Marrakech, Morocco 2007
Our trip began with the most amazing breakfast on the rooftop terrace of our riad. Birds and bees flying around and we were surrounded by pots of colourful bougainvillea and pink hibiscus flowers.
Our breakfast consisted of brown bread and traditional rghaif - Moroccan pancakes, mint tea, fresh strong coffee in silver pots and home-made fig or orange jam which the bees went bonkers over while tiny birds bounced around the table snapping at the bread.
The bees turned into clowns - they would perch on the edge of the jam pots and suck at the jam until drunk on sugar. Some would fall head first into the jam, flap around and then fly in zig zags, their legs stuck together.The mint tea was divine, despite loads of sugar, and a tradition in Morocco; you normally spend about half an hour drinking it and, according to custom, it should be poured from a great height without splashing your guests. I tried . .. and managed to cover myself and Clare in hot tea.
Marrakech is gorgeous - lots of pink and white-washed sandstone buildings. In fact the city has the same feel as Cairo - busy, dusty and worldy oldy, although it's not as manic and as frantic as Cairo.
Our riad, Mabrouka, is full of nooks and crannies and hidden staircases and beautiful wooden, carved furniture.The rooms huge with shutters and rajasthan windows, skylights and huge sandstone bathrooms with granite marble baths and showers.
The rooms all hug a central open courtyard which has sunken plunge pool and lounge area. The courtyard is the central focus of all riads and they are all built like this in Marrakech. Our riad was about £50 each a night which is fairly reasonable although you can live much much cheaper in youth hostels or two star riads right inside the central medina.
Giant Stork City
The city itself seems straight out of the pages of a great epic movie like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben Hur. Huge walls surround the medina (centre of the city) and perched high on top of the huge walls of the city are enormous, prehistoric-looking storks that have built their nests on the edges of walls, turrets - in fact anywhere they can get a grip.
Some nests are about five stories high in perfect symmetry while others are an architectural embarrassment - small and messy or completely collapsed down the side of the turret like a burst partially cooked egg.
Bald, male storks sit in the nests and stare out into space, waiting for a mate. We even stumbled across one sad looking baldie, who we assume was a lone male as he'd pulled together a few scraps of vegetation and his nest looked like a hurricane had blown through it. He was sitting in the middle of his 'nest' staring ahead with his little sad bald head probably waiting for a hot leggy female stork to land in his miserable mess. I felt so sorry for him as his sad little attempt at nest building was surrounded by five-story stork palaces on either side. Some were tightly packed with coloured plastic and I could have sworn I saw one nest with an M&S bag sticking out the side of it.
The storks might look pathetic in their nests, but when these creatures fly it's like straight out of the Prehistoric era . . . They have huge wing spans and swoop down from the clouds like Storkdactyls.
Snake charmers, monkeys, orange juice
The Djemaa-al Fna, the focal point of Marrakech, is completely bonkers and filled with snake charmers, acrobats, open-air food stalls, rows of fresh orange juice stalls, women creating henna works of art on tourists' hands, storytellers, musicians.
There are men wandering around with fully-clothed barbery macaques who will sit on you (the monkey that is, not the man) for a few dhm. I've never seen so many fresh orange juice stalls in one place but remembered seeing groves of trees as we flew into Marrakech so can only imagine that they were all orange trees.
You have to constantly say in your most polite French or Arabic - No Merci, or La Shukran, otherwise one glance, one slow step and they swoop down on you like the storks and next thing your hand is covered in henna, you've just been photographed with a very unhappy macaque and there's a snake squirming around your ankles.
But it's easy to see why Unesco has declared the square a world heritage site. It describe the square as a 'masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity'. In some areas of the square were huge circles of local men and women listening to storytellers, musicians or acrobats so it isn't just a charade for the tourists. Many come to seek potions and herbs to ail illnesses or just have a laugh listening to some storyteller who has arrived in the city.
At night, the square is so packed that you can barely move - steam rises from the food stalls which are all lit up and there are people shouting, singing, laughing - an incredible and overwhelming sight. It was also fun wandering around the medina during the day, exploring the gardens, being propositioned by every snake charmer, horse and cart owner in the vicinity.
We found a great restaurant overlooking the square with the best tagine in Marakeech. Clare had a prune, almond and beef one and I had chicken, lemon and olives . . with rice. The whole meal cost us about 100DMH - which is about £2.50! We also bought a huge bag of figs for £3 and a couple of woven bags from the souk for about £18. The Moroccans love to bargain and there is a real art to it which we learnt pretty quickly. Always keep smiling but never take the first price and NEVER lose your temper.
The Moroccans have an amazing sense of humour and are some of the most beautiful people I've ever met in my travels.
One night, while being jostled around inside the square, a couple of young guys with cheeky smiles started chasing us and shouting to us in English
"Oi, you scousers!" shouts the skinny one.
"I'm not English" I shout back.
"American? UNITED STATES of AMERICA? California baby??" he asks
"Nope, try New Zealand," I reply.
"A dingo killed my baby, a dingo killed my baby"!! shouts the skinny one in a very bad Australian accent
"no, no, that's Australian you fool" replies his mate, thumping him on the back
"Heeeey man you watch Grey's Anatomy? " the skinny one shouts again, this time in a very bad American accent
"No, That's American you fool!" shouts his frustrated companion.
A long silence. We start walking away.
"I know. I know - It's Kiwi, Kiwi Kiwi" says the skinny one, laughing and running around doing aeroplane circles around us.
Imagine being stuck in tiny, windy alleyways with open air shops on either side packed to the brim with colourful hats, bags, sandals, spices piled high into cone shapes, silver, wooden boxes, leather beanbags . . . and everywhere you look there are more windy streets and more stalls. And there are locals everywhere calling to you and trying to get you to buy things. . .welcome to the souks.
The alleys wind in and out of the medina and every now and then you catch a glimpse of the flowing robes of a fully-veiled moroccan woman as she steps in and out of doorways in even smaller alleys leading off the souks. These doorways are tiny and ornately carved and the walls are in the most amazing pastal or rich earthen colours.
There are small, scruffy but beautiful children everywhere and you're constantly having to dodge mopeds, bicycles, horses, carts and donkeys which fly past about 100 miles an hour . . . in fact all of the medina is like this.The smells of the herbs and incense they burn are full of cardomen, honey and sesame fragrances and are gorgeous to smell but almost over-whelming in such a tight market.
Oh La la
we'd heard about these fake beaches that had popped up around Marakech but never imagined they would be quite so beautiful or exotic as La Plage Rouge, just out of the city.
We hired a taxi (250DHM return) which drove us to this huge, sophisticated pool resort with white beds, white VIP canopy beds. For about £16 you can spend the day lying by the pool, reading and dozing.
You can have a huge buffet lunch cooked in front of you, with a bottle of wine for £20 and listen to the most amazing DJ playing fab tunes all day.As the music got harder, and the day wore on, groups of Moroccans would start dancing in the pool or at the bar until the whole place was rocking. It's a really exclusive resort filled with young tourists and beautiful, rich Moroccans and the best way to while away a lazy day after the franticness of the souks and the medina. We met a group of nine really lovely French guys who were in Morocco on a stag weekend and they invited us out that night.
Party in Marakech
We headed up to the Ville Nouvelle - which is like a whole other world away from the Medina with gated communities, manicured lawns, big houses, equally big cars and men in suits and dark glasses. We met the French guys at a very swanky bar/restaurant called Le Comptoir.
The atmosphere was lush and filled with very trendy Moroccans, lightly-clad prostitutes who looked half man/half woman, fantastic DJ and lots of wine and champagne which our gorgeous French companions kept buying. They were all renting a riad near the square and told us how an Italian guy with the group was kicked out of his riad for kissing one of the Moroccan female staff on the hand! That's such a mediterranean thing but I guess an entire riad filled with french men would be intimidating for a Moroccan girl... but come on, one kiss on the hand!!?
Anyway after le Comptoir, we finished the night off at a very 80s club called Paradis which was horrible but the company was so great and the champagne and vodka flowing so freely that we didn't really care! Crawled home in a cab at 4am.
Atlas Mountains with a hang over
Heading up into the highest mountains in North Africa with a thumping headache and vodka still pumping around your veins from the night before, is probably not wise . but we didn't really have our brains engaged that morning.
Our trusty taxi driver, Hicham, drove us out of Marakech and up into the mountains, past wee villages carved right into the hills, parades of donkeys, sheep and goats mountain-climbing on tiny steep paths which fell away into massive ravines, and locals having picnics in the shade. The countryside was quite harsh - lots of clay, stones, dry trees and not a lot of grass.
Despite our hang overs, Hicham cranked up the stereo so that we had a mixture of arabic and pop music blasting out of the windows and kept grinning his two brown teeth at us in the rear vision mirror, and singing at the top of his lungs - the whole while, narrowly dodging cars that were speeding the other way.
This happened a lot on tiny narrow roads above these terrifying ravines. . . I think the music was his way of distracting us from the near death experience we were going through. We arrived at the village of Toubkal, which is the centre of Mt Toubkal - the highest mountain in North Africa. It looked very much like what I imagined the Himalayas might look like - sharp, steep and patched with snow.
A young Berber boy from the nearby village of Ashen met us in the village and guided us up a grass hill covered in boulders and up to the Kasbah which used to be the summerhouse of the royal family. It's now been turned into accomodation for tourists and mountain hikers.
It looked like a monastry and had fantastic views from the terrace of the mountains and a distant waterfall, as well as rows of tiny tourists trekking their way either on foot or donkey, up the zigzag pats above us. Some were trekking for a day, others were loaded up with gear for a longer adventure deep into the mountains. I was quite happy to sit in the sun on the terrace with my mint tea and hang over and watch everyone disappearing around the corner like ants.
The Kasbah is quite hippyish, filled with small dorms, public toilets and lots of older people wandering around in nappy pants and long, grey hair. Not really my scene. But the fresh air, the jagged peaks, the villages and the flocks of black crows swirling above were amazing.
The Berber Village
Our guide, who spoke fluent English, took us down the backway, across a river and through his traditional Berber village. The Berbers look so different - their features are stronger, darker and nomadic and they seem much more primitive and poor.
Our guide showed us their traditional stone houses which had a room below for the animals - chickens, donkey, goat. The sheep were taken out to graze during the day. we saw lots of poor mules and horses carrying loads of gear or several people on their backs. I wanted to run around and free them all.
We passed over a disused river bed which had been the site of where 100 people were killed in flash flood in 1995. Our guide said it had rained in the mountains for days and a flash flood occurred, killing people from the cities who were swimming in the river. He said the Berbers knew the danger and I have to wonder why they didn't warn the Moroccans? He showed us the reminder of a smashed up car which had been swept downriver.
As we were talking, I noticed huge black ominious clouds gathering above the mountain peak ... it was time to leave.
I was quite shocked by the contrast of Marakeech with the Toubkal region. There was so much poverty and also it was so basic. From the lush life of La Plage Rouge to Toubkal in two days was a bit surreal.
It was interesting to hear the stories our guide told us. There are only 4000 people in the entire area split into several villages and they have learnt to live off the land. They grow barley, maize, cherry and walnut trees, fig trees and apple trees. They cut down trees for fuel and to heat their hammams (traditional saunas) and kill their livestock for food. In fact, we saw so many stalls selling fresh goat meat - the heads all bundled up together in case you wanted them for soup!
Back at Square one
We arrived back in Marakech for dinner and ended up at Cafe Gregorius which, admittedly, had great views, but was located right opposite the very loud prayer speakers so we got blasted by the prayers during the early meal. I actually loved the sound but noticed some tourists looking rather shocked and blocking their ears. The sunsets were amazing across the square. We then launched ourselves into the melee of crowds and stalls.
The Palace De Bajia
You can't leave Marakech without checking some of the palaces out. The Palais de Bajia has enclosed courtyards and gardens and gorgeous handpainted tiles and elaborate wooden ceilings. Everything is covered in mosaic including the floors, walls, fountains and all the doors are painted by hand in intricate patterns and rich colours.
The palace has a calm, relaxed feeling about it although parts of it are crumbling away and the locals are trying their best to restore it.The Palais de Badi, just around the corner, is even more incredible. It's a complete ruin, surrounded only by the huge walls but containing orange groves, sunken swimming pools the size of two Riads, underground chambers and loads of nesting storks. Definitely worth taking the camera and spending a few hours wandering around.
We spent the rest of the trip lying around the pool at La Plage Rouge, mint tea on the terrace and had vegetables, salad, chicken. fresh coriander and fresh orange juice in the stalls - the perfect ending to an amazing travel experience..
Labels: berber, marrakech, Middle East, Morocco, north africa