Days 3723-52, 29 May-26 June '22, All Aboard! The Marrakech Express
Well. That's that. We've decided that the next time we have a Moroccan sojourn (and there definitely will be a next time), we will definitely spend our whole 3 months in Essaouira - it is just beautiful there. And the climate was perfect - 10 degrees lower than what we're heading to in Marrakech. Fresh winds every day off the ocean. Easy to eat well for 10 euro per night for two and a beautiful beach front walk to do every morning. On our way out of town we had our driver stop at the massive Carrefour Market for a booze stockup. Half a dozen bottles of Moroccan wine and some crunchy peanut butter. Necessities. We are sure we could buy everything we'd like to have if we self-catered in an apartment for 3 months. The drive from Essaouira into Marrakech city went swimmingly - but 3 hours+ can feel such a long way in the heat and glare of the day. We also saw the 'goats in trees' on this trip. Always a fascinating sight. We think they were on sabbatical when we arrived into Morocco as PCR tests were still required then… so not a lot of tourists… so no point bringing the tree-hopping goats out. The touristic hordes are well and truly back now. So are the goats.
I tortured the local Moroccans with my survival-French for two weeks in Essaouira and once we arrived in Marrakech, I had a whole new audience. The extra 10 degrees in temperature was definitely noticeable, but the most recent inland heatwave had thankfully moved on so consistent low 30s were the order of the day. Until the next heatwave of course.
The first couple of weeks in Marrakech passed by gently enough. We love choice and spontaneity (no really… we do!) But we have quite a lot of it with our general lifestyle. When we discovered we could stay in Riad Celia for a month at a very attrractive price with both breakfast and dinner included - well - we snapped it up. This is not a deal for faddy, fussy, menu obsessed individuals - every night we trundle down about 6 pm and have a swim in our 25 degree, very brisk pool. Then have a shower, dress for dinner and miraculously - a two or three course feast is delivered to our table. When I say 'our' table… it's pretty much 'the' table - as we were the only people dining in. Go figure. They're out and about traipsing up and down the dusty streets of the city and medina every single night looking for something different…Doesn't get more different than having no idea what is going to be under the tagine lid every night.
Marrakech. Well. It's been 4 or 5 years since we last visited and whilst it took a couple of goes, the memories of how to get around the various souks and into the nooks and crannies of the medina did come flooding back. The alleyways of the medina (including ours) were all getting the king's refit programme and we believe it was a cut wire at fault, but wifi was the bane of our existence for the first few days in the city, so we gave in and got a local SIM card. Which was brilliant and gave us the confidence to go 'off road' and try different routes through different areas to get to A to B. It was also however a fast road to multiple circles of hell when trying to accomplish anything online on the phone from a north African country. Like paying a bill that I have always paid without probems in the past. Paypal I'm looking at you. But we got there in the end.
We visited a couple of stunning museums, firstly the Rug Museum. Now this being Morocco and rugs more or less growing from the walls, you'd think it would be reasonably simple to just wander into a rug shop and take a look at these things. To a degree, our visit to the government sponsored artisan craft complex did mean we could take a look at different styles of rug - but the average rug shop owner would have 10 rugs, us and the donkey we rode in on shipped to Australia via FedEx before we were 2 steps in the door… so Rug Museum it was. Actually fascinating. And set in a beautiful building with an interior courtyard, fountain, plants etc. Most importantly, it was something we could do in the heat of the day as it was only 5 minutes stroll from the riad.
The only other museum we decided was worth a look was The Museum of Confluences - or Dar Bacha. Built in the 1910s by a very, very rich fellow of the time, the Pacha of Marrakech, this was a stunning palace with the best zellige tiling we've seen in Morocco so far - patterns that we've just not seen anywhere else. The museum showcases European inspired decorative elements as well as the skills and flair of native Moroccan craftsmen. Not huge, a gentle stroll around the inner courtyard, appreciated the intricate wood carvings. It's the first museum we've been to where you require a ticket to go to the coffee shop (assuming you haven't just paid for museum entry). We would have enjoyed a coffee and a cake as it was very exotic and probably worth it… but not reallising how popular it would be, there was a waiting list of 8 people in front of us. Also… quite small. Note to selves, as unlikely as it is, if we're in Marrakesh again and decide to hit the Dar Bacha coffee shop for a spot of genteel, exoticness… reservez-vous!
There's no getting around it, Marrakech can be overwhelming. Even when we know where we're going, even with all our experience of it, just smile, sail on serenely in a Queen Mary with entourage fashion and let it flow over one… even when you don't want to smile and you just want to rip someone's head off whilst screaming NO SPICES! before shoving their head into a hand pierced copper lantern and setting it on fire (hang on… is that just me?). Covid brought hard times to the planet, and when you're sailing close to the wind at the best of times, we can only imagine how tight it was for the Moroccan people. Nevertheless, we take great pleasure in getting out at 6 or 7 am and walking through the empty souks and back streets, through the square and sometimes into the green coolness of the Cyber park - all before anyone else is up and about. We are out and about so early some mornings, we are like frustrated rats in a maze when we reach a section of the souks that's not yet had it's doors opened for the day. As it is, 7.30 am seems to be almost guaranteed for doors being open. One morning we walked after breakfast and really, it's 10.30 or 11 am before the shops are up and running - but they don't roll up the souk cobbles til 10 pm at night. Essentially the early walks in the cool bring Marrakech right down to size.
Speaking of cobbles, the (road)works continue. Here, as in Essaouira and all across Morocco, roads and alleys are being recobbled, walls on the verge of falling down are being rebricked and shored up, wooden awnings are being torn down and replaced from scratch. The crew working on our street are blowing it out of the water. In the first two weeks they've almost finished the job - the brand new cobbles look hundreds of years old already. Obviously not hard with the dust, dirt and donkey-do-do that assaults them daily. There is substantial progress every day and it is very fulfilling - we both love hard work and we could watch it for hours! The roadworks even led to a spot of unintended shopping - a pair of leather Ali Baba/Aladdin slippers for James. Obviously the connection is not entirely clear. Our street was at a fever pitch of cobbles, heavy machinery and people - no-one's going to stop using it just because of obstacles, it just gets beyond chaotic as pedestrians, bikes, scooters and donkeys all compete for limited space - so we walked a bit further along and cut through to the next street which was already finished and walked into the main square along that. On the cut through street there was a lone leather bags and shoes fellow who didn't harrass us mercilessly and just said hello - there and back sometimes twice a day for 3 days or so. In the end we took a look, negotiated hard and came home with slippers - seemed rude not do. Very comfy for pottering about the riad apparently.
We're not hugely sociable at riads and guesthouses - the customary hello/goodmorning at breakfast, but no great socialising otherwise. So what happened during the first couple of weeks of our stay was rare to say the least. After many years of travelling and housesitting, for the first time ever, we met another TrustedHouseSitter (the platform we use). It was quite a moment for us. Just being able to communicate with someone about what we do and how we do it with regard to travel without the usual responses of a) disbelief; b) I could never have strangers in my home; c) How much are you paid? It was fun to catch up and hear someone else's experiences for sure. Mind you, chatting with someone just reinforced how different we all are in some regards. We mentioned we were on the breakfast and dinner plan as the lady in question was disappointed with the food in the restaurants nearby. We immediately whipped out a few photos and she was blown away by the selection and quality. You and us both, you had better believe it. We were very fortunate indeed to find the 30 day trick on bookingdotcom. Just for posterity, some of our amazing dinner feasts included:
Chicken tagine with olives and lemon, moroccan salad and green beans
Beef tagine with prunes, coleslaw and potato salad
Beef tangia with artichokes and zaaluuk
Chicken Seffa Medfouna (noodles) with beetroot and pumpkin mash followed by baked almond and honey in pastry cakes
Chicken tagine with raisins and walnuts, sides of potatoes and spicy lentils
White fish tagine, moroccan salad, cauliflower salad, frozen yoghurt with fresh cherries
Chicken brochettes with saffron rice
Moroccan Fish & Chips - crumbed sardines, chips, salad platter, rich chocolate dessert
Spaghetti Marinara - because too much Moroccan food is a bad thing according to the chef.
Chicken and lemon tagine with salad and potatoes followed by a phenomenal chocolate and walnut tart
Kefta with eggs
Well. After almost 8 months of being on the road, flitting from Ireland to Paris to Amsterdam to Paris (again… instead of Austria), to Zagreb and Labin in Croatia, to Fuengirola, Spain (via Lisbon…) we finally made it to Morocco… and Covid-19 made it to us. We're pretty sure we copped it back in January 2022… but never tested positive. This time the test kit turned violently positive before I could even set the timer - no need for 15 minutes at all. Some sort of Covid-Land-Speed-Test record we think. But after 8 months… multiple new Omicron variants… all that travel, pretty pleased we'd made it as far as we had. We were officially sick. Sore, sore, sore throats. Headaches.
On Day 2 (or was it 3?) I got up(ish). Sick as several dogs, before breakfast, head pounding, throat screeching - but you gotta do what you gotta do. We'd been trying to plan the trip from 'somewhere in Europe' to Buenos Aires, arriving early January. Given that we didn't know where we'd be leaving from we looked at all possible options, paid for and also on frequent flyer miles. It's a jungle out there. Minimal availability and maximum pricing of everything moving. It's a 12 hour flight from Europe so had to be business class to ensure we were alive at the destination - not to mention the tonnes of luggage we're carting right now. So, with our handy VPN, we wormholed to Australia and got onto Qantas Cruises (think of the points, think of the points) and finally booked one of the last 4 really inexpensive cabins on a Costa-Not-Mucha repositioning cruise from Barcelona to Buenos Aires in order to join our Antarctica cruise…. The total for the 17 night cruise (so transport, food and lodging and no grief with luggage weight) is just over half the price of a single 12 hour flight. Bargain. But a bargain that was dwindling by the second. Heaven forbid we'd seen 4 cabins available before breakfast and 0=Sold Out when we got back from breakfast. The money saved on flights will now pay for a month in an apartment in Buenos Aires. So that's the 'where will we be for Christmas' question sorted out. Speaking of breakfast, one of the funniest sights is seeing the little sparrows arrive at one's breakfast table and attempting grand theft croissant. Try very hard not to think of where those little claws have been.
Whilst sick, a lot of planning actually needed doing - not as though it was something I wanted to do. The next question was how to get from Buenos Aires to Sydney in late January. Back to the drawing board. Yikes. Flights even worse for this leg. Now that LATAM has left the major alliances, not easy. Dire and expensive options going up to the USA and across and down from there. Thanks to American Airlines Advantage programme we snagged some 'best of a bad bunch' award flights from BA to Madrid to Doha to Brisbane to Sydney. Exhausted just thinking of it. However, refundable taxes and reinstate-able miles - so nothing to lose and put a fail-safe in place. Whilst lying in bed tried to think outside the box, when thinking at all was a challenge. I thought 'hmmm…. cruise maybe?' Eventually, using an American site called vacationstogo, we saw there was a unique cruise leaving Chile and going to Sydney. Strange routing indeed but amazing looking - Easter Island, Tahiti, Cooks, New Zealand including Milford Sound - what strange beast was this cruise? As it turns out it was one leg of the MSC World Cruise which explained the suis generis nature of the routing. We didn't want to overthink it too much so we compared the cost of the flights and the cost of the cruise (36 days of transport, food and lodging remember), then threw caution to the winds and tried to book it on Qantas Cruises. And Cruise Guru. And Cruise 1st and even, god forbid through MSC's own site, though it was a bit dearer. Nope. Was available, showed available, but all the inventory zeroed out as we we watching. Not just the cheap cabins but every level. Guess someone, somewhere, just booked the last cabin and went to breakfast. Damn. Just before we left Morocco I sent emails to all concerned checking that it wasn't a glitch. (Stay tuned, the saga continued in Dublin). We kept our heads down for a solid week and then another week of slowly but surely looking slightly better than death warmed up. It was almost two weeks before we made it out of our room for some walking around town and the spending of our last dirhams before the flight out to Istanbul and on to Dublin.
Why did we have left over dirhams and feel the need to spend them instead of getting our passports, the ATM withdrawal receipts, finding a bank, checking the opening hours and going through the palaver of turning them back into euro… oh that's why. That and we'd allocated 100 dirhams a day (€10/day) for incidentals given that breakfast and dinner were included. For the first couple of weeks that went on fruit juices/smoothies, museums and whatnot. For the last couple of weeks it went on… nothing. So we bought two stunning pierced lanterns, one brass and one 'silver'. That was James's first outing as he was a couple of days ahead of me, necessitating a small jaunt to the lamp shop on the other side of our square. I managed to leave the room the following day and we secured a smoky quartz pendant from a jeweller in the souks… to go with the earrings from Essaouira. We set some aside for tips for the staff, we bought yet another extra bag and a 'hand of fatima' lucky charm to use as a bag tag. It represents protection and good fortune so figured it couldn't hurt to protect our luggage for the long trip ahead amidst the chaos of European air travel. That and despite being a mecca for bags and luggage generally, it's impossible to find bag tags anywhere - a gaping hole in the market.
Finally, after a month of eyeing off a silk velvet robe/coat/overdress that I didn't need (who does, really?), we gave in and went in for a look. Initial haggling was not productive and when we returned that night, the shop was shut. We looked elsewhere, we looked everywhere, for anything similar. We came to the conclusion that there was only the one shop in Marrakesch that sold them. And according to the owner he's very cheap and the same thing was at least €300-€400 La Mamounia's shop - which is neither here nor there. Whilst we explrored Churchill's hotel one day years ago just for a look, $10,000 a night is so far out of our ken as to make it entirely irrelevant what they charge for silk velvet robes. We did find something similar online in the USA, sourced from Morocco by overpaid designers. Seemed to be channelling La Mamounia pricing. Undeterred, on our last day, we (re)counted our dirhams and ventured forth once more to see if he could see it our way. James was a superb haggler as always and secured the silk velvet treasure for me. What a legend. Thankfully we had that extra bag and tag ready to go. And that's that. Marrakech finished once more. We did our final packing, we enjoyed our final dinner (chicken schnitzel - our favourite) and walked out the door for the final time at 7 pm Sunday. Onwards to Airport, Istanbul, Dublin - The World!