Sunday, February 1, 2015

American Girl in Marrakech

Egypt used to be one of the biggest destinations in North Africa but with the uprisings and political unrest people are heading to other safer countries for vacations. Morocco is now a very popular destination for many holiday makers, even featured in the December 2014 issue of US edition of Bon Apetit magazine. It is a country that shows how people of all different backgrounds can live together in harmony.
I was thinking about a blog I'd read by Jamie Oliver about Marrakech where he says, "What a culture. The people…incredible. The food they're doing here completely blew me away. To step out of my world into this world…..what a shock and what a pleasure." Well with an endorsement like that I couldn't wait to get to Marrakech! I noticed that Moroccan culture, food and destinations were  all the rage in England so I decided to take my older daughter on a holiday to Marrakech in Morocco.

Although born and brought up in Michigan my daughter graduated from High school in Germany and has travelled throughout Asia, USA and Europe. She had done some research about Morocco before leaving Boston Massachusetts, her home for 6 years, and told me about all the things she had read about being a tourist in Marrakech. Although I found her fear a little amusing I could sense she was a little worried because the reviews she read were a rather negative and I also knew there were feelings of excitement and anticipation there was also a little fear of the unknown.
I on the other hand was very excited to get out of gloomy Manchester and knew that 3 hours away was an alluring city nicknamed the "Red City" which comes from the fact that the city walls which surround the old part of the ciare made of red stand stone. I could just hear the enticing, exotic world of spices, couscous, harrisa and Tagine calling me. I wanted to experience all the things I'd seen on the cooking channels on TV for myself.
Our hotel was the Riu Tikida Garden hotel owned by our vacation company and the food served was  flowing all day. There was food for every taste and palate but you could also have Moroccan food and although I did eat the Moroccan food in the hotel restaurant I would say the Moroccan food we ate out side the hotel was of a much higher quality.
Jemma el-Fnaa Square
El Khatoubia

Medina, Old Marrakech

We decided to get the shuttle bus on our first full day in Marrakech from our hotel then walk to the El Khatoubia Mosque. There were beautiful rose gardens all around the grounds of the mosque.

The following day we took a group guided tour through the Medina or the old walled historic quarter of Marrakech. A Berber Professor of history was our tour guide. I noticed he was talking to my daughter while we walked around the town. My daughter was giggling her head off and I wondered what the Professor could be saying to make her giggle like that. Upon enquiring what he had said she replied"He says I look like a Moroccan girl so he will speak to in Arabic!"Of course she couldn't understand a word but it was really kind of him to make her feel so comfortable and she definitely relaxed after that.
The tour ended with a traditional Moroccan lunch including hot and cold salads, Couscous, which Moroccans seem to eat with every meal, fish in a spicy sauce, chicken, lamb stew, vegetables with the traditional spices of cinnamon, cumin, saffron, ginger, pepper, coriander, paprika, turmeric to name just a few. Dessert included puff pastries stuffed with almond paste and sprinkled with sugar and  also seasonal fruit.  One delicacy is preserved lemons which are often used in Moroccan dishes. One thing I noticed about Moroccan meat dishes is the use of fruits and the mixing of sweet and savory in dishes such as lamb with prunes and apricots. Also raisins are used in a lot of dishes both savory and sweet. I found that Moroccan cooking is an amazing mixture of Mediterranean, Arab and eastern influences.

The tour around the 1000 year old part of Marrakech was exhausting, it is an absolute "must"and it was  a great introduction to the charms of this city. There were so may shops and galleries that I really didn't know where to look but was advised to hold off buying anything till we looked at the market in Djemaa El Fnaa Square.

Intricate carvings of the windows of buildings in the Medina.

The following day we took time to relax by the pool at the hotel and I enjoyed a something which is a very important part of Moroccan culture and life, a Hammam bath while my daughter got a pedicure. A Hammam is a traditional steam room bath. Moroccans of all ages, men, women and children will go to the Hammam, sometimes as a family. It involved having mud rubbed all over you while completely naked, and then a female attendant scrubbed me with an exfoliating glove until I was almost raw but all the dead skin and mud was washed off by really hot water which is then followed by a really cold wash. I definitely felt invigorated and refreshed after this treatment and highly recommend it.

In the evening we went to the famous market in Jemaa el Fnaa Square and watched as the sunset and the market place got absolutely jam-packed and busy. It was so exhilarating to anticipate bargaining for lanterns, leather handbags, silver jewelry, decorative items and experiencing the exotic colors and scenery. The people in the market were sweet and charming and not pushy or rude at all. When I wanted an ethnic printed and leather bag in a certain shade the guy who was actually making the bag followed my wishes and oiled it to get exactly the shade that I wanted. 

Moroccan lantern
Lanterns in the market

One of the most unforgettable trips was to the Atlas mountains. Our guide was from the  Berber people, the indigenous people of Morocco. Most of the population of Morocco are Berber and Arab however Moroccans don't know how mixed they are or whether they are Arab or Berber.Today the rural Berbers make up about 33% of the population of Morocco. They are mostly famers and live on slopes of the high Atlas mountains. We went to a Berber family house where we drank mint tea and had fresh baked bread. We then drove around the mountains and looked at the amazing majestic mountain scenery. That day we also had a traditional Moroccan lunch of Tagine vegetables, couscous, chicken with lemon and a traditional Moroccan egg appetizer.

We also saw how Argan oil was being made by being ground on a stone wheel. Argan oil is produced by local Morroccan women and is very labor intensive, which is why products made with Moroccan Argan oil are so expensive. It comes from the Arganosia Spinosa tree. The seeds of the berries are roasted and then ground into some thing that looks like peanut butter and the oil comes out from this process. Morrocans use it for everything and of course it is exported all over the world. It is added to L'Oreal products, Moroccan oil products and in many cosmetics all over the world. Morocco is the only home to the Argania Spinosa tree so it is very unique.
Argan berries being ground to make Argan oil.

Atlas Mountains
Berber Village on the foothills of the Atlas mountains.
Jardins du Marjorelles
Beautiful window.
Yves St. Laurent was very inspired by Morocco and the Berber people as we discovered on our visit to the Jardins du Marjorelles. This is a garden in the very trendy district of Marrakech. The area is full of beautiful boutiques and art shops. 

Jardins du Marjorelles designed by an expatriate French artist Jacques Marjorelle. The artist used a special shade of cobalt blue in the garden and on the buildings.

On of the days when we wanted to relax we decided to use half of the day riding a camel. It was brief experience  it was great fun and our camel hander Mohammed was really protective of us.
I think my American daughter had a great time in Marrakech, stating that when she wanted to decorate her first home she would go back to the market at Djemma El Fnaa and no matter what trepidations she had when she first arrived we both decided Moroccans were some of the most hospitable and friendly, kind people we'd both ever met. We would definitely go back to Morocco and highly recommend it. 

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