March 18, 2023
Those who know me or have read my previous travels know that I tend to avoid cities, especially large cities. I might be the only traveler that rode entirely across Colombia while intentionally bypassing Medellin, Bogota, and Cali. Lately I’ve taken to saying “Nothing good ever happens in big cities”. I’m just not a fan of hordes: people, traffic, and the fast-paced stress that comes with these places. I much prefer to take the unpaved, more scenic routes to small, and even tiny, villages. For me, that’s where the real people are, and where you can find the most genuine and authentic local experiences.
So when we began planning to visit Morocco, I was of course hesitant to put Marrakech on the list. I had heard the horror stories about the hassles from guys wanting to sell you “authentic hand made” Moroccan crafts — most often made in China — and the thieves and pickpockets in the medina. In the end, we decided we needed to “check the square” and see Djemaa el-fnaa. An added incentive was a night food tour that we had seen on the television show “Somebody Feed Phil”.
In order to make the experience a bit more bearable for a hermit/curmudgeon like myself, I booked an apartment a good twenty minutes’ drive away from the square. On the far east end of Marrakech, the Atlas Golf Club was a nice gated compound of mostly vacation homes. It’s surrounded by desert; I’m not sure if the “Golf” part was a pipe-dream, a sales promotion, or just a failed attempt, but there’s no golf course that I could see. However, the apartment turned out to be nice, and the parking area felt safe enough for the bike.
When it came time to figure out how to get to Djemaa el-Fnaa, we were nervous, as we had heard lots of stories about getting ripped off by taxi drivers, with everything from no meters, to intentionally going the wrong way, to just plain price gouging.
In this respect, I got extra lucky. A neighbor in a nearby apartment was out doing some work in his garden, and I stopped to ask if he spoke English.
“A little”, he said, with a French accent. Of course it turned out his English was quite good. He is from Switzerland (and coincidentally named Patrick), and his wife Algerian. This is their winter home. As they have no vehicle here in Morocco, they rely on the services of a particular taxi driver, and he was nice enough to hook us up. Zakariah, our cab driver, picked us up at the apartment, took us to the marketplace, and picked us up from the market six hours later for the return trip, all for about twenty bucks.
Jamaa el-Fnaa is not for the claustrophobic or people who hate crowds. The food experience made up for the stress I felt in the hordes of people. The food tour was supposed to last three and a half hours, but in fact was closer to four and a half. And it wasn’t small samples either. We had what seemed like several full meals in that time.
Djemaa el fnaa square, late afternoon. Not too crowded. Yet.
A bit later, but still before dark. The crowds are coming.
One of the stops on our food tour was this olive vendor. We sampled close to a dozen different types of olives, each one explained to us in detail by the seller as he handed them out. This is one of those times when I wished I was a typical tourist, and could buy a couple of large jars of olives to take home on the plane. But we’re packed to the gills already, which on a positive note, means we don’t spend money on kitsch. Or hand-woven Moroccan rugs.
Another stop on the tour was this “bakery”, which for the most part is a very large oven. For many years (centuries?), this oven was the community oven. Residents would buy their ingredients, make their bread products, then bring them here for the baker to cook for them. This has been a tradition throughout the small towns in this part of the world. Note the paddles on the right side, on poles that are probably fifteen feet long. An indication of how deep this oven is.
Hard to tell from this photo, but the oven can hold over 200 loaves of bread at once.
Diana with Chef Hadj Mustapha. Chef Mustapha appeared on the “Somebody Feed Phil” episode, but is more famous here for being the chef to the former King of Morocco. We enjoyed a meal of tangia here (as opposed to tagine, which we had almost everywhere else in Morocco, tangia is similar but prepared and served in a different type of earthenware pot).
The meat is cooked in this twelve foot deep hole in the ground, cooked in the ashes of the coals from the local bath house.
This couscous dinner was one of the final meals on our food tour.
Our food tour group, with Ismael (our guide) in the center.
On two of the nights in Marrakech, we ate dinner at a gas station. As unappealing as that may sound, this cafe at the gas station has been featured on a food show on BBC (we found out after we went there at the recommendation of another neighbor in our apartment complex). The place is called Al Baraka. It’s no Buc-ee’s, but in addition to gas and a mini-mart, it also has this great restaurant with local cuisine at reasonable prices, and a mosque.
Not a great photo, but this is Al Baraka, on the outskirts of Marrakech, and not far from where we stayed. The right side of the photo is the gas station and mini-mart. The left side is the indoor dining portion of the restaurant, and the center is the outdoor portion of the restaurant. Just to the right of the outdoor portion is the entrance to the mosque. We watched as dozens of worshippers entered during the evening call to prayer. It’s worth watching the BBC episode in the link above to get a real feel for this incredible gas station meal, said to be “The best chicken tagine in Marrakech”. I wouldn’t disagree.
Looking out from one of the terraces at our apartment at the Atlas “No-Golf” Club. Nice place. Just no golf.
We had intentionally diverted through Marrakech in order to say that we did…something I rarely ever do. The food tour made it worthwhile though, as we not only had the opportunity to learn about local food and food culture, but our tour guide did a nice job of weaving in some education about the Muslim culture in Morocco as well.
Speaking of which, we were two days away from the beginning of Ramadan, which we felt was a good time to head back north to Europe. Although we were told that there would still be plenty of places open during the day for us tourists to find meals, it was feeling a bit like we would be outsiders imposing on their religious traditions. So we once again loaded up, and headed for our last night in Morocco.