Marrakech, love at first sight
Stepping off the plane into a sultry Marrakech night my first experience of this magical city literally took my breath away. It was late November in England and it made a nice change to the cold and rain I had left behind at Gatwick three hours before. Although it was almost midnight it felt like mid summer to me.
I woke the next morning as dawn broke to the haunting sound of the call to prayer drifting from the minaret of the nearby Koutoubia Mosque, closely followed by the dawn chorus from thousands of tiny birds that roost each night in the bougainvillea of the Es Saadi Hotel gardens. I’m sure some people would want to shoot the birds and the wailing muezzin for waking them but I went back to sleep with a smile. Stay within the heart of the city and this will become a familiar sound, as Muslims are called to prayer five times a day, beginning at dawn and ending at dusk.
My first day in an Islamic country felt daunting. How should I dress? Should I cover my head? How safe would I be? Looking back it seems funny but at the time my fears were very real and I am sure many share them. Luckily I booked a City Tour through Complete Tours http://complete-tours.com/ to help me get my bearings on that first day. It was a wise move. My guide, Mohammed, reassured me that head covering was only necessary to keep the sun off. Moroccan women don’t all cover their heads, although some choose to, but they don’t show a lot of flesh on the street. Follow their example and you won’t attract unwanted attention, unless of course you want to be followed around by hoards of local men offering numerous camels to buy you, in which case wear short skirts and low cut tops.
He also warned me about the faux guides who pounce on naïve tourists. They’re harmless but the ‘small fee’ they want to ‘show you around the city’ will cost more than you think. Everywhere they take you is owned by their ‘brothers’ and ‘cousins’ who sell to you at inflated prices and later give the guide his cut. They’re not interested in showing you anything that doesn’t make them money so you will end up misinformed and missing some of the best sights. Book a guide through your travel agent or your hotel and you won’t regret it.
Strolling along the wide boulevards from Es Saadi to the Medina with the handsome Mohammed the French influence was unmistakable apart from pink walls everywhere I looked. He explained that all the buildings in Marrakech have to be pink because it stops the glare of the sun, I’m still not sure if he was joking or not. Perhaps that’s why they call it the red city.
Soon we came to the Medina and once inside it was plain we were in North Africa in a city that is a confusing mixture of the ancient and modern. Men in long, loose hooded djellaba straight from the middle ages jostle for position with boys in branded tracksuits weaving in and out on little motor scooters. Some women are completely covered others wear western dress. The overriding impression is of colourful chaos.
The myths and legends of Koutoubia Mosque – Marrakech
Our first stop was the Koutoubia Mosque. This famous landmark will help you find your way around as the magnificent minaret is the tallest in Marrakech and can been seen for miles. Just head towards it and sooner or later you will know where you are.
Mohammed told me that originally the four copper balls that top the minaret were made from pure gold. A mosque usually has just three balls but fable has it that the extra ball was made from the melted jewellery of the wife of Yacoub el Mansour as a penance for breaking her fast during Ramadan. Whatever she ate I hope she enjoyed it because it was an expensive meal. Mohammed joked that the wooden scaffold structure at the top of the tower is where they hang Moroccan wives who can’t cook. Actually it’s where a flag is flown to call the deaf to prayer.
The original mosque had to be demolished and rebuilt after they found it was not properly lined up with Mecca. A very costly mistake. I would hate to have been the architect.
Djemaa el Fna Marrakech during the day, snakes, stalls, spices and sun
Next we came to Djemma El Fna (pronounced Gemmaa elf nuh), the square famous for providing the ‘greatest free show on earth.’ According to Mohammed the name means Place of the Dead and is so called because they used to carry out public executions there in the days when these things were the norm in Morocco.
As it was still early morning things were, in Mohammed’s words, quite quiet, although to me it seemed like a riot of colours smells and sounds filled with stalls setting up to sell orange juice, bright spices, clothes, in fact everything you could imagine, plus the snake charmers and jugglers warming up. I passed by with open mouth and camera snapping until we came to the arched passageway leading to the labyrinth of alleys that make up the souks.
Mohammed said I had to come back in the evening when things really warmed up, but to watch out for the henna tattooists. These women grab your hand and before you know it you have a henna tatoo whether you want one or not and they then hassle you to pay them. I made a note to keep my hands in my pockets.
Tips for coping with a morning in the maze of the famous Marrakech Souks
Stepping out of the bright sun into the relative darkness of the covered souks with beams of sunlight slanting through the slats overhead was disorientating at first. Mohammed explained that the morning was the best time to visit, before it got too crowded. Without him I’m sure I’d still be in there now trying to find my way out. To those who know them there is some logic to their layout, with different areas for different things, although to the uninitiated it seems like a mad jumble of lanterns, colourful textiles, leather, wood, wrought iron, silver and copper jewellery, spices and people, even in the quiet of the morning. Every so often we had to step aside to avoid being run down by hand carts piled high with goods and produce negotiating the narrow alleys.
Here, away from the luxury of my hotel it was clear that Morocco is not a wealthy country. Mingling with the traders were sights to tug at the heart, a blind beggar feeling his way among the crowd, little children, barefoot and holding out their hands for money, women with huge bundles or tiny babies tied to their backs with brightly coloured scarves. There were signs of poverty and grime at every turn and it would be easy to judge or feel guilty.
Tempting as it may be, it isn’t a good idea to put your Dirhams into the outstretched hands. Begging is almost a trade and, if you do, you will have a gaggle of beggars following you wherever you go. Morocco does have a welfare system, of a sort, and a benevolent king and money from tourism helps to bolster this. Yes, I had to turn my eyes from the dark dirty corners but this is a different world. The industrious prosper and there is a real sense of community with close-knit families looking after the less fortunate. This is a happy place, with smiles and jokes on every corner, a place I have fallen in love with warts and all.
Mohammed guided me through each area chatting all the while to people he knew. He explained how to barter and get a good price. Always have a price in mind when you start, the shopkeeper will usually start at about double or two thirds above what he wants so start very low and work up to your price. Enjoy yourself, smile, have a joke with them and don’t take it all too seriously. If you don’t get the price you want walk away, you’ll often be pursued with cries of ‘best price’ and get the bargain you want, if not you may have more luck at another shop.
The area devoted to workshops is mind-boggling. You can watch leather workers making babouche slippers, blacksmiths hammering old pieces of metal into beautiful chairs and tables and carpenters working makeshift lathes with their feet. Everywhere there are children working along side the adults learning trades. I was left with the impression that the western world had a lot to learn about recycling as I watched an old coke can being turned into a beautifully ornate handbag mirror. Nothing is wasted and a use is found for things we would just throw in the bin.
Allow plenty of time to explore the souks and wear comfortable shoes. You will almost certainly walk for miles in the maze of little streets. Apart from the risk of getting lost, which is easily avoided if you don’t stray too far from the main streets, your only problem will be getting carried away and buying more than you can fit in your suitcase.
My ‘golden’ hair did attract some attention but the offers of ‘one hundred camels’ to buy me were all in jest. Having said that, on a later trip Commando seemed very interested in how much a camel was actually worth! Many Moroccans may not be able to read and write but almost all speak several languages and once they know you are English you will hear calls of ‘fish and chips’ and ‘I give you good price, Asda price.’ This makes the shopping experience much more fun than your local high street.
A welcome break and a massage in the Apothecary in Marrakech
When I was all loaded down with my bargains (if you don’t want to look like a bin man it is a good idea to take your own shopping bag as absolutely everything gets put into black bin bags) and wilting from the heat, Mohammed led me to the Apothecary where he said I could take the weight off my tired feet. A little shop tucked away in one of the alleys, the walls were stacked to the ceiling with jars filled with every imaginable herb, perfume and medicine, treatments for every aliment you could think of including a few I’d never even heard of. Gratefully I sat down and the white-coated Apothecary brought us glasses of sickly sweet mint tea.
I volunteered to be the first to sample a neck massage with Argan oil. This magical oil comes from the kernels of a tree only grown in Morocco. Believe it or not goats love it so much they climb high in the branches where they eat the leaves. It’s not every day you see a goat perched in a tree but in Morocco anything is possible. Apparently, the rarest and most expensive oil in the world, it has anti-aging properties as well as a million and one medicinal uses. The trick is to rub the oil on your hands then rub them together until it gives off heat, a bit like the face packs you can buy that heat up when you mix them with water. It was cretainly a blissful experience and needless to say I bought a small bottle.
I also bought some little cubes of amber and musk perfume. They smell so lovely I couldn’t resist. You can rub them on your skin as a perfume or put them in little muslin bags to scent your clothes, your house or your car. If you go in a taxi in Morocco they hang like small furry dice from the mirror or sit on the dashboard. They last for years and to this day I have them amongst my clothes. Every time I open a drawer I’m transported back to Morocco.