Visiting Morocco: My Trip to Marrakech
I will always remember the 10 days we spent in Marrakech. For one thing, it was our last holiday as a couple before our children were born. Secondly, it was quite different from any of our other trips in many ways. Now, simply saying 'Marrakech' to myself brings back memories of alluring mystery, discovery, colourful activity and excitement.
Marrakech is many things. It is both extravagant and poor. It is beautiful but sometimes ugly. Marrakech floods your senses and assaults your mind. It is blood red sunsets and orange trees; it is pink houses and palaces; it is spices and souks. What it is not is a place to lie back and relax. Marrakech is adventure.
My trip to Marrakech was born after I read Hideous Kinky, the wonderful, semi-autobiographical book by the author Esther Freud. I came across the book quite by chance, after it was included free of charge on the front of a magazine. The book is written from the viewpoint of a young girl, Lucy, who, along with her sister, Bea, is taken to Marrakech by their mother during the sixties. The girls' mother is on a voyage of freedom and self-discovery, just like the many other 'intrepids' who followed the 'hippie' trail at that time. It is colourful and unaffected—simply told but rich and thoughtful.
Many of the countries on the 'hippie' trail were virtually undiscovered by westerners at that time. Of course, things are very different now. Travel is easy; destinations are ever more exotic and far-flung. Many people visit Marrakech, both independently and on package tours. But when I read Hideous Kinky, the idea of visiting Marrakech was planted like a seed in my mind. Then a daily paper started printing tokens to collect for discounted British Airways flights. One of the destinations was Morocco. . .
Marrakech is just a 3.5-hour flight from London, yet it is another world. It is nothing like Spain, the Canaries or Gibraltar, to which it sits close to. Marrakech itself is split into the old part (the Medina) and the newer, French part. It is Old Marrakech, lying like a secret behind its imposing, 12th-century walls, that attracts most visitors.
Inside the pinky-red walls, the Medina breathes life from every corner. The streets are busy; as busy at night as during the day. The roads choke on traffic; chaotic cars overtake ambling donkeys and cranky bicycles. Tourists glide by on horse-drawn carts; wizened old women on the dusty ground stretch up their hands to beg. For, while Marrakech has many riches to admire, it is also a culture shock.
As you approach Djemaa El-Fna, Marrakech's famous square, you can see the Koutoubia Mosque. If you are there at the right time, you will hear its call to prayer. . .The Koutoubia Mosque stands high, looking down onto Djemaa El-Fna. In fact, it appears on most images of the square, as though Djemaa El-Fna would be lost without it.
Djemaa El-Fna is a hub of activity, from dawn until well into the night. There are market stalls in abundance, selling pulses, fruits and spices. There are stalls spilling over with oranges, with vendors ready to serve you with a freshly prepared juice. In the heavy, Moroccan heat there is little so refreshing - indeed, as I look back on my memories of Djemaa El-Fna, I think of oranges, lots and lots of them piled high, and the sweet, tingling taste against my lips.
But Djemaa El-Fna is not only stalls. Water Bearers, dressed in extravagant traditional costumes might want to pose for a photo with you. Be warned, though - they probably won't tell you beforehand, but they expect money for this privilege. In fact, whenever someone offers to do something helpful for you, even something as simple as showing you the way, it might seem like kindness but they will ask for money afterward.
Perhaps it is the entertainment that really makes Djemaa El-Fna what it is, for the square is really a huge, open-air stage. I remember the acrobats, the musicians, the fire-eaters and the mystical snake charmers - they all seemed to be performing wherever there was a space, with crowds gathered round them, both natives and tourists alike. It was hedonistic and magical; mysterious and exciting. So much energy, all in one place. I've never been anywhere else quite like it.
From Djemaa El-Fna, you can step right into the souk. Indeed, you will be sucked right into it, further and further until you are suddenly unsure if you will be able to find a way out. For the souk is like a Tardis—far bigger once you have entered than you ever thought possible. It is narrow and bustling, tantalising and claustrophobic. It can seem rather frightening, and you can hire a guide if you prefer.
You can spend hour upon hour searching for trinkets and treasures in this huge Aladdin's Cave. There are ornaments and boxes, brass lamps and carpets, silk scarves and shawls, shoes, spices and tagines. The stallholders will try very hard to get you to part with your money. You can, and should, haggle. Haggling is a part of the whole souk experience. The starting price should not be the final price. It's all a big game and you are expected to participate.
We spent many evenings at Djemaa El-Fna, wandering about before sitting with mint tea in a rooftop cafe overlooking the whirling action below. Mint tea in Marrakech. it is a traditional drink in a dry country. You can, however, buy alcohol in large hotels and some restaurants. We did that too. But we loved Djemaa El-Fna, and this little rooftop cafe became our ritual. We got to know the young man who worked there. He told us about his life and asked questions about ours. he was always there; he worked a lot. In fact, he worked so many hours, from dusk until late evening, that he had no time at all left for anything else. He brought us mint tea, then more mint tea, and he sat for a while and chatted with us as the rest of Marrakech bustled on below.
The Mellah: The Old Jewish Quarter
The old, Jewish area of the Medina is known as the 'Mellah'. It is actually located within the Kasbah and dates back to the 16th Century. In times gone by, Jews living in Marrakech were not allowed to buy a house in any other part of the city. Nowadays that is not the case; indeed there are only around 250 Jewish people currently residing in Marrakech and the Mellah is now predominantly Muslim.
The Mellah is a maze of discovery. A tour of the old, narrow streets, steeped in history and full of hidden surprises is a must. I remember it as a fascinating area, bustling with people working and going about their daily lives. We paid a guide to help us explore the Mellah as it is difficult to find what you are looking for on your own. So much in Marrakech is hidden. Beautiful mosaics wait behind seemingly run-down doors. Streets that seem to lead nowhere take you to something wonderful. One thing you should do, though, is to make sure you agree your price before setting off with your guide. Our tour ended up costing more than we thought, but I'm still glad we did it.
We saw women making bread in the most enormous oven; a method unchanged for centuries. We saw men dying textiles and craftsmen at work. We saw local children, lots of them, playing outside. We visited one of the synagogues that is still used today, despite the decreasing numbers of Jewish residents. The Mellah is a hub of everyday activity. It is tantalising; it is a must-see—but it is not a tourist trap. Instead, it is a wonderful portrayal of daily life in Marrakech.
The Atlas Mountains
From Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains beckon to you in the distance, reminding you that there is so much more to see. They sit mysteriously, silhouetted against the horizon, letting you know that the rest of Morocco is right on your doorstep. If Marrakech is exciting, then the Atlas Mountains are indeed an epic adventure.
We travelled into the middle Atlas with a taxi driver in an old, brown car parked beside a camel. We left Marrakech behind and headed for the barren countryside, passing little shops selling clay pots on the way. The mountains were calling in the distance. Huge cacti grew by the sides of the empty road. The air was hot and heavy and our water was already warm. We stopped in a Berber Village and met a family in a traditional Berber house. The house was so small; I think there were two rooms. One of the rooms was the bedroom/living room, which consisted of dirty mats placed around the edges. No beds. No other furniture. At least six people lived there. I have a picture of all of them, standing outside their earthen looking dwelling. The smallest girl, just a toddler, is carrying a soft toy. I remember that; she treasured it because there were no other toys in the little house at all. Somebody gave my partner a Berber hat, which we still have to this day.
We were offered mint tea and bread and sat with the family while we refreshed. We did not stay long; in fact, none of them could speak English, making conversation a little difficult. But the chance to see inside a real Berber house in the mountains was an awesome experience and one of the highlights of our trip.
We continued our journey, heading through the Ourika Valley. It was market day and our driver stopped by the busy stalls. Unfortunately for me, he proceeded to lead us through rows of hanging animal carcasses, covered with buzzing flies. I say 'unfortunate' because I am a vegetarian, so I tried not to look and hurried by.
We were right in the heart of the Middle Atlas by now. The scenery was fantastic. We asked our driver to stop beside a trickling stream and we got out and enjoyed a walk in the peaceful countryside. I took off my shoes and paddled in the stream - I recall feeling really inspired and grateful for my chance to travel and experience different places. In the still air of the mountains, we were as insignificant as tiny ants, and all the stresses of home seemed a long way away.
The Blue Gardens
When we returned to the UK at the end of our trip, we painted our garden fences blue. We also went out and bought some blue and terracotta pots. Why? What has all this got to do with this article?
Well, it was something we felt inspired to do after making a journey into the French area of Marrakech to visit the beautiful Agdal Gardens. Owned by Yves St. Laurant, and typically Moroccan, the gardens are a calm oasis of orange and blue pottery and exotic plants. There are other gardens in Marrakech, such as the Marjorelle Gardens, which are equally stunning. Morocco has its own style and we wanted to recreate it. After all, everyone wants to hold on to memories of a wonderful trip, don't they?
(All images, unless otherwise credited, are the work of the author.)
© 2010 Polly C