Sunday 22 June 2008

Tales and Tastes of Marrakech

I’m back from my visit to Marrakech with my sister and wow what an experience. It was a bit of a culture shock at first as even though I had been told what to expect, it didn’t really prepare me for actually being there. I had been told we would get hassled walking down the streets, with people wanting us to look at their shops. I assumed this meant they would call out to us, not actually grab you by the arm and drag you over to their stall or follow you thrusting leaflets in your face.
We got off to a bit of a shaky start on our first day there. We were walking near the main square, which is where the locals have all their food stalls in the evenings, when we were surrounded by swarms of people all offering us menus and trying to get us to go to their stand. We didn’t actually want anything to eat and so were trying to escape when a man suddenly appeared with a long (unwelcome) snake which he wrapped around my sisters neck and then started demanding money for a photo. A woman then appeared by my elbow asking if I wanted a henna (dye) tattoo. I kept saying ‘no’ and she insisted it would only be a ‘small flower’ but I still said no and turned back to my sister. The woman then grabbed my wrist anyway and drew out what looked horribly like a syringe and aimed it at my hand. I pulled my hand away in alarm but not before she had made a long streak across my hand. I grabbed my sister who had somehow managed to free herself from the snake and we made a hasty retreat back to the safety and tranquility of our Riad feeling very overwhelmed.

Thankfully we soon became used to what to expect and found that by walking on by with your eyes averted or simply raising your hand to the side of your face with a sharp ‘non’ (they mostly spoke French) was the most effective.

The people hassling aside, the sites and sounds of Marrakech were amazing. They have Moroccan music playing in the streets wherever you go from early morning until late at night. The air is hot and humid and mingled with spices and the landscape a dusty terracotta colour that’s dotted with palm trees. Right in the centre of the Medina they have a mosque with a large tower which can be seen (and heard) wherever you are. At set times throughout the day loud chanting would suddenly start from the main tower, which could be heard over the whole city thanks to its 6 large megaphones, calling people to prayer. 4 – 5 smaller towers dotted around the outskirts of the city would then repeat the chanting of the main tower. This happened about 7 times a day, starting at 5am and ending around 10:10pm. We soon learnt to recognise the times of the calls “Ah the first chant after lunch, it must be quarter to two!” I loved hearing the chanting and it really added to the whole culture of the place.

The Riad (like a B&B) where we were staying was like a little piece of paradise compared to the hustle and bustle of the streets. It was cool and quiet and had a lovely roof terrace with comfy seats and an awning which made it a great place to sit in the mornings to enjoy breakfast and in the evenings with a book when there was a welcome breeze.

Breakfasts was a simple yet tasty affair which comprised of French baguette and soft doughy pancakes studded with holes, similar to Pikelets, which was served with jam and butter and accompanied by freshly squeezed orange juice. I have since learnt that the pancakes are called Beghrirs.
Lunch and dinner proved more difficult. Everywhere we went had the same food on offer which consisted of omelette, tagine or couscous. Now you may think ‘what else did you expect?’ but I did expect some variety not just in dishes but also in flavours. Nearly everywhere had the same flavour combinations and we saw about three restaurants that even had the same printed menu! Plus its not the best place to go if you are vegetarian I don’t think they understand a diet of no meat or fish. At lunch I could have plain omelette or omelette and chips and even then one turned up full of ham despite always asking if they were vegetarian. In the evenings I could have a Tagine aux Sept Legumes (seven vegetables) which I though meant it would contain seven different vegetables, but turned out to be seven pieces of vegetable consisting of carrot, courgette and a yellow coloured potato. Or I could have Couscous aux Sept Legumes which was exactly the same vegetables as in the tagine only with a bit of couscous underneath and if I was lucky some tomato on top. It got rather boring after a few days and I was amazed that despite their easy accessibility to numerous spices they tasted quite bland. My sister, who’s not vegetarian, found the same thing although she did have more options. I had envisaged couscous dishes flavoured with lots of aromatic spices and containing things like raisins, apricots, nuts and chickpeas. I don’t mean to make it sound awful, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.

One day we ate at a street stall which I was thrilled to find was offering some different foods. We had bread, olives and a tomato pesto style dip to start and then griddled aubergine and spiced sweet potato cakes to follow. The potato cakes were particularly good as they were well spiced.
The highlight of any meal for me was always the mint tea. I have been drinking mint tea for a few years, which usually consists of teabag, hot water and a mug but in Morocco they do it oh so much better. They use loose dried mint leave which give off a wonderful aroma when rubbed between your fingers. These are heated with some water and sugar in a special silver teapot set over a flame. This is then brought to the boil and left to steep before being slowly poured into pretty little glasses from a height. It pours out a golden amber colour with a slight green hue and fills the air with its minty aroma. I had never had it sweetened before but it’s fantastic! So soothing and comforting. I’m not sure if its bad luck to only serve it to one person but whenever I order it they always poured out two glasses. My sister didn’t like it but I was more than happy to make it disappear.
In the evenings a few women begin wandering the streets selling macaroons. These are not your dainty small French macaroons but they larger, flatter, chewy outside squidgy centered macaroons. These macaroons were studded with shredded coconut which became more apparent the more you chewed and released the oils, they were delicious.
One of the most interesting parts to explore were the Souks. These are a maze like collection of alleyways and narrow streets which are crammed full of small shops selling almost everything you could think of – ornate metal lanterns, colourful silky slippers and scarves, spices, wooden spoons, leather bags and belts, decorative wooden boxes, glasses, teapots, carpets and jewelry. The stretched for miles, snaking off in different directions and yes, we did get lost but we just keep wandering until we saw something we recognised. All the sellers expect you to barter over the price of the item you want to buy and will sometimes even go down to 20% of the original price they quoted you, so you should never accept their first offer. However, we discovered that if you ask a price of something they take this as meaning you are going to buy it, so you need to make sure you definitely want it before beginning conversation or else they get annoyed.
We also ventured further a-field and explored El Badi Palace which is now mostly in ruins and watched over by the many storks nesting on its walls.
The Marjaroelle Gardens which were owned Yves Saint Laurent and house plants from 5 different contents all beautifully displayed and surrounded by exotic plants in bright blue, orange and yellow pots.
The Palmary which contained acres of palm trees in sandy desert like surroundings. Another plus point to this is that you can explore them on camel back!


Beth (jamandcream) said...

Sounds like you had an interesting time! The hassle you get is a bit annoying but once you get used to it and know how to say no its fine. Back to rainy old England now then- its actually quite nice here today though, just really windy!!

Alex said...

I loved the pastries in Morocco and also the chickpea soup called harira - and the amazing bread!! I didn't make it to Marrakech though - not sure I'd be too enthusiastic about the snake around the neck!!!

Elle said...

What a wonderful journey! Did you really ride a camel? The food sounds very exotic and the Souks fascinating to explore.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a very nice vacation! I loved the postcard you sent ...very interesting! I can't wait to hear more about your trip!

Johanna GGG said...

sounds like a great adventure - loved your photos and the stories - the tattoo and snake moment sounded a bit hairy but it is amazing how quickly you wise up! Food is can be frustrating when travelling - funny how tourist places can serve such boring food and yet home cooking in the same country can be so amazing

Joe said...

What an exciting journey!

Elle said...

BTW, I've tagged you for a meme...hope you'll play along.

Leigh said...

Nice post, good pictures, too! The tagine looks good and yes, I'd have thought it contained seven vegetables, too.

Anonymous said...

What an adventure! I must say that being hassled non-stop doesn't sound like my idea of a holiday, but it sounds like you had a great time regardless!

Great pictures, too!

Anonymous said...

Quite an adventure u had in Marrakech. I have always thought about going there but the part about the snake really freaked me out.