It all started with the idea of getting lost in Morocco. From a romanticized article in the New York Times and the abundance of cocktails in Casablanca, to our friends misty memories of their own trip to the North African country, TH and I couldn’t get the locale out of our heads.
So we booked tickets, slept through most of Christmas Day in the Lisbon airport, and arrived by nightfall in Marrakech. And we learned very quickly that it is not at all difficult to get lost in Morocco. Lesson number one: Google Maps, and GPS systems, don’t work in in this country, where the old city center most closely resembles Labyrinth. Wandering the streets at 11pm, two suitcases in tow, every male age 10 to 70 wants to become your new friend, bring you to his riad, or show you the way. Sooner or later (the when just depends on your exhaustion level), you’ll need to succumb to these new friends (for a fee, of course), because Google Maps, just isn’t gonna cut it.
Of course, in the moment it will seem that you are going the right way (your GPS will say you are!) and that you can navigate the city all alone. But when you let your pride give way, and ask the latest leather-jacket-wearing buddy for directions, you’ll realize, as you turn down the fourth winding side street, that, arriving by nightfall in Marrakech is adventurous, at the least. The $1 you tip your friend will be worth it, I promise.
And the riad, for all it’s navigational trouble, will be worth it, too. Your charming new home, a former palace perhaps, this mosaicked building lacks the pretension of a stuffy hotel, and instead is warm and inviting. It’s the perfect place to rest your head after such an exhausting trip, the perfect place to wake in the morning rested and eat a simple breakfast of Moroccan breads and jams, and its the perfect place to start your journey in the morning, map in hand, when you can learn the side streets by day light and navigate the medina without any help.
Marrakech is the town you imagine when you think of Morrocco. Often used to film scenes of the Middle East (most notably for Indian Jones and most recently for Sex and the City, part 2), it is a dusty town, with a brimming an old city center, or medina, of cobblestone streets and energetic merchants. You could easily spend the day looking through rugs, leather bags, intricate lamps and the like, haggling your way into deals and avoiding overbearing shop keepers. (Lesson number two: TH traded two plastic spoons and several ballpoint pens for a set of cocktail glasses. A bit of research may reveal some unusual American bargaining items worth bringing along.)
Near the center of the square sits Cafe de France, filled with both tourists and locals, whose roof deck is a wonderful spot to sip on a glass of mint tea as the sun sets and the evening market begins to emerge. Smoke fills the air as the venders light their grills and the sounds of musicians tempting the crowds begin to overtake the square. As fun as the day market is, the nighttime square is really Marrakech. Stop for an early dinner of grilled meats, salty oil-cured olives and thick bread, then later eat steamed snails and sip freshly squeezed orange juice. It’s a simple, inexpensive way to eat the food of the locals. Take a break between an early dinner and late grub by walking around the street performers – make-shift snake charmers, men who pour boiling water down their bodies, and women who twirl in exotic-colored dresses. But for every photo you take (no matter the direction), there is someone is watching, ready to collect a fee. Lesson number three: Be careful where you point your camera!
From Marrakech we travelled to the port side town of Tangier, a city surrounded by an ancient wall. It may be much smaller than Marrakech, but it’s just as lovely to walk around and has captured a bit more of the 1920’s elegance and romantic inspiration of Casablanca (it’s also home to Caid’s Bar, said to have inspired the movie). After spending the day wandering the narrow streets, looking through the small markets and searching out haunts, we found our lunch spot, Le Salon Bleu, a beautiful blue café with a view of the whole port of Tangier and Spain beyond it. This is simple food – creamy lentil soup, orange-scented carrots and tender lamb tagine – but sitting on the roof deck, looking out onto the crisp blue waters, there is nowhere we’d rather be.
Tangier is also home to some of the best Italian food in Morocco at Anna et Paolo. After five days of eating food doused in tart, preserved lemons, hearty tangines, and tough breads, this is a welcome change in flavors. Tender pasta, delicate salads and lovely wines complete a meal that finishes off a week of wonderful food. Lesson number four: Don’t expect anything when it comes to dining in Morrocco. We dined on everything from traditional at its best at Marrakech’s La Maison Arabe to French-inspired at Tangier’s Le Relais de Paris.
Our last night brought us to Casablanca, a quick stay before our early morning flight back to New York. Although generally associated with the movie, the city itself is highly industrial and the least prepared for visitors of the bunch. The market is best described as dirty, and replaces Marrakech’s leather goods with Chinatown-like jeans and electronics. We did find a traditional doughnut maker in our wanderings (crispy fried dough tied onto a string of palm), as well as a decent last lunch at La Sqala, with spicy lentils and tender apricot-studded tangine. And the trip wasn’t complete without the obligatory stop for bubbles at Rick’s Café – a lovely re-imaging of the movie’s prime hang out created by an(other) infatuated American.
Where to stay:
Riad Harmonie Kennaria (13 Derb Kennaria Jdida, Marrakech; 212524390767)
Dar Jameel (6 Rue Mohamed Bergach, Tangier; 212539334680)
Hôtel Les Saisons (19 Rue El Oraibi Jilali Ex Rue De Faucould Avenue Des F.A.R, Casablanca; 212522490927)
Where to eat:
Cafe de France (Place Jemaa El Fna; 212 5 2444 2319)
Terrace des Epices (15 Souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz; 0021224375904)
Ice Legend Marrakech Ice Cream Parlor (52 Rue de Bab Agnaou, Djemaa El-Fna)
La Maison Arabe (1 Derb Assehbe; 212524387010)
Restaurant el-Korsan (85 Rue de la Liberté; 212539333444)
Caid’s Bar (85 Rue de la Liberté; 212539333444)
Le Salon Bleu (Place de La kKasbah, Entrée 71, Rue Amrah)
Café Hafa (Avenue Hadi Mohammed Tazi)
Le Relais de Paris (42 Rue de Hollande; 0539331819)
Ann et Paolo (77 Prince Heritier; 0539944617)
La Sqala (Boulevard des Almohades; 0522260960)
Rick’s Café (248 Boulevard Sour Jdid; 522 274207)