Atlas North: A Tour through Portugal, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria
Arriving in Morocco and spending two days in Marrakech with visits to Saadian Tombs, Jemaa el-Fnaa, the Souk, Bahia Palace, Majorelle Garden, and experiencing a hammam at La Sultana, a cooking class at La Maison Arabe, a belly dancing show at Dar Essalam, and staying at Riad Zamzam and Riad Calista.
Morocco – Country 62
Coming from Lisbon and arriving in Marrakech airport, it took almost an hour to get my entry stamp, which interestingly had a unique number. Morocco, country 62, was official!
Over two days, I explored the diverse city and tried to experience as much of the culture as possible. Here are the highlights of the visit.
The tombs from the period of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603) are held in three main rooms. The outside are colorful graves of servants and soldiers.
Try to avoid the lines by visiting the rooms first as they get crowded when big groups enter.
A famous landmark, this is the first mosque in Marrakech built in 1157. A short walk to the main square.
This is the main square of Marrakech right in the center of the old city. It is crowded during the day and night, though the scene changes as darkness falls. During the daytime, the street performers and peddlers do whatever is necessary to separate you from your dirham. There are card games scams, carnival type games, kids boxing, henna tattoos, cobra charmers, and monkey handlers. If you happen to take a picture in the square, it would not be unusually for someone to come up to you and ask for payment, as they may have been in your picture. The performers did get the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity
Food stalls are the foundation for the northern part of the square. Napo and I tried the lamb tagine and brains.
Overall, the atmosphere is overwhelming and tiresome. Go to one of the rooftop cafes for a break and a great view over the square.
The souk lies just north of the square. One can find anything in this maze of streets, though the majority of items is directed to the tourist. Getting lost is very easy. Finding your way is a bit more difficult. Ask a local boy if you need to be guided out, but be ready to pay a tip.
This 19th century palace had individual rooms designed for each of the concubines of Si Moussa, grand vizer of the sultan.
The beauty of this palace is in the ornate decorations and architecture of each room. We even ate some of the sour oranges from the tree in the garden. Only later did we find out that they were not oranges…
This green escape was designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the early 20th century. In 1980 Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé purchased the garden and in 2008 when Yves Saint-Laurent passed away, his ashes were scattered in the garden. You can pay respects at a pillar dedicated to him.
In the garden, the chaotic sounds of the medina is replaced by chirping birds and fountain water flowing. This visit is interesting for its fashion connection, but come when you need to relieve stress from the median.
Le Hammam Royal at La Sultana
La Sultana is a luxury 5 star hotel created by combining several riads. The property has a large terrace overlooking the medina and the Saadian Tombs. I went for a visit and to experience the traditional hammam and massage.
The traditional hammam starts with a steam room where a masseuse rubs black eucalyptus paste all over your body. You let that soak in for about 15 minutes, then you move to a room with a fountain where you lay down on a tiled surface and your entire body is scrubbed with a sandpaper-like glove. It’s an interesting sensation that feels quite great after the initial discomfort.
After a moment of relaxation and mint tea, you can continue with another treatment like a full body massage.
A hammam experience especially one in the opulent setting of La Sultana is not to be missed!
Cooking Class at La Maison Arabe
La Maison Arabe is a luxury boutique hotel in a Riad setting. Napo and I had signed up for a Moroccan cooking class which was located at the hotel’s country club just outside of the medina.
We took a van along with other guests to the enclosed garden and dining area. First we sat around as the instructor explained the history of Moroccan cooking and how certain dishes are made. We saw a traditional wood burning oven where breads were made and sipped mint tea.
Then we were led to the professional cooking stations which looked and felt like something from a television show. All the ingredients and tools were set up in front of each station with a monitor to view how the head chef was preparing the food. The chef instructed us on how to prepare a chicken tagine and eggplant starter. She was very lively and her assistant came around to make sure we were preparing the dishes correctly.
After the preparation, we sat outside and dined on our creations paired with three different wines. I must say, complements to the chef!
Moroccan Show Dinner
Enjoy some moroccan cuisine with a traditional dance show at one of the many restaurants in the medina.
We went to the well known Dar Essalam which had a dinner show composed of musicians on moroccan instruments, a dancer balancing a tray of candles on her head, and a scantily clad belly dancer. The cuisine was very tasty, though I can’t imagine how someone could finish the portion of couscous that we were served.
A unique feature of life in the medina is living in traditional Moroccan houses. Many of these riads have been converted into hotels and they range from small hostels to massive multi-riad luxury hotels. We stayed in two different riads during the three nights in Marrakech. Riad Zamzam is a luxury boutique riad in the peaceful north of the medina. Full review coming soon. Riad Calista is in the south of the medina and is a prime example of a private riad converted into a hotel.
Marrakech is a great introduction to the culture of Morocco. Next up, Napo and I hop on a train to explore Fez!