From Casablanca, we took a three hour train ride to Marrakech. For an extra $6.00, we traveled first class. It was a smart decision. Our seats were reserved and there was enough room for our luggage. I read somewhere that whenever Moroccans travel, it is with a “mountain of luggage.” From what I observed at the train platform, this is very true.
The land is very arid but there were farms that we passed along the way. This photo isn’t very clear, because it was taken through the window of the train, but it shows how they used cacti as “fences” to enclose gardens. I don’t know if it was due to lack of the usual fencing supplies – wood, wire, etc or if the cactus kept animals out better. I just found it interesting.
Just before we arrived in Marrakech, we got a glimpse of the High Atlas Mountains. It is North Africa’s greatest mountain range. This is an area that we, unfortunately, didn’t have time to explore. It sounds fascinating, especially if you enjoy hiking. Also, the Berber tribes, who have the “claim to fame” of being the longest established inhabitants of Morocco. There will be more about the Berbers later in this post!
I must be honest and say that I didn’t realize that Morocco was had such a variety of topography. I thought it was mostly desert but that isn’t so….there is this mountain range, that passes through about the middle of the country. To the north, I was introduced to the Rif Mountain Range. There is a little bit of everything for everyone…desert, mountains and beaches.
We arrived at the train station in the the Ville Nouvelle (New City) neighborhood. Ville Nouvelle was built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. The French and Spanish controlled different regions of Morocco for about 45 years. That is the reason that French was spoken throughout Morocco. Spanish was spoken in Chefchaouen, which is in the northern region, where the Spanish controlled.
Ville Nouvelle is where our apartment was located. It was your average apartment, located in a high-rise building. It was clean, quiet and safe which is the criteria that we look for when booking a place in a new city. One of the best things about our apartment was it was next door to the Majorelle Gardens! We were woken each morning by the most beautiful birdsongs from the birds who live in the gardens.
This was a little gem in the hustle and bustle of a large city! This garden was created in the 1920s-1930s by Jacques Majorelle, a French artist who spent many years in Marrakech. He was a amateur botanist and over a 40 year period, created a garden on 12 acres with plants from five of the seven continents.
In 1947, he opened it to the public to help offset the cost of maintaining the gardens. In 1955, Majorelle was in a terrible car accident, which lead to amputation of his left leg and staggering medical bills forced him to sell the gardens. Shortly after the sale of the garden, Majorelle was in another car accident and returned to Paris for medical attention. It is where he died in 1962 and is buried in his hometown of Nancy, next to his father.
Majorelle’s legacy is the garden and the beautiful cobalt blue that he created to paint the buildings. He was inspired by the blue coveralls that the city’s maintenance workers wore.
In 1966, on his first visit to Marrakech, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé discovered the gardens. They visited almost everyday and were surprised that there were so few people enjoying the gardens. Eventually, they learned that the gardens were to be sold to a hotel developer and did everything in their power to prevent this from happening. In 1980, Laurent and Bergé purchased the gardens, moved into the house and devoted time and resources to restoring the beauty of the garden.
When Yves Saint Laurent died in Paris, in 2008, his ashes were brought to the garden, where they were spread.
This is the monument in the garden to remind people of Saint Laurent’s remarkable contribution to the fashion industry and his contribution of this lovely oasis in the “wilds” of Marrakech. Shortly after his partner’s death, Bergé donated the gardens to a foundation in Paris that bears both Laurent’s and Bergé name and continues to maintain the gardens today.
The Berber Museum
Today, the house where Laurent and Bergé once lived, is a museum that is an informative exhibit of the Berber tribes. I had never heard of the Berbers until I visited this museum. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed. I purchased a small book and hope to use some of the photos from that to share with you. Berbers are the native people of North Africa and there are three major groups – the Riffians, the Chleuh and the Central Moroccan Amazigh. Each group has their own dialect. I read somewhere that a person visiting a tribe today would be amazed at their ability to speak several languages. This was an adaptation to the variety of people who have ruled over the years in Morocco. It reminded me of the indigenous people in Namibia. At the grocery store, an employee would be able to switch from English to Afrikaans or a variety of dialects used by the locals.
The museum showed articles used in everyday life. Most household items were intricately decorated by carvings and painted designs. One item that I found interesting was the “sugar hammer” which is used to break blocks of sugar into smaller pieces.
For me, the most fascinating part of the museum were the exhibits of the different costumes of the tribes and their amazing jewelry! Here are a couple of examples of their clothing from different regions in North Africa. The colorful hat on the man in the photo on the right, I actually saw in the medina of Morocco and had my photo taken with the men. I will share that later.
Jewelry is used for tribal identity and social status for the women who wear it. A variety of material is used. The silver designs are either chiseled, filigreed or casted by artisan silversmiths. Women design the pieces using coral, amber, glass, leather and coins, depending on the styles of their region. Often, jewelry is considered a form of savings. I must say, that some of the pieces were absolutely breathtaking.
What a fascinating trip it would be to go to Morocco and just focus on visiting the different tribes in their villages. We saw a few day tours from Marrakech but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time on this trip.
On a personal note, it was at this museum that I met a couple of ladies who were touring with a small group. I asked where they were from and they said Portland, Oregon. I smiled and shared that I was from Portland, ME…their “sister city.” Pam, one of the ladies, said “Oh, my cousin is one of the news anchors at WCSH in Portland.” I was surprised and asked who, as I watch WCSH all the time….and in case you missed it, last summer, WCSH 207 magazine show was kind enough to interview me about my children’s book, Brave Nellie. Well, the news anchor is Rob Caldwell. Mr Caldwell co-anchors the nightly news and co-anchors 207 with Caroline Cornish, who interviewed me when I was on 207. My goodness, the world is getting smaller!
Last weekend, I saw Mr. Caldwell and shared that I had just met his cousin in Morocco! He wasn’t too surprised as Pam frequently travels the world doing volunteer projects. He said not to be surprised if I meet her again in my travels!
Jemaa el Fna
The center of Old Marrakech is the square Jemaa el Fna that changes its personality with the setting of the sun. During the day, it is rather quiet. By the time we arrived, it was 2:00 in the afternoon.
There were mostly tourist milling around. Under the umbrellas were snake charmers…which I didn’t stop to watch at all. Their practice is cruel. If you take one thing away from this blog effort, please let it be the way they treat the snakes and monkeys in the Jemaa el Fna. I read in the guide book that the cobras and vipers, that the “snake charmers” use, have had their fangs removed and their mouths are sewn together, leaving enough of an opening to let their tongue protrude. The snakes are unable to eat due to the mutilation and eventually starve to death only to be replaced by a new victim. Tourist often spend good money to have their photos taken with the snake charmers….just because they are not informed. Heck, I would have been among them watching them work their charm had I not read about them in my guide book.
The “monkey men” who are also found in the square are no better. These men belong to criminal gangs who are involved with poaching the endangered Barbary macaque monkeys. They take the baby monkeys from the wild and make money from the unsuspecting tourist, who have their pictures taken with the monkeys. This money supports their illegal activities of poaching, selling the monkeys abroad and whatever other illegal activities they are involved in.
One would think that since these monkeys are on the endangered species list, the Moroccan government would step in and suppress this practice but it isn’t happening. Oh my gosh!!! My blood is boiling as I write this.
So, as my “Rough Guide” travel book says, “Be aware that if you pay them for photographs, you are subsidizing the criminal poaching gnags adn thus also helping to hasten the Barbary macaques’s extinction.”…..may it not happen in my lifetime!
As well as the snake charmers and monkey men, you can find women willing to paint a design on your hand and arm with henna, men wielding pliers to extract a bothersome tooth or teeth and at the other end of the square are the medicine men with their variety of homemade potions that will cure whatever ails you!
Oh yes, there are the Berbers, in their native costumes, who are more than willing to have you pose with them for a small price. I think it was well worth the $6.00 that I paid!
There are several of these dried fruit and nut stalls in one corner of the square. This man tempted David with “just a taste” and we walked away with a bag of delicious dates and apricots which I could have eaten in one sitting. The man was a very good salesman!
By night, the square becomes a whole new place to explore. More locals come out to enjoy the entertainment and food that is offered. There are storytellers who entertain the crowd with tall tales, musicians and acrobats. As we wandered around, it was difficult to see what the entertainment was because of the throngs of people.
The food stalls are set up and there is a variety of food – snails were offered, a variety of vegetables like this man’s offerings, fried fish, sandwiches and….
meat like this man has. I believe in the fry pan is harira a Moroccan soup of beans, pasta and meat, served with a side of bread.
It was quite an experience to walk through. Each stall had a man who was ready to “hook” you in to enjoy their offerings. It wasn’t the first time that day, that my senses were in “overload!” The smells from the meat that was being grilled or the garlic from the snails being boiled, the spirals of smoke spreading a haze throughout the square and the hawkers trying to lure us in to eat, eat, eat!
We actually didn’t eat at one of these vendor as we had just finished a meal of tajine at the Restaurant Chez Chegrouni at the other end of Jemma el Fna.
I had the veggie tajine, on the left. David had veggies, couscous and chickpeas. Tajine is a traditional dish of North Africa and the Middle East. It uses a cooking pot made out of pottery with a cone shape cover.
The dish is filled with meat, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruit (usually raisins), olives and spices. The pot is placed over hot charcoal. The cone shape of the cover traps the steam that cooks the food.
Walking the narrow streets lined with shops of vendors trying to lure us in, listening to the harsh words in Arabic, occasionally, softened by words of French; people on motorbikes and bicycles riding among the masses, that by the end of the day, we were completely and utterly overwhelmed. This just about sums up a day in the souks…talk about “sensory overload.”
The overload began in the spice market….oh my, the smells were so exotic, like a perfume that you wanted to dab behind your ear. I wish my camera could capture the smells.
Oh, the treasures that could be found!!!!
In another section, we came upon the leather area. We didn’t see the tanneries in Marrakech…we did in Fez. This area that we saw was the treated leather was brought….
Then, they were bid on by the craftsmen…..this happened daily
In another souk area, we wandered to a farmer’s market…it appeared to me more for the locals and not as touristy as some of the craft souks.
I will write more of the sights of Marrekech soon. For now, I wish you blessings….