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As we wandered, we stumbled into a really cute little square, the Place Chrib Atay. It looked like it would be a good place for a fine vegetarian meal, but we were committed to fresh grilled fish at one of the stalls in Place Moulay Hassan. Or maybe a good place to paint a canvas of shops and facades, but we weren’t there long enough for that. It was, however, a good place for a few photographs, and here they are.

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sm17 IMG_3720In the heart of the old medina, at the intersection of the two main thoroughfares, lies the Souk Jdid, the main fresh produce and meat market of the town. It’s laid out so that whichever direction you approach it from, you must enter through a gate. It’s pure theatre of city planning–and it works.

sm30 IMG_1036Through the gate we went, and into the broad street beyond. With its arched colonnades and bounded by a gate at either end of the block, this could have been the finest street in this city of fine streets.

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sm32 IMG_3722 souk jdidInside the souk were the usual assortment of meat and produce vendors, with perhaps a special emphasis on fish–as you would expect.

sm36 IMG_1037We only had an hour or two to wander Essaouira’s streets before eating a quick lunch at one of the fish stalls and meeting our ride to Casablanca. We made the most we could of the time, but I’m sure we missed a lot. I regret this. Though it’s small enough to get a good sense of its character in this short time, I learned that Essaouira would be a good place to linger for several days. A place to explore every little street. A place to enjoy the beach and the food and the art and the shops and the texture and patterns of everyday life. A place to come back to. 

And we do hope to come back to Morocco some day.

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The medina of Essaouira is different yet again from either Fes or Marrakech. For one thing, it’s probably smaller. And for another, Essaouira is a center for artists, and so there are a lot of shops–especially in areas where tourists are likely to go–that sell art. And other items for tourists. And there are a lot of areas in the medina where tourists are likely to go. Also, it is entirely pedestrian. No automobiles, no motorbikes, no donkey carts.

Also, in a weird way, it’s kind of like Washington D.C., only with less traffic and narrower streets. That is to say, in the late eighteenth century a European planner was brought in, who laid out a grid of major straight streets around which the less-planned minor streets evolved. In fact, the very name “Essaouira,” according to one source, means “well designed.” The plan of Washington DC was done by the French architect Pierre L’Enfant in 1791. The plan of Essaouira was done by the French architect Theodore Cornut in 1764.

And the combination of the planned and the random, the European and the Moroccan, is completely charming.

Narrow streets provide shade and surprises.

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Two major streets define ninety-degree axes that demarcate the city. These are broad and vibrant pedestrian thoroughfares lined with shops and hotels.

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In the next post, we’ll look at a couple of special spaces in this lovely town.

 

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We walked north and west from the Place Moulay Hassan, and soon–it was unmistakable–we were walking along the inside of the town’s eighteenth century walls. In particular, we were walking along the Skala Nord, between the two marked gates on the adjacent map. (This map, the best I could find online, is from the Web site of Riad Baladin.)

We passed through a gate and entered an area where the shops seemed to spring from the walls.

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Indeed, as stretch of unopened shops clearly showed, they were, in fact, housed within the wall. I wonder what filled these arches when the walls were used as fortifications. Cannon ball storage? Barracks?

sm 05 IMG_3717It was, it turns out, easy to reach the top of the wall, parts of which were still adorned with cannons.

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sm 07 IMG_1025Beyond lay a view of the modern city, and of an ocean that bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pleasant swimming beach near the fishing port.

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We entered the walled city through the Bab el Minza into the Place Moulay Hassan. This is an open space, deeper than it is broad, the near side of which housed food vendors. It was a little early yet for lunch, but the juice vendors certainly looked tempting.

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sm 012 IMG_1004Just beyond was a little park bordered on two sides by stalls of fish vendors who in an hour or so would be competing for lunchtime customers of their fresh grilled fish.

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sm 016 IMG_3725The fish certainly looked wonderful.

sm 018 IMG_1006“We’ll be back,” we promised.

“Remember me! I am number eleven!”

We agreed, and then headed into the town. The far end of the plaza provided a welcoming entrance, and then narrowed into a broad, pleasant street–a gentle introduction to lively Essaouira.

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Later, we returned to the fish vendors’ stalls for lunch, as promised. After negotiation, we had the best, freshest grilled fish lunch anywhere ever, with chips and salad, for about $5, and it was big enough for both of us.

 

 

 

 

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“Let’s go to Essaouira,” Dan said to me on our second day in Marrakech. We had only one more day and then we planned to catch a train back to Casablanca. The train takes about three hours, and we’d have to pack and check out and get to the station and all that, so we’d blocked out a day for the trip, with some comfortable loose time on either end.

“But there’s so much we still haven’t seen in Marrakech!” I protested.

“We can do it on the way to Casablanca.”

“But the train doesn’t go to Essaouira.”

“Let’s hire a car and driver. Then we can do it.” And he pointed out that it’s only a relatively short drive to Essaouira, and then–how pleasant!–we could meander up the coast roads from Essaouira to Casablanca, a distance approximately the same as that from Marrakech to Casablanca. It looked like a good idea.

Appearances notwithstanding, it turned out that Essaouira is not on the way to Casablanca, that the coast road was not something a person could meander up in just a few hours. The only reasonable way from Essaouira to Casablanca is to return almost to Marrakech and pick up the highway. No one, but no one, plans to drive from Marrakech to Essaouira, tour Essaouira in any kind of reasonable fashion, and then make it from Essaouira to Casablanca in just one day. But what did we know?

I called Youssef at Morocco Expert Tours, the company that had arranged our excellent desert tour, and explained what we wanted. Nothing much. Just to find a car and a driver at the last minute during the busiest season of the year to go off on a long all-day half-crazy drive. And Youssef, bless his helpful heart said, “Let me see what I can do.”

And sure enough, he found Hamid, an easygoing driver for us, and a car. And in addition to his willingness to take on our daunting task, Hamid also shared our sense of humor and laughed at our jokes!

You may remember the photograph of the goats in the argan tree with which I started the Morocco part of this blog.

smIMG_0986That was on the way from Marrakech to Essaouira.

And now for a word about Essaouira, with more details to follow in subsequent posts. The city is a delightful blend of many elements: eighteenth century fortifications embracing a quintessentially Moroccan city with a history that goes back to the Phoenicians. Wide beaches and surf pounding on treacherous rocks. A vibrant fishing port and a thriving tourist industry. It almost doesn’t seem these pieces could fit together, but…they do.

sm10 IMG_1001We had only (I forget) two or three hours between when Hamid dropped us off and when we’d agreed to meet again. So after enjoying the sight (but not the experience) of the beach…

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…and noting with interest a wind farm across the bay…

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we came to the port area of the old city.

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We passed a boat yard…

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and a vibrant and lively fishing port.

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And then we entered the medina of the old city through the Bab al Minzah gate.

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It was our final day in Marrakech. Exhausted from all our harrowing street-crossings and unwilling to face the eager merchants and guides crowding the narrow streets, Dan wanted only to relax somewhere. Do something different. Go someplace quiet and uncrowded. One of the many gardens or parks in the city, perhaps. So we consulted our knowledgeable host Laurent. “Where should we go? The gardens around La Koutoubia look nice on the map. Would that be enjoyable?”

Laurent advised that it being the Moslem Sabbath (Friday), the Koutoubia Gardens, while very nice, were likely to be very crowded. He suggested that instead, we might consider going to the Jardin Majorelle. It was smaller, he told us, but a real jewel, with an unusual modern house that use to be the home of Yves St. Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge and is now a museum of Berber life. Too far to walk, it was nevertheless only a short ride by petit taxi.

A word about taxis in Morocco. There are grands taxis and petits taxis. Grands taxis are larger and more expensive, and they are generally used for longer trips. Petits taxis are small, often hatchbacks, but are required by law to stay within the city in which they are licensed. They therefore take only shorter fares, and they charge less than grands taxis. That is, they charge less if you agree on the fare before you get in. And you can negotiate.

“Do not,” Laurent warned, “pay more than twenty dirhams. Be firm.”

The first taxi we hailed was, it turned out, a grand taxi. He wouldn’t take us. The second one was definitely a petit taxi, but he wanted thirty dirhams.

“Twenty,” Dan said.

“Twenty-five,” replied the driver.

“Twenty,” Dan insisted, and held out the exact amount.

The driver hesitated, then took it. And we were off!

Judging from the line at the ticket counter and the crowds in the garden, we found that the Friday/Sabbath crowds had already discovered the Majorelle Gardens.

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Still, the garden was beautiful. The cactus collection was particularly photogenic.

sm212 IMG_0975sm202 IMG_0961sm208 IMG_3695sm205 IMG_0967 A fountain seen through the cacti adds a graceful touch.

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sm305 IMG_0969Soon we reached the house where Yves St. Laurent and his partner lived. Legend has it that St. Laurent invented the blue color especially for this house.

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The details are beautiful.

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sm508 IMG_3704Dan and I went inside to the Museum of Berber life. We loved the examples of Berber dress from different parts of the country, but ultimately the crowds were too much for us. We returned outside, viewing the non-cactus part of the garden.

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sm602 IMG_3709This was a lovely ending to our stay in Marrakech, and we got to see a part of the city outside the walls of the medina.

The next day we had to return to Casablanca. Our plan was to take the train. But wait! Dan had an idea! What if we could hire a driver and go to Casablanca via Essaouira…?

 

 

 

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It’s the story of our street wandering everywhere in Morocco. We’re wending our way somewhere. We have a map (for what that might be worth) and so we sort of know the way. And it’s okay with us if we wander a bit while we’re going.

And from nowhere there arrives a bold, charming, friendly, and above all, insistent little boy who offers to take us where he thinks we ought to be going.

“Synagogue,” he insists. “Would you like to see the synagogue? This way! Follow me, please.”

It’s kind of like the Borg on Star Trek. Resistance is futile. “Please. Yes. Take us to the synagogue.”

And after a few attempted stops at his uncle’s rug shop and his cousin’s restaurant, the boy does just that, and we give him the customary tip.

To our surprise, we’ve come upon an old and active Jewish congregation–the Lazama Synagogue, founded by Jews from Spain who arrived in 1492, and still attended regularly by many of the three hundred or so Jews who still live in Marrakech. It’s very, very orthodox, with an outer courtyard that has separate galleries for the women. And it’s very Moroccan in style, Jewish in concept, blue and white in color. And lovely.

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All the maps of the medina of Marrakech are distressingly different from one another. I can’t find the Royal Residence on one, a landmark on our way back to our home in Marrakech, Riad Nafis. In another, I can’t find the hospital that is another landmark. In some it’s hard to figure out exactly where is the Djemaa el Fna, the central plaza of the medina. Even the walls are not drawn in the same places; and gates are unreliably located. I am reminded in an odd way of the mapping problems in Christopher Priest’s wonderful science-fiction novel The Islanders.

So I can’t tell you exactly where the spice market is, except to say that it’s about a block or so from the Bahia Palace, and it seems to be on our way back to our riad. So we went.

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The spice market led from a busy street to a pleasant pedestrian square.

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Outside and beyond this square was a vehicular crossroads, which included–almost beyond our comprehension–an actual one-way street. Now we’d gotten pretty good at crossing streets in Marrakech at this point, having discovered the secret method. (Find a Moroccan who is crossing the street and follow right on his coattails. I pass this tip along to you for free.) But this one-way street was particularly tricky because motorbikers appeared to have a special immunity that allowed them to go at high speed the wrong way up this street.

Er…Sidewalks? Yes, but only intermittently.

On our second full day in Marrakech, we could no longer postpone facing one of the trip’s more difficult questions: Should we try again to buy a Moroccan rug, one that will fit in one of the places where we need a rug?

Yes, we decided. We should. And so we asked our helpful host Laurent if he might recommend a rug dealer that would be, er, well, we knew any rug dealer would be charming but insistent, would praise his merchandise, would ask double a fair price or more, but, dare we say, honest?

And he did. He recommended Dar Benhayoune in the Mellah district and gave us directions to it in relation to the Bahia Palace. It was only a block or so away. So we braved the street crossings, the motorbikes, the so-called one-way street, and found the street of the rug merchant. But no rug merchant.

After going up and down the street twice, we steeled ourselves and asked a man sitting in front of a doorway if he knew the place.

He did.

This was it.

The rug shop was wonderful. Near the entrance sat a woman weaving a rug the old fashioned way on an old fashioned loom, fingers flying as she tied each individual knot. She let me take a turn but had little patience for my inexperienced fingers. I didn’t blame her. The rug she was weaving was beautiful; neither would I want to weave a beginner’s clumsiness into it.

Rugs hung from the second floor balconies in the inner courtyard. Rugs were piled in the rooms off the courtyard. Beautiful rugs, all of them. Beautiful wrong-sized rugs.

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The house, said our rug merchant as he showed us around, used to belong to a Jewish family. We could tell because it had windows facing out to the street; a Muslim household would not have such windows. Later we learned that the Mellah district where this house was located used to be the old Jewish quarter.

I will not bore you with the long story of rugs unfolded and unrolled, beautiful rugs, all the wrong size. Let’s just say that at the last we selected a traditional rug we both really liked that was too small for our space, but not by much. I thought it might do. Dan did not. As we debated with one another, the price came down until it was about a third of the original price. That seemed about right to us, and so we became the owners of a second wrong-size Moroccan rug.

And by some miracle, it actually looks really good in the hallway of our home on Block Island. Not the wrong size after all.

And by a second miracle, on our way back to the riad, we saw a policeman pulling over motorbikers one after another as they came racing the wrong way up the one-way street. And giving them tickets.

 

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Marrakech is filled with palaces, some of which we tourists cannot tour (for example, the royal residence just around the corner from our riad) and others of which we are urged to tour. But Dan and I didn’t want to spend a whole day touring historical structures. After all, there was delicious Moroccan food to eat, and beautiful rugs to buy, and whole neighborhoods to explore.

What to do? We asked our host Laurent which palace, if he had to pick only one, we should go see.

“Bahia Palace,” he said. “It is the most beautiful.”

Intended to be one of the most glorious palaces in the world when it was built in the late nineteenth century, the Bahia Palace today is a well preserved avatar of the Moroccan and Islamic styles of its time. We entered through a beautiful garden that was already indicative of the fine craftsmanship within.

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sm14 IMG_0919Inside, it was hard to know where to look first. Every ceiling was a work of art.

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sm29 IMG_0946And not just ceilings. Doorways, columns, floors, fireplaces… It was hard to know where to look first.

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sm44 IMG_0947A fountain graced the center of a tranquil courtyard.

sm46 IMG_0934At the end of the tour, we returned to the garden, where we met some of the palace’s current residents. They seemed to be very happy to be living in such a peaceful spot.

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Woo-hoo, one of my favorite parts of a journey–a visit to the marketplace!

I like being overwhelmed with sights and sounds and smells and textures–and the souks of Marrakech do not disappoint. They are huge, an unmapped maze of covered streets bordered by shops with overflowing and attractively arranged goods of every description. And shopkeepers eager to invite the wide-eyed tourist inside, where she can see and touch and try on whatever they can offer. And buy it, of course.

sm45 IMG_3685Dan walks purposefully past all the shops in order to avoid having to go in. I, however, like to linger and enjoy the richness on display. (No, I did not buy the beads.)

And even though it’s still early enough in the morning that some of the shops haven’t yet opened, there is indeed much richness on display, from fine jewelry and antiquities…

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…to affordable jewelry and ornaments…

sm28 IMG_0883…to lamps and other objects of skilled metalwork…

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…to (of course) food…

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sm25 IMG_0885…to, well, lots of other stuff.

sm42 IMG_0895And it’s not just the textures and patterns of the various shops that overwhelm the senses. Even the very streets are sublime.

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On a corner just outside the souks, the shops seemed more geared toward local clientele, perhaps neighborhood folk.

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