I’d been dreaming of a holiday in Morocco for as long as I can recall. I wanted to discover the labyrinth-like medinas, sip tea with the Berbers, gorge on couscous and tagine, drink my body mass in mint tea, and get a grip on the wonders of the country for ages.
But I held off for one reason: I wanted to travel to Morocco in opulence. That meant my chef husband had to work extremely hard (read: feed many more people) to book the trip in the style to which we all wanted to become accustomed. In this, he was helped by our daughter, Akanksha, who cooked his favourite dish for him whenever she judged his motivation was flagging. And eventually, the family Dean found itself on its way to magical Morocco from Paris in business class seats on Air France, being pampered to pieces.
It is just a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Morocco from Paris, and the night we landed, we ate our dinner under a million stars by the coast in Casablanca, thrilled that we were finally where I had fantasised about being from beneath the same stars thousands of miles away in India.
We’d booked a Peugeot 508 for the trip and our driver and guide Imad Jamal never felt like a stranger. (Not a bad deal for `60,000.) He was so enthusiastic that he would send us informative WhatsApp messages even after doing his duty for the day, and first of all taught us two very useful Arabic words: ‘Choukran’ (thank you) and ‘Salam Alikome’ (peace be with you), which is used as a greeting.
Marrakech is the quintessence of all that is meant by the word ‘exotic’, especially because we stayed at the gorgeous La Mamounia, the last word in extravagance and grandeur. Here the husband got full marks for his efforts to make us feel rich and famous (travelling offseason has its advantages too). One evening, we even had a meal at the hotel’s Italian restaurant, where Akanksha invited herself to help the chefs in the kitchen.
Outside the hotel, our first stop was of course the Jemaa El Fna, the central square, a jumble of souks and tanneries, where the whole gamut of Moroccan life is visible, from snake charmers to henna designers and more.
While I put on my bargaining hat in the numerous craft and jewellery shops, the husband was wandering the picturesque alleys, clicking away. The ‘babouche’ (local slippers) shop guy seemed enchanted by Akanksha, and she took full advantage of her allure and bought us two pairs at a rate even I couldn’t bargain for! She had a picture clicked with him and waved a ‘choukran’ (pronounced shoukran) as we left.
A hearty lunch of lamb tagine and fluffy couscous drowned by some mint tea later, we walked around some more till we came across a horse carriage. Could the horse pull all of us along, I asked the driver, who said yes, of course, and proceeded to prove it by taking us to all the landmarks of the city.
With a break for a snack of fresh cactus, peeled and served by vendors, we were back at the square by dusk.
At night, the regular stalls were replaced by street-food kiosks vending meat skewers, simmered snails and sheep’s head. The square is enclosed within rows of bright orange juice and spice stalls. I was amused to see little boys (and big ones too) singing Shah Rukh Khan numbers to capture our attention.
The husband was nicknamed ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ and when he told the stall owner that his name is Bakshish and he’s a chef, word spread like wildfire and he somehow became the ‘brother from another mother’ in the boulevard, opening us to the finest hospitality ever!
The stall owners also recommended the Bakchich Café, where I literally forced the husband to pose for some Facebook fun. Some people actually believed that we were in Marrakech for the launch of our café!
Next on the list was Essaouira, a pretty town by the ocean that has a charming centre complete with quaint little shops, minus the endless stir of the souk in Marrakesh where it is recommended that you must jump out of the way whenever you hear the words ‘ballak, ballak’, because that means a cart loaded with goods wants to pass you.
This special coastal outpost felt like a place to just chill, and years earlier, Jimi Hendrix had done just that here. We had the most amazing fish barbecue at La Terrasse, where we watched the sea as we drank some local beers, and then goofed around, clicking pictures with a piece of the vertebra and the rib bone of a blue whale.
A DAY THE BERBER WAY!
Berbers are a community native to North Africa, so off we set to Ourika Valley to savour the beautiful Berber countryside an easy 45 minutes’ drive from Marrakech.
En route we stopped at the famous Argan oil cooperative store and also a Berber home where a local showed us how they lived. Though she’s 20 years old, Akanksha just didn’t seem to want to leave the swings, so while she had her fill, the husband and I bought some souvenirs to bring home. After a visit to a hammam, where the skin is intensely cleansed, purified, and softened with an old-style Moroccan scrubbing ritual, we enjoyed a remarkable outdoors dining experience.
EL JADIDA…A HIDDEN GEM
Our next destination was El-Jadida. We made the most of it: we each paid our 10 dirhams and made our way into the cistern which is famous particularly for the thin layer of water that shields the floor, and which generates exhilarating mirror images of the pillars and the roof in the little light there is. It is so beautiful that several movies have been shot within the echoing space, of which Orson Welles’ Othello is the best known.
A souk stroll and Akanksha’s henna application later, we spent the entire day lazing at the beach. Back in the Mazagan resort, Bakshish offered to teach chef Mohammed an Indian dish if he would teach him how to make the tagine, and the chef obliged. Truly, the language of food connects anyone anywhere!
THE LAST STOP
Casablanca is where most tourists land and exit from, and it’s worth spending at least a day here. It happened to be Eid that day, so most of the malls were shut (not that we had any intention of going to a mall). We spent the morning admiring the Hassan II Mosque, sitting on the brink of the Atlantic Ocean, an architectural marvel that took seven years to build. It’s unbelievable. No, it’s downright crazy!
We were still discussing the mosque when a little walk brought us to the coast, where we immediately felt as though we were in heaven. We returned in a daze, mesmerised by the beauty of this coastline. Our last dinner was at the Four Seasons’ speciality restaurant Mint, where we had the tagine yet again, but with greater understanding of its flavours, thanks to chef Mohammed’s class.
There is a lot happening in Morocco and I am hoping to return soon to discover other areas, such as Fez and the Sahara Desert. I hope the husband is reading this and gearing up to feed more people to pay for the next trip.
Photographs by Bakshish, Rupali and Akanksha Dean
F rom HT Brunch, July 31, 2016
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