If my last post wasn’t enough of a hint (in which case then you haven’t read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and you definitely should) I went to Africa this past weekend! On Thursday thanks to a great seat sale by Ryanair and an invite to join Paige’s trip, I left for Marrakech, Morocco. Our riad was located inside the Medina, the old part of the city, within the wall. By walking the tiny side streets toward it you wouldn’t expect much but the plain red stone exterior is a facade for the gorgeous riad within. We were lucky enough to each get our own room and bathroom. The centre of the riad was open roofed. Within there were trees crawling up the columns, dotted with violet flowers, and its vines twisting through the railings. A friend of the owner gave us travel advice over mint tea. The aroma of the tea was intoxicating, so sweet and fresh.
Friday morning the housekeeper made us breakfast – Matlouh, a flatbread traditional to Morocco, with jams, marmalade, and honey. And how could I forget butter! Such a nice change to have butter given to you with bread. I wish Spain would do the same! Once we were finished we embarked out for the day, heading to the various souks within the walls. We ended up at Souk El Khemis, which as we learned turns into a labyrinth of small narrow streets filled with vendors selling all sorts of things. As we walked into the main square there was so much going on. Monkeys, snakes (including a dancing cobra), drums, singing, and so much more – to say the least all your senses were going into overdrive, constantly being triggered. The souks contained everything you could imagine. Colourful rows of spices, cloths, olives, and trinkets lined the narrow streets. The smells were amazing, although what exactly it was you smelt at each point you may never know. The vendors were a tad pushy and as always I’m a tad too Canadian and just can’t ignore them. However, I did have some good laughs with some of them and by the end we had quite the list of hilarious things that had been said to us. To name a few: Spice Girls, Shakira, “oh my gahd”, and an offer to buy Paige for 10,000 camels. Afterwards we stopped for lunch at a rooftop patio amidst the market. I had amazing chicken kebabs while Juli and Cata had tajine and Paige had pastilla. Tajine is an African dish named after the pot it is cooked in. What comes inside varies widely; Juli had a chicken, lemon, and olives one while Cata’s was filled with meatballs and vegetables. Paige’s pastilla was probably the most interesting dish of all of ours. Traditionally it is served with pigeon meat, however, Paige had a chicken one. It is almost like a little pie pastry filled with chicken, nuts, and spices and then sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon on top. It sounds like a weird concept but I have to admit I was impressed how well it actually tasted. Personally I couldn’t eat a whole one but it was delicious – like a lunch and dessert in one!
On Saturday, we started off the morning with Beghrir, Moroccan pancakes. They look similar to Canadian pancakes minus they are more squishy and have a spongy appearance. We headed to Jardin Majorelle, which is a garden owned by YSL. Inside we saw the iconic blue building and more varieties of cacti than I previously knew existed. Later that day we went to Ali Ben Youssef Medersa, previously a Quranic learning centre, and the El Badi Palace, though unfortunately we came a little late to that one and only had half an hour to wander through the grounds. It was a beautiful time of day to go however, and the sun cast a picturesque colour onto the stone. That evening we went into the new part of town, which we were previously warned was very European. It was crazy how different the city was on each side of the wall. In the Medina the buildings were old and the people dressed much more conservatively and traditionally. In the newer part of town recognizable stores and restaurants were everywhere to be found and not everyone, but a lot more people, were dressed less conservatively. I even saw a girl in a crop top and if you sat within the restaurants you could even get alcohol on this side of the wall! However, we chose to opt for tea and the opportunity to sit outside and enjoy the warmth potentially one last time before winter sets upon us in Pamplona. I had cous cous for the first time and it was by far my favourite meal of the trip. And bonus, it’s also just a really fun word to say!
On Sunday I did a day excursion to Ksar of Aït Benhaddou and Quarzazate with a group our riad owner had helped me book. Paige, Julia, Amaya, and Cata went to the Ouzourd Falls instead. They felt the 4 hour drive was too much for such a short trip but I really wanted to see more of Morocco than just Marrakech. We were supposed to do a desert trek but everyone backed out on that too unfortunately, so I will be back to Africa at some point in my life because the whole reason I came was to go to the desert! Oh well, the excursion was still a great experience. We started our drive through the Atlas Mountains and aside from being a vey windy, bumpy drive the spectrum of landscapes we passed was incredible. From lush green mountainside to cacti filled ones to Grand Canyon like terrain, the drive never failed to amaze. Finally we arrived at the barren landscape, the kind where you know you must be getting close to the desert. Ksar Ait Ben Haddait is a UNESCO site, traditionally a caravan route passed right in front, it was used as a safe haven for travellers to rest for a few nights. Today, a few families still live within it and even though you may not recognize the name, believe me you have seen it on television or in a movie at some point. Game of Thrones (I died a little when I realized this), Gladiator, and the Mummy have all been filmed there just to name a few. We had the opportunity to see a resident of the ksar paint with tea – green, mint, and saffron – and indigo which didn’t look like much until he burned it and suddenly the colours immersed as the paints caramelized. He also made art by burning a wooden board with the sun’s ray. It was unreal to see him slowly angle and move a magnifying glass as the sun scorched the board. I didn’t even know that was a thing!
On our drive home we passed a Shepard walking his heard of sheep. As they waited for us to pass by to cross the road, I couldn’t help but think of The Alchemist and of Santiago and how it was so amazing that this was still a way of life for some people. It just made me happy to be reminded of the book while in Morocco and was the perfect ending to the day. As we drove onward the sun began to set behind the Atlas Mountains turning the sky the most stunning colours of purple and pink. It was a breathtaking site to behold – to see the barrenness of the desert splayed in front of you contrasted with the end of the horizon. It was without a doubt the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen.