[England] [Sensory Overload in Morocco]          

February 2007:


Hannah’s initial perception of the beautiful Atlas mountains backing Marrakech, was that they were giant “waves” with white tops. My immediate thought was if they were waves then Marrakech was about to be hit by the biggest tsunami mankind had ever seen. We loved the juxtaposition of transports coming in on the road to Marrakech – donkeys with laid-back riders atop, mules pulling carts laden with oranges for the Medina markets, old beaten taxis tooting horns and fearless moped riders zipping by.

Once inside the old city walls, our taxi drove as far the narrowing streets and throng of people would allow before depositing our belongings in a wheeled cart and beckoning us to follow on foot. Firstly we went through local neighborhood alleys where such shops as the butchers displayed their meat, unrefrigerated and accompanied by many clients, the flies. Underfoot was packed earth, which led to the inevitable dusty feel that seems to pervade Morocco. Then into the cobbled, narrow residential alleys where the high walls of the homes with very few windows, leads to a feeling of being enclosed and insulated. The occasional intricately studded doors breaks the monotony of terracotta walls. We tried carefully to remember various landmarks and the lefts followed by rights etc (go under an arch, turn left at pile of rubbish, two rights at the watering tap) Thankfully before the list got too long we entered a dark cool dead-end alley and there, a lovely massive studded door, housed a little personally-sized door through which we stepped into a lovely small courtyard foyer of our first riad, Dar Hanane.

The riads are of a traditional Arabic design which lend themselves well to inner-city living. From the exterior there is little to see, just high walls with the odd small window and a single big door. Not only great for security but also for blocking out all the street noise. Everything is built to surround the internal courtyard, which is usually some sort of garden patio. They all seem to be about 3 storeys high, resulting in a perception of coolness at ground level, due to the sun not hitting it for long throughout the day. Walls are thick and windows tall and narrow. All the windows had decorative grilling on the outside which the owner explained were entirely a decorative feature, not an attempt at security from any possible abseiling burglars as I had imagined. Our room was absolutely stunning with an intricately carved wooden ceiling that was probably 5 metres above our heads. With the thickness of the walls, the windows had wide ledges which Hannah loved to sit on and look out at the garden below or to watch for the little birds nesting in the orange tree at its centre. You could see the French influence with the heavy blue-grey wooden shutters that hung to the outside of the windows. The owner kindly/nervously removed several delicate ornaments from the room we occupied as a precaution against curious little hands.

We were ushered up to the roof terrace to a welcoming drink and check-in. Three storeys seems to be the height limit for the Marrakech medina and the only taller buildings were the mosques studding the landscape. We had a beautiful, clear view right across the medina to the city walls and beyond to the Atlas mountains. This was the backdrop to where we had our first taste of the standard Moroccan drink, Mint tea. Delicate little glasses with a small silver pot were delivered to us. Michael poured and we drank. There is a slight bitterness but it was as had been described, very refreshing and terribly addictive. I was to order this drink many more times over our week in Morocco.

The staff at this riad spoke only a few words of English, so between that and our very-limited French we made do. They adored Hannah and made much fuss over her curls. Breakfast was included in the price and a 3 course dinner could be had for a reasonable fee. I had read great reviews about the cooking by Aisha in this riad and looked forward to being fed by her. Daily breakfast was freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, round flat discs of bread covered in something like semolina, which had the consistency of foccacia bread and was really delicious and small lace-like pancakes with honey to drizzle over them. The finest dinner was a lamb and prunes tagine with the usual discs of yummy bread to mop up the juices. I tried several other tagines over the week and while all were tasty, Aisha’s, without a doubt, was the finest and freshest. I only wished I could have spoken French well enough to have asked her for the recipe…

Thoughtfully, the riad owner had provided us with a mud map to get to the Place Jemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square. Each day saw us braving the alleys and souks between our riad in a residential area and Place Jemaa el Fna. By the last day we could get to the square in around ten minutes but initially the journey took ages, as we stopped and started, looking at all the wonderful hole-in-the-wall sized shops. As the alleys were always quite narrow, you also had to listen and watch carefully for donkeys with carts or motorbikes coming through and quickly hug the wall. Firstly we went through high-walled residential areas, then came the local shops, eg tiny shops selling all essential small goods and some spices in sacks, repair shops, butchers and open-air markets selling fruit and vegetables. These would possibly have twig-thatched roofs through which the light penetrated in dusty fingers and kept the heat to a minimum but the dust to a maximum. Immediately surrounding most street entrances to Jemaa el Fna would be the specialised souks selling leather goods, lamps, wooden carved items and clothing. Again these were covered by twig-thatching. Naturally these souks being the main shopping areas, were the most colourful. The enclosed feeling of the souks leads to the senses being more keenly felt. The smell from the sacks of spices in shop fronts, the vibrant colours of the racks of hanging babouche slippers and beautiful woven rugs and the ringing of metal being beaten into the cut-metal hanging lamps. Add to this the constant but polite enquiries as to whether we would like to come into their particular alcove to view their goods. Hannah on foot, meant that we were slower and more susceptible to these enquiries and after a number of well-meant touching of her hair and squeezing of her cheeks, she had had enough and was happy to be placed on Michael’s shoulders out of reach.

Place Jemaa el Fna is a vast square and actually more of an Lshaped arena. It is entirely paved and fairly frantic with people walking, running, and scootering around in all directions. It is predominantly pedestrian with only the odd moped, taxi or calleche (horse-driven carriage) criss-crossing it. Lining three sides of it are the multiple-storey café/restaurants with terraces on each level for viewing purposes. We went to these on a couple of occasions at different times of the day to get great views of the square and its activities in the daylight as well as to enjoy the lovely sunsets on dusk. Back down in the square, the industry out on the pavers is that of small enterprise. Hustlers wanting to sell you small touristy items, drummers and musicians surrounded by crowds, snake charmers and monkey minders and many large carts, piled high with oranges, to get freshly squeezed orange juice, which we never tired of.

Late afternoon is an exciting time to be there as a large area of the square is turned into a nightly open-air food fair. Benches, tables and food carts are set up with numbers to recognise and return to the more favoured stalls. As dusk starts to set in, the lights come on these stalls and the cooking smells and smoke waft over the square. It’s great fun and a very cheap way to eat. You choose your stall, take a seat and point out the food you want cooked - types of fish, chicken or lamb kebabs, with salads piled high to choose from. It’s cooked and placed in front of you within minutes. There are specialised stalls selling only one item, eg cockles or sheeps heads. Our stomaches were quite happy to stick with the more standard fare. Early evening would see us carrying a sleepy Hannah back to the riad for an early night. The decision not to take her pram on holiday meant that she was having to do a lot more walking and we were doing a lot more carrying. Unsurprisingly. we all fell asleep quickly and heavily each night, barely stirring at the inevitable early morning mosque calls to prayer.

I was looking forward to visiting Majorelle Gardens, located outside the Medina walls. A cool, tranquil Mediterranean garden that was created by Jacques Majorelle in 1924 and opened to the public in 1947, it was later acquired and restored by present owners Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. Arriving at a reasonably early hour of the morning, we were lucky to find the garden not overrun by coach loads of tourists, so were able to wander freely and easily. A calm, colourful oasis within the frantic pace of Marrakech, I can’t recommend these gardens highly enough. We were able to let Hannah stretch her legs without having to watch her every move for once. The gardens contain a mixture of palms, cacti, succulents, bamboo and flowering plants. Azure blue, deep terracotta and mustard paint has been used liberally to colour cement walkways, pots and arbours. There are several water features tiled with Moorish patterns providing great photo opportunities and a sense of natural air-conditioning. If you were to ask Hannah her favourite memory of the gardens, it would be of the heavily pregnant cat she befriended. When we explained that the cat had baby kittens growing in her stomach, Hannah stated that she must have ate them to get them there.

A brief visit to the nearby tanneries was planned for one morning. Having seen the photos of the colourful round dye pits of Fez, we had expected something similar in Marrakech. This was not to be the case. The smell of the tanneries reached us long before we reached them. Upon arrival, someone came and gave us a brief explanation of the various stages the skins take to get to leather. All seemed to involve nasty smells, with the most memorable being where the skins were soaked and stamped in a mixture of urine and other substances, to bleach them. A man standing in the pits, wearing knee-high Wellingtons and elbow-length industrial gloves had the pleasure of working this stage. Amazingly he wore nothing on his face to inhibit the smells – brave man. While it was interesting to see how the wonderfully worked leather goods in the souks, makes its beginning, I can’t say the tanneries is a place for tourists. It does feel like a traditional work place and as such, I couldn’t help feeling that we were intruders.

After three days spent wandering around Marrakech, we had planned a break of two days on the coast, staying in the seaside town of Essaouira. It worked out cheaper to hire a taxi to drive us there than to hire a car, so we set off in an old Mercedes for the two hour drive. I had expected a small town so was surprised to come down off a small hilly range to view a widespread modern town with a small walled medina visible in the distance. We were driven to the edge of the old city area, the medina, and once again negotiated a price for having someone cart our luggage through the cobbled streets to the riad. This riad was located almost on top of the ramparts that front the rocky shore. Climbing up to the small terraced roof, we had a clear view of the waves smashing onto the rocks below the ramparts, as well as surrounding buildings.

Essaouira was a more calm, laidback version of Marrakech. Shopkeepers rarely haggled for business, content to wait for you to enter and show interest. Naturally being a much smaller town, there was a lot less shops, but that helped to make the stay a more relaxed, less-tourist oriented one. As in Marrakech, stray cats could be seen everywhere, and although a little grubby, most seemed well fed. This was especially the case in Essaouira, a fishing port. Hannah and I had seen a small kitten, which we endeavoured to feed a small tin of cat food that I had smuggled into my luggage. The kitten seemed unsure of how to eat it and after seeing several cats being tossed fish, we understood why. It wasn’t used to pampered, soggy tinned stuff!

The terracotta walls of Marrakech make way in Essaouira, for a white-washed, blue shuttered village look. It reminded me of the Greek islands. After research, I found that the Greek look was, in fact, the influence of past colonial occupation by the Portugese, along with other French and Berber influences. These influences on the architecture can also be seen in the ramparts, their cannons on top and the watch tower located in the fishing port area.

Back in Marrakech after an all too brief time in Essaouira, we trekked to the Saadian tombs located near the southern walls of the medina. There is no grand entrance, just a little alley leading to a ticket booth. From there, you go through a narrow, dark alley that opens out onto a vast courtyard. Here the tombs are housed into a hall built into the wall surrounding the courtyard or in the middle where a large open hall stands. The mausoleum was created by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour and in all, 66 Saadians, including the Sultan, his successors and the closest family members are buried in the two largest halls. Another 100 tombs lay scattered in the grounds of the courtyard. The tombs are all decorated with stucco work on the ceilings and upper walls and colourful geometric patterned tiles on the lower walls and floors. They are roped off to preserve the tiled floors but from standing at the many open entrances you can get a clear view of their beauty. There are no written explanations of any kind, although you can hire a guide to explain what you are seeing. It is a chance to just stand and admire the peacefulness and beauty of the tombs without the usual tourist-driven extras.

Only one thing remained for us to do before we flew out the following morning. Mike had been determined all week to buy a pair of babouche (traditional leather slippers). On the last evening, we walked into the square through alleys with him stopping frequently to look at slippers. Still having not found a particular pair he liked on the way in, on the way back to the riad in the evening, he was becoming increasingly desperate. He finally found a style he liked and having told the store-owner his size, sat there smugly. Unfortunately the only colour in his size turned out to be a deep pink. I was trying hard not to laugh out aloud as he struggled with the dilemma of either pink slippers or no slippers at all. A pair of deep pink slippers now poke their pretty heads out from under his side of the bed…

Highlight: Wandering the colourful souks of Marrakech

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