Travel & Life Digest

Marrakech - the Souks, the Medina and Dinner at Cafe Nomad

On our first evening out in Marrakech the hotel car left us just by Jamaa El'Fna square and my husband said "we have two hours until dinner at the Nomad, it should only take us six minutes to walk there". Little did we know! An hour and fifteen minutes later, we finally stood at the tiny entrance of Café Nomad. We had navigated Jamaa El Fna, avoided the monkeys, luckily no cobras in sight and then threw ourselves into the souks in an attempt to find cafe Nomad. What a bewildering experience!

There were so many people around the square, I didn't feel that general sentiment of fun that is proclaimed on all tourist websites. I then realised that 7 in the evening is the busiest time around Jamaa El'Fna, whereas mornings are calmer. Poor monkeys were kept in chains, forced to kiss tourists for a photo. Men dressed as old Mauritans selling pictures painted on stretched leather, fake handbags and lanterns. Women giving henna tattoos. In the souks everybody looked so hyper, it kind of put me on edge. Truth be told, as long as you keep walking and make minimum eye contact, nobody bothers you, but it was certainly not a relaxing experience! Not for me anyway. My husband was more relaxed and mastered a little hand gesture, nodding "no" if someone tried to sell us something, it worked!

I read a piece of advice about handling the souks for the first time, which I now think makes sense; before hitting the souks, sit at one of the cafes by Jamaa El'Fna to take it all in. After that, very little will shock you. We sat at Café de France's terrace on our last day in Marrakech and looking at everything from a distance gives you a moment to take it all in and accept the chaos! I'd advise to do that on your very first day!

The souks, some covered, some open are tiny streets with tiny and even tinier shops, selling everything you can imagine; it was sweet to see older men still buying sweeties by the piece for a couple of dirhams, butchers selling lamb heads and hoofs, right next to tailors and pharmacies! The only thing that caught my eye were sweets, so many sweets! It seemed like a mixture of French and Arabic cultures amalgamated, right there in the middle of this little mayhem! I saw the tiniest sweet shop, couldn't have been more than a meter wide and maybe two meters deep, the walls covered in mosaic green and white tiles and the guy was frying some kind of pastry...couldn't dare to take my phone out and take a picture at that point though!

"Shaved Cauliflower" salad with strawberries and almonds, oh the aroma! 
Vegetable Pastilla, so fragrant! 

When we finally reached the square des Epices,where Cafe Nomad nests, I sighed a sign of relief;
it was quieter, covered in weaved baskets and wooden utensils. That's more like it! Cafe des Epices, another café with great views, is right across the square but for cafe Nomad we had to stand in the middle of the square and look up to try and spot the whimsical terrace. You blink and miss the entrance! Climb up two flights of stairs and you arrive in this lovely open space, with tables and chairs cosied up together and weaved baskets serving as lights - you are in the weaver's souk after all. I sat down and snatched my scarf off my shoulders, there was a slight breeze, closed my eyes and breathed in. Finally, some peace and quiet!
The restaurant does not serve alcohol! Wait, what? Panic not, it's actually a good idea after all the heat of the day to avoid having alcohol, plus imagine trying to find your way around the souks tipsy, it's hard enough to do it sober! I had lovely orange, carrot and ginger juice, so re-energising.

Question: how do you shave a cauliflower? No, it's not a hypothetical question, my starter was a "shaved cauliflower" salad, with tiny pieces of strawberries for aroma and almonds for crunch, one of the most interesting combos I've tried! My other half went for a vegetable pastilla, an Andalusian Moroccan staple of pigeon cooked with soft vegetables and raisins, wrapped in pastry. If you don't like "fruit in your food" as he put it, maybe this one isn't for you. I found it soft and fragrant.
On to the mains, I had chicken "brochettes", skewers in other words, juicy and delicious and served with a buttery almond cous cous. My husband went for a lamb tagine, which as they warn you on the menu is "not served in the traditional way" that is you get it on a plate not in a tagine. The lamb was falling apart, which is the desired effect, but my husband said it was rather cold.

You can see the Koutoubia Mosque tower from the terrace at Nomad, as well as the little square below. The crowd in the restaurant consists of tanned expats and tourists who've done their research. You can hear French, Dutch, Spanish, German, occasionally Arabic and our own little contribution of English/Greek/Hindi. I find it really cheeky being able to switch languages when gossip is involved.

Dessert was one of the simplest, nicest combos you can have: spiced chocolate sorbet and fresh mint tea; "spiced" chocolate was delicious, sharp and awakening and the warm mint tea was that little hug you need at the end of a busy day, when you can let all of your worries melt away under the African sky.

Chicken Brochettes with almond couscous.
Mint Tea, the perfect end to a busy day in busy Marrakech.

On our way back I admit I was a bit worried about navigating the crowded souls again but to our amazement everything was closed and we quietly strolled around, much more relaxed. One of the herbal pharmacies was still open, a chatty young boy started talking to us about Channel No5 being nothing more than a simple soap and let us smell all wonderful herbs and soaps he had at his little shop. What a clever thing! When I commented on how much he knew, he said proudly "This is a pharmacy, no chemicals"! I'm so glad we met him, it let the evening end on a nice note!

But that's Marrakech for you: when you've had enough something pleasant will happen un-expectantly to make you think you were over-reacting (trust me, you probably weren't) and when you think everything is under control, something crazy will happen to make your blood boil momentarily; Marrakech, you are a handful!

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