- Marrakech´s maze
- The art of haggling
- The unique Djemaa El Fna
- Where dates come from – the Draa Valley
- The end of the road – the beginning of the adventure
- Learning Arabic – take two
- Un unforgettable morning in the Chigaga
- Out of the Sahara, into a blizzard
Salam aleikum guys,
last time I wrote to you, we had just arrived in Marrakech after some days in the Berber villages of the High Atlas. A lot has happened since: we have travelled around 2000km in 5 days with cars, buses, jeeps and dromedaries to reach some the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen.
But first things first, let´s get back to where I left you – Marrakesh, the most notorious city of Morocco.
With Ryainair and Easyjet flying to Marrakech several times a day, I didn’t really expect something spectacular, rather a very commercial, touristy, artificial city. And to be honest, to a certain extend Marrakech is exactly this, but with an atmosphere and a charm that astonished us.
When you arrive in Marrakech the first problem is finding your accommodation. So we had the name, the address and even its location on Google maps drawn into our map. That should be enough right? Well not if you are looking for something inside the Medina, which is the old part of town. These medinas have luckily been left intact by the French (in Algeria they destroyed most of them) and they are basically just a maze of little alleyways within a 1000 year old city wall. To make things worse, some nasty people in Marrakech have developed a very peculiar scam: pretending to help you in finding the place you are looking for, only to lead you to a corner of the medina you would never get out of yourself, and then asking money to bring you out again.
With this in mind, it took us a long time and quite a lot of hassle to finally find our hostel, but when we got there: BOAH! It was a riad, an old merchant´s house refurbished and turned into an accommodation. Not the super fancy ones Marrakech is famous for, but a budget one. Well, budget never looked so nice! Colorful walls, mosaic pavements, carved ceilings, huge traditional lamps everywhere – beautiful.
The art of haggling
Despite the temptation to spend all day in the riad, we decided to get lost in the medina. Most of central Marrakech is basically one big Souk, or market. It´s majority is tailored to tourists, however, and that is the charm of it, you can find many hidden corners where life seems to go on as it has many years ago: butchers, smiths, dyers, tailors and so on.
Unfortunately, I can´t take too many pictures of the Souks or of any place with many people in general, as it is not allowed to take pictures of women in an Islamic country. Of course, Marrakech is not like Saudi Arabia, however, I usually try to avoid it or ask before, and it already happened that I was turned down.
Celia wanted to get all sorts of things in the souk, and to be honest, if I had an empty backpack or a donkey to carry my stuff I would go crazy too here. Especially the ceramic pottery, the furniture and the lamps are just amazing, so colorful and artistic. I found myself back in my natural habitat, haggling so hard that even some local bystanders gave me their respect. A good session of haggling has to last quite long, involve at least once walking off the scene, using catch phrases to get a better price (my favorite here from the seller´s side: “you cannot buy a camel for a donkey price”) and of course and most importantly: always having a smile on your face, even when you do not agree on a price.
We got some serious deals this way, and by now we are haggling (well, I am in charge of haggling, I love it) for everything: food, clothes, accommodation, travel, tea…
The unique Djemaa El Fna
But Marrakech has even more to offer, especially the Djemaa El Fna square and the Koutoubia minaret. The latter was built in the 12th century, during the Almohad reign which produced most of Morocco´s architectural jewels. It is nearly 80 metres high and all of Morocco´s minarets today and for the past 800 years have been built according to Koutoubia´s model: 1-5 height width ratio and different patterns on each of the four sides among others.
But way more interesting for most people here is probably the Djemaa El Fna, one of the coolest squares I have ever been to. During the day it is mostly populated by snake charmers, story tellers, acrobats and juice sellers. Then, at night, it turns into this crazy mishmash of food stalls, musicians and ingenious people who make a living out of the most ridiculous things (fishing soft drinks bottles for example…). We tried a lot of nice things: land snails, lamb´s head stew, spicy ginseng tea.
Despite all the bad things that people told us about Marrakech, if you have the chance, go! It is easy to reach, cheap, and yes, it is commercial and touristy, but awesome!
Where dates come from – the Draa Valley
In Marrakech, we had to make a big decision: should we head to the coast to see Essaouira, Casablanca and Rabat or head to the east of the country, close to the disputed border with Algeria get a glimpse of the mighty Sahara? We decided to go for the latter, a very good decision, although it did involve a lot of effort and sacrifice.
To get to Zagora, the last big town in the south-east, we had to pass the second, and even higher pass over the High Atlas, Tizi n´Tichka. Both Celia and I felt really sick on the 8 hour bus ride. The landscapes, however, were awesome. First, we took a highly exposed road up to 2200 metres, through Berber villages, snow-capped mountains and steep valley. Then, we reached the surreal, arid stone dessert which lies in between the Atlas and the Sahara. And finally we reached the Draa valley, which is 150km long valley, full, and I mean packed with, date palms. If you have ever eaten a date from Morocco or intend to do so in the future, this is where they come from!
I already told you how good they are, but I have to repeat myself: they have around 15 kinds. The cheapest are very dry, small dates. The most expensive huge, juicy, sweet, soft, dark flavor bombs. Celia doesn’t like them, so I have to eat the kilos of dates we buy by myself – what a shame…
The end of the road – the beginning of the adventure
Even if the arduous trip would already have paid off just by eating some of those Draa dates, we were aiming at something different: the Sahara! In Zagora they offered all sorts of trips to us, the cheapest 80€ per person, the most expensive 130€ (with dromedary insurance though!). Even as a one time treat, this definitely exceeded our budget. Instead, we decided to take packed grand taxis to the very end of the road, the town M´Hamid (one of these words that I couldn’t pronounce until a few days ago, now I can).
We arrived in this dusty town, went into a tour agency and I turned on my haggling A-Game. At some point the rather young chap said that if he were to give me that price his hair would turn grey. Well, he eventually agreed on an even lower price and his hair is still black.
And god it was worth it!
We got into our 4×4 with our driver Mohamed (2 out of 3 people here have that name) and our guide Mustafa. From M´Hamid it is a 5 days dromedary ride, or 2 hours car ride, to the Chigaga – the mightiest sand dunes of Morocco. Until 2008, the famous Paris-Dakar rally passed exactly here, now that it has been transferred to South America for security reasons only hobby adventurists come here. And I can see why.
We saw fata morganas, which are basically optical illusions created by heat on the horizon, but they literally looked like lakes. Then we visited an oasis, where we could see where the water miraculously emerges from the sand, an eternal and the only source of life in the area. We also encountered some nomads, who until today live all across the Sahara (which simply means “dessert” in Berber). These are the famous Touaregs, who move from one oasis to the next, often days without water. They live off dromedary milk and dates, plus the rice and cous cous that they buy when they reach civilization every now and then.
Until a few decades ago, one of the most important trading routes of northern Africa passed exactly where we went – the M´Hamid/Timbuktu trail, which took 53 days on dromedaries.
Learning Arabic – take two
After 2 hours bumpy and fun ride through little dunes and rock, we arrived in a tent camp at the edge of Chigaga. The tends were actually quite luxurious, with organic toilets and even solar fuelled electricity.
As it was quite late we didn’t venture into the dunes. They look so close and small, but ones you try to climb them you realize how much effort it is to do so and, with a freezing desert night approaching, we decided to spend the evening with our new Berber friends improving our Arabic. By the end of the evening, our vocabulary had extended by many words, numbers and even small sentences. We won´t be able to speak to anyone outside of Morocco, as the Arabic here is a mishmash of Berber and Arabic, but it is so much fun to order food, ask for buses or even haggle in the local language now.
They all loved the fact that we were so interested in their culture and language and after a while all the Berber people there were only talking Arabic to us, pointing at anything they could see and telling us how to say it. The language is very beautiful with its swallowed letters, its poetic words (saida – good, jamel – dromedary, leila – night). I also love the words that just seem so impossible to pronounce, like rrmlma – sand.
I decided that I will try to learn Arabic, at least its basics, because I don’t think it is that difficult, ones you get to grips with the tones and especially the writing. But the syntax, the logic of the language seems very similar to European ones. Moreover, it is really interesting to see how many words we have actually taken from the Arab (marmalade, sukkar, limon, etc.).
Our language lesson was quite successful, especially Cecilia who will remember words for days told to her in Arabic once. However, the lesson in Touareg music that followed might have been a lot of fun, but music is just not my thing… The songs are really beautiful though: they are all about the nomad life in the Sahara, the cold nights, the trade routes etc.
Un unforgettable morning in the Chigaga
We woke up early, around 7am, and a nomad had come to our camp with two dromedaries for Celia and me. You can go dromedary riding everywhere here in Morocco, but often it is very horrible to see: skinny animals living in the cities and forced to walk up roads all their lives. We really wanted to go on one of these amazing animals once, but not under those conditions.
The two we had, on the other hand, live with the nomads in the Sahara, who make a little bit extra money by bringing them to the dunes when tourists are there. Dromedaries have only one hump, whereas camels have two. The latter do not live in Africa but in Asia and have long fur. Dromedaries can stay up to 20 days without drinking. I don’t know exactly how they do it, but they can drink 40-50 liters in one go and then stay for ages without. Moreover, they use very little energy when they walk, enabling them not to eat for weeks as well.
Mine was quite grumpy and really didn’t want to get up at first, but ones we started walking he came down a bit (dromedaries are quite moody and can scream). What followed was one of the most memorable things I have ever done in my life: we rode on these dromedaries through the Chigaga. I thought that they were just a few nice dunes with a couple of square kilometers. However, when we got to the top of a fairly tall one, we were speechless: as far as the eye could see, perfect sand dunes, up to 300m tall (taller than the Eiffel Tower). When you see a natural wonder like that, you just want to stop the time and stay there forever. This happened to me only a couple of times, at sunrise on the Salar the Uyuni in Bolivia, on the Great Wall of China, at the Grand Canyon in the US and inside Kong Lor Cave in Laos. It was just beautiful.
Unfortunately, a huge sand storm was coming towards us. It rains only 4 times a year in the Sahara. Well, the first time this year the morning we were there.
Out of the Sahara, into a blizzard
We got into the 4×4 at 8.30am and the odyssey began. Our plan was to get to Zagora and then the next day to Marrakech, from where we wanted to take a train to Meknes in the north. This would have taken around 2 days. When we got to Zagora, however, we saw that there was a “direct” bus straight to the capital, Rabat. 800km, in a shabby bus in Morocco. Considering how shit the weather was, how cheap the ticket was and how much time we would have saved we decided to go for this torturous option. What we didn’t think about, was what this actually meant…
So we get on the bus, everything was fine. We were even wise enough to bring some extra clothes in case it might get colder. Having woken up in the middle of the Sahara the same morning, of course we did not take into consideration what it means to cross a 2200m high mountain pass that night: blizzard! We took the same road I described before, just this time with 30cm of snow, at night, with a bus leaking water on us, freezing cold and a person next to us playing Muslim prayers on repeat for hours.
I am not going to lie, I was a bit afraid. Our bus driver did everything right, went very slowly, waited for other buses to create a lane to follow. But still, this ride was not fun!
After 26 hours of travelling straight, we arrived in Rabat, on the Atlantic coast. Got to the hostel, still with sand from the Sahara in every single pore of our bodies, craving for a hot shower. Well, cold water only…
Despite all of this, the mood here couldn’t be better. We had unforgettable days in the Sahara, learnt a bit of Arabic and now even managed to see Rabat!
I will write again about the north of Morocco soon.