Welcome to Marrakech: Our Gateway to the High Atlas Mountains

February 3, 2017 – 12:00PM GMT

After an uneventful, three hour flight from Geneva, we touchdown at Marrakech Menara Airport. As we taxi up to the gate and admire the palm trees and 20 degree sunny weather that is forecast outside, Matt and I both glance at each other with a “what the hell are we doing here?” kind of look.  The looks continue, albeit from strangers, once we collect our  massive ski bag and venture out of the arrivals hall and out in to the chaos of the taxi stand.

The drive in to the city is reminiscent of Delhi, and we are thankful for our experience there a few years ago to prepare us for the expected craziness of Marrakech.  Of course we overpay for the taxi ride in to the city, and then get fleeced by some punk kid for his five minute “guided” tour to our hotel (the street we are staying on is too narrow for anything except scooters and motorbikes to drive on, so the taxi driver dumped us in a parking lot), but we arrive at our hotel in one piece, with all of our gear in tact.  All part of the experience.

Many of the hotels in Marrakech are called riads: converted mudbrick mansions from centuries ago with an inner courtyard open to the outdoors. The guest rooms are set on multiple floors around the perimeter of the courtyard. Ours is no different, and it offers a peaceful sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the busy Marrakech streets.  We dump our gear and relax in the courtyard, and our host Hamid hurries out with a pot of mint tea to greet us.

Feeling refreshed, we are ready to dive in to the city.  Marrakech was first founded in AD 1062 and served as an important transit point on the ancient caravan routes through the Sahara Desert.  Over the centuries it was ruled by a series of royal families, but the centre of the city was built, and remains, within a fortified wall called the Medina. The Medina is a maze of winding streets, lanes, shops, restaurants and hotels, and based on the city maps we’ve looked at, does not seem to be laid out in any sort of orderly manner.

Our first stop is the Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the city, and so we hang a left out the front door with only a general sense of how to get there.  The streets turn this way and that and dead end with no warning, but eventually we arrive. In English, Jemaa el Fna translates to “assembly of the dead” – apparently the square was used for public executions in the 11th century.  When we spill into the main part of the square, it is anything but dead.  People coming and going in every direction in cars, on scooters, and on foot. Horse-drawn carriages carry tourists around, snake charmers play oboes to get their snakes to dance, and various characters offer to sell you just about anything, including having your photo taken with a monkey on your head. It is a lot to take in and after wandering around for a little while we retreat to one of the several roof-top terraces overlooking the square, order another pot of tea, and simply observe the seemingly chaotic activities below.

As sunset approaches the loudspeaker at the Koutoubia mosque, just west of the Jemaa, begins the evening call to prayer.  Morocco is a predominantly Muslim country and many Moroccans will pray five times a day.  Before long, what seems like every mosque within the medina has begun their call to prayer, which makes for both an eerie and beautiful chorus of prayer, throughout the city centre.

Meanwhile, back in the Jemaa, the crazy factor is picking up a notch or two as street food stalls are being set up for dinner. Soon smoke begins to fill the air from grilled kebabs, lamb chops, and various other dishes that are being prepared for both locals and tourists alike.  We head down into the guantlet of food stalls to see what looks good for dinner.  Each stall is different, but every one is the same.  At each stall there are hustlers angling for everyone’s business.  Without surprise, Western tourists are a prime target.  “Eat at 1-1-1-7 and you go to heaven” yells one of the hustlers.  Another tells us that it’s the exact same food at every stall, so we should eat at his.  Yet another offers us free tea if we stop in there.  At each stall we make up a story that “we already ate at Number 51” or that “there are no locals eating there so we’re not stopping either”.  After walking through the 30 or so stalls, having been heckled at each one, we compare notes, head back in to the jungle, and ultimately pick a place to eat.

The food is delicious.  And the display even more so.  Moroccan salads, olive dishes, meat and vegetable tagines, couscous, kebabs, all laid out for the prospective dinner guests to pick and choose.  The local specialty (so we’re told) “tanjia”, is a lamb dish that is slow roasted for the whole day. Delightful. We order way too much food, but manage to finish it all, and are already excited to come back tomorrow.

After dinner we circle once more through the Jemaa before heading back to the riad.  It seems even more intense than during the day: the crowds have swelled, musicians are banging on drums and playing other instruments, and dancers perform all sorts of routines.  Many of the performances have not changed significantly over the last several centuries.

Tomorrow we’ll have the day to continue exploring Marrakech and to check out some of the sites including the Badi Palace, the Saadian Tombs, and Maison Tiskiwine – a museum near the riad that depicts the ancient caravan routes across the Sahara Desert from Timbuktu to Marrakech.  Despite the endless entertainment in the city, we’re already looking forward to escaping to the peace and quiet of the mountains.

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