I needed a change of scenery. So I spontaneously hopped on a train to Marrakesh last Thursday! Five friends planned on taking the 8 hour train on Friday, but I thought Marrakesh would be an ideal first solo trip. I stuffed the essentials into my backpack (a pack of peanut M&Ms and crunchy raw green beans and cucumbers from the previous night’s stir fry) and bought a first class ticket for the 11am train. At first, I shared my compartment only with an Arabic professor from Rabat! Four hours later, and I was squeezed against the window sharing my compartment with eight other people. Nearing the end of the ride, I was told by the ticket-checker in front of everyone in my compartment that I was not sitting in first class, and would I please let him escort me there. Well, that’s awkward. I politely declined and laughed along with everyone else… but I was just dying to see first class after that so I found my seat with thirty minutes to go. Sure, I had more room, but the air conditioner also blasted in my face. I’ll never pay the extra $12 for first class again.
After arguing with the first of many stubborn Marrakeshi taxi drivers, I found one to take me to the medina for a reasonable price. My driver was also the first of many to genuinely appreciate my Arabic! I think the strong presence of tourists and Westerners and French has shielded Moroccans in Marrakesh from interacting with Arabic-speaking Western students. He gave me a quick window tour around the Medina, stopping at a few hotels to inquire on my behalf about a room, then dropped me off smack in the middle of Djemaa al Fna. Wow. Women clad in leather jackets rocketed through the streets on motorcycles and natural red ochre pigment bedecked the city’s walls and buildings, making even the most drab and poor neighborhoods appear charming. I sauntered through the souks dodging snake charmers and passing what seemed like hundreds of food stalls, as aromas of fresh orange juice, unfamiliar spices and roasting goat heads wafted through the smoky air. I eventually found a decent riad right next to the square, and I dropped off my things before heading out, guide book in hand. Lonely planet is an absolute life-saver—from its maps to restaurant suggestions to history crash courses… I would have been entirely lost without it. I settled into Café Earth where only vegetarian and vegan dishes are offered, and I savored every last bite of my plate of sautéed vegetables/pumpkin/warm goat cheese then explored Djemaa al Fna a bit. I met Mohamed, a chemistry student at the university who spoke classical Arabic with me and led me around the souks, stopping to try Marrakesh’s notorious fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
When it started pouring out, Mohamed kindly walked me back to my riad. In the morning, I instead wandered through Marrakesh’s pink winding alleys spotted with jewelry and jeleba stalls in search of our next hotel. Heat was not an option. Neither was a shower, unless you count the shower head above the toilet. But I booked a few rooms for us at $10/night. Following my dear guide book, I grabbed a cab to Gueliz, the heart of modern Marrakesh and home to the city’s French-style cafes. I sat on the liveliest street corner I could find and sipped almond juice with my croque monsieur while people watching, my favorite activity. As a woman, I could not get away so easily with this in Fez. After a leisurely morning exploring the trendy boutiques, European patisseries and boulevards, I picked up Adrienne and Kate from the station and we embarked on our adventure around the city, starting with the Koutoubia Minaret— allegedly the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa!
We meandered through a few public gardens and soaked up the, well, greenness, then walked to the Majorelle Garden—a 12 acre botanical garden created in the 1920s and now owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. Verdant groves of bamboo, dwarf palm and agave, cactus gardens and lily-covered pools were brilliantly offset by the Art Deco pavilion in the center of the garden, painted in a striking cobalt blue. We relished the tranquility of the gardens and indulged in what was unquestionably the best salad we’ve eaten in months at a café next door populated exclusively by fashionable Europeans. What a contrast to the poor, drearily-dressed taxi drivers waiting on the next block.
Next stop: the souks! Ah, the souks of Marrakesh were magical. Perhaps higher prices than Fes, but also much less overwhelming. We met Remi, Zach and Martin for an evening of exploring and devouring couscous high up above the brightly lit square. Adrienne, Kate and I started Saturday, our last full day in Marrakesh, by settling into Café du Livre for an enormous, delicious American continental breakfast, then headed back into the medina to get lost, literally, in Marrakesh’s colorful souks. That evening, we set out into Djemaa al Fna! At the heart of Marrakesh, this square effortlessly involves you, particularly at dusk when acrobats, drummers, pipe musicians, dancers, storytellers, and fairground acts fill every corner and it transforms into a huge open-air dining area packed with stalls lit by gas lanterns. Martin lived in Marrakesh last summer and gave us the best introduction to Djemaa al Fna we could have had; “Follow me. This will be fun…” he said, smirking to himself and pulling us behind him. Stepping into the makeshift lanes, we were instantly bombarded by men in white chef coats grabbing our arms and insisting we sit at their stalls…attempting to physically drag us…while yelling and forming human barriers. Martin was right, it was all quite entertaining.
We started with familiar foods: macouda, fried calamari, harira, couscous, and brochette. Yum. On to the snails! We all shared a bowl of (giant) stewed snails and took turns pricking them with a toothpick and chowing down. I’d eat those any day over the neighboring sheep’s heads complete with eyes. We washed them down with a hot, spicy ginseng drink, said to be an aphrodisiac, accompanied by a portion of nutty cake. Pleasantly stuffed and warmed up, we spent the rest of the evening practicing Arabic with Martin’s two Moroccan friends. It felt wonderful to later cozy up in a warm bed next to a heater, falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain and strong wind.
We spent our last rainy morning eating warm malawi with honey, shopping in the labyrinthine souks, and getting my shoes shined! This man sits here all day, between several other shoe shiners, and for the whole five minutes I sat there I not once saw his face. We then returned to the Majorelle Gardens to grab another delicious salad for the 8 hour train ride back to Fes. Marrakesh, you’ve won my heart.