Morocco on My Mind


(Note: I wrote this post in January in a notebook but my computer broke and I couldn’t post it until now. Please assume that this was posted in the last week of January)

I’m writing this on the flight back to London from Marrakech. In the last six days, we toured Marrakech, gone up to Ourika Valley in the Atlas Mountains, and driven across the Atlantic Coast. And althought I have been captivated by its breathtakingly beautiful landscape, I have found that Morocco’s magnetic appeal lies largely with its people.

Anwar (aka my handsome husband/father of my trouble makers/soother of my soul) is sitting on my right peeling succulent tangerines from Marrakech and popping them greedily in his mouth. The kids and my dad are on my left, playing simple tabletop games and laughing. Life does not get better than this at 30,000 feet above sea level.

courtyard at Koutoubia mosque

Six days ago as our plane was making its descent into Menara Airport, Marrakech, I peered out my window and stared with wonderment into the snow peaked Atlas mountains gently giving way to large sweeps of desert sand. Marrakech, its terracota-coloured buildings a stark contract against the clear blue sky, spoke of mysteries waiting to be uncovered. As soon as we landed and stepped out of the plane, I l raised my face upward and soaked in the gentle morning sun rays. After what seemed like endless months of grey winter weather in England, the sun felt glorious.

The airport was clean and organised, with beautiful geometric mosaic patterns adorning the walls and see-through glass ceilings bathing the space with bright natural light. There were large, colourful posters plastered along several points of exit at the airport reminding us proudly that Marrakech was host to the UN Climate Change Conference in 2016.

As we made our way to the car park to find our rental car, we were surprised to find that Mourad, our AirBnB host, had been waiting for us outside to welcome us and to drive us back to our accommodation. The pickup was not part of our AirBnB arrangement-Mourad did it just out of courtesy, a welcoming gesture that we would soon find out was common among Moroccans.

This was a promising beginning to our Moroccan adventure.

Marrakech

The bulk of our trip was concentrated on exploring this fort city. Our AirBnB flat was located outside the medinah in the quite suburb of Maatala. It was the perfect respite from the cacophony of the city center.  Local amenities were within walking distance and it didn’t take long for us to settle into domesticity. We fell in love with a small, unassuming cafe that served wonderful chickpea, lentil, and tripe stews for breakfast for pennies, we bought fresh bread every morning from the shop downstairs, and my husband and father (both huge football fans) watched several African Cup of Nations matches at the nearby Cafe Majid over copious amounts of bitter coffee. One evening when Morocco was playing, the entire neighborhood went up in a uniform roar when their country scored a goal. Thanks to our flat being in a working class neighborhood, I felt like I was part of the community and not a mere spectating tourist.

A few hours after landing in Marrakech we visited Djemaa al Fnaa, the city’s famous market square, in a move that later proved to be a mistake. Unrelentingly chaotic, this city square lived up to its reputation for being the center of a cacophony of sounds, smells, and sights.  What first started out as a quest to find lunch quickly turned into a walkabout in a maze that seemed to have no end. Piercing flutes from snake charmers, drums from folk musicians, wails from monkey performers, calls from juice and food vendors, shouts from stall owners; all these added up to one big headache. When we finally found sanctuary in the Koutoubia mosque across the main street from the square, I didn’t want to leave. The mosque was an oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of the sea of frenzy, and it’s green courtyard provided a cool heaven of rest from the outside world.

Koutoubia mosque

The next day, with a plan in hand this time, we visited the splendid Bahia Palace and marveled at its interconnected rooms painted with beautiful mosaic patterns, its central courtyard of blue tile, and its interior garden complete with lush green oranges trees, date trees and fragrant flowering bushes. The kids loved the palace as much as the adults did and we were reluctant to finally leave the palace gates.

beautiful geometric art throughout the bahia palace

When we left, we had some mint tea at a little restaurant by the palace called ‘Menara Cafe’.  Its owner, Abdulraheem, was a gregarious fellow with a mischievous smile on his face.  He hit it off with my dad immediately.  His sister, Sameera, the quieter but no less friendlier of the two, took care of the food preparation. When I asked them where we could get couscous, Samira offered to cook some especially for us the next day. When we showed up the following day, we were treated to fluffy couscous and beef tagine served in individual sized clay tagine pots.  Abdulraheem and Sameera even gave me a tagine pot to take home the leftovers in, a gift for me to remember them by.

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the tagine that would soon be mine

We spent the rest of the day exploring the souk. We sampled a wonderful tea of roses and herbs, ran our hands over embroidered dresses and scarves, discovered piles of beauty and health tonics and mixtures, and drank freshly pressed orange, kiwi and pomegranate juice. Later, we ate spicy grilled meat and bread dipped in creamy spinach and bought harisa (a chili paste), olives and souvenirs.

Ourika Valley

Day 3 saw us driving us up into the Atlas mountains, a welcome relief from the city. We drove on a winding road up the mountains and stopped three times, the first to take pictures and haggle over crystals, the second to drink some coffee, and the third, to pray. The third stop was at Sitti Fatima and inspired the quiet of the mountains, we decided to have a quick bite that turned into a 3 hour lunch course. Sitting on plastic chairs by a gentle stream with the majesty of the mountains around us, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment.

The kids threw pebbles into the stream for hours and they let screams of delight as the pebbles hit the water. They were laughing from unrestrained joy and as I looked on to them, I remember thinking to myself “Heaven must look a lot like this.”

Essaouira and Agadir

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view of Essaouira

On day 4, we made our way to Essaouira, a quaint beach town about 3 hours west of Marrakech. The day was grey and wet. We only had enough time to walk through the main market housed within the fort walls, but a few hours was all it took for the town to win us over. We arrived at lunchtime and when we asked a Ismail, a short souvenier seller with thick glasses and curly hair with an air of worldiness, for recommendations, he pointed us to the fish stalls. “Go buy fresh fish from there, then take it to any restaurant and ask them to grill them for you.”

Dad’s new friend, Ismail

His recomendation did not disappoint. We made our way to an unassuming cafe with a dark interior and plastic seating.  It looked like it was closed for the day, however the chef popped out of nowhere just as we were about to leave. He instructed his waiter to accompany  Anwar and my dad to the market to buy raw materials for our lunch.

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shopping for lunch

Fresh fish and vegetables in hand, Chef Kareem whipped up a succulent lunch of grilled fish and platters of fresh salad. Anwar, not usually inclined to emotional displays of excitement, nearly wept from pleasure.

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colourful local produce

Unfortunately a small bone that got stuck in my throat temporarily ruined lunch for me, but I was happy to see the rest of the family enjoy their food.

As the evening sun set in, we jumped back into our car and made our way south to Agadir.

We spent the night in Agadir and spent the following morning (day 5) at its market, the largest in Africa.  The market had almost everything you could ever want but my favorite section was the fresh food stalls. I spotted the most gorgeous pile of artichokes that I have ever seen anywhere. We bought some pickled chillies and bottles of olive oil, and large punnets of possibly the world’s sweetest strawberries.

souk delights
biggest artichokes I’ve ever seen

After a quick lunch, we made drove back to Marrakech to get ready for our early morning the next day.

Final thoughts:

We’ve driven across three cities and villages in between; we have seen majestic landscapes of desert, mountain, and sea; we’ve feasted on delicious and locally grown food; and we have met truly some of the kindest people in the world. As a woman, I was relieved to find that I always felt safe.

Morocco has given us happy memories that will last a lifetime. I look forward to visiting other Moroccan cities and villages on our next family trip.

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