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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:59 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Tangier and Fes

The mighty Mediterranean begins meekly enough at the Strait of Gibraltar, where only nine miles separate the continents of Europe and Africa. The shortest ferry departs from the small Spanish town of Tarifa and arrives in the Moroccan port of Tangier just one hour later. Having no appetite to deal with Moroccan city traffic and rural highways after barely making it through Iberia, we left our car in the lot at Tarifa. Mei Ling encountered a group of Chinese tourists in the ferry terminal who were impressed no end by our kids. Soon enough we were on the boat headed to Africa, a first for everyone in the family except me.

Within minutes of arriving in Tangier it was clear that we were in a vastly different place from Europe. It wasn't that the buildings and streets were obviously old, they had been just as old in Lisbon and Cádiz. Everything was just a little bit rougher around the edges. The paint was a little more chipped, the tiles more cracked, the alleys narrower and twistier. We had a sense here that the rules were a little less firm and there was a little less orderliness about daily life. While that feeling may have been just a little intimidating, we quickly saw the innate advantages within the controlled chaos of Morocco. All we had to do was keep walking and exploring the city and the experiences that make travel worthwhile would come to us. The possibilities seemed endless.

We had a traditional hotel in the medina, the labyrinthine historic quarter of the city. Most of the medina was devoted to commercial activity, especially that related to food. It was hard to tell if there was a defined marketplace as food vendors seemed to be everywhere in the old town. The meat, produce and especially the olives were splendid. Eventually we found a restaurant that piqued our interest and had an excellent meal of the Moroccan specialties tagine and bastilla.

In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then headed straight back to the medina. On Saturday morning the old town was even busier. I think we must have been through every street and alley in the quarter and even found a terrace with a view over the ocean.

In the morning all the seafood markets were open and they were very busy and energetic. The counters were piled high with huge, exotic fish and spiny lobsters. The fish had the familiar gleam of having been caught early that morning. The fishmongers knew we were only there to look but they were still friendly and welcoming.

The butchers had rows of lambs' heads, viscera hanging from hooks, and even live rabbits. One vendor held a rabbit over the counter for Cleo to pet. Fortunately she was too young to have any idea what was going to happen to it.

There weren't may things that couldn't be found in the bazars and souks of the medina. Aside from things to eat there were beautiful displays of metalwork and ceramics. After some more exploration of the different markets and street foods we were finally ready for a delicious lunch that included many of the most appetizing delicacies we'd seen that morning.

In the afternoon we jumped on a train to Fes, our first experience with intercity public transportation with the kids. Fortunately we had the foresight to leave the large bag and Ian's stroller in the trunk of the car in Spain which made moving around a lot easier, but it was still a little unnerving hustling the kids and the remainder of our luggage into our seats. Cleo provided the entertainment for our compartment during the four hour trip to Fes.

We were glad we decided to explore Morocco beyond Tangier because Fes had a completely different feel to it. Now there were way fewer Europeans and there was a more authentic feel to the old town. We were based in a beautiful riad, a multistory estate home that had been converted into a hotel, and we were just steps away from the iconic Blue Gate to the medina.

The souk began immediately inside the Blue Gate and followed the widest street through the medina, although most of the sidestreets seemed to be devoted to stores selling food and dry goods as well. Eventually we gave up trying to keep track of where we were and went with the flow. As in Tangier, the stalls selling olives and pickles were the most colorful and intoxicating. The snail stalls looked as though they had been literally overrun with the striped gastropods which encrusted the doors and walls along with filling sacks and baskets.

The most exotic food we encountered was camel meat. It wasn't hard to figure out which restaurants sold it as it was generally advertised with a severed camel's head displayed prominently at the entrance. This was before any connection had been made between camels and MERS, so it was probably the first and last time that we'll be eating camel. It was an interesting novelty, but I wouldn't have known I wasn't eating ground beef.

The souk spilled from the covered arcades into the streets and squares. We braved the intermittent drizzle and plodding mules to traverse every branch of the market we could find.

Outside of the souk there wasn't much of interest to us in Fes. There are beautifully-decorated mosques and madrassas in the city but most of them are off-limits to non-Muslims and we had recently been immersed in Moorish design at the Alhambra of Sevilla. We admired the tile work and engravings at the entrance of one madrassa and then pushed on towards the far side of the medina where most of the city's famous tanneries are concentrated. On the way there were plenty of opportunities to appreciate the amazing diversity of Moroccan artisanship.

Some of the tanneries are a thousand years old and their design and techniques have never changed over the course of time. The large courtyards packed with dense arrays of stone vats filled with colorful liquids are a unique sight. From the terraces overlooking the tanneries are amazing views over the top of the medina.

We could have probably returned to the souk a dozen times and found an undiscovered alley or shop each time. However it was time to take our leave of Fes as we still had the city ahead of us whose very name was almost synonymous with markets, Marrakech.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:45 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

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