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An Iberian Exploration: Marrakech

Despite our vigilance on the train we had little warning of our impending arrival in Marrakech. It was dark outside and we didn't realize we had pulled into the station until the train screeched to a halt. We rushed to haul our bags and kids into the corridor with no idea how long it would be before the doors closed. Everyone else who was leaving the train had gotten off in the first few seconds, and there was absolutely no one around to make sure that we all got out together. I got Mei Ling and the kids onto the platform and then began tossing the bags and the stroller furiously after her. In the back of my mind I realized I had absolutely no clue what Mei Ling would do if the train took me onward to God knows where. We had no way of communicating and she didn't even know the name of our hotel. Finally I leaped onto the platform with the last bag and it couldn't have been another two seconds before the train door closed behind me. We had averted disaster by the narrowest of margins. Due to our late arrival in the only dining option was sandwiches from a street cart. Our hotel in the medina was ensconced in a maze of narrow alleys with high walls and it was quite unnerving to hunt for it in the darkness. In the morning the labyrinth was less foreboding but we had to be careful to establish a series of landmarks to be sure of finding our way back to the hotel.
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We had expected Marrakech to feel even more remote from Western culture than Fes, but here we were mistaken. As soon as we began our exploration the first morning we found that we were in a city that was very accustomed to European tourism. Much of the merchandise in the markets seemed designed for travelers, especially the hundreds of thousands if not millions of colorful leather slippers that were on prominent display.
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The souk was even larger than the ones in Tangier and Fes and the prospect of exploring every inch of it was futile. Everything one could think of was available for purchase, from street food to chameleons. Exuberantly colorful local craftmanship was prominently displayed throughout.
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One of the most emblematic sights at the Marrakech souk is the rows of multicolored cones at the many spice shops. No need to wonder what happens to the cones if someone actually wants to buy some of its contents. The cones are purely for show, paper shells coated with glue and a thin layer of spice to advertise the products stored in more conventional bins and jars.
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Eventually all travelers find themselves at Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large open square in the heart of the medina. The square was the most distinguishing characteristic of Marrakech for us vs. Tangier and Fes. During the day it was filled with every type of vendor and performer who expected they could make a few dinars from the tourists who flocked to the square and its rooftop cafes. Some women tried to accost us to draw henna tattoos on our hands, but I knew this to be a scam from our guidebook and we refused. They rely on the tourist not wanting to refuse what seems to be a friendly approach from a local and then charge an exorbitant price once the design is completed. We did allow a snake charmer to entertain the kids with his reptiles and watched some acrobats and musicians perform, and we were sure to tip them fairly.
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After dark Jemaa el-Fnaa is transformed into a huge open-air food festival filled with barbecued lamb restaurants and snail carts. The lamb was succulent and delicious but the boiled snails were truly an epiphany. There were dozens of these carts arranged in a grid on the square, with the owner standing behind an enormous bowl piled high with plump snails in their shells. Upon receiving a few dinars from a customer he would fill up a bowl and cover them with a steaming, spicy broth. Mei Ling and I loved the taste but by far the biggest snail aficionado was Cleo who kept dragging us back to the carts long after we'd decided to move on to more substantial fare.
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The evening entertainment had changed as well. The acrobats and snake charmers were gone, although now there was a guy with an enormous vulture which I allowed him to place on my shoulder. When I felt the bird's talons pressing into my neck my first instinct was to play dead, until I realized that was probably the worst possible thing I could do.
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People were also beginning to congregate around a few bands of musicians that were playing lively folk music on guitars and drums. The audiences were almost all local people but they were very welcoming and one young girl took charge of Cleo showing her how to dance and keeping her away from the lantern in the middle of the circle. It felt great to see Cleo laughing and enjoying herself and I made sure to record the moment so she would always be able to hold on to that experience long after she had forgotten the episode.
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On our second day in Marrakech we also spent plenty of time exploring the medina and the souk, but eventually grew tired of the endless shops selling leather slippers and handbags. We stole away from the old town to visit one of the restaurants our guidebook recommended where the tables were arranged in a verdant courtyard around a tiled pool. We were joined by the restaurant's pet turtle who enthusiastically consumed lettuce from a dish on the floor while we had our own lunch.
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Near the restaurant we stopped by the Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech's luxurious and colorful botanical garden. The vivid cobalt blue color of the buildings is named after the garden's creator, French artist Jean Majorelle. Afterwards we returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa where if anything it was even busier than the previous day.
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All too quickly our time in Morocco had come to an end. We had an exhausting day ahead of us with an overnight train back to Tangier followed by an immediate transfer to the ferry and a full day of sightseeing at Gibraltar. It turned out that our decision to extend our visit in Morocco beyond Tangier had been the right one. I'm sure that someday when the kids are all old enough we'll return to visit some of Morocco;s other remarkable cities such as Chefchaouen and Essaouira and perhaps even spend a few days camping in the desert.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 05:59 Archived in Morocco

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