My only knowledge of Morocco comes from the movie Casablanca, which I later learned wasn’t even shot there. Before we left, I had mental images of Oriental splendour and deep dark intrigues in narrow alleyways. I wasn’t disappointed.
The Riad – A home away from home
We spent most of the five days in Marrakech, in Southern Morocco, a couple of hours away from the sea. We decided to stay in a riad which are old Moroccan homes converted into guesthouses. They usually have 3-5 rooms each and the owners or care takers stay on the premises. You get home cooked meals, a flavor of Moroccan life, and a chance to meet other tourists as well.
Our riad was in the heart of the Medina (the old city) with streets so narrow that taxis had to drop us off on the main square. Maps aren’t really reliable amongst the tiny unmarked streets and its best to orient yourself well during the day so you don’t get too lost.
The Square and the Souks
Djemma El F’na, the central square in the Medina at the heart of the old city is a designated UNESCO world heritage site. With snake charmers, dancers, mini boxing rings and story tellers, the square buzzes with life. While a lot of tourists do visit, a large percentage of the patrons are locals for whom the story tellers etc are a nightly entertainment. The square also has innumerable stalls selling freshly cooked cous cous, calamari, dry fruits, juices, pastillas, snail soup and more.
Djemma El F’na – the main square in the Medina
Just off the square is the intricate maze of the souks. We spent hours browsing here for knickknacks from intricately worked baboushes (shoes) to spice holders shaped like tajine pots. Bargaining is elevated to an art form in the souks and we learnt that a good bet is to quote 20% of the salesman’s initial figure, and expect to pay about 30-40%!
A Gastronome’s Paradise
The one great thing about travelling from the UK is that things are invariably significantly cheaper ever where else. If NY seems affordable, Marrakech was like paradise. We ate at some truly exquisite restaurants including La Trattoria and Pacha Marrakech
La Trattoria is an Italian restaurant in the heart of the new city (Gueliz). They have a beautiful bar and a delightful restaurant by the poolside. With warm fires blazing in the winter and excellent seafood, it was a great evening.
Pacha Marrakech is the newer, younger sibling of Pacha in Ibiza. Apart from a world renowned club, they also have two restaurants with luxurious decor and decadent indulgence all around.
The Ruins – Palace El Badi
At the southern end of the old city is the Palace El Badi, next to the Mellah (Jewish enclave). This 16th century palace was built by the Saadian king Ahmed El Mansour based on the design of the Alhambra palace in Granada. Much of its splendour was lost when it was stripped by a subsequent king, Sultan Moulay Ismail, to decorate his palace in Meknes.
El Badi Palace
After a few days in Marrakech, we decided to head to the seaside, and went to Essaouira. Earlier called Mogador, Essaouira literally means “well designed”. And well designed it is! A beautiful tiny seaside town on the Atlantic coast, its white walls and buildings give it a very Meditteranean feel. We lunched here (you do notice the amount of eating we did!) at Les Alizes – which served up some delightful Moroccan fare, including the inevitable tajine.
We spent most of the afternoon sitting in a cafe in the port, facing the sea, enjoying the sun and reading our books.
All in all, a wonderful way to spend Christmas!