This is the site where Mustapha's friends can read stories about his latest tours and discover little details from the medina to help piece together their next stay in Marrakech. So pour yourself a glass of mint tea and go see how many miles you have...
Before the 20th century, a Foundouk was a sort of mixed-use commercial property for travelers and merchants who came from across North Africa to trade – a hybrid of hotel and stable in the medina where animals (camels, donkeys, etc.) slept downstairs and people slept upstairs.
‘These were zero star hotel during the day, but at night they turned into 500 stars hotel when you looked up to the sky,’ Mustapha said. ‘These Foundouks turned into artisan workshops today – there are at least 50 in the medina. I have friends in these workshops; one man I know is making shoes more than 60 years in the same shop. I’ve learned a lot from them. They told me about the time of the French in Morocco.’
There aren’t any middlemen in Foundouks; you deal directly with the artisan and pay less than than you would in the souks. One example is Foundouk Sarsar on Rue Mouassine (pictured below).
The following is an excerpt from a wonderful talk I had with Condé Nast Traveler contributing editor Dani Shapiro about her stay at Salisbury, Connecticut’s trademark White Hart Inn (which I’m covering in my Backyard Travel column for Main Street Mag’s March issue).
Paige Darrah: “In the era of Air BnB, where travelers increasingly want to feel that they’re digging in to the culture and connecting to their destination, do you think that hotels have evolved and stepped up their game to offer/accommodate that?”
Dani Shapiro: “A tremendous cultural trend in travel is that people are looking for something both unique and authentic in a way that I think can be very difficult for hotels that are brands, even the most wonderful brands, to replicate or create.Nobody wants to feel like a tourist, they want to feel like they’re having the experience of being a local.For example, I remember the last time I was in Paris I was wanting very much to shop, and feeling like it was harder and harder to find something that wasn’t also available on Madison Avenue or Nolita. Even the smaller brands felt like they were proliferating and that everyone was having the same experience but still wanting so much to have that unique experience.So, to your point Paige, I do think there’s been a shift in travel.I think that hotels (particularly smaller, family-owned ones) are beginning to figure out that travelers are longing to feel at home in the world [wherever they are] and how to help them experience that feeling.”
It seems to me that Marrakech hotels like La Mamounia, Riad El Fenn, and Riad Farnatchi offer this kind of insider experience via Mustapha. You can’t find anything like the Beni Ouarin carpets at Assoufa on Madison Avenue (here’s a previous post about Assoufa).
I love the way this American family described their experience with Mustapha:
He is master of his craft. Here this man dressed in a manner so different from anyone we know connects with us immediately. He is warm. He has a sense of humor. He understands our culture yet emanates a traditional love and respect for his. He has so much integrity. No one dared bother us in his presence. He doesn’t over stay or over talk at sites – just perfect for our family. We were never bored. We saw so much. We meandered to parts of the Medina where we felt completely at home without another tourist in sight. I loved his passion for workmanship. We saw where and how things were made. The focus was not on shopping – we went to see artisans making their crafts. Rugs, oil, leather, lace, intricate painting and carving, communal bread ovens… He seemed to know everyone. We were allowed to really experience – smell, taste, hear, touch….. He met us for our initial orientation and it lasted half a day. He had all the time in the world for us.
5h40 is indeed early, but try not to think about that too much. Think about the North African sunrise, think about the Atlas mountains, think about the glorious photos you’ll post on Instagram.
Ciel d’Afrique – Morocco’s oldest hot air balloon* tour company and recipient of Trip Advisor’s ‘Certificate of Excellence’ 3 years running – recently began offering a post-flight camel transfer from your balloon’s landing site to the berber breakfast tent. Mustapha and I suggest you ask for Isham – a professional, charming pilot with some well-rehearsed hot air balloon humor.
Here’s how it’ll all go down:
The hot air balloon people will pick you up from your hotel or riad** at an unGodly hour and drive you to the launch site. Yes, it’s unfortunate, but hot air ballooning is a sunrise activity (for fancy aerological reasons). You’ll see Marrakech waking up during your 20-minute drive to the outskirts of town. You’ll see the agriculturally inclined Moroccans coming out of their mud huts to pick vegetables and hang out with their goats.
You’ll arrive at the launch site in time to watch the pilot and his crew prepare the balloon for flight; it takes shape as the pilot squeezes a lever that throws loud fire (and, by extension, hot air) into the balloon. You’ll hop into the basket and then – for a few minutes during your ascent – you’ll get a voyeur’s aerial view into some of Marrakech’s open-air residences. But the details on the ground will quickly blur and you’ll shift your gaze over to the Berber-populated Atlas Mountains because the sun is rising up alongside them and you don’t plan on getting up this early again for a long, long time.
About 50 minutes later your pilot will instruct you to brace yourself for touchdown by holding on to the basket’s handles. You’ll be nervous about the landing and curse yourself for not googling ‘hot air balloon accidents in Morocco’ before you left.
Upon landing, the balloon will drag the basket across the rocky terrain for a few seconds until its momentum is depleted. You’ll try to reconcile this experience with what you remember from your 10th grade physics class.
Then the dromedaries (one-humped camels***) will mosey over to scoop and carry you back to Ciel d’Afrique’s launch site where you’ll install yourself under a large Berber tent. Then you’ll be brought 3 varieties of Moroccan pancakes that you’ll dip into honey and olive oil.
After that and for reasons that are unclear, Isham will present you with a certificate stating that you:
a) flew in a hot air balloon. And that you did so
b) before an admiring crowd (remember the Moroccan farmers from earlier?).
You’ll pay the crew 2,050 dirhams (which is about $220 or 190 euros) in cash and they’ll take you back to your hotel.
The addition of 3 dromedaries to Ciel d’Afrique’s team presents a viable alternative for those of us who’d only briefly entertain the relatively impractical option of driving 7 hours to ride camels in the dunes of Moroccan Sahara. Now we can synthesize our camel and hot air balloon ride into one morning’s excursion, leaving the afternoon free to get lost in Marrakech’s souks and haggle for a carpet.
$220 per person for an hour long hot air balloon flight, which includes the post-flight camel ride to the breakfast tent, breakfast, and round trip hotel transfer in a scrappy 4×4. (011 212 52 443 2843, cieldafrique.info/accueil_fr.php).
* Linguistic sidebar: our French-speaking Moroccan friends call them ‘mongolfs,’ short for montgolfières.
** Mustapha defines a riad as ‘a house with a garden in the middle.’
**You’d be hard pressed to locate a two-humped camel in these parts, but don’t worry – one hump is more than sufficient.
Moroccans get very excited when westerners try to speak Arabic.Seriously, if you can muster even the smallest effort to learn a few words or phrases you’ll be met with great enthusiasm.
During a recent trip to Marrakech Mustapha taught me how to say the Arabic equivalent of “how’s it going?”.Whenever we were approaching one of Mustapha’s acquaintances or friends (which amounts to basically everyone in the medina) during our narrated strolls, he’d give me a a little nudge and say “Tell them, tell them.Say ‘labes*?’.”My sparse repertoire soon became a source of entertainment for Mustapha’s buddies, though I’m not sure why they found it so surprising**.
The salesmen in the souks can size up a tourist in a heartbeat – they’ve got powerful peripheral vision and they’re very focused on making the sale (the kind of focus that comes with having never been hung over…ever.). So you’ve gotta bring your A-game.
Mustapha would suggest the following strategy to those in need of a calmer stroll through the souks:
‘Labes?’ -you, the tourist-looking anglophone
the surprised argan oil saleman smiles and nods encouragingly
‘Berhair! Labes?’ -an argan oil salesman
‘Berhair!’ -you, the tourist-looking anglophone
‘Hamdelila!’ –you, the tourist-looking anglophone
And then you should hurry along to the silver teapot vendor because let’s face it, you don’t have the vocabulary for chit chat.
Saying ‘labes’ and either ‘berhair’ or ‘hamdelila’ implies a respect for local culture – you’ll be viewed as a member of some exclusive club as opposed to a mere tourist who’s fair game.Berhair means something like ‘I’m doing well,’ and hamdelila means something like ‘I’m doing well as long as that’s alright with Allah’.
Bonus vocab: If you want to be extra impressive, throw out a ‘hayatte zouina’ as you’re leaving. Hayatte zouina means ‘life is beautiful’. Moroccans are a very present, very grateful culture, so they say things like this often.
* The 28 artfully complicated letters of the Arabic language are beyond the scope of this blogpost, hence the phonetic spelling.
** Well, that’s a lie.I’m fairly certain it was because I’m blonde – blonde blonde.Swedish blonde.I have Swedishly blonde hair that’s practically natural and blondes don’t speak Arabic.
King Mohammed VI* opened an eponymous museum for contemporary and modern art in Rabat last week. The king and his wife Lalla Salma invited Vanessa Branson to the museum’s inaugural dinner. The King used the occasion to present Vanessa – the veritable woman of art in Marrakech – with the prestigious Ouissam Alaouite medal in celebration of her contribution to the Moroccan art world.
* if you’re like me and breath a sigh of frustration when confronted with roman numerals, I looked it up for us – VI means the sixth.