December 27, 2011 at 7:48 pm 193 comments

Souk archway

First, I noticed the doors.

I took a bus from Menara airport to Djemaa El-Fna, a large square in the heart of Marrakech’s old city. The bus swerved through a sea of motorized bikes, past flat stretches of fanned palms and arches marking unlit alleys. On the sidewalk I counted more feral cats than I’ve ever seen, and on the rooftops I caught glimpses of oversized nests and tall, toothpick-legged cranes.

We zigzagged between buildings the colors of rust, orange-pink and off white, with unpainted brick exposed on the sides. Elaborate grates decorated the arched windows. The Arabic tile was all geometric shapes and primary colors: chaos and balance. But the doors.

The doors were painted turquoise, seafoam green, red. Some were patterned with raised studs, others with thin scrolls or contrasting diamonds. As the bus sped towards the center square, the doors become vivid blurs against the burnt orange skyline.

(Click thumbnails for full-sized photos!)

Door1 Door2 Door3 Door4
Night fell by the time my friends and I arrived at our riad, which was tucked in the maze of side streets of a residential neighborhood. We turned a few corners, walked through a children’s game of football, and found the right alleyway. I saw a door marked 18, just like our directions said, so I pushed it open and the six of us walked inside, backpacks and all.

Inside I saw richly threaded pillows, candles flickering through the cut-outs of metal tins, and… a family of four eating dinner? The woman herded us out of her living room, back into the alley, and pointed further down. Wrong door marked 18. I’d been in Morocco for an hour, and I’d managed to walk into a stranger’s home.

We found the right door, knocked first, and settled into our riad.

We sat in the lounge and planned out our trip over a pot of mint tea – a super sweet drink consumed in tiny, steaming cups. The riad offered a two day excursion into the Sahara desert. We argued amongst ourselves before realizing we couldn’t travel this close to the Sahara without going in. As we came to the decision, I felt a raindrop, and looked up through the open roof as the sky began pouring.

Desert2 Camels at rest Tourisme Desert

I woke up early for the excursion. I showered on the rooftop terrace, under the starlit sky, and listened to the roosters crow just as my hot water ran out.

We loaded into a van – our home for the next two days. We drove out of the city, around crumbling red mountains and over rocky cliffs, past cacti dripping with ruby fruit. We stopped at villages along the way, where I haggled for silver bracelets and drank an Arabic coke.

By sundown we’d reached the edge of the desert, where we mounted our camels and rode into the Sahara. Here’s what I’ve learned about camels: I don’t like them. Mine was too tall, too fat, a little bow-legged, and very fond of spitting. I also managed to get the camel with the sassiest hips, and when I dismounted two hours later, I felt every ounce of that sass in my aching legs. Can a camel look smug? I think so.

My camel

But we set up our tents and ate vegetable tagines for dinner. We danced around the campfire and sang to each other. The sand, cool as the night air and finer than sugar, slipped through my fingers like silk. I stayed outside as long as I could, listening to the camels gossip, looking up at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, until I woke up to a glorious sunrise edging over the dunes.

(For the record, the camel ride back in the morning is worse.)


Moroccan spices Nightmarket

We drove back through the snow capped Atlas Mountains, and seven hours later, returned to Marrakech. That night I explored Djemaa El-Fna, a square full of snake charmers, henna artists, and monkeys with chains around their necks. The night market offers heaped spices, fresh orange juice, and bin after bin of roasted nuts. I devoured dried apricots, figs, and dates by the handful.

In the morning, Marrakech experienced a torrential downpour. My friends and I picked that morning to visit the Majorelle Gardens, and by the time we walked there, my socks squelched. But thanks to the rain, we were the only visitors to the garden, and the sight of thick palms, lilies in still ponds, and a forest of bamboo moved the rain to the back of my mind.


With two hours left in the country, I fell in love with the Souks, Marrakech’s mazelike market. The stalls sell everything from slippers and earrings to glazed pottery and gunpowder tea. The market only has a few entrances, and the knot of alleys and streets of stalls were impossible to navigate. For about twenty minutes, thoroughly lost in the heart of the Souks, I thought, “There’s no way I’m making my flight back.”

Now I’m back in Seattle, my semester abroad finished. I’ve seen my old friends and had family dinner, and I’m happy to be home. But a little part of me misses standing ankle deep in sand, scowling at my camel. The weight of lifting the lid of a tagine pot. I probably won’t stop missing the crumbling archways, the brilliant fabrics, the thrill of feeling completely foreign – until my next trip to Marrakech.

Garden Pink Arch

Entry filed under: Travel. Tags: , , , , .

Gelato Withdrawals Soft Whole Wheat Peanut Butter Cookies (vegan)

193 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ruthiey  |  December 27, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    As always, beautiful. I love your writing – it almost makes me feel like I’m there. <3

    • 2. theamberlight  |  January 17, 2012 at 3:52 pm

      Ruthiey! You are so right! I am subscribing right now! What a gift for capturing the energy and essence of what you are doing! Great job!!! Congrats on FP, well chosen! :0)
      Looking forward to exploring more and making one of those doors my wallpaper! I LOVE doors!!!

  • 3. Candice  |  December 27, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    Not only was your description lovely, but the photos as well. Thank you for sharing.

  • 4. Courtney Mara  |  December 27, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    Beautiful. I need to go! I am going to have a guest blogger soon do a post about Morocco. It seems like a magical place.

  • 5. alissa  |  December 28, 2011 at 12:21 am

    This is beautiful. Thank you!

  • 6. Nisrine M.  |  December 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    I’m from Morocco yet have never made it to the Sahara.Such a cool post with pretty pictures. Lucky you!

  • 7. wanderingeducators  |  December 28, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    what a wonderful trip – and thank you so much for sharing your journey with us! this last bit – what an extremely special place – you made it come alive for us!

  • 8. Erika  |  December 29, 2011 at 3:10 am

    So beautiful. How lucky are you? love the pictures. You walked into the wrong riad. lol uh ohhhh embarrassing moment I bet. Thanks for sharing it. Us readers need more. Happy 2012

  • 9. Nicola @ unhip squirrel  |  December 29, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I love the stories you share here, and I’m blown away by your photographs :)

  • 10. Hannah  |  December 29, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I bet a little part of you did actually miss that smug camel too (:

    • 11. Elissa  |  December 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm

      Hannah – Every hairy, bony, sassy bit of her. :)

  • 12. Ayshela  |  December 29, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    Welcome home! I’ve missed your posting, but I’m so glad you’ve had the opportunities available only through *living* abroad for a while. =)

  • 13. Samantha  |  December 29, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    Ayyyy How I have missed your posts! Keep baking and keep writing! I love living vicariously through you (As a fellow 19-year-old in college)

  • 14. janet @ the taste space  |  December 29, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Your post captures exactly what my trip was like last year! I had a hard time taking photos, as locals would put up their arms, or ask for money, so I took solace in the crazy beautiful doors. :)

  • 15. Becca @ Cook, Rejoice, Repeat  |  December 29, 2011 at 8:44 pm

    Soo jealous of your trip! Marrakech is on my travel list for sure. Welcome back to the Northwest, and good luck with your next semester!

  • 16. kyleen  |  December 29, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Your semester abroad sounded so amazing! Beautiful post. I can’t wait to go to university (:

  • 17. ana122391ana  |  December 30, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Hey Elissa, what riad did you stay in and how did you find it? I really want to visit Marrakech soon! Love the pictures and your writing!

  • 19. Kristina  |  December 30, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Morocco is magic. I was there during a summer abroad in law school and – nearly 10 years later – I can still smell the chicken cooking in the open squares. Such an amazing place, its wonderful you had a chance to experience it.

  • 20. Molly  |  December 31, 2011 at 12:45 am

    Such good writing. An absolute pleasure to read.

  • 21. YAR  |  January 1, 2012 at 1:26 am

    What an amazing Trip. Seems like you have enjoyed it a lot. Egypt is also amazing and beautiful.

  • 22. operationescapade  |  January 2, 2012 at 4:17 am

    i love your blog and am always blown away by your amazing photography skills! i would love to know more about your experiences in college :) Blessed New Year!

  • 23. terrie  |  January 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    You’re blog is great! I love love love all the pictures you take, they’re beautiful! I enjoy reading your blog.

  • 24. myrecess  |  January 3, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    Hi, I’m 17 and I’m pretty new to this blogging thing, and I stumbled upon yours. Your blog is amazing! I love your photography! It was so hard to find a blogger my age, and I want to keep following you ;)

  • 25. betty  |  January 3, 2012 at 11:47 pm

    lovely photos!

  • 26. Kathryn  |  January 6, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    A place I’ve always wanted to go do but never quite made it. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. I’d love to photograph those doorways, the souks and maybe even the smug camels (and yes you’ve caught his expression perfectly!). :-)

  • 27. RY  |  January 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I’ve been there. Marrakech is an absolutely amazing place, full of contradictions (new vs old) and exotic things to see. I thoroughly enjoyed your description and photos! Keep ’em coming! :)

  • 28. Cousin Sharon  |  January 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm

    You never cease to amaze me!

  • 29. adie2356  |  January 13, 2012 at 8:25 am

    How beautiful are arabic countries there are always something magical in those destinations. May be it is not only the culture and traditions but the place itself.
    Greets list your flat for Olympics

  • 30. Collard Green Muslim  |  January 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Magical photos! Loved it.

  • 31. thewienertakesitall  |  January 14, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this-I’ve been thinking about going to Marrakech for a while, and you’ve convinced me-thanks :)

  • 32. Little Explorer  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    I love your writing style: very colourful and personal. I have a very similar set of pictures of doors from my travelling in Denmark (although the doors there look very different to Moroccan ones!).
    Congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed. Hope to see you on my blog soon!

  • 33. antarabesque  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Awesome. I love the pictures of the doors and the passageways

  • 34. katemadison365  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    Stunning! It’s been my opinion that all camels are smug, though most don’t show it quite as well as yours. You being from Seattle should be accustomed to the rain and good on you for taking advantage of the soggy situation. Great post.

  • 35. DoF@theinfill  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Lovely photos beautifully set out. I really enjoyed reading this – thanks for sharing

  • 36. dustybuster  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:25 pm

    Photos were gorgeous, the story was well written. I find myself missing Marrakech now….

  • 37. The Hook  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Incredible shots! Awesome post!

  • 38. cissyblue  |  January 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I just discovered your blog, (I seldom say this, really) but I really love to read your work. You have an excellent style of writing, (although your subject I adore, and makes me quite prejudiced), I am usually swayed by the pics, and yours are quite marvelous. But it is your words that are just lovely, thank you, and I am glad I discovered your blog… :)

  • 39. Katie  |  January 14, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Love the doors and the bright colors! Makes you smile just to see them.

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed.

  • 40. Mikalee Byerman  |  January 14, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    I LOVE doors … the symbol (an opening, entrance to a new path, etc.) and the physical architecture as well.

    Stunning pictures!


  • 41. Little London Observationist  |  January 14, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    Gorgeous entry. Moroccan food is my all time favourite, especially tanginess. Yum! Loving the door photos. Such a colourful place. I can’t wait to get there myself. It’s on my endless list! Also, that close-up camel shot rocks. x

  • 42. ghostswrit  |  January 14, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I love all the doors!

  • 43. Aleks Dinic  |  January 14, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    like like like

  • 44. erin  |  January 14, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    I loved the chaos of the streets in Morocco. I’d love to go back to ride a spitting, sassy hipped camel in the Sahara.

  • 45. baahnvoyage  |  January 14, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This post makes me miss Marrakech. Thanks for doing it justice!

  • 46. seabeegirl  |  January 14, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    Beautiful story and photos. I really envy you the experience! I do believe that I’ll have to visit Morocco now.

  • 47. twistedsistersdesign  |  January 14, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Great photos :)

  • 48. Gluten Free Girl In DC  |  January 14, 2012 at 6:42 pm

    Morocco is a wonderful country, it holds a dear place in my heart. You should return and travel to Fez and Essaouira, Essaouira is my favorite of all the cities I traveled to. I love your photos, definitely return another time you will fall in love with it.

  • 49. balimore  |  January 14, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    Great article. I love your photographs! What sort of camera do you use?

    • 50. Elissa  |  January 14, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      balimore – Thank you! I took these photos with an iPhone and the instagram app. Normally (on older food posts) I shoot with a Canon Rebel and a 50mm lens.

  • 51. benneseed  |  January 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    Keep writing, keep baking! Very nice post.

  • 52. midnitechef  |  January 14, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    I’m adding “camping in the desert with camels” to my list!

  • 53. Words From the Moon  |  January 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    You are a wonderful writer – beautifully descriptive words that really painted a picture in my mind, along with the stunning photos. What a great adventure! I’m sorry you did not like your camel – one of my greatest desires is to ride a camel – I find them lovely!

  • 54. The Simple Life of a Country Man's Wife  |  January 14, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    those doors are lovely, i can see why you noticed them right away. great photos and post.


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Elissa Bernstein

I'm Elissa: a 17 (now 21) year old baker in Seattle Boston juggling creative nonfiction workshops, subway maps, and my passions for writing, baking, and photography. Photo above © Michelle Moore

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