The Kingdom of Morocco served as the second destination for my honeymoon with EZ. Spain had been the first—by way of Madrid, Granada, and Sevilla—providing a pleasant, leisurely escape. But Morocco was different, stimulating our senses and charging each moment with possibility. Alert and alive with all that was new, we found our Moroccan honeymoon to be a true adventure.
EZ and I flew from Sevilla—over a blanket of clouds, across the Strait of Gibraltar—to land in Marrakech within a mere two hours. The airport was surprisingly modern, brand new and sparkling clean, with a contemporary artistic twist on the Moroccan star design. But there were some unique aspects…for instance, the prayer room.
EZ and I had booked an Airbnb in the heart of the Medina, ensuring a more authentic experience than the clusters of hotels on the touristy fringe. The Medina marks the ancient fortified Arabic city. Outside the Medina, Marrakech has evolved into a relatively modern urban center, with malls, bars, and galleries lining the sidewalks of wide boulevards.
But within the walls of the Medina, a certain old world aura is preserved, though not completely untouched by time. Our first night in Marrakech, EZ and I ventured into our neighborhood of the Medina. In the residential quarter of peach-colored buildings and Arabic graffiti scrawled in blue, all seemed quiet.
But walking toward the market, we were soon assaulted by a cascade of sights, smells, and sounds. The narrow, twisting cobblestone roads bustled with humans, animals, and motorbikes, all sandwiched between tiny shops and food stalls.
In the streets, donkey carts clopped along and motorbikes dangerously zoomed through throngs of pedestrians. Hundreds of stray cats roamed the neighborhood—cunning survivors that boldly ruled the land; the few servile stray dogs knew their place. Children played soccer in alleyways, or hurried down the street unaccompanied.
I tried not to gawk at the strange new garments around me. Many older men wore what looked like hooded wizarding robes out of Harry Potter; others topped their heads with taqiyahs (rounded skullcaps). The women donned traditional head coverings ranging from hijabs (open face, hair covered) to niqabs (hair and face covered, except the eyes) and wore robes covering their entire bodies. But, to my surprise, many of these robes flaunted modern flair—some designed with leopard print, others branded with Chanel or Hello Kitty logos. And the younger men and children often dressed in Western clothes—jeans and shirts and jackets.
As EZ and I moved through the dizzying masses, tempting aromas of sizzling street food—grilled meats and fried flat breads and spiced treats—filled our nostrils. But these mingled with less pleasing odors…rotting garbage, animal urine, and tanning hides.
A cacophony of sounds surrounded us: chattering and shouting in Arabic or French, children laughing, cats yowling, donkeys braying, exotic music blaring, calls to prayer resounding through the city from the mosque…
After our initial jolt of culture shock, EZ and I learned to embrace the ceaseless stimulation to the senses. Immersion in this new land had overwhelmed us our first night, but over the following days, we grew accustomed to our neighborhood.
We appreciated the old, worn peach buildings, along with the new street art popping up.
We admired the beautiful doors around the neighborhood, and the sprawling rooftop views (how odd to see so many satellite dishes sprouting from ancient edifices!).
We gazed upon the lovely exterior of the neighborhood mosque, and were awakened each morning at dawn by the warbling call to prayer echoing from the mosque, but could not actually enter since we are not Muslim.
We bemoaned the empty lots of garbage, but grew excited by the construction and revitalization efforts around us.
Tourism was clearly a major industry for Marrakech, and likely prompted such efforts to clean up and beautify the Medina to restore its former glory. Though I had been nervous about communicating in a predominately Arabic country, I found many of the locals spoke fluent French, given the former French rule of Morocco (I remembered some broken French from high school). The locals had also picked up a hodgepodge of English, Spanish, and Italian from European tourists.
For our part, EZ and I greeted the locals with the Arabic “salaam alaikum” and thanked them with “shukran.” Out of respect, we wore relatively conservative clothes – jeans and tunics for me, with little skin showing beyond my head. Granted, not all tourists felt the need to dress modestly. And there were a lot of tourists. The farther EZ and I strayed from our neighborhood, the more tourists we encountered, especially in the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Market.
Jemaa el-Fnaa Market
Bordered by touristy shops and restaurants, the main public square of Marrakech is Jemaa el-Fnaa (a name I continuously mangled as Jamal Aquafina, Jalaal Famima, Jambalaya, etc.). EZ and I first encountered the market square our first night in Marrakech. Threading our way through the chaotic crowds in a daze, we finally emerged into the loud, lively square.
Bright white lights illuminated the colorful market stalls, where steam and smoke carried savory aromas aloft. Peddlers hawked their wares, from sweet treats to scarves to ornamental lamps. Clusters of tourists surrounded a variety of performers—singers, dancers, snake charmers, Barbary monkeys. Modern Arabic hip hop merged with traditional Berber singing and reedy snake-charming woodwinds.
Besieged by even more sensory stimulation, EZ and I moved away from the mobs and toward a particularly delicious scent of meats grilling. At a popular food stall, we picked out our preferred marinated meat skewers from the selections on display for grilling. We also ordered couscous slow-cooked with vegetables, spices, and broth in a tagine (an earthenware pot used in North African cookery). Enamored by the bold, mouth-watering flavors, we cleaned our plates. The skewers were addictive with their zesty marinade. And the tagine cooking had rendered even vegetables I disliked (carrots and peppers) into tender, juicy bites bursting with flavor.
When EZ and I returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa by the light of day, the scene appeared slightly less frenzied. We approached a snake charmer to take one picture of a snake dancing, but he aggressively goaded us into wearing the live snake around our necks and taking multiple photos. Neither my husband nor I are a fan of snakes, so we rushed through the photos and resisted further engagement. But when we handed the snake charmer our tip—several coins—he grew angry, demanding “paper money,” which seemed pricey and rude for unwanted photos and forced reptilian contact. Luckily, most of the Moroccans we met were more pleasant than this snake of a man.
Wandering the souks and bargaining for a good deal can be an amusing pastime in Marrakech (although my husband may not agree). The farther you stray from the main market square, the more lost you will become in the labyrinthine network of the city’s souks—which is exactly what you want. The narrow, forked paths are fringed by stalls tightly packed with tantalizing wares. Each stall is devoted to a singular product—leather goods, intricately carved wooden boxes, filigreed brass lamps, fine spun linen scarves, and so much more—and some of the most authentic vendors perform their craft right in their stall until a customer approaches. One man used a tapered blade to embellish a beautiful leather purse, while another cobbled together a pair of shoes.
Bargaining is an art form that I have yet to master. But it’s still good fun. In Spain, EZ’s uncle JH had revealed the trick to bargaining was slowing….it….down. Picking up an item. Turning it over. And over. Frowning. Feigning indecision. Offering a price. Regarding the counter offer with extreme indifference. Walking away. Waiting for the vendor to call you back with your desired price.
I had neither the patience nor the skill to engage in such an artful performance. When haggling over a purse, I was so proud of talking down the vendor from his obscenely high initial offer, that I didn’t realize I still paid a typical U.S. price for such a product. When bargaining over an ornately carved wooden box, I overcompensated by being too aggressive on a truly valuable piece. Oh well…I’m no natural, but perhaps with practice I can improve.
Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech
Ironically enough, I didn’t take any photographs of Marrakech’s House of Photography. But the stunning portraits and scenes of daily life captured in the frames are worth your time. I felt more connected to the culture and history of Morocco through this exhibit of profoundly simple moments. And the documentary playing upstairs provides insightful, fascinating context. To top things off, the café on the rooftop terrace offers a beautiful view of the city and the Atlas Mountains.
Le Jardin Secret
Amidst the hubbub of the Medina lies a secret garden. Literally. Le Jardin Secret, tucked away behind closed doors, is a lovely oasis where you can feel at peace and let the time slip away. Recently restored and opened to the public, the original garden of the 16th century was part of a Saadian palace, destroyed toward the end of the 17th century in the wake of the Saadian dynasty’s decline. Today, the garden actually encompasses two gardens: the “exotic” garden and the Islamic garden.
The exotic garden purportedly showcases plants from all over the world. But since the climate of Marrakech is not too different from that of Southern California, I noted many familiar plants common in my neighborhood back home.
Not so common back home, however, was the private hammam (traditional bath house) preserved in the adjacent building.
The Islamic garden is structured in quadrants as part of a sacred geometry. The wild unruliness of nature is reined in by the peace and order reflected in Islam. Indeed, the soft tufts of long grasses, the serene olive and fruit trees, inspire contemplation and meditation. The colorful pagoda beckons you to sit and relax. EZ and I admired the garden from the outdoor café as we sipped our Moroccan mint tea and nibbled at sandwiches. Then we took a leisurely stroll down the pathway.
Another traditional design component of the Islamic garden is the marbled basins channeling water for irrigation. EZ and I smiled as several young boys raced leaf-boats down the marbled channels, running alongside the water to see whose boat would reach the end first.
The Bahia Palace, built in the late 19th century, is an exquisite, kaleidoscope estate. Though much smaller than the awe-inspiring Alhambra palace in Spain, the Bahia Palace rivals the Alhambra in gorgeous Islamic design, but with its own colorful Moroccan flair. Forget the intricate ivory-toned plasterwork…I couldn’t stop marveling at the bright, vivid hues enlivening the patterns and motifs!
I was surprised to find stained glass windows at this Islamic palace, since they are tied in my mind with churches. But these multi-hued windows added another layer of vibrant beauty.
And the colors don’t stop there. The spacious, tiled courtyard is also accented with bold hues.
And let’s not forget the gardens.
As with the Alhambra, I wondered how the palace looked when occupied by royalty. What furniture and furnishings, what artwork, what costumed guests brought the rooms and courtyards to life?
The Jewish Cemetery of Marrakech
One surprising site in Marrakech was the Jewish cemetery, which is the largest in Morocco, and lies just on the other side of a wall from the Muslim cemetery. Somehow, despite tensions worldwide, this Jewish cemetery is preserved and respected in an Islamic country. And though the Jewish population in Morocco once numbered in the thousands, it has now dropped to nearly 200, with only a handful living in the Jewish quarter of Marrakech.
The white-washed tombs are a strange sight. Like any cemetery, some tombs are larger or more decorated than others. Here, many famous Tsadikkims (spiritual masters) are buried alongside regular local families. As EZ and I paid our respects, the Muslim call to prayer echoed through the city. With mosques located in every direction, the haunting sound of Arabic chanting enveloped the cemetary from all sides. It saturated the air. Then it dwindled and ceased.
All remained peaceful. And may they continue to rest in peace.
The cuisine of Morocco is full of flavor. As mentioned, EZ and I thoroughly enjoyed our skewers and tagines at the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. We also frequently procured pastries at a nearby bakery and fried spiced flatbreads from a street vendor.
But out of the restaurants we dined at in Marrakech, only two stood out as noteworthy: Le Trou Au Mur and Le Foundouk. Each of these restaurants, though nestled in the heart of the chaotic Medina, offers a true fine dining experience. And, perhaps more importantly, these restaurants serve alcohol in a city where booze is hard to come by (and frowned upon if consumed in public).
Le Trou Au Mur (French for Hole in the Wall) is classy in an understated way, with plenty of fine art gracing the walls. Both Moroccan and international cuisines are served here.
To start, EZ and I shared an assortment of Moroccan salads (my favorite included the egglplant salad, while my least favorite was overpowered by rosewater). For our main course, we both ordered mixed Meshoui (a combination of lamb cuts roasted with spices in a tagine and served with your choice of sauce, my choice being the charmoula and tomato sauce). I loved my meshoui dish for the most part, although I preferred all of the cuts except for the sinewy, fatty pieces. Perhaps I should have just ordered the cut I liked.
For dessert, I luxuriated in a decadent chocolate fondant. And, of course, throughout our meal we had our fill of fine wine.
Le Foundouk is hip and sumptuous, with lots of dim jewel-toned lanterns, pillowed benches, and candles. The rooftop terrace, with added greenery and flora, is positively romantic. This restaurant, too, served both Moroccan and international cuisine. Since EZ and I dined here toward the end of our trip, we decided to switch to international fare. I enjoyed my linguini with prawns, eggplants, candied tomatoes, and Parmesan shavings, while EZ was satisfied with his green curry and coconut milk with seasonal vegetables and lentils.
And while EZ and I didn’t have time to check it out on our trip, Café Clock is also heralded as a fun and artsy place to eat and socialize in a cross-cultural zone.
Here’s Looking at You, Kid
Marrakech may be no Casablanca, but it holds an exotic charm all of its own. It is a city where the ancient coexists with the modern, where the foreign coexists with the familiar. Donkeys plod beside motorbikes, street food is fried up outside of hidden gourmet restaurants, women with covered faces express themselves through designer robes, souks sell hand-made items found in Western malls at five times the cost…
It is a place brimming with contradiction and contrast, and therein lies the excitement.