Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Seven Days in Marrakech

Arrived to the contrast of the Nouvelle City, outside the walls or Medina of the Old City. Modern, banks and hotels line Mohamed V Avenue. Abdullah met us at the train station and delivers us to Bab Aylen (Bab is Gate) on the east side of the Medina. He then guides us by foot into the Medina about two short blocks to a small alley where we are greeted by Sayid of Riad Shaden. Sayid and Youssef, the managers are always 'service with a smile'. They tell us to 'ask for anything, we can help you'.

In typical Moroccan tradition we are served sweet warm mint tea upon arrival and placed in our tiny room on the first floor of the Riad (Moroccan home with inner courtyard). Breakfast each day is strong coffee and warm milk with an assortment of breads such as corn bread, semolina bread and crepes. We asked for boiled eggs each morning to have some protein with all the carbs.

We've met fellow travelers mostly from Europe, especially Netherlands. Always fun to compare notes and mistakes made.

Our first night out of the Riad we ventured the fifteen minute walk to the city center Jmaa El Fnaa (JEF) but didn't make it. Talk about culture shock! Overwhelming! People in jalaba's, cattle/sheep heads hanging from hooks at the stalls, tiny shops lining the 'street'selling everything from dentures to the ugliest clothing I've ever seen. Image wearing a bathrobe of fleece printed with the John Deere logo in beige! It even said 'John Deere'!! As we approach the square we are harangued by young men competing for our business in the local restaurants. So we didn't make it to the square because one of these buskers managed to seat us at Chez Brahim for our first Moroccan tajines (roasted food served in a clay dish called a tajine). Although we were intimidated by the lack of English-in Morocco it's primarily Arabic or French- we knew what a tajine and poulet were so we ordered accordingly. Big problem for me: all my food allergies. I carried little slips in French with the list of allergins. The waiter read the slip, steered me away from the Vegetable Tajine. Then he proceeded to serve me the first course salad covered with parsley. I pointed out the offending herb and he took it away and brought the tomato salad. Then the tajine; he opens the cover and it's also covered with parsley. Took it away and returns again. Phew....glad I brought my epi-pen! Just in case.

The next day I took a cooking class at our Riad. Sayid took me to the market to buy the ingredients. I chose to make the Briwats for first course and the Pastilla for the main and a milk pudding for dessert. The ingredients were not anything exceptional but for the herb Ras El Hanout (head of the shop), a mixture of 30 herbs. We made three types of Briwats. Vegetable, Cheese and Tuna. The mixtures are folded into strips of filo dough triangles; folded like a flag and pan fried in oil. The Pastilla is a larger sheet of filo dough in buttered layers filled with ground almond paste, egg, onion, spices and chicken and sugar. Edges are buttered and folded under, baked in oven and served with honey and cinnamon on top. Quite sweet for a main couse. But the milk pudding wasn't sweet at all. Sort of a reverse of European cooking where the entree is savory and the dessert is very sweet.

The next day we took our map and got quite lost trying to find the dumpy Museum of Marrakech. Teenage boys will gladly help you find your way and then proceed to fleece you, 'give me 100 durham!” - about $12! Right! They look you right in the eye and demand. I learned to look them right back and say 'NO'! Yata is much nicer, and comes up with some coins. We've gotten better at this each day. The day after we just roamed around with no map and found all kinds of interesting Palaces, Souks (shops) and restaurants. We also try to carry small coins since someone is always begging or selling tissues or some such.

Nearly every night we are drawn to the square JEF. There the tourists and vendors congregate. There are snake charmers and performers. There are stalls that sell mounds of fresh steamed snails, fresh squeezed orange juice (50 cents), grilled meats, vegetable salads, sweet pastries. There were a few stalls that were selling what appeared to be mounds of dark chocolate. Turns out it is a sweet spread of ground spices: cinnamon, clove, cardamon, ginger etc. Then served with warm sweet ginger 'beer'. Some food stalls display the heads of sheep with the brain neatly wrapped in cellophane on top of the head. Yata had dreams about that! After a dinner sampling the various booths we happened upon some musicians singing and playing traditional Moroccan music. Sat and recorded a number of their tunes in between which the leader harassed the crowd into tipping.

Our favorite restaurant has been Un Dejeuner Marrakech. We had two dinner there, both more French than Moroccan but it's nice to have a break from the Morrocan since it doesn't vary that much. We are so accustomed to such variety in our diets. A couple of minor treats have been the sweet clementines that are found in every market for next to nothing and the steamed and roasted chickpeas, litely salted and cuminned (if that is a verb).

We've enjoyed Marrakech but seven days here is more than enough! Five might be just right. Oh, and one excellent must see is Jardin Majorelle, the garden and home of an artist that was restored by Yves St. Laurent. Excellent cactus garden with good placards. It also included a very well done but small Berber Museum. The artist's color sense was wonderful. Royal blue with yellow or gold accents. Pools reflecting the sky and palms...lovely.

Speaking of Berber, we've bought quite a nice selection of Berber silver jewelry to resell. It's easier to travel with than rugs (which I'd love to acquire also) and it's something we don't have easy access to in Western Wisconsin. Jafir our salesman is a Berber from southern Morocco. Nice guy, not so pushy!

We accidentally found the Kozy Bar, recommended by a couple of Dutch women. It's the first place in Morocco we've found that served alcohol.  We didn't have any but we had a great Thai soup and Creamy Ravioli with a fabulous view of the Medina and the Atlas mountains as well as the big nesting storks on nearby roof tops.  

Tomorrow we're off on a three day excursion to the Sahara.

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