold.  The flight from Casa, as they call it, to Marrakesh revealed that: 1) Morocco is a mountainous country.  Even in the flatlands of Casa there are massifs.  2) Every possible square inch of Morocco is cultivated.  3) There don't seem to be many trees near Casa; they only become apparent near Marrakesh.

A taxi brought me to Jemaa el Fna, the huge square that is the heart of the medina (= walled city: the old town).  From there a porter loaded  my meager luggage onto a dolly, and we walked to the hotel, the Riyad el Cadi (recommeded by Andrew).  (A riad is a grand house with a central courtyard, useful for Moslem women to be outside without their veils.  Many riads have been converted to hotels.)  This riad was actually a compound formed from seven adjacent riads!  Here are some pictures of it:


The room was beautiful but not very functional, not to mention being very cold and taking many hours, as I would discover, to heat up.  It was a bit after noon and I had a deep sleep.  Then dinner at the hotel: asparagus soup, four cooked "salads" (red cabbage, carrots, aubergines, ?), and the most classic of tagines: chicken spiced with lemon and olive.



Day 3:  Marrakesh (Tuesday 12/23)

Andrew had extolled the beauty of the riad's rooftop, so I took a look.  Marrakesh is the red (actually pink) city, and the rooftop was no exception.  There were plants and lots of light.  If it had been warmer, and had wifi, it would be a beautiful setting for breakfast.

I walked around the square, then down a massive pedestrian-only boulevard lined by horse-drawn carriages as far as the eye could see, and observed the Koutobia Mosque, the pride of Marrakesh.  On the other side are the beautiful Koutoubia Gardens, a public park but with its fountains off for the winter.  I walked back into the square from a different direction and noticed the snake charmers.  A tourist was sitting on a box with an uncomfortable smile as snakes were laid upon his person.  Noticing my interest, I was shortly drawn by the hand to the same box.  I didn't fight; it looked interesting.  My handler did an excellent job of shooting me with my camera in various states of association with cobras, water snakes and whatnot.  (I felt fearless because I was confident they'd been defanged.)  I stood up and offered a couple of dollars in the form of two ten-dirham coins), to which my handler said oh, no, we only take bills please.  There was arguing back and forth, whereupon I said they'd refused my payment and I was leaving.  Andrew surmises that the locals are allowed to touch you and semi-restrain you, but there is a limit; they aren't allowed to knife you.  I got twenty feet with my handler's arm trying to pull me back, accompanied by two more of the team, when the leader said, "Oh, just take his money!"

The Marrakesh local's modus operandi, encountered frequently through the day, is to find a way to provide a service, whether needed or not, and then state the payment terms.  You must always agree on a price in advance, and you must not accept favors you don't need.

Then I headed into the souks.  There are perhaps a dozen of them, specializing in different products.  They run into each other and the central ones are covered, hence rather dark.

I fancied a lamp in one upscale shop, but the $850 price tag was exorbitant.  Not knowing the value of it, I wasn't going to haggle.  I fancied a maquetry platter in a narrow little boutique.  Once I was on the inside, the merchant blocked my exit when negotations fell through, and I had to shove my way past.  I am the worst sort of mark: gentle and interested, thus whipping up their interest in me, but ultimately stubborn and inclined to saying no.

At first I was excited by the beautiful products for sale (lamps, intricate wooden boxes, cloths & clothing; also daggers, shoes...), but after you see the identical merchandise in shop after shop, you realize that these items were mass-produced in factories, and no matter how many merchants proclaimed that they had made the product themselves, they were in fact just grimy sellers.  I came to disklike the sellers.  Their sole interest in you is to take as much of your money as they can.  Many looked bored, unsurprisingly.

I would have taken many more photographs but was aware that many of the locals don't want to be photographed.

I walked miles in the souks, including an iron-working one full of smoke and sparks, until I emerged into the sunlight in the Place des Epices, the spice market.  Had lunch on a terrace restaurant.  Lonely Planet says not to eat anything that is not peelable or still piping hot from the kitchen, so there wasn't a lot on the plate of food to eat!  (Took a chance on the "jus d'avocat", avocado juice, which according to the menu is mixed with your choice of fruit juice.  I had it with orange and it was very good.)

Explored the Musee de Marrakesh, once a royal hammam (bath).  It has beautiful tiled floors and a great ornate chamber.


Then to the nearby Medersa Ben Youssef, a 16’th century theological college, a two (or 3-) story structure with ca. 25 windowless ca. 8’x8’ cells, and one larger fancy room, perhaps a hammam.

By 5:15 pm I had made my way back to Jemaa el Fna square and found a seat on the high "Grand Balcony" of the Café Glacier.  The thing to do in Marrakesh is watch the square as night falls.  Andrew described what happens as medieval African.  There is always the loud sound of African drumming, but as the sun sets the crowds increased, and an army of food vendors sets up shop in half the square.


Tried to find my riad.  I did take the correct alleyway from the souk, but I couldn’t identify the door, which is unmarked.  It was a slightly creepy walk, dark, strangers loitering along the way.  But I guess it’s quite safe.  I backtracked to the souk road to check again.  A boy informed me yes, this was the right alleyway, and he would take me to the riad.  Unbeknownst to me, his two older friends tagged along.  He got me there, and I tipped him a dollar.  He pointed back at his friends, whom I hadn’t noticed, and wanted more for each!  There's that modus operandi at play again.

My Fitbit says I walked 7.7 miles today, but much of that was stepping out of the way of motorscooters and other pedestrians.  Andrew loathes the motorscooters in the narrow souk streets, as they are fast and leave no margin for error.  I agree with Andrew on everything he says about Marrakesh, including that a day or two is enough to spend there.  I am already tired of the constant hassle and looking forward to a calmer city.

Dinner was again good but not memorable.  It was exactly the same format: soup (pumpkin, excellent), "salads", and a tagine (beef w peas, olives & carrots).

Day 4:  Marrakesh -> Essaouira (Wednesday 12/24)

After a very rushed breakfast, checked out (forgetting to turn in the keys), was "portered" to the square, and taxied to the bus station.  There was a 3-hr ride to Essaouira with one stop.  I believed the bus would let us off at the bus station in the "new city", but confusingly we were next to the medina wall.  Determined to walk and avoid haggling with a taxi driver, I asked four persons for directions to my hotel.  I got three different answers.  Sometimes I was sent to retrace my steps.  In the end it turns out my hotel was only a couple hundred yards away on the same road as the bus top, but in the other direction.  This demonstrates that if you show a local person a map, they will be obligated to seem knowing, and guide you in a random direction.

Essaouira has been described as a sleepy fishing village, but it is a heavily touristed city, yet much more relaxed than Marrakesh.  You can walk through its souk streets and there is little accosting or pressure.  Jimi Hendrix's picture is  is here and there, but he only spent the night.

After showering and email, caught up with Andrew at his hotel, the Madada Mogador (Mogador being the colonial name for the city).  We had dinner at Umia,* which proved to be Andrew's favorite meal of the trip.  (It was probably just from seeing me.)  (*The first 10 seconds of that video is a good glimpse of one part of the town.)

Day 5: Essaouira (Thursday 12/25) (Walk around town)

If you were wondering, the city is pronounced "Ess'a-wee'ra".  Essaouira is like the Egypt and the Nile: where tourist dollars land, there is bright paint and well-built walls.  In other parts, is it dilapidated and barren of attractive life. The mellah (old Jewish quarter) is quite shabby, literally crumbling.

After a long sleep I joined Andrew (11:35 am) at his penthouse suite.  He showed me around town and we lunched at a 4’th story terrace restaurant with a fair view of the bastion and the sea.  Andrew informed me that we were alternating food costs.  Yesterday I paid all food, today he does, and so forth.  It's a good system. 

Andrew left me to my own devices.  I had two opposite experiences with purchasing.  I negotatiate the price of a CD.  He wanted $3, I offered $1, he said $2.50, I said $2, he said $2.50, I said $2, and sold for $2.  He seemed grumpy afterwards.  Then I bought socks.  (Yeah, I know -- travel all the way to Morocco to buy socks!)  This merchant was unbudging on the high price ($1/pair).  And he pointed out twice that these were not cheap socks made in China, they were made in Morocco!  Not being familiar with Moroccan industry, I didn't know how to react to that.

I explored the bastion near the fishing pier, most notable for the thousands of swarming seagulls.

bastion PHOTOS

I took a massage at the hotel's bathhouse, unremarkable except for how cold the room was.  (I was told they hadn't had enough notice.)  The style you find in Morroco is "Oriental".

Andrew's dinner venue fell through, but the wonderful receptionist at his hotel (Wafaa) got us a reservation at O'Bleu Magador.  It was good, and cheap since Andrew paid for it. ;-)  The most rotund chef spent a lot of time trying to explain the menu in English.

Day 6: Essaouira (Friday 12/26) (Cooking class)

10:33 am:  With signs of sickness and not enough sleep, joined Andrew at his hotel's restaurant for our cooking class. The other six members of the class, an Irish family, were 15 minutes late (sleep I could have used!).  They were a good group though.  We learned how to make mint tea, and then a tagine and a cooked bell pepper and tomato dish.  I learned the tagine is based on steam heat.  Moreover, there is no liquid added; the onions release moisture as the tagine heats, which steams the dish, condenses on the walls of the tagine and returns to steam some more.  Thus you can't use a tagine in an oven; it requires stove-top heating, and low, slow heat since the ceramic is fragile.


While our tagines were cooking we walked to the spice market and sat, in cramped quarters, as Mohammed trotted out a couple dozen spices and potions.  He is a medicinal herbalist, and has a potion for every ailment.  That caught the fascination of the audience, who offered up their ailments for his help.


Back at the restaurant, we were served our tagines.  We ceremonially opened them, whereupon everyone had their oevre except me, who found a raw onion and tomato!  They apologized and said I had not cooked my tagine properly.  Then they laughed and brought out my real tagine.


After a nap, met Andrew for dinner.  We went to a well-known spot, Elizir.  Good food.  An English couple from Andrew's hotel was to my left, and an Irish couple on the right.  (He is a writer; she is director of Disneyworld in Ireleand.) 

Day 7: Essaouira (Saturday 12/27) (Seafood)

I woke up late morning profoundly tired and aching to sleep more, but this was the day we would satisfy Andrew's interest in connecting to Essaouira's fishing identity.  We took a leisurely walk down the fishing pier.  There were other tourists, but most of the folk were fishermen or brokers.  We saw the fish being unloaded in 5-gallon containers, bucket brigade style.  The auctions, consisting of knots of five to eight men, were intense and fast-paced.  The fish were of beautiful quality, although no one wanted photographs taken.

We did what tourists do, hand ourselves into the care of one of the thirty-odd tiny eateries who grill the fish you select from their displays.  Every eatery consisted of a 4'x3' display case, a 4' picnic table, grilling facilities in the back, and a seeming army of barkers.  There is one designated barker, but when staff are not busy grilling they'll join in the aggressive fray.  It was $25 or $30 for lunch, which I considered exorbitant, but Andrew told me not to fret, as it was just the going price.  It was a feast, though only the sole was memorable.  Andrew's langostini wee disappointingly meager.


After that leisurely lunch we ambled about the western half of the medina.  There is an artists’ collaborative with fixed prices for trays and boxes.  I will buy from them. Found a restaurant that has pigeon pastille and couscous royale.

I was feeling quite sick so headed home to nap a few hours before dinner.

Late dinner at the Riad dar L'Oussia, where I achieved two culinary goals:  pigeon pastille and a couscous (royale).  It's surprisingly hard to find couscous.  I've read it's traditionally served just on Fridays.

Andrew explained where the money goes when the stock market falls: perhaps a little goes into bonds and alternative investments, but largely it is a paper loss.  He also described the “dam busters”: an ingenious attack by the British in WWII, skipping bombs up rivers to destroy dams.

Day 8: Tour of Countryside - Animal Market (Sunday 12/28)

This was the first proper breakfast I had at the hotel.  Other mornings I needed sleep more than food.

Andrew's hotel had arranged a day guide, Omar, who drove us north.  Poor Andrew was having stomach pain and preferred staying still as much as possible.



Old Tree, La Source, Sellinier PHOTOS

I would have preferred to sleep than sup, but I met up with Andrew at 9pm.  I was astonished to walk in and see an elaborate setting: plates, glasses, all the eight cheeses, a loaf of bread apiece, and his rotisserie half-chicken (looking massive).

PHOTO: Andrew's Spread

Day 9: Hammam (Monday 12/29)

This was a slow day, gratefully.  I booked the hammam for 4:30 pm, plus massage.  Caught up on photos and email, and napped.  A hammam is a bath house or bath chamber which has running water and heated tiles.  The floors and walls, at least sections of them, are at the point of being too hot to touch or walk on.  The regimen was:

I didn't take any photographs of our hammam, but of the following stock shots, the one on the left comes closest. 


Andrew was in the mood for Italian, so we ate at Silvestro, where the service was extremely slow because they were understaffed.  The food was delicious (octopus in tomato sauce, bolognese, pizza, gnocchi).  I assume it was the octopus that did me in.


There were two problems:  the food disagreed violently with my stomach come the morning, and I left my camera on the table.  I noticed this back at my hotel.  One of the staff retrieved it for me the next day.  11:50 pm: to bed, much too late.

Day 10: Drive Around (Tuesday 12/30)

I warned Andrew my stomach was in rebellion, but said I wanted to take the challenge.  I'd taken two Imodium and learned that stuff is magically effective.  The car deliverer was 20 minutes late because he'd gone to the Restaurant Vagabond instead of my Hotel Vagabond.  I'm sure Andrew is capable, but I was the driver due to my greater comfort with right-side driving.

The gas tank was close to empty.  We made our way south, but there were no stations offering diesel.  Somewhat panicked, we made our way back to Essaouira and I filled the tank full up, against Andrew's advice.  He knew how far we were traveling and just how fuel-efficient these cars are.  The cost of fuel ($35) was thus comparable to the rental fee ($40).

In part because the sunlight was against us going south, we decided to head north instead, and passed through the town where we'd visited the Had Dra animal market on Sunday.

Overall the drive couldn't have been easier, thanks to very light vehicular traffic and roads in excellent condition.  (A Moroccan-American naval officer I sat next to on the flight back said that the biggest change in the last five years has been the road network, vastly better than it was.  There is now a highway from Casablanca to Marrekesh that didn't exist before.)  There were one or two near-death experiences, however, involving passing slow trucks.

We had a pleasant look at the land, with all its sheep and goat hands and donkeys, but I was hurting, and Andrew was sensitive to this.  We made it back home at 3:20 pm, whereupon I waited for the car handler.  He refused to rebate the cost of the 3/4 tank of diesel left in the car.

I ate some of Andrew's cheeses for a probiotic effect, and slept a lot, drinking 3 liters of water overnight.

Day 11:  Shopping and New Year's Eve (Wednesday 12/31)

Wrote postcards while enjoying a normal breakfast.  Andrew had the brilliant idea of skipping the Marrakesh->Casablanca flight by busing from Essaouira to Casablanca instead of to Marrakesh.  So I visited the Royal Air Maroc office, but they are closed from noon till 2:30 pm.  In the souks I bought something I'd been eyeing, a green tablecloth.  If I were to buy thuja marquetry, I would need another travel bag to check in.  The interest I expressed at one shop developed into they customary confrontation one hates.  I walked away saying I was late to see my friend, and my low offer was instantly accepted.  It's a pretty red bag, if an awkward cigar shape.

PHOTO:  Cigar-shaped luggage

Andrew and I resumed our purchasing mission.  We bought colorfully painted wood blocks with desert motifs (camels).  At the cloth shop we bought more lovely scarves/tablecloths.  At a thuja (local hardwood) cooperative, Andrew waited by patiently as I bought six platters and a miniature camel.  Back at Royal Air Maroc, where Andrew encouraged me to upgrade to business class, I cancelled the Marrakesh->Casablanca segment.

Back at Andrew's hotel, Wafaa arranged a taxi for me in the morning to Casablanca (130 euros).

Back at my hotel, the bath robe I fancied was determined to cost 85 dollars.  This was exorbitant but I took it.

At 8pm I met up with Andrew at his hotel and joined the New Year's Eve reception.  Met the hotel owner (Christine) who had been a stewardess when she discovered Essaouria.

8:40 pm: The feast in the restaurant began.  Lots of interesting and high-quality food.  We were seated next to a Saudi Arabian couple, and true to form Andrew was engaging them. I learned that the Moroccan Arabic accent is a bit distant, and that Egyptian Arabic is the one everyone understands.  I asked why Saudi Arabia is setting oil prices so low (by continued production) and got a what I think was a slightly spun answer.  It was a treat to talk to them, as they are so out of one's norm.  I had either the cajones or bad tact to state that fossil fuels were damaging the planet, and though I wished Saudi Arabia well, it was necessary to find alternatives to petroleum.

12:10 am: Andrew suggested we leave. I had lost track of time, but sleep for the morning's travels was overdue.

Day 12: Flight home  (1/1/2015)

5:00 am: Got up for the 5:30 taxi.  The drive to Casablanca was much longer (5.5 hrs) than expected (3.25), though I don't blame the driver for stopping to talk to his friends, praying, and breaking for tea.

I arrived in the JFK line at 11:25 am.  A placard said no one would be accepted after 11:25 am.  The group in front of me was in high spirits and in no hurry to move on, but luckily I appeared at the head of the line while the clock still said 11:25.  The rep said, "You're late", and I gave a good excuse (having wasted time in a line the airline had mislabeled).  She said to the couple behind me that they could not go to JFK, but took me.  This rigidity proved unnecessary, because the next step was a 40-minute line through gate security.  It is illegal to export Moroccan currency, so I gave my $70 to the prominent plastic case.  (The girl behind me was indignant and said that they couldn't do this.)

The 8.3 hr flight was an hour late, but we took off.  At JFK they confiscated my apple and orange and meat sandwich, even though it came from the airline.  But US Customs was easy.  Then a 5.5 hr layover, and finally the short flight back to Boston.  After a taxi ride, I was home at 11:55 pm -- a 23.5 hour journey!  Here is my $150 worth of loot:






English is your best interchange lanague in most foreign countries of the world, but not in Morocco.  Most speak Berber, Arabic and French.  English comes in fourth.



The tagines aren't spicy, particularly not hot spicy.