48 Hours of Marrakesh Magic

Traveling in the company of those we love is home in motion.

Leigh Hunt, English Romantic poet and critic

I adore Europe, but it turns out after living two years in Morocco,  that Africa is my second home.  I found more beauty, adventure, and relationship (especially in Marrakesh)–the three things I seek most in life–than I ever imagined.  Sharing this place with my children, my friend, Moni, and former students (more on their trips later) was a privilege I’ll never forget.  Likewise,  I was thrilled when my niece, Emily, and Andres stopped by for a couple of days after Emily’s work trip to Turkey and some time in Italy.

For $45- $100 roundtrip on RyanAir, you can fly to Marrakesh from Milan, Rome, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, London, and many other European cities.  (Arriving on a one-way ticket from one European city, then departing to another is a way to see more,  but note that you will pay for all baggage above the size of the smaller-that-standard carryon allowed for free.) If you have the time, in Marrakesh you can relax by pools at regal resorts and riads (many featured on this blog), take cooking classes, or volunteer.  You can also do excursions to  Essaouira, the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara Desert, Chefchouen, Agadir, or Casablanca.  But even if you have only two days, the trip is worth it because you will definitely experience some Marrakesh magic.

Here’s what these two did in 48 hours…

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Arrival Day

After dropping off bags at my apartment, we were joined by my artist friend, Jon, who walked with us to the medina where we had lunch at my favorite daytime restaurant with a rooftop view of the Koutoubia Mosque.

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Emily is a textile designer, so our first mission was checking out intricate tile patterns and woodwork  and shopping.

The Ensemble Artisanal (see gorgeous entrance below) sets the standard for the highest authentic, quality goods made by the superior local artisans selected to work there.  Here you can see them working and teaching apprentices, and it’s a great place to check out fair pricing before bargaining in the souks.

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Entrance is a popular photo opp

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El Badi Palace

Giant storks greeted us as we entered the remains of El Badi Palace.  Began in 1578 by Arab Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, the complex, built with ransom money from the Portuguese after the Battle of the Three Kings, exhibits architecture of the Saadian Period. For tour times and more information, go here.

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Bahia Palace

My first official outing in Marrakesh was a tour organized by my school of the Jewish Quarter and Bahia Palace.  I never tire of its quiet, cool grandeur.

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Taken by Jon Wommack
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We bargained later with Jon’s friend in the souks and then he served mint tea, two rites of passage.

Jemma el Fna Square

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Andres got a deal on a Fez for his dad, and we had sodas and more mint tea while watching the snake charming below.

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Too tired to go out, we ordered in the first night.  Seeing these two smiling on my couch made me happy.

Full Day

They got up early for two must-sees, Jardin Marjorelle

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and Ben Youseff Madrasa,  visual feasts,  did some more souk shopping, and had  massages and hammams, Marrakesh’s signature pleasure.   We celebrated our last night together at Pepe Nero, former palace of the “Lord of the Atlas.”

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Departure

No trip to Marrakesh is complete without hanging out with local friends at a riad, the traditional style of home in which all doors and windows open to an inner courtyard with a fountain and/or pool.   My friend, Kate, arranged a riad rooftop breakfast for us at the location she managed,  Riad Mur AKush.  The November weather was perfect for a panoramic view of the medina and Mustafa’s morning music.

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Palmeraie Camel Ride

Though Emily and Andres had a 3 PM flight to catch, Ismail, my driver, hooked us up for an hour-long camel ride after breakfast in the palmeraie on the way to the airport.   It was Andres’ first time on a camel, and he had a big time.  They felt the Marrakesh Magic, and having them there, was a double dose of magic for me, too.

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Pepe Nero: A Place to Celebrate

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When my niece, Emily, and her boyfriend, Andres, said they’d be visiting me in Marrakesh, I wanted a perfect place to take them for dinner our last night together. I sought somewhere signature Moroccan– mysterious, exotic, and beautiful. A place that practices hospitality and serves a mix of traditional and European delicious dishes. Pepe Nero, my new favorite restaurant in town, granted every wish and more.

Mysterious…The night began with the thrill of intrigue.  Afraid I could never lead us through the medina, a medieval labyrinth of darkness, deserted streets, and closed shops at night, I was relieved that  Chahid Essafa, truly a Customer Service Extraordinaire, said he’d send a guide to escort us. Excited, we waited in front of Café de France, mesmerized by the lanterns glowing across Jemaa el Fna square. Behind us a man in a black suit appeared.

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He serenely introduced himself, turned, and led the way, shielding us from errant motorcyclists as we wound around corners and down solemn streets. Only our shadows and those of a few feral cats stretched up the red clay walls as we silently walked under lamp lights. Though our destination was less than ten minutes away, adrenaline flowed from the surreal setting and suspense of wondering behind which wall our journey would end.

And then Emily and Andres experienced what I love about this city.  A desolate alleyway. A door swings open. Inside…paradise.

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Beautiful…Carrara marble,  cedar ceilings, and Moorish fountains transport guests to another time.   We ate by the Andalusian pool flanked by flaming torches from a James Bond dream set. Trees reached for the moon—gorgeous that night—as we sat under stars. Bougainvillea draped from the second story balcony.

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Exotic…Pepe Nero is the restaurant within Riyad Al Moussika, former palace of “Lord of the Atlas,” Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956.  According to BBC, Thami El Giaoui at the time of his death “was the most powerful man in Morocco and one of the wealthiest men in the world.” Guests can rent one of six luxury suites overlooking the two lavish courtyards. Breakfast is served on the terrace rooftop overlooking the Atlas mountains.

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Haute cuisine...Guests can choose from two menus—one Moroccan, one Italian–prepared by Mr. Khalid Essafa Robazza, Cordon Bleu Chef and owner.  We three went with Moroccan because When in Rome… (and Emily and Andres had just come from there).  We feasted on salads and Harira Soup (a tradition), then roasted leg of lamb, lamb tagine, and Pastilla di Piccione (pigeon pie–a local delicacy).  The waiters were attentive, kind, and patient as we toured the riad, Emily and I tag-teaming behind the camera.

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Welcomed with drinks

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Lamb Tagine
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Roasted Shoulder of Lamb

 

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Cinnamon-glazed Pastilla

 

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The food was so delicious, the dining experience so exceptional and the wine list so tempting, I returned the following week with my friend, Jasna, to try one dish off the Italian menu–lasagna that was the best I’ve had anywhere– so I could save room for dessert. As a Kentucky girl, I chose the Bourbon Vanilla Crème Brûlée with the crunch-cream topping–my new favorite dessert in all of Morocco. Pepe Nero provides complimentary cake for birthday parties.  It’s a five-star dining experience at affordable prices, and I’m already looking forward to the next celebration.

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Cordon Bleu Chef/Owner Khalid Essafa Robazza
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Gracious Manager Chahid Essafa
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Khalid, Member of Wonderful Waitstaff
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Cindy McCain, Southern Girl Gone Global