Clearly, after putting in almost three weeks’ time at work since the Christmas holiday, Jon and I were in dire need of another vacation.So at 5:15 am, we headed out on a snowy, dark London morning to Gatwick Airport. After waiting two hours on the runway because of the unusual half-inch of snow on the ground, our EasyJet flight finally took off. Two hours after take-off, we landed in sunny, 60-degree Marrakech.
Despite a greeting by what can only be described as an oh-so-French immigration official (she pushed my passport back at me and refused to look at it until I had carefully tucked my landing card into the front page of the passport), my excitement to be in Marrakech was undiminished.
The 15-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Riad de l’Orangeraie was easy peasy, and after getting out to walk the last 200 yards through narrow alley chaos (donkeys, piles of dirt, motorbike madness, etc.), we arrived at our quiet getaway hidden in the heart of the “old” part of Marrakech (the walled-in old city known as the Medina).
Riads are traditional Moroccan townhouses that are built around a central courtyard garden and facing away from the street. These days, many riads have been converted into small (and in this case, gorgeous) hotels. Our riad, for example, has just eight guest rooms and a courtyard that includes both a garden and a turquoise gem of a pool. (Cheers to Travellerblogue for pointing us to this riad).
While our room was prepared, we sat down to some mint tea, which came served in a small silver teapot and gilt-decorated glasses. Even though I am a huge fan of the minty goodness, I have to admit that the pre-added sugar is a little strong for me. I’d rather add my own sugar, but based on my one day here, I’d say adding your own sugar is a no-can-do.
Jon and I spent the afternoon wandering through the Medina attempting to orient ourselves, which may end up being a losing battle considering (1) there are a million winding alleyways here; (2) there are no street signs; and (3) all the shops start to look the same after a while.That said, we greatly enjoyed the street food we sampled. There was the chicken brochette (skewer) guy who served the chicken to us hot off the grill in a flatbread (khoubz) and topped with “tomato salad” (spiced tomato and onion salsa). At first, I worried about eating that tomato salad, but it added the best bit of moisture and spice to the hot, juicy chicken – so obviously this is a risk we had to take. For just 20 dirham ($2.50 at 8 dh to the US dollar), it was also a great deal.
Other highlights of our street snacking today included Jon’s purchase of fresh-squeezed orange juice from one of a gazillion (why so many?) old-fashioned-looking carts found in the main town square, the Djemma el Fna; crispy and hot deep-fried dough at the tourist-inflated (but still bargain basement) price of 1 dirham ($.12); and fresh-from-the-griddle roti-like flatbread for 4 dh (see photo below right). Although we greatly enjoyed the aimless walking and street-food-sampling, we spent almost four hours walking in what was surely a series of circles. I think we’d still be walking in those circles had it not been for an executive decision at around Hour 3 to actually ask all sorts of people: “ou est le Djemma el Fna” (where is the main square?). Almost everyone we asked was super-friendly and helpful – going out of their way to walk a few steps to point us in the right direction. When we got really close to the Djemma el Fna, we rookies got waylaid by some teenage kid (whom we hadn’t asked for directions, but who insisted anyway that we follow his directions to the Djemma el Fna). The kid was annoyed when we paid him 5 dh just to go away. He started following us around and saying we hadn’t paid him enough.
We had a fun dinner tonight at a beautiful restaurant called Le Foundouk (55, Souk Hal Fassi, 024 37 81 90). The food is supposed to be French-meets-North Africa, but it’s more like French and North Africa exist side by side. There are Moroccan dishes and there are French dishes on the menu, and the two are separate and distinct. No fusion going on here.
The food was fine. What’s worthwhile about the place is the decor and service. My briouates starter came with five deep-fried goodies. Normally, as you know, I am all over the deep fried food, but of the five pieces on my plate, I could only identify lamb and beef as fillings. The lamb filling was tender and sweet from the raisins and cinnamon; the beef was good enough; and the other three fillings were unidentifiable mush.
My chicken tagine with onions and grapes was a little dried out despite the (overly) sweet sauce made from the onions and grapes
Jon started with harira, the traditional Moroccan lentil soup, which was hearty and meaty, so no complaints there. His pastilla was tasty, and because we’ve never had it before, we’re not sure if it’s supposed to be this dry, but that’s what we thought of it. The pastilla is a pastry-wrapped bit of pigeon filling. On top of the pastry is a honey-and-nut coating that adds a great sweet contrast to the savoury pigeon filling.
We’d try it again, but we’re not convinced it was worth the money. What *was* well worth the 700 dh we paid for dinner were the soaring ceilings, iron filigree work, warm lighting and perfect soundtrack in the dining room. Together, it created both drama and coziness. We’d go back, though maybe for drinks and desserts. The mahia (fig brandy) in the cocktails, for example, was a nice treat.