Would you know we’re riding
On the Marrakech Express
Would you know we’re riding
On the Marrakech Express, they’re taking me to Marrakech
All on board the train, all on board the train…..
Day One : On which we make our entrance
Ah, the romance of it all. Only, it’s not the Marrakech Express. It’s not even a train. It’s not in the slightest bit romantic. It’s the 6.25 a.m. Boeing 800 from John Lennon Airport. It’s not even the Ryanair Express as we sit on the tarmac until nearly 8 a.m. after being told there is a ‘technical difficuty’. Just what you want to hear when you’re about to go nearly forty thousand feet in the air. Then we have to undo our seat belts because they’re refuelling. They don’t actually tell you why you may need to dash for the exits in an instant. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid.
And so, while the romance of how we get there is shattered, the impact of flying in, over thousands of acres of tended fields and seeing the old walled city below, is enough to stir anyone’s imagination.
Marrakech is the fourth largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca, Fes and Tangier. Names that evoke images of the mysterious North Africa, of Berbers and of Moors. Menara airport is only a fifteen minute drive away and we’re staying in the middle of the Old Town, in the Medina, just a short stroll from the main Jemaa el-Fnaa square. The place is as old as time itself. The square was the site of public executions and took its name ‘the Assembly of Death’ for that reason. Progress means somethings change: fashions, transport, neon signage. However, there are aspects of life In the square that haven’t changed in centuries.
The Riad Bamileke, home to us for the next few days, dates back to the 11th century. (https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/341978)
The highly ornate and heavy timber street door at 17, Derb dabachi leads into an inner courtyard and a maze of corridors and staircases steer us up to our series of rooms. There are ochre-coloured walls and Islamic royal arches, geometrical tiling and an octagonal timber roof with an ornamental glass surround to let in the light. Small birds fly in from the adjacent garden, through the decorative wrought-iron work, to rest a while on the edge of our four-poster bed. The bathroom has a plunge pool-sized bath made of polished tan stone and the whole place is awash with colour, it’s lavish – yes, I’d go so far as to say, opulent.
This is a Muslim country and Marrakech oozes all the mania and bedlam of a North African city. However, tourists still pour in and, as a result, the ‘heavy sell’ of the hawkers and traders is far less intrusive than it is in Egypt; which the tourists have deserted in their hundreds of thousands and where earning every single Egyptian pound is too often the difference between survival and abject poverty. Marrakech is ‘organised chaos’. It’s far cleaner than Cairo, far less spoilt by general rubbish and waste and the vast majority of the buildings are finished and attractive. There is clearly an intention to address the needs of the vast number of tourists that flock here every year from all corners of the world, but there remains an ancient culture and a strong sense of authenticity.
It’s always busy in the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square and often frantic. During the day, locals in all manner of costume and dress mix with tourists to take in the acrobats, snake charmers, monkeys with their handlers, musicians and stalls selling multi-coloured spices, brass and tin lanterns, earthenware tagines, vases, plates and bowls. There is something very ancient in watching a man sitting cross-legged on a striped rug, wearing a djellba and Moroccan head dress. He is joined by a number of older men who crouch around as he plays a haunting tune on an old pipe while a cobra sways hypnotically from side to side not two feet from where he is sitting.
It is not without its danger. Although the smaller snakes are relatively harmless, the cobras are capable of killing their handlers, and, it seems, do so from time to time. Apparently, there is no anti-venom in Morocco, so once bitten, that’s it, I’m afraid. The skills of snake-charming are handed down from generation to generation and there are young men nearby, watching and learning.
At night, the square is a heaving mass of people. The panoply of performers and stall holders remain, but are added to by fruit sellers, trinket salesmen, some tourist ‘tat’ and a cadre of waiters earnestly enticing you to visit their restaurants for the ‘best food in the city’. For lowly waiters, they are, but through expedience, they are multi-lingual: Arabic and French, of course, as well as excellent English. Some even try a little German. They have the patter. “It’s cheaper than Asda!” is a frequent offering, although I dare say not many have wandered the aisles to check.
Of course, everyone is here to help and to be your friend. They are eager to offer advice and guidance, often coincidentally, followed by the fact that they know exactly where you need to be and where you need to go for the best deal. And guess what, they own the business!
At the lower end of the hawking profession, there are small children sitting cross-legged trying to sell packets of sweets or paper tissues and shoe-shine boys who are insistent that you need their services, whether you do or not, whether you want to, or not. At Le Balcon Cafe de Grand Glacier on the square we sit near an over-weight man who is drinking, like us, hot mint tea. A large handful of fresh mint and boiling water, served in a glass, with or without sugar, thankfully. He summons over a young shoe-shine boy who removes his sweaty shoes and begins to wax and polish. I find the whole thing rather sad, seedy and demeaning. I’m not sure why, after all, this trade has been like this for decades, if not centuries. For a few dirham, the boy replaces the shoes and then, at a corner table, finishes a glass of tea left by an earlier customer. Needs must, I suppose.
The man on the other side of the cafe calls over one of the many old men who walk the square carrying dilapidated cardboard shoe boxes containing packs of cigarettes. They rattle a small handful of change as a way of attracting custom. They sell single cigarettes for a few coins. They provide a light and then move on. Whether the cigarettes are genuine or fake, it’s hard to tell. They certainly smell of strong tobacco, even at a distance. It’s a way of making a living, even if the ones who loiter outside this particular cafe clearly seem to be smoking their way through their own stock.
At this time of year, in early February, the nights are chilly. It is almost as though the city has four seasons in one day. It’s spring in the morning, fresh and cool. By afternoon, the sun has raised the temperature into the summery mid-twenties and it’s warm and humid. The evening it is autumn and the nights are cold with the thermometer showing a mere seven or eight degrees.
Off the square and down the lane, the noise disappears and in the seclusion of the Riad, all is silent. The birds have long gone for the night and the moonlight shines through the roof. It’s the end of a first day in an exotic city, rich in history and culture. So much awaits.
Day Two : On which we fall for the old tannery scam.
Breakfast is invariably freshly-squeezed orange juice, rich dark coffee, croissants and Beghirs – small, spongey honeycomb pancakes made from semolina. It sets you up for the day!
Every city visited by tourists has its time-worn scam and Marrakech is no exception. In the Medina, it is the Tannery Scam. The annoying thing is that I see it coming and still fall straight into the trap.
It starts as I am making my way along the passage in front of the Riad. In a side alley is a woman with her back to me. Her enormous rear end is more than sufficient to attract my attention, let alone the fact that she is feeding about twenty stray cats.
‘That’s my mother’ calls a young lad on a motorbike. ‘I’ve been for the head of the chickens for the breakfast of the cats. Hey, has anyone ever told you you look like Bruce Willis? Do you act with him?’
Stupidly, I play along. I tell him that I only do his more difficult stunts, but I’ll give him an autograph, as he is a neighbour, an he can sell it to make his fortune.
We laugh. He then tells me that I’m lucky as it’s a Berber holiday today and the tanneries are open to the public. I should go and see, it is only a five minute walk. Strangely enough, I forget for a moment that I was told the same tale the previous afternoon. Apparently, the Berbers only have a special holiday like this once a year. Why the penny doesn’t drop escapes me, but even more strangely, he calls out to a young man walking by. It’s a cousin who has come in from his home in the Atlas Mountains for the Berber festival. Would he walk with us and give us directions? Of course he would!
At the tanneries, we are met by another man who tells us that we’re more than welcome to look around. In fact, he’ll come round with us and tell us what’s happening. Oh, and feel free to take photographs. He even gives us a sprig of mint as a nose-gay. ‘It’s the Chanel No.5 at the tanneries’, he quips.
He shows us where the goat, sheep and camel hides arrive and are treated in urine and ‘pigeon poo’, as he so eloquently puts it. In fairness, it is a fascinating insight into the tanning process, even if it smells like nothing on earth. Quite unexpectedly, and I add this with considerable irony, we find a open shop at the end of the site and are ushered into it, asked to sit and shown all manner of leather goods. The quality is excellent and the men work the leather, while the women tuft and weave rugs and carpets.
What would we like to buy? By now, I am too cross with myself for falling for such an obvious ploy and make excuses of having to meet people for lunch. The ‘keeper’ then explains that the tour comes at a cost and we should be willing to pay 500 MAD, approximately £40. Some stubborn negotiating takes place and I finally escape, paying half. Still, it’s a lesson in life, if nothing else. I’d like to think that my ‘donation’ would find its way into the pockets of the poor workers who were up to their armpits in guano and piss but I suspect that, by the time the hook and the guide and the keeper have all had their slice, there won’t be enough go to buy anyone more than a cup of mint tea.
On the way back, alone this time, through the maze of side roads and lanes, we are accosted at least half a dozen times by helpful types who think we should take advantage of this once in a life time opportunity to visit a local tanning factory….we even pass two poor souls heading like sheep to the slaughter on the trail we have just made for ourselves. It’s clearly a very lucrative business.
We escape without handbags, jackets, babouche slippers, leather pouffes or wallets. And am I sorry? No, not really! This type of heavy sell plays on the unsuspecting tourist. No doubt many are fleeced of a considerable slice of their holiday budget. I’ve met it before, and still fall for it, they’re that good!
So, with pride just a little dented, we decide to move out of the Medina and experience something of new Marrakech. The New City surrounds the Old, which is within ancient city walls, dating back to the 12th century. They have changed little, except to be punctuated by entrances to accommodate major roads.
The walk down the main Boulevard Mohammed V takes us first to the Hotel Mamounia, located just at the edge of the Medina. It was built In 1923 and is set in an oasis of palm trees, swimming pools and tennis courts. The gardens are splendid and it is a hotel fit for those with considerable funds. Churchill wrote to Clemmie from here that it was one of the best hotels in which he had ever stayed. They are fortunate to still have one or two of his paintings on show and the ceiling in the lobby was commissioned, at his request, from Jacques Majorelle, the French painter.
The other interesting fact about the hotel was that one of its notable guests was dive-bombed by finches while taking breakfast on the balcony. It gave him an idea and, as the say, the rest is history. It was Alfred Hitchcock and the fortunate mishap gave him the idea for The Birds’. He was clearly fond of the hotel, even after that. Scenes from ‘ The Man who knew too much’ were filmed here, the hotel playing host to Doris Day and James Stewart back in 1956.
From the Mamounia, the Avenue takes you down to the Hotel Rennaisance. It’s quite an unassuming hotel, rather bland and modern, but was a gathering place for the Rolling Stones and William Burroughs when they ‘ hung out’ in Marrakech in the ’60s.
The roof terrace is said to give marvellous views of the city and out to the Atlas Mountains. Unfortunately, it’s closed when we arrive and we have to make do with not such a good view from the restaurant one floor below.
Over to the north-east lies the Majorelle Gardens. They were created in the 1920s for the artist, Jacques Majorelle, and rescued from falling into disrepair by Yves St. Laurent. The gardens are kept beautifully and the whole area exudes a strange degree of reverence, including a memorial to St. Laurent which seems to be overdoing it, somewhat. The brilliant cobalt blue, a trademark of Majorelle, and a bright vivid yellow cover all the walls and pots and leaves you with feeling that, if IKEA did gardens, they would probably look like this!
Back in the Jemaa-el-Fnaa square, it’s time to enjoy a mint tea or two at the Cafe de France and watch the sun set over the Koutoubia Mosque. It’s a fine building, but, like nearly all mosques in Marrakech, not open to non-Muslims. Sitting in cafes at pavement level means you are a clear target for the endless stream of sellers of watches, mobile phones, sunglasses, Mont Blanc pens, art work, packets of tissues, biscuits, shoe-shines or simply the open palms of beggars and the desperately unfortunate. It’s easy to deter these hawkers. I’m a little less sure how to deal with the man who wants to give me a snake to hold. I’ve not seen a reaction like mine since an unsuspecting Mammy Two Shoes was struck with terror when Tom chased Jerry into the kitchen.
It’s amazing how cheaply you can buy a ‘genuine Rolex’, especially if you are without any wits at all. After this morning, I’ve regained mine and decide it’s time to retire for a tagine at Ta’jin Darna, just along the square. Tasty chicken, prunes and almonds in a rich sauce and served in a pot that is so hot, it would strip bare skin! And of course, bread. The staple of Morroco and so good. It’s often batbout, a form of light pita bread that’s cooked on the stove, or khobz, chunks of white flour and buckmeal bread that’s crusty and soft. Ideal for soaking up rich joices.
Walking back to the Riad we pass a man carrying a live sheep around his neck. I can’t help think that maybe the fur hood on my parka back home is a little easier to manage. There is a group of men whirling, with the tassels spinning from their hats accompanied by a racket from cymbals, bells and drums. A woman screams as a monkey decides it’s had enough being photographed and grabs a handful of her hair. Water sellers in bright orange conical hats wave brass cups and shout after us. It’s the night market and this is Marrakech.
Day Three : In which we take to the Souks.
We’ve visited the souks in Egypt and in Qatar, but we’ve never experienced mile after mile of covered passageways and alleys selling such a variety of goods. The souks in Marrakech are extensive. There are over a dozen individual areas that merge with each other assaulting the senses. In the old Jewish quarter a morning spice auction provides for the city and its seemingly endless stalls selling all types of herbs, nuts, dried fruit and spices.
The cakes of indigo are stunning, especially when the stall owner produces, as if by magic, a chameleon, and we watch it slowly change colour as it reflects its new environment. There is menthol in slabs of glacier white which they infuse in hot water and offer you to clear your head. There is Ammi Visnaga, or the Moroccan toothpick plant; the dried inner is pulled apart to provide individual toothpicks.
The maze of alleyways leads to souks selling carpets and rugs, souks selling gold and silver, others selling pottery, metalwork, antiques, bric a brac, clothes, leather, perfumes, furniture, live chickens and turkeys, tortoises and reptiles, wooden utensils, plugs and wires, the delicate leather slippers they call babouches, upholstery fabrics and, of course, nuts, spices and herbs. It’s exhausting. I trail behind my better half. It’s clear the stallholders recognise who is in charge. ‘I’m the bank’, I tell one man. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘you are the camel!’
Little of what you buy has a fixed price. We’re in the world of bartering. There is a clear and strict etiquette between the buyer and the seller and it’s seen as being part business and part sport. There is a bargain to be had for both of us but I suspect I come in second in what I eventually agree to pay. There might well be things on sale that you will see when you get home as you’re passing through T K Maxx, but it’s not the same as looking at it once your home and thinking back to that afternoon in the warm sun when you discussed your wife’s eyes with a little old hunchbacked man who confessed to being five years your junior.
At every stall, we are greeted warmly, like lost cousins We shake hands, and are asked where we have come from. French is easier than Arabic and we tell them we are from ‘Pays de Galle’. The universal language of football produces a smile and the response of ‘Ah, Ryan Giggs! Gareth Bale’. Except from one owner of a jewellery shop who says ‘Rugby!’. He then goes on to tell me he watched the recent Wales versus Italy game and loves the home internationals. I learn that the Moroccan rugby union team have been playing international rugby since 1931 and are referred to as the Atlas Lions. They play in red and green and have the mint leaf as their symbol. Suddenly, the world shrinks a little.
We buy wallets, slippers, a tea pot, a hand-worked tray, Berber bangles from a passing veiled lady, scarves, decorative tea spoons and lampshades made from leather and decorated with henna.
Weary of shopping, we seek refuge in a nearby cafe for the usual and well-earned mint tea. We forget to ask for tea without sugar and what arrives is almost viscous. It’s no wonder there are so many prosthetic dentists and tooth-pullers here in Marrakech. Between mint tea and endless glasses of carbonated water, Orangina and ‘Coca Light’, I’m developing ‘pop-poisoning’. By the time I get home, I’ll be in need of fizzy-o-therapy!
On the way home, we are stopped by a young man who produces a business card and asks if we are interested in an excursion. We’re not – we haven’t enough time, but we’re not rude enough to walk on and we linger while he starts to tell us what he has to offer. We hadn’t bargained for him being able to offer so much as he explains each trip in painful detail. We edge away from him, but he is persistent and follows, pointing out trips to the mountains, a three hour car ride to a walled city, four hours in a flat desert landscape, five hours visiting a Berber village…..it’s reminiscent of the scene in ‘Kes’ where Billy Casper is doing his best to get out of the Careers’ Office. Our physical discomfort is almost funny, I hope someone is watching!
At night, we eat in the Old Town. An entree of orange, mint, melon and herbs, served as a small salad, followed by finely chopped tomatoes, onions and skewers of lamb and chicken, roasted over charcoal and tasting rich and smoky.
Day Four : In which we fill in the gaps.
An alternative to chancing your arm in the Souks, is to head for one of the three Ensemble Artisanal. These are government cooperatives where artisans make their goods on the premises and sell them at a fixed price. It’s said that the prices are higher than in the souks, but the money goes directly to the producer, rather than the wholesaler. In reality, because of the bartering system – setting an initial price and then the slow working towards the agreed cost – by the time you’ve settled on the final price, it’s probably in line with what you would have paid at the cooperative., anyway. Seeing and talking to leather workers, carpet and tapestry makers, bookbinders, jewellers and bag makers at work, is well worth any extra cost. We buy Moroccan woolly hats, earrings and a navy -blue winter-weight Berber djellaba. Now, that will be handy on a Wednesday when I’m putting the bins out.
Crossing the square at any time of day and night, you’re always conscious of the two most bizarre exhibits on show. The snake charmers who wail away on their pipes, the pungi and bansuri and the men who walk around with a monkey on the end of a piece of chain. In both cases, I refuse to pay to be able to photograph them. The snakes are too big for comfort and the monkeys, dressed in nappies and frocks, are lamentable. There is something intrinsically and morally wrong in this day and age with maintaining some centuries-old traditions. Somethings are better left in the past.
Out in the south of the Medina lies the Kasbah district and the Royal Palace. We sit of a rooftop terrace enjoying a tea with a Moroccan cake. Piles of lightly fried filo pastry, dusted in sugar with almonds, honey and cream. Across the road, storks are nesting and take to the air, somewhat laboriously, heading for a roost on top of a nearby mosque.
On the way home, we pass a stall selling ladies’ underwear – mainly bras, in all colours and sizes. It’s ironic that in a country where women take modesty so seriously, there are three men who run the bra stall. Presumably, they hand out advice as well I can only hope that they don’t run a fitting service?
Our final meal has to be a tagine. This time, slow-baked lamb, served with rich caramelised onions, small grapes, almonds and cinnamon. It’s breezy this evening, so we move downstairs from the balcony restaurant and join the locals who sit enjoying their tea and cakes.
It’s time to leave, unfortunately.
Day Five – On which we take our leave
Just as dawn is breaking, I stand in the street with the Riad’s night porter, waiting for the car to take us to the airport.
I tell him that how, when we went to Cairo, we noticed the lack of tourists and yet Marrakech seems relatively prosperous and busy. He tells me that Marrakesh and Morroco, as a whole, is doing its best to make sure travellers and tourists are kept safe. Syria worries him as do most of the recent problems in the radicalised East.
‘And now there’s Donald Trump’ he says, and waves his hand from side to side, ‘Ay, yay, yay, yay, yay!’
It’s interesting that he puts Isis and Trump in the same conversation – from his point of view they might be opposite ends of a problem, but equally dangerous.
At Menara airport, which is glossy, spectacularly clean and reasonably well-organised, bags are x-rayed, boarding and embarkation cards checked even before you get into the terminal. They’re checked again at customs, at security and half-way between the two and then again, twice more at passport control.
‘You’re going to Liverpool?’
‘You live in Liverpool?’
‘No, in North Wales’
‘That no very far?
‘This your first visit to Morroco?’
‘You very welcome any time, sir. Please come back. I work in Arrivals. I look out for you, you come and see me on your next visit’
I ponder on the fact that I’m probably too old for him and whether I’d really take to being a kept plaything, lazing around all day on a sumptuous couch wearing something diaphanous and being fed baklava and other sweetmeats. Meanwhile, my other half, and the epicentre of my affections, is stuck with a less welcoming officer who is demanding all manner of information missing from the compulsory embarkation card.
And so, Marrakech falls away below as we take to the air. It is a wonderful city. It’s warm and welcoming. It’s safe and seductive. The people show genuine interest in you, both as a traveler and as a tourist, and share a laugh and a joke. The food is excellent, but recent changes in rules and regulations means it’s increasingly more difficult to buy alcohol except from higher-end restaurants and international hotels. Still, I’m sure my liver is grateful for the respite! Moroccan wine production flourishes and viticulture dates as far back as the Phoenicans. However, it’s there for the rest of the world or for Moroccans in the privacy of their own homes. We’re often stopped by rather scruffy individuals who whisper ‘You like beer and wine? You want buy?’…..dirty postcards and dodgy watches couldn’t be offered in a more seedy manner.
I may well be back. I’m told Rabat, the capital, is ancient and beautiful. Casablanca, although a commercial hub and very modern should be a stopping off point, and Fes has a name that, in itself, conjures up images of Eastern promise.
Marrakech is the perfect place to decide whether you want to be a tourist or a traveller. There is a difference and for each, the city offers a different experience. Trying to be the latter, you dig down below the surface and allow the city to envelop you. As a tourist, I think you’d keep on the beaten track and let the more commercial and sanitised aspects of the city impact on you – and you’d miss such a lot. Off the beaten track, it’s another city of contrasts. It’s a city in which people both live and work. Wandering the back lanes and alleyways you start to appreciate a different Marrakech; an open and honest city where people are genuinely warm and welcoming and want to stop to talk to you without any thought of making a few quick dirhams.
For now, as I contemplate home and the cold February weather, I’ll look forward to remembering warm sunny days, the plaintive wail of the muezzin’s adhan from the tower of a nearby mosque and the constant repetitive racket from ancient pipes and skin drums echoing late into the night.
Accommodation : Riad Bamileke : https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/341978