The second I stepped out of the bus onto Jemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech, Morocco, I was greeted with dry heat and a mix of smells, urine being the dominant one. Mopeds and horse drawn carriages passed through the crowds of people in the large cobblestone square. Without a cloud in sight, the temperature was pushing 30 degrees Celsius, which our tour guide, Jamal, insisted was mild for September weather. I could feel sweat forming under my jeans as we began to walk, the bright sun beating down.
Jamal navigated us through the bustling square filled with men with monkeys, snake charmers, and the occasional pushy Rolex watch man. Our first historical stop was the Bahia Palace. Right out side the door to the palace was a 180-year-old fig tree, which is a staple in the Moroccan diet. Once I stepped inside the door, I was surrounded by intricate colorful tile mixed with carved plaster Arabic writing.
We were given a break from the heat in a private Moroccan restaurant at the edge of the square. Our group of about 40 people was split up among four large round tables in one small room. Parched from walking in the sun, I opted for a Diet Coke for 15 dirhams, or about $2. As with American meals, our lunch started with a salad. This salad had no lettuce but lots of carrots, shredded cucumber, candied pumpkin, and cooked eggplant, all separated and sprinkled with spices on a small plate. A large basket of bread was also brought out and quickly devoured by the group, along with the salad. The main course was couscous and vegetables cooked in a tajine, a traditional clay oven that consists of a large plate with a dome shaped cover. Lunch was finished off by a glass of carrot and orange juice. It tasted like orange juice, but had pulp like carrot juice.
The heat hadn’t let up as we headed to the Dar Si Said Palace. This palace was architecturally similar to the first with its tile and plaster work but was filled with some display cases of traditional jewelry and clothing. We also got to see inside the high ceiling room where the king would receive guests, which was the only room in the palace where we were not allowed to take pictures.
The air was warm, but it was much cooler out as we made our way through the narrow cobblestone streets to our dinner restaurant. A little door on this dark Moroccan street led to an open courtyard lit up by tea-light candles and filled with big round tables with linens as crisp and white as the plaster walls surrounding them. Off to the side was a room, about half the size of the courtyard, with four large tables reserved for our group. In one corner, an older man sat on a stool playing a wooden harp-like instrument on his lap, occasionally he would pipe in with high-pitched Arabic singing.
Like lunch earlier, this meal began with a salad and rolls of bread. This salad consisted of chopped cucumber, shredded carrot, minced cauliflower, and cooked eggplant. The main course of lemon chicken came out in a giant tajine with lots of juices and chunks of lemon rind. A belly dancer came out in a red and gold dancing outfit, giving us a good show and respite from eating. The night was completed with a giant cake with layers of thin crisp vanilla cookies sandwiched between almond cream sauce.
Walking back to our hotel, our stomachs full of great Moroccan food, I was surprised by how busy the streets were. It was nearly midnight, and there were many people out and about, including families with young kids and the occasional drunk. Our large tour group stood out amongst the locals, but the few people who were trying to pedal goods to us was no different than those earlier in the day. Though I was weary, it seemed that the spirit of Morocco never slept and would be there waiting for us in the morning.