Empire (City) State of Mind

Damn, look at all this culture

By the end of my first week of classes I was starting to feel truly at home in my Rabat apartment and environment. So naturally Khalid and I dipped four and half hours southeast to Morocco’s most popular tourist destination: Marrakech.

Just as my head hit the pillow after a chill evening at a pub in Agdal, my alarm went off, and not long after, Khalid and I sat in Mohamed V Train Station bitterly sipping over priced coffees. Fortunately, it was all uphill from here. Around Casablanca, the three twenty-something passengers in the car with us were replaced by two women and their three excited youngins. The ride remained uneventful, but beautiful, for the next hour. I restlessly turned from sleeping, to reading, finally settling on watching the passing countryside. After a while, our English chatter attracted the intention of the kids. A natural with kids, Khalid began two hours of adorable games, from counting games in Darija and English, to arm wrestling with the young boy (Khalid says he let him win, but I’m convinced this kid has superhuman strength.)

After saying goodbye, he headed out of the train station and hiked to the Medina in search of our hostel. Upon arriving in the square, I was quickly overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, particularly the infamous whining of a snake charmers flute. Intrigued like any other kid who grew up watching Aladdin and Indiana Jones, I whipped out my camera. Before I could snap a shot, the leader of the charmers parted the crowd and dragged me into the center. Next thing I knew, he had my phone in one hand while he laid two snakes around my neck like scaly scarves. After reassuring me that I was safe, he directed me to kneel down in front of the cobras, while he proceeded to snap half a dozen photos. In this moment I discovered one of the more irritating things about a tourist-centered city like Marrakech: everything has a price. The charmer demanded “paper money” which means at least 20 or more dirham. Although this is not much for me, it was a bit ridiculous that this guy practically forced me to do something in exchange for money.

The rest of the day was overwhelmingly positive, as we wandered aimlessly around the massive Medina. We didn't stop walking for hours, with the occasional five minute break while Khalid investigated a Mosque or we snapped a few photos of a particularly beautiful building. Eventually we made our way back to the hostel, where we briefly recuperated before the thought of dinner trumped out exhaustion. Accompanied by a tall Sahrawi man, we made our way back to the square, while he informed us of his apothecary he and his brother (who we ran into on the way) in Marrakech.

At this point in the evening, a sea of white tents hosting pop-up restaurants were added to the packed square. After settling into a picnic table of a spot recommended by some happy tourists, we indulged in some truly amazing Moroccan street food: olives, calamari, lamb skewers, and plenty of hobz. We migrated to the prominent Cafe de France on the edge of the square for a phenomenal panoramic view of the area.

My wanderlust was not satisfied yet, so the next weekend, I joined another international student, Marchje from Holland, her boyfriend Bob, their roommate Ashley, and Bobs classmate Lauren. Together the five of us headed off to the historical and cultural capital of Morocco: Fes.

The train ride took us north east this time, exposing us to some of the greatest scenery Morocco has to offer. Groves of olive trees peppered the hilly landscape, while shepherds navigated their flocks of sheep and cows in the open pastures. To say the least, I would be totally satisfied hiking the 201 km from Rabat to Fes just to be able to investigate the terrain.

Like in Marrakech, our hostel resided in the Medina, and just after we checked in, we were off to “get lost” in the uniquely hilly city. We wandered for hours, flipping a coin to decide our direction at major intersections. Fes quickly became my favorite city I’ve visited in Morocco, if not ever. There was something about the combination of hustling shopkeepers and historical sights that felt more a part of the average Fesi’s life rather than a creation for the enjoyment of the tourist. We were fortunate enough to visit a classic Madrassa (which are often reserved for Muslims only), as well as one of the worlds largest tanneries. Despite the smell, it was pretty cool to witness the process by which a bland piece of cowhide is transformed into beautifully dried leather. I don’t mean to hate on Marrakech or Rabat, but Fes certainly takes the cake of the Imperial cities (though Meknes remains a mystery to me.)

Keeping with the precedent established in Marrakech, we finished our night with back-to-back rooftop drinks. First, we sipped tea and watched the sunset on the mountains surrounding the city. Deciding that a beer was needed after the long day, Ashley, Lauren, and I headed to a local supermarket, returning to the hostel an hour later with plenty of beer, wine, and food. The five of us chilled on the rooftop until the early hours of the morning. Other guests joined us for a drink or some conversation, including a German whose travel partner was walking around the Medina with the hopes of scoring some hash and an older Spaniard who told us of his extensive travels in Morocco.

Waking up a bit hungover, we trooped through the Medina to the Jardin Jnan Sbil, where we lounged by the pond, too tired for a repeat of the previous days trek. Unfortunately, our plan to hit the remaining sites of interest was cut short by some poor weather. However, I find it a nice excuse to return to what has promised to be a fantastic place to visit.

NOTE: unfortunately, the internet gods are not feeling sympathetic, and as a result, I am unable to upload more photos at this time. S/O to Marchje for snapping the pic of me and all my glory seen above.

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