Marrakech. A blast of colour the moment you leave the airport – from the striking blue sky to the crimson walls of the aptly named Red City. It’s bustling with life and almost choking under the smoggy fumes of the death-defying traffic, and the residents are as vibrant as the hues that define the city – smiling, courteous and charmingly opportunistic.
My friend and I went to Marrakech to revel in its history and culture but experiencing the people and their zealous salesmanship became as much a part of the adventure as the rest of it. I learnt this many times over in our short trip to this lively part of North Africa that has, thanks to low-cost flights, quickly become a tourist haven.
We landed early, after a deathly 6am departure from Gatwick, and were escorted without incident to our modest hotel, The Riad Mogador Marrakech. Our first mission was to find sustenance. As a practiced traveller I have come to learn that the first day in a new place is always the most tiring and expensive. This is because I often spend much of the day trying to find my bearings and invariably end up in the priciest eatery from sheer exhaustion and hunger. This was the case on our first endeavour inside the walls of the fortified Old City.
We circled the Katoubia Mosque, took in the maze like streets and ambled amongst the ramshackle shops all the while hunting for a humble eating establishment, which wouldn’t drain our pockets in one sitting. Tired of searching we asked a taxi driver where the best and most reasonable place to eat would be, ‘Oh I know good place in the Medina,’ he assured us. After haggling the price of the fare down to 7 dirhams (we felt we had got a good deal but the furtive look in his eyes told us different) he drove us to his recommended restaurant. The restaurant was exquisite. It had rising columns that supported looming arches and tiled walls adorned with geometric patterns that were lined by cushioned seating areas to slump into as we ate. It was as if we had walked into the Sultans dining room, but this kind of ambience came at a price and I’m sure we had been escorted to the fine establishment of our taxi driver’s friend – maybe he received commission for every customer he brought there. Consequently our first lunch was not so much a snack but a feast for a whopping 300 dirhams (approx £23). But what a meal it was – an endless succession of salads, houmous and freshly made bread, a tagine of lamb, cous cous and vegetables with baklava and oranges for dessert and never-ending refills of fresh mint tea.
A long walk was required to work off our meal of epic proportions. As we did we discovered a local artist painting richly vivid scenes from the city.
Studying our map we tracked our route back to the hotel via the Saadian Tombs, but amongst the throng of tourists we must have had stood out because just as we were about to find them a ‘helpful young man’ informed us that they were closed and that he would be happy to escort us to Mella (The Jewish Quarter) for us to pursue around, ‘No guide, no guide,’ he assured us and then promptly lead us through the souk to an unassuming spice shop (maybe his brother’s) where we were guaranteed that we would receive the best prices in the whole of Marrakech. After being lured into the tiny apothecary for more mint tea and long demonstrations on herbs and spices my friend felt sufficiently cajoled into purchasing some Amber Gris and Sandalwood. Despite proclamations of bargain basement prices we felt a little shafted, however the products were of supreme quality and their was perfume heavenly.
We then checked our map to find the famous Jemaa El Fna. How we actually found it was pure luck since we couldn’t really work out which road led where. It was only when we spotted a lively crowd of people jostling around plumes of heady smoke that we sensed we had finally found the heart of the city. The UNESCO protected site has a raucous spirit that is characterised by street artists, enticing food stalls and labyrinthine souks. By evening it is a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.
Here we saw skinned sheep’s heads, with their eyes bulging out at us, and multitudes of neatly aligned spices boasting peacock like in all their colourful glory. In the warren-like souks the shopkeepers would spot us at ten paces and reel us in, but no matter how much we haggled prices down, somehow, we still walked away feeling like we had been fleeced.
And this feeling bled into the next day when we negotiated taxi fares from the Jardin Majorelle. Jaques Majorelle designed the gardens in 1886 and Yves Saint Laurent repurchased them in 1980. Its colours are cobalt blue, jade green and sunset yellow and the ambience provides a calming oasis from what can seem like a chaotic Marrakech. Lush tropical vegetation, still water and bamboo arcs shaded us from the beating sun. In the café I opted for a mint, lime and ginger cooler, which blew my mind with its potency. I pictured myself sitting here with the crème de la crème of fashionistas who I imagined frequented this place on one of their many vacations.
We finally haggled the fare down to 10 dirhams after lengthy negotiations with many taxi drivers and spent the rest of the day at the Bahia Palace and Saadian Tombs. This time we were ready for anyone who tried to divert us from our course and headed steely for our destination. Today the Palace was almost deserted and felt ghostly. Much of it was closed so we missed the grandeur of the courtyard but from the wall walk there was a unique view over the rooftops of the city. The Saadian tombs, composed of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty, were subtly beautiful if a little unkempt.
The next day my friend opted to travel to Casablanca so I decided to visit a few more sights in Marrakech. I was treated to a round trip of the city in my taxi (I was sharing my cab with another customer, which is common in Marrakech, so there was more than one stop). Once on foot and en route to the Ben Youssef Madrasa I was, once again, accosted by an overly helpful man who informed me that the Madrasa was closed today and why not visit a local tannery instead, ‘Yes, yes, closed today,’ chimed in a young boy lazily mounted on a stool. In cahoots? I wondered, ‘Not today, thank you,’ I said, ‘I will carry on my journey,’ and can you imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Madrasa was open and buzzing with tourists. I opted for the ticket that included the Musée de Marrakech and Almoravid monument.
The Madrasa, a fourteenth century Islamic college, is an impressive sight with it’s imposing courtyard, and the modest student accommodations give a fascinating insight into what it must have been like to live as a scholar during this period. The highlights of the Musée de Marrakech, housed in the 19th century Dar M’Nebhi Palace, include the massive indoor courtyard and the original hammam of the palace. The monument opposite the museum is the Almoravid Koubba. It is the only remaining example of Almoravid architecture in Marrakech and belonged to a mosque, now long gone.
After my day of sightseeing I decided to take a roam through the souks back to Jemaa El Fna. During the day the shopkeepers left me to wonder around without bother, that is until I dared to ask for directions to the square where I was swiftly cornered and given that familiar pitch, ‘No guide, no guide, I will show you the way’. ‘No really,’ I insisted, ‘please, just point the way,’ but after leading me part of the way to the square I was asked with open hands, ‘Now you have present for me?’ I sighed and rolled my eyes, ‘I told you just to point, I’m sorry but I only have one Euro,’ he sighed and a rolled his eyes.
In the square the atmosphere was gentle with henna tattoo artists, palm readers, musicians and snake charmers taking residence. I stopped to watch a group of snake charmers hustling for tourists. One of the snakes was so still I had to ask if it was real, ‘Yes, yes,’ he said and continued to drop one around my neck without warning. Paralyzed with fear I grimaced as the old man asked me to hand over my camera so that he could take my picture, ‘You want another snake around neck?’ At this thought I was ready to run with the first snake still wrapped around my gullet, ‘No, thank you, please take this one-off now,’ I pleaded, and for this imposed impromptu experience I was asked to hand over a ‘donation’. This time two Euros.
Playing dodgems with the traffic – motorized and human – sometimes left our hair standing on end, and so a trip to the Atlas Mountains the next day was a wonderful respite from the tug and tussle of the city. The biting chill in the fresh air awakened my senses and the sight of the snow-capped mountains and clear water trickling in the streams calmed me. Observing the simplicity of life of the Berber people was humbling and it was hard to believe that raucous street life and suffocating exhaust fumes were only a half hour away.
The wheeling and dealing that keeps Marrakech turning is amusing, if a little frustrating, but it is as much a part of the local colour as its majestic history and fragrant spices. The people are welcoming and exuberant and, although at times I felt like I had been politely ripped off, nothing about the city was dull. This was its beating heart; it’s what made me love and loathe a place that has imparted me with memories that still make me giggle as a souvenir.
Contributing Writer: Ambur Beg