Morocco was always about friends. We had a friends-trip planned before we even left, so it was part of “The Great Expedition” from the beginning. We were always going to circle back to this part of the world. Travel is thrilling, but one of the things we miss the most is seeing the people we love. No matter where life on the road takes us, it has only reinforced the idea that happiness is nothing if not shared.
The best part of Marrakech was renting a riad with all of our friends. A traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard, it felt like the ultimate Moroccan experience. The one we stayed in was tastefully decorated with all the typical Moroccan designs, from carpets to light fixtures to kitchenware. I don’t think any of us will ever forget the 6:30am prayer calls or the amazing home-cooked New Year’s Eve meal and ringing in the new year together.
Outside the riad, most of our time in Marrakech was spent (where else?) in the medina. We genuinely got lost in the narrow, maze-like streets the first few times before we got our bearings. It didn’t help that some locals would claim certain roads were “closed” – we never knew if it was really closed. To be fair, it was probably really hilarious to watch tourists looking at Googlemaps and still walking into dead ends.
To say the medina was lively would be an understatement. There was so much happening constantly. Stalls sold everything you could want, from food to furniture to clothes. What you couldn’t find in stalls, sellers sold directly on the street. We saw a random guy sell a huge roll of bubble wrap by the meter.
The food in the medina (and throughout Marrakech and Morocco) was incredible. Tagines all day everyday – the prune and almond flavoring was my personal favorite). Tanjias with the most tender meat. Pastillas of all kinds that combined sweet and savory, even pigeon! Couscous, camel burger, mezes of all kinds… really a smorgasbord of goodness.
When just eating the food was not enough, we took a cooking class at the Amal Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged women through culinary skills. Between all of us, we made a lamb tagine, a chicken pastilla, and a chicken couscous, all from scratch. It gave us newfound appreciation for the amount of effort and love that goes into every dish, because Moroccan cooking takes time. Plus it’s always great to support a great cause!
A few other places completed our collection of Marrakech sights and sounds. Jama El F’na Market with snake charmers by day, pop up food stalls and concerts by night. Saadien’s Tomb with its walled in marble mausoleum that was only rediscovered with aerial photography. Jardin Majorelle with fountains and huge cacti. The elusive El Badii Palace that we couldn’t find a way into, no matter how hard we tried.
All in all, Marrakech was as dynamic as we had always imagined. What a great way to kick off a new year and a new decade. Happy 2020!
Ouarzazate & Ait-Ben-Haddou
From Marrakech, we took a day trip through the High Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara desert. The drive was very scenic, especially since we began before sunrise and watched the skies light up.
The first stop was at the Atlas Studios. A mini Hollywood in Morocco, everything from Game of Thrones, Vikings, Prison Break, to Aladdin, Gladiator, The Mummy, etc. have all filmed here. There were different sets, like an extensive Egyptian section where they could film explosions in a way that was impossible in the actual Egyptian landmarks. We strolled through each set, marvelling at how real it looked, while imagining the scenes from our favorite shows and movies.
Next in the itinerary was the Ouarzazate kasbah. Kasbah is a sort of fortress city for leaders. The outside of the kasbah looked like a desert castle, while the inside was a maze of stairs and hidden rooms. We climbed the many stairs, reached window overlooks and had fun exploring all the ways to get in and out.
The highlight of the tour was visiting Ait-Ben-Haddou. A former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, Ait-Ben-Haddou is an earthen clay built village also featured in many movies. The hills to the village were a bit of a climb, but there was always a spot to pause for the gorgeous views and share this experience with our friends. It was unlike anywhere else we have ever been.
The second largest city in Morocco, Fes also had an old medina with all sorts of shops and restaurants. By now we were masters of the medina and managed to navigate without getting lost. High five!
Fes is also famous for its tanneries, where animal hides and skins are processed. A five-step process that involves cow pee and pigeon poop, skins are softened, washed, dyed, dried, then eventually transformed into high quality leather goods. We visited one such tannery in the Fes medina, where we saw all the round stone vessels containing liquids and dyes, while workers hustled about. This manual labor tanning method has remained the same since medieval times.
It was here in Fes where we enjoyed a private hammam and massage. Originally a public bathing place, the hammam is a weekly bathing ritual for locals. Similar to the weekly bath I had as a young kid in China before we had showers in the home. For our first time, we opted for a spa experience catered to tourists.
We arrived at the spa and were directed to a waiting room where we had tea and sweets. We were then taken to the changing room where we left all our clothes behind and put on robes – the spa also provided disposable underwear. Then the hammam began in a traditional steam room. We laid on marble beds while the steam and heat worked its magic on our skin. After a few minutes, two ladies came in and scrubbed us from head to toe with an exfoliating kessa glove, removing a ridiculous amount of dead skin. It was simultaneously satisfying yet slightly disgusting to see how much crap came off of us. After the scrub down, we took a shower and had a very relaxing massage. Heavenly.
We did Chefchaouen as a day trip from Fes – it was a long day, but we saw all the highlights. The drive there took us through the Rif Mountains and the surrounding countryside. Calm and quaint, it was such a contrast to the medinas and cities we were used to in Morocco.
The famed “blue city,” Chefchaouen is known for its medina filled with blue-washed buildings. Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” song played way too many times throughout the whole day.
We wandered the blue alleys and saw “instagrammers” posing for ridiculous photos everywhere. Instagram alone has made this place famous. Chefchaouen was definitely very photogenic.
There are many stories on why the city is blue, but one of the main ones was that it was painted blue simply to attract tourists. And it works! The key takeaway from Chefchaouen – if I were to start my own city, I should be painting all the buildings a particular color. Too bad blue is already taken.