Today it's a trip's story post and this is about a journey to Marrakech made three years ago. I hope you enjoy it!
In distance just a few hundred miles from here, Morocco can be seen as a world apart, yet it is a world everyone living in the south of Spain, including the Spanish themselves, should visit. We made a short trip to Marrakech and Rabat recently, a trip made easy now by the availability of cheap flights and improved roads. Leave the motorway and the airport behind though, and you are quickly in the exotic world of the Souk, the Riad, the Kasbah and Moorish palaces.
The first vision we had as our flight was landing at Marrakech airport was rows and rows of ochre and grey houses in perfect alignment, testimony to the new development being encouraged by Morocco´s king Mohammed VI. After landing we were kept waiting in a long queue for Passsport Control, our first taste of Moroccan bureaucracy. Then began the first of many bargaining sessions we would realize over the next few days, as we shopped around for a taxi, settling instead for the bus which took us to the Medina (the old city) for less than two euros. Immediately we realized that driving in this city isn’t easy, with the melee of cars, mopeds, scooters, bikes and donkeys pulling carts, not to mention the horses and carts for the tourists. The worst shock is that this traffic surrounds you as you are walking in the Medina as well.
When we arrived in the Place Jemaa el Fna, night had drawn in and we found this huge square heaving with people. Feeling lost and very conspicuous with the map in hand, we managed to arrive in the right area, only to find a labyrinth of streets with poor lighting where you could easily get lost in trying to find the right direction. Of course a few dirhams helped us to find the way to the Riad, dirhams being the essential resource to pay street kids in Morocco. These kids are difficult to resist (or shake off!) when they are trying to sell you something, and they can change from sweet cherubs to tough limpets in a moment; one lesson you learn is that you can never have too much change!
Riads are private houses usually belonging to good families which were converted into lodging houses, keeping all of the charm and oriental decoration of the original house: bright colour cushions scattered everywhere, elaborately engraved doors and ceilings, trees and exotic plants everywhere, roof terraces where you can relax and where breakfast is served with exquisite orange juice, different types of bread, honey, marmalade and delicious coffee.
Despite its name (the Place of the Dead), Place Jemaa al Fna is an enormous very lively square, Marrakech’s own theatre, where you can find musicians skilled in gnaoua (subsaharan music with arab/berber influences), or snake charmers, or women doing henna tattoos or story tellers or sellers of miracle cures or acrobats or barrows where they make fresh orange juice (at only 30 cents a cheap and healthy way of calming your thirst as often as you need).
When sunset comes Place Jemaa el Fna reaches its peak of activity and the food stalls get into gear, selling lamb and chicken tajine, Moroccan salad, kebabs, cous cous and many other local specialities, all of these at cheap prices. You can even eat roast sheep heads (including the eyes!) washed down by mint tea. In fact, the Place smells at night like a giant barbecue!. But if you want a beer you have to hunt it down, we found only the Grand Hotel Tazi (just ask any taxi driver for the Tazi!).
If you don’t have much time to stay in Marrakech, best go to the Place Jemaa el Fna and climb to one of the terraces in several bars and cafes and ask for a mint tea. From here you can watch everything going on in the square and gaze at the Koutoubia Mosque and recharge your batteries before entering the souks, which are the commercial heart of the Medina and the reason for many people’s visits to Marrakech.
The Medina is a beautiful amalgam of colours and smells, where you can buy leather goods of all types, lamps, rugs, lovely kaftans, spices for cooking, cosmetics and perfumes, such as henna or khol, and you can even find a special Moroccan Viagra (my lips are sealed on this one). In the Medina you could even live (or should I say survive) the experience of having a haircut in a local barber’s shop, although I must admit I was a bit apprehensive when he sterilised the razor over a naked flame.
Equally you should go to the Kasba and the Mellah (the old Jewish quarter). And for relaxation get away from the Medina, take a taxi and visit the Majorelle Gardens, which are an oasis of plants from the five continents, designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle. Here you can also view the shrine to Yves Saint Laurent, who was a major influence in improving the gardens after his friend died in 1963.
If you have a few more days then you will find it interesting to visit the Bahia Palace, the Cadi Palace, the Museum of Marrakech, the Saadiams Tombs, the Medersa Ali Ben Youssef (Koranic School) or the Museum of Moroccan Arts.
Marrakech is, in essence, a very medieval and exotic city: from here you are close enough to be in the middle of an oriental tale in less than half a day. Just make sure it isn’t Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves – take care of your dirhams and euros, take your time to shop around, and don’t try to carry the souk home with you!
Written by Tim S. and Nieves R.
Photos taken by Nieves R.