Snakes and Shawarma in Marrakech, Morocco

After a magical introduction to Morocco, we took the overnight train from Tangier to Marrakech. It’s a very inexpensive way to travel and covers two bases at once: transportation and accommodation.

Our compartment ranged from oven hot to refrigerator cold during the 10-hour journey, so it wasn’t the best night’s sleep, but we were excited to arrive in Marrakech at 8 a.m. We hailed a taxi from the train station and asked the driver to take us to Riad Dar Mouassine, the guesthouse where we were staying. The address, which is Derb Snane 148 Rue Sidi el Yamani, meant nothing to us, but our driver seemed to know where he was going. We reached the outskirts of the Marrakech medina, and he explained that the roads were too narrow for cars and he could take us no further. “Take the third left,” he said, “and it’s down that alley.”

No problem, we thought.

Whether it was exhaustion or naiveté or both, it turned out to be a problem. We took the third left and then found ourselves in a maze of winding, narrow passages marked by the occasional nondescript door. We started noting unmanned construction sites and cats as our landmarks, and before long, we realized we were walking in circles.

A metal doorway that read “LOST” reduced us to a fit of laughter. It could not have been more appropriate.

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We finally encountered a friendly Spanish family who helped us find the address we were seeking, and we rang the bell, still not sure we were in the right place.

When the smiling face opened the door, we felt we’d stepped through some magical portal into another world.

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The interior courtyard was three stories tall and open to the sky. It was filled with lush palms and bougainvillea that reached toward the sunlight, and iron cafe tables surrounded tinkling fountains.

We were early for our reservation, but the manager was very welcoming and ordered us hot, sweet mint tea and almond cookies while we waited for our room to be ready.

A woman in a hijab smiled shyly at us as she swept leaves from the tiled floor and polished brass fixtures.

Soon we were led up a narrow, winding stairway to the top floor and across the roof terrace to our room, which was in a separate wing. The manager explained that many Moroccan riads are made of several separate buildings that were connected over time and unified by a central courtyard.

As he was explaining this, an orange cat wandered by to say hello. He said the cats jump from rooftop to rooftop, visiting several riads every day. Sometimes a cat would appear from around a corner; other times, one would drop through the bougainvillea like a bird from a nest.

Let’s just say that if you don’t like cats, then Morocco probably won’t be your favorite vacation destination.

Our room at Dar Mouassine was incredible. It had an intricately painted vaulted ceiling, hand-carved plaster alcoves, handwoven rugs, and the most comfortable bed we slept in the whole trip. An enormous walk-in shower overlooked the private courtyard, and it felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Marrakech medina. But the quiet solitude would have to wait for bedtime. There were things to see and do!

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Weary but excited, we made our way to the center of the souk. The Djemaa el Fna is the largest market in Marrakech and by day features live animal acts, performance artists, and all manner of sights, smells, and sounds.

We took a second-floor seat in a cafe so we could get a bird’s eye view of the action and map out our day while we ate succulent chicken and lamb kebabs and drank more Moroccan tea.

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We wandered in and out of colorful stalls selling clothing, jewelry, rugs, spices, brass, pottery, and more. The souk is divided into sections with several sellers offering the same merchandise. They rely on their sales skills to draw you in and quickly build a relationship so you’ll pick their wares over their neighbor’s.

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Haggling is part of the experience at Djemaa el Fna, and this polite exchange is expected. If you don’t speak Arabic or French, the easiest phrase to remember is, “Laa, shukran,” or “No, thank you.” Say it with a smile as you’re shaking your head “no,” and shopkeepers will often switch to English and help you through the process.

If you aren’t interested in buying anything, the best thing to do is to avoid eye contact. That was difficult for me as an American raised in the South, and it got me in trouble with a snake charmer.

9819_10202582847707774_1953575863_nPerformers in the center of the souk expect that you’ll pay for any entertainment you watch, and that includes slowing down for even a moment to figure out what’s going on. This typically costs you around 10 to 20 Moroccan dirhams ($1-2 USD) and more if you take photos.

I made the mistake of taking a closer look at some snakes, which one doesn’t typically encounter lazing about outside their cages in a busy public place.

Perhaps it was the train-lag, but I agreed to have our photo made with the snakes. “Wait until the boys see it!” I told Mike. “They’ll never believe that I was this close to snakes!” With their venom still intact, the snake handler assured me, apparently thinking this would help seal the deal.

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Photos made, we handed the snake wrangler 100 Moroccan dirham, which is just over $10 USD. “More,” he demanded. Mike explained that it was all the cash we had on us at the time and even showed the man his empty wallet. (In this case, we’d left most of our money at the riad, but it’s also a useful tactic for haggling in general; stash your cash in several safe places so you don’t have to show it all.) Having apparently used all his charm on the snakes, the man became more aggressive. Mike responded with an emphatic, “Khalas!” This Arabic word, accompanied by a gesture similar to washing one’s hands, means “Enough!” and signals the end of a discussion. And that was the end of that.

This seemed as good a time as any for a quick nap, and we wound our way back to the riad and the respite of that dreamy bed. When we awoke a couple of hours later, the sun was setting and the beautiful lantern in our courtyard cast magical shadows on the walls.

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Djemaa el Fna is a different place at night. Gone are the performers, both human and animal, and in their place in the center of the souk is a lively food scene. Row upon row of vendors sell kebabs, tagine, couscous, olives, sausages, freshly-squeezed juices, dried fruit, and more. Smoke and steam rise from the mass of stalls, and you’re suddenly hungry even if you just ate.

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We wandered in and out of the mouthwatering maze, being tempted by the hawkers proclaiming their food to be the best. “You’re too skinny! You must eat!” one would cry. “Seventy-seven will take you to heaven!” another would exclaim. The stalls use numbers rather than names.

Lots of people worry about street food when they travel, but we never hesitate to try something that looks and smells good. Our one rule? The place has to be filled with locals. If mostly tourists are eating somewhere, that’s never a good sign.

The winning restaurant offered Mike’s favorite food in the world: chicken shawarma. The marinated meat is slow-roasted on a spit and then shaved into the drippings, which cook it a second time and give it little crispy bits of perfection. It’s served with flatbread, pickled radishes, and, in this case, French fries.

As we sat at the table waiting for our order, we watched the workers rinse dirty plates with tap water and wipe them dry with butcher paper. That’s it. No soap. Just water that tourists can’t drink.

That, my friends, is the power of shawarma. Mike can witness the local dishwashing process and still eagerly anticipate his meal.

It was, of course, amazing. (And neither of us got sick from eating anything the entire trip.)

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After a blissful night’s sleep, we awoke to a brilliant blue sky and enjoyed a huge Moroccan breakfast on the rooftop of the riad. Fresh orange juice, mint tea, several different kinds of fresh bread, eggs, and fruit filled us up for another foray into the medina.

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We enjoyed more wandering about the colorful stalls, and on the second day in Djemaa el Fna, we were able to focus more on the people going about their daily lives. There were laborers building and repairing things, shopkeepers carting huge bags and boxes of merchandise, women buying things for their homes, children going to and from school, and tourists looking glassy-eyed as they attempted to take it all in. It was fascinating.

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Mike enjoyed his shawarma so much that we went back to the same restaurant for lunch, but this time we shared a plate. We had to save our appetites for a very special anniversary dinner being prepared for us at Dar Mouassine.

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With a day’s notice, guests at the riad can request the services of Latifa, a local chef who prepares traditional dishes for private dinners. She made harissa, which is a spiced chickpea soup, as well as freshly-baked bread and a traditional Moroccan chicken tagine with lemons and olives that melted in our mouths. For dessert, she served juicy orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. It sounds so simple, but it was one of the best desserts we’ve ever had and the perfect ending to a magnificent meal. We told her so, and Latifa beamed with pleasure. She was as delighted with the compliment as we were with the dinner.

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The private dining room at Dar Mouassine in Marrakech, Morocco

Before catching the train back to Tangier, we spent the next day walking off all of the delicious food. We discovered the Marrakech Cyber Park, which is much older than it sounds. The gardens date to the 18th century, and the park is filled with ornamental fountains and plenty of benches where you can sit and take it all in. The modern name came from a sizable investment by Maroc Telecom, who paid to refurbish and reopen the park in 2005 in exchange for the installation of a multimedia exhibit center.

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After a peaceful day strolling the gardens, we made our way back to the train station to head north to Tangier and back to Spain. The adventure continues!