The Ourika Valley and Dinner in Marrakech

I did not realize it at that time, but this was about the time that the pace of the tour started to slow down – bit by little bit.

The second day in Marrakesh was a “free” day for those who chose to hang out in the city on our own. Others of us signed up for a tour of the Ourika Valley.

This is a picture of the front of our hotel as we were preparing to leave for Ourika valley. Without realizing it, I had managed to capture the image of a security officer in the frame. I have a feeling he deliberately took action to hide his face.

There was a person selling pictures that he had taken of us the previous day. He had set himself up next to the bus we were boarding. It was not uncommon to have vendors come up to our bus as we were getting off or boarding to sell us things.

Our first stop in the valley was to visit a Berber home. We were told that the home over over 130 years old. 6 people live here. Two women were helping to take care of the tour groups wandering around their home. We had access to all areas of the home except the bedrooms.

There was a tea ceremony in the main room of the house at the end of the tour, its timing having been adjusted so that the family living in the house could manage the multiple tour groups moving through their home.

Tea ceremonies are used for occasions like meetings of tribes or meeting of families for match making. Sometimes, the outcomes of the meetings can be signaled via the process of the tea ceremony itself, for example, by the use of sugar in the tea.

This is a picture of the royal family in the area where we had the tea ceremony. A picture of the king is apparently a common sight in homes in Morocco. The picture above turns out to be a somewhat ironic commentary on the state of relationships in the royal family. Breaking with tradition, King Mohammed VI had married a commoner, Lalla Salma (top left of picture). They had met in a social setting when they were young. The princess consort turned out to be popular. She has served as a representative for the country at different international gatherings. She has also championed progressive projects in the country over the years. However, since those times, there has apparently been a falling out in the family. She has not been seen in any public role for years. The pictures still remain!

We drove to the end of the road along the Ourika river and valley, with a stop along the way for enjoying the scenery. I thought the view at that particular spot was not as spectacular as those we had already experienced. There were locals selling merchandise along the roadside.
There were a few camels in the area where we stopped, probably to give rides to the tourists. One of them had two of its legs tied together loosely with rope, perhaps to prevent it from trying to walk away. It had some difficulty moving and seemed uncomfortable. I did not enjoy seeing that.

The valley was actually quite pretty in many other locations. I took pictures from the moving bus.

We reached the end of the road where the bus had to turn around. There was a restaurant, empty at that time, on the other side of the Ourika river, with bridges across the river allow customers to reach it. The restaurant actually stretched out for a long distance along the side of the river. This is a view of one particular section.

In general, the road itself did not seem to be designed for use by tourist buses like the one we were on. It was narrow in places, with occasional overhangs where the branches of trees would scrape against the bus.

We stopped on the way back to town at a restaurant for use of the restrooms and for relaxation. I was feeling a little nervous about my innards at that point and stayed away from food and drink. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

Here is a view from the rest area.These are other views during the ride.

The next stop on our way back was at the botanical gardens for a tour. This place specialized in herbs.
After the tour, we had a relaxed barbecue lunch of chicken and ground beef with cooked Moroccan salad, all prepared on the outdoor grill.  We ate outdoors in the company of the noisy birds and the one cat begging for food.

This was the end of the tours for the day. We were going to be on our own the rest of the day. We had had a lovely and relaxed time so far. We walked back to the main road to get on the bus to head back to the hotel.

We were able to relax in our hotel room in the afternoon.

We took a walk into town in the evening. We first walked to the train station. It was located on the Boulevard Mohammed VI, the road that the hotel was close to.The opera house is next to the train station, on the other side of the traffic circle.We then walked the streets to the Jemma el-Fna square.

It was late in the evening by the time we got to the square.
We walked around looking for a place where we could eat with a good view overlooking the square. We encountered some other members of our tour group enjoying the evening from one of the cafes beside the square during our wanderings. We chatted with them and moved on.

We ended up at Zeitoun restaurant, seen in this picture taken the morning of the previous day. (The restaurant is to the right side of the picture.)

We headed up to the terrace of the restaurant. (The sides of the terrace are covered by transparent plastic sheets in the picture above, but the sheets had all been moved out of the way be the time we arrived in the evening.) We were greeted by our waiter to be, Aadnane. He was a very friendly chap who appeared to be completely at ease in dealing with tourists like us. (For some reason, I was thinking that he must have been exposed to cultures outside of his country.) The restaurant seemed to be somewhat full. We first parked ourselves on a low sofa seat next to the railing overlooking the square – facing the bright setting sun. It was a little uncomfortable. We got a promise from Aadnane that we would be seated at a more comfortable table next to the railing as soon as the couple that was currently seated in that location departed. Aadnane also passed on this message to his compatriot serving customers on the terrace. It was a promise that was kept.

I sensed that all of the customers on the terrace were tourists. Some folks were there just to chill out, having some snacks and drinks (non-alcoholic, apparently due to the proximity to a few mosques), waiting for the sun to set. (I tried the non-alcoholic beer. I should have known ahead of time that this would not be satisfying.)
One couple seated close to us just started playing cards at their table – with a promise to the waiter that they would order dinner later. The staff did not seem to mind. Consider that these were the prime seats in the restaurant, with the best view of the square and the sunset. There was no push to try to get us out of the way and maximize their income. Nobody rushed us while we were there. I was impressed.

A unique and unforgettable scene unfolded below and around us as the sun set.

The place was completely alive! The lights were being turned on for the evening for the shops that had been set up on the square. The tourists were wandering around in droves. There was another restaurant like ours on the other side of the square where tourists were also enjoying the scene. There was the one vendor of toys walking around shooting off some lighted toy high into the sky above the crowds, letting it slowly drift back down to earth, and retrieving it every time it landed on the ground. I kept looking at what he was doing, drawn to the lit-up object going up and down in the sky – in the midst of all the other random activity going on the square below it. The whole environment was completely mesmerizing.

Aadnane kept up his good spirits when serving our food, playing a joke on me when he brought out it out, leading me to believe for an instant that there was some kind of a problem with the order when there was not. The food was tasty, but there was too much of it! Between the food and the activity in the square, we were truly transported to a different place and kind of experience. What a superb and unique way to celebrate my birthday! We paid our bill downstairs, on our way out of the restaurant, after dinner. Aadnane accompanied us downstairs, offering us rosewater to clean our hands. He was, hopefully, happy with the tip that we left him!

As we started on our way back to the hotel, we passed just opened food stalls that were packed into the center of the square.Hustlers were stopping the passers-by inviting them for a meal.(We had been warned earlier by Youssef about eating at these kinds of places.)

We passed the now lit up juice stalls we had seen during the day.

These are shots taken as we departed the square.
After leaving the area we continued to walk through streets far away from the square that were still busy with activity even though it was late in the evening. We then got on some quieter streets with very few people around – trying to not look like tourists! We were alert even though the streets did seem to be safe in that part of town. The median on Mohammed VI Boulevard was a notable landmark as we neared our destination.

Soon we were back in our hotel room reliving the events of another wonderful day in Morocco!

The First Day In Marrakech

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!