“Do you know where you are?” Youssef looks at me expectantly. Oh flip, is he going to leave me in the middle of the kasbah? I know that is where I am, but that doesn’t mean I know how to get back to my hotel. I give him a sheepish look, “No, I don’t.” He just laughs and buys me a cactus fruit that I have been eyeing for the last couple of stalls.
“Do you know now?”, he inquires a little further down the road. “No, sorry.” I’m starting to feel bad. After all I always praised my own great sense of direction. The call for prayer is now filling the air and I feel like I’m keeping him. But apparently shepherding a lost German
sheep girl is his good deed for the day and he doesn’t seem to mind very much.
While he doesn’t mind, he still seems puzzled how anybody could not understand the layout of the kasbah, after all we have left the medina and surely it can’t be that difficult. It is easy for him to say though – Youssef, my food tour guide from Marrakech Food Tours, has spent most of his life here. Except for the time when he lived in the States where he met his wife Amanda. She has organized for him to take me around and stuff my greedy face with every culinary street feast Marrakech has to offer. Because the first rule of surviving the maze is of course sustenance.
While I have had a soft spot for Morocco for a while, I must say I’m neither a big fan of tagine nor couscous and the first time I was in Marrakech, I actually really disliked the city. This time I’m on the mission to change this and discover Moroccan food and a Marrakech that is for me. The Marrakech part is almost instantly accomplished as soon as I step out of the airport and my driver finds me, no sign, just by magic – what a great place to be!
The Food of Morocco
And now I have Youssef to take care of the food part. Luckily he not only knows his way around the kasbah, but also the medina, and we start in the alley of tangia where all you can get, you guessed correctly, is tangia. This dish, traditionally cooked by the men, is made of fragrant sheep meat, slow cooked deep in the ground, and super yummy if you can get over the ‘advertisements’ in front of the restaurants.
Next we are off to eat hout quari, fish balls with harissa and chopped onions. They are extremely tasty, but as I have some dishes to go, I don’t finish my plate but ask Youssef to apologize to the cook and to tell him that I really enjoyed his balls. He just crooks an eyebrow at me, “Do you really want me to tell him that you like his balls?”
We move on to eat harira soup and m’semmen, best described as a Moroccan pancake, and to buy olives, dried mint and verbena for me to take back home. A few stops later and we – that is Youssef, I, and my food baby – are on our way back. I get excited when I finally recognize the kasbah walls, because not only are there about four storks nesting on top, drenched in the golden evening light, but I also know where my hotel is. At least for now…
The Maze of Marrakech
In Marrakech you will get lost. Take that as an inevitability. You may have a map, you may have google, you may have sense of direction that never let you down anywhere else, but here you will just have to accept the fact that you will get lost and that it is okay.
In order to enjoy it take an adventurous spirit and a bit of French. At least the words ou? (where?), a droits (right) and a gauche (left) will get you really far in this regard. My adventurous spirit decides that if it isn’t a bit of a struggle to get somewhere, it probably isn’t worth going to begin with. I also learn that while a few of the medina side street and alleys are bit dark and dingy, they usual hide treasures: cute cats, beautiful spas or for example the Douiria Mouassine, a beautifully restored house from the 16th century.
This one I only come across as I set out in the morning to go to the Maison de la Photographie. Which I almost can’t find as I am still relying on google maps at this point. Rookie error, but an hour later I am rewarded for my persistence and it feels all the better as it isn’t handed to me on a silver map. Mind you, I almost start crying when I am told that no, I can’t pay admission with my credit card and yes, the next ATM is really at the other end of the souks. However I am allowed to just look around and if I want, but only if I want, I can buy something with credit card later and pay the admission then. That is the first, but not the last time, I want to hug a stranger in Morocco.
The whole museum is amazing and so are the images, showing not only the history of photography, but also the history of Morocco and its people. Replications are for sale in various sizes and versions and so it comes as no surprise that I stuff my bag with posters and postcards in addition to paying my admission. On my way out I meet the owner, Patrick Man’ach, a charming French (are there any other?) who tells me that I now must go and see the Douiria, it is a real gem and not in any guide books yet.* Formally a private house it has been carefully restored with traditional craftsmanship and local materials and is now a small museum, showcasing beautifully carved marble, painted ceilings, and intricate woodwork.
The flyer he gives me shows a little map and I’m happy to see that it’s not far from the hammam I want to visit. Which is great because it will make the perfect day of pampering and culture with least chance of getting lost again due to close proximity. In theory that is true. Reality is a different story and while I magically manage to find the main road where the hammam is meant to be, I can’t get to it. One vendor tells me to go further down the street, after 200m another one sends me straight back.
Eventually I am happy, if a little apprehensive at first, when one offers to show me the way and takes me into a little side alley maze. At the end of the maze – Le Bain Blue – hurrah! After an hour and a half of bliss, I now need to find my way back and that seems enough of a challenge as it is and vow to return for culture tomorrow. After all, now I know my way or so I think. The next morning, shops are still closed, all my landmarks are gone and so are the nice vendors whom I could ask for help. It takes another hour and the last of my dedication to not give up, but obviously the words ‘not in any guide-book yet’ are magical fuel for a Travelette and so I venture on till I’m at the door of the Douiria. While the house really is so special, to me it is even more special since I feel like Ariadne who just tricked the Minotaur to get out of the labyrinth.
Shopping at Souks
The next day I am back smack bang in the middle of it all. Once more I am not alone though as I have asked expert help to master the souks and not come out empty-handed again. Shane is an expert on Marrakech and all things pretty and he is taking me to spend money. I feel like Pretty Woman, only the credit card is my own. He finds me the shoes I have been wanting, the most beautiful linens, and shows me all the hip and happening boutiques. I’m glad I have him, because some are little more than a random wooden door, not noticeable unless you know it’s there. And girls, if you ever complain about impatient boyfriends when you shop, I recommend, don’t. Go on your own or hire yourself a personal shopper who won’t blink an eye when you take an hour to decide between blue striped towel no 1 and blue striped towel no 2.
And then the rain comes and the saying when it rains it pours proves very true. We take shelter at Akhbar Delights on Place Bab Fteuh, get offered tea, watch the streets get flooded, and chat our time away. I play with a kitten, what else, and find Marrakech on a rainy day quite cozy. Eventually the rain stops and we make our way through now unfortunately slick, wet streets back to my hotel. Thankfully also Shane walks me all the way, so there is no chance for me to get lost.
When I have to leave the next day and move to my next hotel-hop-stop, El Fenn, I’m glad that I have a taxi driver who knows exactly where he is taking me and detailed instructions on how to get from the taxi to the doorstep. Once inside I’m immediately surrounded in typical riad fashion by a fountain, leafy plants, and some resident tortoises that I almost step on when I get out of my room, because who knew there were other pets than cats in a riad?
Add some Café del Mar and some crisp white wine and you will not be surprised when I tell you that I don’t leave the riad for the next hours. Sometimes you just have to hide deep inside the maze and catch your breath for a bit.
So when you come to Marrakech and you feel a little overwhelmed with the madness of the medina and the souks remember in order to survive and come out with a smile:
- Eat everything, you will need your strength.
- Surrender to the madness, it will make your life easier.
- Shop with an expert, it will enrich your
- Play hide and seek with some tortoises to relax.
- And last but not least do what all Moroccans do: keep calm and drink mint tea.
All pictures by Annika
* I just saw it in Time Out, so this information is not up to date anymore.Tweet