The road to Ait ben Haddou

I was a little worried about our road trip yesterday (Wednesday. When you research the option of renting a car and driving around Morocco, you discover two very different schools of thought. One is dark: Moroccan drivers are terrible, the road-death toll is high, the pass over the mountains blood-curdling. On the other, sanguine, side of the fence, people attest that the roads are mostly well-surfaced and once you're outside the cities, driving is no big deal. We weighed both, and after talking to a couple of friends who've driven here, we decided that the advantages of getting from Marrakech to Fes in our own (rented) vehicle outweighed the alleged drawbacks.

Arranging the rental was also not without its complications. Go online and google “Morocco car rentals” and you'll find lots many choices. But the comments and reviews of most of them discouraged me. I finally posted a question on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree travel discussion forum, and I heard good things about Malta Car. I emailed the main contact person, Jawad, and arranged for a car to be delivered to our riad at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 19.

This was a good call. It's possible I could have gotten a cheaper rental had we waited to arrange it until after we arrived here. But that would have required hours of work, and as it was, we didn't have time to see at least a couple of key Marrakech attractions. Instead two young people showed up at our riad as arranged, shortly after 9 yesterday (Wednesday) morning, then they led us on foot out of the inner medina to the place where they had parked our gleaning white Dacia Logan (a type of Renault). The young woman was sweet and charming; her male colleague efficient. They pulled out forms for us to fill in…

...on the trunk.

 

and a credit-card-processing machine to log our deposit and vehicle-rental payment. They patiently answered all our silly questions (“Do the windshield wipers work?” “What are the rules for entering a traffic circle?” etc.) When we got to asking about the details of how we should get out of Marrakech, they gallantly offered to drive us to the road out of town. And so they did! (Another colleague then collected them and took them back to the city.)

It's not Kansas, but it wasn't Hell either.

This was a godsend; it made our day easy. The car is fine, the roads are indeed well-paved. The weather was glorious and the scenery spectacular. We did occasionally get trapped behind a Scandinavian hogging the road in an RV, and some of the hairpin turns and low guardrails in the Atlas Mountains made me hold my breath. But there simply wasn't all that much traffic, and with a stop for lunch and a bit of roadside shopping and photo-shooting, we pulled into our B&B in Ait ben Haddou (the Cafe Baghdad) and around five hours after we bade Karima and her colleague goodbye.

We whiled away the rest of the day exploring the old fortified town (ksar) of Ait ben Haddou. It's a spectacular place — a UNESCO World Heritage site that in centuries past figured prominently in the salt trade. For more than 50 years, moviemakers have flocked here to shoot scenes from Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Gladiator, Babel, and more. The ksar served as a set for the second season of Game of Thrones. And people told us that just five weeks ago Nicole Kidman was here, starring in something called The Queen of the Desert.

 

 

When Nicole was filming, the movie-makers closed the ksar to tourists. So we lucked out by not arriving here then. Being in the set feels like being in a movie fantasy set, and there's more of the same on the road ahead of us — kasbahs, palm oases, and beyond, the beginning of the Sahara.

 

 

Good old-fashioned fun

One of the coolest things about the Jemaa el Fna — the enormous public space at the heart of the Marrakech medina — is how the action changes throughout the day. When S and I walked through it about 9 Tuesday morning, we saw more henna ladies than anything else. They'll paint fancy designs on your hands and arms, supposedly with henna (but you have to watch out that they don't use the black stuff that's toxic.)

We saw only one or two snake charmers.But later that morning, when we walked through the plaza again on our way back from visiting the Artisanal Arts center and making a brief foray into the souks, I counted several more of the serpent guys, and I paid 10 dirham (about $1.25) to take this photo:

My photographic subject explained that the erect black snake (swaying cartoon-style to the accompanying piping) was a cobra. The other snakes (on another part of the rug) were vipers. “Oh like rattle snakes!” Steve exclaimed. He asked if the rattled. The snake charmer told us that they do not. Only American vipers do that.

These were real cobras and vipers, mind you. And other men had what looked to me to be real Barbary apes, wearing diapers and trained to pose with photographic subjects on demand. If the snakes and monkeys were clearly there for the tourists, almost everything else in the plaza seemed intended for local consumption. There are the “dentists,” for example, who sit at tables laden with dentures…and a pair of pliers. We paid another 10 dirhams to photograph this fellow:

He was kind enough to show us what was under the folded paper napkin in the lower right-hand corner of his table: still blood-stained teeth that he'd “extracted' that very morning.

At 1 p.m. every day, the square becomes off-limits to cars and vans, though motor scooters can still zoom through, pumping out noise and air pollutants and threatening the limbs and lives of everyone on foot. Through the afternoon, the entertainment grows more and more diversified. We saw fortune-tellers and musicians, along with the restaurant touts and portrait painters and orange juicers and snack vendors. About 6 p.m. a huge section of the square begins to fill with tents under which dozens of “restaurants” operate. Once it's dark, the smoke and enticing smells from them rise up and roil, a delicious miasma into which hawkers occasionally launch high-flying glow-in-the-dark toys.

On Monday night, Steve and I had walked about 10 minutes from the square to find a simple Moroccan restaurant recommended by a friend. But when we'd passed through the square, we'd been assailed by at least two dozen touts, each insisting that his employer's restaurant was the best. We'd told everyone “Maybe later.” But we'd been struck by how the places that were jammed with mainly locals didn't seem to have any touts — probably because their good reputations were pulled regular customers in.

 

So when we returned to the square around dinner time yesterday (Tuesday), we headed to one of those — #14, specializing in fish and chips. It looked like every seat was packed, but then one of the workers waved us to open spots way in the back, at one of the long picnic tables. He slapped rectangles of butcher's paper in front of us both and tossed on them pieces of the Moroccan rolls that look like giant flattened hamburger buns.

 

We'd failed to study the little menu/sign in front of this stall, but the guy serving our section took command, delivering a little plate of tasty mashed roasted eggplant, then pureed fresh tomatoes, then a pile of fried fish chunks that, if bony, tasted very fresh. The pile of fries that he brought were good too. All that would have been enough, but he also dropped off a plate of fried calamari (which we later learned cost 30 dirhams — about $3.75 — by itself.)

The total tab was 70 dirhams (about $8.66) including the tip we left for our whirligig of a waiter. It seemed to me at least as good as any dinner S and I ever had at McDonalds — at least as fast (slapdash, even!), more gastronomically interesting, more sociable, cheaper.

Walking home I wished we spoke Arabic. I would have loved to understand what the storytellers were saying to enthrall the crowds that they were drawing. But with luck we'll have our own tale of adventure to tell this evening. We're off to eat breakfast now, then we're supposed to meet Jawad from Morrococar to rent a vehicle that we'll drive through the Atlas Mountains (today), then on to the oases and the desert beyond.

 

Marrakech express and local

Yesterday we set our alarms for 4:15 a.m. The wheels of our Airbus lifted off the runway shortly after 6, and the Moroccan immigration official stamped our passports about 4 hours later. Because Morocco is one hour earlier than France, we were installed in our guesthouse (aka riad) in the old city (aka medina) by not much after 10 a.m. — not much later than we had originally expected to be here.

We'd arranged to be picked up by a driver from the riad, so that left us free to take in the sights, which evolved pretty dramatically along the way. Near the airport, the highway is wide and well-paved and lined with pleasant looking shops and familiar Mediterranean plants. I noted little trash or graffiti or ruination of the sort so common in Africa. We soon reached the walled inner city, and the wall looked to be in good shape too. Approaching the huge and famous central plaza, the Jemaa el Fna, the motorscooter traffic got crazier and crazier, and the ambient noise level cranked up. Larger motorized vehicles can't travel in the innermost streets of the walled city, so we climbed out of the van and loaded our few bags into a hand-cart pulled by a half-toothless but friendly old guy. He led us through a Marrakech that felt 1000 years old (the approximate age of the city). It reminded us of Venice, but the passageways are filled with beautiful doorways that seem quintessentially Moorish.

Some are humble

 

Some are grand...

 

We checked into the riad, which is great (one of the dozens upon dozens of old homes that Europeans (mostly) have bought and converted into guesthouses over the past 20 years.) We spent most of the rest of the day and evening exploring the center city on foot, except for the hour-long break I took in the mid-afternoon. That proved to be both interesting and restorative.
...with a bit of everything in between.

Hammams — Turkish-style baths — are a prominent feature of life in Marrakesh, and most guidebooks urge a visit. But being scrubbed and massaged by strangers holds little interest for Steve. Normally I'm not much of a spa patron either. But when I heard that our riad had its own little hammam offering spa services, the idea of a scrub and a rub for some reason called to me.

At 3 p.m. I showed up wearing only the flip-flops and thick white robe that had been deposited in our room. A sturdy woman wearing a long black tunic and a headband directed me to the room to the right. She pour a bucket of hot water over the plastic mat on the concrete table within it, then she had me take off the robe and lay down. For the next half hour or so, she poured cupfuls of warm water over me then went through an elaborate cleaning ritual that started with applying soft aromatic liquid soap and worked its way up to a vigorous whole-body scrub with an abrasive mitt and something she said was black soap. By the time she was done, she'd peeled off at least one (and maybe several) layers of my skin. She applied a facial mask too and she shampooed my hair and finished me off with more rinsing. I re-donned the robe, moved into the central sitting area for a cup of sweet mint tea then went on to be massaged by another young Moroccan women (deeply relaxing but much less weird.)

After our frenetic week in Paris, it felt great, and it reinvigorated me for venturing into the Jemaa el F'na at night. Marrakech's central square is something else again — different from anything we've experienced anywhere. It deserves a separate post of its own.
My scrubber (left) and masseuse (right)