Dr. Plotnick's Moroccan Cat Adventure - Day 1 – Welcome to Marrakech

Day 1 – Welcome to Marrakech

It was that time of the year again: Memorial Day.  I like Memorial Day because not only does it signify the start of summer (my favorite season), it also means that I get to go on vacation!  My cat hospital is open seven days a week, and I can’t have our other veterinarian, Dr. Sheheri, work 11 days straight while I’m gone.  I need to pick a vacation time during which our hospital is closed for at least a day, so Dr. Sheheri can get a little break.  For the past five years, it’s been Memorial Day.
Ah, but where to go? Having visited most of the European countries (Greece, Netherlands, Belgium, Turkey, Hungary, Austria to name a few) as well as a few countries in Asia (China, Vietnam, Thailand) and South America (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay), I was looking to conquer exotic new lands for my next trip.  It was time for a new continent.  Of course, as a veterinarian and animal lover, an African safari is the dream trip.  Alas, with limited vacation time, an African safari would have to be put on hold.  But this doesn’t mean that Africa is off the list, does it?  Why not “nearby Africa”, instead of “really far away Africa”?  And so… Morocco!

As you all know, I love to travel, and I love cats.  I don’t choose my vacation spots based on whether there’s a large local stray cat population, but if it so happens that there is, then it’s a big bonus for me.  I did a little research, and yes, Morocco has many cats.   Lots and lots.  Hundreds.  Thousands. Roaming the alleyways of the medinas.  Sleeping on couches in the dars and riads.  Napping in the public gardens.  Snoozing in the mosques.  That’s settled.  We’re going!

The task ahead:  the itinerary.  There’s so much to see.  Marrakech was a must.  But what about Rabat? Fes? Casablanca? Tangier? The Sahara? Decisions, decisions.

After weeks of anticipation, the day finally arrived. We (my partner Mark and I) left from JFK on a Wednesday evening, after work.  Although we prefer direct flights, there are none from NYC to Marrakech; direct flights from here to Morocco are to Casablanca only.  Morocco has an excellent train network, though, and so, I finalized our itinerary as such: fly into Marrakech, stay for four nights (including a day trip), then take a train to Fes, stay for four nights (including a day trip), then a train to Tangier, stay for two nights, and then fly out of Tangier, back to the U.S.  A short, busy itinerary, just the way I like it. 

Morocco is on the extreme northwestern tip of Africa.   When visiting, it doesn’t really feel like you’re in Africa. The beaches to the north give the country a very Mediterranean feel, and the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert separate Morocco from the rest of the continent.   Morocco has a rich culture – a blend of Arab, Berber, and European influences. They welcome tourists with open arms.  After all, 40% of Moroccans live below the poverty line, and tourists can spend in one weekend an equivalent of four or five months salary for most Moroccans.  And really great food. Oh, and did I mention there were a lot of cats?

Our cab ride to the airport and the flight from JFK to Madrid, and the connecting flight from Madrid to Marrakech all went without a hitch.   Morocco doesn’t allow its currency out of the country. With only American dollars (and a few euros) on me, I was tempted to purchase dirhams (that’s the Moroccan currency) at the Madrid airport during the layover.   I’m glad I didn’t; the exchange rate was horrible.  If you’re going to Morocco, wait until you land in Morocco before exchanging money.  They charge very little commission at the airport, and practically none at the banks or at Western Union (there are several branches in all the major cities in Morocco).

As we were landing in Morocco, I set the time zone on my new camera to Moroccan time.  I had just completed a class in digital photography, and I was itching to take lots of cat photos.  I hoped that I would be able to test out my new photography skills, with Moroccan kitties as my main subject.  As you’ll see, I would not be disappointed. 

Although Marrakech is probably Morocco’s third most important city, after Rabat and Casablanca, Marrakech has always been the place where sub-Saharan Africa meets Arab North Africa, and is more of a magnet for tourists than the other Moroccan cities. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI proclaimed that by the year 2020, Morocco would host 20 million tourists a year, with Marrakech as their main entry point. It was our entry point, as well. We landed in Marrakech, and were met by the pre-arranged driver. The ride from the airport was pretty interesting, as it was our first glimpse of Marrakech.  Look, it’s Roman Holiday, and that’s Audrey Hepburn!  Not.

As we approached Marrakech’s medina (glossary: a medina is the ancient Arab quarter of a North African city), the culture shock was abrupt. From fancy condos, chic stores and towering skyscrapers to roadside butchers, crumbling buildings and donkey carts.

It was exciting, to say the least.  Notice the color of the wall behind the donkey.  In the same way that nearly all of the buildings in Greece are white with blue trim, the buildings in Marrakech are all this dusty pink color.  These ubiquitous pink mudbrick walls are the reason why Marrakech is known as the Pink City. 

We finally arrived at Bab Aylen, one of the gates to the medina.  (Glossary: the word “Bab” means gate or gateway).  There are many gates into the medina. Bab Aylen was the one closest to our riad.  Once we arrived, our driver parked, and then led us by foot to our riad.  This brief walk was amazing, as we passed souvenir shops, butcher stalls, fruit stands, and donkey carts.  The streets were clogged with Marrakshis (as Marrakesh denizens are called) wearing all manner of dress - some women with headscarfs, some without.  Some women were completely covered, from head to toe, including gloves on their hands.  Some men were wearing jeans and t-shirts; others were wearing djellabas, those traditional long, loose-fitting robe-like garments.  I was mesmerized.  Before I knew it, we arrived at our riad.

I should probably explain the term “riad”.  A riad is a Moroccan residence that has a central interior courtyard or garden.  The rooms are on the upper levels, and they all face into the courtyard.  The thing about riads is that, from the street, you just see the door to the house.  You have no idea of the charm and beauty inside until you cross the door.   Here’s a picture of our little street.  You can see the very non-descript door to our riad, the Riad Tamarrakecht.

But once you go inside, wow! There’s a small pool with flower petals floating on the surface,

and lavish décor.

You can see the rooms up on the balcony, which face into the courtyard.

Here’s a picture from way above, giving a good idea of the structure of a typical riad, and the beauty of the place.

 We were immediately given Moroccan sweets and mint tea

and were introduced to Sara, the woman who essentially runs the place.  Our riad is a family-owned place.  Sara, her parents, and her brother all live at the riad, which I think is a big plus, as the place is more likely to be cleaner and better maintained if the owners live on the premises.  Sara was so personable and so helpful.  She and her brother Muktar made us feel very welcome.  I immediately made friends with their puppy,

of course.  I told Sara that I was a cat vet, and that I loved animals.  She told me that there’s a cat in the riad.  He wasn’t around at the moment, though.  But she had some kittens in the back that she was taking care of.  She disappeared to the back, and soon emerged with two of the kittens.  Yes, ten minutes after arriving at our riad, I had two kittens in my hands.

This was going to be a fun trip.

Our room was beautiful.  Check out the colorful bedspread and the cool decorations. 

And the funky shower!

We didn’t stay long to admire the room, though.  It was 5:00 p.m., and even though we had been awake for almost 28 hours (neither of us can sleep on an airplane), Mark and I weren’t tired, and we were itching to get outside to visit the main square, the Jemma el Fna.      

Right at about 6:00 p.m., Moroccan families gather together and take their evening walk.  A good percentage of them end up in the Jemma el Fna.  Armed with my guidebooks and with Sara’s hand drawn map, we made our first attempt to navigate our way to the square. 

The walk was a total adventure.   On the travel review site TripAdvisor, many of the reviews mentioned that the riad was a little off the beaten path. However, all of the reviewers cited this as being a benefit, because the walk to the Jemma el Fna takes you through the beating heart of the Marrakech medina, and not the contrived, touristy areas.  You see real Marrakshis living their real lives.  To me, this is the true purpose of traveling.  We passed pastry shops,

fruit stands

I like this picture of the little Moroccan boy with his Mario Batali style orange crocs
and other shops and stands.  

On the walk, I noticed this poor little kitten sleeping not far from a fruit stand.  It was very thin, with a severe conjunctivitis and eye discharge that pasted both eyes shut.

I suspected that I would see many cats like this, and I brought along antibiotic eye ointments and drops in my luggage, hoping to at least get a dose of medication into the eyes of kitties that might need it.  In our haste to leave the riad, I had left them behind, and was unable to treat this kitten.  It wouldn’t have made a difference, though; malnourishment was a bigger issue for this little kitten.  (The next morning, on our walk to the main square, I saw the same kitten, deceased by the side of the road.) Very sad.

A little further down, I came upon a small plaza and met a friendly orange tomcat.

We passed a short stretch of shops with a covered roof (sort of),

and then came upon a very picturesque little alley with lush greenery overhead.

We took a little detour down this street and came upon a nicely tiled courtyard.  Not surprisingly, there were kitties in the courtyard. 

One thing I noticed about the kitties in Marrakech was that there were a lot of calicos and torties, and a lot of orange cats.  Here in the U.S., I mostly see mackerel tabbies, but in Morocco, orange is the new mackerel.   The health status and thriftiness of the cats varies quite a bit.  In Istanbul, there were lots of street cats, but the majority of them were fat and healthy.  If you go back to my blog posts of my Istanbul and look at the photos, you can see how good the cats look.  Not here in Morocco, sadly.  Some cats are making it; many are not.

Here’s a pretty healthy looking calico in the courtyard.

In the same courtyard is this unthrifty looking torti kitten.

Also nearby was a torti/tabby who was really sweet.

Most of the cats had no fear of humans and they let me pick them up and pat them.   Notice in this picture, near my foot, I have my little bag of cat treats.  All three cats in the courtyard appreciated the snack.

We left the picturesque alley and got back on the main path.  I could see from my map that the square was near.  We ducked into a covered area (the Souk Kessabine), and then emerged into the northern end of the Jemma el Fna.  If you think Barnum and Bailey’s Circus is the greatest show on Eart, think again.  The Jemma el Fna wins that title easily.  The plaza was used for public executions back in the year 1050 (Jemma el Fna means “assembly of the dead”), and it’s been a madhouse ever since.   Unesco declared it a Masterpiece of World Heritage in 2001.

I looked for our landmark (as suggested by Sara), the Café de France.

This café would mark the entrance to the main square, with the nearby Souk Kessabine being our exit point.  The café has a popular terrace that overlooks the square.  We went up, had some tea and a snack, and enjoyed the view.

Then we strolled through the square.  There was food for sale, like dried fruits and nuts,

 and stands that sold freshly squeezed orange juice

for only 4 dirhams (about 50 cents).  There were also some crazy, cheesy entertainment all geared for the tourists, like a guy who charges money for a photo with his live monkey,

and the snake charmers

 (yes, that’s a live cobra out in front), and henna tattoo artists.  There were also lots of beggars, like this blind man,

who rely on the charity of strangers to get by.  An interesting sight was the water sellers. 

They wear red robes and colorfully embroidered conical hats.  They carry goatskin pouches with them that contain water.  They have one cup for Muslims, and one for non-Muslims.  I could only get this picture from the back, because if they see you taking a picture from the front, they get furious and demand money.  This was a recurrent, annoying theme through much of the trip.  It was still early, and the tallest structure in Marrakech – the Koutoubia Mosque – was beckoning us from the square, at the southern end.  This 12th-century 70 meter high tower is a prime example of Moorish architecture, with its scalloped keystone arches, jagged crenulations, and mathematically pleasing proportions.  The sun was just beginning to set, and it gave a nice sky a nice glow behind the mosque.

Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter, but they don’t seem to mind tourists taking photos from outside.

Next to the mosque are the lovely Koutoubia Gardens, a nice peaceful respite from the insanity of the main square.

We strolled back to the square, where we watched the transition from day square to night square.  The Jemma el Fna during the day is busy, but still relatively calm.  Consider it Act One.  Act Two – the square at night – is another story entirely.  At night, the food stalls go up, and the place turns into a giant outdoor restaurant and carnival.  We watched the food stands being erected.

 At one stall, they began to load the tagines onto the grills. 

The real craziness happens when the sky darkens. 

We sat at a café on the square, had more mint tea, and engaged in our favorite activity: people-watching.  Everyone was out for the evening stroll,

like this woman and her son.  One problem with sitting at a café on the square is that you are approached by peddlers and beggars continuously.  It was a common occurrence to be approached by someone offering a packet of Kleenex for sale.  I don’t know why the selected Kleenex as the item to sell, but we saw these tissue-peddlers everywhere.  Most were adults, but many were children, like this little boy here.

When residents and tourists do give these folks money, they decline the tissues.  They just give money.  The tissues are a prop.  We passed the time watching folks set up their sales booth, like this guy selling lanterns,

until evening descended on the Jemma el Fna.  The food stands came alive, and seats filled quickly, everyone enjoying some authentic Moroccan cuisine.  

We didn’t partake; by this time, the lack of sleep and jet lag was hitting us hard, and we decided to head back to the riad.  The streets going back to the riad were much more crowded than they were on the way to the square.

Navigation after dark would prove tricky, although I made certain to note a few landmarks on the way out.  This “gas station” was where we needed to turn left.

 I noted that the sign for our street, Derb Arrab, was partially obscured by wires,

which made it easy to spot.  Turn right here.  Then, as you go down Derb Arrab, you see a wall jutting out with a “ch” painted on the wall. 

Turn left here, and voila!  Our riad!

Will tomorrow bring more sightings of cats? 
Day 2