This blog post is an entry into the Foodies100/GLORIOUS! soup #GloriousAdventures blogger challenge. You can view more about the challenge, and indeed GLORIOUS! soup in general, by visiting its website: www.gloriousfoods.co.uk.
I chose to write my Glorious Adventure blog, taking inspiration from the Moroccan Spiced Chicken flavour in the GLORIOUS! soup range, about my own adventure with my sister in Marrakech a few years back.
Giant monkeys on chains being thrown at passersby. Skinny snakes that are questionably venomous curling around pedestrians’ wrists. The smell of flesh (human or otherwise) burning around the city. No this is not a nightmare or a scary story. This is Marrakech, aka Arabia on Acid.
A few years ago, my sister and I took an autumn holiday, escaping the UK for a week of sun, souks, and scams. We had no idea what to expect, which is exactly how I would recommend travelling to the Moroccan city. When we disembarked the plane on Sunday night, we were greeted with a bonfire smell in the air and smoke hanging in the sky. It felt mysteriously inviting. Had a magic carpet flown up next to us to transport us to our hotel, it would not have been surprising. Unlucky for us, there was no carpet. Instead we encountered our first of many taxi rides where the cars are questionably road-worthy and the drivers are questionably licensed.
As it was over 30 degrees Celsius, our days were spent lounging by the pool, soaking up the sun and the hotel’s choice of music—Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, and David Guetta to name but a few select artists. But by six pm, when the Marrakech sun began to set each night, we ventured into Djemaa El-Fna or the city’s square (medina). The origins of the medina’s name are unclear as is the translation, but some say Djemaa El-Fna means “the mosque or assembly of death,” or “The Mosque at the End of the World”. Either definition would be apt.
The square is a grown up version of Disney’s Aladdin—well, if that grown up was very high on some form of hallucinogenic. In the medina, the locals zoom passed you on mopeds without a care in the world. Pavements and stop signs hold no authority and the pedestrian is certainly never right. Just as you start to adjust to the fact that your life could be taken at any moment by killer mopeds, you are then attacked by monkeys so large they could be the flying ones out of Wizard of Oz (which, by the way, still give me nightmares). It doesn’t stop at monkeys being used as an effort to win tourists’ money. There are also men walking around with sly yellow snakes, trying to wrap them around people’s arms and necks. Monkeys, mopeds and snakes—oh my. Women grab your hands to tattoo you with henna and transvestite belly dancers try to hypnotise you with their hips.
On our first night in the medina, we must have looked completely baffled and totally western. A local man (naturally on a moped) asked us if we needed to be guided somewhere. He said he lives nearby the tannery, and he would lead us there on his way home. Describing it as the place where leather is made, he said we will “love” the shops nearby. When he started to talk about gas masks, alarms went off in our heads. We arrived at the tannery where the mopeded man handed us over to another local who gave us each a bunch of fresh mint and instructed us to hold it under our nose as a gas mask.
(Brief interruption—I think I am a pretty strong person. I do not get fazed easily, but there are some things I cannot stomach or handle. This includes: bad smells (who can?), stray animals (particularly in foreign countries—if you need to ask me why then you never saw the documentary on rabies that kept me up for nights in fear), and hair (wet hair in the shower, clumps of hair on the floor, and especially heaps of hair and fur engulfing my feet).
So, the fact that I screamed out loud in the tannery (the place where all good smells go to die) when a stray scraggly dog jumped out at me and shaved fur was as far as the eye could see, should come as no shock. The tannery: everything I hate in the world all bundled up into one disgusting pitted package. The real shame of it (apart from the fact that our “guides” then thought we should pay them 300 dirham each) was that I could taste the smell of the tannery on everything I ate for the rest of the week.
Which leads nicely on to the food. I expected cinammoned tagines, meat speckled cous cous, chargrilled kebabs. In fact, we were met with argan oil flavoured everything. Argan is a local Moroccan tree. The oil comes from its kernels. I’ve never found an oil I don’t like, but this one has such a strong flavour that it killed the flavour of the food, which I found normally under seasoned anyway. Shocking for a place so known for its spices.
The food was not all bad though. The sweets are worth indulging in—although after so much honey and almond, they all start to taste the same sweet concoction.
We ate at a highly recommended restaurant, Le Foundouk, where a giant pastilla, or sweet and savoury chicken pie was a filo packaged star. Cinnamon and sugar adorned the pastry case and nuts and chicken filled the inside of the pie—a crunchy, confusingly pleasing dish that was just too large to eat even half of.
The food in the market stalls was undeniably great, and also the cheapest. Huge plates of chicken breast on fluffy vegetable cous cous, crispy calamari, and Moroccan salad, which consists of ripe tomatoes and spicy red onions, were all a pleasant break from the labyrinth that is the medina. A quick bite and then back to manoeuvre around the Marrakech maze.
The souks (or marketplace) are intoxicating. Each stall has something more beautiful than the next—pottery, leather bags, lamps—all crying out to be bartered for. The stall owners grab you and try to lure you into their shop with promises of free goods, samples, or even air conditioning that does not actually exist. It’s hard not to get lost, but getting lost is the best option to find even more hidden gems along the way. One wrong turn and my sister and I ended up in a lotion stall that had hanging dead animals from the ceiling and live ones in cages. I must admit, it was a little intense, but it’s this sort of random scenario that adds to the magic of Marrakech.
If all the monkeys, snakes, transvestites, scam artists, stray animals, argan-flavoured food and bad smells are putting you off, then don’t let them. There’s no denying that the holiday was more adventurous than relaxing and more interesting than most, but surely that is what makes a holiday special. A large part of the Marrakech charm lies in its locals and their differences from us (even the harassing men shouting “jiggy jiggy” are more amusing than menacing). The fact that no one ever has change to give you, while without a doubt annoying, added to the humour that the holiday provided.
It is a place that is steeped in beauty and mystery. Where exactly does that burning flesh smell come from and why is there always smoke all around the city? Is it definitely a man belly dancing under that burqa? Is tonight the night we won’t get attacked by crazed henna tattooist? The questions are endless and, to be honest, you wouldn’t want the answers.
Go to Marrakech, get lost a few times, take some wrong turns, and give some dirham to a local boy who probably just directed you somewhere you knew you how to get to anyway. The point is it doesn’t matter. Go there knowing very little about the city, and come back feeling like you know even less. This is its appeal. This is the Marrakech mystery. It will be the safest and most legal high you have ever had.