Tips & Ideas

Tips & Ideas

Strolling the Souks of Morocco

submitted by: Paris Permenter & John Bigley

The flight from Casablanca to Marrakech was scheduled to board any minute, and the boarding area was full. Most of the passengers were morocco-snakelocals, with just a sprinkling of tourists in the months before the summer season. Somehow we found ourselves near another couple of travelers.

They were the beautiful people, straight from pages of a magazine, waiting with a collection of perfectly coordinated luggage. But before we boarded, they felt obligated to share their insights on Morocco.

Watch the bottled water,” Claudia advised. “They fill empty water bottles from the tap and then reseal them. You can’t be too sure.” She adjusted her Versace sunglasses atop her neatly coiffed head. It seemed that Claudia and her traveling companion, Geoffrey, were in the fashion industry; they had previously visited Morocco on a photo shoot.

“Why are you traveling to Marrakech?” she asked before we had a chance to comment on the water.

“We’re just going to spend a few days touring and shopping Marrakech then fly to Fes to attend the music festival.”

“You’re musicians?”

“No, we’re journalists.”

Her eyes brightened and she leaned a few inches closer. Her well-groomed companion lowered his magazine and smiled. “Do you write for anyone we’ve ever heard of?” he quizzed.

There must have been some confusion between the words journalists and mind readers. “Well, we…”

“Town and Country is here,” Claudia blurted out. “They’re covering the wedding we’re attending in Marrakech the day after tomorrow. It’s going to be quite a major event. The bride and groom both work in the fashion business.”

Fortunately, the loudspeaker rattled to life at just that moment. Royal Air Maroc Flight 411 was boarding. We were on our way to Marrakech and free of the beautiful people.

Or so we thought.

MARRAKECH

Thanks to Humphrey Bogart, movie buffs may think of Casablanca at the mention of Morocco, but if Hollywood devised a movie set of p.morocco.marketNorth Africa, it would undoubtedly resemble Marrakech. Protected from the sands of the Sahara by the High Atlas Mountains, the city combines the feel of a desert hideaway with that of a rich oasis. Sand-tinted buildings, many dating back centuries, are often shaded by date palms. Long the crossroads of Africa and Europe, a waystation for the great caravans, the city throbs with the excitement.

The heart of Marrakech is Jemaa el Fna or “assembly of the dead,” a public plaza named for its days as an execution site. Today life, not death, permeates every inch of the square. Here performers gather in the late afternoon and into the evening; for the price of a small tip we watched a cobra dance to the sway of a wooden flute, photographed the colorful watersellers with their chests covered in dangling brass cups and walked gingerly past the “dentist,” whose quick extraction skills were advertised by a table full of teeth.

But for us the real attraction of this area lay behind Jemaa el Fna. Here sprawls the souk, with miles of turning walkways that offer a startling array of goods for sale. For four hours we wandered the souk’s alleyways, narrow passageways far more orderly than they first appear. Within its borders, specialty souks overflow with fabrics, spices, meats, brass and ironwork, clothing, and more. We strolled along the displays of Berber jewelry, babouches (leather slippers) and the obligatory silver teapots, a symbol of Arabic hospitality.

It was time to put that hospitality to the test. We headed deep into the souk to the place where we were almost guaranteed of getting our first taste of what seemed like the national drink of Morocco–hot mint tea, as sweet as liquefied chewing gum.

To step into the store of a rug merchant is to walk into a den of designs, no two alike. The air was heavy with the thick aroma of wool; carpets were stacked from floor to ceiling. “There is no plan; each pattern is in the mind of the ladies who make them,” said Mr. Youssaf, whose family operates La Porte d’Or. Fifteen types of Moroccan rugs and carpets are found here, from the High Atlas rugs, made with 100% wool and dyed with vegetable colors, to the woven and embroidered Kilim rugs. Mr. Youssaf explained each type of rug to us as we sat cross legged on a pile of what turned out to be Kilim designs. At his signal, his assistants repeatedly produced illustrative carpets with a grand flourish, sending the room-sized rugs rolling across the floor (accompanied by an explosion of wool fibers).

Now starting to fight for a breath of fresh air in this cavern of carpets, we decided to move this process along. “What would be the price for a small rug like this one?”

But something as important as discussion of carpets was not to be hurried. “Color design, dye, quality of work, they all determine the price,” Mr. Youssaf said quietly. This wasn’t progressing at the expected rate. The carpet fibers were now beginning to settle on our clothing.

Mr. Youssaf made another flourish with his arm. In came the silver teapot, perched atop a silver tray. Tiny glasses, far more practical for holding a shot of liquor than a glass of near boiling water, were produced. The assistant raised the teapot high over his head and began pouring the scalding tea into the micro-glasses, forming a head on each cup of tea.

Two hours later, filled with glass after glass of mint tea, we left the carpet seller, sans carpet. It turned out the prices for the carpets were out of our league, ranging from US $150 to $12,000. There was no pressure to buy, however. A Moroccan afternoon spent drinking tea is never a waste, for the buyer or the seller.

TOURING MARRAKECH

Dating back to the 11th century, Marrakech is filled with history. Eleven kilometers of sand-colored walls surround the medina or the old city. Here the tallest structure is also one of its oldest: the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque. The square tower stands only 230 feet but the distinctive shape of the minaret has been used as a pattern by mosques throughout the country.

We traveled from the minaret to La Bahia Palace, once used as the French governor’s residence. The sound of children singing Arabic songs wafted from over another sand-colored wall as we strolled to the Palace. Here walls were covered in small tiles to form Arabesque designs, elaborate geometric patterns in a myriad of colors. On Fridays, local women often come to the Palace to look at these designs and get ideas for their own embroidery and home projects.

Not far from the Palace, we headed to the shade of a garden restaurant and a taste of genuine Moroccan food. Soon a steaming plate of lamb tajine, a celestial mixture of lamb, couscous, and sliced lemon, was unveiled beneath a conical pot that looked like a clay hat.

Suddenly a hubbub arose from the other side of the garden. A dish wasn’t up to a diner’s standards. Two clouds of designer clothes swept by, each clutching a bottle of water. The beautiful people from the airport. Sometimes the world is a little too small.

We ordered a bottle of Moroccan wine and a plate of local desserts called gazelles horns, pastry crescents filled with almonds and honey. A sweet end to a good meal.

Although it had been surprising to see Claudia and Geoffrey in the restaurant, it was no shock to glimpse them in the next stop on our tour: the Majorelle Gardens. After all, the largest gardens in the city are owned by French designer Yves Saint-Laurent. The quiet retreat is a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech; the few coos come from doves in the honeysuckle-covered palm trees. And, in this case, the screech of Claudia complaining about some “weeds” cluttering up a photo Geoffrey was taking of her.

It was time to move on.

The next day we returned to the souk, wandering among the seemingly thousands of shops and stalls in search of a Berber teapot. We hadn’t bought the Moroccan rug but the memory of that tea ceremony was one that certainly was deserving of a travel souvenir. We eventually found one we liked– not too fancy, a solid-looking vessel that would look right at home over a desert campfire. We made a few more stops in Marrakech then returned to our hotel to get ready for the next day’s journey to Fes.

Clutching camera gear, luggage and the teapot, we saw the beautiful people at the currency exchange counter in preparation for their flight to Casablanca. The wedding was over and they were headed to a fashion show in Paris. Claudia was complaining loudly that she needed to exchange dirhams because she wouldn’t be returning.

We just strolled by, teapot in hand, and headed to the gate for our flight for Fes. They might always have Paris but we were ready for more of Morocco. Play it again, Sam.

IF YOU GO

Getting There: Air service from the US and Canada to Morocco is quick and easy, just 6-1/2 hours from New York’s JFK International Airport to Casablanca. For more information, call Royal Air Maroc at 800-344-6726¬†FREE or see http://www.kingdomofmorocco.com. Short flights connect Casablanca with Marrakech, Fes, and other cities.
Connecting air service to Morocco is also available on KLM, Air France, Alitalia, British Airways, Lufthansa, SwissAir, and others. A valid passport is required of all visitors.

Health Precautions: No immunizations are required for a visit to Morocco. Travelers are advised to drink only bottled water and avoid ice as well as food such as salads and most fruits that has been rinsed in water.

Language: English is spoken by many merchants but the official language of Morocco is Arabic. Most Moroccans also speak French; Spanish is spoken in the northern cities as well.

Where to Stay: Marrakech has a variety of accommodations. Within walking distance of Jemaa El Fna lies the city’s best known hotel, La Mamounia (800-223-6800¬†FREE, http://www.mamounia.com). The hotel was Winston Churchill’s favorite; a luxurious suite bears his name and his self-portrait. Rates start at US$350. On the edge of town lies Palmeraie Golf Palace and Resort (in Morocco 212-4-30-5050, fax 212-4-60-2020, pgp@open.net.ma, http://www.pgp.co.ma). Surrounded by a championship golf course, the palm-shaded resort includes a pool complex, equestrian club, spa facilities, and a fitness center. Rates from US$220.

For More Information: For more on Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, 212-557-2520.

Paris Permenter & John Bigley are founders of www.LoveTripper.com – a romantic travel site featuring getaways of special interest to lovers in search of a honeymoon, a destination wedding, or a weekend away.

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