Monday, February 1, 2010

Marrakech-Morocco adventure part two

At least we can say the manager of the Oum Palace Hotel threatened to call the police on us when we tried to check out. A potential problem with booking a hotel room on-line is that you don’t always know exactly what type of room you are getting. I had booked three rooms for the six of us and the hotel argued that all three were booked as single rooms. One confirmation form did verify this and we were willing to pay the difference. As for the other two rooms there was some gray area in that the booking didn’t specify as to how many guests could occupy the room. In short, there was an extra charge for our spouses that we had to cough up at the end or else we would have missed our train to Marrakech, in addition to the police threat. When we paid, Dean said the management all high-fived each other.

The three-hour train ride to Marrakech was a pleasant one. The landscape was surprisingly lush and picturesque even the locals in our six-person compartment were nice enough to chat with us. When we arrived, Joseph and Lianne had booked four nights in the Medina and were off. Dean and Michele had secured our accommodations through a friend who is connected to the owner of Hotel Toulousain (in Gueliz-about a 15 minute walk outside the Medina) where we would spend our first two nights. The hotel was simple, comfortable, and in retrospect, the ideal place to stay in Marrakech. Hassan, the owner related a story to Michele and Dean regarding punk rock legends The Clash, this of course caught my interests. The story is that Hassan’s cousin Cherif in New York City owns 17 (name of the restaurant) and one day in the late 70’s auditioned the Clash to play at his establishment. Cherif “didn’t appreciate” the style of music played and was blunt in telling the band. In response the Clash wrote “Cherif don’t like it, F**k the Kasbah.” And as Paul Harvey would say "That my friends is the rest of the story."

I was also wearing my Casbah hoodie

A trip to Morocco would be incomplete without a visit to a hammam (think bathhouse as in a Turkish bath). Hassan’s wife, Malin booked us an afternoon session at a local spot outside the city limits in an aspiring suburb. The experience started off with changing into a skimpy towel and sitting on heated marble steps in the sauna room for thirty minutes to begin the initial exfoliation process. At some point the heat becomes suffocating which leads to the next step where the Speedo wearing guy in the next room places you on a marble slab and goes to work scrubbing you down with a sandpaper-like glove in addition to pulling some pro wrestling moves disguised as a massage that makes you squeal like a pig. These men take great joy in the art of torture. The session ended with a cold shower to seal the pores. When all was said and done, our skin did feel remarkably softer.

The tranquil Jardin Majorelle

On the third day we left Hotel Toulousain for a pre-paid riad in the Medina. We followed the instructions as stated on our printout until the point where we had to hire a tout to guide us through the maze of alleyways. When we arrived, it felt like a big letdown, the ambiance is a work in progress, the building is desperately begging for someone to bring out its’ character. The few scattered partially deflated party balloons attached to the railings hardly suffice as interior decoration. Our room was spacious and the drawers to the cabinets were filled with random pieces of hardware and undergarments, though there was ample room for our items. The owner was away on holiday so he left his housekeeper in charge, she prepared our daily breakfast of mint tea (with a touch of mystery spice and perhaps a dash of Palmolive for the suds) and rustic bread sprinkled with anise seed. Our two nights there were quiet and peaceful.

Our riad in the Medina

The remarkable quality about the Medina in Marrakech is that it can be simultaneously experienced by all the senses. The main square Place Jemaa el-Fina by day is filled with snake charmers, monkeys, scammers, fresh juice carts, musicians, henna artists, and so on. The evening ups the ante with the arrival of the portable restaurants and their teams of aggressive recruiters who will literally push you into their stall. I admit it is a tall order to try to ignore the aromas of fresh grilled food, but Michele, Dean, Ana, and I weren’t exactly converted by the offerings of our meal. The souks and stalls in the Medina are a shopper’s paradise and serve the useful function of getting lost and disorientation. As tempting as it is to get caught up in the buying frenzy of exotic souvenirs, we ended up with a tasty bag of black olives for under a buck. So much for our bid for “consumer of the year” title.

Place Jemaa el-Fina at sunset

The snakes of Place Jemaa el-Fina

Joseph and Lianne scored a righteous riad in the residential area of the Medina a good hike away from all the commotion. There was talk about having New Years Eve dinner at their place but in the end the idea didn’t materialize. We did manage to find a last-minute festive location on the top floor of a boutique hotel to welcome in the New Year. For a very modest price the night consisted of a 3-course dinner, bottomless Moroccan rose vino, a swinging live Berber music trio, and a multi-level cake with lit sparklers. It was quite an enjoyable evening.

New Years Eve

It has been documented

The space between the glass and spout adds flavor to the tea 

Our initial plan for the remainder of the trip was to head north to the imperial city of Fez then up to Tangier. Ana and I decided that we had our fill, as in met our quota of vacationing in areas with a heavy concentrations of people. We scrapped our northbound plans for a little R & R on the Atlantic coast, a short three-hour bus ride west. That is how we spent our first day of 2010.

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