Marrakesh Christmas Muslim Style

December 2008, by Gini

With snow as early as October in London, one starts to doubt there is a sun at all in England. It was just another excuse to head to another country. With family heading to Morocco, warmer temperatures, actual sun and more undiscovered Tang terrain for all of us to explore, we opted for a Muslim Christmas In Africa.

We were booked into a riad owned by a German man named Hans and his Moroccan wife Sabah. It worked out to be roughly £30 a night and we weren't disappointed with our stay. Once we touched down in Marrakesh we bargained our taxi fare to 60 dirhams (under 6 pounds) to the main square called Jamaa El Fna to meet up with Sarah and then onto the maze of streets with no names to find our riad. Later we caught up with the other three, Paul, Lauren and Stephen after their 3 day trek in the Sahara desert. We finished our day back in the square with spicy sausages and a vegetable couscous dish at stall number 31, not bad!

We awoke the next day to blue skies and sun on Christmas day, but to no Santa. Breakfast was served on the riad's roof terrace which consisted of crepés (finally a good Roti!) fresh sponge cake, white bread, home made yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and tea or coffee. Not a bad way at all to start your day. It wasn't your average Christmas morning, in fact it didn't feel like Christmas at all. Which wasn't a bad thing as we were in a Muslim country so it was to be expected. 

To make it feel a little festive we headed for the food souks in search of a fresh tagine feast for all. Tom tried his hand at haggling a price for what we thought was a chicken, turns out there were roosters cock-a-doodling in the back and the chickens were in the next door stall, which might explain the stringy texture! Still, it tasted really good but it did take a little getting used to, the weighing of the live chickens handled upside down with the possibility at any moment the cleffa could go swinging. I just hope chickens have a short memory as they would have witnessed a few of their fellow feathered friends meeting their end. The vegetable purchase was a lot less stressful and they were very fresh.

With much of the day still to be had we explored the old royal palace ruins, not a lot to see but you got an idea of the sheer size of the grounds. The storks proved to be the source of entertainment with their nests scattered around the ruin walls, didn't see any babies in blankets though.

Being a Muslim country we came prepared. Each with a bottle of spirits in hand of different flavours and a couple of bottles of New Zealand wine for dinner. So we were covered for Christmas eating and drinking season. Before leaving for Morocco I was worried that it would be another full on tourist holiday of sights after sights but the night of Christmas enjoying the last of the sun with a lovely familiar NZ wine in hand on the roof terrace set the trend for the rest of the week. The dinner was a success, after much debate if the chicken was cooked, there were no Sainsbury's instructions! We finished with some lovely french pastries - yum! 

On a whole, the weather was interesting, through the day it was quite warm, t-shirt weather but at night, quite nippie so the fire came in handy.

Through the next few days we did the odd tourist attraction, the one place that stood out for us was the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic College founded in the 14th Century and could have housed up to 900 students at any one time. The craftsmanship on stone and wood was so detailed with only geometric patterns - no living creature is to be illustrated in the Islamic religion. It had an Asian feel to it as well, I guess that is why it appealed. The rest of the time was spent wandering the maze of streets and absorbing the Berber culture in the souks. 

After a few days of exploring - and lots of eating - we, with the help of Sarah's Moroccan friend Khalid, all climbed into a grand taxi to Setti Fatma, for a little mountain walk and some exercise. It was a quiant village, with wonderfully crooked bridges, river side restaurants and a quiet way of life for the locals compared to Marrakesh. The day was finished with more tagines, and one of our favourite dishes from the trip called tagine Kafta (meat balls with egg). It was a tight squeeze home in the taxi for an hour but we made it! With most of our time spent in the old Medina we stopped off in the New town to buy our bus tickets to Essaouira for Pauls Birthday and managed to find a supermarché and more booze! The prices weren't bad, Flag Moroccan beer for 10 dirmam a pop and wine 30dm.

The bus took 3 hours to Essaouira on the coast so we arrived just after sundown. Finding a riad for our two night stay was not a problem with a crowd of locals surrounding you as you hop off the bus with business cards and big promises of the best view in town. It didn't compare to Riad Sabah in Marrakesh but it was a bargin and had a nice view as well. Our only full day on the coast and it was Poggy's 30th Birthday. We had a lovely breakfast in a quiet square off the main market street and a rather funny competition of who's was the best cafe as we accidently sat in both cafes. I think the boys won.

Paul was promised a Hamman for his birthday but the times were different for boys and girls so the three girls headed for our Hamman around 2pm and left the boys to soak up the sun with a little James on the side. It was an interesting experience stepping into a streamy room with large naked women scrubbing one anothers backs with the occasional bucket of water over ones head. After the scrub down we all got a nice massage on the floor? not quite how I pictured it but an experience none the less. The Boys experience was much the same, but all men and not as much nakedness (we did, however, have the biggest, fattest Moroccan man you've ever seen, panting the whole time while massaging us ...... - Tom).

The one attraction we all wanted to try was the fresh fish market, where you choose your fish, barter your price and then have it cooked for you on the spot. We aren't sure of what we got, Altantic fish aren't the same as our kiwi scaly poissons. The only things we were sure of were the calamari, prawns and snapper. It all tasted great, bar the cold oil marinated pomme frites and left our fingers feeling raw and gritty as Paul would say. A fantastic experience, don't know why we don't have something like that in London! The birthday finished with black bitch (hearts) cards, chocolate ball cake and a puzzle of a coffee machine present from the Turners and Peck to Paul. With only a short time by the coast we headed back to Marrakesh to spend the New Years with another kiwi, Jean.

The weather finally showed us a little rain, it stopped us heading out but only for a little while. The souks pulled us in again, with such good quality, hand made merchandise it was hard to resist. It mostly consisted of leather goods, pots and plates, carved wood, jewellery and silk fabrics. With Paul and me working off each other against the poof man after half and hour we finally got the price down to something reasonable but what hard work! The Moroccans are a lot harder than the Thais at bargaining that is for sure! Lauren and Paul had a beautiful rolling pin made before our eyes from a talented craftsmen with a pet squirrel. Tom finally got his engagement present, a handmade chess set, which we christened on the plane ride home and a few tagines and spices were bought just because we hadn't had enough of them yet!

Our last night was New Years eve, we had seen Sabah (owner of the riad) cook some amazing things over the week and decided to splash out on a home cooked Moroccan meal at the riad. We weren't disappointed. Two large fish were cooked, one in tomato tagine style sauce and the other covered in 2kg of salt. Both delicious but I think we all agreed the salted one was more moist. Don't ask us what the fish were!

We woke with our last morning prayer booming from the speakers surrounding the local Mosque - something about God is great allah....... and cats outside meowing for food and who can forget the boys with the little drums on the corner. With one last visit to the souks for almonds a spot of lunch at lovely french cafe followed by 80 of the most delicious Macaroons you have ever tasted later we headed for the whitest thing in Marrakesh - the airport (newly built). For the first time since we started traveling I looked at our surroundings in Morocco and didn't think our life is so much better, its just a different way of life. There were many things which we could learn from Moroccans but at the end of the day I was happy to be heading back to our ticket priced country even if it was bloody cold and gray.

G
Fresh dried fruits and nuts

Fresh dried fruits and nuts

Christmas breakfast, bread, jams, crepes, croissants with tea and coffee

Christmas breakfast, bread, jams, crepes, croissants with tea and coffee

The local vege man, best green beans ever!

The local vege man, best green beans ever!

Stalks

Stalks

another rest

another rest

Out comes the 4th prayer of the day over the speakers

Out comes the 4th prayer of the day over the speakers

another square within the souks

another square within the souks

Houses on the hill

Houses on the hill

The view from our Riad over Essaouira

The view from our Riad over Essaouira

Bowels and bowels of olives

Bowels and bowels of olives

Naughty birdies into the pasta

Naughty birdies into the pasta