Tag Archives: Morocco

Shop ’till you Drop

Mosque at sunset.

The Mosque at twilight.

Horses lined up as far as the eye can see.

Blue shed.

Nap time. He wants to do a remake of ‘Office Space’ 

Marrakech is so vibrant and full of life. The first and last days we’ve done some shopping in the souks in the medina, and boy is it a challenge. Haggling is such a rush, although I’m definitely not that good at it. When they refuse a price I’m happy I’ve stood my ground, but when they agree to a price relatively fast (still takes a good 10 minutes) I’m worried that I’ve just been had! There’s no winning…unless you call spending far too much money and creating live-long memories as winning! Regardless, I’m very happy with my purchases, and will always remember this trip fondly whenever I look at and use them.

I got a wallet that I’m positive I overpaid for as my first purchase. I’m not a complete rookie (thanks Chichicastenango, Guatemala) at haggling and markets, but I kept trying to buy the first thing I saw instead of shopping around for better quality and/or prices. For the wallet, the guy threw in another pink leather pouch type thing at the last minute, a big hint that I’d just been had (they rarely throw in something for free). The wallet has already broken, but the pouch is actually coming in handy as an iPod holder. Go figure.

As we were wandering around we ended up in a spice shop. The medina is mostly artisan crafts but you also find spice, (raw) meat, and vegetable stands scattered throughout. In the spice shops there are jars and jars of spices and the merchant tells you how each one acts as a homeopathic-type remedy. It’s interesting how people use things differently in different parts of the world. In Central America chamomile is used more like a diuretic, but here it’s used to settle your stomach (one place it makes you go, another it makes you stop). I bought a spice blend that is used on chicken and Randy bought some mint because he’s fallen in love with the ubiquitous mint tea (a blend of mint and green tea).

Spice market in the souks.

Spice market in the souks.

I ended up browsing the rest of the day, because, as I mentioned, I tend to buy the first thing I see. I knew I wanted something ceramic, and wasn’t sure what else. We found one store that was just piles of ceramic pieces that were unorganized and dirty. Probably a tactic to make you feel like you are getting a deal, searching through things that other buyers have overlooked. The plates, bowls, cups and everything else had great patterns representing the different tribes of Morocco. They had these cup/mugs that I hadn’t yet seen anywhere else, but I held off. We also happened into a store that sold some pretty cool fossils. Morocco is a great spot for fossils, especially ammonites and trilobites. After discussing things with the shop owner (different quality, and of course many tangents involving the other minerals he sold) I decided to think about what I really wanted. I think another tactic is to overwhelm the shopper so that they don’t know what they want anymore and just start buying things. For example I had one fossil I wanted, and even while we’re discussing prices he keeps putting them in my hands, showing me samples with multiple trilobites, and plates with ammonites, and other things, trying to get me to buy more and more stuff.

A few days later I had to spend the rest of my dirhams, and I thought back to these shops and knew just what I wanted. But how to find the shops again? It’s like a needle in a haystack. I’m not sure how we did it considering the souks are literally a maze of shops (Randy’s sense of direction is much better than mine), but we managed to find both shops! I ended up buying four of the cup/mugs because I hadn’t seen that style anywhere else in Marrakech, and then bought two of the trilobite fossils.

Trilobite fossils. One’s open, one’s closed.

My new cups. Made in Fez. 

I also ended up with a Moroccan shirt and a knockoff Longchamp bag, which is funny to me because I am super anti-knockoff, but when you’re shopping where Puff Daddy, Jacques Chirac, and Jimmy Carter (and many famous European footballers and actors, I saw the photos with the owner, totally legit…) have shopped, you know it’s quality fake stuff.

Our other big experience in the medina was going to the tannery. We weren’t really planning on it, and in fact were trying to leave the medina so we could experience a little bit of normalcy. There were a few roadblocks to this though. As you walk around the medina people are always telling you you’re heading the wrong way, or “it’s closed that way”, or you have to go to someone’s brother’s uncle’s cousin’s shop. So, as we were exploring and heading to an exit (I wanted to find an artisanal ceramic shop to get a better handle on prices before haggling…never ended up finding it) someone asked if we were looking for the tannery. Since we were ‘lost’ (you’re technically almost always lost), we said sure. We ended up touring the tannery, learning about the processes that turn skins into leather. Everyone talks about the smell, but it wasn’t any worse than regular farm smells. They gave us sprigs of mint (the Berber gas mask, anything ‘backwoods’ or ‘lowtech’ is the ‘Berber’ whatever) to combat the smell. The skins get soaked in lime (the acid, not the fruit), then pigeon poop, then the fat is scraped off, then they’re dyed with natural colors (indigo, mint, cherry). It was pretty neat to see. Then we were obligated to go into the leather/carpet store (leather from the tannery into leather good, camel hair is turned into beautiful carpets), where I almost ended up purchasing one. The prices were great for what they were, but I just wasn’t ready to commit to a purchase of that magnitude, and this store was only open once a week. Oh well. They’ll be in White Plains, NY this January, maybe then I’ll be ready to buy. As we left the ‘manager’ of the tannery extorted about 100 dinars off of us…we didn’t have any small change (10 would have been fine, but he wasn’t giving us change). Live and learn.



Men working in the tannery.

All in all, quite an exhilarating and exhausting experience. You lose track of time, and don’t even realize how tired you are until the shops start closing…around 11! Takes shop ‘till you drop to the next level.

The Ourika Valley Tourist Trap

We knew that we wanted to get out of Marrakech somehow, for at least a day trip. While I’d normally try to take a bus somewhere, or maybe the train, because I believe public transit is a great way to see a city, I was too intimidated by the language barrier to attempt this. Many people speak a little English, but French and Arabic are the main languages. So, we decided to go on an excursion. Each of the Riads offer excursions for €40+, and that wasn’t an option for a cheapskate like me. We ended up going on an excursion through a company that individuals can sign up for. Basically a bus takes you around to the shops and restaurants of the friends that run the excursions. I’m sure there are kickbacks involved. We negotiated the price down to about US$20 for each of us for a trip to the Ourika Valley. We were told we’d see a Berber home and 2 of 7 waterfalls in the Ourika Valley.

We woke up bright and early and tracked down the tour. It was a little nerve wracking because the guy we negotiated in just left us standing at a café with no explanation. About 10 minutes later some other people were deposited, until there were 15 or so of us. We headed to the valley by way of an herbalist/argon store. They bring you on a tour of a garden, show how the famous argon oil products are made, and then bring you into a room to check out some products. No obligation, looking is free, as always. We hung out there for about 20 minutes waiting for the next part of the trip.

Argon nuts. Used for making nut butter and oils for massages.

Playing with the camera at the argon oil pit stop.

Next we went to a Berber house. It reminded me of the homes in Central America quite a bit. Same type of building materials, same sort of layout. The plumbing was a bit different though. This house was right next to a river and they got running water by digging a ditch and diverting the water through the house that way. The water powers a type of grist mill, some type of washing machine, and then goes through the kitchen where it creates a pool that acts as the kitchen sink. I never did ask about what they do to answer the call of nature, but my guess is more of an outhouse type situation.

Whetstone for grinding grains.

Berber washing machine.

Berber kitchen. Mint tea always at the ready.

Berber kitchen sink.

We hung out at the house for about an hour, and then headed on towards the waterfalls. There are cafes all along the water, and they deposited the tour right in front of one. Everyone sort of mindlessly wandered inside, including us, until we decided we didn’t HAVE to eat there.  We walked a little farther and saved about 40 dirhams (5 bucks), although some others in the group got a much better deal. Speaking Arabic really helps with the bargaining.

Next we were lead up to the waterfall. It’s definitely a tourist attraction for Moroccans and foreigners, so there were many groups walking up the trail. This trail is not really suited for multiple groups, which leads to lots of bottlenecks, and it takes a lot longer than it should to actually get to the waterfall. That’s one complaint. The other is that when going on a guided excursion like this there isn’t enough time to go to the other waterfalls. If we had gone on our own we could have gotten there earlier and left later, giving us time to move beyond the throngs of people. That being said, it was still a beautiful location. It’s no wonder it’s such a big tourist draw.  The second waterfall is beautiful, and getting to look out at the Atlas Mountains is very calming. If you’ve got a bathing suit (or not, many people took the plunge in their clothes) you can get your picture taken being pummeled by the waterfall. I, myself, would never do that, because being the nerd that I am all I can think about is the kind of debris water can carry at that speed, and how much it would hurt falling on your head.

Second waterfall. Ourika Valley.

Second waterfall. Ourika Valley.

Atlas Mountains. Ourika Valley.

On the way back to Marrakech I conked out on the bus. That’s one of the benefit of an excursion; you don’t have to worry about the other people on the bus, or missing your stop or anything. Randy took a lot of cool pictures on the road to the waterfalls that give a really got a good feel of the countryside.

Camels on the way to Ourika Valley, à la Randy. On the way back you get a chance to ride them, or pay to take a picture. He got this shot for free!

On the way to Ourika Valley, à la Randy.

Moroccan donkey, à la Randy.

After the trip we made my last purchases in the souks and then went to the square. We had some great sandwich things that we saw the locals ordering at Hassan’s booth in the square. His was so good he had TWO numbers (each booth is numbered). As we mentioned there are about 100 booths that all serve the same thing, so finding one that stands out to the locals means it must be delicious, right? It was! Last night dinner, win! Got some ice cream for dessert (double win!), and headed back to the Riad because we had an early flight the next day. We’re sad to leave Morocco, but glad to be heading to Paris! Next I’ll tell you about haggling in the souks (‘cause I’m sure you’re dying to know!).

Where Sultans Live and Die

On our tourist day in Marrakech we only got to see two ‘real’ places because we had to switch Riads in the morning. The pace of life in Marrakech (probably all of Morocco) is different, everything happens at a slower pace. So, leaving Riad Dar Zaman took about an hour because we chatted with the owner, a great Englishman Randy knew through a friend, and then finding Riad Altair and establishing ourselves there took another hour and a half. You have to fill out the paperwork, then drink the mint tea, then get a tour of the Riad, and then you can finally go to your room and get ready to head out for what’s left of the day. While I’m not the typical impatient New Yorker (I think…), these rituals still take some getting used to.

Even when we were finally on our way it took about an hour to find our first destination because we got lost in the maze of the medina and had to interpret the typical misdirection of the locals on our way to the Bahia Palace. The national monuments are only open until five pm, so we were worried about having enough time. We finally found the palace around 1:30, after teaming up with a Dutch couple who were also lost. After the hefty entrance fee of $1.25 (10 Dirham, if only all museums cost this much!), we explored the rooms. Probably less than one fourth of the palace (there are 125 rooms) has been fixed up and is open to visitors, but what you get to see is beautifully ornate.

Door detail. Bahia Palace.

Arch over window. Bahia Palace.

Some of the cat gangs get to hang out in the palace. They must be the leaders.

Here cats are Kings.

Even though it’s about 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest part of the day many of the rooms had beautifully tiled fireplaces. You get to experience how the clever construction has created an environment with nice cool temperatures and breezes that move through the rooms. Thick walls and few windows are the trick.

Me and one of the many ornate fireplaces. Bahia Palace.

Multicolor fireplace! Bahia Palace.

There were a few nice courtyards, each equipped with graceful fountains and nice vegetation.

Fountain in a courtyard (Randy and I in the mirror). Bahia Palace.

All the detailing is amazing. The amount of work that goes into a palace like this is incredible. It took 10 years to complete.

Plasterwork detailing. Bahia Palace.

Tile detail. Bahia Palace.

The other goal for the day was to find the Saadian Tombs. After a delish shwarma lunch (‘fast’ food, cheap prices, my kind of place) we managed to get to the tombs without getting super lost. It was a miracle. I think it was because it’s not in a maze-y part of the medina, and because we got directions from the shwarma lady, and we also asked some other tourists who spoke French and could help with directions. Keep in mind, we had 2 maps, they are just impossible to read. We got there at 4, with just enough time to make it through the open areas.

There are a few Sultans that are buried in the giant tombs. These have super high ceilings, and beautiful tiling, ceilings, and pillars. Bigger stones are for adults, smaller ones are for children.

Huge, beautiful tombs for the sultans. Saadian Tombs.

Another shot of the ridiculously high vaulted ceilings. Saadian Tombs.

Adult tomb and child tomb. Guess which one is which. Saadian Tombs.

You also see tombs outside, which, we think, are attributed to people who died of the black plague. Not sure if we messed up that translation though.

If you prefer, an outdoor burial. Saadian Tombs.

These tombs had been ‘lost’ for a few centuries, so they’re still fixing up some of the structures. Not much is open to the public, but what’s there is so ornate that it is totally worth the US$1.25 (10MAD) fee. So that’s the history we saw.

We managed to catch a little culture later that afternoon by accident. We were walking around and I saw what appeared to be a giant camel. Turns out it was a parade float! There were lots of Berber tribes and people in costumes dancing and playing music. So glad we were in the right place at the right time!

Parade! Marrakech, Morocco.

I’m really regretting not having more time in Morocco. I wish we had 2 weeks, 2 months, 2 years! Anyway, we ended up taking a trip outside the city the next day to the Ourika Valley. It was really interesting, but not an ideal excursion. I’ll write about that next.

Morocco, A Brief Introduction

So Morocco is AMAZING. I don’t have much time because we’re about to head out on a day trip to the Ourika Valley, but I thought I’d pull something together quickly. So far we’re on our third Riad. We just wanted to try a few out so we’ve been hopping around. They’re basically all the same, but with different colors, and room sizes vary by a few square meters. They generally have an open courtyard with or without a plunge pool (it gets pretty hot during the day so it’s nice to have something to dip into, but it’s by no means a proper swimming pool), a covered sitting area, and a rooftop terrace. Each of our rooms has had an ensuite bathroom, which is pretty nice.

Courtyard and plunge pool at the Riad Dar Zaman.

Balcony at the Riad Dar Sara. Right around the corner from our room.

Sunny rooftop terrace at the Riad Dar Sara.

For the first day we basically walked around the markets explored the medina. It was mostly covered walkways, so it feels kind of like a Vegas environment. That may seem like a bizarre comparison, but what I mean is that just like you can lose sense of time and money in Vegas because the casinos are contained environments in the medina you don’t realize that it’s 100 degrees out (shade makes a big difference) and people are constantly talking to you, haggling with you, trying to get you to see why their stuff is the best, so you’re in there for 5 hours and it feels like you’ve just been there for 1…or vice versa.

We ate dinner in the square, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is very lively, tons of people trying to feed you, entertain you, and entertaining each other. After dinner we went up to a terrace and had a soda (booze is harder to come by), and then I got henna painted onto my hand. Yes, I am that tourist.

Our dinner. Chicken tangine, merguez, chips, eggplant, and sprite. Mmmm!

The square at night. It’s so much fun to walk around and see everything!

In Central America there were dogs everywhere. Here there are CATS everywhere! I love it!

One of the kitties in the market. Meow! I love cats everywhere!

I’ll write more later. Off on an adventure!