Monday, 2 February 2015

Magical Marrakech


I first went to Marrakech in the late seventies. I knew then that it was a special place for me. Back then it seemed I had stepped back to medieval times. It was the atmosphere of the place as much as the look of it. Yes, there are quite a few ancient walled cities in the world where the walls and the old city within have remained over centuries – my home town of Canterbury in the South-east of England, with it's ancient cathedral, St Augustine's Abbey and the first christian church in Britain (St Martin's) is one. But nowhere had I found the ancient culture of a walled city so intact as I did in Marrakech.

Storyteller - Djemma El Fna 1980's

Morocco has modernised a great deal since the late seventies. Most Moroccans would say it was for the best. In some respects I feel that is true but not in others. When I first visited Marrakech all those years ago as a young man of twenty, it was a mystical place. Dark eyes peeped out from under cloaks and made many foreign visitors very nervous. Beggars pestered you wherever you went. I quickly found that there was little to fear, hence I miss that mysterious element when I go there now. Locals have changed. They have become more friendly and no longer look upon foreigners with suspicion. Neither do the hawkers in the bazaars chase you along the street, trying to push you into their shops. They are more relaxed and they've learned that they will do better business if they are less pushy. It makes for a more relaxed atmosphere but I miss the old ways. In the old days the locals seemed telepathic. They knew all about you, even at a distance - where you were from, what you were interested in buying, whether you were hungry or not. They had never set eyes on you before but they would astound me with their intuition. They could also tell easily how well you knew Morocco, even though you'd just arrived in town. Somehow after you'd been there for a few weeks they knew you were not the best prospect for spending money. After a month or two you'd arrive in a new town and they would hardly notice you beyond a friendly nod and a 'S'bah al hair' (good morning). I liked it that way.

The Djemma El Fna these days (on a quiet day)

The Djemma El Fna buzzes at night

The Djemma El Fna is still the centre of it all. This medieval Moroccan market square still feels like you are in a time warp with its bustling food stalls, snake charmers and spinning-top makers. At night the place is packed with locals racing around on mopeds. They wind in and out of pedestrians, donkeys, terrifying tourists. When I first came here it had traditional storytellers with crowds of old women roaring with laughter at the teller's risqué tales. There were skinny young boys with boxing gloves who took on all-comers for a dirham a time and nearly always won. Visitors stayed away for fear of getting their pockets picked. Dark young men constantly whispered 'hashish' in your ear. People laughed uproariously when a well-dressed foreigner failed to get out of the way before an over-burdened donkey let loose a shower of urine over them as they pushed past in a crowded street. You needed more experience to survive back then. Now it is an altogether more pleasant experience, where shopkeepers invite you into the workshop behind their shop to see them making leather goods with ancient tools, then invite you to take a mint tea with them and barely hint at the idea of you buying anything at all.

 Streets are so narrow in the Medina 
often a mule or donkey is the best delivery vehicle

The Khutubia is said to be the world's most perfect mosque (architecturally)

It would be a mistake for me to give you a 'What to See in Marrakech' list. The whole raison d'être of this city is one of search and mystery. There are so many little back streets in the Medina (old city) and a visitor rarely finds their way home by the same route twice. This can be a little unsettling at first, but many people resist the temptation to accept a taxi or a guide and are rewarded highly for it. Most places of interest are within walking distance and locals will happily send you in roughly the right direction. This is how you will discover the things I regard as most worth seeing. What one might dangerously call 'the real Morocco'. Mysterious lives you can hardly imagine. Be reassured that everything in Marrakech radiates from the Djemma El Fna (the square of the dead) so if you get lost, then failing all else you will more than likely end up back there.

A few places worth knowing about if you tire of wandering around lost are:

  Hotels & Riyadhs

THE MAMOUNIA HOTEL (old center of city - Medina) for tea / drink and a walk around the huge inner-city gardens (orange groves). Churchill’s favourite hotel. Five-star plus opulence.
There are now lots of beautiful Riyadhs to stay in for a traditional Moroccan experience. Parking is always difficult and it’s easy to get lost in the warrens of narrow old streets. Many have small swimming pools. Dinner in private dining rooms – sometimes open to non-residents also. They are a little inconsistent from year to year. Plenty on the net with recent reviews on Trip Advisor etc.
Interesting Places to Eat
 A MA BRETAGNE – This is in Ain Diab (by the beach) – Fabulous food. Modern French  restaurant. Michelin star.
DJEMMA EL FNA STREET STALL CAFES – Can be great. Look around first. Don’t be persuaded into the first one (staff are persistent but pleasant). Fresh food. Clean, so safer than you’d think. Spectacular – especially at night. Cheap but not as cheap as in the past.
There are hundreds of good restaurants so check at the time. In my opinion the most luxurious are often not as good as what you will eat with the locals on the street. Ask to look at what they have on the stove. I recommend simple Harrira - a delicious split pea soup and you cant go wrong with Chicken Tagine or Couscous with merguez sausages. The round flat-bread is incredible. Don't be palmed off with French-style bread which they believe tourists prefer.
Places to See
DJEMMA EL FNA SQUARE – This remains a traditional medieval type market square with snake charmers, storytellers and numerous other attractions. Affected by tourism but it’s still incredible. The old city (Medina) centres around it. You could spend every day and night around this square for a week and not get bored. If it’s your first time in Marrakech then you could do worse than plan to spend most of your time around this square and surrounding souks. Very crowded and enclosed so can make new visitors quite nervous at first. Remain calm and you will be fine. Horse and carriage rides are in plentiful supply. Over-priced unless you bargain hard, but a nice way to return to your hotel. There are still snake charmers here! Plenty of cafes here to sit and watch the world go by. And what a magical world it is.
YVES SAINT LARAUNT’S HOUSE – Pleasant, tranquil place to visit not far from the center of the city, but realistically best reached by taxi.
THE LEATHER TANNERY  (main souk off Djemma El Fna square) is interesting, ancient and very smelly. Boys will pester to take you. Unofficial, so take care.
THE DYE WORKSHOPS (same area as above). Fascinating, historic and less smelly. Same unofficial arrangement as above.
BEN YUSEF MADRASSA – An ancient Islamic place of study.A stunning ancient building in the old city centre, not far from the Djemma El Fna.
LA KOUTOUBIA – This is said to be the world's most perfectly formed mosque. It is just outside the Djemma El Fna square. A beautiful sight while eating the excellent ice-cream at the famous cafe on the corner as you approach the Djemma El Fna.
PALACES etc. There are plenty of spectacular palaces around the outskirts as well as some small historic mosques (some with traditional Hamam public baths attached). The can be a little lacking in atmosphere. I find it preferable to explore the back streets in the old city (The Medina) where you can find many smaller places of interest that are not on the tourist trail. It is a gigantic maze, so take a map (from your hotel). A compass on your phone can be helpful and usually locals will direct you honestly. It is safe but can feel intimidating to many foreigners.
Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness Guide is my particular favourite. The Rough Guide has more detail on history but is a bit heavy (in content and weight) for a holiday.
ESAUIRA – Around 2hrs by taxi. Beautiful old port town by sea. Can be done as a day trip but overnight is better.
OUALIDIA – Spectacular views. Traditional little holiday town (mostly Moroccans) on a huge lagoon with stunning scenery, beaches and big waves outside the lagoon. Oyster park with the best oysters in N.Africa. 3hrs away from Marrakech by taxi so best for a night or two away.
IMLIL – Nearest place in the High Atlas Mountains. About an hour plus by taxi. Spectacular and uncommercial. Nice walk for an hour or two then return. People say it’s like Switzerland. They do proper guided treks from here if you have more time.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

1 comment:

  1. I've just blogged about my visit here. Hope you enjoy it.