Over the last few months Mrs A and I have been travelling quite a bit – our most recent trips have tended to be Eastern European, quite cold and a bit more culturally familiar* than we’d expected/I’d hoped, so in order to address these things we thought we’d head to Marrakesh for a couple of days and stay in a riad in the Medina. Unfortunately the weather was unusually cold (Nourredine, the host at the riad told us it had actually snowed the week before), but if I’m honest that bothered me not one jot as Marrakesh delivered in spades on every other front.
The drive from the airport lasted around 15 minutes but probably took 5 years off my life. I’m not a nervous passenger by any stretch of the imagination, I was 17 at the time that 17 year olds got ready access to ‘hot hatches’, so I’ve had my share of lairy rides in cars. I’ve even covered several hundred mi!es on the roads in Sri Lanka without breaking too much of a sweat.
This was different.
Once inside the city walls our taxi (a minivan) was joined by other taxis, cars, donkeys, mopeds, cyclists, buses, petrol pumps on trolleys and pedestrians, all making their way at the same time in myriad directions through streets wide enough to accommodate any two of the above items at the same time. I know that both of the cars I was a passenger in during our stay had steering wheels on the right hand side, but I couldn’t say for certain which side of the road people were supposed to drive on, such was the chaos. At one point I saw a chap in the road on one of the busiest interchanges selling bread from a cart as traffic hurtled past in all directions.
So after the chaos of the drive in and the chaos of walking through the Derbs we arrived at the riad, Dar Nour El Houda. To say it was an oasis of calm in the mayhem is no understatement. we met Noureddine and Asia for the first time and, drinking mint tea on the roof terrace, we were treated to the best in hospitality I have ever experienced. Noureddine explained the finer points of making your way through the Medina, some particularly useful phrases (specifically Salam Alaikum and, almost as importantly, La shukraan) and then insisted on guiding us for the first time to the main square, Jemaa Al Fna for the first time. He provided us with maps and advice and humour throughout our stay and Asia (the cook) supplied fantastic breakfasts and was always hugely cheerful. absolutely nothing was too much trouble. If you are ever thinking of going to Marrakesh I can’t recommend this place highly enough (click here for a link to their website)
The Medina was a maze and the main square was every bit as bonkers as you would expect. A UNESCO heritage site, there were guys with monkeys in sunglasses and snake charmers and people selling teeth in both false and real varieties. The noise was a total assault on the ears with the sounds of snake charmers pipes competing with the shouts of hawkers, music for dancers and occasional cars, mopeds and horses. As the sun went down the chaos was cranked up a notch with the addition of dancers in business suits, dancers in traditional belly dancer outfits complete with veils that clearly weren’t ladies, free for all boxing rings and ‘dentists’ – identified by a cleaner than usual sheet on the ground, a pair of pliers and a slightly alarming glint in their eye.
We ate that evening at one of the stalls on the edge of the square, all of which have a number. Ours had a particularly catchy strapline that tempted us in:
“Eat at 25 – still alive.”
Over the next few days we were blown away by Marrakesh. It’s a city with so many facets in such a compact area and is unlike anywhere I have ever been before. You truly can be surrounded by absolute chaos and be transported to absolute calm and serenity within a dozen steps. We initially wandered through the souks and Medina, but soon learnt that meandering is not an option. Even a moment’s hesitation at any one of the myriad forks in an alley will mean you spend the next 5 minutes trying to shake off a “helpful” local, wanting to take you somewhere that you have no intention of going. It’s quite fun the first couple of times but gets a little wearing after that. Walking with purpose, even if you have no idea where you are, is the best option. Haggling with the stallholders was not for the faint hearted but incredibly fun.
As well as the mayhem of the Medina we went to see the Bahia Palace, the Badii palace, Le Jardin Majorelle and even got out to the Atlas mountains for a short wander up to a waterfall across the ricketiest bridges this side of an Indiana Jones movie (and Harrison Ford had the benefit of only having to cross them with the use of green-screen effects…). But by far the star of the show was the Ben Youssef Madrasa. It was breathtaking and peaceful and awe inspiring. Set right in the middle of the maze of alleys, you could have been swept straight past in the flow of people, animals and mopeds, such was the modesty of the entance. Once through the doors a calm descended and it was impossible not to be knocked out by the sheer beauty in detail of the place. We wandered for hours and took around a million photos. It was beautiful.
The food was generally ace, mostly tagines or couscous which suited me plenty fine thank you. I did manage to get myself a culinary adventure in the shape of a chicken pastis at one restaurant. Think half chicken pie/half apple strudel and you’ll be about right. I also had a cup of something I thought was tea from a wandering vendor in the gardens behind a mosque. It wasn’t tea. If it’s bad, don’t tell me.
And all too soon it was time to come home again.
So would I recommend Marrakesh to you? Absolutely a million times yes, as long as you are you comfortable with using the phrase La, Shukraan/Non, merci/No, thank you without breaking your stride/looking up from your mint tea around a dozen times an hour and aren’t looking for a lazing in the sun kind of a break. It is a city that changes character within metres, going from calm to chaos, from terrible smell to beautifully perfumed, from perfectly modern to a century ago within a few paces. We loved it and will be back for sure.
* – Wow, that was quite a pretentious wanker type of phrase, wasn’t it?