Marrakech Travel Blog

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The 19th of March started at 6.00am with my morning yoga, shower and then a quick drive to the airport for my 9.30 flight to Marrakesh (Marrakech). The ‘wonderful’ thing about flying with cheap airlines like Ryanair is that you never know when they are going to sting you! I have travelled the world with my trusty (supposedly) standard size carry-on bag and never had a problem. As I was at the final step, about to board the plane, there was a bag check and the Ryanair ladies decided that as my handle protruded 1cm above the height limit I would need to ‘check’ my bag. What this actually meant was that I had to fork out 35€ (about $60 Aus) to then carry my bag onto the plane and stow it in the overhead locker just like everyone else. Needless to say, ‘not happy, Jan’ (only the Aussies will get that one). The irony in this is that the flight cost less than 35€ one-way!

But once in the air, all petty niggles slipped away and my adventure began. I met a lovely German girl standing in the customs queue in Marrakech and we agreed to catch up via mobile later that day. Neither of us knew at that point that our phones (Yoigo in Spain) would not function in Morocco! We took the Airport bus to the centre and alighted just outside the Medina walls. Our respective ‘hotels’ (riads) were in the same district.

I was strangely transported back to my travelling days in India in the 90’s. Morocco has the same dusty feel and the bombardment of sound, sight and smell is the identical intensity. My first mission was to make my way across the bus station markets and enter through the thick crusty walls of the Medina. It is inside these walls that I would spend most of the next three days. There is just so much to experience in the old town.

My riad was close by and fortunately on a ‘main’ road therefore comparatively easy to find. There are many others hidden away in the labyrinth of tiny lanes and tunnels that make up most of the Medina.
I was glad to have selected one requiring minimal assistance to locate but at first glance I thought I had made a huge mistake booking on the internet. From the outside my riad looked like a dingy restaurant but once inside, I was led through a dark winding entrance. Suddenly the place opened up into a glorious central courtyard, an imposing 4-storeys high. The roof, although semi-transparent, had been closed over to protect from rain but gaps allowed the occasional bird to enter and flit around the open space, alighting at will. Breakfast of flat bread and honey was clearly an enticement to stay!

My first impressions reminded me of an old 70’s movie set; a bit tired and faded but the former grandeur was clearly evident. An intricately carved fountain marked the centre of the patio and thick columns supported the walls and formed the typical archways you would expect in an exotic tale. Colours have been selected from a ‘Arabian Nights’ palette: cream, mint, turquoise, rust, amber, azul, and the rich organic red of the carpets. These were now faded and worn, patch-worked to cover the entire floor.

The surrounding balconies were open to the patio via stained glass windows, all shielded by intricately patterned ironwork. I would sometimes glimpse a shadowy robed figure behind the windows. Every so often the ‘woman’ would open a window to peep below, presumably eavesdropping on the multi-cultural guests drifting in and out.

My room was basic but sufficient for my stay. I could not say it was clean (the thick layer of dust on the high open window was testament to this) but the bed was comfy and the bathroom was cleaner than many I have seen around the world. It would do!

I headed out in search of the main square called Djemaa el Fna (or ‘The Place’ to foreigners) thinking that the simple instructions from my riad hosts would suffice. Not more than 100 metres away, I realized that ‘straight ahead and turn right’ would only get me literally 100 metres. The streets became an ant farm of activity. Everyone on a specific purpose and pace. There were old men riding on ridiculously small carts behind ridiculously small donkeys. The poor animals seemed unkempt and strained. The donkeys too!

Most women in Marrakech ventured outside wearing a jelaba and foulard. In the areas further away from The Place I saw many wearing a chadra also (a jelaba is an ankle-length, long-sleeved, loosely-fitting gown. A foulard is a scarf worn over the hair and fastened under the chin. A chadra is a veil which covers most of the face. When a foulard and chadra are worn together, only the woman's eyes are visible). Some of the younger school girls wore jeans and long sleeved tops. The typical footwear is the babouche, a soft slipper like shoe, open at the heel or very unattractive black rubber shoes.

So I began asking people for directions, being careful to only ask women or people in stores. If you ask a man or child on the street, they will lead you to where you want to go and then expect to be paid for it. I was forewarned and told that if you ask a shopkeeper it is safer, as they are unable to leave their stall. This seemed to work for a while but I had entered the maze of the souks and the narrow twisty-turny laneways, sometimes open and sometimes covered overhead, did not seem to be heading anywhere in particular.

I tried to remember my way so that the return journey would be hassle free. Unfortunately the repetition of mosques, handbag shops and hammans is just a cruel Musselman joke for ‘navigation-challenged’ foreigners. After a while every mosque looked the same and the shops repeated themselves. At last I noticed a large chalk arrow on a wall with the letters ‘The Place’ scrawled underneath. Pay dirt!

Once I emerged into the enormous central plaza, I could breathe a little easier. It was agreeably hot and sunny, about 30C so I ordered a glass of freshly squeezed orange from one of the many open-air vendors all gesticulating at me from their colourful neatly-stacked carts. At 30c, the long cool drinks are delicious and cheap.

I continued my investigation of The Place and by following the sounds of drums and flutes I found the snake charmers, then the monkeys-on-chains-doing-tricks, then the story and fortune tellers with pet falcons and chameleons, and finally the ladies applying intricate henna patterns to white-skinned foreigners. It was an assault to my sleepy senses. The Place is supposed to come alive in the early evening as smoky barbeque food stalls take over the entire central area. It was only 4.00pm and I was already loving the atmosphere.

I had not taken much notice of the souks on the way to The Place, only to note that it is a shopping paradise. The babouche shops are so colourful with pretty pastel and jewell leather pairs lining tiered racks from floor to ceiling. They look like giant shiny sweets from Willie Wonker’s and for a shoe-aholic like me are a major temptation. The choice is numbing and I had to restrain myself from impulse buying. I decided then and there to make the first day a reconnaissance mission and just relax, enjoying this exciting colourful culture.

So I followed my tour of The Place with a trip into the labyrinthine depths of the big souk. It is loosely divided into areas specialising (“ “ meaning loosely) in specific goods. I passed the woodworkers making delicate picture frames and carved tea tables – the sweet smell of sandalwood mugging my nostrils. The neatly placed assorted tools hanging from the restricted wall space reminded me of my fathers garage in NZ. Everything has a place. . .
Next was the ceramic section, stacks upon stacks, colours from the rainbow and dangerously piled up to entice the buyers, both local and foreign. Tagines and bowls in every colour and size leaned out to tempt me but I continued on. Jewellery, musical instruments, metal and glass lights, tea shops selling sheesha pipes and tea glasses, carpets, cushions, scarves, jelabas and wooden toys followed. In every section there were the babouche shops, each one strategically placed so that not one tourist would leave Marrakech without a pair.

Finally the leather souk and row after row of handbags, belts, poufs, and of course more babouches. Most of the bags and belts were of inferior quality and very old designs. It seemed not to deter the hoards of shoppers from bargaining ruthlessly for a better price.

So now it is time to explain how I managed to navigate this torturous terrain. Every few paces I would be either hear the repetitious ‘bonjour madame’ or ‘where you from’. If this did not entice me to step in then the ‘assault’ technique was used whereby a young man would sidle up next to me, smile and (placing his hand on my shoulder) try to steer me towards his shop while saying something like ‘ you no buy, just look’. After an hour or so I was already ‘over’ it and started to come up with avoidance techniques. By the end of the 3 days, I can unreservedly say that the following do NOT work in Marrakech:
1. ignoring all comments and advances
2. politely saying ‘don’t touch me please’
3. less politely saying ‘don’t touch me!’
4. explaining that I am ‘just looking’
5. pretending to speak a strange foreign language
6. saying ‘I can make up my own mind whether I want to look in your shop or not’
7. using logic: ‘how would you feel if a foreigner touched your sister like that ?’
8. walking faster
9. even less politely saying ‘don’t bloody touch me’

For me, personally, it was the physical touching that I found to be an assault on my personal space. So, although I never really felt in danger, it was just a general nuisance being hounded constantly and treated with little respect. I have to add that although I dressed respectfully, I saw many travelers who did little to further the cause. Some even wore shorts (very short!), singlet tops and thongs; all three are not considered appropriate apparel for women in Morocco.

I emerged to the spice market, an open air plaza surrounded by an array of shops selling all manner of perfumes, oils, soaps, scrubs for the hammams, incense, spices, dried fruits, dried animal skins and ‘medicines’. These medicines included live leeches, chameleons and scorpions for use in white magic.

One young boy was pleasant enough and I decided to ‘buy’ his patter and learn more about the typical Moroccan beauty products, without obligation to buy. He proved to be a man of his word and I did indeed learn a lot.

There is a black sticky product sold everywhere and I had wondered what it was, considering it looked like gelatinized sump oil! I found out from my new friend, that this is the black soap used in the hammams (public bath houses) and made from olive resin. It is bought fresh and regularly and carried in a plastic bag along with a wad of cotton. The other staple every Moroccan has in their bathing kit is a loofah mitt (kiis) for an all-over body scrub.

My late lunch was not something I actually planned on. While browsing a row of tiny shish-kebab stalls (fish and various meats) one kindly old man gestured me ‘inside’ to squeeze in front of a miniature counter while he prepared smoky hot kebabs for me and a fresh round of flat bread. I took advantage of a small sink to wash my hands and followed the local custom of eating with my right hand only, slightly tricky when you have to dislodge a cube of meat from a skewer! The technique mastered, I finished my meal like a caged canary while 20 or so males looked on curiously. Clearly, women either rarely or never eat in public. In fact, I seldom saw local women in the souks during the daytime.

And so, I continued to wind my way through the maze, eventually emerging back out into the daylight of The Place. From here I thought I should head back to my riad before nightfall. Although I freely admit to having little or no internal compass, I do pride myself on the prudence to take stock of landmarks. Therefore I was ‘proud as punch’ to make my way almost entirely to the riad when I became lost. Only one wrong turn and I suddenly found myself in the maze of tiny ‘no exit’ laneways in the bowels of the medina.

Small children huddled in doorways, women clad in black jelabas and chadras hurried past and elderly men watched me curiously. After 10 minutes I was hopelessly lost and set about asking directions again. My foolproof plan worked to a point but after a while I had inherited of the company two small boys who attempted to lead me out of the abyss.

Unfortunately they had less clue than I did and it was still necessary for me to continue to ask my way. After what seemed like hours (merely ten minutes I think) I emerged onto a ‘main’ road again and could obtain some sensible directions. The boys continued to follow me although my insistence at not needing them went unheeded. Finally at my door their hands were thrust in front of my bag and big brown watery eyes pleaded for dirhams. I gave in and handed them each some coins at which they tore off down the street at lightning speed. Probably to the nearest sweet shop.

Once safely back in my riad, I rested a while and headed up to the terrace to take in the view at dusk. Here I met a German man and his teenage son. The son offered to take me back to The Place and show me the way so I would not get lost again. I humoured him and off we set. By the time we reached the centre again, all the night stalls were set up and the blinding fluorescent lighting and BBQ smoke became another sensory assault, not to mention the appearance of child-like ‘games’ being played by all members of the family. There was skittles, super-mini golf (one hole in a straight line) and a strange ‘fishing’ game where you have to trap a drink bottle inside a ring attached to the end of a fishing line. Very curious and comedic to see elderly ladies trying to land a coke bottle with a washer on the end of a fishing line!

We settled on dinner at an open-air café (full of tourists and not my scene at all) in the centre of the market place after being spruiked by all! I decided to play it safe with vegetable soup – mildly spicy and I think tempered to tourist tastes. By 10pm, I was ready to head back – this time without adventure. An early night, water bottle next to the bed and hopes of a peaceful sleep.

Woops! Spoke too soon. At about 2.00am I awoke feeling queasy and dizzy. No sooner had I sat up when I realized my fate for the rest of the evening. You guessed it! Food poisoning. Every thirty minutes I was up to my tiny bathroom again, so thankful to have had the foresight to buy a large bottle of water. I’m not sure if it was the orange juice, kebabs, soup or non-of-the-above but then and there I decided on a simple diet of yoghurt and fruit for the remainder of my stay.

Good fortune (and my iron-clad stomach) smiled on me and the next day I only suffered mild stomach cramps. I headed out to the streets after a sweet mint tea for breakfast. Once I had found and eaten some yoghurt, I meandered the back streets until I was in the souks again. Here I noticed the difference between the ‘middlemen’ stalls and the ‘sole trader’ stalls. These ones were where the stall-holder was actually making the articles in front of you . I decided that I would try to buy from these people rather than the middlemen.

Although I had resisted the babouches on day one, I could not resist a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop where a young man was diligently making kid soft leather shoes. He had a small selection in his window but none would fit Cinderella’s huge feet. Therefore he offered to make me some in the colour of my choice. I was thrilled to oblige him. From a rainbow array of leathers, I selected a wonderful soft piece of beige leather (for slippers) and another in green for some simple sandals.

During the next day and a half, I often popped in to say hi and check on his progress. He always offered me a seat and had a big smile waiting for me as we communicated in a mixture of sign language and my bad ‘school French’. There was no hard sell and no desire to charge me more than standard price. Unfortunately the slippers ended up too big and I had to leave them behind in the window. The sandals were beautifully made and I will treasure them and remember this kind hard working young man who made me want to return to Marrakesh, if only to say ‘hi’ again.

Sunday arrived and it was time to explore the other side of the medina and catch up on some photography. The opportunities were endless but I was careful not to be too obvious when selecting subjects. The people were just going about their daily lives and clearly did not want to feel like monkeys on display. I really enjoy wandering the local markets and was overjoyed to be away form the touristy souks and out with the people.

I loved the food markets, the poultry shops with cages full of live animals in the rear. You select your bird by weight and it is prepared for you on the spot. Similarly with other small animals (I will not go into detail here but leave your vivid imagination some space to maneuver on its own!).

The strawberry and orange sellers were as colourful as their produce and did a roaring trade. Fish was laid out on sacks in the sun or sold from small stalls. There were dried fruit barrows containing all the hot-earth hues of sultanas, dates, figs and nuts. Coloured dyes for wool, silk and leather were piled in cone-like mounds and glowed in the hot sun. Similarly, earth-toned spices beckoned in colourful plastic bowls and buckets – all displayed with care and love.

Occasionally in the long laneways you can see a pair of men standing 50 metres apart and twisting silk thread to make braid. Everyone seems to have a part to play in the street theatre of Marrakesh. Here I was not bothered at all and simply wandered at will, taking in the pleasures of a culture new to me.

On this, my last day in Marrakech, I decided late in the day to experience a wash in a public hammam and entered a ladies one. I did not have time to purchase my own washing kit so decided to wing it and see what happened. Once inside, I met a young woman who spoke English and she offered me the last of her shampoo, another lady gave me the end of her black soap for washing and the lady manning the desk gave me a scrubbing mitt.

After paying the entry price of 20 dirhams, I stripped down and was led through two washrooms to the furthest one; like an underground cavern- hot, steamy and with dim lighting. The floor was very hot, seemingly heated from below by some sort of furnace. There was an assortment of young and old women, girls and contented children enjoying being washed by their mothers.

One of the ladies helped me find a spot to sit and a small wooden shelf to sit on. I queued up with my buckets, waiting to fill them with water of varying temperatures from the constantly flowing taps.

No sooner had I settled myself back down and another woman appeared in black knickers (employee, I believe) and proceeded to lay me down on the steaming floor scrubbing me with a hand mitt and the sticky black soap. It was glorious and I felt very comfortable with my Muslim sisters. Although there was a distinct language barrier, the language of smiles and nods prevailed.

The front half completed, she flipped me to lie face down but the heat was a little unbearable and I had images of strategic scorch marks on certain parts of my anatomy . . .
Nevertheless, I went with the flow and shortly she was sitting me up and washing my hair for me. This was a little unexpected and by now I started to feel as though I should really be taking over myself. After dowsing me with an entire huge bucket of lusciously warm water, she departed with a smile and I made my way to change.

I found a quiet space at the back of the dim room but could hear chatter and raised voices with the lady in charge and the woman who attended to me. Clearly there was a disagreement over something and I suspected it was money.
Fully expecting to be accosted with an outcome requiring dipping into my wallet, I dressed quickly and made my way to the plump scowling attendant. She gestured for money ‘argent’ and I quizzically enquired ‘how much’. One of the young girls called out ‘fifty dirhams’ so I handed over the equivalent to $8 and still felt like I had had a wonderful experience and would repeat it on a return visit. Next time I will do a little shopping beforehand and have my bathing kit at the ready!

On the way back to the riad I picked up my sandals and bid goodbye to y little shoe maker, stopped for a last delicious coffee, bought my last gift, spent the remaining 5 dirham coin on dates and dropped coins into the old worn hands of a beggar.

Hmmmmmm my daring solo assault on Marrakesh was over. A simple hassle-free bus ride to the airport in the morning and 80 minutes later I was back in Sevilla.

I’ll be back!
mazuin says:
This is a nice experience to be shared!
Posted on: Jul 06, 2011
travelfan1963 says:
This blog is very helpful.
Posted on: Jul 24, 2010
Eric says:
Wow, reminds me of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but on steroids. We had people follow us for 10-15 minutes trying to get us into their stores. Can't imagine what it would be like if we were getting constantly touched, though, that definitely seems like an invasion of space! Sounds like you handled it pretty well.
Posted on: Mar 27, 2010
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