I loved these hours of solitude in the early mornings. I woke up a little after sunrise, donned a headscarf (which really helped to blend in with the local crowd) and took long walks as the city was just stirring awake. I got to see a different side of the city and its people each time.
The Streets of Marrakech
The streets of Marrakech are a lot different from those in Fez. They are a bit less clean but a lot more open to tourists. The color palette is also different: instead of Fez’s hues of beige, here, most of the buildings are pink-ish. There are also less adornments and tile-works on the streets. But the most important difference is that motorbikes are a common local transport here. Both men and women (hijab-ed or fully clad in burqa) rode bikes.
The Bahia Palace
I had another day to explore by myself today, and I went to see the Bahia Palace. It was only a 35-minute-walk from our Riad. Its name meaning “brilliance,” the Bahia Palace was built in the 19th century and is famous for its Islamic architecture and design. It could truly be the most enchanting place I have ever been to in my life. As usual with the buildings in Morocco, the outer appearance is very modest. It’s easy to miss it and walk past it if you aren’t paying attention. But the interior is stunning. Everywhere you look, even a seemingly forgotten corner of a room, has exquisite artwork, an explosion of colors, patterns, light and detailed craftsmanship. Pictures can’t capture its magnificence. My experience there was overwhelming: I lost track of time and felt as if I was in a dream.
Marrakech’s famous Souks! I came here together or on my own over half a dozen times. Every time was a new discovery and an adventure! It reminded me of Dhaka’s Gawsia and New Market, only much, much larger, richer and older. As I was on my own for the day, I took the time to just walk around and explore its many, many winding alleyways. I found most of the shopkeepers here very friendly and respectful, especially if they feel you are respectful to them because of Ramadan. I was careful about who to ask for directions of course, but I never had a problem finding my way in the souk because everyone I talked to were eager to help. Some drew maps because they didn’t speak enough English. A few shopkeepers even acted as my guide to take me to my next stop.
One time when I was there by myself, I stumbled into a group of editors, writers and textile conservationists from the magazine Hali. They were looking at carpets from Morocco. The owner of the store where we met had a big carpet house nearby and invited us to come. They really had some exquisite pieces but way over my budget. But I learned a lot from the group about what to look for when buying rugs: colors, patterns, aging, spotting. What I found most fascinating was to look for the signs: each carpet has a story to tell which makes them all unique. The weavers - Berber women - put their own quirks and preferences into the artwork.
I then took my newly found knowledge on carpet weaving and buying to a small shop where I did find the kinds I wanted and that, too, within my budget. After some friendly haggling, I ended up buying two for the price of one and the shopkeeper even threw in a cushion cover as a thank you for coming to them instead of going to a big shop!
Flying on a Hot Air Balloon to Watch the Sun Rise over the Atlas Mountains...
I got to see the sun rise over the Atlas Mountains while flying over the desert on a hot air balloon. On my right was the sun, on my left the moon. How amazing is that? Alhamdulillah!
Jamaa El Fna
Marrakech’s famous Jamaa El Fna, a huge open air market. The stalls are temporary and are only laid out in the evening till late at night. The food carts are all registered and numbered. They sell sweets, kebabs, seafood, breads, tagines. I read they even sell foods like lamb brain and camel spleen. I really wanted to try those but we didn’t find them while we were at the market. The vendors hawk you to come to their carts very aggressively, especially if they see you as a foreigner. It’s a huge collective effort: some people man the stall, some prepare the grills and tajines, while others go out in the market and bring customers to the stalls. On my last night in Marrakech, I wanted to try things that only local people ate. So I refused being drawn in by the many shop vendors (today there were older women asking you to come to their carts as well) and looked for the food carts where there weren’t any foreigners. Sure enough, I saw a cart where some local men were wolfing down food (it was iftaar time, so I’m sure they were ravenous). I walked over and discovered they were eating lamb heads! Finally! I really wanted to try it. They were calling it tajine but it had a clearer broth and was less encumbered with spices than the tajines I had tasted so far. The shop vendor was very generous and gave me a quarter of a lamb head for half the price when I asked him if I could just taste it. Even though I always tried my best to blend in with the local crowd with my clothing (I wasn’t always successful), I didn’t speak French or Arabic, so as soon as I spoke in English, the locals knew I was a foreigner for sure. And in most cases, they appreciated that I was putting in the effort to be respectful and was eager to learn. So, this vendor was amused that I was eager to try this food as foreigners usually just took pictures of the lamb heads and strolled by. He allowed me to taste all his stews and told me about how he served his customers. Oh, and the stews? Most delicious. The best food I’ve eaten in Morocco by far!
The Marrakech Retreat
You can see the Atlas Mountains from just about anywhere at this retreat. I was amazed by how lush green this place was. I even found a boroi gaach in the orchard. It was hard to believe that just outside the premises, it’s basically desert lands. The housekeeper told us that there were three wells that dug deep into the ground for the water needed to run this place: one well for the house, one for the pool and one for the gardens.
The Secret Garden
Le Jardin Secret or the Secret Garden is another example of Islamic and Moroccan design, especially the significance of water, light and geometrical patterns in Islamic architecture. The garden is tucked in a labyrinth of alleyways all the way inside the Souk, and is one of the most ancient parts of the Medina. It felt like a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the market. As soon as you step inside the walls, you notice how quiet it is. Then you start hearing birds chirping and the gentle trickle of water.