The Berbers are one of the major ethnic groups in Morocco. We had one evening of Berber music at the villa, which was just great. The style reminded me very much of music I've heard from Mali. Someday, in my next life, I'm going to be an ethnomusicographer.
Getting from the Airport to Central Marrakech
Menara airport is located just 6km from central Marrakech. The easiest way to get into town is by taxi or private transfer. There were plenty of Grand Taxi's about waiting to ferry people to the New Town and the edges of the Medina.
Our hotel arranged an airport pick up for us - there was a smiling man holding a sign with our Riad's name on it when we emerged through the doors after picking up our luggage. It certainly made finding our way to the Riad a lot easier - not sure we would have been able to do it on our own.
If you prefer you can catch a bus from the airport - number 11 bus has a stop just a short walk outside the airport. The bus will take you to Djemma El Fnaa, the central square in Marrakech. Buses run about every 20 minutes during the week, less frequently on the weekends. A ticket costs just a few dirham, and you can buy your ticket from the driver.
Djema El Fna (food stalls scam awareness)
Having visited Marrakesh recently during 18-25April 2007, I noticed that whilst walking around the food stalls area, after being convinced by a sharp talking stall holder, he mentioned that 5 kebabs are only 25 dirham and fries only 5 dirham, I happily ordered these and clearly mentioned that I wanted the kebabs and fries, he then told another colleague to start preparing the barbeque kebabs, a colleague then came to my table and put some sauces, olives and bread beside me then he bought over the fries, I started eating and a few minutes later the kebabs arrived (rather slim and minimalistic)
The main point is that the accompaniments which were presented without me requesting them, were added to the final payment bill (cost of fries & kebabs should have been 30 dirham, but 5 dirham for ketchups, 5 dirham for olives and 10 dirham for bread) added to bill.
Please be wary of this deliberate method to make you order 'more' than what you want and then being charged for it.
Mosquée Yacoub el-Mansour
Although originally built in the 12th century by Almohads, the mosque of Yacoub el-Mansour was mostly reconstructed in the 16th century after suffering some severe damage. It is situated within the walls of the Kasbah, near Bab Agnaou, and is thought to be the only remaining structure in the Kasbah from Almohad period. The mosque's minaret is considered one of the most beautiful in Marrakech, along with la Koutoubia. This mosque is also known as la Mosquée aux Pommes d'Or (for the golden balls stacked above the minaret), as well as Mosquée de la Kasbah.
I knew that Morocco was a Muslim country and tourists were to dress conservatively or risk drawing unwanted attention to themselves. I had my sarong in my carry-on ready to cover my shoulders, but when we disembarked from the plane in Casablanca I noticed most people ignoring this advice. I saw bare shoulders and tank tops everywhere. That all changed when we got through customs. The locals there waiting to pick up friends and family from the airport were in burka's, headscarves and robe-like dresses that covered them from head to toe! My husband immediately suggested I had better cover up! We waited for the train for about an hour, went 3 stops and waited nearly 2 hours (the train was an hour late) then a 3 hour trip and we were in Marrakesh!
We got off the train into the taxi hawker chaos! My trusty guide book said a taxi should be 10 Dirhams, so why were they all offering a ride into town for 50? I am starting to hate guide books and their stupid advice. We got a guy down to $40 and away we go. He was shocked we didn't have reservations and just took us to a place he knew of. In Marrakesh you can stay at a hotel or a Riad.. The place he took us to only had a suite available at way more than I anticipated spending. We bargained with the owners and got the price from 700 Dirhams to 500. After a shower and some complimentary mint tea and nibbles we headed out.
Our first impressions are of the chaos everywhere! I think it has been the most intense culture shock we have experienced. So different from what we are used to it was hard to even tell right from wrong. Everything seemed topsy turvy. Traffic was insane with no lanes or rules, people were in the streets walking, socializing or selling stuff. Men wear pajama like outfits with a long loose top and pants and a knitted hat on their head. It is acceptable for men to hold hands as friends. It is odd to see at first, the men are really touchy feely with each other. Women are in burka's or long loose robes with hoods on the back (think KKK robes) and head scarves. The roads are paved but everything is covered in a reddish dirt. The streets are a maze of twisty dark alleys with doors on the sides going into homes. The buildings are made of reddish stone and mud and none are over 2 stories. The men seem to do a lot of sitting in cafe's and hanging out in small groups in the alley's or in front of stores. The people are known to be really friendly and eager to help, but are just as likely to ask for a tip for the assistance.
Leaving the riad we attempt to find one of the places recommended in my book. We decide to hop in a taxi to get there. He over charges us of course. They can spot a wild eyed rookie when they see one! Twenty Dirhams to go 3 blocks.... We check out a few more places to stay and find some OK ones for about $300.
"First night in Marrakesh"
We are getting hungry and go a restaurant connected to the Grand Tazi where 3 course are $150, not bad compared to other places we had seen so far!
It was a good introduction to Morocco! We tried a Moroccan salad (tomatoes, tuna, onion, cucumber) Pastilla (chicken and almonds in a pastry crust sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon), and chicken cous cous and tagine of beef and prunes. (A tajine is a Moroccan dish as well as a special pot for preparing this dish. All was very tasty!
After dinner we head to the famous Djemaa El-Fna square where we are blown away again! It was all just too much for us combined with the jet lag and sleep deprivation. Half of the square is filled with food stalls serving all the foods we just ate as well as kabobs, sausage, boiled sheeps head(yum), fresh orange juice,mint tea, and a spicy cinnamon drink and chocolate cake thing for dessert. Above it all floats smoke from all the grilling. There are people everywhere and my husband kept wondering why they were there? It was about 10PM, shouldn't they be at home? But it is like that every night. I think everyone goes there to socialize and at night it cools off from the daytime 40degrees we suffered in. The other half of the square is for entertainment. There are small groups of people listening to musicians, singers, and fortune tellers and women wanting to sell you henna tattoos . After pausing to look or listen someone will inevitably pop up with a hat and expect a tip of some sort. It gets annoying but you get used to avoiding eye contact and to watch and walk at the same time.
We joined a 3 day trip to the desert from Marrakesh. There were 11 people in the tour, 3 Aussies and 6 Spanish. We left at 7am. Our first major stop was the Ait Benhadou Kasbah. It was really cool and in good shape because movies had been shot there (Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia) and has now become a UNESCO protected site. The buildings are made of mud with tiny windows but that is what helps them stay cool in summer and warm in winter.
"Merzouga and the High Atlas"
The tour wasn't all we expected...the bus had no air conditioning or seat belts and the driver spoke no English. We spent about 10 hours each day driving but did stop lots for a leg stretch and a cold Fanta. We did get to see lots of the landscape though. But once you have seen one mud house built into a mountain, you have pretty much got the gist...20 more hours of looking at the same is a tad redundant!
Next day we were on the road again. We dove thru a stunning forest of palm trees and more Oasis. We had a quick tour of local alfalfa farming and a Jewish Kasbah. Had a lesson on carpet weaving which ended up just being a gimmick to try to sell us a carpet. We had lunch at the Todra Gorge with crystal clear water running thru it.
Then back on the road heading straight for the sand! We arrived to the bottom of some sand dunes and quickly loaded onto camels. An hour ride and we arrived at our campsite with our 2 Berber guides to make us dinner and keep us company.
We got into camp at 7PM and quickly dashed up the dune to catch the sunset on top of the world. Running up a mountain of sand is a workout!!
We were starving after all that but dinner wasn't ready 10PM!! Then it was a big bowl of chicken and veggie tagine with stale bread and no utensils!! But we were all so hungry we just dove in with our hands, and promptly burnt them!! It was hot!
After a good night sleep we were on the camels again and back to the van for the marathon to Marrakesh.