Marrakech Maze: Travel Tips & Culinary Culture

SK Parfait Africa, Culture, Food, Hiking, Holiday, Morocco, Music, Travel, Travel Tips Leave a Comment

Morocco is not what you’d expect, nor what you’d imagine. The roads of the medina may be a maze, but it’s guaranteed you’ll get lost in more ways than one. This place is a shock to the senses, similar to none. Marrakech invites you to get lost in the melodic music of Berber tradition, the hum of the hectic medina, the view of vivacious colors in food and fashion, and the taste of the seemingly transient spices, as one bite is never enough. If traveling solo, it may seem overwhelming at first, but you will grow to appreciate a place so complex and captivating.

Arriving at dusk, I entered the medina with little preparation for the contrast between the modern airport and the menacing darkness of the catacombesque, dimly lit streets. Before divulging your destiny to the cab drivers, negotiate a price to your accommodation and have a map or screenshot of the area, as many addresses only take you to a general area, not the doorstep of your hostel or hotel. I was fortunate enough to have a local friend with me who could ask other locals for directions. If staying within the medina, keep in mind that even hostels with a 9.0+ rating will be similar to camping indoors, with an open-air concept and sometimes rooms that have doors. Lockers for personal items were nonexistent, with only a tiny safe for the entire hostel. I want to stress that the hostel was very safe, with a locked front door at all times and staff members that were very kind and accommodating. It’s all about perspective, if you prepare yourself for something different and more rustic than European hostels.

After checking in, I stepped out into the bustling streets and happened upon a Berber gathering. The major ethnic groups in Morocco are Berber and Arabic. It is interesting that Berber is a completely different dialect than Arabic.

Here is a glimpse of my first impressions of Marrakech.

 Passing through the main center, we wandered our way into a market painted with color.

Next we came across a group of musicians performing gnawa, a type of music that originated from an indigenous language in northern and western Africa. The finger cymbals used are called krakeb, which give a unique sound. The music was extraordinary and enchanting.

After surrendering your senses to the unknown, an escape to a rooftop patio provides quite the scene and solace.

The next day the city presented new views of rows and rows of small shops within the medina.

Afterwards we ventured away from the medina, towards an area where locals go to grab transportation to other cities and villages. It is common to take a taxi to and from work versus owning a car. Transportation is affordable and it is necessary to have the local currency, the dirham, on hand. The best advice is to get a little of the local currency before leaving the airport.

Anything goes for transportation including packing 7 people in a 5-person car and transporting heavy loads on scooters. If you acquire a seat just for you, consider yourself lucky. If not, say hi to your neighbor, as the locals were very kind and friendly.

After a short taxi trek and a beautiful view of the Middle Atlas Mountains, we stopped at a small village. There we saw an amazing view of the foothills leading up to our destination.

Many little shops and restaurants lined the dirt roads, full of villagers picking up groceries for the day. We stopped for a bit of breakfast, ordering the traditional msemen, a fried flatbread folded similar to a crepe with a filling of cream cheese or honey. Of course we had to try one of each.

Curiosity set in and I soon wandered over to another food stand. This mound of sugar was like nothing I’d seen before.

Chebakia is a traditional dessert served during Ramadan. The dough is fried, soaked in honey, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. I was kindly offered a small sample. It melted in my mouth like cotton candy and tasted of honey and sugary sesame seeds.

Ramadan is a religious observance lasting one month that entails fasting from dawn until sunset each day. The fast is typically broken daily by first eating a date, then enjoying a feast of many traditional dishes. Food carts can be found along the streets after sunset and this period is known to become a bit competitive among chefs when creating new dishes for the nightly feast. Most importantly, a friend said that fasting makes them feel closer to the poor, to feel what they feel, the hunger pains and lack of food. It becomes a humbling experience, to realize how much is consumed and how little others have.

After the taste testing we jumped on a bus for the rest of our journey to the Atlas Mountains. Again, the bus contained passengers well above it’s capacity, but I was fortunate enough to have a seat and a window view of the Moroccan mountains and rough, winding roads.

We also crossed paths with a camel or two as we continued up and onwards in elevation.

An hour later we finally arrived in the village of Sti Fadma, prepared for the hike to the Cascades Ourika, or 7 waterfalls. As we journeyed up the steep paths we came across several natural water coolers, with a steady stream of water from the mountain runoff.

Unexpectedly, there was a constant string of shops and food stands, ready to send you on your way with souvenirs and snacks. Stacks and strings of brightly decorated Moroccan rugs lined the path towards the waterfalls. We climbed on and resisted temptation, with a little friend leading the way. Often times if you stop and ask for directions, locals will expect a small payout for their assistance. Since we didn’t know the exact location of the waterfall path, we asked a young boy who seemed eager to help.

Here the trail got tough, and we ascended a ladder to reach the next part of the trail. Notice our little tour guide waiting for us at the top. We also came across a few groups along the way if you want to book a tour guide instead.

We were soon graced with a view of a waterfall.

The trail became more steep and narrow as we carried on. In some areas it would be considered bouldering, depending on how high and where you wanted to climb to grab the best view. Be sure to wear good shoes as some areas are slippery.

Alas we made it to this amazing view and took a few rebellious photos quite possibly a bit too near the edge of the cliff. This sighting made the long trek worthwhile. There are also a few spots for a swim on the way to the top.
Making our way back down to the village, we came across another viewpoint where you can see rugs scattered along the riverbed. Locals were busy washing rugs and others household linens in preparation for Ramadan, letting them dry in the sun.

In need of sustenance after a long day, we opted for one of the many riverside restaurants with local Berber cuisine. Since there is little rainfall and year-round mild weather, many fancy cushioned seats are found to ensure a relaxing resting spot.

If given the opportunity, you must try Moroccan tajine. This slow-cooked stew is traditionally served with sheep meat and vegetables in a savory, sweet, yet buttery sauce made with cinnamon, ginger, cumin, turmeric, and saffron. The dish is cooked in a dome-shaped ceramic tajine pot over hot charcoal for hours, to create a tender trifecta of tastes experienced when eating this. The flavor of the tajine was even better in the Atlas Mountains than in the Marrakech medina.

 There are several varieties of tajine including tajin with chicken and lemon and even a vegetarian version. Specific to Marrekech, tanjia is a dish different from tajine but also slow cooked in a ceramic pot. Pastilla au poulet is a pastry filled with savory spiced chicken, encased in layers of flaky pastry, topped with cinnamon and sugar. This interesting meld of flavors is served for special occasions such as weddings and is also a must try.
 
Soupe Harira is a tomato based vegetable and bean soup traditionally served for Ramadan, even during warm weather.
 
After the feast we made our way to the edge of the village, taking in a better view of the barely snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Initially intimidated by a place so distant and unfamiliar, I left appreciating the people and culture more than I had imagined. In a world of instant gratification I think the lesson learned is to give everything a second chance, for the opportunity to develop an opinion through opaque colored lenses not rose colored glasses, but a lens that passes no judgment, only experiences encountered with an open heart and observant eyes. If you’re looking for something new for each of your senses, you’ll surely find it in Marrakech.

Last but not least, enjoy this Morocco Playlist I created on Spotify for songs we listened to while hiking and the Morocco-Local Edition Playlist to discover a few Moroccan artists. Enjoy!

-Stephanie Krubsack

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