22 Oct - Marrakech madness

Escapade of Rame
Richard & Julie Farrington
Sun 29 Oct 2017 15:35

34: 01.7N 006:49.3W

Having explored the immediate vicinity of the boat, on Saturday we hired a car for our African Rally.  I paid 1200 dirhams (about a hundred of your English pounds) online for three days with a diesel Renault Clio, so when the chap in a funny little souk in downtown Rabat told me it was actually a petrol Fiat Panda worth just £60 I was not too pleased.  Still, it was that or a camel, so we chose the Italian.  The Satnav we had ordered was not there, but in return for some cash one would be provided in half an hour.  We ventured out into the traffic.  Compared to ‘rush hour in Rawalpindi’, it was a doddle.  Lane discipline is for wimps and right of way on those funny European roundabouts lies with the driver who knows where he’s going.  Traffic lights are obeyed (unlike Rawalpindi) unless there’s a policeman there with a whistle and a bandstand, in which case the orchestra entertains!







Where is she going?

Armed with a 20-year-old GPS, we set out for the fabled city of Marrakech.  There’s a reason why everyone else travels there by EasyJet: four hours on an empty motorway across an arid, flat and fairly featureless landscape.  The soil is thin – in some places non-existent.  Rocks everywhere, sometimes piled up into dry stone walls to reduce the damage to ploughs, elsewhere just strewn by Nature when Planet Earth looked more like the moon.  The locals try to cultivate it, but the most sophisticated farm machinery we saw had four legs and looked much thinner than poor old Eeyore.  In some areas, evidence of a harvest; the odd solar farm reminding us that Morocco is trying to enter the modern world; elsewhere goats, sheep and cattle, but spread really thinly across the empty ground.   Donkey and cart on a motorway?  Oh yes.  Traffic police every few kilometres too, particularly between Rabat and Casablanca and at the entrance of every town.  I wondered whether they had heard about my driving, or whether the King was due to roll past?

A roadside scene on the way to Marrakech

We arrived at our hotel in the centre of Marrakech an hour before sunset.  We had deliberately chosen somewhere modern and business oriented, though as we wandered through the medina over the next couple of days I wished we had opted for one of the more boutique-styled ‘Riads’ that you read (sic) about in the tourist literature.    As darkness fell, we climbed into a ‘little taxi’ – a clapped out Dacia with no springs in the seats, let alone the suspension – and hurtled into the Djeema al Fna, the main square, heralded by the Lonely Panet Guide to Morocco as ‘live action channel-surfing’.   Straight away I was hassled by a chap dressed as a Berber – bright robes and a Widow Twankey hat with bells and horns – who wanted me to photograph him and give him money.  Under pressure, I obliged, but he felt that 30p was not enough.  I thought it was, particularly as I didn’t want the photo anyway.  A standoff ensued, resolved by a local woman who appeared to tell him in no uncertain terms to grow up and stop annoying the sort of people who provide 90% of Morocco’s GDP.  The square was busy with groups of locals crowded round small bands of musicians who were either trying to drum up a bigger audience before starting, or playing local folk music at full speed.  More chaps trying to sell us nasty Chinese-made plastic toys, some bewildered tourists, like us  looking for the fabled acrobats and street circuses.  Perhaps we were too early?  Or too late?

We wandered on towards the food stalls, which reminded me of places like Newton Circus in Singapore.  Quite promising then, but we were instantly besieged by persistent young men with plastic menu cards telling us to dine at their stall which was so much better than anyone else’s.  After about 20 minutes, we didn’t feel hungry any more so dropped our shoulders and charged into the souk.  Very different to Rabat or Salé, more like a Far Eastern shopping mall in miniature.  Hundreds of tiny shops all selling the same stuff, whichever way you turned.  Each owned by a persistent young man telling us that his stall was much better than anyone else’s.  We spotted a ‘way out’ sign and followed it.  It took us further into the maze of stalls, to another sign which took us even further in.  Great ruse.  The sensory overload lasted a while until we decided that this was not really our sort of thing.  We did not need cheap shoes or garish T-shirts; no need for painted camels, tin pots or fake watches; and there are only so many jars of spices you can store in a yacht, even one the size of ours.

We escaped and found a fine fruit juice stall, where we downed some glasses of pomegranate and orange juice before steeling ourselves for the food stalls.  We rushed into the middle of the melee and sat at the first table offered.  Somehow, sufficient peace descended and we were left alone.  The food was okay.  We sat next to an English couple who were staying in Marrakech for five days: I admired their stamina.  They just thought we were mad…

Great fruit juices

We returned to the sanctuary of the hotel earlier than planned and paused at the Café de Grand Post, just around the corner.  Bliss: tropical palms, cane furniture, finest African hospitality with a French twist.  Nobody trying to sell me anything – not even the waiters, as it turned out… but we got served eventually and the coffee was good!

The hotel was cheap and very comfortable.  In the morning, we contemplated pulling the plug and escaping early, but on Anna’s advice decided to give the chaos another chance.  We were glad that we did.  We followed the Lonely Planet’s ‘half day tour of Marrakech’ and restored our faith in the mysteries of that unique place.  We walked unhassled through the old souks, enjoying the ancient Moorish architecture, avoiding the donkeys and carts, the cats, the maniacal moped drivers, the old men pushing carts or carrying pots of mint tea to lubricate some business deal somewhere… Rabat was blue and white; Marrakech is a wonderful reddy-brown, not quite terracotta, more dirty pink.  We found ancient palaces with beautiful Islamic carvings and tile work, secret gardens hidden behind high walls and magnificent doorways, courtyards with little cafes selling tea and interesting sweetmeats.  Friendly people happy to help us with our navigation, others just slightly curious about whether we were German or American, but nobody trying to pass mutton off as lamb.

A fine front door in old Marrakech

A quiet alley

The heart of the souk in Marrakech

Which brought us to lunch.  We thought we had found a part of the old medina which specialises in slow-cooked lamb with interesting spices, served with local bread and olives.  Our dish consisted mostly of bones and fat, so I’m not sure we hit quite the right part of town.  As we extracted back to the hotel, we found the snake charmers and the chaps with their baby chimpanzees doing tricks.  The audiences were mostly locals and it all seemed a bit tawdry.  So by 2pm we were back on the road, bound for the fishing port of Essaouira, some two hundred miles south west of Marrakech.

Hiding from the bustle

Sleeping snakes and sentry

Just outside the medina in Marrakech