About twenty minutes outside of Marrakech, at the end of a dirt road separating the Moroccan desert from long aisles of olive trees, is Les Jardins d’Issil. The twelve acres of meticulously landscaped and maintained gardens are the backdrop for a series of Lawrence of Arabia-style tents, complete with toilets, showers, beds, and air conditioning. Butterflies drift across the paths between flowers, and birds chatter in the arches of bougainvillea. Jardins d’Issil has a ten hole mini golf course and a pool, but our preferred place to relax at the end of the day was the restaurant’s patio (which caters amazing meals) with a glass of red wine surrounded by the soft glow of Moroccan lamps as the sunlight dwindled on the horizon. The combination of sun and wind create the perfect temperature during the day and nights cool down enough for long pants with a short sleeved shirt. Sarah called it “glamping”, glamorous camping, and that’s just what it was.
Les Jardins d’Issil was our home base for a week exploration of central Morocco. From hearing the tatters of stories describing Marrakech’s exotic, vast open market, a world crossroads for hundreds of years and the gateway to Africa, I’ve had my eye on Morocco for awhile. So, when we drove from Casablanca’s airport into Marrakech and the clean, organized city streets were flanked by modern buildings, strip malls and fast food joints, I was crestfallen. This was not the Marrakech I had imagined (though I didn’t hesitate when we rushed the first McDonald’s we saw like rabid animals- there’s no “I’m Lovin’ It” in Nigeria). Hoping I was mistaken, we decided to call for a car and head into town the first morning. We had made no schedule for the week and weren’t sure where to go or what to see. Our driver, Yusef, offered to show us some sights in town, and we agreed. The Majorelle Garden, our first stop, was preserved and restored by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose ashes are spread through the twelve acres. The garden highlights the color majorelle blue, named after the original owner, and there’s an impressive cactus collection on the grounds.
Yusef brought us next to Jamaâ el Fna. I had no idea what it was, and as the day progressed, I started not to care. Slumping into the front passenger’s seat and leaning my head against the door window, Marrakech was shaping up to be just another city in a foreign country succumbed to Westernization, and I mourned not only Morocco but the world as it careened towards cultural sterility. Yah, the tents were cool and the cacti had some weird shapes at that last garden, but I came here for an ancient, bustling open air market featuring exotic chaos centuries in the making, not the dust of Yves-Saint Laurant sprinkled on some plants from Arizona.
As I sulked in disappointment, I peered out the window to see we had entered an older section of the city, called the medina, with narrower streets and more traditional buildings. Jamaâ el Fna is a huge cobblestone square. The bustling set of streets at the entrance barely gave room to the rows of horse and carriages waiting to sucker foreigners for a ride. Yusef dropped us off, recommending a restaurant where we could eat on a balcony a few stories up and look over the square. He’d pick us up in a few hours. We ate at the Café de France, and as we looked out onto Jamaâ el Fna, I wondered what we’d do with those hours. Just then, a breeze lifted the faint sound of flute and drums over the balcony. Moments later, I noticed small clusters of people coming in an out of a narrow alleyway among the kiosks at the edge of the square. Strange for an alley.
As the kids finished off their pizza, I quickly paid the bill and herded everyone downstairs back to the square, my curiosity reinvigorated. We came down from the restaurant balcony and across the square to poke our heads into one of the alleys. Suddenly, we were plunged into this:
A veritable labyrinth, the central market, or souk, of Marrakech and the surrounding medina was an endless, frenetic mosaic for the senses. At first, we clung to the kids a bit tighter than necessary, but realized quickly that from their previous travel experience Cian and Áine were very comfortable moving between the stalls and kiosks, examining the wares while making sure we were within eyesight. We bought delicious pistachios and a few trinkets, but were content to get lost in the market for hours, relishing in the sights, sounds and smells. There was always something intriguing and different around the next corner, a side passage that needed to be investigated, and a stall that deserved a second look. The market was reminiscent of Angkor Wat in that every view was a picture, yet none would ever do the experience justice. Sarah still pokes fun at me for wandering around on our first visit with glazed eyes repeating, “this is exactly how I thought it would be”. And it was. We visited the snake charmers, cleaned our sinuses with black cumin at one of the apothecaries, and got the kids hennas to round off the Marrakech market experience.
Satiated, we retreated back to Les Jardins d’Issil in the evening and recalculated our week over a savory Moroccan tagine and a glass of wine. Our perspective for the vacation switched from trying to keep ourselves busy to prioritizing Marrakech’s options. Fortunately we had Brigitte, owner of Les Jardins d’Issil and our advisor on how to best optimize our suddenly precious time in Morocco. Together, we sketched out a flexible plan for the week (keeping plans flexible is self-preservation with kids on vacation). Of course, our agenda included a camel ride, which is obligatory when you visit North Africa. We donned traditional Berber clothing (mortifying) and toured the nearby desert with the silhouette of the Atlas Mountains in the distance, rocking to the lurching sway of the camel’s gait. Our thighs stopped working after the 90 minute ride, making the desert nomadic lifestyle of the Berbers and Tuareg unbelievable. For the rest of the week, when I turned my head just right, I swear I would get a distinct waft of camel coming from somewhere on my person.
Essaouira (pronounced ess-oh-where-uh), once known as Mogador, is an ancient port city on the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, this was the end of the African caravan route, where goods from across the continent were transported through Timbuktu to Marrakech, then here to be exported. Essaouira is about three hours east of Marrakech, but a fortress on the shore piqued our interest enough to call Yusef and leave in the morning, just after the Les Jardins d’Issil staff fixed us an early breakfast. Along the way, we stopped to see Morocco’s tree goats, who have learned to climb argan trees to forage for fruit. The undigestible seeds are collected from the resulting goat shit to derive argan oil, used for food and cosmetics (this delightful process may sound familiar to some of you).
Brigitte’s restaurant recommendation, Chez Jeannot, was right along the shore and specialized in seafood. After an amazing lunch, we let the kids play in the surf and sand like colts put out to pasture, since most Lagos beaches are too dangerous for swimming. Once they were semi-dry and a little less sandy, we crossed the street to the medina’s gate, which had a very different ambience than Marrakech, yet just as exotic. Brightly colored doors and windows contrasted the white washed walls of alleys that twisted, turned and seemed to branch in all different directions. Yusef called this a small medina, yet after hours we never met an end, leaving much unseen. With a marine scent in the air, the call of gulls overhead and Moorish architecture surrounding us, we explored deeper into the old town, and it was easy to melt away the few tourists and see a seaside port that hasn’t changed from long ago. We met Yusef as the sun began to set and headed back to Marrakech with Essaouira’s surface barely scratched.
Wasn’t all that art and culture wonderful? Great, because the next day we switched gears, rented dune buggies and raced through the local village and through the desert without a cultural care in the world. Each of us took a kid, strapped ourselves in, and kicked out enough sand from our back tires to create our own dust storm. We were so close to making my Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome dreams come true, I half expected Tina Turner around the next corner. The kids loved it (as did Mom and Dad) even though we were covered in desert dust for days, adding to the camel smell. Just pure, unadulterated fun. Whatever Sarah says, I definitely won.
Our last excursion was into the Atlas Mountains, which walls off northern, more Mediterranean Morocco from the Sahara desert. Many of the traditional products sold in Marrakech are made by artisans in this area, and purchases can be made at more reasonable prices. We stopped first at a Berber rug merchant, who had literally hundreds of rugs for sale at prices that were spectacularly expensive, as well as other arts and crafts. Sarah quivered with the potential to do some serious shopping damage. Bartering is customary, following distinct cultural rules, but this poor man had no idea he was up against a shopping powerhouse. We left with a heap of merchandise, and the shopkeeper wasn’t smiling nearly as wide as Sarah. As they loaded the car, Yusef and I both had looks of astonishment on our faces, although I’m sure for different reasons.
Known as Ourika, this region is Berber country, and villages made of clustered earthen structures huddled into the hillsides along our route, blending into the environment. We followed the Ourika River and climbed in elevation where vegetation became more abundant and the air was cool while the sun still provided warmth. Restaurants lined the banks of the river, with some dining tables actually in the river itself, and rows of tagines simmered under covered stalls. We stopped for a delicious chicken tagine with potato, squash, tomatoes and spices accompanied by fresh, warm Moroccan bread. After lunch, we hiked further up into the mountains, passing souvenir kiosks precariously constructed along the steep hillsides and forests to the Ourika waterfalls. Moroccans were fascinated by the river and the waterfall, and I can imagine living in a desert would make natural running water like this almost miraculous.
Morocco is the ideal combination of exotic and accessible. After we finished exploring the Berber settlements in the mountains, we could still return to Marrakech and shop for Lagos replenishments at the modern supermarket. Despite some rather uncomplimentary rumors, the Moroccans we encountered were helpful and courteous. We made some new friends with Les Jardins d’Issil staff and owners, who cared for us well and continuously went out of their way to make our stay superior. With a vibrant, rich culture, a dynamic history, stunning art and architecture, and world class cuisine, Morocco has it all. It was hard to board our 1am flight, but this won’t be our last visit.