The breakfast spread at the hotel we were staying at in Marrakech was superlative even by the high standards we had gotten used to so far in our trip, and the service was also excellent. We arrived at the restaurant early enough that morning that the omelette stand was still not opened. The server had to summon the responsible person from the back room. The omelettes that were delivered to our table were incredibly fluffy. The variety of the food available was astounding. There was also a massive assortment of wonderful pastries to try for breakfast. There we plenty of fruit. It was all too much for a single morning. I ended up trying different pastries each day. Of course, the chocolate croissant was the constant every day. They had a bank of really fancy industrial strength coffee machines lined up in another section. It was easy to experiment with different kinds of coffee, and I did just that. You could also order freshly made orange juice from another location.
We had a surprise when we gathered outside the hotel for the tours of the day. Youssef, our tour manager, was not to be seen. Instead, we were met by our local tour guide (whose name I have sadly forgotten!), and we were taken on the bus to our first destination of the day.I had visions of Youssef having been pulled away to handle some kind of crisis or the other. He always seemed to be busy.
We got a further introduction to the history and culture of this area of North Africa on our way to the central mosque of the city. The whole of North Africa used to be populated by the Amazighs, or the Berbers as they came to be called. It was noted that the borders between countries in North Africa were created by colonists. Our guide claimed that the Berber language originated in Egypt. (Here is an interesting video about the Amazighs today.)
Marrakech itself is the southern center for religion in Morocco, Fez being the other one. The city was founded in the 11th century.
We encountered the people seen in the picture below as we were walking to our first destination. I happened to snap this picture. It turns out that they were dressed in the attire of traditional water-carriers, also called “guerrab“. Unfortunately for them, their business has dried up since the advent of plastic water bottles.
One of the guys approached me as we were leaving asking for money. He had noticed me taking their picture. I parted with a few dirhams. In keeping with what we had been told earlier on in the trip, I had expected this kind of an expense to be taken care of by the tour guide, but Youssef was missing, and our local guide was probably not fully informed!
The first place we visited was the central mosque, called Koutoubia. The Jemma el-Fna square and Koutoubia are both central to Marrakesh. Koutoubia means library. The mosque is claimed to be the oldest one in Morocco. It has a capacity of 2000 worshipers. It was designed for expansion. You can see the stubs for the pillars that were planned for this expansion in the picture below.
The next stop was the Saadian Tombs. They are named after the royal family that built them. In keeping we the nature of place we were visiting, we were informed about a few of the burial customs. Bodies have to be buried within 24 hours. They are buried on their right side facing east. The wife wears white during the mourning period when her husband dies. After four months and 10 days (to make sure she’s not pregnant, for inheritance reasons) she can then take another husband. Men have to only wait 40 days before they are allowed to remarry!
It is a custom among the locals visit tombs every Friday to pray for their family members, after which they go to the mosque for prayer.
Here are some pictures from the visit:
There were many tour groups of foreigners (with guides) in the space. The picture above is of the actual entrance today to the complex of the tombs. The entrance is very narrow!
Youssef made his appearance at around this time, I cannot now remember exactly when. I was relieved to see him. It seems that he had been missing only because he had overslept! There was some joking around, including mention of him being on Moroccan time that day. We could not begrudge him some additional sleep. The man was working very hard to take care of us!
We walked to our next destination via the square of the Jewish section, or mellah, of the town. We were told that caravans used to arrive at this location and that there used to be Caravanserai in the area. The synagogue still remains. We had learnt earlier that many of the the Jewish people emigrated to Israel after the formation of that country in 1948.
We continued onward to the Bahia Palace on the busy streets. The smell of urine mingled with the smell of perfume.
Building of the sprawling complex of the Bahia Palace started only in the 19th century,i.e., it is relatively new by historical standards. It was named after the favorite wife of Si Moussa (also spelt Si Musa), grand vizir of the sultan, the person who built the place. It was a gift to her. The area of the palace was developed over many generations.
I did not do a good job keeping track of where we were within the complex itself. I only noted a few of the spaces that we walked through.
Based on my notes, I believe this was the open air patio of the guest house.
We saw the dining room and family rooms of the pasha of Marrakesh. The pasha had religious and political authority. (Vizier was only a political position.) The french apparently stole furniture when they left the Protectorate.
Our guide talked about the application of polygamy in Morocco. We were told that men had many wives in earlier times because there were less men than women around in times past due to the deaths during wars. It was supposed to be a way to support the women. (Hah!)
The buildings in the palace had roofs with detailed and exquisite designs.
The picture below shows the ablution area at the entrance to a classroom. Our guide spoke to us about the cleaning ritual before going into a mosque, something that was apparently followed by the students entering the classroom.
The picture below shows the amplification room in the classroom for the teacher. Anybody speaking from this space could be easily heard all over the room.There were a few gardens in the palace and a couple of courtyards. The picture below is of the smaller courtyard.
We gathered as a group after the visit to the palace to walk to our next stop.
At the culinary museum, we got to sit down and rest for a while before starting the tour again. We were served tea and cookiesin the atrium.
We then walked to the famous Jemma el-Fna square through the souk. I enjoyed the experience. It was more comfortable than the medina in Fez. The spaces were wider, but we still had to dodge motorbikes, bikes, carts, etc.. Vendors were trying to sell their wares along the way but they were not overly aggressive.
And then we were entering the hustle and bustle of Jemma el-Fnaa square. Since it was still only morning time, it was perhaps not as busy as it could have been, but I loved the atmosphere and the sensations anyway!
Some of the places for dining in and around the square were pointed out to us. We would have two more evenings in Marrakesh when we would be on our own for dinner.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the snake charmer experience in the square. It is one of the things that is mentioned in the context of the Jemma el-Fna square experience. Although it was interesting, the experience did not live up to the hype. The snakes might have been drugged and the poisonous ones perhaps even defanged. The snake charmers were in it obviously to extract money from the tourists. The cobras may even have been bored and disinterested in the proceedings.
There is the general atmosphere of a carnival, or a fair, in the square and things actually got more exciting later in the day after the sun set. I noticed a monkey that had gotten lose from its owner and was scurrying about amongst the visitors creating its little bit of excitement. It must have belonged to a person providing some form of entertainment for the visitors. There was a person walking around on stilts. Later on in the evening, there was entertainment being provided by musicians in an open area of the square. The square was meant to be a fun place for the tourists.
The guided program for the day ended at the square. We were going to be on our for the rest of the day, including lunch and dinner.
We joined up with a couple of our new friends from the tour and walked out of the square onto Princes Street for lunch. This area had been pointed out to us a having restaurants with grilled (or was it barbecued?) food. We walked over to a restaurant that had an open area on the upper floor overlooking the street. The place was not crowded and we could sit back for a relaxed lunch, experiencing the action in the streets.
It was a very chilled out atmosphere while having our lunch. It is somewhat challenging to put into words what I was feeling. We were visitors in an exotic land, basically soaking in the ambiance and atmosphere of a somewhat alien place, but ultimately we were being absorbed into this space and becoming one with it. We were immersed in the Marrakech experience! We belonged to the space!
One of the aspects of this restaurant experience that I appreciated was the fact that we did not feel rushed at any time while we were there. There was no waiter hovering over us and asking us questions constantly, there was no sense that we were expected to leave after eating within a certain period of time, and the waiter was quite relaxed and friendly in his interactions. No pressures, no worries! We could basically completely chill out. What we experienced that day at lunch was not an isolated episode in Morocco. We had the same feeling the next day, in a different place, under different circumstances, when it was actually quite crowded and busy in the restaurant. It was a very different feeling from what I am used to in and around town in our neck of the woods. It was clear that attitudes as far as the dining experience is concerned can be very different in different places.
We walked back to the hotel after lunch.
The organized activities of the day were over early, and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We were tired since the morning had been very hectic. This was a our opportunity to relax after all the busyness of the trip so far.
We even stayed in our room for dinner that evening, trying to finish off some of the food that we had bought in Tangier (for the lunch in Chefchaouen!).
I have to add that it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. In fact, the whole trip has been amazing so far – and we have a few more days to go!
You can read the next blog in this sequence here.