Morocco 3 – from Marrakesh back to Casablanca

Again, photos are in a separate post.  Photos apply to Morocco 2 and Morocco 3.

We had two full days to explore Marrakesh, but even at that, we didn’t see everything and became quite frustrated at the pace at which simple lunches were produced and the amount of “shopping” stops that were called for.  We visited the Koutoubia Mosque, which dominates the skyline being the highest building, and the beautifully restored Bahia Palace, former home of the Grand Vizier, his wives and harem.  There is also a historic Jewish quarter, which housed an affluent and welcomed community up until the creation of Israel.

We visited the famous Majorelle Gardens, formerly owned by Jacques Majorelle, a French orientalist painter, who commissioned his architect to build him a studio in Art Deco style.  Its walls were painted  Majorelle blue, a particularly vivid hue found all over the garden.  This is accented by bright yellow pottery containers.  Around it, he designed a garden, a living work of art, composed of exotic plants, rare specimens from around the world  and water features.  After his death the garden fell in disrepair until Yves St. Laurent and his partner bought it  and restored the gardens to their exotic former glory.

Adjacent to the gardens was the very modern YSL museum, which featured examples from all his collections in chronological order, quotations from his commentary and explanations of how Morocco had influenced his work.  Projected on the walls were videos of spring and fall collections as well as display cases of costume jewelry and accessories. Absolutely fabulous!

Our hotel was only 2 minutes walk from Le Jardin Secret, situated in the largest and most ancient riad of the medina. A  riad is a traditional manor house in the centre of which is always a garden, an oasis of peace, surrounded by high windowless walls.  This garden is a classic Islamic garden, divided into four quadrants, conceived as an earthly reflection of Paradise as described in the Koran.  Water is a fundamental element in Arab-Muslim gardens and the fountains in the centre of the riads are the beating heart of the house.  Water from the Atlas Mountains flows into the city through a network of underground channels.  Gravity fed water systems provide all the fountains and water features throughout the garden.  The garden had belonged to one of the area’s most influential families but by 1932 their power had waned and everything fell into such disrepair and neglect that, by 2000, it was almost impossible to see any signs of its former splendour.  Fortunately there were still plans of the original garden and in 2007 an extensive renovation was undertaken and, with expert garden advice, it was restored to its former glory.

Another highlight of our stay was two amazing dinners, both in riads with beautiful tiles and lovely, scented gardens.  The first establishment belonged to Moha, a celebrated local chef who is the host of their Master Chef programme.  We had an array of tapas like starters, for me the highlight of the meal.  The main course was quail or Cornish game hen followed by a dessert of phyllo pastry with strawberries.  Oddly enough,  most of us preferred the second dinner which started with harira soup – spicy tomato served with dates – often the choice in Ramadan to break the fast – followed by lamb which had been cooked in a special jar – a lot like our lamb shanks – with crepes for dessert.  The immense city square is a UNESCO site and is filled with musicians, snake charmers, performing monkeys, fortune tellers and an amazing array of pop-up restaurants – all totally exotic!

We could have spent much more time there but had to push on to our next stop of Essaouira, right on the Atlantic coast.  Long ago it was the main port for trade with Timbuktu and more recently Morocco’s major port before the container ships became so large that a new port facility was built in Casablanca.  Nowadays it has a huge fishing fleet to catch shellfish, crabs, lobsters and bream.  It is also a UNESCO heritage site and listed as one of the thousand places to see before you die.  Its fortifications are reminiscent of St. Malo but it also has a hippy vibe as it is a kite surfing Mecca – indeed something for everyone as the medina  is full of interesting shops.

Our first stop en route was to photograph goats perched in the Argan trees – Coombs paled in comparison.  Eating the Argan nuts gives their milk and cheese a lovely nutty flavour.  Next we stopped for a wine tasting at the Val d’Argan vineyard, owned by a French couple from the Chateau Neuf du Pape area in the Rhone area of France.  That was a totally unexpected treat as we could easily have been in France, Australia or the Okanagan as we tasted excellent wine under a tree beside a villa and nibbled on tapas.  Then there was a tour of the Women’s Cooperative for the production of Argan oil.  The process is very labour intensive as everything is done by hand but has the advantage of allowing many of the women to work from home.  After seeing the women wearing traditional clothing shelling the nuts by hitting them with small rocks we went straight into the ultra modern sales facility to hear a sales pitch promoting the efficacy of the oil as a beauty product, rejuvenating in every way and you can even dress a salad with it!   I think the women must be making an absolute fortune as the prices were so steep.  No way was I going to buy a bucketful as my hairdresser had suggested!
All this happened before lunch, which we had some time after 3 at a very primitive cafe right beside the harbour.  Everything was cooked on a barbecue – shrimp, prawns, crayfish, squid, bream and crab – delicious!  We were on our own to find dinner which proved a challenge as all we wanted was a little something washed down with some wine.  The most interesting Lonely Planet suggestions all said no booze!  We eventually found a French place that served paté, cheese and wine.  Our full day there was spent having a half day tour conducted by a local guide.  We began in the harbour area and then walked through the medina, which was totally different from the ones we had seen previously.  It had been planned, had wide streets but still housed evidence of the ancient caravanserai, for housing the Arab traders and their camels.  The high spot was a visit to the workshop of craftsmen in wood, who produced beautiful marquetry work, tables, trays, bowls and boxes.  In the evening we went to dinner in a very interesting French fusion restaurant.  We started with sushi and tapenade, followed by cream cheese in phyllo or fish cakes, then lamb chops, chicken curry or fish, then sticky toffee pudding!

Now we were heading back to Casablanca along the little used coast road to admire the scenery and see the evidence of Morocco’s thriving phosphate industry, not quite so scenic.  The only major stop was at El Jadida, a UNESCO site, a port fortified by the Portuguese in the 16th century.  There was an ancient cistern with beautiful arches and reflections.  When we arrived back at our starting point it seemed as if we had been away for such a long time.  When it was announced that our farewell dinner was going to be traditional and alcohol free there was mutiny in the ranks.  We went to the restaurant in the hotel and had a beautiful meal (with wine) and belly dancing for entertainment.  Peace was restored and the next day we all scattered to our various destinations, having had a truly memorable trip.