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Marrakech – The City (Part I)

  • Sites: Place Jemaa el-Fna, The Medinas, Le Jardin Majorelle + Berber Museum, La Mamounia, Zeitoun Café, 2 day Desert Camp 2 trip to Ouarzazate and Zagora, Dar Si Said, Palace de la Bahiaa, Ben Youssef Madrasa, Tanneries
  • Food: NOMAD rooftop, PEPE NERO, Atay Café



Link to Vlog here: https://youtu.be/xQuSocpH5A8

Where do I even start with Marrakech…. What can I say? It’s complicated, and a love hate relationship. 

The Visa
First off, let me briefly explain the visa situation. I’m a Taiwanese Passport holder, Taiwan, aka Republic of China. This is different from People’s Republic of China, which is actual mainland China. These two passports have very different entry requirements. In the case of Morocco, since they have a close tie with China, they don’t recognize Taiwan, so naturally my passport isn’t recognized. I somehow got a visa via the Moroccan embassy in Tokyo. They issue a digital official letter with chop to confirm granting of my entry. This involved running around, getting a lot of documents, and shipping it off express overnight with DHL. (More on that in another blog post). 

The Entry
I was flying British Airways between London to Marrakech, and I e-mailed them my visa letter beforehand, explaining the complicated political situation and to confirm they’d let me board the plane. On the day of my flight, I was all nervous at the bag drop at Gatwick airport, but guess what…. They didn’t even check my visa! And I was on the way to Morocco. 

Landing into Morocco, you see nothing but dry desert land for miles and miles, until you get closer to Marrakech. There are fields of neatly lined palm and olive groves just below the plane. It was blazing hot, 42C outside. The Marrakech airport was very new and modern, the new terminal just built half a year ago in December 2016. It’s capacity - over 4 million passengers a year. 


I approached immigrations, and the officer flipped through my passport, asking for a visa, so I handed him the document Tokyo had sent me. He signaled another officer which brought me to one of the glass partitioned rooms on the far left of the immigration booths. They didn’t ask any questions, but instead were just making calls, taking my passport and walking away with it. That made me really nervous. For all the times I’ve travelled, my passport has never been taken away from me. No, not even in Russia, if anything entering Russia was just as standard and simple as entering the EU. So I waited, for about 20 odd minutes, which felt like an eternity. You know that feeling of waiting for the dentist to call your name, yes, exactly like that. 

Finally a guy who spoke English came back with my documents and escorted me outside of the terminal, into Moroccan territory. He took me to a small shop to buy some postage stamps, the type you send mail with. I started panicking, were they going to mail my passport for an actual chop (stamp)? Did I have to sleep at the airport overnight? Should I just give up and fly somewhere else, like to Vienna? Perhaps I wasn’t ready for a country like Morocco. But it’s kind of like going to the big boss dungeon with just enough level of experience/magic/attack and potions, or whatever it is depending on which video game you’re playing. 

The immigrations took my piece of electronic confirmation letter from the Tokyo Moroccan embassy. He glued the postage stamps on it, 5 days in total representing my 5 day stay in Marrakech, then proceeded to stamp it with the entry stamp, and that was it. That was my “official visa” in Morocco, a page of stamped stamps. Whatever, at this point, corruption or not, the postage stamps granted my entry into Morocco. 

Staying Connected
This piece was easy, Maroc Telecom was handing out free sims with 1GB data loaded into the sim with about 15 minutes of local call time and some texts. I never had to top up in the 5 days I was in Morocco, and there’s even connection out in the middle of the desert! But it was also handy to have to contact the driver for my airport transport and desert trip.


The Stay – Riad Al Assala
I was pretty excited when I booked this place online, it looked really nicely lit with plants everywhere hanging down from the inside walls of the Riad, the room was very big and well furnished. But I’ll be honest, the actual place was maybe 30% like the photos? First off you need to knock to let yourself in, and there isn’t always someone at the door. Every time I knocked, someone different opened the door so I was confused with who is who. They spoke very little English, there was no one to phone up for questions or to ask for extra towels or water. The door to my room didn’t lock, and the safe inside my room was just a small metal box on the floor, which anyone could take anytime. The furniture inside were falling apart, wood was chipping from the wooden door and windows, the lamps and closet look a bit old. And the toilet had only a very dim light which didn’t help so I moved a lamp in there to prevent myself from falling into the toilet. It’s not entirely the worst scenario, however it was not worth what I was paying for (£80+ a night). I guess the redeeming thing is that there was a huge tub in the middle of the room, the location of the hotel is great – in city center but positioned on a quiet street, and the huge closet which I could lock fit all of my luggage.



Place Jemaa el-Fna & the Medinas 
Since I was stuck at immigrations for longer than I thought, I didn’t have much time to explore on the first day. I left my hotel and walked to Place Jemaa el-Fna square to first get a quick bite and drink. I didn’t plan for lunch so the place I went to was, let’s say… interesting. Everything was very neon greenish, including the salad I had and the virgin mojito. The redeeming part was that it was on a balcony so I could people watch. My mood was quickly dampened though by this girl sitting beside me who was apparently from the states with her French friend. She was commenting on local Moroccan guys walking by downstairs and determining which ones were good looking and announcing which ones were in her eyes, “f*ck boys”. Couldn’t have rolled my eyes harder, I wanted to say “coming from you, girl, seriously?” I hurried off after I finished my food quickly. I couldn’t stand how idiotic this conversation beside me was.



Almost every single person who writes about Marrakech uses the exact same phrase “get lost in the Medinas”. You don’t really “get lost” in the Medinas, in fact there are signs within the Medinas pointing out nearby landmarks. What they actually mean is, relax and just wander around. Don’t be afraid to turn a corner if you find something interesting. You’ll be able to trace back your steps. After spending a day in Marrakech I was already able to navigate without a map. You will get to know at which stall to turn to get you out of the Medinas and shops that sell identical things where you can bargain hard back and forth at. I will give you an example of different things I saw and unexpected turns I made which led me to wonderful quiet alley ways full of interesting trinkets. 











NOMAD Restaurant
I had read about many wonderful rooftop restaurants in Marrakech, usually 3-4 floor up with a view miles across this city. There’s another similar restaurant, which I’ll introduce in my next blog called Atay Café. Nomad was pretty close to my Riad so I could just walk over to it. I just spent a few hours wandering around outside in 35C+ heat, so I really needed to shower and cool down. That happens every day in Marrakech, you take at least 3 showers. Nomad is pretty popular, so I made reservations about 2 weeks in advance for a space on the very top floor. The sun was just setting as I got there. 

There were a lot of guests commenting about the lack of alcohol. What do you expect? It’s a Muslim country, not to mention it’s the middle of Ramadan. Plus, on Nomad’s website they did say they currently don’t serve alcohol. I don’t understand the obsession with having to have wine at every dinner you go to. The best thing to do when traveling is to not bring any expectations of how you do things at home. Do what they do in this new country in which you are a guest in and experience life their way. 

I ordered some lamb chops and it came with couscous. Deliciously grilled and spiced. I enjoyed finishing it at a leisurely speed while the sun set to my left. And just as the sun had set, you hear a very loud chanting coming out from the distant mosques. It’s the call to prayer, done several times throughout the day. It really set the mood, and made me feel, wow, I am actually in Morocco. Prior to this I haven’t really visited a Muslim country before. I was in Indonesia once, but hiking up a volcano on Christmas Day. I was also in Malaysia, but it’s multi-religious with a 61% Muslim population. This is the first time I am experiencing this religion full-on.

 



By the time I finished my meal it was completely dark outside. I was not sure what to expect. I read online that Marrakech did have some minor crimes but nothing serious that I should worry about. But as I was about to leave the restaurant, a fight broke off downstairs. I couldn’t understand a word, but it might be some misunderstanding between two stall owners. I waited for it to break off before slipping downstairs and back through the Medinas. 



I can only think of Nando's at this point... 


Place Jemaa el-Fna at night
After nightfall, Marrakech really lights up. The entire square of Place Jemaa el-Fna was now covered with food stalls lit with florescent lights. Every stall selling lamps and lanterns were now candle lit, and it was just magical. I read online that you can head up to the Grand Balcony or “Café du Grand Balcon”. Don’t eat any food there as you’ll most likely get food poisoning. However you do have to purchase a drink to get in, it’s self-serviced. Just grab a bottle of cold water and head in. From up top, you can see the bustling market below, but you’re away from the Smokey food stalls, the annoying salesmen who’ll shout anything to get your attention. You can take your own moment to just admire Marrakech’s nighttime festives unfolding before you. 

This was about 9pm, and I walked back to my hotel alone. As you turn into the streets and alley ways just around the market, it grows quiet really quickly. Some dim stalls are still opened selling water and snacks. Some people are hanging around on the streets, just staring at passer bys. Others hurry back in as you walk past their door. But all in all, all you see are men. No women at all. Did I feel scared? Maybe a little, slightly wary of my surroundings. I usually walked at a very fast pace, with a resting-bitch/if-you-talk-to-me-I’ll-cut-you face. But honestly, no trouble ever came to me out of my week in Marrakech. I was back at my hotel within 10 minutes and off to bed.



The following day, most things were closed as it was the last day of Ramadan and at night everything would reopen and it was a big party in the city. Then I spent 2 days in Zagora desert before returning back to Marrakech to explore all the places I missed. I'll be covering off all of the sites in Marrakech city in one go in the next blog and then another separate blog post about Zagora desert. 

Stay tuned!













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