So today was the first day of our Dreamtrip which was offered by our vacation club we joined. We loaded the bus at 8:30am with our new-found friends, Jimmi and Margit from Sweden and Nina and Brien, Americans who live in South Korea, among others. Nina is originally Filipino, but due to Brien’s job and her resulting opportunities it is better for her to have a U.S. passport.
Our first stop on the tour was the Koutoubia Mosque, which takes its name from the Arabi word Koutoub, meaning book as there used to be a large booksellers’ market nearby. Built in the 12th century, the Moorish mosque became a model for mosques around Morocco and even La Giralda in Seville, Spain. Its minaret is 77 meters high and is topped with three golden orbs representing three holy places; Jerusalem, Mecca, and Marrakesh’s medina.
From the Koutoubia Mosque, we wandered through the medina to the Mussée Dar Si Saïd. This museum was once a 19th century palace. The palace was built with a courtyard with four surrounding rooms for the four wives that Muslim men were allowed, though the new king discourages polygamy. The decorative rooms now display pottery, jewelry, tapestries and leatherwork.
We took the stairs to the second level which was home to a salon with royal chairs and a wedding chest. The salon’s cedar carved ceiling was painted vibrant colors. The blue came from indigo, the yellow from saffron, and the red from poppies; all native plants of Morocco.
After visiting the museum, we continued through the medina to La Bahia Palace which I think was my favorite stop of the day. Lucky for us, it was open, as if the royal family is in town, many of their entourage stay here. The Palace was built by Sultan Moulay el Hassan I, and its intricate tile work and ornate ceilings were quite spectacular. We first entered an area where guests were kept waiting to visit. Then we entered a room which I particularly liked as the ceiling looked like an upside down boat. This room was used by the primary wife. We continued to the courtyard for the four wives and then to the courtyard for the twenty concubines. Each surrounding room varied in decoration based on the importance of the occupant.
From the Palace, we weaved through the medina past a vegetable market, butcher and a few shops before we arrived at the Saadian Tombs. While this 16th century burial ground with a lavish mausoleum and colorful zellij graves was pretty, I found the story behind the tombs much more interesting.
The burial ground was created by Sultan Ahmed el Mansour and is the resting place to 166 Saadians including the Sultan. It is one of the few Saadian relics left. Mansour reigned for more than 25 years before his death in 1603 when his vast kingdom was left to his sons who continued in power for the next 60 years but failed to keep the peace when Marrakesh was ultimately captured by Moulay Ismail in 1669. Instead of destroying the graves, Moulay who was superstitious about plundering the dead, sealed them up.
It wasn’t until after the European conquest when The Treaty of Fez in 1912 distributed Morocco’s regions between Spain and France that the tombs were rediscovered by a French helicopter which spotted a green tile roof while doing surveillance in 1917. At this time, the French protectorate restored the tombs.
This burial ground is one of the few places where Christians and Muslims were buried together. The Muslim tombs face East toward Mecca, while the Christian tombs face perpendicular to the Muslims. The royals were buried in the mausoleum known as the Hall of Twelve Columns, while other skilled citizens such as architects were buried outdoors.
Our next stop was a shopping mall called Complexe D’artisanat. Not much of a shopper, I found the shoe section, sat on a bench and enjoyed the air conditioning while listening to my audio book! Others wandered through aisles and had their pick of whatever was available in the souks without having to deal with the chaos. If I were going to shop, I think I’d rather deal with the chaos simply for the experience, but for a tour operator, it was much easier to allow everyone to shop in a department store in the medina. I was just happy to be in the A/C as we were visiting in unseasonably hot weather. Of course, 80 degrees was still cool enough for Moroccans to where coats given their summer reaches 110 degrees.
After 40 mins in the mall, we were served lunch at Restaurant Al Baraka. The appetizer included several plates of dips and vegetables including lentils, salsa, eggplant, and peppers that was served with bread. The entrée was a tajine of chicken and vegetables. What we found the most interesting was the service. Our appetizers were served before we were ever asked if we wanted a drink. Eventually, Jimmi flagged down the waiter to order a beer, and he left without taking drinking orders from anyone else. We had to keep flagging him down. Eventually we figured out, one person was supposed to place the drink order for the entire table!
The restaurant was located just off the edge of Djemâa el Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This centuries old square was once a meeting point for farmers, tradesmen, story tellers, and healers. Now it is home to snake charmers, fortune tellers and juice carts. We were given some free time to explore this tourist haven, but given we had already wandered through the area a few days prior, we just stood in the shade of the post office to let our food digest and people watched, while others in the group took the plunge into chaos.
Our tour continued outside the medina, so we walked past the horse drawn carriages, loaded on the bus and headed to the Menara Gardens, home to a “lagoon” and a royal olive grove. The “lagoon” or I’d call it a reservoir is fed by the streams of snow melt from the High Atlas Mountains. The garden is a popular place for the Marrakshi who picnic in the shade of the trees and collect water from the nearby stream for baraka (or good luck). Personally, I didn’t find the gardens too picturesque, but it is always nice to experience something local.
For a picturesque garden, Majorelle Gaden might be a better place to visit. It was created by the French painter Louis Majorelle and then upon his death passed to late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. While we had enough time to visit these gardens after we were dropped at the hotel at the end of the day, I think we felt too tired and hot to explore anymore. Instead, I went to the gym to try to keep up with my triathlon training and enjoyed a little rest by the pool before preparing for dinner Ksar El Hamra.
Our dinner restaurant was quite fancy. We entered into a lovely courtyard before we were led to the dining room where musicians played Moroccan music. We were served a meal similar to lunch. The appetizer included a variety of dips. This time a server with a basket of bread moved from person to person at the table. I didn’t really want any, but he waited there until I took some, so I placed a piece on my appetizer plate. I left it there, and when they cleared our plates, the server shook the piece of bread off my plate onto the entrée plate which was underneath. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in my lifetime. At that point, I succumbed and had the bread with the tajine.
Between dinner and dessert, we were entertained with a belly dancing show. The dancer moved from table to table while swaying her hips in a circular motion. Our dessert was different, a pastry lathered in what looked like sugary icing rather than fruit. Shockingly, it wasn’t very sugary, unlike the mint tea! We were also served some fried dough drenched in honey and dusted with sesame seeds. What a nice day touring Marrakesh! ETB
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