ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
Our time in Essaouira was up, and we wanted to experience Marrakech during the day, so we caught the early bus back and proceeded directly to Jemaa el-Fnaa after dropping our bags back at our favorite riad. Not sure they've ever had guests stay there three separate nights in one week, each time two or three nights apart. Stay in all the places! Thrice!
Marrakech is unbearably hot during the day at this time of year, but Sarah really wanted to see the snake charmers and monkeys that delight tourists in the afternoon. Hirsh didn't quite believe this was an actual thing in Marrakech until we saw the first pile of huge live snakes and the cobra bopping along to his handler's flute playing. While we never wanted to hold them, we would've loved a picture. The problem was, as soon as we looked in their direction, a snake handler started yelling out to us and then stalking us through The Square. Now we've been stalked by a guy on a camel and a guy with a snake. We've held domesticated snakes before without any problem, but we are quite sure we don't want to hold a cobra.
We did find the monkey though! Sarah just had to hold him. Just look at that cute wittle guy sucking his wittle thumb...
Then he peed on her. Of course. No time to go back to the riad to change though, so we soldiered on, smelling funky from monkey urine.
We hopped in a taxi and did our one piece of genuine sightseeing in Marrakech, as we visited Palais el Bahia, the old chamberlain's palace, right on the edge of downtown. It featured lovely gardens and Islamic architecture.
And we really needed something cold to drink, so we went in search of the famed "Glacier" bar on the edge of The Square. This bar boasts a high terrace overlooking The Square with prime views of the transition from quiet daytime activities to nighttime craziness. The turnover begins at around 4pm, so we thought we had positioned ourselves perfectly. Unfortunately, we got duped by a sneaky young waiter who claimed to work at Glacier and led us to his restaurant. Well, he did work at a place called Glacier, but his restaurant had a slightly different suffix and we ended up overlooking a much smaller, quieter side square and enjoying virgin mojitos (again, real alcohol is hard to come by in conservative Islamic Morocco).
It's OK, we visited the real Glacier later. The real restaurant is beautiful and very fancy, but sadly they've added metal detectors and security guards to the entrance because it was the site of a terrorist bombing in 2005. We got a great nighttime photo of the square from the terrace's prime vantage point.
We wandered the labyrinth of tight alleys all around the square and considered a little more shopping, but our bags are quickly getting overly stuffed. So we ate again. Dinner was at the TripAdvisor recommended Roti d'Or. It's hidden away on a quiet side street, so we wandered in its general vicinity until we found the unmistakeable congregation of white people that screams: TripAdvisor favorite! Eat here! And we did. It was all right.
We had just a handful of dirhams left and after accounting for the taxi to the airport the following morning, we knew we had to spend them before leaving Morocco. We wanted to do the ultra touristy horse and carriage ride through the city, but didn't have nearly enough money. Fortunately for us, there are far too many carriages and not nearly enough takers, so after extensive haggling and walking away about fifteen times, we negotiated an hour long ride with an illegal drop off at our riad. Supply and demand, baby. One thing that was very important to us was to find a carriage and driver with the SCANA plaque, which signifies recognition by the animal welfare organization for outstanding animal husbandry. We found a carriage littered with plaques!
The ride was wonderful. We saw a side of town we hadn't seen before and definitely would not have seen otherwise, including a view of La Mamounia - known as one of the fanciest hotels in the world! ...Someday
Our last full day in Essaouira turned out to be a cloudy one, which was fine because we had already done the beach/pool thing and had set aside this day for really exploring the town. We started with a breakfast of excessively decadent Nutella and banana crepes. Because Morocco used to be occupied by France, there's still a strong French influence here, and fortunately some of the most delicious traditions remain.
We then proceeded almost immediately from breakfast to lunch. Eat all the things! We had read about the fishing port and how the thing to do (for tourists and locals alike) in Essaouira is buy fresh fish from one of the many fisherman and then take it to be grilled at a nearby stand. We knew we wanted to do this at some point while in Essaouira, but hadn't been able to pull ourselves away from the pool the prior two days. Thank goodness for cloudy days, because otherwise we may have never had this experience!
Let us start by saying that this fishing port is probably the single dirtiest place Sarah has ever been. Hirsh has traveled to other developing countries so he wasn't very shocked. Thank goodness for closed shoes, because the soles of Sarah's Toms are still hard to look at. The thought of buying our meal here amidst all the filth took a little getting used to, but we figured the fire would kill most disagreeable organisms. We didn't really know what we were doing while hunting down our lunch, just what size fish looked like a good size to share. We settled on something we decided might be cod, one sardine, and a handful of small shrimps on the side. Then we took them to the nearby grill master and he fired them up for a nominal fee.
They brought us limes and Cokes and we had a memorable, authentic, and delicious meal for a total of 80 dirhams (roughly $8).
Then it was shopping time! We spent a couple hours wandering the winding alleys and souks of the old town, finding things we liked and then trying to find them cheaper elsewhere. We usually succeeded. The key to successful bargaining is to truly not care about the item - or at least feign as much - and that's especially easy to do here because 20+ stores carry the exact same merchandise. Sarah even haggled the price of a top down 60% from asking, and after we'd settled on a price, noticed a tiny flaw and got another 30% knocked off when we started to walk away. Hirsh's bargaining skills are really rubbing off.
We went back to the hotel to spend a little time by the pool once the sun made a brief appearance. You know, for principle's sake.
Then we cleaned up for dinner. Here's Sarah in her natural element, freshly scrubbed and perusing the room service and spa menus.
We walked on the beach back to the old town, all the while fighting Essaouira's trademark strong winds.
Dinner was a repeat of the night before. We loved the restaurant so much that we returned and had nearly the exact same meal! Alcohol is rarely offered in Morocco, so we settled for a second pot of delicious mint tea.
This day turned out to be our most beautiful day in Essaouira. We started with brunch at the Restaurant Lounge Océan Vagabond, one of the few restaurants/hotels directly on the beach (most hotels, including ours, are separated from the strand by the narrow main boulevard that runs through the city). Not only do you get a great view of the sand and water from this place, but you also get to enjoy the goings-on on the beach itself. This restaurant is located right beside the main staging area for many popular Moroccan beach activities: horseback rides, camel rides, four wheeler rental. The vendors work every angle they can imagine on every potential customer they can imagine, and they are aggressive! We walked to the water's edge before we sat down to eat and were harassed by at least ten guys trying to bargain for rides on their animals. They got into a bidding war all by themselves and we didn't ever say a word. We were even stalked by a guy on a camel for a good 50 yards. Another new life experience!
The view from our lunch table...
Then of course we went back to the pool for the afternoon. Hirsh has the pool all to himself! Also, crazy sandal tan FTW.
Dinner was at a great little place called Restaurant Laayoune, which we shockingly found all by ourselves! No guidebook, no TripAdvisor, no word-of-mouth recommendation. Well, now we can recommend it because we loved it. It's an intimate little space with the nicest owner/manager and delicious authentic food. The restaurant is known for its very tasty harira soup.
Sarah's trying her hand at the high altitude mint tea pour. Not sure if the guy next to us is impressed or annoyed.
There's also one cat who's made it his mission to sneak into the restaurant whenever it can, begging for scraps. Essaouira is full of stray cats, but most of them appear reasonably healthy and quite a few are friendly. This particular cat is clearly a real nuisance to this restaurant, sitting on a chair just outside the door and waiting for any opportunity, but the fact that the staff calmly and gently removes the cat every ten minutes or so says a lot about the kind of people they are. In this picture, he's under our table at Hirsh's feet.
His bad habits rubbed off on this teeny little fella, who elicited lots of "awwww"s from the diners.
Sun, sand, sea, pool, yummy food, animals to play with...what else can we say but that it was a great day!?
After a few very hot days in Marrakech and the Sahara, we headed to the beach. Essaouira is about two and a half hours from Marrakech, and is known for being an important port city as well as a favorite hippie hangout since the 60's. Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens were known to love the place. The culture here is undoubtedly Moroccan, but with a free-spirited, much less conservative vibe than other parts of the country.
We hopped on the 8:30am bus from Marrakech to Essaouira. Procuring tickets for this bus was no small thing. They sell out, so you must buy in advance. The catch is that you can't buy them online, so someone has to buy them in person, but no more than two days in advance. We were going to be in the desert during that window, so our kind tour guide, Brahim, had arranged for his friend to buy them for us. During the long tortuous (and torturous) drive yesterday, we stopped somewhere in the mountains outside Marrakech to pick them up from this friend, who had left them at the desk of a random roadside restaurant. Sometimes you have to get creative! Anyhow, the bus ride was very easy and surprisingly comfortable, if a little grimy. It is Morocco, after all, and that's part of its charm. There's also a convenient midpoint stop on the bus route to buy treats. Coca-Cola, Pringles, and Snickers are ubiquitous everywhere now. This photo is a great example of Sarah simultaneously giving up on assimilation and looking put together.
We were lucky to get a great last minute deal on booking.com for a 4-star hotel right on the beachfront, the Le Medina Essaouira Hotel Thalassa, which happens to be a Sofitel property. We loved it! We had planned to stay for two nights, but almost immediately after checking in and scoping out the facilities, we reserved a third night.
Since we took an early bus from Marrakech, we arrived at the hotel two hours before regular check in. They were kind enough to expedite preparation of our room, and in the meantime they served us our favorite hot mint tea and cookies!
The main purpose of our time in Essaouira was to just relax, so we started with lunch and drinks by the pool. Cold beer, chicken club sandwich, and seafood salad.
After a few hours by the pool reading and snoozing off the beer and food coma, we got cleaned up and headed inside the walls of the medina, a quick five minute walk from our hotel. Dinner was at a guidebook recommendation, Le Petite Perle, which has been a local and tourist favorite for 25 years. And it shows! Tagine for Hirsh and kebab for Sarah. Although we didn't capture it on camera, the waiter here had the highest-altitude and most impressive mint tea pour we have seen in Morocco.
As we walked back to the hotel, these lively young street musicians, fronted by a brilliantly talented percussionist tapping and rapping his hands on everything he could find, cemented Essaouira's boho reputation for us. So fun!
We were woken up very early this morning by our camel trekking guides to get packed up and ready for the big event of the tour - the sunrise trek! Our serviceable-but-not-quite-"glamp" was nestled high in the dunes and the camels had been relocated overnight to meet us there. To our relief, we were reunited with our same buddies from yesterday.
We were also in the same positions as yesterday, with Hirsh starting out in the front of the camel train. But really, when is Hirsh not first?
It was incredibly beautiful and peaceful.
There was one casualty along the way. Hirsh took his sandals off before the ride so they wouldn't slip off his feet. He wanted to stuff them in a shallow pocket of a bag attached to Sarah's camel. Sarah, knowing this was dangerous, made Hirsh stuff them in there himself. That way, when they inevitably fell out later, she could not be blamed for it. Really gettin' the hang of this marriage thing! Well, surprise of all surprises, one of Hirsh's sandals has been inadvertently gifted to the Sahara. Our adorable trek guide, Mustafa, kept the one remaining sandal so he may have a complete pair if he ever finds the other. 😄
We rode for about an hour and a half before making it back to the hotel for a shower, quick breakfast, and saying our goodbyes to the trekking crew.
We had a long 8 hour drive ahead of us through the same mountains that had defeated us the day before, but this time there were no scheduled sightseeing stops. It. Was. Rough. Both of us spent varying amounts of time curled up in our seats, eyes closed, trying not to think about how steep and curvy the road was. We made it safely back to Marrakech though, and checked back into the same riad where we had stayed two nights before.
After a restful night at the family-owned hotel, we enjoyed a nice breakfast on the terrace before hitting the road for another five or so hours.
Tried as we had to eat and drink only clean, safe food, we both started to feel the physical discomfort you can't help but expect when visiting a developing country. The seemingly never-ending winding mountain roads didn't help, and we eventually had to pull over to take a break. Since Sarah has the unique capability of getting carsick driving herself on a straight road, this was a real challenge. Brahim, bless his heart, was a good sport about it, but warned us not to eat in "The Square" (Jemaa el-Fnaa) again because that food is "poison." His words.
Luckily for us, we were in a tiny town but only about 50 yards from Brahim's friend's home when we so urgently needed this break. We rolled up unexpectedly and were welcomed with open arms, and we spent a good hour and a half on his lovely terrace overlooking a beautiful valley. There was truly a silver lining to feeling so rotten, because we had a wonderful time relaxing and napping on this terrace with a genuinely warm, kind local family. Upon our arrival, Mohammed immediately served us mint tea, fresh dates, and made a small cachet of freshly ground cumin to smell and help alleviate the nausea.
The hardest part of leaving was saying goodbye to Mohammed's precious daughters, Fatima and Zaynab, who took a real shine to Sarah, and she to them. We wanted to adopt them right then and there, and their dad half-jokingly said that we could take them to the United States because America is a good place. It's nice to know that our struggling and imperfect country is still regarded by so many as the shining city upon the hill. We'd give anything to provide these beautiful children with the same opportunities we've enjoyed, but we know they are safe and loved, and while their lives will be very different from ours, they are happy.
Back to the long drive with a scenic photo op stop.
And at around 5pm, we finally made it to the starting point of the camel trek in the Sahara! These companies really have it figured out where they deposit their charges at a nice hotel at the edge of the dunes where we can borrow a room and swim, shower, relax, whatever until the camel trek begins at 6:30pm. People from all different tour companies were there, so we ended up trekking with about ten other tourists.
The camels, in position...
Sarah and Hirsh, in position...
And off we went!
What we did not see coming was a rainstorm in the desert. About five minutes into the ride, we felt the first few drops and the sky turned ominous. Then it turned into a very wet and windy sandstorm. While we were not as enthused, our guides were thrilled to see rain.
The situation became more and more dire (just look at the woman behind Sarah)...
And we had to stop the ride early because it got to be too much. We were picked up in jeeps (by a crazy driver who made the ride insanely fun by catching air flying over the dunes) and driven to our very nicely appointed campsite where we were served more mint tea, tagines, and then had a drumming party!
Sarah was awarded the prize for best performance because she's really good at following directions, and the prize was a camel of her choice to take home! She obviously chose the camel she had been riding because their hair color matched.
Trek day! One of the big agenda items for our trip to Morocco was a trip into the Sahara, recommended by our friends the Wards and the Waldons back home. After extensive research, Sarah picked the company Camel Trekking, which has been written up in the Telegraph and ranked highly on Tripadvisor. We happily signed up for a three day, two night journey. After a quick Moroccan breakfast at our riad of bread, honey, olives, and tea (not as near to our American tastes as a good old McMuffin, but still pretty good), we met our driver/guide Brahim for the long trip towards the desert. Departing at 8AM, we had a good six hours or so of driving today, with ample stops in between. And we were off!
We wound our way out of Marrakech and towards the Atlas Mountains, a steady soundtrack of Moroccan music on the car radio. Although initially foggy, the mountains opened up and we could see into the deep valleys and across the mountainside villages. We stopped several times for nice panoramic shots of the scenery. Parts of our drive were surprisingly lush, others little more than scrubland.
Our first major stop was at a pleasant roadside hotel for lunch, where we each had a quick tagine and gazed longingly at the pool that beckoned us in the 104 degree heat.
But pools and such things would have to wait for another day, as the main reason for the location of this stop was the hillside town and UNESCO world heritage site of Aït Benhaddou. Originally built as a trading post and caravanserai (or caravan stopover point), it had slowly been abandoned in favor of the new town across the river. But here in the desert, the old town stood preserved, when it was rediscovered by Hollywood as a shooting location for the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. Since then, Hollywood has come back repeatedly to the Aït Benhaddou well, shooting films like Kingdom of Heaven, Prince of Persia, some scenes for Game of Thrones, and most famously Gladiator.
We wandered across the riverbed and into town. After shaking off the initial wave of tourist shops, we proceeded deeper into town, exploring the tiny nooks and crannies of what was a tiny although somewhat decrepit settlement. Hirsh took fifteen minutes to clamber to the top of the hill for a panoramic view of what turned out to be more scrubland, while Sarah stayed near a shop and made the acquaintance of a lovely gentleman named Mohammed. He showed her the art of the "burning painting," local to this area, where he would apply organic dyes like saffron, tea, and pepper to paper, then gently applying a flame to make the pattern of, say, a camel caravan or a desert dune appear as if like magic. On Hirsh's return from the top of the hill, Mohammed invited both of us to see his home, one of the few still existing in the historic old town. We saw his kitchen, stables, and said hello to his sister, and he invited us for a sit in his living room. To our surprise, a film poster of Gladiator hung on the wall, flanked by swords. He explained that the film had shot several scenes just around the corner, and in between shots Russell Crowe actually came and relaxed in that very living room. As a token of thanks, he was given a film poster and a prop sword from the film (the one on the right; the one on the left is real!). Charmed, Sarah got a picture with Mohammed. He even invited us to stay for a cup of tea, and as desperately as we wanted to, we had to return to the drive. Saying our thanks, we departed Mohammed's home and returned to the road.
Our next quick stop was Morocco's film capital (Mollywood?) of Ourzazate. The government recognized that this area was reminiscent of the generic Hollywood desert, and so built a large film studio in the area; Kingdom of Heaven shot a scene here in a purpose-built castle. We took a quick peek inside the studio, which hilariously juxtaposed Egyptian statues, Chinese dragons, a fighter jet, and a Viking ship. The magic of the cinema!
We continued on our long drive, and along the way chatted up Brahim about Morocco. He had mostly positive things to say about his country, riffing on topics as diverse as criminal justice, taxes, women's rights, and of course the US presidential election. Morocco is a kingdom, with a king who works in conjunction with, but ultimately superior to, a Parliament. We saw the King's framed photograph everywhere we went. We talked about the merits of each of our systems and ultimately realized how diverse our perspectives are around the world about the right way to run a country.
At long last we wound up at our lodging for the night, a hotel owned by the trekking company owner's family in the Dades Valley. Overlooking red rocks reminiscent of Sedona, Arizona, we had a lovely meal of tagines and settled in for a restful night in preparation for another long drive tomorrow.
Today was mostly a travel day, but the very best part was that we ended up in Africa! We dropped our beloved rental car off and flew yet another low-cost airline, Transavia, from Munich to Marrakech, Morocco. We arrived a quick three hours later in the mid-afternoon to experience the full blast of Moroccan mid-summer heat. Our driver took us straight to our riad, Riad Rose du Desert. A riad is a traditional Moroccan lodging with an open courtyard and a handful (in our case, five) rooms arranged around it. We were greeted by warm, kind people and delicious cups of hot mint tea, a Moroccan specialty. After unpacking, we rested for a few more hours to let the heat abate before going out to explore.
The main square - and the heart of the city - is the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and it's conveniently an easy ten minute walk from our riad. We've never seen anything like it, and suspect there's nothing else quite like it in the world. It's sensory overload at its most spectacular, packed with food stalls, performers, and people selling everything from jewelry to lanterns to rugs to spices to chameleons. All the while, people are shouting at you from every direction to get your attention in hopes of making a sale. And the square is HUGE, so if you wander near the middle, good luck finding refuge any time soon. There's so much to see, hear, and smell, it's hard to decide which way to turn next. We can't get enough!
This photo doesn't come close to capturing the place, but it was the only sort of out of the way area where we could utilize our selfie stick.
We did buy one item, loose cotton pants for Sarah. She knew this was a must-have in the scorching Morocco heat, so we kept our eyes open. After reviewing a few stores, she found a delightful pair of pants printed with pink elephants. The shopkeeper quoted 220 dirhams, or about 22 dollars. That's when Hirsh got to work, countering with an opening bid of 50 dirhams (or more than 75% off the quoted price). After much gesturing, forceful exchanges in English, French, and possibly Arabic, and several episodes of walking away, they agreed on 75 dirhams, plus 10 dirhams more for on the spot alterations. The impressed/frustrated shopkeeper even asked Hirsh if he was a Berber, a Moroccan nomad known for their haggling skills; Hirsh obviously took this as a compliment.
After that shopping win, we wandered the vast maze of merchant stalls surrounding the square, and we definitely got very lost.
By sheer luck, we came upon a restaurant we had read about and had come highly recommended in online travel guides, Nomad. We had a very memorable dinner on their upper terrace once the weather had reached a cool 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Compliments on a great location, charming decor, and friendly service.
As it was our first night in Morocco, we couldn't wait to dive into the local cuisine. Tagines for everyone! Sarah had chicken and lemon rice tagine, while Hirsh had lamb and couscous tagine. Delish!
Then it was back to our riad to rest up for an early morning drive into the desert.