Friday, December 30, 2011

Hop on, hop off. Marrakesh.

Bab Agnaou
I don't know what it is about being on vacation but when I'm away from my regular routine at home, I can get up at the crack of dawn without an alarm clock.  So, I was up bright early, well before 8am which is when breakfast is served in the dining room or at least that was the time that I thought Hassan told us that breakfast would be served.

Never mind what time breakfast was, I was eager to get started on the day.  I've been looking forward to being in Marrakesh for years and now it's finally happening!  So excited as always!


 "Early bird doesn't get breakfast early"Soon and I were in the dining room pretty much right on the dot at 8 o'clock.  It was chilly inside the room.  There was no one else in sight.   Hmmm....that should have been a clue.

Since we had arrived at night, I didn't get a chance to really see the riad so I decided to check it out.  The place had two courtyards with the rooms ringing them.  I had to be quiet while I walked around; didn't want to wake up the other guests.

Looking up at the sky, I could see it was going to be another picture perfect day.  Spending winter in Morocco is definitely enjoyable from a weather point of view.


Riad Amira Victoria is larger than I had thought it would be.  For the money, it's nice but would be much nicer if the weather was warmer and we could enjoy the courtyards as well as the rooftop terrace.

It was definitely a chilly morning so I headed back inside though it was not much warmer there :-(

Inside the dining room, there was a pair of chairs and a loveseat flanking a small fireplace.  I decided to take a spot on one of the chairs to patiently wait for someone to come with food.  As a waitress in Merida, Mexico once said to us, "Those who want to eat will wait."  So true.

In a short while, the dining room would come to life.  One of the housekeepers entered in, picked up a remote control and turned on the heater.  Now, why didn't I figure that out earlier?

Mustafa, all dressed up in his uniform complete with white gloves and red fez, entered the room and waved us to a table.  We sat down at the same one as last night.   He then asked if wanted coffee or tea.  We both replied tea.  He shuffled off, presumably to the kitchen.  I hoped he would back with our breakfast.

Sure enough.  A few minutes later, Mustafa appeared with a small tray which held a small pot of tea, two cups and a small bowl of sugar cubes.  He then disappeared again and reappeared with more plates of food.  There were two plain croissants and a sampling of Moroccan breads along with a small plate of butter and servings of jam.  Simple breakfast and by now, Soon and I had become masters of filling our bellies up at breakfast as who knows when our next meal would be.....and what it would be :-)


Aaron and Mildred showed up a short while later.  I think they must have gotten the memo that breakfast is at 8:30 and not at 8:00.

A older French couple soon took their place in the room along with a family of four from Bulgaria.

Mustafa methodically went around and served everyone as he done for Soon and I.

Hassan started his day with coming into the dining room and chatting with everyone.  He seems like a very nice guy and he definitely has bonded well with the French tourists.   When he got to our table, I decided to take the opportunity to ask him if he would help me with arranging for transportation for our day tour to Essaouira.  The tour voucher clearly stated that they would only pick up from the major hotels in the city but there was no other information so I wanted Hassan to help figure out where we had to go to meet up with the tour group and how to get there.   Of course, he didn't turn down my request for assistance :-)

 "Lost again "After we had finished polishing off as much food as we could stuff in, we went on our way.   Mildred was still nursing her injured foot so we took it slowly, making our way back towards Djemma el Fna.  Of course, Soon had to recount our tale of getting lost last night.   All I was hoping was that we wouldn't get lost again though the chances we'd make it to the square in a straight shot were really slim to none.

We started out okay, passing the Medersa Ben Yousef.  After that, it was not good.  I think Soon and I realized we were lost when we had not arrived at the entrance to the souks when we expected to....seemed like we had not walked quite as far last night.  Not surprisingly, we had people pointing us in the right direction.  Even so, we were horribly lost.

Then, one very nice shop owner asked a man, whom he obviously knew, to take us to the square.  I looked at the man he was pointing to and he didn't look at all Moroccan to me.  We quickly introduced ourselves and as we walked, we chatted.  His name was Didier.  Born to French parents in Morocco.  He lived all his adult life in France until he retired when he and his partner decided to come to Marrakesh and buy a home that they would turn into a riad.  Wow!!   Of course, we told Didier about our story which was far, far less interesting than his.

It was early morning in the souk and stores were just starting to open up.   It was really nice walking and talking with Didier.

When we arrived into the square, we bid Didier goodbye.  I did give him my email address so he could send me the address of his riad.  I told him that if we had time (and more importantly, if we could find our way back), we would pay him a visit at his riad.   Very nice guy.  Sure enough, Didier emailed me.  It would be nice to spend more time with him but I don't know if the others are keen on doing that or not.

We realized that we had really gotten off path because we entered into the square at a point that was quite a distance from where Soon and I had been last night.  Amazing how easy it is to get completely disoriented in the winding streets of the souks.

 "No quiet here, not even in the morning "Even though it was fairly early in the morning, there was already a lot of hustle and bustle going on in the square.  The food vendors were not there but the orange juice vendors and the henna artists and snake charmers were already set up for the day.  This place must never sleep.





Without the masses of people filling in every inch of space, I could see just how expansive Djemma el Fna is.  Cars and motorcycles and the occasional horse drawn caleche whizzed by us.  You definitely have to pay attention walking in this place :-)






It was a beautiful morning in Marrakesh and we were in no rush to go anywhere so we took our time to stroll across the square and people watch at the same time.

We kept walking until we came to the end of Djemma el Fna.  We turned onto a street that was lined on one side by caleches, all waiting for someone to come along and hire them for a ride.  Not for us today.   Opposite the caleches, all lined up in a row, was the entrance to a Club Med.  I was surprised to see it because usually Club Meds are located in the off the beaten track places.   This one was smack dab in the middle of one of the most exotic cities in the world.   Outside the entrance, they had positioned two camels who were bleating loudly.....I don't think they wanted to be there.
 



The street dead ended at Avenue Mohammed V which is one of the main thoroughfares running through this part of the city.  It also happen to dead end where the Koutoubia Mosque, one of the most famous landmarks in the city, stood in all its glory.

We continued our walk towards Koutoubia.




When we got to Avenue Mohammed V, it was time for a photo op.  Since we can't go inside, taking pictures of the exterior is all we can do.




    
 "Me on a double decker tour bus? "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.  

He had a pamphlet in his hand and he was explaining something to two men.  We were curious so we decided to check out what he had to offer.


To my surprise, he was selling tickets for a hop on, hop off tour bus.   What?  I couldn't believe my eyes.  I see these buses all the time trolling the streets of DC.  In all my trips to cities in developing countries, I have to admit, this is the first place I've seen such a tour bus in.

Our luck, it's the height of winter tourist season so there was a deal to be had.  48 hours for 175 dirhams.  Would we take the deal?  Well, it took a bit of thought but in the end, we decided to take the plunge.  Our ticket would allow two full days of rides and for Mildred, that would mean being able to see the sights without having to risk further damage to her ankle.





We handed our money over to the guy and he handed back four headsets, like the ones you get for free on the airlines these days.  Apparently, we could plug in for a conducted tour in one of several different languages.

We only had about a 20 minute wait before the next bus would come by.  As we waited, the crowd around us grew. It would be a full bus....hopefully, not too packed!

 "And the tour begins "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.The bus pulled into the curb and we crowded around to board.  Aaron and Mildred opted for seats on the lower deck while Soon and I scampered up the stairs to the upper deck.  Soon was in front of me and spotted a pair of seats.   The upper deck was not covered so we got to enjoy the sunshine as we rode along.

We sat down just seconds before the bus pulled away from the curb.  I freed my headset from its plastic bag, plugged it in and chose the English channel.  Soon decide to go headset free.

According to the map, we were at stop #14 and we had two more stops to go on this route which was named the "Tour Historique".  Our next stop would be the Saadian Tombs which is a major tourist attraction.  I made a mental note of where the bus stopped as the Tombs were on my list of must-see places.

 
On the way to stop #15, we passed the famous Bab Agnaou which is the most well known of Marrakesh's 19 medina gates.  I made another mental note of its location because we are definitely coming back to take a closer look.

After the Saadian Tomb drop off point, the bus did a u-turn and headed back towards Djemma el Fna along Ave Mohammed V.  Soon had no idea what we were driving by so when I heard the information over my headset, I blurted it out to him.




Across the street from Bab Agnaou was the Presidential Palace of Mohamed VI.  You're not suppose to take pictures of the palace but I don't think they can stop you if you're on the 2nd deck of a tour bus so Soon managed to get a photo but unfortunately, it was of the outer wall.  Hey, can't expect too much when you're on a moving bus :-)




 
Stop #16 was the Hotel La Mamounia which is a 5 star hotel.  According to my headset conductor, the hotel was recently renovated.  I'm sure it's a nice place but the only reason I could come up for why it qualifies it to be on the Tour Historique, is because he hotel was built decades ago.  Otherwise, why?? 

We were headed to Stop #1 which was the first stop on both the Tour Historique and the Tour Oasis. We decided to do a full ride of both tour circuits.

On our way to Stop #1, we passed by both Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and La Poste which was Stop #18 and the last stop on the Tour Historique.   La Poste, which was the main post office was located on the busy Avenue Mohammed V, just stone's throw away from a roundabout known as Place du Novembre 16.  The significance of that date is that it was the day in 1955 that King Hassan II returned to Morocco after having been exiled to Corsica, by the French Authorities, on August 20, 1953.

The bus took quite a long pause at Stop #18.   We were standing in front of a very fancy looking apartment/shopping complex completed with a McDonald's that looked like it was doing a brisk business.  According to the announcer in my headset, we had arrived into the upscale neighborhood of Gueliz ("guh-leez").  It was a pretty modern, fancy looking complex.  Soon made a note that we would have to come back and check it out.

 Our next stop was our final destination on this circuit of the tour.  The bus came to a dead stop.  I unplugged my headset and followed Soon off the bus.  We met back up with Aaron and Mildred on the street.   We had to wait quite a while for the Tour Oasis bus to arrive and in Marrakesh, it seems like the printed times are just rough guidelines.

 "Oasis, here we come "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.Located close by to the tour bus stop was a bakery.  I had plenty of time to kill so why not check it out? :-)   The selection of pastries and cookies was unbelievable.  Half the store focused on French inspired baked goods and the other half on Arab inspired specialties.

It was obviously a very upscale store.  All the salespeople were women dressed in one lab style jackets.   Looking around, it was also obvious this was not a help yourself kind of place.   White cardboard boxes, stacked neatly on shelves below the cookie displays, stood at the ready to be filled.  As tempting as it was to buy a sampling of cookies, I didn't want to have to lug them around with me.  Since we have a two day bus ticket, maybe tomorrow.

By the time I rejoined Aaron and Mildred, I could have sworn that the crowd of people had grown.  I was hoping they weren't all waiting for the Tour Oasis bus.

As we stood waiting patiently for our bus to arrive, street vendors were plying the crowd trying to sell everything from nuts to sunglasses to leather belts.  There was even an enterprising young boy who had rigged up a boombox to a 9 volt battery for power and was selling music CDs.  None of the guys were making a sale though if I had the nerve I would have suggested to the leather belt guy to sell something that would appeal more to tourists. 

Sometime well after when it was suppose to have departed, our bus arrived.  We queued up to board.  This time, the upper deck was already filled so we had to stand on the lower deck.  Luckily, I did find an outlet to plug my headset into.

Our first stop was Marjorelle Gardens which was also on my must-see list so it was good to know we could take the bus get here.....that would have to be tomorrow.

 After Marjorelle Gardens, well, we are on the Tour Oasis so we saw one palmeraie after another.


We were on the edge of the area known as La Palmeraie which was created by the Almovarid Dynasty.  Originally, the area was planted with 100,000 palm trees, interspersed with olive and fruit trees and irrigated by khettaras.  Today, only a fraction of the original plants exist.  As we drove through, we saw palm trees, sand and camels.....lots of palm trees, sand and camels and more palm trees, sand and camels.  I can understand the palm trees and the sand but the camels?  Apparently, enterprising locals bring camels into town so tourists who don't have time or the chance to venture into the desert get to ride them in one of the palmeraies. I stopped taking photos after a while.  How many pictures can you have of palm trees, sand and camels?

Next on the Tour Oasis was a drive through the part of palmeraie where all the upscale hotels are.  Hmmm.....they're really reaching for things to show us :-(  The last leg of the tour took us through a bit of a commercial area.   All in all, it took about an hour to do the whole circuit.  Nothing really to want to return to except for Marjorelle.

 "Lunch break "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.At the end of the circuit, we got dropped back off at Stop #1.   Though we still had the rest of the Tour Historique route to do, our stomachs were calling.  It was well past the lunch hour so we decided to take a break from riding the bus to find a place to eat and have a bit of rest.

Soon suggested we head back to the upscale apartment/shopping complex that we had passed earlier on.

We were standing at at intersection where five streets crossed.  Challenge #1.  Figure out which street was Avenue Mohammed V without any street signs to tell us.  Why don't they have street signs??  We started walking down the street that seemed to make the most sense based on the map we had in hand.  We got our confirmation thanks to a business address that was printed on sign on one of the buildings.

We had no idea how far we had to walk so we decided if we found a restaurant that looked okay, we would just go ahead and eat there. 

Even though we were technically speaking in a suburb of Marrakesh, there was no escaping the souvenir vendors.  As we walked, they approached us.  Some just left you alone if you said, "No thank you" but there was always at least one persistent one.  For some reason, always seem to latch on to Aaron.  Poor guy.

We eventually did cross path with a restaurant that had a large crowd, sitting Parisian style and eating curbside.  For us, it was a bit chilly to be eaten outdoors so we opted for a table inside.

The lunch menu here had pretty much the same offerings as all the other places we had been to - the usual selection of soup, salad, grilled meats, and tajines.  They did have one unusual thing which was fruit smoothies but they were unusual combinations.  I had a fig and almond smoothie.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to enjoy it as much as I would have loved to because it was overly sweet.  Whoever made it probably added sugar to the concoction without tasting it.  It did give me an idea though so I'm going to try and make the same combination the next time figs are in season.  I can see this a very healthy, high fiber drink.

Lunch over, we used the facilities, paid the bill and hit the pavement.  We figured that we had probably walked a good distance towards Stop #18 so we decided to just continue in that direction.

Geuliz seems to be an up and coming place; lots of construction going on everywhere.  We had to be careful as we walked along, as there were sections where we had to basically walk along the road because of construction.

 "Back on the bus "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.In due time, we arrived at Stop #18 though there wasn't a sign post to tell us where to stand so we had to keep watch for an arriving bus.  Soon wandered off to take pictures of the complex.


We had no idea when the bus would be by so we just had to wait.  Thank goodness, it was a beautiful day and it had warmed up to the perfect temperature for walking.  I was really enjoying the weather.

The bus eventually arrived and surprisingly, there were others waiting as well.  Where were they standing?  In any case, we queued up and boarded.  This time, we were lucky; there were seats on the upper deck.

The bus continued on to Stop #1 where more passengers got on board.  It then circled the roundabout and headed back towards the Koutoubia Mosque.

We took a bit of detour and drove through another high end neighborhood called Hivernage which is filled with high end hotels, resorts, golf courses and apartments.  According to the announcer, over my headset, Hivernage is a newly established part of town and it shows; everything looks spanking new and clean.   As we rode down Avenue Mohamed VI, I could see the snow capped Atlas Mountains in the far, far distance.


Hivernage is also home to the city's performing arts theatre (the Théâtre Royal) and the Menara Gardens, which was built by the Almohad Dynasty in the mid-12th century.  The garden is also on my must-see list though I'm not sure if the other three are keen on seeing it.  And, last but not least, the area is where Gare de Marrakech is located.....good to know what it looks like as we'll be there in a few days time to take the train to Casablanca.

 "Back to the Hustle and Bustle"As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella. Soon, we were back on Avenue Mohammed V and the Koutoubia Mosque was in sight.  The bus stopped in front of Koutoubia.  We could have gotten off and just crossed the street to get to Djemma el Fna but we were feeling really lazy and decided to just ride the bus there instead.  Yes, today I was a pathetic tourist :-(


Our bus tour ended in the same spot that it had started on.  We got off the bus and made our way towards the center of Djemma el Fna.  It was about mid-afternoon and the food vendors were wheeling their carts into the square and getting set up.  It's quite something to think that the set up and dismantle every day.


One cart after the other got wheeled in while at the carts that had already been set into place, men were atop the frames draping over the white plastic roof coverings.  There must be a law that requires that all the food carts have white roof coverings because there was not a single deviated from that color. 

Soon and I were fascinated with what the vendors were doing so we took a few minutes to take some photos and Soon shot a few videos as well which I have compiled into one.


Standing in the middle of the square, we were ears and eyes deep into the chaos of activity and noise....there's a lot of noise.   Aaron and Mildred was captivated by the street vendors and so he and Mildred and catch some of the acts.  So, we split up and agreed to meet back up in about 20 minutes.  Before Soon and I wandered off, I decided to capture a bit of the hustle and bustle on video.


Soon and I walked around.  There was so much going on, it was hard to take it all in and digest it.  I just started taking pictures; it gave me a way to dissect the place up into manageable bites if you will.  I don't know if that makes any sense.  Anyway, lots of photos and I also didn't want to lose track of Soon because when we're concentrating on photos, we tend to forget where the other person is :-)


There were the street performers, the food vendors, and the people selling all sorts of things a lot of which I did not recognize.  There was even a man with a small table set up atop which there were teeth....human teeth.  I definitely had no idea what he was all about.

The snake charmers were everywhere as were the monkey guys....I don't know what you call them.  Basically, they have a monkey on a chain and you pay to have the monkey sit on your shoulder or your head or whatever body part you want to offer up.   It felt like every inch of space was occupied by somebody something or other or selling something or other.  It was like a weekend town market on crack.

Of course, there is an *aisle* of food carts selling snail soup.   Oh yeah, I'll be having a bowl.


We met back up with Aaron and Mildred.  He was in as much awe over the place as we were.



I had read that a fun thing to do is to go to one of the restaurants with roof top terraces and watch the hub bub of the square from high above.   The place that was recommended by most travel references was Café de France. It wasn't hard to spot the restaurant and it wasn't hard to spot the fact that every inch on the terrace was already occupied.  The restaurant had three terraces overlooking the square It was just approaching 3:30pm and I was surprised that all the terraces were filled.

Closer to where we were standing was another restaurant with just one terrace overlooking the square.  It too looked filled but we decided to go ahead and check it out.  The stairs to the terrace were located just to the left of the main entrance to the restaurant.  A posted clearly stated that purchase was mandatory.  Fair enough....though I was certain the prices would be well inflated. We headed up the stairs and at the top, there was a line of people waiting to get inside.  The restaurant had set up a turnstile at the exit so you couldn't sneak in.  A man was standing at the entrance taking drink orders.

We decided not to stay, can't be bothered to stand in line.  We'll just plan on coming back tomorrow and be here at an earlier time so we can beat the crowd.

 "Calling it a day"As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.The sun had long disappeared over the horizon and we decided we had enough for today. 

It was time to head back to the riad.  Soon and I knew how to enter the souk and so we led the way.

It seemed to be just as crowded inside the souk as it was outside the square.

We had to dodge oncoming people, motorbikes, carts and annoying salesmen.  I tell you, this place is crazy.


No one seemed to be in the mood to do any shopping so we quickly made our way through the souks.  All was fine, of course, until after we exited the souk.  We headed in what we thought was the right direction, at least according to the map.  The guys were navigating.  We walked this way and that way.  The streets were quiet and eerily lit by very dim streetlights.  


 "Lost.....AGAIN! "As we stood, debating whether or not to cross the street to take close up photos of the mosque's minaret, something else caught our eye.  It was a guy dressed in white shirt and red vest standing near by a matching red colored umbrella.Every now and again, I thought I recognized a landmark but I was wrong.  We did find our way back to the Medersa Ben Yousef but after that, we just got horribly lost.  Surprisingly, there was no one around offering to guide us until we asked for it.  I stopped a young man walking alongside us and I showed him the map and where the riad was located.  As nice as he was, he had no idea how to direct us.  Just so happens, a shop keeper overheard our conversation and offered up a young boy to take us there.  I think the kid ran off but he insisted that we wait until he could find someone to take us.  While we waited, he pointed us to his shop.....he sold gold jewelry which none of us were interested in so we thanked him but politely declined his offer to take a closer look.  A older man showed up and the shopkeeper negotiated the deal - 5 dirhams for each of us.  I didn't even have to think twice.  Deal!

We followed the man as was the case the night before, Soon recognized the street our riad is so we paid the man, thanked him and bid him goodnight.

Back at the riad, I was just settled in when there was a knock at the door.  It was Aaron.  He was going to go and get some bottled water for he and Mildred and he wanted to know if we wanted to come along.  I was in the mood for some Coca Cola, which for some reason I rarely drink when I'm at home but I'm guzzling down like mad when I'm traveling.  Soon, Aaron and I headed out.  Aaron had spotted a small convenience store as we were led back by the older man.  So, we backtracked and a very short distance later, found the store.  We got our drinks and munchies and headed back to the riad.

Back in the room, it was my usual night time routine.  Shower, a bit of laundry, blogging and bed.  Tomorrow is another full day for us in Marrakesh.  It's also New Year's Eve so I'm hoping I can find something for us to do or some place for us to go to celebrate it.

Been a long but good day.  Time for some shut eye. Goodnight Marrakesh!