Marrakech and I are lovers who have a long distance relationship. At first, we hated each other. The city pulled my pigtails a few times too many for me to like it. You know how it goes, boy shows affection teasing a girl and the girl sometimes doesn’t recognize the affection underneath it. Only upon our second meeting, I did see through it and it became quite clear that Marrakech and I wouldn’t be a one-time fling. Neither would we become a monogamous relationship, but somehow we ended in between. I want to be here at least once a year and for the rest of the year, I often miss the city longingly. Not enough to move here, but always enough to return.
My return starts like most long distance relationship starts when the respective couple sees each other again after a long time: uncomfortable. You don’t quite know how to greet each other, what to say or how to not act irritated because wasn’t it all different last time you saw each other? Even if you anticipate feeling off, it doesn’t take away the sting of it.
And so I stand in line for immigration for an hour, tapping my foot, glaring at the woman next to me who is trying to sneak past, and not liking Marrakech one bit. Once I am out, things are looking up and I immediately find my suitcase, get money and head towards the taxis which are now sporting a huge sign with the prices to town. But still, no such luck, because Moroccans drive a hard bargain and an even harder one for the Easter weekend. Luckily I have remembered my French for 70 dirhams as this is the set price for a petit taxi into town. Girls, soixante dix is the magic number. Don’t try to offer your taxi driver 69 (as I almost did on my last visit because that was the only French number I could remember). Soixante dix! I am handed from one driver to the next until one of them sullenly agrees to take me. He ends up giving himself a little tip, but at this point, I am beyond arguing and happy to get away from his sulky face. I am ready to get past the uncomfortable point of the relationship and get cozy with Marrakech.
Once in the medina that is easy. The sounds and smells and sights of Marrakech delight me every single time and especially after a long absence. On top of it, the city is as sparkling clean as possible after some rain, mini donuts are in abundance and I find my way to Chambres d’Amis without getting lost. Over the first few cups of sweet mint tea, the love affair is yet again in full swing.
Getting high – hot air Balloon, Marrakech
After my usual terrace dinner, I crawl into bed early to get as much sleep as possible before getting up early yet again. I only ever get up before dawn to catch a flight and the next morning isn’t going to be an exception. Michel from Maroc Montgolfière has offered me to come along for a hot air balloon ride in Marrakech all I have to do is be available on short notice. And get up before dawn.
While I have done plenty of day trips from Marrakech, a hot air balloon ride is a first and something I have wanted to do forever. Mind you, I am just a little scared of heights. Luckily I am too tired to contemplate my own bravado too much and fall asleep. And in any case, who skips on bucket-list worthy experiences if they are offered to you on a silver platter for being a bit scared?
A few hours later I stand in front of Café de France. Jemaa El Fna is empty except for a lone orange juice stand, an eerie experience to see the usually overcrowded, lively place almost completely deserted. While a few Jedis (as my friend Marianna once called the cloaked Moroccans) make their way to mosque for the first prayer, I make my way out of town with Michel, our pilot Antonio and Boubou their mascot dog on my lap.
Half an hour drive outside of Marrakech and north of the Palmeraie is the launch site. Set up in the middle of nowhere is a barn where the baskets sleep and now a table with tea and coffee for us. As we are the last to start this morning we get to watch the neighboring balloons soar up quietly into the misty sky.
Boubou who sometimes tags along for a ride – by the way you can call it both a balloon ride or a flight – has to stay put today but helps to get us off the ground. Our balloon seems to be still sleepy as well because it takes three tries to fill it up with air before tilting the attached basket.
Once the balloon is filled and the basket is tilted, everything moves quickly and I try to scramble as gracefully as possible into the basket (needless to say, it wasn’t graceful at all).
Only now do I remember that I don’t like heights very much and just when we take off Antonio tells us that we are going up to 1000m. So while I am up there with two little girls, I am actually the one standing in a corner, holding on to the railing for dear life. Yes, someone did put Baby in a corner.
The little ones actually seem to be a bit too happy for my liking and I really want to tell them to stop moving around. Our basket fits ten people, but as we are only seven we have too much room to move.
Michel has a group basket as well as another one for private excursions or, as he tells me, weddings. Apparently a pilot is just like a captain and can officiate ceremonies, he has about two weddings per month. Mind you, I personally wouldn’t want to be married from a handsome pilot. Just saying…
Once we are above the clouds and I can’t see the ground anymore, I can relax. Unlike being on a static building that is connected to the ground, being in a balloon is even suitable for people with vertigo. We glide along and I am not quite sure where clouds stop and the snowcapped Atlas Mountains begin.
All is quiet, except for when the burner goes off. And above the clouds, we find the sunshine too.
When we start to descend the kids get super excited – we may actually touch the clouds! Imagine if we just stopped and bounced on the clouds now? I ask them. They look at me with incredulous looks, their parents have done a way too good job to tell them how the world really works, they don’t even know who the Care Bears are.
Once we are through the clouds, we have to help Antonio look out for power lines, buildings and other balloons for a safe landing – all part of this Marrakech excursion. We set down on a field, apparently Moroccan farmers don’t mind, and once again scramble gracefully out of the basket. His crew in tow, Michel meets us and the balloon is quickly emptied and loaded onto a trailer.
For breakfast, we drive to the nearby village where we are invited into a local home. An initiative Maroc Montgolfière started to support the locals and to give his clients a glimpse into real Moroccan life during their hot air balloon flights in Marrakech. Over eggs, msemen, olives and cactus honey, Antonio tells us the beginning of the hot air balloons and the brothers Montgolfière who started it all over 200 years ago. While he doesn’t know if the sheep called Montauciel (“Climb-to-the-sky”), the duck and the rooster who manned the first flight made it back to the ground safely, we pretend for the kids’ sake they did.*
That night I go to bed early again and I don’t set my alarm. I take the whole night to dream of clouds, Care Bears and a cloud-like dog named Boubou.
Disclaimer: Maroc Montgolfière invited me along for one of their hot air balloon, Marrakech excursions. Opinions are as always my own. When I approached them for a cooperation I really appreciated that they operate by European safety standards and support the local communities. Looks of the owner and the dog did not play part in my decision making process.
*Wikipedia says they indeed made it back safely.
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