Sunday Sofa Sojourns #5: Marrakesh, Morocco

Seeing as all our travel plans this year (and the next…?) have been put on hold, to ease the wanderlust I’ll post throwback photos every week from our past trips. Join me as I travel from my sofa!

If I dig deep enough in the recesses of my memory, I find the Moroccan souks.

We wandered down its narrow, sun-dappled lanes where we promptly got lost. There were the tanneries – streets covered with animal hides drying to make leather, heavy with the smell of cow.

Vivid colours from baskets of saffron and turmeric, the heady scent of lavender and verbena, bottles of argan oil and sticks of cinnamon. A strange, sticky mound that looked like the sundot kulangot one finds in Baguio. Chameleons in cages, blending with the rust. Fanous lamps made of coloured glass and rusty metal; small silver lamps shaped like Aladdin’s; miniature camels carved of sweet-scented cedar wood.

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We stayed at a local riad, within walking distance from the famous Jemaa El-Fna square, a UNESCO cultural site. The walk is a bit tricky, but once we got the route down pat it was easy to navigate. Inside our riad it was quiet and peaceful, in contrast to the nightly carnival outside.

Riad Altair, where we stayed.

They served great breakfast. We had soft cinnamon bread and yoghurt with fresh fruit and honey. The little spreads included fig, which was seedy like kiwi, but sweet. I remember the pot-holder with hot breakfast tea shaped like a man wearing a djellaba, the national dress.

Oh, the tea. It was everywhere — mint tea that both cooled our throats and left a warm feeling in our bellies. It was made simply, from mint leaves steeped in hot water (no tea bags here!) and served with generous amounts of sugar cubes.

We waited with our hot tea until evening came, then made our way to Jemaa El-Fna. The map on our guidebook’s back cover had plenty of white squiggles which were meant to represent streets – except there weren’t any street signs so the map wasn’t particularly helpful. The Koutoubia Mosque stood tall and was visible from afar, so it was a more useful compass.

Koutoubia Mosque.

I remember the hustle and bustle of Jemaa El-Fna, which at night magically transforms to an open-air food market. For our first dinner in Marrakesh, we opted to try our luck there. Don’t be intimidated by the very forward food hustlers. We took our time considering what each stall had to offer and politely shook our heads each time a plastic laminated menu was shoved in our faces. Funnily enough we were greeted with endless ‘Konnichiwas’ and ‘Nǐ hǎos.’ Maybe to them all Asians looked alike.

There was a lot of food on offer: grilled meats, snails in spicy broth, hard-boiled eggs sprinkled with cumin. We picked stalls that were packed with patrons. Our first meal was at Chez Ali. The grilled lamb and couscous were unremarkable but the staff were very friendly.

I love ox tongue, so naturally we just had to try the stalls that served sheep face and tongue boiled in a delicious brown sauce (in what looked like Oscar the Grouch’s can). Delicious, but not for everyone.

Ox brain? Kelangan mo nun

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It was back to the souks for us the following day. Cross the street at your own risk. Go slow and you might see live peacocks on a bicycle. I didn’t want to think about where it was headed.

I remember Le Musée de Marrakech suffused with a warm, gold light. There were plenty of artists, all women, sketching the paintings.

We eventually found the Medersa Ben Youssef after several false trails into the souk streets. The colour of the glazed tiles and the intricate carvings on the walls were an enigmatic, yet calming sight. We took our time wandering the small rooms, which used to be student cells back when the Medersa was an Islamic theological college.

Medersa Ben Youssef.

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That evening, we were drawn back to Jemaa El-Fna. While some may think the square too touristy, I found there was much to observe.

Apart from the food stalls there was the entertainment and the market, which had modern touches but also parts which to me felt and looked like it came from a different, much older time.

Ever wondered what a Coke in Morocco looks like?

We saw young acrobats performing in the street–cheerdancers making pyramids with no safe, soft rubber mats to fall on.

But there were also more unconventional sights: tooth-pullers with small piles of teeth hawking their trade; charmers with sleepy-looking snakes under large cloth hats; murmurs of rapid French and Arabic; pink clay rooftops all dotted with satellite dishes; tired horses pulling caleches for the tourists; stray cats having sex in the corners; the faint sounds of prayer punctuating the times in between snacks.

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If I concentrate hard enough, I can almost smell the clay pot of tender, steaming Moroccan tagine. Soft slow-cooked lamb, tarty olives, fragrant spices, chopped apricots.

The aroma of Marrakesh lingers in my mind.

Think critically dear readers,