Earlier in October our travels took us quite a bit further south of Belgium to the cities of Marrakech and Casablanca during an extended weekend in Morocco. While it was Dan’s first visit to the country and to the African continent, this was my second time in Morocco as my first visit was in 2011 as part of a student trip while studying abroad in Sevilla, Spain. I also kept a blog while studying abroad and figured it would be fun to re-read my post from my first experience in Morocco when our pre-arranged university tour took us to the northeast region of the country. I laughed recalling my fondness for the generous servings of Moroccan food and fresh mint tea (that hasn’t changed) and the particular attention given to the bothersome but necessary act of bartering in the markets.
Our recent visit to these two new cities renewed my appreciation for the exquisite food and drink, but this time I was instilled with a broader understanding of the Moroccan culture and a way of life that at times feels very different from my Western culture. I approached our visit mindful of the conservative values that dictate societal norms but gained an immense appreciation for the generous hospitality extended to us on many occasions and in varying environments.
Our arrival in Marrakech was postponed by yet another delayed flight so it was after midnight when we disembarked at the airport. Having the local currency on hand is a necessity in a society where cash transactions are the most commonplace; however the Moroccan dirham is a closed currency meaning it can only be exchanged within the country. Knowing this, we immediately headed to the ATM outside customs but were distressed when none of our European or American bank cards worked. Fortunately, I had a small supply of Euros tucked away and with the help of the 24/7 currency exchange counter, we were able to leave with dirhams in hand.
Our concern returned momentarily when our prearranged driver, with whom our “common” language was French, was confused by the address we had supplied for our Airbnb. Clearly not the first time he had dealt with tourists, he knew how to solve the problem and in broken English asked that we call our Airbnb contact so he could arrange for her to meet us. When our driver finally pulled off to the side of a busy street filled with pedestrians, street vendors and late-night shoppers, we were relieved to see a friendly woman easily identify us, greet our driver, and direct us to follow her to the Airbnb. I am 1,000% certain that if Hayat, our Airbnb contact, had not been so kind as to meet us at the late hour, we would have wandered the streets of the Marrakech medina looking for our Airbnb all night. We struggled to stay on Hayat’s heals as she navigated us from the chaos of the Jemaa el-Fnaa night souks to the deserted, twisting alleys deep in the medina, finally arriving at the riad we would call home for the next two nights.
The riad is a traditional Moroccan house with a central interior garden or atrium and multiple levels, oftentimes including a rooftop, which is especially beloved by the residents on summer nights when it’s too warm to sleep indoors. We accepted Hayat’s offer of a quick tour of the riad and tutorial for using the key to lock the front doors before she left and we made our way to bed feeling grateful for her hospitality and efforts to translate her instructions from French and Arabic to English. Breakfast being included with our stay at the riad, it seemed like only a few hours since Hayat left, but she arrived early to prepare our meal of yogurt, soft breads, olives, jams, pancakes and fresh orange juice. We struggled to restrain ourselves from eating everything placed in front of us because we were awaiting a walking food tour scheduled with Secret Food Tours.
We thanked Hayat for the excellent meal and left the riad with extra time to allow for navigating the complex web of streets in the medina. We stepped out into the street and immediately realized how different the corridors appeared in the warm morning glow compared to the shadowed lanes that we walked through the night before. Where the night before the alleyways were desolate and unwelcoming, this morning they were awakening with activity and each step overloaded my senses with vibrant colors, pungent smells, and the commotion of neighbors greeting neighbors. Shopkeepers tidied up their stalls, tourists browsed the merchandise, and motorcycles honked as they passed on your shoulder, narrowly missing your toes. Even with our ten minute walk laid out for us by Google Maps, we still struggled to find the way out of the medina and make it to the meeting spot on time to meet our guide for a Secret Food Tour of Marrakech.
When we did meet Warda near the minaret of Koutobia Square, we realized we had the good fortune of having a private tour. We made quick introductions before setting out for a (second) breakfast during which Warda eagerly jumped into explanations of the Moroccan communal style of eating. With bread in hand she demonstrated proper etiquette for dining with family and guests alike. Using your right hand (good luck lefties), use the bread to scoop out the food directly in front of you – the key part of her explanation being that you refrain from meandering outside your designated portion of the communal dish. Dan pointed out that this was bad news for him as he regularly claims that in addition to his portion, he is entitled to some of mine owing to his larger size. Warda explained that as the host, you are specifically responsible for ensuring your guests have more than their share of the meal, even if that means that you eat less. Then came a lesson on the proper pouring of the staple Moroccan beverage – mint tea. Holding the tea pot above her head, Warda explained that the higher you pour the tea, the more bubbles you create, which in turn signifies how welcome your guest is. More bubbles equals more welcome! Lesson one on minding your Moroccan manners complete, we said our thanks to the owner and headed out with Warda in the lead.
On our way to the next stop, Warda showed us a discrete entrance to the public oven where tangia, a communal dish and staple of Moroccan cuisine, is slow-cooked in warm ashes with the oversight of the baker. Down a few stairs and into a very hot chamber, she explained that families can either bring their self-prepared tangia or request that the baker use his own recipe; in either case, they hand off the urn-shaped terra cotta pot and return later in the day to pick up their cooked meal. Warda assured us that a tasting of tangia awaited us, but she had something else in mind for our next stop.
Warda led the way through the medina while we observed the shop owners hard at work until she stopped outside a small store-front and explained that our next dish would be soups; more specifically, lentil (with tripe) and bean. Lentil being a favorite of mine, I was eager to try the warm concoction despite the temperature already broaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Thinking how oppressive the summer heat must be, I asked if soup is eaten all year-round. Warda replied that it was and the chef of the soup shop worked extremely hard six days a week to ensure that his own hard-working patrons had a filling and cheap meal to sustain them through the afternoon. Warda spoke amicably with the owner while some of the patrons seated in the small shop made room for us to sit down. I was sweating by the time we finished the soups but it was well worth it to have tasted his lentil soup and to have tried tripe for the first time. The owner invited us to take a picture with him and we extended a “shukraan” for his welcoming us to his store.
On our way to the next culinary delight, we made a brief stop for spices, which Warda explained – while navigating the impossibly small streets crowded with donkey-led carts, hurried locals on bikes and distracted tourists on foot – could be used in making our own tangia. Under the shade of an umbrella atop the roof of our next stop, we sampled a variety of Moroccan salads of both cooked and fresh vegetables while sipping more of the freshest orange juice. Time passed quickly as we chatted with Warda about the deep roots of the Arabic and Berber cultures in Morocco that in more recent times have absorbed the influences of the French and Spanish cultures present in the region. We were informed that Amazighs (Imaziɣen) is the correct name, as the term Berbers is derived from the Latin word for barbarian. No subject was off limits as we covered Moroccan and American politics, religion, language and culture; all things that can make for uncomfortable table conversation, but were discussed openly amongst the three of us. We even received a very practical lesson on how to first politely and then adamantly turn down unwanted sales pitches. Warda advised us to say use “la shukraan” (no thank-you) and where necessary, scolding rude sales persons with “shame on you” is appropriate.
Immersed in conversation and having lost track of time, Warda reminded us that we still had two stops remaining on our tour and I could tell she was excited about the next one. Our “secret” dish was indeed the famed tangia of Morocco, prepared with lamb meat so tender from the slow-cooking that it effortlessly fell off the bone allowing for easy scooping of the meat and juices with the soft bread served on the side. Warda encouraged us to try the bone marrow, which Dan insisted I sample (such Moroccan manners), and she explained that if unable to suck the marrow out yourself, there’s no need to be shy about knocking the bone against your plate to dislodge the coveted treat.
While feeling very full after the tangia, there was no way we were going to pass on our final stop of the tour. Providing us with an array of pastries and our own juice smoothies, Warda explained each type of dessert presented to us and clarified that traditional Moroccan desserts are those that anyone can make at home with common ingredients – distinguishable from the fancier French desserts. While Dan and I savored each bite of the delectable treats, Warda provided additional context for the role of the stores selling pastries and juices in Moroccan society. Traditionally men have congregated in the street-side cafes while women have gathered in the juice bars and pastry shops, effectively creating separate spots for socialization outside the home. I hadn’t yet noticed this, but throughout the rest of our time in Morocco I did observe this practice; men were the predominant patrons of the outdoor seating areas of cafes during every hour of the day.
Our time with Warda flew by and we were sad to part ways. We were so appreciative of not only her insightful itinerary, but also her openness. We finished the tour with not just an introduction to Moroccan cuisine, but also a broader knowledge of the culture and without a doubt, starting our time in Marrakech with Warda framed our view of Morocco for the rest of the trip. I cannot say enough good things about spending time getting to know a new culture from the eyes and insight of a local. If you want to hear more about Marrakech directly from Warda herself, you can read more in my “Get to Know a Local” section of the blog. If you do go to Marrakech, then a tour with Warda of Secret Food Tours is a must!
In the haze of our food comas and without Warda’s unfailing navigation skills, we slowly headed in what we thought was the direction of our riad. Thanks to Warda’s guidance, we were feeling confident that we were well on our way to mastering Morocco, but were quickly humbled when we realized we couldn’t find our riad. Blending in to avoid unwanted attention is difficult to do when you’re circling the same stalls and vendors over and over again while trying to ever so casually glance down at the map on your phone to figure out where you are. A map, whether fold-out or on your phone, will only take you so far once you’re deep in the medina, so a word of advice in hindsight is to be observant of your surroundings. Our problem was that we had arrived at the riad late at night and left in the morning before the true hustle and bustle of the markets was in full swing. Stalls that were completely closed at night were just beginning to open in the morning so the merchandise that now covered their walls and shelves created a very different scene. After a helpless half hour, Dan finally identified our street and we were relieved to make it inside the cool walls of our riad for a break from the crowded and stifling streets. While enjoying a moment of relaxation, we mapped out a route that would take us from the chaotic streets of the medina to the botanical gardens of Jardin Majorelle in Gueliz, the modern French-era district of Marrakech.
Despite our best efforts to suppress the tourist in us, the comedy show continued when, upon opening the front door to leave, Dan quickly closed it again, while exclaiming “Cats! They’re everywhere!” Seeing my alarmed expression, he explained that a posse of cats had been preparing to invade our riad as he opened the door. I lost it. Gaining my composure, I cracked the door to peak outside and sure enough, the neighborhood cats were eager to get in. If you’re rolling your eyes thinking “Kaitlan, they are just harmless cats”, I want to add that earlier that morning I had seen two of them eagerly enter the apartment when Hayat arrived for breakfast through the front door. She was much more practiced in convincing them to leave and I was positive that our extraction efforts wouldn’t be as successful and did not want to be responsible for damages to the riad on account of the loiterers. After searching the riad for an appropriate instrument, we were able to shoo away the cats with some loud noises thanks to a broom, but then we created another commotion when we left and struggled to close and lock the two doors of the entrance. This was our first time locking the doors from the outside since Hayat had been around earlier in the morning and our troubles with the keys sent the next door neighbor rug salesman our way with an offer of assistance. We instinctively turned him down, but after finally succeeding we realized his offer was more than likely genuine given that he identified the issue right away (being the observant and welcoming neighbor he was).
This time we managed to find our way out of the Medina without too much trouble and we knew we were entering the more modern Gueliz when we encountered wider streets and contemporary construction of the buildings.
Jardin Majorelle is a walled in botanical garden that was previously owned and restored by Yves Saint Laurent and is now open to the public (for admission of about $7). Filled with beautiful plants that provide welcome shade from the sun along with interesting and colorful buildings of mixed architecture, it is a popular tourist attraction. I can easily imagine the gardens being inundated with camera carrying tourists, but thankfully we arrived near close with just enough time to walk around and explore the lush greenery. There are museums and exhibits also on site, but with limited time, we strolled along the manicured greenery and under the bright blue pergolas. While not my favorite site of the trip, it was beautiful and offered us escape from the medina to see the newer developments of the city.
Walking back to the medina for dinner, we found ourselves in an open-air market where goods were being sold on the side of the road and we were more than likely the only tourists. In fact, I was one of the few women in the vicinity and this was my first experience since our arrival where I felt especially aware of my gender and appearance in this more traditional setting. I did not feel unsafe at any point, but trailed Dan and averted eye contact so as to not draw unnecessary attention to us. Reaching the walls of the medina we again encountered other tourists which were a reminder of the contrasting cultures that coexist in this vibrant city. Being back in the maze of the medina we couldn’t quite avoid being hounded with incessant offers for navigational assistance but were not motivated to accept thanks to Dan’s map reading and trial by error when that failed.
Dinner that evening was on the rooftop of Le Trou Au Mur, where Dan and I both selected another staple in the Moroccan culinary scene – a tajine dish. We enjoyed our tajine (mine was meatball) and rice pudding dessert while admiring the sunset over the red buildings. This time managing to find our way back to the riad and our own rooftop without much trouble, we sipped on wine in the now pleasant warmness while recapping our day.
Our final day in Marrakech started with another great breakfast by Hayat before we decided to follow the guidance of Warda and walk south of the medina to El Badi Palace. On the way there we once again got lost in the maze of red streets. We blatantly ignored the bellows of locals saying “you’re going the wrong way” before hitting dead-ends, but were encouraged to see that we weren’t the only ones turned around in the labyrinth.
Arriving at the towering walls outside the Badi Palace, I wasn’t sure what to expect but was pleasantly surprised when we paid and entered the first room to find that this ruin of a 16th century palace was in fact still magnificent. Although much of the opulence was removed and relocated elsewhere in the 17th century, it was easy to imagine this grand palace with intricate colorful tiling, an impressive courtyard, and lush gardens serving as the sultan’s place of entertaining important guests. Also interesting were the drawings depicting the foundation of the city of Marrakech in 1062 and photographs of the municipality through the 1900’s when France established a protectorate over much of the country and then Morocco subsequently gained its independence.
Visiting El Badi Palace was a highlight of the trip for me and we figured that as Warda had yet to lead us astray with her recommendations, we’d walk back to Gueliz and try another one of her suggestions. At the end of our tour the day before, Warda had supplied a short list of eateries to try, and the Amal Center was proposed as a place to enjoy a delicious meal and support a local organization empowering disadvantaged women in Marrakech. The Amal Center provides restaurant training and job placement to women in the community – they also serve a fantastic lunch! My gazpacho, vegetable tajine and mint tea were phenomenal and we were able to relax in a calm and comfortable terrace before our afternoon departure from Marrakech.
We stopped for one more refreshing juice on the roof top of Bazaar Café before meeting our prearranged driver who transported us to the airport. After 25 minutes – the quickest flight I’ve ever taken – we touched down in Casablanca and met our next driver who, after a 50 minute ride into the city, almost dropped us off at the wrong hotel. Thanks to Dan’s attention to detail and reference to the actual address of the hotel (which the driver did not reference) we arrived at the Barceló Anfa Casablanca hotel in time for a late and Western-influenced dinner.
The next morning while Dan was attending meetings for his site visit, I found a comfortable spot on the hotel terrace just above street level to attend to some work and was sitting outside no more than 10 minutes when it occurred to me that the incessant honking of vehicles and loud conversations from the sidewalks sounded exactly like the streets of New York City. The metropolis of Casablanca, being Morocco’s own financial center and also one of the largest financial hubs on the continent, certainly has a different feel than the colorful, maze-like streets of the inner medina of Marrakech.
Craving the freshly made juices and smoothies we enjoyed in Marrakech, I saw that a juice bar was a short walk away so I made my way over and was attended to both in French and Arabic by the store manager – we settled on communicating in French. He was helpful in assisting me with my smoothie order before kindly reminding me to put my money away and zip my purse before leaving to walk back so I wouldn’t be an easy target.
As sunset approached that evening, Dan and I walked to the massive Hassan II Mosque which was situated about 20 minutes from the hotel by foot right on the Atlantic Ocean. Built in 1993, it’s not its age that is shocking, but rather its impressive size as the third largest mosque in the world and with a minaret that’s the second tallest religious structure in the world. The peaceful grounds of the opulent mosque showcase contemporary growth and development, but as we headed towards dinner following a different route, we were surprised by the change in scenery only a few blocks away. The wide boulevard gave way to dusty gravel streets, and immaculate store fronts were replaced by crumbled stone buildings. It was stark evidence of the noticeable juxtapositions we found throughout Morocco where tradition intersects modernity, and poverty and prosperity exist alongside one another. I’m hardly the first visitor to make this observation of contrasts, but I do think it’s important to have more than a surface level understanding of how the convergence impacts life from the perspective of someone who lives and works here.
Our last dinner in Morocco did not disappoint. We were the first diners to arrive at Le Cuisto Traditionnel and were welcomed with true Moroccan hospitality. Our dinner was served by Aziz, the passionate owner of the restaurant, and I quickly remembered just how much I loved the chicken pastilla when I first visited. This time I tried the lamb tajine and based on my reaction to the first bite, it didn’t take much to convince Aziz that I was very happy with my meal.
Practicing my proper tea pouring to welcome guests
We headed home to Belgium the next day reflecting on our time in Marrakech and Casablanca with new perspective. Sure, in moments of frustration or mistrust it’s natural put up a wall to avoid unwanted solicitations, but ultimately I gained a new appreciation for a culture that is in many ways so different than mine own. I am hard pressed to name another place where I’ve experienced a more welcoming attitude extended to guests over shared food and drink. While not always easy, I was reminded that connecting with people to understand how their perspective differs from or is similar to yours creates not only a more satisfying travel experience, but a broader view of the impact of intersecting cultures around the world.