May 2009

Part 4: Marrakesh

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Arrival in Marrakesh (May 5th, day 8)

May 5th was the only real transit day of the whole trip, which is part of why it was such a good trip. We took a train in Meknes at 9:30 and arrived in Marrakesh at 16:00.

As the train rode into town we saw lots and lots of building activity going on on the outskirts of town, all similar but very modern and neat looking residential buildings. Then as we got off the train we encountered a beautiful, brand new and very big train station. In the station we saw a McDonald's for the first time and though we were in a hurry we took the chance to have a quick meal - I was very tired of always eating tajine with vegetables, couscous with vegetables or salads by now.

The train station of Marrakesh The train station of Marrakesh

All other first impressions of Marrakesh, around the station area and during the taxi ride from the Ville Nouvelle (where the station is) to the old center, were equally positive. This city looks modern, clean and rather prosperous, not just in a few key areas but throughout much of the city. Except for the colour (almost every building is a rusty pink) and architectural style, it feels more like Barcelona than like Morocco.

We were in a hurry because we wanted to get a room in a cheap hotel right in the old city center. That worked out fine and the hotel (Central Palace) looked lovely and had all the conveniences that had mostly been absent in hotels in other cities: laundry service, rental car service, excursions, drinks for sale, good internet café next door, etc.

Hotel Central Palace A simple Moroccan lamp that I like, in the restaurant

In the evening Lotte insisted on having dinner in the restaurant that belongs with the bookshop where she bought The Stand by Stephen King, having already finished the two books she'd brought. They had live Berber music and extremely slow service. Now Berber music is atrocious, using a sort of metal castagnette that can only produce one loud clanging tone to keep the rhytm, but eventually we got into it anyway.

Marrakesh (May 6th-7th, days 9-10)

We spent this first morning resting and relaxing after getting some good news at 4am. It was already 3pm when we set out to discover the city.

(added much later...) When I made this travel report I didn't want to say it yet, but it was on this morning at 4am that we found out that Lotte is pregnant! Our first child Jolan was born exactly 8 months later on January 6th 2010.


Marrakesh was founded by the Almoravid dynasty in the 11th century to be their capital and peaked in the 12th century during the Almohad dynasty, who first destroyed most of it while taking power. The capital then moved to Fez but moved back to Marrakesh again for a few decades in the late 16th century under the Saadi dynasty.

Nowadays Marrakesh is the undisputed tourism capital of Morocco, both because it has the most to see itself and because it is a gateway to the grand south. Judging by our first impressions it is also easily Morocco's most modern and prosperous city.

Bab Agnaou

Like Fez and Meknes, Marrakesh has miles of blank city walls running around the medina and around sections of it. Since they're not in the center you don't see them as much, but we first headed south looking for the gate Bab Agnaou on our way to the Saadian tombs. The LP hadn't mentioned this gate as a sight at all, but it was mentioned in the history section as being built by the Almohads in the 12th century. So I wanted to have a look and thought it looked great.

Bab Agnaou, built by Almohad ruler Yacoub el-Mansour in the 12th century. The Kasbah Mosque near Bab Agnaou

When I photographed the street of Bab Agnaou a policeman came to me and requested that I delete that picture; apparently one of the blank walls there hides a royal palace. He was very friendly though.

Saadian Tombs

The Saadi sultan Ahmed el-Mansour, who died in 1603, built tombs for himself and over a 100 people of his family and court in a lavish complex that featured Italian marble and archways decorated with pure gold. Just a few decades later this complex was completely walled around by sultan Moulay Ismail, who didn't want people to remember his illustrous predecessors.

The tombs were only accessible through a passage in the Kasbah Mosque (pictured above) and were forgotten until they were rediscovered through aerial photography in 1917. Nowadays they're a major sight of Marrakesh and can be entered through a tiny alley behind the mosque.

The alley that is the only entrance to the Saadian Tombs

To see the most beautiful tomb hall we actually had to stand in line because only two people can view it at a time, standing in the entrance. I couldn't really enjoy it that way.

View from the courtyard of the Saadian Tombs The most beautiful tomb hall of the Saadian Tombs has archways inlaid with gold.

Bahia Palace

Bahia Palace was built by viziers in the late 19th century. Bahia means beautiful in Arabic and is a suitable name for this palace, which features opulent floor-to-ceiling decorations in all its halls and courtyards. Lotte was tired and returned to the hotel after the Saadian tombs so I visited this palace alone.

Me in front of a mirror in the entrance courtyard, which has too many trees to be photographable.

Only part of the palace - mainly the harem section where the last vizier's 4 wives and 24 concubines lived - is open to visitors, but it's still a very big place to visit. Unintentionally but not coincidentally, all pictures I selected are either from doors or ceilings. Let's start with the doors...

Meow - a simple door in a courtyard An archway between two rooms

I loved how the sunlight fell on this door through coloured glass. Closer shot of the door in the previous picture

I had an especially good time photographing the beautiful and diverse ceilings in the palace by just putting my camera on the floor below them in the right spot and at the right angle. It's a simple trick yet most other tourists gave me puzzled looks while breaking their backs to make far less good pictures of the ceilings.

Ceiling in Bahia Palace One of my favourite pictures of the whole trip. In the top half is the inside of an archway in Bahia Palace, the bottom half shows two open doors and a striped ceiling. Another archway-and-ceiling in Bahia Palace
Ceiling in Bahia Palace Ceiling in Bahia Palace

Right outside Bahia Palace there are lots of tourist shops of course. I love how they put their Moroccon tapestries on display by hanging them against the building. We later spotted a tapestry that we loved that was being displayed just like this in the Dades Gorge and bought it, it's now on our living floor.

Moroccon tapestries for sale near the Bahia Palace

Koutoubia mosque

To finish my first day in Marrakesh I headed to its main monument: the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque. This 70m high tower was built in the 12th century and became the prototype for many other towers, including La Giralda in Sevilla (check this comparison). I thought I could get great shots of the minaret in the late sunlight and spent quite some time on it but it didn't really work out.

The Koutoubia Mosque The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque hiding half of the moon - a lousy attempt at symbolism

I've recounted above how in the 12th century the Almohads destroyed and rebuilt much of Marrakesh. They also leveled the original mosque that was built here because it was not correctly aligned with Mecca and then built this one with the proper alignment. Recently exposed excavations around the mosque show the foundations of the original mosque which are indeed a few degrees off, very funny.

Just a sunset shot made in front of the Koutoubia Mosque

Cooking Course

Lotte had done a Thai cooking course while we were in Chiang Mai and had enjoyed it a lot so she wanted to do another one in Morocco. So on our second day in Marrakesh she went to Souk Cuisine where a Dutchwoman who lives in Marrakesh teaches Moroccan cooking. Lotte was very enthusiastic afterwards.

Lotte at the cooking course, on the left teacher Gemma Lotte and the other students enjoying the mail they cooked. I only included this picture because Lotte looks so cute on it :)

Meanwhile I visited the monuments I hadn't seen yet...

Ali ben Youssef Medersa

This medersa (theological college) was founded in the 14th century and was one of the most important in North Africa but is not in use anymore. It was even more impressive than the medersas I visited in Fez and Meknes.

Looking outside from the entrance of the Ali ben Youssef Medersa

Again the showpiece were the intricately carved walls of the courtyard, which is bigger than in the other medersas.

The courtyard of the Ali ben Youssef Medersa The entrance gate to the courtyard of the Ali ben Youssef Medersa Closer look at the wall carvings

This medersa also had beautiful corridors though. It had 132 dorm rooms.

1st floor corridor in the Ali ben Youssef Medersa Floor opening in the Ali ben Youssef Medersa Me in the Ali ben Youssef Medersa. The first floor had windows like this around a light shaft.

The Ali ben Youssef Medersa is very near the Koubba Ba'adiyn and the Museum of Marrakesh. I wasn't going to visit those, but tickets are priced in such a way that if you visit one the other ones are almost free, so I had a quick look.

Koubba Ba'adiyn

As mentioned twice before the founders of the Almohad dynasty destroyed everything their Almoravid predecessors had built in Marrakesh, but there's one small exception: the Koubba Ba'adiyn, a small 12th century shrine. It's enough to show that Almohad architecture borrowed a lot of elements from the Almoravids, like keyhole arches.

The Koubba Ba'adiyn Inside of the dome of the Koubba Ba'adiyn

Museum of Marrakesh

The museum is housed in the Mnebhi Palace, built in the 19th century. There was an interesting exposition of work by the artist Chayan Khoi, who combines and edits pictures of famous monuments into surrealistic fantasy monuments (pity about the kitchy colours though) but I couldn't take pictures. The other exhibits didn't interest me but the building did.

The courtyard of the Marrakesh museum with a huge huge lamp and a plastic ceiling which causes a somber light Lovely little door in the Marrakesh museum

Streets and souqs of Marrakesh

Marrakesh has a lot of souqs, i.e. narrow and often covered streets full of little shops, but it's not nearly as nice or impressive as the ones in Fez. Firstly, it looks more modern and far less exotic and than Fez, which really has that medieval Arab feel that you associate with a souq. Secondly, there are lots of scooters driving through the crowds in these alleys really fast, so you're never at ease for a second but always have to jump to the side. Thirdly, the harassment level is the worst in Morocco, which means something.

Let me take this occasion to tell you what it's like to be a tourist in any somewhat touristy place in Morocco. A 100 times a day you get this exact same conversation (I partly translate from French to English):
- Bonjour!
- Bonjour.
- Ça va?
- Oui ça va.
- Français? English? Allemand?
- Belge.
- Ah, Belge Flamand?
- Oui.
- Bienvenu! Look at my carpet/lamp/shoes/minerals/spices/(whatever they're selling?)
- Non merci.
- Yes yes look!
- Non merci.
- Yes just a few minutes you're welcome!
- Non!
- Why not?
- Non! (walking away)
- Hey! Hey!

It gave me the idea to print a T-shirt before my next visit to Morocco with the following text on it:

- Bonjour.
- Oui ça va.
- Belge.
- Oui.
- Non.
- Non.
- Non!

... so I could just point to the lines instead of repeating the same conversation every 2 minutes of every freaking hour. The silly thing is that it just drives tourists away. I would have liked to look around some shops but I couldn't look at anything for a second without being harassed by a pushy vendor who kept pushing things under my nose. Everywhere I saw curious tourists who wanted to look at some wares being driven away like that.

Anyway, I was just gonna show some pictures of the souqs in Marrakesh...

A souq in Marrakesh A souq in Marrakesh
A little market square in Marrakesh. These were wares for locals therefore I could look around and it was nice. Another display of Moroccon tapestries on a building. They really make lovely carpets!

Finally something I saw in a normal shop with wares for locals: Moroccan Barbie! Well, Fulah actually, with a headscarf but also with blonde hair and blue eyes strangely.

Fulah, the Moroccon Barbie, costs 1.2 euro a piece.

Djemma el-Fna

I've kept Marrakesh' most famous place for last, to stay true to the chronological order of the pictures. Djemma el-Fna is the big central square of Marrakesh and very famous for its busy atmosphere: there are street artists, African drummers, story tellers, henna tattoo women, fruit juice stalls, snail stalls, lots of general food stalls, snake charmers, and just about anything you could think of.

The square is always very busy, usually very noisy because of the drums and the flutes of the snake charmers, and with a lot of smoke hanging over it from the food stalls. It's the one place other people who've been to Marrakesh always talk about, and Marrakesh' Wikipedia page has a panoramic picture of it.

Personally I didn't think it was that special. I did like it though, because it's authentic. Though there are a lot of tourists, there are even more locals and most of the stalls and many of the animators (like the story tellers) are purely for them. Our hotel was about 50m from the square so we passed it a lot, and we had several meals in one of the restaurants with terraces overlooking the square.

Dinner on a terrace overlooking Djemma el-Fna Djemma el-Fna in the evening Food stalls on Djemma el-Fna

Road trip

During our train ride from Meknes to Marrakesh I'd developed the plan to rent a car there and tour the south of Morocco in about 7 days, something we hadn't intended to do at all.

So on the morning of day 11 (May 8th) we left Marrakesh by car. After visiting Marrakesh we had completed the first half of this trip - 10 of the 20 days - and it had been great already, but the best was yet to come. Our road trip would take 8 days and took us to many amazing places: mountains, desert dunes, gorges and kasbahs. These places will be the subject of the next few parts.

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Vivien Sat 13 Nov 2010 @ 21:36
Beautiful photos and well narrated travelog. It gave us a good preview of the trip we planned for this April. We are planning a twelve day trip to Morocco following a similar itinerary. Thank you for sharing.

Curtis Reynolds Wed 28 Jul 2010 @ 04:20
Great photos... However I lived in Morocco in 1973 and my photos are also impressive. Give me a little fed back.


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