Day 6-8, Marrakech Part 1, Morocco

by - September 14, 2012

Day 6: Casablanca to Marrakech

View from the train window
Another major travel day today as we made our way south to the city of Marrakech. We lay in as long as possible at our fancy Casablanca hotel before getting a petit taxi to the train station. The journey was a similar duration to our one from Meknes to Casablanca and cost a similar amount - while the train was a little late departing, the quality and price of the Moroccan rail service has been really commendable. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the company we kept as a young girl in our compartment shouted for the entire 3 hour duration of the journey. This was really the fault of the parents - who had brought no entertainment for her except for a bag of sweets. Even these weren’t enough to keep her silent however as she ended up shouting while eating them and choked on one, making her even noisier. Any hope that the choking experience might have sobered her was misplaced. We arrived at Marrakech station in the late afternoon and made our way to our riad - le Riad de Jardin d'Abdou, another oasis in the midst of the chaotic big city. Here, we waited for Will to join us from London for the rest of the holiday.

Day 7: Hot Air Balloon and Camel Ride

Inflating the Balloon
Will arrived safely last night and was given very little time to recover from his flight as we had to get up at 5.30am today to go hot air ballooning in the Atlas Mountains. The reason for getting up so early was so that we could see the sun rise over the mountains. This was nearly thwarted immediately as the door to our riad was locked, though luckily I managed to find the night manager asleep in the basement and got him to come and let us out and into the minibus that was collecting us. We travelled for about 45 minutes out of Marrakech with two other Brits who were on the same excursion as us.

We arrived at the take off point just as the sky was starting to show the first hints of light. A pre-breakfast
Sunrise over the Atlas Mountains
snack of croissants and juice was offered in a traditional berber tent which looked out to where the balloon was being inflated. Our pilot, Hamed, introduced himself and showed right away that he was a real character, making lots of wisecracks about our impending doom, which in a funny way helped to settle those in the party who were a bit nervous. With sun rise fast approaching we got up into the balloon and got our first views of the Atlas Mountains and the plains that lead up to them. In the distance we could see the lights of Marrakech and very soon we could see the first glimpses of the sun on the horizon. The views were stunning, with the terrain ranging from barren desert to fertile river to mountain range. The highest point on the horizon that we could see was Jebel Toubkal, the second biggest mountain in all of Africa (after Kilimanjaro). We had about 45 minutes in the air and were glad that we had got up so early to see the sunset - another balloon was just taking off as we landed and I’m sure that their experience can’t have been quite as good as ours. Hamed proved his pilot skills as we came in to land by parking the basket straight on the back of the trailer that it had come in - an incredible feat when you think about it.

Once on the ground again Hamed drove us back to where we had started. This was not without excitement however as Hamed decided to get out of the car while it was moving and ran alongside it, much to our amusement, before jumping back in again - I told you he was a character. We then had our proper breakfast in the same berber tent before being shown around the berber house nearby. Quite how genuine this house was (considering that tourists walk through it every morning) I can’t tell, but it seemed to be the real deal and was very interesting.

Up in the air
The next part of our tour was a camel ride. For this we travelled back to the palm groves on the edge of Marrakech. This is obviously where lots of people have their camel experiences as there were men with camels everywhere. We were all given our own individual camel, which were then tied into a line and ridden in a loop around the palm groves. This was a far more sedate experience than my last camel ride (around the Pyramids, which ended up being pretty scary) and was another great experience. Despite it only being 10am, our tour was now over and we were driven back to our riad in Marrakech. The company, Marrakech by Air, had been really good and come well recommended from all of us. Exhausted, we went back to bed until mid-afternoon.
Camel Riding
We have a lot longer in Marrakech than anywhere else, so in the afternoon we decided to have a vague
wander with no real plan other than to find the famous Djemaa el-Fna, the centre of all things in the city. When we arrived it wasn’t particularly busy so we had a quick ice cream and then moved off into the surrounding souqs. It was good to have found where it was however as we came back for our dinner, which we ate on a terrace overlooking the chaos below. Nothing can quite describe what the square is like, but I will try my best tomorrow as we are coming back.

First taste of Djemaa el-Fna

Day 8: The Sights of Marrakech

Inside the Bahia Palace
Having thus far not seen any of the actual sights in Marrakech, we decided that we ought to get cultural. Roughly speaking, the city’s sights can be divided into those south of the main square and those north of the main square. We decided that today would start with those to the south. The first of these was the Bahia Palace. Bahia literally means ‘beautiful’ and the palace was just that, both in its grand scope and the intricate details of furnishing. Unfortunately, it was also full of tourist groups and was by far the busiest place that we had visited, tourist-wise. It reminded me a lot of the famous Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, though it has to be said it wasn’t QUITE as grand as that. From here we walked to the nearby Badia Palace. The similarity in names had confused me as I had assumed that the two places were the same and had slightly different pronunciations. It turns out that they are totally different, and the Badia Palace is several centuries older and in a lot worse condition. Apparently, upon the palace’s completion, a court jester had joked that it would make a beautiful ruin and, having been sacked 75 years later, he wasn’t far wrong. In contrast to the Bahia Palace, the Badia Palace is more about imagining what used to exist rather than what is there now. In its day, it must have been incredible - by far the largest palace that we had been allowed into, but also the most derelict.

Inside the Badia Palace

Keen to see as much as possible before the heat of the day, we moved on to the nearby Saadien tombs, where the bodies of one of Morocco’s main ruling dynasties are buried. They are very tucked away, as the dynasty that followed the Saadiens were very keen on hiding the legacy of their predecessors. As a result, they were only discovered in 1917 through aerial photography. They are now rather faded, but still impressive in their scope and worth the tiny 10 dirham entrance fee.

The Majorelle Gardens
It was now starting to get pretty hot so we got a taxi to the ville nouvelle, away from the walled city, to go to a sight that was a bit different. The Majorelle Gardens are one of the most famous gardens in the world, named after their creator and then maintained by the legendary Yves Saint-Laurent who had his ashes scattered here upon his death. The gardens were very different to anything else that we had come across and were worth a visit to the ville nouvelle for. We had lunch at a nearby restaurant before getting a taxi back to our riad and taking it easy until sunset. That night we decided to go back to the Djemaa El-Fna to eat at one of the street food sellers. The first step towards getting food is to get to the stalls, as you make your way past snake charmers, story tellers, musicians, dancers and people selling all sorts of bits and pieces. The next step is to find a restaurant, as there are hundreds of stalls that just set up for the evening, using a gas bottle to cook with. Every single stall tries to draw you in with made up offers, such as buy one meal get one free, which would never actually materialise. For no tangible reason we settled on stall number 41 and were treated to a real mix of fish, meat and vegetables. It all tasted very genuine and the atmosphere was terrific - a real life experience, unlike anywhere else in the world. Several guys walked around the stalls with dessert trollies and for 30 dirhams we got a big box of assorted desserts given to us. After dinner we had a fresh orange juice for 4 dirhams from a juice stall and then wandered back to our riad through the souqs, having seen a fair bit of Marrakech in one day.

Second taste of Djemaa el-Fna

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