It has been a long time, too long, since I last had any travel stories to tell so I can’t wait to enthral/bore you with tales of monkeys, snake charmers and belly dancers amongst numerous delights!
Marrakech was a place I had heard and read a lot about and the lure of an escape from the dreariness of the English winter also proved too great for my father and we booked flights and accommodation. I was particularly enthusiastic about returning to Africa having had some of my very fondest travel memories in Tanzania. When people talk of Africa as a highly addictive drug I can definitely understand what they mean. It is probably worth mentioning that this is because there is so much I love about Africa, not because I have experience of drug addiction!
On arrival, we quickly engaged in our first bit of bartering with the Marrakech Airport taxi cartel. After a quick nap it was time to head to the heart of Marrakech which meant negotiating safe passage across numerous chaotic roads. Having had a little experience crossing crazy roads, especially in Vietnam, I was able to stop and start my way across our first obstacle but looking round saw my dad firmly planted to the pavement on the other side.
As we tramped down the main boulevard, Avenue Mohammed V, we saw the contrast which was to characterise the city. On the one hand we passed buildings and monuments which will have been present in Marrakech for centuries juxtaposed alongside very modern hotels, shops and eateries catering for tourists and wealthy locals.
We headed for Djemaa El-Fna square, which translates as Assembly of the Dead. The name derives from the executions carried out in the square centuries ago. It has come a long way since then but the knowledge of its unsavoury past only adds to the places wonder. As we walked across the square, passing snake charmers, beggars and musicians along the way, we were accosted by a man and his monkey. Disorientated, we weren’t quick enough to escape and before I knew it I had a monkey on my arm. We were reluctantly persuaded to have photos taken with the monkey and managed finally to escape with a slightly lighter wallet and a handful of unwanted snaps. It was a valuable lesson learnt and one we did not intend to repeat.
Once we had eaten we headed into the souks. They are best described as a labyrinth of market stalls. On sale were carpets, figs, oranges, slippers, shish pipes and a myriad of other trinkets and ornaments. It really felt like one was stepping back in time and the smells, heat and hustle bustle really aroused one’s senses. If it wasn’t for a light smattering of television sets in stalls the ancient feel may have been complete. After some mild harassment and aimless wandering we were spat out of the souks somewhere near our entry point, more through luck than judgement!
With the evening fast approaching we headed for the hotel to don our glad rags for the night’s festivities. We headed back to Djemaa El-Fna to soak up the atmosphere. What we were to find was beyond either of our expectations. The place was a thronging mass of activity stretched in front of us. At first sight one could see food sellers, orange juice vendors and people selling a variety of other items including hats, spices and even python skins. This was only the first layer of an organism full of life and awesome in its individuality and multitudes. We discovered groups of Marakshis enraptured by Arabic tales, musicians playing traditional instruments, as well as beggars, touts, belly dancers and wide-eyed tourists struggling to take in the magnificent spectacle on show. Throw in the daily evening call to prayer from the mosque and you create a pretty amazing atmosphere!
We found a great vantage point to observe the spectacle whilst enjoying some staple Moroccan cuisine of couscous, vegetables, olives and chicken. The light show created by the food vendors, the restaurants and the mosque in the background made for a picture postcard scene.
With plans to head to the Atlas Mountains the following day we reluctantly called time on our first day in Marrakech having had a wonderful time.
We spent the following two days on trips to the Atlas Mountains and Essaouira (to find out more see the journal entries) but returned each evening to Djemaa El-Fna square to soak up the Arabic bonanza. We decided to dine in the square and bought food from the vendors. They set up their stalls each night and cook all the food right in front of you. Everyone is seated pall-mall along benches and for anyone with thoughts of grabbing a romantic table for two I would recommend looking elsewhere. A particularly amusing waiter lured us to his stall with the boast that there food was ‘cheaper than Asda, better than Jamie Oliver’!
We were amazed to see the number of Moroccans, young and old, out on a Friday and Saturday night. There was none of the tensions one would feel in the UK and everyone treated each respectively, it was a real breath of fresh air. Marrakech felt like a very liberal Arab city. The young wore Western clothing and very few women had their faces covered, all the more refreshing because many of them were extremely beautiful! Like every predominantly Muslim place I’ve ever been whilst travelling, I found the people to be hospitality and the environment very safe.
Our final day in Morocco was spent in Marrakech and we took the opportunity to explore/rock the Kasbah. Like the souks, the Kasbah consists of a maze of winding streets where food and numerous other items can be bought. Interspersed amongst the winding streets and stalls are a number of historical monuments, palaces and places of interest, the majority of which we failed to find! We acquired ourselves a self-appointed guide, an elderly Moroccan man in traditional garb. When he stopped to chat with an acquaintance we took our chance and dived down a street to lose him. The only problem with losing him was that we also got lost in the process! However, wandering lost round the streets of Marrakech is a good way of observing daily life and soaking up the atmosphere and because of the regularity with which it happened it was in our interests to enjoy the experience!
After grabbing lunch we headed to the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa. It was, for a number of years, a Quoranic school but is now a tourist attraction. It was very tastefully laid out with a number of rooms on the top and bottom floor for sleeping and study, as well as a rectangular courtyard which has a water feature in the centre and beautifully decorated walls. The door arches at either end are reminiscent in style to a number of the doorways one comes across in Old Town Marrakech.
We also paid a visit to the Mnebhi Palace (the Musee de Marrakech) next door. On display were old robes and jewellery worn centuries ago by the residents, and the baths and rooms which they frequented. The highlight is the main room in the palace where I assume guests and significant persons were entertained over the years. Around the edges are sofas where visitors can sit and lose themselves in the splendour of the room. There is a fountain in the centre and traditional Moroccan music playing in the background. The decorated walls and light coloured room beautifully interplay with the rays of light coming through the windows to create an almost dream like effect. It would have been quite easy to lose a whole afternoon visualising feasts and events which were played out in bygone eras.
That evening we said our final farewell to Djemaa El-Fna square and took a minute to soak in the sight for one last time. It stands as a fantastic focal point for what is a truly fascinating and dynamic world city, and one which I would highly recommend to anyone.
As we embarked on our flight back I was buzzing having had a wonderful time which was only improved by a great travel companion. Even the wet and wild weather upon arrival at Luton airport didn’t dampen my spirits too much.
I felt Marrakech had a calming chaos which I found very relaxing. Despite the manic drivers, the touts and vendors, and the general liveliness of the place I still felt able to go at Dad’s and my own pace and work to our own schedule.
For anyone who has made it this far I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride and if you have the strength remaining don’t forget to check out my other two Morocco entries when I have time to post them.
Take care everyone,
P.S. – I’ve also posted some photos on my website but almost all of them were taken by my Dad. If you particularly like any of them chances are they are the ones I took!!!