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Mint Tea and Tagines

We left from Bruxelles on a 4 hours flight (we will tell more in another post about how afraid we are now of flying after a horrible experience last year when coming home from Marseille). We stacked up on prayers, movies, and audiobooks to make it seem shorter.

We touched down in Marrakesh around 7PM local time. The first impression was nice, a cool, almost luxurious airport. We usually travel only with hand luggage so we are fast in leaving the airport.

Myself, I am used to setting my phone on no data on roaming, but apparently Radu is not. It was our first time as a couple outside Europe and the first time for both of us in Africa. We were not up to date with the costs and plans.

Went outside the airport, looking for our shuttle to the hotel although we do not usually book transportation like this, but being aware that the streets in Marrakesh are a maze, we wanted to be safe and direct. We had a little bit of difficulty since there were multiple riads with the same name, but in the end, we got the right car. It was hectic everywhere, sounds of the mosques calling for prayers, a bit dusty and dirty - not a very nice first look. At least for a tired European. Halfway to our riad, Radu gets a message from Orange saying that he just reached a 50 MB limit - on a quick estimation that meant almost 200,- euro. Oh, snap! That was nasty! 10 minutes in this country and we are already fed up with it.

The shuttle car stopped on a crowded street, our guide got his phone smashed by a scooter guy going hectically, and everything was super noisy. We followed our guide to the hotel/riad - left, right, two lefts, one right, then left again - totally confusing. In the end, there it was, our riad.

A #riad - is a type of traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. The term is nowadays often used in Morocco to refer to a hotel or guest house-style accommodation with shared common areas and private rooms.

Ours was a little on the traditional side. Like in the photos, but not so much. The pool was dirty, the whole staff seemed a little weird and then we got to the rooms. Which were not what we expected. They were dirty, the bathroom was to the point of not being usable - overall we did not feel good. No TV (which for Radu is bad; very bad actually). All of these coupled with the outrageous amount we already owned for roaming usage, the whole trip felt like a good time to count our blessings.

We unpacked and went to grab a bite. Outside it was like this horror movie - dark and very windy, narrow empty streets, and a lot of garbage from the now-closed bazaars. We found a cafe close to our riad, and for the first time we found something nice - we ordered Harira Soup and two tajines - a beef and a chicken one. And that was comfort food all the way. These dishes hugged our souls and made us feel good. Finally!

We enjoyed it while it lasted and went back to our unappetizing (pun intended) room.

The next day, with the same sour faces we went for breakfast. Some bread (i am gluten allergic and intolerant, so not so fun for me), butter, jam, coffee, orange juice, and some Moroccan pastry. We were to find out that is was not a poor breakfast, it was a regular one in Marrakesh. I had gluten-free bread packed back home so I was not hungry in the end.

After breakfast, off we went. Radu downloaded an offline map of the city, so to have some decent landmarks. The list of things to see for day_1: El Badi Palace, Bahia Palace, the Saadian Tombs, and the Perfume Museum.

We started early with the Saadian Tombs since they were the closest ones. Beautiful, filled with history, and culture-rich. A historic royal necropolis, they date to the time of the Saadian dynasty, and in particular to the reign of Ahmas al-Mansur (1578 - 1603). It was something we have never seen before. And we had the chance to see some live-restoration works.

Next on the list - El Badi Palace. But the map was not doing a good job, so we found this guy so eager to help (we would find later why) - he showed us and even offered to walk us up to there. "But wait, would you check my herbal store, first?" That was weird, but we did it, and we ended up buying some argan cream. So we were fooled right from the start.

Remember - outrageous phone bill, not-ok riad, and now this. Keep them coming, Marrakech!

We reached El Badi Palace - which we enjoyed a lot! Super beautiful and very imposing (one month later Dior hosted a fashion show here - oh, the lavish sultan Ahmad al-Mansur would have been so proud of this homage to Yves Saint Laurent). Today, there remains only a huge esplanade carved gardens, planted with orange trees and surrounded by high walls.

After being immersed in this piece of history, we went to Bahia Palace - one of the grand palaces of the Red City. The Palace is an artistic masterpiece dating from the splendor of Moroccan architecture of Andalusian character - with splendid mosaics, gardens, and large open spaces. It was warm outside, so the day was finally great.

We were hungry but decided to visit first the Perfume Museum - to clear our list for the day and then enjoy lunch at Le Jardin, which was close to the museum. Follow the map, they said! But wrong they were!

We were unaware that the map we downloaded was actually a map for cars - so it took us to the utmost outskirts of Marrakech. So we can definitely say that Marrakech is very safe for tourists. We were on foot in these areas you would never think of! And we just on and on for like 2 hours! It was hot, we were sweaty and hungry. Again Marrakech, a point for you! Also, don't get fooled by those little boys that seem so eager to help - it's a rip-off.

By the point we reached the Perfume Museum, Radu lost all his patience and we decided not to go in. We went to Le Jardin straight away - we waited in line for a table inside, since all those outside were full. Honestly, a glass of white wine would have been amazing, but since there is no alcohol in regular restaurants in Marrakech we went for the mint tea and some cold sparkling water. We ordered the mixed Morrocan salads as starters. The main courses were two tagines - fish kofta and slow-cooked lamb shoulder. They were delicious.

After our very good lunch, we thought of looking for the famous Jama El F'na Market - the central and most famous part of the Red City. We did have some difficulty in reaching it, but not as before. It was crowded, with lots of vendors of all kinds. And we mean all kinds!

We were so tired that nothing made sense anymore! Our route back to the riad was somewhat long. Our room was the same so Radu was grumpy and I was sad. We had dinner at the same cafe as the night before, and the very nice waiter gave us the recipe for Harira - you can find it below - a very nice gentleman who told us a bit about the Morrocan food.

We love The New Food Lover's Companion by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst so we will probably give more of these definitions

In the dictionary mentioned above, Harira is a thick, spicy Moroccan soup traditionally served on special occasions, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan at sundown after a day of fasting. It typically consists of lamb or chicken, celery, chickpeas, garlic, lentils, onions, and it is flavored with coriander, ginger, paprika, saffron, turmeric, salt. It's often served as a meal on its own or accompanied by dates or figs, hard-boiled eggs, and lemon wedges.

Back at the hotel/riad, it was obvious to me - even if we paid for the room, we had to change it. Otherwise, the two days we had left were all for nothing. So I searched for a better riad - closer to the old city, with TV in the room, and cleaner. I found it and booked it. The next day it was Radu's birthday, so I also booked a nice table at the 5-star Es Saadi. It was my second choice - the first choice (La Grand Table Marrocain) had no tables available. That night I finally slept relaxed.

We cleared the room the next morning and went in the search of this all so promising riad. And it was a lot better - from the concierge, to the room, to the amenities - and also, the rooftop pool was fantastic.

We had an early check-in, which is always good, but in our case, we were craving for a nice room. The staff at the Nesma Suites & Spa Riad behaved splendidly. We went by the rooftop pool, with some Mint Tea and gorgeous weather! It was perfect! Just as the two of us are used to be on holiday.

The gentleman at the reception explained how to get to the Old City center - it was like a five minutes walk (that bloody map!!! ) - so we had some freshly squeed juices in the market, dates, ice cream and we did some shopping. Leather jacket, a bag, some traditional shoes - we released all our frustrations!

We were disappointed by the lunch, though. We went at Nomad - which as far as we read it is owned by the same guy as Le Jardin, and thought we would get at least the same quality. The menu sounded amazing and super mouth-watering. We ordered the sardine tart and the lentil salad. Unfortunately, the tart had an undercooked dough and we found a hair in it - we made a notice to the waiter, he apologized, and promised to bring us another one. 30 minutes later he came to tell us that there were no tarts left and that he can bring us the Zucchini and feta fritters served with minted yogurt. They sounded nice, and they were. Fresh and good. As for mains, we ordered the Calamari from Agadir and Grilled Lamb Chops. It did take them like one hour to bring them - the place was packed - but we did not mind. However, the chops were well-done, so we asked for a new portion, rare as we asked. Again, waiting time.

While waiting for our food, Radu noticed that the message said - 50 EUR limit, not 50 MB - so we had a good laugh! Our Morrocan escape was actually a nice adventure.

Back to the lunch, the desserts were mediocre at best, though the descriptions in the menu promised a delight. The big surprise was on the bill, where had the raw-dough hairy tart and both portions of lamb chops - they did fix it, but it was a sweet and sour experience.

We went back to our comfy and nice room to get a nap and get ready for our gourmet dinner at Es Saadi. The Hotel is opposite the Old City, so we walked hand in hand like love birds on a rather modern boulevard. We were used to the bazaars and the noise in the Old City, so seeing this different part of the town was completing our image on Marrakech.

The area is filled with 5star hotels and bars. Es Saadi is a rather large complex formed of different buildings. We arrived earlier so we went to the bar and had a glass of wine and a whiskey. In the background, there was a live piano and sumptuous decor.

Then, we were taken to our table - the restaurant was stunning - traditional Morrocan motifs, all white and gold with nice lighting. The name of the Restaurant is - La Cour des Lions - the court of the lions and the amazing chef is Fatema Hal.

We chose the Celebration Menu - a 4-course menu - Radu had a John Dory Pastilla, the Ras el-Hanout Lamb Tagine, while I had the Green Berkoukech and the quail with couscous.

We both had Jben in a cup - Fresh ewe’s cheese with Amlou (almond paste with argan oil and honey). Everything was a feast for our soul and for our night!

The music was amazing, the view was great, the food, the wine - we had such an amazing night! Though the area was a little bit more modern than we would like to stroll around Marrakech, the walk up to the hotel was again pleased with a warm little wind.

The last day was filled with walks around the bazaars, some street food, and some argan oil shopping.

All in all, it was a mixed review holiday. Part our fault, part a little reluctance from the beginning but it was an adventure. The culture of Morroco is different. The people are different, and although everything around them is hectic, they seem to slow down for a cup of Mint Tea and a good couscous. When I got back home I bought The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence by Martin Meredith because my knowledge of the real history of African countries was limited. After reading this book you get to understand. And I can imagine culture is even more different in other African countries. The preservation of traditions can be seen at every corner and in every bazaar.

Ras el Hanout = an exotic and complex Moroccan spice blend that, can contain up to 50 ingredients. It means "head of the shop" because shop owners create their own mix. It can include ginger, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom etc

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