Giving Thanks in Marrakech

Written By: Catherine  Vitale

My wanderlust will forever be the impetus for me to reach the four corners of the globe. With my sights set on Africa and the Middle East, I suggested Morocco for our annual family destination Thanksgiving trip. Marrakech – where Arabia meets Africa and desert meets sea. A city of friendly people, aromatic spices, and windswept desert. My knowledge of the city was limited, so I started my web research and was immediately hooked. Considering the fact that we would be traveling to a Muslim country with adult daughters, I wanted to ensure that we were all respectful of the local customs, so the girls were advise to be mindful of their dress and behavior in public – basically that meant no “short” shorts, and no public displays of affection.

As the small plane descended into Menara Airport, a beautiful red orb gently descended over the endless desert horizon. I could not stop snapping photographs, despite the flight attendant’s warnings against use of electronic devices. The sun cast a mellow tangerine glow over the great expanse. The lights of the city were slowly coming up, provoking images of a Christmas card of Bethlehem.

The plane touched down, slightly skidding on the runway, and we were in North Africa. The anticipation built, as always, upon arriving in a foreign land. The ride to the hotel was a blur – the conversation taking center stage – our voices competing in discussing plans for the week – horseback riding, an overnight in the desert, and most important (in our predominantly Italian family) where we would dine that night. I had made reservations at a Riad (palace cum inn) that was highly recommended by a guidebook and promised to be a lovely experience, both in terms of setting and cuisine.

We entered the medina, the area within the ancient city walls of Marrakech. The large square, Djemaa El-Fna, was the heart of the city, and premiere draw for tourists, surrounded by a maze of tiny alleys in which one could get lost for days. The square came alive at night with snake charmers, archaic dentists, pyramids of spices, and myriad food stalls – grilling and smoking mysterious meats. I had read that if one escaped the medina without a henna tattoo or food poisoning they would be considered lucky. I had planned an itinerary with more traditional restaurants, but knew we wanted to experience the local cuisine.  Middle Eastern food was a favorite of mine, but what I had experienced was mostly the US version, so I was quite excited to sample the real deal.

Upon approaching the entrance to our luxury hotel just outside the medina, an unprepared visitor may have been alarmed to encounter fruit-laden donkeys, heaps of garbage and graffiti covering pastel walls. I, however, was not surprised, as I knew the palaces that were secreted behind such facades. No disappointment here, as we entered the oversize gold lattice gates, and found ourselves in a Moroccan palace. We got settled in our sumptuous rooms, immediately transporting us to the exotic salons of sultans.

The concierge arranged for a taxi to the “nearby” restaurant ‘Dar Moha’, which he confirmed, was a very good choice. He also advised the driver of our destination. We exited the medina gate, entering the “new city”, but unfortunately passed the ubiquitous McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts. As we circled around and again passed the same McDonald’s, we began to question our driver’s knowledge of his city. I asked him if he knew how to get to the restaurant and was answered with a nod and a grunt. We continued to drive on, much longer than anticipated, but still not reaching our destination. I again showed him the paperwork I had printed of the restaurant (note to travelers: it’s good have printed documentation of your destination, as well as hotel and phone number) but he just waved me away. He did not speak English, so at this point we simply had to trust him.

The roads were becoming narrower, the streetlights fewer, as we navigated our way through the tiny, serpentine alleys, indicating we were back inside the medina. My husband and the girls were in varying degrees of frustration, and I must admit, through the dirty windows of the taxi, I too felt completely lost in a strange place.

Finally, the driver stopped at a very tiny street that would not bear the taxi, and indicated we had arrived. There was nothing there that could ever be described as a restaurant. We insisted we were in the wrong place. Our driver ignored our protests, got out of the car and walked away. At that point, the general mood in the taxi escalated to slight panic. My husband’s level of concern was magnified by the fact that he had four women over whom he felt extremely protective. I knew I had no choice but to appear calm and confident that all was ok.

The driver motioned for us to get out of the car. After a bit of hesitation, I jumped out of the car, deciding to trust my gut – that this man had no intention of harming us. When I reached him, he was telling us to follow a young local man down the alley. At this point, I am sure my husband would have gotten right back in the car and ask to be returned to the safety of our hotel. I, however was up for an adventure, and again bravely followed the second man. He walked us approximately two hundred feet and pointed.

There was a beautiful carved wooden door, but no sign indicating either a hotel or restaurant. The stranger nodded and motioned for us to go in. We knocked on the door, waited, but there was no response. We turned to call the driver, but now the taxi was nowhere to be seen, nor was our “guide”.

With a considerably louder knock, the door opened to reveal a beautiful courtyard filled with velvet settees adorned with sequined and tasseled pillows. The aroma and beauty of large orchids bombarded our senses. A gold lettered sign on the wall advised us we were in the right place. Through our trust of strangers, we had arrived at our destination safely – we were genuinely thankful this Thanksgiving.