Touchdown Marrakesh: My gateway to Africa


I woke up at 1 in the morning to make this four hour trip from London Stansted to Marrakesh. I tried to sleep but couldn’t, those 2 kids that sat beside me were restless throughout the flight. Things like this are one of the travellers’ nightmares. The plane hovered above Portugal, Spain and the Atlantic, lucky me, although I have these two kids on my periphery, I got a great view from my window.

As the plane prepared to touchdown, I peek into the window and saw my first glimpse of Sahara and the African continent. The linear patterns of the orange plantations and the asymmetrical shapes of the cities amidst the dry desert were awesome.

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Windmills somewhere in the Iberian Peninsula
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My first glimpse of the African continent and Sahara

Then the plane finally stops at the tarmac, the captain said we can now deplane. I took my small luggage and started walking. The sun is up, the sky was blue that I couldn’t find clouds but the place is cool and not humid. I saw the airport, the people and it finally sinks-in, I am alone in this unusual place where my country has no diplomatic presence and everything I am going to do here is almost my first time. I submitted my passport to the immigration officer, good thing Filipinos does not need Visa here, and then he looked at me and said “Maraming Salamat.” That two Tagalog words were comforting, I smiled and find my way out. This is it, this is Morocco.

I rode a bus toward my hostel located near Djemaa el-Fna. On my way, I have observed that the “Red City” is literally red in color. Finally, I saw a recognizable landmark I saw only in books, the Koutoubia Minaret. My bus stops and I stepped out and look around- I am at the heart of the medina.

The direction towards my hostel was not crystal clear. Immediately, after I stepped out my bus a man approached me and offered help which I politely refused. However, I didn’t notice that I was followed and before I knew it he was already ahead of me leading the direction towards my hostel, I could not escape. As we arrived in my hostel he asked for 200 dirhams to my surprise, refusing the offer I gave. Situations like this are the downside to my visit to Morocco and I have to deal with the same situations three times on my first day in Morocco. These unpleasant experiences were not unique to me, it adds to the tales that we discussed almost every night in the hostels- how we escape or got caught on people who wants to take advantage of tourists. Thus, we conclude that 90% of the people that will offer help in Marakesh and Fez will most likely ask for dirhams- 200 dirhams as we make fun of it.

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If England has the best tea, Morocco has the best green tea. They call it Moroccan Whisky.
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This is Riad Dia, riads are former affluent houses turned hostels or hotels located in the middle of the medina. To seclude a household from the hustle and bustle of the city, Moroccan’s created a space in the middle of the riads usually with trees in it. These are like their paradise in the middle of chaos.
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Spices in the Mellah of Marrakesh

Among the hostels in Marrakesh I choose Riad Dia because of its proximity to the medina. I always choose hostels over hotels because I believe most solo travellers stays here. This is the place where to find people like me which can be a great company. Riad Dia was somehow secured, staffs were helpful and they offered me my first authentic Moroccan Whisky and a quick orientation to Marrakesh including a handy map.

I only have less than 24 hours in this former imperial capital thus after a small chitchat I embark to my journey in the heartland of the Maghreb Empire, equip only with my Lonely Planet, 2 maps and some curiosity.

The streets of Marrakesh were a bit chaotic that I cannot comprehend how the road works. Cabs, horses, pedestrians and caliche crisscross the streets of the medina but somehow I survived whole and writing right now.

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Bikes, cabs and horses mix freely in the streets of Marrakesh. On the background is the minaret of Koutobia Mosque.
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Street scenes in Marrakesh.
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Bahia Palace
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If European ceilings are adorned with paintings, Moroccans does it like this in Palais Bahia.

My first stop is the Bahia Palace (Palais Bahia) which means “beautiful.” This literally beautiful palace was built in 1860’s by Grand vizier Si Moussa to house his wives and harem. As a black slave, Abu Ahmed, rose to power and wealth he took the palace and brought artisans from Fez to decorate it. I wandered into its gardens and marvel at the very richly decorated Moorish architecture. The archways, muqarnas and the intricately designed mosaic floors and ceilings are just majestic.

As I continue my my journey in Marrakesh, I passed by the spice souks between Palais Badi and Palais Bahia. It is located in a Jewish enclave which is quiet friendly. One thing I learned about the Moroccan souk culture is that whenever you don’t have plans to buy please don’t haggle or you’ll be in trouble. My trip to the souk was smooth, I already know the drill.

From the spice souk I went to Palais Badi, built by Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour in the 16th century, this palace was formerly decorated with gold, turquoise and precious crystals. But it is its grandeur that leads to its destruction, 75 years later the palace was plundered and all the gold and gems were moved to Meknes to make a new palace for the new rulers. Today, the palace remained adorable due to its behemoth size and its signature red bricks. On its top you can see a view of Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains on its background.

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Although Palais Badi was plundered, you can still feel its grandeur from its scale.
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Storks guarding the walls of Palais Badi.
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The Saadian Tombs, although it was walled up by the succeeding dynasty the tomb survived for the present to wonder.
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This small alley served as a passage to the now famous Saadian Tombs.
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This was my first taktouka or Moroccan salad, and I fell in love with it. Simple yet complicated.

It was almost three in the afternoon and any man couldn’t survive without a meal so I sat in a restaurant near Palais Badi and fall in love with taktouka, a Moroccan salad made from a mixture of tomatoes, green peppers, garlic and spices. A good way to pause and regain some energy.

With limited sunlight, I decided to rush to the Saadian Tombs. It was constructed by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour from imported Italian carrara marble. The building has 3 rooms and houses the tombs of the 60 members of Saadian dynasty. It was splendid until Moulay Ismail of the Alawite Dynasty walled up the tombs to keep their memories forgotten until 1917 when an aerial photography exposed it. Now, the tomb is accessible through a narrow alley beside the Kasbah Mosque.

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Ali ben Youssef Medersa is one of the finest example of Moorish architecture here in Marrakesh.

 

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Moorish arches are superbly decorated and sophisticated.
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I think the Moroccans mastered their tile works.

After exploring the now famous forgotten tomb I went back to Djemaa el-Fna to check it out before starting my adventure by getting lost in the middle of Marrakesh’ medina. Unexpectedly, it went well using the maps I have and some help of some trustworthy shop keepers- I found the Mouassine Fountain deep in the medina then suddenly someone was too good to offer me help claiming to be friendly. In the end, he leads me to wrong directions and asked for dirhams- very cool. Nonetheless, I assumed I’m better off with out a guide. After this incident, every time someone who’s too good to approach me to help I refused politely (there were a lots of them) and if they follow I walk fast- that was a horrible experience. And as I went around the medina, more people offered for help, but I don’t need it any longer, I’m done. Using my map I was able to locate the right Funduqs and Maison de la Photographie where the staff showed me a “simpler direction” out of the medina- not too simple though but was a great help. On my way out I bumped into the sophisticated Ali ben Youssef Medersa. Built by the Merenids in the 14th century, this Quranic school was once the largest in Northern Africa with 900 students. It’s architecture is a blend of Hispanic and Moorish style employing mosaic walls and stucco archways. As much as I wanted to stay, it is near dusk and I don’t want to be lost into the depths of the medina at night. So I dive into the medina once more finding my way out, just going with the flow until I found myself back at the Djemaa el-Fna.

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Spices along the alleys of Marakesh.
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Donkeys or mules, not really sure but this animals were widely used in this place.
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I am loving their food here, olives like this made me appreciate its flavor.

Capping my day is a glass of fresh orange juice for only 4 dirhams. You should try for their oranges are really sweet, as they claim it’s because of the Moroccan soil and weather.

Thirst for water and culture solved.

Planning a trip to Morocco? You might also like some of my post on this lovely kingdom! Please check the link below:

Across Middle Atlas to Fez

Fes el-Jdid on a Friday

Maghreb in Microcosm: Meknes and Volubilis

Homestretch at Fes el-Bali

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