Monday, July 16, 2012

Arrival in Marrakech

After a late night wrestling with the internet, we did not get much sleep before getting up to catch our flight out of Madrid. Happily, I found a small mention in Rick Steves about an express bus to the airport. What a find! It picks up at Atocha Station (2 blocks from our hotel), runs every 20 minutes 24 hours a day, takes about 40 minutes, costs 5 euros, and included the sight of a flaming bus that we can only hope was the result of amped-up revolutionary spirits.

Arrival in Marrakech

Uncertain how well the express bus would work (answer: very well!), we gave ourselves extra time. A good thing, since the checking-in process at the Barajas airport was reminiscent of Charles de Gaulle experiences. We stood in one line for 10 minutes, then discovered a second, much shorter line that seemed to lead to the same ticketing kiosks that were recommended by the television screens at the forefront. Upon transfer to that line, though, Jason checked with a nearby Iberian agent. She informed us that neither line was correct and we actually needed to a completely different section. Jason protested that the screen said otherwise. She said that the screen is wrong and it is her job to stand there and tell people that the screen is wrong. Which is wrong in so many ways.

Line #3 was manned by another agent who, when Jason asked if this was the right line, said no and proceeded to explain something about one of the numbers on our printed itineraries while gesturing at yet a different line. When Jason said he didn't understand, she shrugged and waved us into the line she guarded. We took it to be the line for the ignorant, and dove in. In any case, line #3 eventually got us to a ticketing agent where we bade farewell to some of our luggage and went to find security.

Once we got to the gate (which, given the amount of trekking/shuttling we had to do to get there, felt like we were in the middle of nowhere), we ducked to the bathrooms, grabbed some brunch, and read for a bit prior to boarding.

Arrival in Marrakech

The flight was uneventful other than some interesting and educational "reading" provided by Jason's magazine of choice. As the plane lowered out of the clouds I got my first glimpses of Africa (eee!). I was amazed at how very, very brown it looked. The patches of green and yellow I am used to seeing as a plane descends were now patches of various shades of brown, tan, and khaki. Marrakech itself seemed to be a city of uniform salmon-colored three-story concrete buildings raised partially up on stilts. It was all so orangey-pink and so level and so very different.

We landed in Morocco (eee!) and stepped off the plane into, according to the Weather Channel, 120 degree heat.

120 degrees. 120! Ho. Ly. Crap.

Arrival in Marrakech

Arrival in Marrakech

(And yet he still looks dapper, doesn't he?)

We headed into the airport for a long wait at passport control. By the time we got through that, our luggage was chugging along on the conveyor belt and we stepped outside to find our driver.

Bassher was holding a "Riad Eden" sign. He took our bags and pointed us to the ATM for cash. He led us to the van and drove us to the old part of the city while giving all kinds of advice as well as the necessary sales pitches for personal tours of the city or Atlas mountains or beach towns or whatever.

Arrival in Marrakech

He stopped the car at a semi-intersection. Picture a place where several quasi-roads meet, like in a small Western town, and fill it with men, motorbikes, salmon-colored buildings, street vendors, and heat and you have some idea. There we met Muhammad, who threw our luggage into a blue metal cart and who would walk us to our Riad from there.

Arrival in Marrakech

Muhammad chatted with Jason while pushing the luggage cart through the narrowing cobblestone streets of the medina. I followed behind, catching snippets of their French conversation, taking pictures, and trying not to get run over by the motorbikes that come tearing through the streets.

Arrival in Marrakech

Arrival in Marrakech

Arrival in Marrakech

After a few turns and alleyways, we arrived at the Riad Eden. Lacking any Moroccan change, we scrambled for some euros to tip Muhammad. He bade us farewell and turned us over to the housekeeper.

She put us into a salon with air conditioning and a tall bottle of water and then rushed upstairs to prepare our room and separate the beds. Within moments she showed us to the fig room, which we fawned over. (For simplicity and speed, I'm going to put those photos and the ones that followed on our excursions in separate posts.)

Once we had our luggage tucked away and our day-bags repacked, we headed out to see the sights. A few turns later and we were in the Djemaa, a large plaza-type space. It was hardly crowded, as the sensible folk were all inside, but we took in the sights of the orange juice vendors, the henna artists, the monkeys and snakes, the mosque's minaret, and the hot, hot, heat.

Starving, we headed for the first place that looked cool. Sadly, it was not at all cool inside nor was it anything special, but once we got some food and water in us we were much better suited to see the sights.

We crossed the square and followed the minaret to the mosque. We couldn't go inside, but the style of this 12th-century building was interesting. We circled it and found the gardens on the opposite side. The rows of orange trees and shabby rose bushes were less impressive after seeing the Retiro Park yesterday, and I was fading fast from the heat. So we followed the example of the women wrapped in dark fabric from head to toe who towed their babies and toddler into the oncoming (and unrelenting) traffic like a game of Frogger and crossed the street back to the Djemaa and into the souks.

These were more like the Morocco we expected. I didn't take many photos of the souks today. I'll try to remedy that, but they won't capture the spicy smells, the murmuring sounds of Arabic and French, the surprisingly polite marketing of the vendors, the constant danger of being run over by motor bikes, or the aggressive, oppressive heat. We were only looking today, not shopping, but we will definitely return to shop before we leave Thursday.

Jason did an absolutely remarkable job navigating the impossible alleyways of the souks to lead us on a Lonely Planet walking tour. We ended at a tourist-inducing restaurant and nursed cool beverages on the terrace while regaining our will to walk. As the sun made its leisurely way towards setting we dove back into the souks inn search of a restaurant for dinner.

We found the place recommended by Lonely Planet, Mama Tilee, and were led to a table on the top floor. We had their prix-fixe menu. The amuse-bouche, honeydew melon juice, was refreshing if a little worrisome. The appetizer, eggplant caviar (not sure how that works) with fig and cheese, was good and full of the flavors of the region. The main dish was disappointing and dessert was unremarkable.

At first we chastised ourselves for failing yet again to eat at the proper hour despite waiting until almost 8:00. Then, as we finished dinner long after 9 with still no signs of any other customers in the restaurant, we chalked out solitude up to the low season and/or Ramadan. The only sign of another customer was a French couple who huffed up the stairs, complained about the heat, then huffed their way downstairs and away.

The alleyways were better lit than we expected, and Jason found our riad again without too much difficulty (again, this is pretty miraculous. I would have still been wandering the streets next Tuesday). We checked in properly with the temporary proprietor (the owners of the riad are away on holiday), and are about to head to bed in our blissfully air-conditioned room.

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