Marrakech beyond the Medina

One of the questions were asked a lot before the trip, is “what is your cousin doing there?”. So…here is the brief scoop we picked up from interrogating Erin. She majored in anthropology and was interested in studying “festivals and celebrations” in some way for her grad program. She was looking for a place outside the US that would allow her to build on some basic French language skills she had, but did not want to study specifically in France. She got connected with a person at UC Riverside who was doing a lot of work in Morocco. So, she knew if she came to Riverside for her PhD, that is what she would want to do. Her original plan was to study a celebration that had occurred in Marrakech about every 2 years since they gained independence from the French. That festival focused on music and art meant to show the diversity and promote the unity of Morocco (so it included both northern and southern cultures, as well as that of the Arabic, Berber, and Jewish people that have historically lived in Morocco). HOWEVER, after getting approval to go to Morocco she learned this festival has been put on hiatus for about 5 years. So…..after some quick thinking and proposal adjustments….she is now focusing on Story Telling and Oral Traditions….specifically how modernization and the introduction of English into Morocco is affecting traditional storytelling and performance. So, she spends a lot of time in coffee shops, bookstores, and plazas watching Moroccan performers–sweet gig! This year, Erin is supported by the Fulbright Scholarship so she’s pretty amazing.

Ok…now back to our adventures….

Scooters are a thing in Marrakech and they’re allowed in the Medina (though cars are not). As soon as MDT heard this, he was set on renting a moped. It was chaotic driving in the Medina and around town. But if MDT can handle driving around the streets of Vietnam, he can manage Marrakech! He even took Marlene out for a ride one evening.

While MDT is out renting the scooter, Marlene and DQT get henna tattoos. Erin warns us against the ladies in the square – the ink some use have been known to cause negative reactions. Instead, we visit Erin’s friend’s henna cafe. We can’t wait for Marlene to show this off in Ossian, IN!

We visit the spice market (which is outside the Medina), where most vendors in the Medina get their spices. We settle on a very friendly shop guy and get the whole works from him – drink tea, smell and try all his spices/oils, and get heaped with compliments. It was great fun. It wasn’t until later that MDT told us we spent an hour with him that we even knew it was that long! We got face masks, herbal tea, cinnamon, toothpicks, rose oil, and scented wax. We got a good deal and I’m sure he still made out like a bandit.

MDT didn’t stay for the full spice experience. He opted to head outside to wait for us. In the courtyard, he found an empty chair. When he went to move the chair away from the tree so he could sit in it, two guys sitting nearby jumped up and started waving and gesturing at him. MDT stopped, thinking he wasn’t allowed to sit, but it turns out that the chair only had 3 legs. It needed to remain propped against the tree or it would topple. So, after spice shopping, this is where we found MDT, in a 3-legged chair.

Next to him is, near as we can tell, the courtyard boss. He just sat there surveying the court. He would periodically chase away a vendor, or would talk to another vendor and, for whatever reason, allow him to stay and sell. He seemed friendly enough and saved MDT from injuring himself on the chair!

The spice market is near two sights we visited outside of the Medina: the Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace.

The tombs had some pretty structures, architecture and tiling. But it was a bit sparse. We saw a long line and figured it led to, you know, THE TOMBS. So, we stood in the line for 30 minutes…only to find out that the line was to get to this little alcove to take a picture of a pretty room. THAT WAS IT. There was nothing else to go in to see. There were all these people waiting in this long line just to go up and take a picture or two of A ROOM. It was hilarious and a total rookie mistake. Marlene was beside herself!

The Bahia Palace was gorgeous and a much more satisfying visit! It was built in the 19th century by a Grand Vizier of the Sultan (whatever that means, it must mean he had lots of resources). The place is huge and includes numerous rooms, gardens, and courtyards – not all of which are open to the public.

Erin’s parents, Janet (also Marlene’s sister) & Kevin, have arrived so Erin and Nabil have planned a special dinner for the family. We’re having tangia (the special Marrakech beef dish) and a whole roasted sheep’s head! Everyone does a great job of eating everything before them. We all agree that the cheek meat from the head is the most tender.

Above, our waiter serves up the tangia out of the cooking vessels. And below, the sheep’s head is cut in half for ease of plating and eating.

Look at their faces. They’re being such good sports!

And a family photo with the famous square below.

After dinner, because the guy is a friend of Nabil’s, we get a tour of the roasting oven used to cook the lamb and tangia. It’s an underground wood burning oven that usually holds about 80 tangia pots, but if they stack them on top of each other they can squeeze 300 in! (That was for a large wedding they were catering)

The last thing we do in Marrakech is visit Erin’s favorite wine bar, 68. Drinking alcohol is not very prevalent in Marrakech (or Morocco in general, as it’s a predominantly Islamic country) but there are some bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Right away, we notice that Bar 68 looks different than the other venues on the street. It’s covered in black and you can’t see in or out. And there’s a doorman. We find out later that he lets foreigners in (we were not stopped or asked for ID) but stops Moroccans. And the black coverings are partly for warmth, and partly so passerbys don’t see people drinking.

Inside, the place feels like you’re in France. Everything is in French and the menu is mostly French dishes. The wine list is predominately European but we select two Moroccan wines to try – a Gris (for “grey” its basically a Moroccan version of a light rosé- its a wine that spends even less time in the tank with the skins than a typical rose-so it has just a hint of color) and a red blend. We are told a couple times that Morocco is the only place in the world that makes grey wine! We have some on the trip and it’s pretty good.

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