Jan 18 2009

Here’s Looking at You, Morocco

by at 12:48 pm

We are back in Europe, after our week-long visit to Morocco.  After a whirlwind not-quite-two-day stint in Switzerland, involving Seth going to the one laundromat we’ve found in Lausanne and repacking in about a half hour, we are now in Paris with my parents!  Unfortunately, while our stomachs made it through Morocco just fine, my lungs didn’t do as well.  I have one of my famously awful colds, though I had an exciting trip to the clean and orderly ER at the university hospital in Lausanne to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia.   Also, our pictures from Morocco didn’t make it with us to Paris, so you’ll have to see those later.

Since it is impossible to tell you all about Morocco in a post of a length which our average would be willing to read, I will just provide some highlights and general observations, and maybe Seth will add a bit more with photos later this week.

  • Morocco, like Israel, is cold in the winter.  It’s much more bearable to pass the day outside than say, in the Northeastern US or in Switzerland, but the problem is, a nice 50 degrees in the sun outside during the day is quite chilly at night indoors where there is no insulation to speak of, and only in rare instances, warm enough blankets and space heaters.  The first two nights Seth and I went for cheap hotels, which were not great in that weather, but warmed up a bit when we went to space-heated riads, which are old-city houses built around an inner courtyard, sometimes restored and used as the Moroccan equivalent to B&Bs.
  • The architecture in Morocco is beautiful, really really beautiful, but sadly, as non-muslims, there is much we cannot see.  Not only can we not go into all of the private riads, but we were not allowed into mosques, either.  So we saw some museums, went into a few gorgeous madrassas, peered through the open doors of mosques at prayer time, and made do with that.  What is most amazing about the architecture are the elaborate Arabic calligraphy and amazing geometric mosaics (which we went to a pottery center to see made!).  Also, the madrassas often have courtyard reflecting pools which provide a cool optical illusion as to their depth.
  • The streets in the cities are crazy.  Motorbikes are very popular, and seem to get the right of way over pedestrians.  Pedestrians step out of the way of mopeds and directly into car traffic, the cars swerving around the people.  Every one of the 3 cities we visited had a new town (somewhat orderly, built under the French, wide streets) and an old city (called a “medina,” and like a labyrinth from the middle ages with added motorbikes and junk from China).  In the medinas, the cars did not come in, but were replaced with donkeys, lots of donkeys, packing in all of the junk sold in the medinas.
  • Western tourists stand out, and there is no way of avoiding it.  As tourists, we got ripped off more times than we know and were hassled constantly.  As the week progressed, we got better at fending people off, setting prices beforehand, bargaining, catching taxis, etc., but we also just got better at not feeling so angry at being taken advantage of.  One thing we were completely unable to fend off on two occasions was the unwelcome attachment of unofficial guides.  Problem is, those two times, we were obviously headed to the one tourist site in the vicinity.  Every local knew exactly where we were headed.  We tried to say, “we’re fine, we’re not actually going there,” circle around, come back, but they were always there waiting for us.  No other way to get to the mosque in Sale or the synagogue in Marrakesh.  So they “took” us there (i.e. followed us there), told us we could go inside (thanks, we already knew that), answered our questions poorly, and then demanded large sums of money.  It was really irritating.
  • French served us surprisingly well.  Arabic would have been best, and Berber might have been sometimes useful, but we were happy our practice in Switzerland helped out in Morocco, too.  We would have been way worse off in the bargaining/getting ripped off arena if we didn’t know French.  Also, amusingly, the Moroccans were always telling us that we had French accents like people from France, only with an added other accent.  They had difficulty figuring out we were Americans.
  • Since there was relatively little in the way of architecture and monuments we could actually see, we spent a great deal of time wandering the narrow, twisty, garbagey, crowded streets of the medina, many of them market streets.  There are streets for buying fresh food (including really yummy looking veggies and dangling whole or large parts of dead animals), streets for sweets and baked goods, streets for buying Chinese junk (like a lot of shoe stores), and streets for buying crafts.  One cool thing about the crafts streets was that sometimes, there were people there actually making the really beautiful crafts.  It was pretty cool to see all these men in their little workshops, banging away at metals, painting, dying wools, and snipping leather.  Also, as previously mentioned, we visited a pottery place and also a traditional tannery.  It was definitely a good place to buy relatively cheap, beautiful crafts that I haven’t seen anywhere else.  A much better experience than the markets of Israel.
  • The food wasn’t quite what we expected.  There were a couple kinds of flatbreads which were absolutely delicious and readily available in Rabat and Fes, less in Marrakesh.  There were lots and lots and lots of baklava-esque sweets, packed full of honey and almonds, in varying proportions and shapes.  Speaking of sugar, strong gunpowder green tea with a spring of fresh mint was available everywhere, though it came with so much sugar, there was only so much we could down in a day.  Occasionally we were able to order it with less sugar.  Needless to say, I was always having the urge to brush my teeth.  There a couple of legume soups, our favorite of which was pureed fava been soup (or maybe it was split pea?  we kept getting different answers) with olive oil and paprika, which we ate a few times in Fes.  We are hoping to try making it at home.  Tajines and couscous was available everywhere, though not always in the vegetable variety.  We had it a couple of times, but we’re pretty sure that even without chunks of meat, there was some chicken or beef stock hiding out in there.  The most amazing restaurant, which was so so good and I wish there were such a good place in Switzerland, was the Earth Cafe, a vegetarian/vegan Moroccan restaurant run by a Moroccan man who has spent lots of time in Australia and the US and has a much more inspired and fresh menu than any other restaurant we went to (although when we ate dinner in the best riad we stayed in, that was pretty awesome, too).  If you go to Marrakesh, vegetarian or not, you must eat there.

That about covers the basics.  We had a pretty good time, though it would have been even nicer if we were not always being pressured by the locals.  We loved Fes in particular, and were glad we made the 7 hour train ride to get there.  We got to spend 3 days out of the week with other people (a Moroccan friend of a Harvard friend and then a couple I know from school in Switzerland), which was really nice.  I like vacation.

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Here’s Looking at You, Morocco”

  1. Lizon 18 Jan 2009 at 5:16 pm

    I was in Epcot’s Morocco two days ago. That’s kinda like the real Morocco, except with more Aladdin paraphrenalia, right? 🙂

  2. Tinaon 24 Jan 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the link to the Moroccan vegetarian place. We will definately check it out while we are there. Sorry you got hasseled so much. I am not looking foward to it.

  3. Jasonon 25 Jan 2009 at 6:42 am

    The soup you had is called besarra (also spelled bisarra). Here is a recipe that looks about right: http://strickling.blogspot.com/2009/01/laylas-bisarra-recipe-12209.html
    I’ll definitely be checking out that Marrakechi veggie restaurant next time I’m in the neighborhood

  4. Andrewon 31 Jan 2009 at 12:49 am

    I’m sad that y’all couldn’t handle the Moroccan Mint tea! I love that stuff! When I met Jason in Cambridge last semester I remember trying to recreate it with artificial sweetener and it just wasn’t the same. I can’t wait to go back. Glad you guys had fun-

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