Meandering in the Medina
09.05.2017 - 15.05.2017 36 °C
Delays in airports are never fun and less so when you are actually on the plane ready to go. We were delayed leaving Amsterdam by a windscreen wiper not working on the plane and spent an hour sitting on the tarmac before we deplaned and awaited the arrival of another, before our African adventure could begin.
We arrived in Marrakech about 10:30 pm and after the usual wait in line to clear border control and exchange our Euro for MAD (yes that is the official acronym for Moroccan Dirham), we ventured out into the warm night to hopefully find that our driver had waited and thankfully he had.
We were whisked away into the bright lights and wide boulevards of Marrakech and within 15 minutes were dropped off at a small square in the medina to meet our host Will, an Englishman living and renting his riad in Marrakech. What an introduction to Africa?! Apparently the medina never sleeps and at midnight there were motor bikes, donkeys with carts, colourful stalls with sizzling food and people everywhere, as with suitcases and back packs in tow, we battled to avoid being run over. "Always stay to the right", Will advised on many occasions. Good advice, as the moped and motorbike riders roared through at a crazy pace, posing a serious danger to unwary travellers in the narrow winding streets.
Having managed to survive what appeared to us a long and convoluted walk, we were welcomed into a traditional riad style home, Riad Maizie, with a garden of orange trees, creepers and flowers in the middle, the perfect spot to relax with a G&T before heading to bed for our first night on the African continent.
A late morning stroll in the medina to get our bearings and explore a bit turned into an accidental guided tour of the ‘world famous tanneries’. Everyone who plans a trip to Marrakech, has read a million articles on how to avoid the touts and unofficial guides but we still fell for it, again. One might think that after our trips in Iran and Turkey, where the same methods of waylaying tourists and hopefully selling them a carpet exist, we would be wiser, but who can resist a young guy wanting to help you out?
And so it was that we received directions from a young boy, who handed us over to another young guy who subsequently led us to the ‘most famous tannery in all of Morocco’. The doorman guide of the tannery profusely welcomed us, provided us with sprigs of mint to hold under our noses and led us through the vats of lime, dye and urea to observe the hardworking tanners. He directed us to the best locations for photos, explained the process, in English and French and assured us that we were very lucky to have arrived today as it was the “very last day to see the Berber people before they go back to the mountains” (as it turned out we heard this phrase all week, it must have been a long migration back to the mountains!). It was quite an interesting half hour but the smell, oh the smell, even the mint was not enough to dull the acrid, uric odour.
Finally we were delivered to the salesman who was visibly disappointed and quite rude when we made it clear that we would not be buying leather products or a carpet. As we exited the building we were met by the doorman guide again. He demanded money, which we had been expecting for some time. We offered him 20 Dirham, at which point he became verbally abusive, aiming his aggression at Cath’s face and even grabbing at her phone and wallet. He would not even acknowledge Ian’s presence and finished his tirade with a demand for 200 Dirham and “you bitch tourist”. That right there was the straw that broke the camels back and Ian put the money in his pocket and we purposefully strode off, to be followed by the young man who had directed us there in the first place. He was obviously intent on guiding us further, but Ian pushed the 20 Dirham on him, which he finally accepted and disappeared. Not sure where we were and not wanting to get directions, we turned to the offline map our host had advised us to use, map.me and soon found our way through the souks to Jamaa el Fna, the main market square in Marrakech.
After strolling the square we were parched; seeking a cold drink and lunch we ventured to one of the many terrace restaurants that surround Jamaa el Fna, Che Chegrouni. The square is relatively quiet during the day but still a riot of colour, sounds and activities and the restaurant terraces are the perfect place for people watching. We settled on the second floor balcony, under the shade of a rather unsteady umbrella and enjoyed a lamb tagine and water. We had expected that we may be able to have a nice cold beer, but it turned out that getting a cold alcoholic drink was not quite as easy as expected. It was a modest bill, 80 Dirham, so we rounded it up to 100, which is about €10. After leaving the restaurant, we wandered more extensively around the main square, constantly being harassed to buy, try or take part in any number of money draining pursuits. The touts for the food stalls stood in line to try their luck at tempting us. A couple of fellows bedecked with bells and dressed in traditional garb of red, yellow, blue and green tassels even put one of their hats on Cath to lure her into a photo opportunity, she was quick to remove the reeking, sweaty thing before almost falling over a cobra. The snake charmers banged their drums, played their pipes and their cobras obediently reared up or simply slept amongst the other snakes curled up on the ground, oblivious to the hubbub. Added to all of this were the numerous stalls selling fruits, kitchenwares, vegetables, spices, turtles, chameleons and assorted other creatures that were presumably regarded as pets. And of course there were the men with monkeys, always ready to put a monkey on your back. Through all of this, throngs of people weave their way back and forth, sidestepping the ever present motor bikes and other various transports. A word of caution to the bedazzled traveller, don’t gaze up in wonder, you will be run over!
The souks of the medina sell everything you can imagine and after winding our way out of the streets leading to Riad Maizie, we were launched straight into it. Stalls of various meats, chickens being beheaded, fish, vegetables, fruit, mixed businesses which sell everything from shampoo to cigarettes and the artisans of leather are everywhere. It is a confusion of all your senses, a bombardment and in the first couple of days confronting (especially the chicken beheading). We were staying in a great location a few twists and turns from the place d’espices (the spice markets) which we explored regularly and used as a reference point when feeling lost in the endless maze that makes up the medina and souks.
We had been advised that the market square at Jamaa El Fna didn’t really come alive until evening, so we were once again wending our way there as night descended. Although it appears to be a crowded market during the day, by nightfall crowds have been ratcheted up even further, to the point that one is forced to go with the flow and at times move almost imperceptibly past the numerous stalls. Fortunately, we were beginning to understand the layout of the alleyways and lanes a little better, so at least we weren’t so hesitant.
On emerging into the main square we were struck by the frenetic pace of the hawkers and touts who wouldn’t leave anyone alone if they considered there was an opportunity for a sale. If the square had appeared busy on our previous visit, the momentum had more than doubled. Drums and flutes, tambourines and bells clashed and clanged out a rhythm that was at once confusing and irresistable. On top of all this, were the touts wailing and yelling and that unfortunate product of the modern world, doof doof music pulsing from a couple of loudspeakers pumped up to eleven.
In the very centre of the square, the food stalls and temporary restaurants had been set up and here the touts were the most insistent. Foolishly we thought we could survive the gauntlet, but sadly after refusing at least a dozen touts, with promises that we may return later, Cath was snagged by a couple of determined fellows who cajoled us onto their benches, with promises of cheap and delicious eats. Instantly they produced olives and salads, took our orders and scurried away. Meanwhile the touts were back on the job. Each time they successfully convinced more tourists to sit down, there would be loud cheers from all involved in the process. No wonder they were so excited, once our meals started coming, it became clear that regardless of what we had ordered, they would deliver what they chose. So it was that we ended up with doubles of everything: shasliks with a variety of beef, lamb and chicken, small tagines of vegetables, sections of bread rolls and a type of baklava, but not quite as sweet as the Turkish version. There was too much of everything and we finally had to admit defeat, calling for the bill before they piled more on. The chief organiser flourished a pad on which he proceeded to write the first figures that came into his head and then advised us the cost was 380 dirhams, at least three times the price we had been shown initially. What could we do? We paid up and left, determined to never give in again!
After the food ordeal, we waddled back home where our distended bellies could settle back down once again.
A friend who had previously travelled to Marrakech had advised us to visit Jardin Majorelle, the former home of Yves St Laurent and his partner in Africa. So it was that the next day, we set out on what we thought was a short walk, but as usual on our travels, we were delayed in finding the garden by other things that caught our eye. On this day it was the Museum Marrakech, a small museum of local modern art, historic artefacts and mosaic tiling. This riad was previously a wealthy family's home and the architecture and decoration were elaborate and beautiful, with a large chandelier in the main room, best described by our host as a UFO. The riads are perfectly designed for the desert heat and after spending an hour in the museum it was a shock to feel the difference in temperature as we continued on our way to the garden.
Finally we located the garden, with a bit of help from an offline mapping program Ian prefers, heremaps. The Jardin Majorelle, was rescued from developers by Yves St Laurent and contains a museum of Berber artefacts collected by him over time. We payed the fee to visit the garden but decided that we'd had enough museum time for one day. The garden is filled with exotic indigenous and non indigenous plants and is a welcome oasis of coolness and calm in the hustling, hot, desert city. We spent a very pleasant hour or so wandering the garden, marvelling at the vivid blue, orange and yellow paint applied to every surface, which somehow works against the desert colours, (the blue is now recorded on colour palettes as Yves St Laurent blue) before heading off to find a cool drink. We were hoping in this more cosmopolitan area of the city, Guelez, an icy cold beer might be on offer.
Once again having no luck finding a nice cold beer or wine we ambled off to locate a bottle shop. Luckily the mini-marche just around the corner was exactly what we had been looking for. We made a few purchases before meandering home to spend an afternoon out of the heat with a couple of cool drinks. The medina and souks are largely shaded in Marrakech but still very hot during the day and as a result almost deserted; the perfect time to avoid the hordes of tourists in the alleys, but as we are want to do, we tried it like locals and spent the afternoon in the cool interior of the riad garden before heading out in the evening.
We had a meal at a small family run restaurant nearby, Al Noumia, the space just big enough for 3 tables, at which 2 people could comfortably sit, and a kitchen. It was clear that Mamman was in charge of the kitchen and her adult children were to ensure that the customers were happy and fed. Small tagines with a tomato and olive dish were the first to arrive accompanied by the ever present mint tea, our sugar content having escalated with each successive cup. The starter was followed by a huge silver platter of chicken, vegetables and couscous topped with a date, sultana and something else sauce, very sweet and tasty but we were left wondering where is the famous Moroccan spice? Given that we were steps away from one of the world's famous spice markets it was a bit of a mystery why nobody seemed to be putting it in the food?
The Riad Maizie, lends itself to lazy mornings, with our host providing a large breakfast with plenty of tea and coffee and it was therefore quite late in the day when we set off to find the bus station to get tickets for our overnight trip to the desert city of Ouarzazarte. Eventually we wound our way out of the medina and found the bus station where were once again the target of every tout in town, even having done the research and knowing exactly what we wanted we were talked into bus tickets that were twice the price of the ones we wanted due to a side trip to Ait Ben Hadou, a UNESCO listed Kasbah on the way, but off the main road to Ouarzazarte. You have to give it to the Moroccan people they are very persuasive.
Tickets organised we headed off to find Le Jardin Secret, which Cath had read was a traditional garden oasis from the heat in the medina with the highest publicly accessible tower and a great view. The building code of Marrakech says that towers and buildings are not to be higher than the minarets of the mosques and we were keen to see both the garden and the view. It took a couple of goes to find the garden, we were finally coming to understand that if you do head for a particular site in the medina, you will not find it. Perhaps they can sense it and move a couple of streets over!!!!
It is well worth a visit to both the garden and the tower; the view is quite spectacular, but again we found that whilst this building and garden are quite old, they were in disrepair until 2016 and have only recently been renovated and styled as traditional by an Italian gardener. Nothing is as it seems in Marrakech. We again wandered, or in Ian's case staggered, due to a small hip injury causing him some grief, home through the souks which we did without any mapping, how clever of us! Sometimes the beauty of not having access to technology, or in the case of Marrakech, reliable technology, is that you learn to navigate like we used to, using your bloody eyes!
Ian had mentioned to our host that we had found the Moroccan food a bit bland, lacking the spice and taste we expected, so Will kindly organized with his friend Mustafa to have a single man's dinner- Tanger. Lamb and spices covered with smem, an animal derived fat and slow cooked over the coals at the Haman. The Haman's require constant hot water and this is achieved by constantly stoking a fire under the ancient streets. Cath had been hoping to do this after seeing it on a tv cooking program, gladly she hadn't attempted it, as women don't touch the tanger they eat it but not touch it. How nice, a little bit of liberation! We had an early night in preparation for our trip to the desert the next day. You can read about our trip out of Marrakech to Ouarzazarte, in a separate blog.
After the trip to the desert we enjoyed a sleep in and late breakfast before again heading off on a long walk to find the train station to purchase tickets to Fez. In theory you can buy tickets for buses and trains on line, in practice you can't. This walk took us past the King's Palace, where Cath got into trouble from not one but three types of security for attempting to take a photo of the ornate gates. Perhaps they should put up a sign, it would save a lot of finger pointing and shouting.
We ambled past the grand mosque, Koutoubia, along wide open boulevards lined with the palace walls on one side and gorgeous gardens on the other, a strange and at times upsetting contrast to the poverty and dirtiness of the medina. The obscene wealth of the ruling class is exactly that, no matter where you are in the world, the Vatican city, Versailles, Marrakech it's all the same, obscene and cruel. Eventually we found the train station, a very modern, in fact quite European building where although the ticket machines appear to have credit card facilities they don't, so after purchasing the tickets in cash we were off to find an ATM, the bottle shop (again) and a taxi. It turns out that the petit taxis are limited to the city areas and have a capped price of no more than 70 dirham and you should pay no more than 50 dirham for most trips, the equivalent of 5 Euro. You have no idea how much we wish we had known that previously. At least we were well exercised.
We spent yet another afternoon chatting with our host and now friend, Will and his mate Mustafa before heading out to dinner at an upmarket restaurant in the Place E'spices, Nomad. It is a modern restaurant located on a rooftop with outdoor seating, fine water mist to keep you cool in the hot night air and delicious, if again spice lacking food. Will and Mustafa had accompanied us to dinner and we shared starters, enjoyed mains and headed home for a night cap and to prepare for the next leg of our journey, the train to Fez.