I’ve decided to expand the categories covered on the blog to include travel & experiences. In the end, the blog’s title is Ramblings from an engineer’s life. And I will start the new travel category with a trip to Marrakech I did with some friends a few weeks ago.
The flight from Barcelona to Marrakech was quite short and uneventful and getting into the country is fairly easy. As a holder of an EU passport, I don’t require a visa to enter Morocco for up to 90 days. The country is safer than it looks and most of the danger comes from the chaotic car and motorcycle traffic, which seems not to follow any particular set of rules. Long story short: they drive like crazy. And this comes from an Eastern European driver. If you’re from a country north of Italy and west of Slovakia, don’t drive there.
However, we managed to stay away from accidents, but that didn’t mean our trip was problem-free. We discovered that Spanish cards don’t seem to work in Moroccan ATMs. Four people with cards from different banks and none of us managed to retrieve any money. So if you’re planning a trip to Morocco, remember: bring cash.
Accomodation was cheap and our hotel was close to a mosque, as all the other hotels I stayed in while visiting a muslim country – to the point that I’m starting to think that that’s how their city planners operate – thus at 5 am we could hear the muezzin’s call to prayer, blasting the shahada at more than 100 dB from loudspeakers mounted at the top of the minaret. La ilaha illallah. A new day is starting in Marrakech.
While I’m not generally a fan of traditional landmarks and I prefer more to discover a city’s “hidden gems”, I followed the group’s collective wisdom – we are Borg! – and visited some of Marrakech’s most prominent landmarks such as Medersa Ben Youssef, Saadian Tombs, Bahia Palace or Majorelle Gardens. It was a good call!
I like the arab architecture, especially the attention to detail. Medieval palaces from the arab world are full of intricate decorations, manually sculpted over many years, which give the impression of entering a masterpiece, as opposed to the more functional aspect of their european counterparts.
And I got to see some amazing displays of arab architecture in Marrakech.
One thing I didn’t like about the palaces I visited was that the rooms were emptied of any furniture and thus was hard to picture what the room’s original purpose was. Also, I’d would have liked to experience the opulence characteristic to the sheikhs, with expensive carpets and big pillows woven with gold threads. Going through a maze of empty rooms and hallways kind of took that away.
Medina – the term, not the Saudi-Arabian city – means “old city” and it’s a labyrinth of narrow, pedestrian streets filled with shops and cheapjacks, selling everything from clothes, shoes, and carpets to spices, snake skins or raw meat. Nothing has a price tag, everything is negotiable, sometimes to less than 40% of the original price and when that happens and you’re tempted to think you made a good deal, relax! You didn’t.
You just got scammed slightly less.
Also, it seems that in the morrocan lore, Ali Baba, from the “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves” story, is a tall man, with a shaved head and a beard. While going through the medina, a lot of the shopkeepers would yell “Hey, Ali Baba, look here” to draw my attention and highlight their merchandise.
The moroccan cuisine is quite diverse but seems dominated by tajine, which is more a way of preparing food than an actual food item. It comes in a clay bowl with a lid on top of it and it’s extremely hot.
The first night we had dinner at a fancy terrace downtown Marrakech, overseeing Jemaa el-Fnaa, one of Marrakech’s main squares, where I have tried camel tajine. The first time I tried camel meat and it was amazing. I’m not sure I can find something similar in Barcelona, but I would love to try it again. The waiters wore traditional clothing and they made a small ritual from pouring the tea or bringing the plates.
But not all the dinners were so sophisticated.
Given our bank card related issues, we were running short on cash so we decided to ditch the expensive downtown places and eat at a more “regular” diner. Which proved to be quite a surrealist experience. We sat down in a kebab and pizza joint in one of the streets of the medina and ordered our food. After taking our order, the waiter / chef crossed the street to a shop that sells both slaughtered and live chickens. Slaughtered ones were held at the front on a wooden plank – refrigeration is overrated and destroys the environment anyway – and live ones in cages at the back, all crammed in 4 or 5 square meters.
While waiting for the kebab, we could hear a chicken starting clucking violently just to go suddenly silent few seconds later, following a loud bang. That how we knew it made it to the front, so to speak. The entire street was about 3 meters wide, smelled a bit funny, and was full of people, chaotically driven motorbikes, children, carts and stray cats. In the end, I paid a little under 3 euros for a kebab from an aforementioned unlucky chicken, french fries and a coke. Not that much of a bad deal…
Snails are also a popular morrocan dish and they’re presented in a similar fashion to the chickens from the previous paragraphs. It seems that restaurants in Marrakech take great pride in having their food really fresh.
And talking about restaurant related incidents, apparently in Morocco is acceptable for the waiter – following a complaint that the glass is dirty – to put his finger in the glass, take the mushy thing out, smell it and then say “Don’t worry, it’s just tea”. And I didn’t worry. The human immune system is the sophisticated product of over 3.7 billion years of evolution and it will not be brought down by some tea leftovers from the previous customer. And also it wasn’t my glass.
After a delightful experience in Cemberlitas hamam in Istanbul, I was excited to try out the Moroccan version. While the experience in itself was good, it felt closer to a spa in Europe rather than an exotic ritual. So far, the turkish one takes the crown.
Next time, possibly Casablanca.