We arrived in Marrakech, the pink city of satellite dishes, on Wednesday night about 10pm. We watched the big African orange sun set through the window as we waited to get off the ‘plane. The heat enveloped us when we stepped on to the apron, and made our way into the airport to fill out registration forms and queue for passport control. It was a long queue. Each stamp took five minutes. Finally we headed out into the African night – warm, dusty, dark. Roisin spotted our Riad name, El Dajide on the calling card of the transfer driver and forward we went into our adventure. Almost immediately I had to come back as I had left my suit case at the ‘change’ place where I got money. I succeeded in going back through arrivals, retrieving it, finding Roisin and the driver and in we jumped and away we went.
The van/bus drove extremely fast, through very narrow streets, with much honking of horns. To enter and leave the medina (the old town) you have to drive through a narrow arch, but so does everyone else and there are no traffic lights, no policeman, no regulation! But this is the way in Marrakech. It is brilliant! We didn’t wait long: our driver overtook, entangled, negotiated horns, taxis and waving hands. Finally a police man did turn up.
Fifteen minutes later we screeched to a stop on a busy square full of people and swerving motorbikes. Despite the hour, there were stalls selling bananas and grapes, kitchen towel and cleaning materials, little piles of grass, charcoal and a high volume of chatter. A tall thin man stepped out of the shadows and welcomed us. He took our cases and walked. We followed. The lanes were full of men and women in kaftans, turbans. Small boys chased each other. After ten minutes, the lanes getting smaller, and finally turning into a maze of tunnels which smelt rather unpleasant, we arrive at the Riad. Relief. We were in need of food and a drink. Relief. This would become the emotion most associated with arriving at this Riad, relief, as we negotiated the alleys and the boys.
Inside, the Riad looked lovely. White walls, green plants stretching away up the walls to a third level. Pretty table and chairs and a plunge pool. Hischim, for that was his name, sat us down and gave us mint tea. He copied our passports and showed us our room. Perfectly fine twin room, with a tiny balcony overlooking the courtyard. He said he would take us to Riad Edward where we could get a meal and a drink.
Soon we were following Hichim through the tunnels, alleys, lanes trying to create markers en route. Through the courtyards of the mosque, first left, second right…I never got it. Fortunately Roisin’s memory is less off a dripping sponge and she was able to get us back, later.
Edward’s Riad was plusher than ours. We were shown to comfortable couches, and cushions (Roman style) at the end of beautiful green swimming pool in a courtyard of mosaics and comfortable loungers. It was deserted aside from skinny grey and marmalade cats. The bottle of wine was 18e but good and we had Moroccan starters of salad.
Americans and Skinny Cats
Half way through our meal a switch of Americans arrived and started dipping into the pool, sitting at the poolside in groups, and chatting. Roisin and I watched from our couch. A woman, dressed in Andy Pandy dungarees, came and talked to us. Her daughter had got married the day before in the desert. They had bulk booked the Edward Riad. We soon made our excuses, and left. We investigated our Riad’s top terrace. White couches and sun beds, table and chairs. We sat down and had a last cigarette. Our holiday had begun.
The next day, we were up early and down to breakfast before anyone else. Breakfast was pancakes, muffin things and sponge cake, freshly squeezed orange juice, yoghurt, and coffee. We decided this day was for orientation and set off to explore.
First Pick Up – Abdul
We were immediately picked up by Abdul who insisted on takin us on a tour of our local mosque through which we walked to get most places. It was apparently the oldest of 7 mosques in the medina. Our mosque looked after blind people who gather there for the day and sing and talk. Abdul explained that soon it would be Eid which was the festival of the sacrificial sheep which symbolised the commitment of Abraham to God to kill his son. The little piles of grass being sold by children on the street were to feed the sheep and the charcoal was for the cooking of their heads after slaughter.
Abdul also took us to a small shop where I ended up paying over the odds for some pretty blue moccasins. And, of course, Abdul wasn’t entertaining us out of the goodness of his heart but he was a great initiator into the ways of the Medina. But now it was time for the hammam we had booked before we arrived. Joseph, the brother of Hischim and Riad manager, took us there on the back of his motorbike. It was such fun whizzing through the lanes, seconds from death. At the Hammam, we moved into a different world. In a tiny steamy room, we were rubbed and scrubbed with grit and black soap, and then hosed down. So, an hour later, sparkling, we set off to explore the souks.
The Joys of Haggling
After discovering unstuffed poufs were not leather pet beds, I bought a lovely camel leather one with a tiny camel decoration to be filled with Roisin’s old clothes (it seemed appropriate). Roisin bought a bag made of camel leather, soft and beautiful. We began to use a good cop bad cop routine in our negotiations and we discovered the pleasure of haggling. It is right what the Arabs say. You must haggle with a smile, relax and enjoy the experience. Roisin was truly brilliant. She was all smiles, wit and cheek. Souk sellers loved her and queued up to try and sell us things so that they could enjoy the experience of Roisin haggling.
Lost and Lame
Soon we were hopelessly lost, but happened to notice we had arrived at one of our intended venues of the week, the photographic gallery, so in we popped, grateful for the space and calm of the exhibition after the madness of the medina. We found ourselves staring at portraits of cool, enigmatic and wrinkled looking Arab women and men, Berbers, and they stared back at us: hot, sweaty, limping from the blisters and chaffed feet from the wholly unsuitable sandals. Climbing to the top of the gallery, exhausted, I happily watched an earnest video on Berber culture in the Atlas mountains. After resting so, we went on our way.
Eventually, we came across Place Jameel el Fna which was ablaze with colour, noise, people pulling and pushing sheep, and other charms. The smoke of the 50 odd food sellers began to rise and fish, beef and vegetables smells suffused the evening air. Having given up on finding a glass of wine as we were surrounded by mosques, we sat down to eat. How did we decide which one? We never made it past the first. We liked him saying “We no touch you”. We devoured a bony fish and beef tagine, watched an American collapse on the next table, quickly left and got hopelessly lost in the souks on the way back, dodging the motorbikes, the sheep being transported to homes wedged in bicycle baskets, carried in arms. People were preparing for Eid. In the house next door to our Riad, a big woolly sheep was kept at the bottom of the stairs.
On Friday morning, Roisin rose early to watch the sun rise on the terrace. I stayed in bed, wiggling my toes and trying to blow on my feet. At another early breakfast, we negotiated a delicious omelette for Roisin, explaining that she was gluten intolerant.
How the Riad Worked
Hichim and Joseph were both lovely men, always trying to be as helpful as possible. Hichim was on duty nights, letting the guests in, (he prayed and slept in the TV room) and served breakfast. Joseph was married with a baby girl (whom he brought to meet us the day before we left) and covered the days. He answered all the questions we had, though his English was a little flaky. Abdul, our first kidnapper, had told us that 80% of Riad owners in Marrakech were owned by the French. Ours was no exception, and Joseph clearly didn’t like the big French boss who we never met. Joseph told us he had trained for two years in the Hammam Riad we had visited the day before, now getting his own Riad to manage but his cook was being taken to other Riads, and the wifey (wifi) on his pc didn’t work properly. The Riad is clearly big business in Marrakech with many being owned by one French man. Anyway, we got on well with the two brothers. I think they liked the way we set out to walk, map in hand, with the determined explorer’s attitude.
Stupid and Arrogant?
On that second morning, Joseph ran after us. We ignored his call of ‘excuse me’ as we twisted around alleys and corners, by now used to the remarks of the young men. They would keep telling us the route was wrong, the alley was closed, and to follow them (and ultimately cross their palm with silver). Finally I turned and discovered it was Joseph, demanding to know where we were going and why were we entering into the place where only Moroccans go. We explained we were leaving the Medina to go to the Jardins Majorelle. He nodded. Yes, it was the right way to go but we shouldn’t walk. It was only for Moroccans. Tourists caught taxis. We assured him we would be fine. He shrugged and let us go. Later, after a particularly unpleasant experience fighting off a young fourteen year old, I wondered if we were being stupid, as well as arrogant as we meandered into vast dusty deserted wasteland, bare except for the odd beggar and old men watching our every step, calling, ‘this way, this way’. Fortunately, we didn’t get lost and after a 40 minute walk, with blood spilling from my blisters, we arrived at the gardens and Roisin and I swapped sandals.
The Majorelle Gardens were beautiful and welcome sanctuary from the hot sun of the wasteland walk. It was symmetrically laid out along a canal of water of blue water. The shade of the flowering bushes, and the laden fruit trees was delicious. The colour scheme of the paths, walls, the planted pots, the trellis, and the benches was blue, yellow and orange. It was extraordinarily peaceful. The plants came from all over Africa and China. The gardens weren’t too crowded and we people watched. There was a beautiful young girl who posed for photographs with outrageous sultry sulkiness and a daughter who talked at her dad, telling him about college in America while he dutifully listened. It is the same the whole world over.
We decided to walk into the new city and after negotiating vast dual carriageway lanes of traffic and walls of pink apartments, found ourselves the Oxford Street equivalent where H&M, MacDonalds, and Starbucks abounded. We found a supermarket which, of course, I was interested to investigate. I dragged a reluctant Roisin through a mall of empty shops, down to the basement, following supermarche signs. It was similar to Super Value but the array of fruit and vegetables was much more colourful. Otherwise, it sold all the usual brands, but no alcohol sadly, for I had hoped to sneak a few bottles into the Riad. We couldn’t find an interesting place to eat so plumped for a large corner café and ordered a mixed salad. It was huge plate of potato, tomato, corn, cucumber, carrot, celeriac and we slowly munched our way through watching the people come and go, kiss and coffee, and the older turbaned and kaftaned Arab on the next table entertain a string of women, (ex- girlfriends, we decided) with coffee.
After returning to the Riad, past the yard of the bus station which was packed with people with rolled up mattresses, bags, screeches, and general chaos, decrepit looking buses belting out fumes, it was time to go back to the terrace to sun bathe and listen to American pod casts on income inequality. I fell asleep.
In the evening we ventured out to find a recommended French restaurant. Wine was a key consideration. We got lost, of course, but the pleasure of getting lost is definitely the relief of the discovery. The restaurant was lovely, in a leafy courtyard with candles, waiters dressed in black and white poured our wine. The breeze tinkled amongst the lemon trees, rose petals and tiny fountain. After the few glasses of wine we got horribly lost going home and found ourselves in the revolving door of the souk, which bit by bit was closing. Despite our protestations that we would be fine, and didn’t need any escort, a young man led us out of the souk. As we followed, we explained we had no cash to tip him to which of course he took great umbrage…If I was a guest in your country etc etc. Poor Roisin got a real dressing down in broken English. Her face was a pleasure to watch when he pointed us on the right alley and then asked for a small gift!! We negotiated the rest of the way through the medina and carts of doe eyed sheep, with my phone using gsm, following the hovering blue spot. My feet were in bits. I needed new shoes.
The last quarter of our journey, when we knew the way, was usually marred because there were one or two young boys (8 to 14) who followed us, hard on heel, trying to touch Roisin, making lurid comments. We would speed up (despite my feet) but obviously have to stop at the front door where we urgently pressed the bell for Hichim or Joseph to open the door. I would put myself between Roisin and the young offender, but they would twirl, and touch and hustle. When the door opened, they ran away. This night, it took Hichim a long time.
Flirtations on the Terrace
Let in, I bathed my feet and we clambered, foot sore and weary to have our final cigarette on the roof terrace to discover Hichim flirting with one of the German lassies (we had deduced at breakfast that they had just finished university and were doing a bit of travelling. In fact they turned out to be Dutch). Candles were flickering and there was romantic music. The common language was broken English and there were lots of smiles, tinkly laughs, mint tea (I believe mixed with Gin) and high phenomes. We retired to bed. Half an hour later the doorbell was ringing, the phone started, the doorbell continued, pressed with continued urgency. Hichim did not respond. Finally, Roisin got up and let the Belgian girls (though at the time we had deduced that they were Spanish). They were extremely grateful.
At breakfast the next morning, Hichim was bad tempered. We were the only ones there. He told us had waited up all night for guests to arrive. When the German girls arrived down for breakfast, Hichim wouldn’t look at them and when finally Hichim had to bring their breakfast there were mutterings of hangovers. There was no omelette. No fresh orange juice. No yoghurt. We went upstairs to get ready for the day.
We were off to Ben Yourseff Medersa, the school of learning for the Quoran, through our newly discovered direct path through the souk. We were excited not to get lost. On our way out, Hichim came up and accused us of letting the Spanish (Belgian) girls in. Much to his surprise, they had come down for breakfast. They were the guests for whom he had waited. Yes. We explained that they had been ringing frantically, and ringing the phone but Hischim had not heard but Joseph did over hear us telling him this. He looked inquiringly at his brother who explained, nervously, that he was chatting to the girls upstairs. ‘We owe you a mint tea’, he said to us and looked at Hichim, darkly and went off to apologise to the Spanish (Belgian) girls. We never got a mint tea but Joseph did show me a video later in the week as to how to slaughter a sheep.
Lost Again. Found in The Tannery
The Medersa was not where it was suppose to be, according to Roisin and the map! A boy (where do they all come from) told us it was closed until two because the King’s brother was in Marrakech and that we should go to the Tannery because today was the day of the Berber auction. He set forth, beckoning and calling to us. ‘It is goooood. You must go’. Roisin had been expressly warned not to go to the tannery. It was apparently gross and manky, but I was interested and started to follow. Roisin was not happy.
He led us all around the streets and alleys. At one particular doorway, he grabbed a pile of mint, broke it up and gave it to us. Berber gasmask, he said. Up we go into a courtyard on a hill full of cement pits. In the first a man in thigh high boots in soaking and washing a skin in pigeon shit and ammonia. In another the skin was soaking in lime. Then it was covered in salt and allowed to dry. I might have got this a little back to front, so please don’t quote me. It was stomach retchingly smelly and he spoke very fast. It was also very slippery and I was trying hard not to fall into a pit as we traversed between them. I can tell you that the Berbers skins are camel and cows and the Arab skins are goats and sheep. Finally, we were deposited in the ‘exposition’ where Roisin was offered 7,000 camels for me. Photographs were taken, blankets and rugs were laid out before us, bags commended, to no avail. We were unceremoniously dumped on the front door step, feeling guilty. We did tip the boy who toured us though. The tannery had been worth it.
Now we felt au fait with the Berbers, we pushed our way through the actual Berber auction, though this had not been our intention, just a wrong turn. Skins lay all around. Men haggled. My phone was whipped. It was very irritating. Roisin had just told me off for keeping it in an outside pocket. I have all the trip, I said, I keep having to whip it out for the gsm. With no phone, now we were dependent on our map reading skills which even if Roisin didn’t keep turning it upside down were pretty useless in the Medina. But we found the Ben Youssef Medersa.
Of course, the Medersa had never been closed (though someone did corroborate the King’s brother story). It was full of people anyway, by the time we got there, taking selfie’s and photographs of each other in the courtyards, doorways. It was built in the 12th century as a school for boys who thirsted for knowledge. It had cloisters, prayer rooms, courtyards, and tiny monk cell like bedrooms. The wood was dark, ornate, carved, and painted in natural colours: indigo, cinnamon, mint, argave. The mosaic tiles were beautiful, and perfectly symmetrical. Like knowledge itself, the maze of corridors led you on and on.
After that we deserved a nice glass of wine. El Limoni, an Italian restaurant, was on our way home, on the one road we knew in the Medina. It had a lovely courtyard, a gorgeous mixed salad of crab, herring, ratatouille, cheese and local wine – all of which we enjoyed at our leisure.
Later after further sunbathing and foot relief back at the Riad, we headed back down to Place Jameel to watch the sun set from a roof terrace. We were also graced with a flock of a hundred or so geese winging their way south, silhouetted in the orange sky. Roisin took photos. I wrote poetry. We then headed to another recommended bar which we were also advised to leave before 10.30pm as it got a little sleazy. It was already 9.30pm when we got there via a three mile trek along some of the plushest avenues, full of swanky villas, gleaming casinos, boulevards of palaces and apartments, creepy boys. We had stopped to ask directions from an older Arab looking couple who seemed to know where they were going but they were Parisian Arabs on holiday and didn’t. They would find out, and asked a taxi driver, arms gesticulating, finger shaking, heads nodding. This way. They led, we followed. Lost, they asked again when we came to the fanciest looking Casino I have ever seen. The doorman gesticulated something different. We thanked everyone, assured them that we now knew, and battered and beaten finally found The Comptoir. We joined the queue of sleek young, well dressed and coiffured men and women to get in. At the entrance we saw red plush velvet, gold gilt mirrors, high polished. There were chandeliers, tapestries, a double staircase with a beautiful black hostess booking people into supper. The glittery tinkle of coins and conversation mingled with the silence of high value notes and power. Is there a bar? We asked. We were pointed up stairs and trying to glide as best we could, we sat up on a bar stool amongst the cocktails, the magnums, the waiters polishing, flourishing bottles, mixing drinks while behind us the play boys and girls streamed in. After two glorious glasses of wine, we settled into our barstools. But it was time to go. The door man got us a taxi back and Sunday we rested, feet up and sunbathed.
Eid in the Atlas Mountains
Monday was Eid. The baying sheep across the medina were all to be slaughtered. We decided to go on a trip to the Atlas Mountains. We clambered on the bus which toured some pretty fancy hotels in the posh part of Marrakech picking people up. We ended up a pretty mixed bunch. There was a bizarre African family with a wagon of a mother who ignored her sons, fingered every piece of jewellery, and loved having her photograph taken, pushing away her younger son trying to join her. The teenage son posed alone, regal, arms crossed, grim look on his face. The younger son scrabbled around, always wanting to be first of our possé, getting underfoot. The father was completely non-descript. All of them refused to even acknowledge us let alone respond to our greetings. There was an older English couple who hadn’t been told they were to go on a hike up the mountain but they managed with true English grit and wit. There was the young German couple from our Riad (an accountant and a logistics management student), another instantly forgettable young American couple, and two Muslim lads, Nad and Memet from Colindale in London with whom Roisin and I hooked up. They worked in Heathrow security. We hiked up to a wonderful waterfall high in the mountains, and had lunch in the river…literally, we left our shoes on the bank and chairs sank into the silt as you sat on them. It was absolutely gorgeous to have the water rippling around my poor hacked, blistered, embittered feet!
King of Crom in Marrakech
That night we decided to go the Piano Bar, as recommended in Rough Guide. The Piano Bar turned out to be in a five star hotel near the Place el Jameel and the piano player turned out to be on holiday. So we sat in the hotel courtyard beneath lemon and orange trees, near a 50 metre pool, in darkness and listened to live African drums and singing. And we ordered a bottle of wine. As we were about to leave we bumped into a man who turned out to be the King of Crom castle in Fermanagh who was offering to play CATS on the piano. Delighted, we joined his party who included the Queen of Cutra Castle in Gort. They had popped over to Marrakech for a birthday do. So good to meet the neighbours!
9,000 Camels and Cooked Sheep Heads
Our final full day was spent in the Bahia Palace (amazing symmetrical decoration) and the Souk, bargaining and buying, laughing, eating, and watching the heads of the sheep being cooked on coals in the streets and queues of people lining up by the butcher’s slab with sheep parts. Talking of animals, I was offered 9,000 camels for Roisin. Memet was quite impressed when we told him (we met the lads at the airport and waited together for our flights home). It seems he knew about camel prices. We never worked out why they barbequed the sheep’s head. Joseph had been disapproving when I told him about the queues of people getting the butcher to cut up their sacrificial sheep saying they should do it themselves but I didn’t ask him why they cooked the sheep’s head. I thought it might get lost in translation.
Roisin in Place Jameel Fna