Try to guess– what was the NUMBER ONE DESTINATION CITY OF 2015 ranked by worldwide travelers on tripadvisor.com? Yes, Shields and Rytilä families, “Helsinki” was a candidate, but no… it was MARRAKECH. (Of course I tried to verify this and include a link just now– but apparently the tripadvisor editors are following us Belfiores around the world and have now made London #1!. Lucky us!)
What’s even crazier is that we heard LOTS of horror stories about Morocco before arriving. There was an email sent to everyone on the ship about the degree of sexual harassment that occurs (the ship community was 70%+ youthful females, many of whom would frequently travel on their own). Some friends had told us that the people were surly and unfriendly. We head that there wasn’t much english– only Arabic and some French– so communicating was difficult. How would these two views rationalize? Read on, read on…
SAS Group Tour… Welcome to Marrakech
We arrived in Marrakech with the SAS (“Semester at Sea”) organized tour that had taken us to the desert. We had lunch, we had dinner, we walked around the Medina (old city) and the Souk (market).
The “red city” was terrific.. we really liked it! It certainly oozed the romantic feel you imagine of a North-Africa city with winding alleys, crowds in Muslim attire, signs in Arabic, all kinds of goods and food for sale. And the local people– though they predominantly make their living on tourists– were NOT overly-aggressive and pushy in selling. This was a welcome change from places like Ghana or India where sometimes the sellers would use tactics like grabbing your arm, displaying babies or little kids as props to incent you through guilt, or even accusing you of being unfriendly or outright racist when you didn’t buy. None of these happened to us in Marrakech.
Riad Azoulay: our home in the city
After a night in the desert and one night with the SAS group in Marrakech, our family “signed-out” from the tour group and stayed in Marrakech on our own. We said goodbye to the 28 students and faculty as they headed back… and we set out with our backpacks walking through the medina to find our Riad.
A “Riad” (رياض ) is a traditional Moroccan house that has a courtyard in the middle– and in modern times has been converted into a little hotel. The great thing about these Riads is that they tend to be right in the middle of all the chaos of the Medina. Riad Azoulay was no exception… we were amazed that we could walk from dusty, winding alleyways filled with people (and donkeys!) and be transported to essentially an oasis inside.
Jemaa al Fnaa: the real Snake Charmers of Morocco!
At the heart of the Medina is a giant public square called Jemaa al Fnaa. There’s TONS of stuff being sold here– to tourists AND to locals– but one of the most unique things is that there are a bunch of ‘authentic’ snake charmers. They’d splay their cobras (and other snakes) all over the ground and collect money for you to take a photo with them. And yes, that annoying horn music played continuously!
Within the Medina, the Bahia Palace gave an example of “older” Moroccan architecture and art. Fun to walk through for 30 minutes…
The Medina Shops
Of course the most pervasive thing is the shops. The medina was enormous– and of course while the clothing and shoes and lamps and carpets and chatchkes would repeat… as you walked farther you’d encounter waves of “other stuff”. leather goods around the tannery. Food quarters with fresh fruit (dates!). Spices. Furtniture. Jewelry.
We could have wandered through here for days, hitting rooftop cafes for a coffee or yummy Moroccan tea.
After 36 hours on our own, it was time to pack our backpacks and make our way to the taxis that would carry us back to Casablanca, for our last 3 days on the ship.
Goodbye Marrakech! Goodbye Africa! Europe… here we come!