There is a special magic to be found in the Arabic world. It’s in the architecture, the sounds, the smells, the language and the people. It is other wordly. There is a sense of a history more ancient than elsewhere. For the most part I guess that this is simply a matter of fact. I love hearing the call to prayer. I love listening to conversations on the street, despite not understanding a word. I love the hospitality that is shown by almost everyone you meet. I pity those who have allowed themselves to be convinced that the Arabic world is a dangerous place inhabited by animals. They’re missing out.
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
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.
Mrs P and I are trying to make the very most of what time we have left in the UK. On Sunday we are off to Bath to visit what is, I am assured, one of the most beautiful cities on earth. The following week we are off to Bratislava in Slovakia for a three nighter. Seeing as Bratislava and Vienna, in Austria, are apparently the two closest capital cities in the world, we’ll do a day trip there. The train ride between the two is less than an hour.
We have plans for another brief Euroculture getaway in January too, with Krakow in Poland the obvious choice. With a day trip to Auschwitz. Millions of people every year take a day trip to the former concentration camp. Millions of people half a century also went on a day trip. One way. Possibly they were the lucky ones, who didn’t have to linger there too long. It’ll be a better experience for us, I’m sure. An educational, perhaps spiritual experience, rather than a pleasure, though.
But then, once we are unemployed at the end of January, we’ll have a few days spare before we fly to Mexico. What to do? Mrs P and I both have ideas. Very contrasting ideas. One option is a skiing holiday. Neither of us have ever been skiing, but it’s one of those things that we feel everyone should do just once. It’s unlikely that we’d do it in Mexico, although I have heard of people skiing down Orizaba and Ixtacihuatl.
I’ve been to the latter, and I’m not convinced it’s worth the effort. There wasn’t much snow to be found on most of the slopes, as the photo above from my last trip shows. I reckon that if we are to try skiing, we’d be better of hitting the Alps in Europe. We might yet visit Snowtrex and book ourselves that trip. It’s looks fun, and the clean mountain air wouldn’t be a bad thing. But then, if we did book a skiing holiday, let’s hope the Alps have a little more snow than last year. Not that we can afford to stop at Klosters and rub shoulders with Prince Charles and his entourage, more’s the pity!
Option two? Something completely different from option one. A trip to Marrakesh in Morocco. Sun, sand and more sun and sand. Which is no bad thing. Plus the delights of one of the finest cities in North Africa. Plenty of things to see and do, and an awful lot of history and culture to explore. I have been to North Africa before, but the other end of the Sahara. I went to Cairo in 2000 – my first trip outside of Europe. It was a fabulous experience. And if I could afford it, then what we’d actually be doing is going for a cruise down the River Nile. Those cruises aren’t as cheap as they used to be though, which I find a little odd given the situation the country finds itself in today.
So what to do? Snowy slopes of the Alps? Sandy dunes of the Sahara? We can’t decide. Perhaps we should put it to a vote. Care to guess which of the two is my choice and which is the preferred option of Mrs P?