Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hello, Marrakesh

There's something romantic about arriving in a new land after dark. You don't get the postcard first impression, but a world more mysterious, veiled. We came in by night, and a waiting car whisked us from the airport to the medina, the ancient walled heart of the city. In most of the medina, the derbs, or alleys, are too narrow for cars, so we went the last little way on foot -- our first footsteps in Africa.

We weren't staying in a tourist quarter of the city, but in the northern medina in an unvarnished Marrakshi neighborhood. There was nothing familiar here -- not another tourist, nary another non-Moroccan, and not even a sign we could read. Only modest shops, Arabic script, and local people doing local things.

We went wide-eyed, a tiny bit rigid probably, not knowing what to expect. Our car, as soon as it neared the city gate, had been pounced upon by a young man whose unblinking sanpaku eyes gave him a whiff of the psychopath. He spoke through the window with our driver; he was intense and unnerving. What was he saying? What did he want? Discussions in Arabic can sound, to the untrained ear, like an argument even when they're not. What were they discussing? Our fates? Ha ha.

Nothing sinister, as it turned out. The young man had a cart, and wanted to carry our luggage to the riad. This is how things are done in the medina. Men with carts wait at the gates for tourist taxis to come along with all their unwieldy luggage. Okay then. A fee was arrived at and we were off -- he went at a trot, and didn't even glance back to see if we were keeping up. 

The last twisting turn led us into a covered alley of profound darkness that was, thankfully, short-lived. We emerged on the far side at the unmarked door of the riad, and then we were home.


"Home" is one of Clementine's words, and on the trip she took to saying it as soon as we would return to any of our accommodations. She's not stingy with the designation! If our bed is there, and we are there, it's home. And Riad Samsara really did feeling like home.

One thing about Morocco: the accommodations are not just a place to sleep. They are an integral part of the cultural experience. A riad is a traditional Moroccan courtyard house, plain Jane on the outside, without even exterior windows, their rich, jewel-box interiors completely hidden within, giving a fully enclosed feeling of peace, of nest. Samsara has only three guestrooms, and the experience is like being a very welcome guest in a beautiful and gracious home.

Dinner was waiting for us. Our first Moroccan meal.

And it was good.

The dining room could not have been lovelier.

photo courtesy of Jacqueline Brandt

Not to mention Clementine-friendly.

{more after the jump!}

The courtyard: paradise.

photo courtesy of Jacqueline Brandt

Up some very steep stairs ...

... to our room. Oh wow.

photo courtesy of Jacqueline Brandt

Even our bathroom was gorgeous, done in pale aqua tadelakt (glossy lime plaster). 

Not to neglect the kitchen. Look at those tadelakt built-ins. Sigh.

* * *

When we woke in the morning, we had our first glimpses of Marrakesh by day.

Last night's roses ...

... soon refreshed.

Sunrise from the roof terrace.

Breakfast, waiting below.

Meals, you may notice, are right at toddler height. This made things ... interesting. 
Jam, Clementine? Ah, yes, help yourself :-)

And it wasn't just the low tables. There were toddler attractions everywhere.
"Splash," is another of Clementine's words, and my, does she love a fountain.

Rested and fed, we were ready to strike out and see the city. The housekeeper Milouda gave us a map, wrote down the address for us in Arabic in case we needed to solicit local help to find our way back (which is no joke), and then gave us a gentle nudge out of the Samsara cocoon.

By day, the front door. You'd never guess at the splendor within.

On the very right, below, you see the alley that was so pitch black the night before.

Out into the neighborhood ...

... and off to discover Marrakesh.

In the next post :-)

Travel details:
Riad Samsara is owned by a wonderful Swiss woman, Jacqueline Brandt, who also built a guesthouse in the Atlas Mountains using all traditional methods -- we will visit Douar Samra in a later post. It was the mountain property that caught my eye in the Lonely Planet magazine (this magazine is THE BEST TRAVEL MAGAZINE EVER BY A MILLION MILES. GET IT. It's expensive to subscribe from the US, but so worth it. So juicy wonderful. Did I say get it? Get it.), and from there I ended up corresponding with Jacqueline and booking Riad Samsara too. Wonderful.

It is near Bab Taghzout, in the northern medina, about a 15-minute walk to the center, with the caveat that that's if you find your way on the first try. To which I say: ha!

The getting lost thing? When I read about it, preparing for the trip, it sounded kind of quaint -- getting lost in Marrakesh, you know? Cool. But oh, when you just want to get back to the riad with your tired toddler, and you can't find it and can't read the signs, it's a feeling of terrible helplessness and frustration. After a few days, we thought we had it nailed, and we made the mistake of gloating out loud about our directional prowess before we were quite safely back. I believe the words, "Suck it, Marrakesh," escaped my lips. Well, Marrakesh had the last laugh. We still got lost! God, it was impossible. However, it was very easy and cheap to take a taxi from the Jemaa to Bab Taghzout, cutting drastically down on lost-getting potential. 

I would definitely recommend Riad Samsara. It is a peaceful and gorgeous spot where you will be very well cared for. And do have dinner there at least one night. Milouda's cooking was the best we had on our trip.


tone almhjell said...

Oh, how absolutely lovely! That is one of the prettiest hotels I have ever seen.

Again, I cringe at the thought of Magnus and the low tables full of pretties and food. Last night, the boys were out of town, and I actually put flowers on the table. In a breakable vase. With water. Crazy.

Laini Taylor said...

Tone, that IS crazy, ha ha! I don't know when I'll be able to do that! And yeah, that was a beautiful place but not restful with Clementine. Oy. Always trying to keep her from breaking something or swimming in that fountain! The owner was amazing with her though, and played with her and gave her stuff to play with -- Clementine fell in love with her!

Anonymous said...

Awesome photos Fatty! There needs to be a coffee book of photos of Miss Clementine called Pie in Morocco- little Pie in pink headdresses, little Pie splashing in an oasis, making friends with cats, oh the crazy wonderfulness of Clementine! are you going to put together an album like Mexico's???? Remember the theme word of today: PointsPlus (not points, I got dinger for not remembering the 'Plus')

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Johari said...

I've always wished to travel to Morocco and your photos have rekindled the dream! :)

persnickety_jen said...

There is no better cure for waking up to a cold gray morning than seeing more of your beautiful photos from Marrakesh! So warm and inviting. I dream of such exotic travels... even if I get a little lost along the way. :)

Katie Anderson said...

Wow. These are beautiful!

melanie said...

Thank you for sharing your trip, Laini! I can't wait to see more photos. These are just gorgeous.

Kjersten said...

I love looking at these photos and reading about your adventures. Makes me feel I should be better about blogging about these crazy years I'm having abroad traveling with child. Thanks for sharing, Laini!

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