Morocco – December 2015/January 2016

Day 1 – To Marrakech:

It’s an unusually relaxed start to the day we’re flying out. Our flight at 4pm makes a welcome change to the mad dash to the airport at the crack of dawn. The only downside is, a few too many drinks the night before we fly and a subsequent ropey start to the adventure. This wouldn’t happen if we were leaving at 5am.

We’re in fine company on the way to Morocco, sitting behind Ardal O’Hanlon, having moments earlier just referenced the ‘near, far away’ gag from Fr. Ted. What a contribution Ardal has made to Irish society. It would probably be a bit strange if we followed him and his family around Marrakech for the few days…..right?

Thanks must be given to the wonderful Mrs. Ann Brennan who provided us with turkey sandwiches for our sub (just) 4 hour flight. My mother never ceases to amaze me with how generous and kind she is on a daily basis.

There’s an inquisitive atmosphere on the plane. Chatting to other passengers, it seems most have never been to Morocco before. That could be a bad thing as we don’t actually bump into any repeat visitors. Everyone seems cautiously excited though, having no idea of what to expect. A lady, maybe in her 60s, describes it as an adventure. I only hope I have her enthusiasm for travel at that age.

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Arriving in Marrakech, we’re late, by an hour at least and we’re greeted by a fairly sizeable queue for passport control. Everyone is tired and a bit cranky. Mostly Orla. As we near the front of the queue we notice the surly looking passport control officer. Please don’t let us get him. Please. Oh good, we get him. In a classic move by life, he’s incredibly nice and offers us some dates while we wait for him to process us. Things get even better as our driver literally walks us to our Riad after parking a little away. On the way we narrowly avoid several collisions with bikes, motorcycles and cats as the darkness emphasizes the cultural shock. Walking through a somewhat frightening façade, we are assured everything is ‘very safe’. At the Riad Ksar Saad, we’re welcomed by Hamza, who genuinely couldn’t be nicer. Add to that, an amazing dinner of a trio of briouates to start following by a sumptuous chicken tajine. Chicken of complete tenderness. What a welcome.

Day 2 – Marrakech:

Sometime during the night the call to prayer rings out. It doesn’t even disturb our sleep really, but, unfortunately, the building our Riad occupies, while beautiful, is old. The glass and walls don’t keep much noise out and at 7am you can hear the early risers stir as if they are standing next to you. The clink of cutlery, footsteps and chatter. No unnecessary noise, but it keeps you awake though. So, we get up and attempt to go. We meet Florence our host, she’s wearing a big jumper and a scarf. I’m strolling around in my shorts and t-shirt. It’s all relative. She’s in a rush and tells us we’ll ‘talk later’.

We hit the Royal Palace (El Badi Palace) but lacking in Dirham we can’t get in. We must head to the Jamaa el Fna to find an ATM to free us to do things. Finances in order we stop for a much deserved Moroccan tea for me and a black coffee with frothed milk for Orla. The Moroccan tea is minty and sweet, beautiful. There are plenty of salesmen trying to shift all sorts of gear. Watches, ornaments, packs of tissues. No thanks, we’re good for the wooden clapper things thanks. Attempt two for the Badi Palace but we’re distracted by the Bahia Palace en route. All very beautiful and historic. We eventually manage to get the two palaces in. The weather is glorious. By comparison to Dublin anyway. In the Badi Palace, there are storks nesting on the walls. Massive birds floating in the sky, only 5 meters above our heads.

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We stop for some chicken couscous, and vegetables in the Place Der Ferblantiers. Obviously you get the bread, sauce and olives brought straight out without asking. We’re not going to argue when the bill comes to the equivalent of €8 though. We’re managing to find our way around despite the Moroccan approach to sign posting….

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We hear the call to prayer again at the standard 18 minutes past 3, before heading back to the Riad to chat with Florence. She gives us the rundown of what is what and advises us, all while dealing with a loud and fairly intrusive New Yorker. He talks to us like we’re children. Nice guy. He can’t stop himself from banging on about how much they charged him for Argan Oil in Essaouira. He comments that they rip off tourists, but doesn’t seem to realise he was aware of the con, but still ended up on the wrong side of it. Curious.

The Riad Ksar Saad has an amazing rooftop terrace, which we make full use of, complete with tea and coffee. An absolutely stunning setting. Serenaded by the call to prayer once more. It’s almost as if the various sources are competing. Definitely more relaxing than not though. Soft sounds and not harsh noises.

Later we wander back to Jamaa el Fna to find a Hammam to book in for a scrub. Not something I’d usually go for but I’m willing to take a risk and Orla is keen to try it. We eventually find Mille et une Nuit and book in for the €33 hammam scrub, massage et al for Wednesday. It seems like a nice place, and the staff are friendly. Hard enough to find mind, but that seems to be Marrakech in general. Back to the Jamaa el Fna for some meat skewers from the market as well as some lovely petit-fours. The meat skewers are served at the stalls in the ‘big square’ and the crowd is crammed in amongst the benches and tents. As soon as we’re done we’re told how much we owe. Thanks very much, you’re done, now get out. The guy helps himself to a tip of 10 dirham as he just isn’t going to give us any change. The ‘TripAdvisor #1’ logo hangs from the tent roof. Orla questions it’s veracity as the colours and design seem slightly off.

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We stop in a terrace bar for some tea but are left hanging on way too long for even a menu so we decide to head home and order in the Riad. Great decision. Our Moroccan mint tea arrives to our room in exquisite fashion.

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Day 3 – Ouirgane and The Atlas Mountains:

We have a relatively early start to the day, having been woken during the night by some lumbering fools who either don’t realise how much you can hear throughout the Riad, or don’t care. Hilarious French conversations at 2am. But sure, it takes all kinds or something.

Rashid picks us up from the Riad. He recognises us from our airport pick-up. I wasn’t going to say anything right then, but Rashid was quick off the mark, introducing himself and asking how we are finding Marrakech. Different, the only answer we can muster.

We have to drive through the new city (Gueliz) on our way, there is plenty of building work at various stages from in-progress all the way to abandoned. Rashid points out new hotels, expensive apartments and failed ventures before the Atlas Mountains slowly appear from the flat to reveal warm foothills breaking into peaks more than 4,000m high.

We stop at a Berber market, which arrives with a bang every Tuesday to whatever town we’re in now. It is Manic. We get Moroccan tea in a pop up café of sorts, where the farmers and traders are preparing their tajine for later, the café doing the cooking for a small fee. They have all manner of things for sale. There are men in traditional Berber dress everywhere. It’s absolute bedlam. Deals are reached at an intense pace by the looks of things. Rashid buys some mint and the trader has to run all over the market to get change of his 200 dirham. Rashid tells us that the morning is for men and then the women come in the afternoon. As a result Orla gets some funny looks, and we both are stared at for being not of this place. We wander into a Mule car park, outside which Orla is attacked by a chicken. Time to go.

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The drive takes us through Asni, where kids are playing football everywhere. Just beyond we meet up with Ibrahim, our trek guide, who takes us on a walk across some low peaks of the mountains to our lunch location. The scenery is stunning. We find fresh rosemary, thyme and mint growing in the hills. The smells are phenomenal. There’s a dry riverbed coated with salt. I exclaim, in a serious manner, ‘Oh yeah, it tastes like…..’ and after a brief pause, Ibrahim says ‘….like salt’. The three of us have a good ole laugh at how serious we were being about it. Just under two hours later we arrive at Anras. A Berber village and where we are having lunch with Muhammad our host on his rooftop terrace. We’re given walnuts which we can see growing from the terrace where we are sitting, and tea. Tea is everywhere here. It is very important to Moroccans. It seems tea is a must for so many countries. It is referred to as ‘welcome tea’ by Rashid and Ibrahim. I like that idea. Muhammad’s mother has prepared a Moroccan salad to start. Peppers, tomatoes and onions diced, seasoned with cumin and salt with freshly pressed olive oil to pour over everything. It doesn’t sound like much, but it tastes so good. Then the bread arrives out. Baked in the fire of the tajine, we can’t stop eating it and quickly plough through two massive plate shaped loaves. The tajine next and it is outrageously good. All the food has been prepared by Muhammad’s mother, whom we are only allowed wave at and shout thanks from afar. Everyone is so nice, welcoming and friendly.

We wait while Rashid prays before we move on.

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We walk to Ibrahim’s village and he shows us his home and where they press olive oil by mule and stone before it’s time to part company. I pull off the slickest sweetened handshake while tipping Ibrahim. I feel very manly. Orla laughs at me and notes how smooth it was while emphasizing the ridiculousness of it.

We cross the dessert on our way to Lalla Takerkoust, a huge lake with the Atlas Mountains in the background. We’re floppy tired from the tajine and the comfort of Rashid’s car. Food comas all round. I don’t know how Rashid is not falling asleep at the wheel. We’ve had an excellent day, all for just €75 each. It’s incredible value. Definitely a must. Our guides were entertaining and outgoing, we laughed and enjoyed their company as well as the experience.

Back at the Riad at approximately 17:30, we require a quick coffee or we’re going nowhere later. The coffee is delicious. Black and in small quantity. Just enough. That done, washed, and we’re ready, we hope. Though I think I’m fit for bed really, just to be safe we stay local, not wandering too far, just to the outer walls of the old Medina. We get a pancake thing we think looks good opposite the Moulay El yazid Mosque. After some attempted communication with the lady, we arrive at the conclusion that they must contain tomato and onion, somewhere. Walking away, the first bite stops us in our tracks and we go back for a second. Followed by some skewers, bread and salad. It’s definitely better than we got in the big square yesterday and about two thirds the price. We walk a bit more and then go straight back to bed.

Day 4 – Marrakech:

Breakfast is busy this morning and by the time we make it down all the coffee is gone. Hamza makes more and we get one and a half cups when everyone else is done raiding the table. Again, Hamza goes to make more and serves us directly at our table which is a shame because it’s the strongest coffee I’ve ever had and entirely undrinkable. We’re forced to bring it back to our room and pour it down the sink so as not to insult anyone. Good start to the day.

The Saadian Tombs are only around the corner from the Riad, and we eventually get to them on day 4. At more than 500 years old, the beautiful buildings are undergoing restoration works which takes away a bit from the atmosphere when a guy is hammering away in the corner. It’s busy, and we don’t spend too much time hanging around. We’re nailing this tourist business. There’s a tuk- tuk apparently waiting for us outside, ready to take us to the Jardin Majorelle. The guy has wing mirrors inside the structure of the thing. So, not possible to see behind him at all. Ordinarily, not a problem but we are amongst the trucks and buses of the motorways as we defy the odds, horns and abuse en route to the garden. About 20 minutes later we arrive, physically ok, but emotionally never the same again. In the Jardin Majorelle there are lots of cacti and blue paint. A nice, if underwhelming attraction. It’s also 70 dirham to get in, which is 7 times the price of the attractions operated by the Moroccan Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Nearby, we have to argue with the guy at a café to get a café au lait. He’s very insistent we get the much more expensive café lavaza. We win though and after stroll back to Jamaa el Fna for lunch, then on to the Riad to sit in the sun on the rooftop terrace.

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At 4pm we make our move to Mille et une Nuit for our hammam and massage. It certainly looks the part. I’m not really sure what to expect though. It’s very ‘Arabian Nights’ looking, even though we’re in Africa. But, judging by the name, that was the intention. It’s a traditional hammam, so upon arrival Orla and I are segregated. In no less than a half hour later, I’ve had a lovely, almost, full body massage. I have Argan Oil everywhere. I didn’t want to open my eyes during the massage, in case I made eye contact with the masseuse. It’s easy to know when you’re done because he makes it very clear with ‘My service finish now’. I’m not sure where he thinks I’m going to pull a tip out of?!? Everyone keeps asking me am I Spanish. They don’t really react when I say I’m Irish, except the hammam guy who doesn’t even wait for me to answer him before he throws a bucket of water at me. The hammam is nice, if very functional. A good scrub and wash. It’s hard to know what’s going on at times as the lads aren’t too forthcoming with information. Basically, I’m washed by another man in his swimming trunks. He could be anyone. We finish up and are showered and left to relax for a bit in a sort of underground waiting room, full of sun loungers. I’m informed by the concierge that my ‘lady’ is waiting for me upstairs. Orla and I are pleased with how that went. Relaxed we head home, with no desire to break this calm by haggling with the traders in the markets.

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We pass four members of the same family on the one small motorbike. With the father driving, the mother on the back, the elder child between the mother and the father and the younger child standing in front of the father holding onto the handlebars. There’s a different approach to safety here.

Day 5 – Essaouira:

We’re collected at the Riad again, and walking to the mini-bus, Orla makes our driver wait for a minute while she purchases two pancakes for us for breakfast. It’s the best idea of the day as we were dipping and it was only 30 minutes into the day. We change vehicles at Jamaa el Fna, onto another mini bus before about a 3 hour journey to Essaouira. On which our driver spends most of the time on his phone. We are treated to proper North African tunes for the Moroccan backdrop. We stop along the way for coffee and a pain au chocolate, 30 dirham, pretty much the price of dinner in Marrakech. But, when you have no choice. We leave a mini bus full of people waiting on us as we assume a liberal interpretation of ’10 minutes’. Our second stop is Khmissa Argan, which reminds me of the Jade and Silk factories in Beijing. Apparently existing purely to sell to tourists at inflated prices. We pass the goats in trees, a jiving donkey, who definitely loves his job. There’s a swagger to the way he’s walking before arriving in Essaouira, and another old Medina. The streets are rough as hell. It’s a struggle to drag the bag over the broken cobbles. We find Riad Belle Essaouira handy enough. Though, I’m made carry the bag up a couple of unnecessary, extra flights of stairs by the lady, who is very apologetic. The Riad is lovely. We get welcome tea on the rooftop terrace with the crashing waves of the ocean in the background. Absolutely beautiful.

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Essaouira is smaller than Marrakech; we are in the Medina which is completely walled in. There are five entrances and exits. Wandering the narrow streets the same saturation of traders exists. We have our first ‘Life of Brian’ moment trying to buy a knife. He starts at 700, we say 400 and he instantly agrees. We then realise we didn’t bring enough money out for lunch and a knife, so we’ll have to come back. Lunch in the fish market. We get a platter of shrimp, scampi and calamari. A couple of minutes later another platter of red snapper and dory with salad, bread and water arrives. Orla exclaims, ‘Whose is that?’ to which the reply is ‘Your!’ All for just €18. So much food, but so fresh and so good, apart from the red snappers eye hanging off the plate!

To ease the gluttony, we walk the pier, the beach and beyond the Medina walls. As if we hadn’t eaten enough we get an ice cream and stroll back through the old narrow streets of Essaouira. Atop a five story building we sit and enjoy a coffee in a very quiet rooftop terrace café, overlooking the souks below. We spot falafel for the first time and add it to the list for food for tomorrow. So that’s, crepes, more fish and now falafel too. Dream stuff.

The Wi-Fi in the Riad is out of action so we can’t get a street name or location of L’Amiral. Zohra, our host in Essaouira, hasn’t heard of it either. So, we toast the eve of the New Year with the other guests before heading out to find some food. At a restaurant on the pier we order some chicken tajine which we think will be plenty for the two of us, judging by the price and experience. It comes with a salad and bread too. Unfortunately, it’s the smallest tajine we’ve seen so far and doesn’t have any vegetables in it. Lesson learned.

We eventually find a place where we can get a drink, some Casablanca red wine for Orla and a Casablanca beer for me. Not bad. It’s also the price of a meal, at around €5 for the beer and a modest €7.50 for a half a bottle of wine. I ask for another beer, but the staff appear to have lost the key to the cabinet, and they don’t seem too bothered or likely to retrieve it. We end the year early with a falafel and the rest of the bottle of wine. Everything seems to be shutting down at around 10:30pm. The streets are a little too testosterone filled and we’re not up to much roaming. We head back to the Riad to celebrate the passing of midnight while 100% asleep.

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Day 6 – Essaouira:

We get a mammoth breakfast in the Riad. Bonne Annee all round. Then straight to the Supratours bus station to purchase our return for tomorrow before heading to the beach for our New Year’s Day swim. We’re only there ten minutes before we’re offered Hash cake, space cake and then simply just hash by a guy walking the beach with innocent looking pastries. Gas. There’s a lot of offers of drugs in Essaouira. We take a swim, the waves are huge and the current is seriously powerful. It’s very refreshing though. Then we walk the length of the beach, past what looks like a ship-wreck but turns out to be the ruined watch tower of Bourj El Baroud. We take lunch in the fish market, again, followed by crepes for desert. All in the coastal sun, and warmth of Plage Tagharte. Wonderful stuff.

I’m offered hash at every turn. I must look the type. Initially I get the loud, salesman voice, ‘You want Hammam?’ Then in the quiet, drug dealer voice, ‘You want hash?’. Same guy, no pause.

We’re going to try to catch sunset from the ramparts this evening. Without Wi-Fi, I don’t know what time that will be so we’ll have to wing it. I’m attempting to guess from the rooftop terrace but I don’t know enough about science to formulate a proper estimate and I arrive at 11:23pm. Which can’t be right? We actually nail it time-wise in the end, arriving about 20 minutes before. The sunset is beautiful. There’s just maybe one or two too many people watching with us. Snapping photos every millisecond. We manage to ignore them and enjoy the sun going down, eventually disappearing behind Ile de Mogador, a former prison island just off the coast of Essaouira. It’s what you dream sunsets would look like. After we find a café with Wi-Fi, where I sync all my notes and photos. Always good to get that done. The place looks like where you go to hide from the place you are. Like a tourist haven. No locals to bother you. Some dreadful elevator music in the background. Darkened room. We just keep telling ourselves we’re just there for the Wi-Fi, to catch up on our correspondence. Strolling around the Medina streets we stumble upon La Clé de Voûte where we are treated to some amazing lamb tajine. The place is packed and it’s easy to see why. The food is delectable. I eat every bit, and finish Orla’s lamb couscous too, before being rolled out of the place.

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I’m called Ali Baba a lot, I’m not sure why, as I’m neither in the act of stealing nor am I a carpenter. Later, we’re informed that it is due to my beard, though I suspect it may be borderline racist.

Day 7 – Essaouira & Marrakech:

Our bus back to Marrakech is not until 6pm. So we have the whole day in Essaouira, which should be nice. After breakfast we nearly fall over Bastion Nord and its 18th Century Portuguese cannons which are literally around the corner from our Riad, we just had to turn right instead of left. I help some Muslim ladies take some photos, turning of selfie mode in Arabic is tricky. We sit watching the waves pound the rocks. With the sun, and blue skies it’s incredibly picturesque.

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I’ve never seen so many cats as here in Morocco. They’re everywhere. Sleeping in the shade, or panned out in the sun. Sharing your table while you stare at the sea sipping coffee and eating Messi & Ronaldo bars. Lovely ‘Milk Compound Chocolate’ bars. Uhhhhggg. It’s not long before the usual lad with his traditional instrument arrives. Definitely wearing what the tourists expect him to wear. Probably not traditional at all. He annoys everyone for a couple of minutes with a harsh toned tune and then goes around looking to be paid. It’s hard to know what to make of it all. You get very cynical very quick.

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I get another Falafel wrap for lunch. Fooking amazing. Some interesting, almost perfumed pastries. We decide to relax on the rooftop terrace, watching the whopper waves again before making our way to the bus station. The waves are thunderous, it sounds as though they are collapsing buildings as they break on the rocks beyond the buildings next to the Riad. Almost hypnotising.

We catch our sold out bus amongst the cat and dog gangs at the Supratours bus station. Falafel wrap number two in the bag for the journey. There’s plenty of panicked people turned away. The next bus not sold out isn’t until 17:00 tomorrow. Just as well we booked a couple of days ago.

We arrive in Gueliz (Marrakech new town) around 20:30 and are instantly bombarded by the taxi guys. One guy offers to take is to the Kasbah for 100 dirham, from which we negotiate for 50 dirham and everyone is happy. Well, we’re a bit nervous when his mate jumps in halfway through the journey without saying a word. It all works out though, as after another couple of minutes he jumps back out again, in an equally silent fashion.

The streets are manic, especially after the relative calm of Essaouira. We get the nod of approval from our pal at the little shop near our Riad as he recognises the pair of gobshites who thanked him with a ‘gracias’ a few days earlier. Hamza is in the Riad Ksar Saad to greet us again, and everything is fine. Moroccan mint tea before bed. Wild.

Day 8 – Marrakech & Home:

We’re awoken by the familiar sounds of the Riad Ksar Saad. No lazing away in bed all day here. Once breakfast is finished you can relax in quiet comfort until breakfast starts up again tomorrow if that’s your thing. Orla starts the far side of breakfast thinking about the pancakes the lady beside the Mosque makes already. Formulating a plan for later. They are outrageously good too. I don’t know what they are but they have tomato and red onion in them. And they’re delicious. That’s all that matters. We’ll probably have to have one after a day of haggling in the markets.

The streets of Marrakech are packed again. We’re on the hunt for some bargains. A full fifteen minutes of negotiations to secure two Chanel bags. I’d say the guy just wanted to see the back of us. We wander past the Koutoubia Mosque while trying to find the Post Office, which is closed. A guy spots us from nearly across the square at Jamaa el Fna, and shouts at me ‘Stamp?’, unbelievable. I get a 9 dirham stamp for 13 dirham from him for my postcard.

At this point our time in Morocco is close to an end and Rashid drops us to the airport. It takes 15 minutes to get there but a full hour and 25 minutes to get through bag drop, security and passport control. I get the full check at passport control after the lady acknowledges my beard, which is not on my passport, with a laugh. The problem appears to be someone has entered my details incorrectly upon entry and it takes the lady about 10 minutes to come to the conclusion that the details on the passport are probably the right ones. The beard not being the issue.

There is far from a lot happening in Marrakech airport. One shop doesn’t accept the local currency bizarrely, only taking Euro. Fup sake. We get a delay of over an hour with a ‘Brussels flow control flight restriction’. First time I’ve ever heard that. Just sitting on the plane. Great fun. At least Ryanair are letting people use the toilet. During the flight, the lad next to us, looks like he’s coming down and tans about 7 Heineken en route.

We’re about an hour and a half late, having waited on the tarmac for 5 minutes for our spot to clear. Seriously! It looks like all the flights have landed when we get to a taxi rank swamped with what must be 300 people. So, fuck that. Hailo, and 5 minutes later we’re on our way home, having had an absolutely great time in Morocco, a country full of intrigue. The people we dealt with directly could not have been more helpful or kind. It’s not dangerous, and once you don’t ask random people for directions or approach groups of men on the street for information, you should be fine.

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