Fes to Marrakech and Marrakech

On Friday, the 21st, we drove from Fes to Marrakech. Today, Saturday, was our first day in this interesting, 1000-year old city.

Lake on the way to Marrakesh

As I sat down to write this post, I wondered what I could say about our 300 mile drive. Initially I thought I might have no more than a paragraph. It is true that I don’t have many photos taken on the trip, but that isn’t because there was nothing to see. Mustapha and Adil once again did a great job as a team getting us here through cities, towns, villages, and open country. We went from lowlands, through mountain passes and down to the plain where Marrakech has existed for so long.

On the way we saw a lot that gave us much to think about.

Overall, the impression I had once we got out of Fes was that the countryside was predominately poor. Not the terrible poverty I first saw in Egypt, but poor nevertheless. Homesteads, which were often walled compounds, were often in disrepair, and had crumbling walls. There were not as many farm vehicles like tractors as you would see in the U.S., but that is to be expected: the farms are smaller and of different types. We saw many fields being worked by hand. The land varied in quality from good farmland with healthy black and red soil to places that had only a few square meters cleared of rock. We saw grape arbors, sugar cane, vegetables and gourds being grown. We also saw a couple of beet sugar plants as well. All of those things take water and there is an extensive water transport system—some of it in better repair than others.

We saw donkeys, horses, sheep, goats, cattle, and camels. The shepherds, Mustapha told us were often hired at a wage or for some of the profit. Several times we saw family units caring for sheep and goats and living in small tents. Patricia wants me to mention that we saw more than one flock of sheep being led by a black sheep and one herd of goats being led by a black goat (the judas goat?). In some places it was hard to imagine what the animals would find to eat because some of the land was just plain barren. [Why do we call it Morocco? Because we have More Rocks!]

Near the small towns and villages there was often a lot of donkey- and horse-cart traffic. There were also 3-wheel motorcycles, mopeds, and a few bicycles. Most of this traffic was sharing our road which explains in part why it took just over 9 hours to make the drive. We did not stop often. We stopped once at a lake; Morocco has few lakes and they wanted us to see this one. Lots of black ducks swimming in it but I don’t think I would. We stopped at another place called “the Switzerland of Morocco:” Ifrane. There is even a ski resort near here even though it is only about 5,000 feet up. We stopped there for coffee at a hotel called Hotel Chamonix which even had a silhouette of Mont Blanc in their logo. We also stopped at a restaurant (“Paris”) in another town, but that may have been a bad choice: Patricia and I felt the effects today.

As we drove we learned a good bit about the history of the area and about the people and the economic environment.

Bed strewn with rose petals at Riad Kniza

Marrakech sprawled. It took some time to get from the outskirts to the medina. Our riad is just inside the city walls. (The old walls are 19 km long.) The Riad Kniza is small and well hidden. We were tired when we got in and did not have dinner last night. There are 11 rooms/suites and a very nice terrace which we probably won’t have time to use. Our room is on the ground floor just off the atrium. It is comfortable. The bed, the bathroom and the big table in the sitting room were strewn with rose petals when we arrived.

Gate of wall surrounding the medina in Marrakesh

Today we saw some of the close-by sights of the city. Because of our proximity to the city walls, it was easy for Adil to go outside to a reasonably sized street and head for another gate in the wall. But just because a street is large does not mean that the driving is any less hectic. Bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts, pedestrians, car, busses, and trucks all vie from the smallest opening. The old part of Marrakech—at least what I saw—has streets that are a little larger than those in Fes. They are just as crowded though. Walking in them is an adventure itself because you must pay attention at all times. In some sections men sit with the tools of their trades (plumbers, for example) and often a little pile of spare parts. They are waiting to be hired for a day’s work. I saw many people working a traditional occupations because Mustapha is very good at taking us places where he thinks we will see what the people are like and not just the tourist sites.

Courtyard at Ben Yousseff medersa

We visited the Ben Yusseff medersa. These building are important to Mustapha and he uses them as a way to talk about history and culture. It was originally built in the 14th century . In contrast to the Atterine medersa we visited in Fes, here I was able go to the second level and see some of the chambers that the students would live in while they went to school elsewhere. The courtyard was very pleasant and the decorations both inside and out were of a kind that is now becoming familiar: a tiled lower portion, plain plaster walls, a layer of inscribed decorations/calligraphy above, painted pattern, and carved wood. The ceilings here were works of art.

At the Saadian Tombs we saw a burial area, now completely enclosed by walls, where people have been buried from the 1300s to at least 1792. This is one of the most visited sites in Marrakech and the line to see the most ornate mausoleum was too long to stand in in the very hot sun. [Mustapha, as we went by a large cemetery in Sale: how many dead people do you think are in the cemetery? Us: 5 or 10 thousand? Mustapha: no! they are all dead. He thinks he is pretty funny sometimes.]

At the Bahia Palace I got an idea of how vizier might have lived. Lots of reception rooms for business and supplicants, a set of rooms for his 4 wives, an area for his 100+ concubines, and even a room for parties and music. Not only is it good to be the king, it apparently isn’t too bad being the vizier.

Decoration on wooden door at Bahia Palace
Art at the Dar M’Nebhi

Much of the restoration of the old buildings is funded by private individuals of small associations. The Dar M’Nebhi (Musee Prive de Marrakesh) is one of those. Much of the collection is on loan from individuals. In there I saw jewelry, some ceramics, and some [stylized] swords and knives. In addition to the fountains inside there is an enormous filigreed structure hanging from the ceiling that looks as if it should not be able to stay up. I was surprised to see that there was hardly anything here that was older that the 19th century. In contrast to some other places, all of the pieces were labeled in French only, and not Arabic and French. I forgot to ask if that meant anything.

We had been hearing about the Jemaa el Fna square. At night it comes alive with performers, vendors, and lots of food. During the day it isn’t quite so lively. During the day there are lots of fortune tellers sitting under umbrellas. I suppose you could just go from one to another until you heard something you liked. There are people getting henna tattoos (or decorations). I don’t know if they are permanent. But there are also groups of people (always men) performing tribal music and dancing—for a fee, snake charmers who will demonstrate—for a fee, and men with trained monkeys who will show off—for a fee. Some will let you take their pictures—for a fee. I ignored an aggressive snake charmer (cobras and what looked like a giant rattler) so he walked over and whacked me with a snake. I didn’t get a good look so I am hoping it was a prop and not alive.

We had a pleasant small dinner in our room this evening and we look forward to another interesting day tomorrow.

Minaret of Koutoubia Mosque

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