While I was living in Niamey, Niger my gal, Anna, came to visit me over the Christmas holidays. One nice thing about Niamey is that they have regular flights to Casablanca via Royal Air Moroc airlines. Anna and I shared the dream of visiting Marrakech, with it’s labyrinth of souk passageways, exotic cuisine and spices, and cultural mishmash of Africa, Europe, and Arabic influence. Why not ring in the New Year there?
It’s nice having direct flights from Niamey, Niger to Casablanca, Morocco. What is NOT nice is that those flights depart at 3:40 am, and because the counters close at midnight you have to get there to the airport no later than 11:30 pm. So basically that’s sitting around a little airport in the middle of the night for 4 hours with no real food or entertainment options (except what you bring). Then after the 3 1/2 hour flight we land in Casablanca and make our way to the domestic terminal to wait a few hours for our short connecting flight to Marrakech. Unfortunately, there’s not much to offer at that domestic terminal, either…and for us it’s freezing! Anna’s gotten used to the heat and humidity of Bangkok, and my skin has also thinned with the constant heat of Niger. We basically spent the early morning hours moving ourselves from seat to seat to stay in direct exposure to the rising sun.
Thus our amazing adventure began….
We arrived at the tiny airport of Marrakech and after a quick customs process we were met by our shuttle driver arranged by our hotel. After much research online I decided to book us in to a “luxury” riad. Riad’s are a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. They differ from hotels in that they are smaller, more personal, and usually located right in the middle of the souks (market areas). I figured Anna and I deserved an upgrade in accommodations and so I booked us a Superior Deluxe Room at the Riad Kniza which at the time was 239 Euro/night (it being the holidays). There are plenty of cheaper lodging options, but here was a chance to stay in a place where Bill Gates, Brad Pitt, and other VIP guests stayed for about $280/night including breakfast and airport shuttle service!
Walking from the shuttle van through the busy souk to get to the riad had me a little concerned…what had I gotten us into? We arrived to this giant nondescript wooden door which then opened up to an oasis of calm from the chaotic market and was filled with opulent decor. There were water fountains, little nooks to read, relax, or eat, and rose petals everywhere. This property has been family operated for generations spanning 250 years and their care and personalized attention had been honed to an art over the centuries. It was all so breathtaking–of course I secretly patted myself on the back.
They asked us if we were hungry–we were–and if we’d want breakfast or lunch. We opted for lunch. Where did we want it? We could have it in any of the cute little nooks, in our room, or on the roof. How neat is that? We chose to have it on the roof. They recommended the lamb tagine and we accepted that. It was the best meal we had during our stay in Marrekech–and we ate well during that trip. A tagine is a large clay pot that has a conical shaped lid–meet the Crockpot’s ancient origin. A tagine is also the stew-like deliciousness that is cooked in the shallow dish base as everything that is put in the tagine comes out as a tender and juicy tagine. Confused?
After lunch we explored around the Medina market square area, but called it an early night. I let Anna know that I had booked an activity for us and that we would be getting a very early morning pick-up. Unbeknownst to her, the activity I’d arranged with Marrakech By Air was a hot air balloon ride in which we would get a bird’s eye view of the sun rising above the Atlas mountains (the morning so peaceful floating lazily 1,000 meters above the desert). It was a miracle that I was able to keep it a secret, and she really had no idea what it was until she saw the balloon. In fact, she confessed that she was a bit nervous as the driver took us deeper and deeper into the desert without anything being around to clue her into what it was about. All these horror stories of human trafficking has left her a bit guarded. But once she realized we’d be going for a balloon ride she was giddy as a schoolgirl.
It was amazing how quickly our balloon ascended once we dropped the tether. It was also so eery how perfectly quiet it was. As the sun began to lighten the morning sky we noticed other balloons rising in the distance. I think we got a head start on them. After the hourlong ride we had a simple breakfast at a Berber home and then a quick camel ride before returning back to our riad.
We basically had a repeat of our meal the previous day. As before, our tagine meal came with several savory Moroccan sides. One side that was most intriguing was sliced tomatoes that were simmered with sugar and cinnamon and topped with toasted sesame seeds and cinnamon bark. I asked about it and they offered to teach us how to make it! So the next afternoon we met with the chef who had everything all setup for us including outfits! By this time Anna and I were used to surprising folks with our introductions, the American living in Niger and the Swede living in Bangkok, but this time it was our turn to be surprised. The chef used to cook at the Banyan Tree Bangkok hotel just a few blocks away from where we live!
We celebrated the New Year at the Riad Kniza spending the evening with an amazing dinner (yes, it was lamb tagine, how did you know?), a free flow of drinks, folk dance and music, and even a belly dancing show. There’s a video of me dancing with the belly dancer–it is not posted here (I am not proud of my sad dance skills). I talked with the father of the family running the riad and said that he must be proud of his family and his home. He told me I must think of the riad as my home and that I am more than just a guest. It really got me in the feels–it could have been the gin, though. We really enjoyed the evening, and especially the short commute as we only had to go upstairs to crawl into bed.
Anna and I were in Marrakech for 5 days and we felt like we could have done it in 3 yet also felt like we needed more time. You see Marrakech is a place of opposites. You have Moroccan’s who are super welcoming and hospitable, and conversely you have your scam artists that hassle you (if you are approached by anyone wanting to take a picture with you, hand you a monkey, or even start drawing on you with a tube of henna paste just walk away and firmly (and politely) decline whatever they are offering). You have absolutely chaotic streets bordered by little cafes where you can step out of the chaos to calmly people watch with a cup of mint tea. For some real fun, explore the souk passages. Every turn is something new, it could be chaos, it could be quiet, it could be something new and exciting. It’s sure to offer a feast for the eyes.
Marrakech is a must go to place for anyone who bases the success of their vacation on the richness of their dining experiences. The influences of African, European, and Arabic cuisine combine into some unforgettable dishes that may just shape the way you cook in your own kitchen. We left there with 2 tagines (a medium and large sized one), bags of olives, preserved lemons, dates, and nuts. There’s just so many things to try. The food stand that sells super cheap bowls of piping hot snails in a rich broth in the Medina Square night market is a must. Also any dish on the menu that ends in the word “tagine”–even for breakfast! If you are like me you’ll find yourself forking food into your mouth as you ponder what might be on your plate for the next meal. It’s just that kind of place!
It was such a marvelous adventure. On the plane we saw the most amazing sunset as we began to put miles between Morocco and us on our way back to Niger. It was satisfying to have such a wonderful vacation, and I didn’t really think I’d return (I’m kind of a been there done that kind of guy). But as I write this and reminisce over these pictures I know that we will be back there again someday. I like that.
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