Monday, January 13, 2014

Five days in Morocco and the obsession with Argan oil

              I didn’t read much about Morocco before I embarked on a five-day trip to this Northern African country. I’m well traveled (Europe, the United States, Caribbean, event a bit of Asia) but I have never been to Africa, and Morocco seemed like a good place to get my feet wet. Plus I have American friends living there.
             My trip began in Paris I love and have been to, many times before, on an impressive two and a half hour Royal Air Maroc flight to Rabat. The plane was new and the food exceptionally good for airplane food, so I quickly forgot that the flight was an hour late. The moment the plane landed, while still taxing, most people got up, and started taking their bags from the overhead compartments, ignoring the young, female flight attendant’s requests to sit back down.
I quickly realized—I wasn’t in Western Europe anymore.
The Rabat airport was as new and shiny as the plane, which made me question my American friend’s statement that Morocco is a third world country. “Moroccans are very good about making certain things look good,” he vaguely explained, as we were cruising along a nice highway at 11pm on a Sunday. A moment later, we saw a man hoarding cows down the highway.
On Monday morning, we took a two hour drive north to Asilah, a small town on the Atlantic coast, not far from Tangiers, with a beautiful, picturesque Spanish-influenced fortress, overlooking the ocean. The air smelled salty and fresh. We sat in a café Al Madina, in the middle of the old town, and ordered the a la menthe, a delicious Moroccan blend of green tea, fresh mint leaves and lots and lots of sugar, and Moroccan gateaux, or white-powdered sugar cookies. But once you down your greenish tea from the tall glass, you need to use the bathroom, right? Well, don’t expect any toilet paper or soap in the small cafés natives go to. Be lucky if there is a toilet bowl. So, unless you want to spend your time in Morocco in bed, nauseated, may I suggest bringing and using a lot of hand sanitizer?
Asilah’s old town has lots of little shops filled with colorful arts and crafts, shoes, carpets, pottery as well as spectacular views of the ocean once on top of the fortress’s walls. There’s no hike, just a few steps and you can feel the ocean breeze on your face.
            A stone-throw away from the fortress is a Spanish seafood restaurant, Casa Garcia,( 51 Rue Moulay Hassan ben el-Mehdi) highly endorsed and frequented by my friends, who elaborated by saying that people drive from Rabat, for two hours, just to eat in it. After such an endorsement, I was expecting Four Season’s quality a la Moroccan or at least an Inn at Little Washington with Spanish, seafood twist but what we got was actually mediocre-to-good seafood paella, grilled shrimp and fried calamari, and a slightly bitter crème caramel for desert, but all served with the ocean view and the smell of the sea. Lunch for four cost about $45.
            We were occasionally harassed by the street vendors trying to persuade us to buy cigarettes, even thought we obviously did not smoke, and small unframed paintings, even thought we said, in French, we were not interested, many times. But get use to it, fast. It’s a normal, every day occurrence for tourists in Morocco.
On our way back to Rabat, I asked my friends to take me somewhere I can buy good quality Argan oil, both for eating and cosmetic use, since a 30ml bottle of this oil in Whole Foods costs $30, and it’s very healthy both for your stomach and your skin. They took me to Apia, a small, fragrant, modern store at the beginning of Rue Oukaimeden, in Agdal part of Rabat, a Westernized shopping area with stores such as Mango, GAP, and restaurants like T.G.I. Fridays, but also many small, local cafes. Apia smells of roses and is full of Argan oil based products as well as any type of honey and jam you can think of, artfully packaged. It is the best shopping I was able to do in Rabat, both for myself and for gifts, such as artisanal bottles of cold pressed Argan oil for Gastronomique use, natural, anti-wrinkle Argan oil for Cosmetique use, soaps, massage oils and similar items, all wrapped for gifting and reasonably priced. A 150ml bottle of cosmetic Argan oil cost about $12, and soap about $3.
 I will forever regret not taking my friends offer of borrowing an extra suitcase and filling it with these rare, expensive oils and products hard to find in the United States. So, if you like to shop, I suggest you travel with your suitcase half empty.

On my second day, we went to Casablanca. Casablanca is an hour of a train-ride away from Rabat.
            May I suggest you learn some French or have a French speaking companion when travelling to Morocco, since you are going to need that language to ask for directions and negotiate with taxi drivers when lost. Moroccans apparently do not need many street signs to get around. They’re not big on cleanliness either. It is probably the dirtiest city I have been to so far. Trash is everywhere, the sidewalks smell of urine and decaying food, the architecture is run down and the traffic is much worse than in Washington D.C, maybe even L.A. The only two reasons to visit Casablanca are to see the spectacular Mosque of Hassan II, the third largest mosque after the ones in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, and the Mosque with the highest minaret in the world—200 meters or a little over 656 feet, and to eat!
            Hassan II’s minaret is turquoise and white and it is exactly what one's need after a whole day of looking for something beautiful in a run-down city of six millions people.
The whole area around this Mosque, built partly on water since, as my guide explained,
” the throne of God was on water,” is shiny white marble and stone. Hassan II is not only an architectural wonder but also an exception of beauty in this dirty city with crazy drivers, where pedestrians are citizens of second class with non-existent or obstructed sidewalks and no traffic lights. The Mosque was built almost all from Moroccan materials with a few exceptions—Italian crystal and Venetian plaster. Materials are carefully picked for their ability to resist the humidity such as cedar wood for the dozen massive doors. The tour costs $15 per person, and lasts about 45 minutes with guides in English, French, Italian, German and Spanish. The revenue from tours makes this Mosque self-sufficient, and paying the fee is the only way a non-Muslim can enter it. It is a little pricey, in my opinion, and you may skip it. The Mosque is much more impressive from the outside then the inside.
Food is the second and last reason to go to Casablanca. I had lunch at La Squala (Boulevard des Almohades, Casablanca,) just around the corner from the famous Rick’s Café, infamous for the scarce working hours. Rick’s cafe opens at 12pm and closes at 3pm, to reopen again at 6:30pm. La Squala is situated in a small fortress overlooking the ocean and a garden, with seats both outside in the garden and inside, and it makes incredibly tasty tajines, traditional Moroccan cooked dishes with either only vegetables, fish or meat, soft, juicy and perfectly seasoned. Tajines are named after the clay dome dishes they are made in. La Squala also makes incredible chewy Moroccan almond cookies that go perfectly with a well-crafted Italian Lavazza cappuccino or café crème. Unless you are dying to go to the touristy Rick’s café, maybe to act on some old movie fantasy, I suggest going to La Squala instead. The prices are moderate too, about $40 for two entrees, two cappuccions and a plate of cookies.
In Rabat, you should see the Kasbah, an impressive orange-color fortress with narrow streets, white and blue painted walls, then have the a la menthe and Moroccan cookies (unless you have diabetes by now) in Café de la Mer on Rue Bose overlooking the Bouregreg river. From there, well rested, you should visit the adjacent Andalusian garden and its small, unimpressive museum (10 dirhams or a little over a dollar), with only four rooms displaying old artifacts and old hammams, and a courtyard with a fountain. I suggest you walk down from the Kasbah to Medina, right across the busy highway, and walk along Rue de Consuls. The best shops are on that street, as well as the tamest vendors, if you don’t like to be pulled by your sleeve or someone entering your personal space. Deeper you go into the Medina and the souks or the marketplace where everything can be negotiated, the crazier and smellier it gets. But if you have a strong stomach (and, in my opinion, a food poisoning-wish) you could try different exotic foods prepared there, while often spoken to, by the locals, in languages you probably don’t know.
From Medina, head to La Tour Hassan hotel. It’s truly an oasis in a city as dirty and polluted as Rabat, but an expensive one. A grilled salmon lunch cost 180 dirhams or about $25, and chicken and vegetable soup 120 dirhams or $15, which might not be expensive for New York City, but it certainly is for Morocco.
La Tour Hassan is an artfully built, sparkling hotel, with three restaurants serving French and Moroccan food, a pianist in one of them, and a brasserie by the pool and the garden. The service is impeccable and the food is tasty.
From the hotel, you could walk down the hill to the Parliament and the main Post Office, Central Bank and the main Train Station on Avenue Mohamed V, Rabat’s main avenue.
My friends took me to Vila Mandarine (9 Rue Ouled Bousbaa – Souissi) for dinner, a restaurant and a hotel, immersed in its impressive, wild and fertile gardens, with a dinning room filled with expensive chandeliers, mosaics and paintings. Now here, the bathroom was impeccably clean and well furnished. The food was not only tasty but also artfully prepared and the prices were pretty high.  Dinner for four, with only two glasses of wine and no dessert was about $125. They have an excellent salmon and sole fillets, and an interesting ravioli with seafood and citrusy sauce. The home-made style bread in nice Moroccan restaurant is always fresh and tasty, so was the tuna mousse appetizer on a tiny pasty.
My dilemma with traveling through Morocco was what and where was safe to eat. I didn't want to risk getting food poisoning and ruining my trip, so I haven’t had anything fresh in five days. I was advised by friends and doctors not to eat salads or fruit if I want to avoid food borne illness or a parasite of some sort. Apparently, Moroccans use “natural” fertilizers, coming from animals you often see by the side of the roads, mostly cows and sheep, sometimes horses of donkeys.
            To be honest, as a result of my cautiousness, I was often hungry, with no safe food in sight. There are no food stores like in Europe or the United States. You’re lucky if you bump into a small stand that looks like it’s going to collapse any moment and sells some packaged foods like chips or cookies.
            In Rabat’s Medina, I saw a cart with round, individually sized fresh bread and locals coming by and touching several pieces of it until they chose the one they wanted. After seeing an average bathroom in Morocco, I put two and two together and decided to starve for a little while longer until I could find a nice hotel or a restaurant. One thing I didn’t do, and I suggest you do is bring and carry granola bars or nuts with you at all times, in case you are starving and want to be extra careful like I was.
I have never consumed so much sugar and fish in five days, but I also remained healthy. If you’re dying for something fresh, wash it yourself with a few drops of bleach.
On my fourth day, we went to Marrakesh, a city with two faces. When you arrive at the airport or the train station, (Rabat to Marrakesh is four-hour train ride. Make sure you buy first class. It’s worth it.) and on your drive to Medina where the Riads are (and I recommend you stay at a Riad, and not in one of the typical hotels outside Medina) you are driving through a modern, sparkling, Western looking Hivernage area. But when the Hivernage ends, the Medina begins, and its dusty, narrow, smelly streets. Inside Marrakesh’s Medina, riding an old motorcycle is apparently the thing to do. The pedestrians are indeed the second class citizens here as well, since they have to wait for the bikes to pass, in order to continue walking. Sometimes, a donkey-dragged cart wants to pass, and there’s really no other was to survive and leave the city with all your limbs unless you peel yourself onto the wall. It’s impossible to relax in Marrakesh outside of your Riad or hotel. There are either motorbikes around or behind you, or merchants pushing their cobras or monkeys toward you for a picture, on Place Jamaa Al Fna, Marrakesh’s main square. They also often yell at you from their carts covered with oranges, offering you a freshly squeezed orange juice from a dirty glass.
I stayed in Riad Argan (33, derb Zenka Dika, Marrakech Médina) which was a refuge from the stressful city. It’s really a big, beautiful house in the middle of Medina, converted into a boutique hotel, five minutes away from Place Jamaa Al Fna. It has only four or five rooms, impeccably decorated in Moroccan style, with red painted ceilings, wooden saloon-like bathroom doors, and copper bathroom accessories. It’s owned and run by a French lady and three local sisters who will help you in anyway you need, and take your any place you want. They even speak English.
Once in the warmth and security of my cozy Riad, I asked for two things—where can I buy good Argan oil, and where is a good Hammam.
Just a few minutes away, toward the main square, there is a small shop where a Moroccan woman in headscarf is making Argan oil right before your eyes. I had mine (eyes) on the oil she was making at that exact moment, since I was told that Argan oil is expensive, so Moroccans often mix it with others, cheaper ones, and still sell it as pure Argan. A rare English-speaking shopkeeper started the bid wars with me at 350 dirhams for a 250 ml bottle of cosmetic oil. After a short bargaining session I was bad at, I got it down to 250 which is about $30. But don’t despair, I am the worst haggler, and I’m pretty sure you can do better. You should offer a quarter of the asked price to start with, but ultimately, it gets down to how badly you want the item. I really wanted to leave the store with the oil squeezed from the Argan paste in front of me, and I paid more for that privilege. At least I know it’s 100 percent real. This store doesn’t really have a name. There’s a sign above the door saying “Natural and organic,” and it’s a few minutes away from the main square. You can get there by asking anyone where can you buy Argan oil, or if you stumble upon a modest looking shop, with doors wide open, and Argan nuts and paste that looks like hard bread, in buckets in front of it.
Les Bains de L’alhambra (Kasbah, Derb Rahala 9) is a spa with Hammam recommended by my Riad. It was about a 15-minute walk from the main square and to get to it, you really need a guide or a taxi. It’s inside the Kasbah, in one of its labyrinth streets and has a very inconspicuous entrance. It’s also one of the best spas I have been to. The Moroccan package costs 450 dirhmas or a little less than $60 and includes a full-service exfoliation and bath, from head to toe, in a traditional dark, Hammam spa-room, similar to a low ceiling, stone and marble sauna. The Hammam portion lasts about 45 minutes, after which you lounge into a comfortable spa version of a “lazy-boy” with rose petals. Then you are served their sweet mint tea, while another masseuse works on your feet. An exceptional 60-minute full-body massage follows, that included your stomach and your face and head. It’s truly a different spa experience that the ones in Europe or the United States, and well worth the money, especially if the fast pace of Marrakesh stresses you. Both women and men were equally enjoying Les Bains de L’Alhambra.
Un dejeneur de Marrakesh (2-4 Place Douar Graoua, Medina) is a good restaurant to go to any time, and it’s right across the natural Argan oil store I mentioned. It’s contemporary and casual, with a roof garden framed with cacti, a small menu with fish, salads, dessert, and Nespresso coffee. Good service, nice view of Marrakesh from the terrace, open all day, prices moderate.
For dinner, I suggest Pepenero (17, Derb Cherkaoui - Douar Graoua Marrakesh). It’s Moroccan and Italian restaurant in a beautiful setting with a fountain the middle of the dinning room and a pool in the lobby. You get a complementary glass of champagne with dinner. Food is delicious and moderately priced. Pasta is 120 dirhams or $15, fish or another main dish is 180 or about $23.
Hotel La Mamounia (Avenue Bab Jdid, Medina), the city’s oldest hotel (but you can’t tell) is worth visiting. It was recently renovated, its lobby and hallways are filled with marble and mosaics, and it has vast, carefully-cared-for gardens. From the moment you enter its gates, you can almost smell the money. You can stroll the gardens for free, or have mint tea with views of sculptures and paintings inside, or by the pool. Moroccan mint tea in Le Bar Churchill costs 60 dihram or about $7.
            All in all, Morocco is a wild, colorful place you should prepare for, but there’s definitely enough variety to keep your senses engaged for at least a week. Maybe even longer if you don’t mind its chaos. At least, it’s never boring, but neither is relaxing, unless you are in a Hammam.


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