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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Day 15 -- Marrakech

a visit to one of the snake charmers in the square

Today is our last full day in Marrakech—and Morocco. I fly home tomorrow at 535 a.m. and stop off in Paris to board my flight home to Detroit. I had thought about staying Paris for four or five days, but could not make my connections. That's OK. I'm pretty tired of traveling and a two-night trip to Chicago and a one-nighter in Detroit await me during Christmas week.

Jardin de Majorelle

Place of the ashes of Yves Saint Laurent

We began the day with a tour of the Jardin de Majorelle and the Islamic Art Museum. The gardens were designed by French painter, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920s. He had contracted asthma and chose Marrakech as a suitable place to live with it. He set up his workshop there and conceived of this beautiful garden. Friends in the French army gave him exotic plants, flowers, and cactus from all over the world. After he died, the garden deteriorated. In 1980, Yves Saint Laurent assumed ownership of the villa with his partner, Pierre Berge. Yves died in 2008 and his ashes are buried at the villa.

This is an incredible garden envisioned and then built by someone who made the best of his awful health situation. It still amazes me how people can conceive and execute a project. Majorelle's art studio is now a museum for Berber life, which includes their dress, tools (including writing), and artifacts of their lifestyle. The color scheme is a rich blue and green that contrasts the carefully manicured and maintained gray ground and light green cacti.

Cactus are everywhere in different shapes and sizes. It's like a dream land and walking through it, I found myself in a very quiet and pensive mood where I could just enjoy wandering among the plants. I was moved to take photos of the most unusual and most complex cacti.

We hopped back on the bus and headed toward the northern part of the Medina. Yesterday, we were in the southern part. Half a million people live in the Medina and 1 million others live in the new town and suburbs of Marrakech. Yamni also told us that the road through the mountains that we had taken two days ago was snowed out yesterday. We would have had to go on another road that was about 60 km longer had we not escaped the snow. Lucky us! Maybe we were living under the Hand of Fatima already?

Ali Ben Youssef Medersa
center courtyard of Ali Ben Youssef Medersa
We visited the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, once the largest and now, one of the best preserved Koranic schools in North Africa. It was established in the 14th century. As many as 900 students studied here, and they lived in 132 bedrooms. It is a masterpiece of art and design with cedar from Lebanon, carved stucco, and Italian marble floors. While it was still operating, the mosque was open to public five times a day for prayer.  During the rest of the time it was used for classroom space where two or three teachers would sit in small groups with their students. The students used this area for study time as well.
detailed view of one of the bedroom windows from the courtyard

one of the student's bedrooms that overlooked the courtyard

Dar Menebhi Palace
courtyard of the palace
The Marrackech Museum is in the Dar Menebhi Palace, which was built at the end of the 19th century by Mehdi Menebhi. The palace was carefully restored by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation and converted into a museum in 1997. The building and its fountains were hooked up to the irrigation system built by the Almohad dynasty in the 12th century and used until recently when the dam projects provided adequate water. The old irrigation system now feeds the gardens around here. A vizier lived here (but not the same one who lived in the Bhai Palace that we visited yesterday.) The beautiful courtyard has been visited by royalty from around the world and various art exhibitions are housed here.

According to Wikipedia (, the house itself represents an example of classical Andalusian architecture, with fountains in the central courtyard, traditional seating areas, a hammam and intricate tile work and carvings. The museum's large atrium (originally a courtyard, now covered in glass and fabric) contains a very large centrally hung chandelier-esque ceiling piece consisting of metal plates decorated with fine geometric and epigraphic cuttings. Several features of the original courtyard, including the floor-set basins and mosaics have been retained. The museum holds exhibits of both modern and traditional Moroccan art together with fine examples of historical books, coins and pottery of Moroccan Jewish, Berber and Arab cultures.

close-up if the chandelier 

Northside of the Medina
We then visited the north side of the Medina (the older side) and walked through 11th century streets where the "Skin Men" (they make leather from animal skins) and metal artisans work. This part of the Medina is as it was and so it is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The streets were far more narrow in this section than in the south medina and moving around people who made goods deliveries or who were passing through on their motorcycles was an experience in itself. However, there was incredibly beautiful work going on in this section.

One word about Morocco. The goods the people sell come in many varieties, but they ARE definitely quality goods and not junk.  Wholesalers come here to buy and then sell these goods all over Morocco and the world.  I'm not a shopper or a collector but there were many different things I would have liked to buy.  If I ever return to Morocco, I will spend more time and money in the souks. There are some very nice things there!!

It was lunch time and Yamni treated us to a Moroccan style lunch in the upper dining room of a restaurant. The narrow stairway (straight up and winding around what seemed to be about a yard in width) led to a dining area with tables so close together, you could smell the meal on the next table. Actually, it was here that I knew it was time for me to return home; I was feeling a little claustrophobic from all the jostling and jagging in the medina streets.  We just don't live that close together in the USA. On the other hand, our streets are not as exciting as Morocco's streets.  There are always trade-offs in life.  

I asked Yemni if he tired of the pace of life in the Medina with all the bargaining and jostling in the streets.  He said he was used to it.  After all, he (and 1.5 million other people) chose to  live in Marrakech.  While he doesn't usually partake of the Night Market for himself, he does drive his older son here so that he can meet with his friends.  Young people love the square because this is where the action is.  They also have more interest in mixing and mingling in all the excitement.  And, one other important point.  It is safe here.  While there are police around for crowd control, it is totally safe, another feature we have largely lost in our American cities--at least the feeling of safety.  Whether that is reality or not is another matter.    

Julie. Nancy and Sylvia with Gary in the background
We had a meal of a slow roasted leg of lamb on a platter with french fries (that came a little afterward) and bread. We received no plate or silverware, so we ate Moroccan style, too. (Fortunately, no one was looking to make sure we didn't eat with our left hand, and I could tear the meat apart with my fingers instead of the bread provided. So much simpler!) We were given a half sheet of newsprint paper that served as both a place mat and a napkin. Julie and I placed the bones of the meat and the pits of the olives we ate under the platter, Nancy and Sylvia placed them on the platter. By this time we have all been sick at least once and we have been traveling together for two weeks (most of them for three weeks) that we no longer cared about getting anyone else's germs.

The meat was excellent and it was spiced beautifully. Yemni suggested we put a little cumin/salt mix that was on the table, but I found the meat to be cooked perfectly, and it was delicious. Then the crowning touch, a mint tea that used sage in the green tea (with sugar) rather than the usual spearmint. This was probably the best tea of the trip.

After our delicious meal we had the afternoon off to either go shopping once again or go back to the hotel. We were to meet in the hotel lobby at 6:30 for a little meeting with dinner following.  Our bus would be there to pick us up in a half hour in the western part of the square if we chose to return to the hotel, which everyone did.  The walk back is about 2 km and taxis cost 20 dh (50 dh at night). 

I broke away from the group and just wandered in the square for the next half hour looking at the sights.  The last game of the soccer match is tonight and the Moroccan fans were pumped for the home team, which had surprisingly won against the powerful Brazilian team the other night.  They were to play Germany tonight for the championship. The fans were everywhere in the square chanting, singing, wearing green for the home team.  Their expressions of support included making body pyramids as these young men are doing.  This was an interesting aspect of the vibrant street life that exists in Marrakech--and the physical expression it takes on for the people who live here. 

At one point I heard a high-pitched sound of a flute that sounded like snake charmer music, so I followed it. The snake charmers are in the square only during the day so this was my last chance to see them. I took a few photos and then one of the men told me to give him my camera and he would take a picture of the cobra snake.  I don't like snakes and didn't want to get too close.  He suggested I move behind the snake (a safe distance) and he took a picture of me (see the photo at the top of this entry).

Suddenly, it was pay back time.  He held out his hat and asked for paper money, which was at least 20 dh. I fingered the coins in my pocket and gave him 4 dh, which was all I had left. He was not at all happy with my tip.  So I turned boldly on my heel and walked straight away with him calling “Madame, Madame” after me. Luckily for me, he didn't chase me.

This fan was not shy and he didn't charge me a tip to take his photo

I moved on toward the place where we were to meet the bus and took a few pictures of the people and the traffic that was especially jammed up today because of all the soccer fans. A few of them (these were young people) posed for me—and didn't ask for a tip. They were having too much fun getting revved up for tonight's game.

a traffic jam -- medina-style in Marrakech

I began looking for the bus—our big green and white vehicle—and finally saw it. Actually, Shafik spotted me and signaled me to get on. Then we looked for the others, who came along shortly afterward.

We returned to the hotel about 2 p.m., and most of us went to our rooms for a rest. We were to meet at 6:30 for a short meeting in the hotel lobby and then have our farewell dinner at 7 p.m. at a restaurant outside the hotel. We are trying to get there before the “hooligans” do. We will also pick up our packages with our ceramic purchases that were boxed and stored for us in the bus to take with us today. Just another OAT service that made traveling from town to town a little easier.

I am trying to finish my blogs before I leave Marrakech. I also need to pack tonight and figure out how to carry all the stuff I bought.  Fortunately, I was able to fit everything into my suitcase and my backpack.

The Last Supper
We gathered in the hotel lobby for our little meeting, which consisted of a sharing of our e-mails and some last photos.  Yemni also took this time to thank us for choosing OAT.  He  hoped we enjoyed the trip and found him a good representative of the country.  In this sense, he is truly an ambassador not of political affairs, but of helping to bring people from different countries together so that they can understand each other.  In this way, tourism and this tour specifically, did its job.  That is also the mission of this blog, too.  

I learned this lesson about tourism long ago when I first started traveling in 1984 through my fellowship with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  It became especially clear to me when I visited the "Soviet Union" to meet our rivals.  I had connected with our guide, Larissa, as a person.  We shared stories about our family and our own aspirations and discovered our similarities.  Our differences (language, culture, even politics) seemed minor and unimportant compared to our  humanity--especially since we were in the midst of the Chernobyl situation.  

Of course, nations strive to be strong, influential, rich, and dominant.  With such an agenda, rivalries are bound to develop and they can grow into fierce hostilities and even result in war.  I saw that clearly with the war against Iraq in 2003, which didn't have to happen.  It was a choice--and it ended in death, destruction, maimed bodies, psychological trauma, and billions and billions of dollars wasted that could have been spent on the people's needs for education, health, and development.  That's what governments do, unfortunately, as they think they are protecting the country.    

After we thanked Yemni for being such a wonderful guide and host to his country, he led us outside the hotel to board our bus. He had arranged for our farewell dinner at a fancy French restaurant in the new section of the city, Gueliz.  However, traffic was so jammed as sports fans headed toward the soccer stadium, that the bus could get no where near the hotel.  To further complicate matters, the King was scheduled to attend the match, and extra security was exercised.  Lines of soldiers covered the streets every 30 yards or so, and they would stand there before, during, and after the match as long as the King was there.  Suddenly, we saw a motorcade with flashing blue lights.  It was the King!!  So, in this way, Yamni had also provided a special chance for us to see the King.

When it became clear that the bus could not drive in front of the hotel we walked about half a mile to get to it.  (Here was another case of "thank God for cell phones."  Yamni and the drivers were in constant contact through cell phones.  It's the only way to travel.)    

When we finally arrived at the restaurant, we learned that some of the wait staff was caught in soccer traffic, too.  So service was slow and handled largely by one man.  That didn't matter, however, because we had a chance to talk with each other for the last time--and to savor our wine (on the house), our food (vegetable soup with an entree of chicken in wine sauce with a side of thin spaghetti and vegetables), and each other.  It turned out to be a perfect evening.

As we were passing through the hotel lobby, there was considerable noise coming from the bar.  I went to see what was going on.  People were watching the concluding half hour of the soccer match.  The home team was behind by 2 points--and they missed a couple of good shots to even the score.  The King was featured in his box with his attendants.  He was scheduled to give a trophy to whichever team won.  It would have been pandemonium in the stadium had the home team won.  Nevertheless, he was dignified as one would expect a king to be.  

We collected our ceramic gifts that had been stored on the bus a week ago.  Yemni had arranged this for us so that we didn't have to carry them for a week.  The packages all seemed so much bigger than we thought.  Of course, we were concerned about packing them in our suitcases and carrying them on the plane.  

Then we all retired to our rooms for the night.  It was 9:30 p.m. in Marrakech.  



  1. Olga! This blog is spectacular. I'm going to print it all out as a record of our trip. I'm just today starting to feel normal. I almost wrecked my car yesterday. What a mess that would have been. It's nice to be warm and cold free! I was going to make Moroccan food for New Years, but then I realized I didn't want to eat any Moroccan food. )-: I'll send you some pictures soon. Nancy

  2. One of the best travel blogs I have come across. Congratulations.
    You may want to see my video of the Riad Dar Dmana in Fez where we also stayed.