Today I look back to a trip Mrs P and I took just over four years ago to Marrakech, Morocco. It was a fabulous trip, with all the key ingredients. Warm sunshine on our faces, generous hospitality, culture, art and the beautiful, intricate architectural wonders that exist across the Islamic world. The destruction of large swathes of the Middle East is a tragedy that will negatively affect generations of the people that live there. And has deprived the world of many of its man made wonders forever. Continue reading
Let’s continue my brief tour of Marrakech, with a couple of excursions thrown in for good measure. But firstly, Marrakech or Marrakesh? I’d seen both spellings in abundance. I had to look up the answer, which turned out to be fairly obvious. Marrakech is the French spelling. The English spelling ends with ‘esh’, because that’s how it’s pronounced. With that dealt with, where shall we go first? How about to a mosque or two? The Ben Youssef Madrasa is a must see, with some of the best preserved and most detailed stone carving, tiling and design. The word Madrasa has come to have a pretty negative feel to it. It’s where British Muslims go to learn how to blow up buses and trains. According to the Daily Mail anyway. Some have done so, there’s no doubt. Most of the time though, a Madrasa is no different to a monastery.
Religious extremism is a problem, and one that the Islamic world suffers from as much as any. I’m not religious, but I like the concept of the five pillars of Islam as a basic foundation. Now, doesn’t it just depends on how you decide to interpret how they should be implemented? That doesn’t change according to religion. The Christian bible also demands certain ladies be stoned to death, you know. Marrakesh is just one corner of a very diverse Islamic world. It’s a tolerant and reasonably open culture and not the full story. But what I saw is, I reckon, similar to most cultures across all religions. Humans beings out to earn a dollar to keep themselves and their families housed, clothed and fed. Having said this, Islam has some catching up to do regarding social normalcy.
I spoke with a few Marrakechis about their religion. It is important to them. They didn’t particularly care if I bought into it. And they were decent people. No one was beheaded during my visit, and no females thrown in pits to have rocks thrown at them. That may happen in places around the world, but it’s simply not the whole picture. I can’t help but feel conflicted by Islamic prayer. Five times a day? It’s so OTT and unproductive. On the other hand, knowing how us humans have such short attention spans, and need constant reminding….
I enjoy a quip and a quote as much as the next person. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, is a personal favourite. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I’m not sure how many blogger/forum signatures contain that quote, but let’s just say it’d take a while to add them all up. It’s popularity doesn’t diminish it’s truth. And you don’t need to listen to a man, or woman, very long to know how far they’ve been. Or haven’t been, as the case may be.
None of this changes the fact that there are very significant issues that Islam needs to deal with. Nor does it change the fact that I’d prefer ton live in London or Mexico City to Riyadh or Cairo. It’s simply to say that the world is far more complex than our (often faulty) preconceived notions allow for. And that our own intolerance and ignorance is neither a solution nor a signpost to progress.
But let’s leave religious malcontent behind us, and seek out some tranquility. The Majorelle Gardens are a perfect respite from the fumes, the hustle and bustle and noise of the Medina. Once owned by Yves Saint Laurent, and still home to a chunk of his artwork, the gardens have a very French African feel to them. Lots of blue, green, yellow and terracotta. There’s also a bit of Mexico in the there too – a ton of cacti that are all carefully labelled with the country of origin.
These gardens are pricier than most to enter, at about 60 dirhams. But worth every penny. You might also want to spend a few dirhams on a taxi there, as it’s a fair trek. We did walk back into the city, but seeing as we had a hotel as far to the south of the Jemaa El Fna square as this is to the north, it was a few dirhams well spent.
As pleasant and green as the Marjorelle gardens are, you still might get the urge to move further away from the mayhem of Marrakech to really allow your lungs some recovery time. There’s a whole host of excursions you can take. Want to trek through the Sahara on a camel? Go to a coastal city for a day? Or perhaps just a trip through the snow capped Atlas mountains up a valley or two? We chose the last of the three options, hiring a guide in a 4×4 to Ourika Valley.
On the way we stopped at a Berber souk, then a Berber home where we enjoyed a cup of hot, sweet mint tea. Next we went to a spice garden, where they make the famous Argan oil and many other natural remedies from locally grown herbs and spices. With those out of the way, on we went through the mountains to a series of waterfalls. None of which are likely to be the most awesome waterfalls you’ll ever see. But they are pleasant and the scenery on the way there is magnificent.
When you get near the waterfalls, you’ll be provided with a new guide. He will, undoubtedly be a friend of the guide you’re already with. And he’ll want a frankly ridiculous 200 dirhams (£20ish) to show you the way. Let me give you a free tip. You really don’t need a guide. You’ll see a ton of restaurants either side of the river. Cross the river, and you’ll find the path. Worse case scenario, you’ll be approached by people offering their services, and you’ll have no trouble beating them down to 80 to 100 dirhams.
The rather sad thing about this part of the trip is the litter. Monumental amounts of it line the walk. You’d think that the locals might make the effort to clear up, but alas – they do not. On your way up you might also feel a bit thirsty. And upon returning to the car, you will almost certainly have a hunger going. There’s a huge range of dining options. My suggestion? None of them. Average food at ridiculous prices. Take a packed lunch and have a few bottles of water with you.
And so ends my quick virtual tour of Marrakech and it’s surrounds. We enjoyed our trip very much, although our hearts still lie in Budapest which remains the best city trip we’ve taken. By far. But one can’t keep going back to the same place again and again. Samuel Clemens wouldn’t approve, at all. Onwards to new adventures. Next trip on our calendar? It’s in just two weeks time.
Marrakech is a very do-able short break. In fact, such is the pollution from the scooters and cars that infest every little lane, your sinuses couldn’t probably withstand anything more than a short break. Ours was four nights. Just right. Let me show you around ‘our Marrakech’. First stop, the main square, Jemaa El Fna. It’s a hive of juice sellers, vendors, horse drawn carriages, traditional (one presumes) singers/musicians/dancers/acrobats and performers. And, sadly, those who try and squeeze a few tourist dollars our of their performing animals.
It’s possibly the only place in the world you can be approached by men asking you to touch their snake or spank their monkey with a genuine degree of innocence being involved. Okay, I made up the spanking bit. But I was offered some freshly vajazzled chicken one evening, when the food stalls starting serving up. I declined. It sounded dangerous. But I did eat at the open air food market, and if you choose the right place, it’ll be a tasty eat at decent prices.
Be aware that wherever you go, someone is likely to try and sell you something. And if you take a photo of it (or even point your lens in their vague direction), touch it, hold it or let it climb on you, or even listen for too long then you likely owe someone some money. That you didn’t want the product or service is, in their minds, utterly irrelevant. You need to be on your guard at all times. The chap who’s been talking drivel in your ear the last five minutes might actually be following you, not guiding you, but he’ll expect recompense at the destination.
And for the record, whilst I took one photo of a cobra in the square, I did so ever so discreetly, with a long lens. I’m not contributing cash to an industry which is based on the imprisonment of wild animals. I like snakes. They’re just turtles who lost their shells. Even cobras. They like me too. The cobra that bit my foot many years ago was decent enough to keep its venom to itself.
Let’s move on to a more general view of the city’s architecture and art. Islamic design has always fascinated me. It’s intricate, colourful, often symmetric to the extreme, unique and instantly identifiable. I tire of hearing morons drivel on about the wondrous superiority of the white man and the barbarism of Islam. This sort of cynical simplification says so much more about themselves than it does about the rest of the world. Islamic societies have contributed a lot to the modern world. When Newton spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants, he referred in part to a broad pair or two of Islamic shoulders.
There are a number of specific sites around the city where famous examples of design and architecture exist, and a plentiful supply of tiny museums offering up bite sized doses of the city’s Islamic past. Many of them are state owned and are dirt cheap to enter. But you might find quaint interiors behind any door you happen to pass, if you dare open it or peek through the cracks. There is, of course, a huge French influence in the city too, being a former colony of our European neighbours.
Let’s move away from religion and on to the souks. Marrakech is a great place to shop. Be prepared to barter, educate yourself as to what sort of value you should get and then set yourself free in the markets of the city. You’ll get lost in a labyrinth of leather, pots, pans, fabrics, carpets and spices. And much more. Expect the vendors opening quote to be double what he’ll accept. Or more than double. Hit him with a pitifully low counter. You can’t offer too little. Always start walking away. You’ll get a deal acceptable to both parties in the end. It just takes longer than in Wal Mart or Asda. And if you’re in a rush, it can be a pain. But such is life.
I wasn’t on much of a shopping trip. Mrs P, on the other hand, has returned with a plentiful supply of bartered for trinkets and trussles. I came back with just one item. A magical potion, the merits of which I will save for another day.
I managed to come back with nearly nine hundred photos in all. Most of which I’ve binned. But I still had nearly two hundred left to publish on Flickr. In a number of sets. For Marrakech, click here. Marrakesh Design, click here. Marrakech Souks are here.
Marrakech is a city of cats. Plagues of them. Few dogs and, I suspect, fewer mice or rats. It’s a city of mopeds and scooters. I differentiate because, whilst they’ve come to mean the same thing in the UK, they still have real mopeds here. With pedals. Marrakech is a city of dust and fumes. Much of it thanks to the scooters that zoom around literally everywhere – road and pavement are often the same thing. Marrakech is a city of spices and oils. Just as well, as the eucalyptus is the only thing that saves your sinuses from the dust and fumes.
Marrakech is a city of noise and mayhem that deafens, disorientates and tires you. Yet it keeps the city alive and invigorating and enthralling at the same time. It’s a city of mazes and labyrinths. The two are not the same, and the latter is easier to escape from. The streets might be narrow, but you can get a donkey and cart down everyone of them, as is proven even few minutes. Marrakech is a city of smells and aromas. The former are found near the horses and are foul. The latter come from steaming tagines and pots and pans. Fine dining is not on the menu in the Medina, but good food is. Sometimes. It’s hit and miss. Sadly, I have to report miss is the more frequent.
Marrakech is a city full of people, as any good city should be. Smiling friends are everywhere, but telling which ones are friends for rent is an art form. Generally speaking, assume they’re for rent and will want a few dirhams at the end. The girls are often mystically beautiful, the men usually unshaven. Wealth is rarely evident unless you leave old Marrakech for new Marrakech. Religion is very evident, but not troublesome. Unless you’ve been watching too much Fox News and travelling too little to know any better.
Marrakech is a city of salesmen peddling their wares or selling their dubious knowledge as guides. These people are all friends of the friends for rent, and they’ll smile, jostle, cajole and stalk every last coin out of the unsuspecting tourist. They’re not as bad as the Egyptians though. I cam prepared and lost little but my patience. Voltaire once looked at the ratio of soldiers and civilians, and declared Prussia not to be a country with an army, but an army with a country. Likewise, Marrakech is very much a tourist trap with a city.
Marrakech is an ancient city by any standards and an all consuming experience. That’s just the right word for it – you don’t go there to have a vacation but an experience. As the rest of North Africa descends into political and economical chaos, Morocco stands alone as a haven of sanity in the region, where travellers can go about their day in safety and where residents, by and large, can go about their lives with relative freedom. As such, Marrakech, Casablanca, Fes and other major tourist draws in Morocco stand to do very well in the foreseeable future as money rich Westerners look for an alternative to Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Sharm et al.
I have nearly a thousand photos to whittle away into a more manageable collection to publish on Flickr. And to accompany a story or two to tell here. For now, here’s a little slideshow, created on my phone, with photos and audio recordings made with my phone. You can get a closer look at these photos here.