2010
Nov 
14

Marrakech

Filed under: Morocco — Russell @ 11:22 am  

Travel via RyanAir

We flew from Rome to Marrakech on RyanAir.  The flight was very cheap but the cabin was chaotic.  You definitely want to pay the extra 4 Euros for priority boarding since there are no reserved seats.  The cabin crew are like teachers taking unruly kids on a field trip.  “Sir, please sit down.  Please don’t smoke.  Sir, you bag is too big to fit in the overhead compartment no matter how hard you push.”.  At RyanAir, the ticket is cheap (we paid 40 Euros each) but everything costs extra.  Checking a bag? Extra.  Getting on early to get a seat?  Extra.  Oxygen during the flight?  Thankfully included.

The Riad

We stayed at a riad which is a large private house with a courtyard.  Our host had arranged a private taxi so getting from the airport to our accommodations was very easy.  Arriving at the door, the Riad didn’t look promising, but like many things in Marrakesh, appearances are deceiving.  Life on the street is hot and chaotic.  The sun beats down and the air is hot.  Entering the Riad is like entering another world.  There are fountains, trees in the central courtyard and comfortable nooks to relax and have a drink.  Our room was strewn with rose petals and smelled of sweet fragrances.

Breakfast was served on the rooftop terrace. The sky was flawless without a single cloud.  After breakfast our host briefed us on how to handle beggars, merchants and taxi drivers.  She gave us a map, a compass and wished us luck.  This seemed strange since the walk to the central square is only a couple of miles.

We exited out of the Riad into the medina – the old walled city – and kept to the right of the narrow alleyway to avoid being run down by the ubiquitous motor scooters.  Fifteen minutes later we were lost.  After wandering for a while we found a gate and left the medina.  We walked to the new town which is more European in style.

Majorelle Garden

It was easier to navigate outside the old city and using the map we made our way to the Majorelle Garden which was donated to the city by Yves Saint-Laurent.  Even in the heat of the day, the garden is cool and calm.  In the center is a long narrow pool leading to a building.  The entire garden is shaded by palm trees and bamboo groves.  People walked quietly along the paths and some slept on the benches.

Beautiful Dining

We had several excellent dinners in Marrakech.  The food was good but the decor was spectacular.  We went to an Asian restaurant called Narwama.  The main space was once an open air courtyard now covered with a permanent fabric covering.  The walls, ceilings and columns were ornately carved.  In the center was a fountain that combined fire and water.  The other patrons were young and hip.  In fact on the way into the restaurant are pictures of the prince posing with the owner.

The Medina

On the map the medina looks small. Given that it is surrounded by a high stone wall, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find your way out by just walking in a straight line.  A great theory but there are no straight lines.  There is an old computer game that used the phrase, “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.  This pretty much sums up the medina.  Though not very big, the streets are narrow and winding, sometimes joining other streets, sometimes leading through covered passageways.  As you walk, it is easy to get disoriented but someone will usually come along offering to help.  What they want is money and they will sometimes redirect you to shops that pay them to deliver befuddled tourists.  If you ignore them, they will often follow you for a while insisting that the way you are going is closed.  While the streets often look like they might lead nowhere, we never hit a dead end.

The Square (Djemaa el Fna)

In the middle of the medina is the main square.  This is the largest square in the Arab world and a Unesco world heritage site.  This designation is not about the architecture, but about the ongoing circus of performers, vendors, musicians and food.  We first entered the square at night and the combination of smoke, drumming, lights and crowds reminded me of a post-apocalyptic scene from a science fiction movie.

The first night we watched some drummers for a while but left because someone with a tambourine (who didn’t seem to be playing) demanded we pay to watch.  That ended as so many of our encounters in the Medina with someone following us, begging, wheedling and finally cursing us when it was clear we weren’t handing out money.

At our riad we had breakfast every morning at the table next to a nice Irish couple.  The woman had taken a local cooking course and her instructor had said that many kids stop going to school when they realize how much money can be made through begging.  She also had a stone thrown at her for leaving a shop without purchasing a tablecloth she had been looking at.  This assumption that showing any interest constitutes a commitment to buy makes it difficult to casually browse  the shops.

Snake Charmer

During the day the square has less music and more animal performers.  There are lots of snake charmers and monkeys on leashes.  We got lured into watching a snake charmer but every time he played the <musical instrument> the cobra moved sideways towards us.  I got up to leave and he slung a snake around my neck to prevent me from leaving.  This quickly ended with me giving him 10 DH and walking away as he cursed me.  Lesson learned, don’t stop to admire the scenery.

Gelato on the Terrace

One way to get a view of the square is to eat at one of the terraces.  The view is still pretty good and you can enjoy some ice cream relatively unmolested.

Food (pick a number) 97!

Because the square is a historical site, there are strong restrictions on selling in the market.  Each legitimate business has a registration number prominently displayed.  You can identify the unregistered businesses – the owners pick up and run whenever the police cruise by. There are many outdoor eateries that appear to be temporary, but due to the strict licencing have actually been in business for years.  They aren’t allowed to change their menu so the result is a couple of dozen restaurants selling essentially the same food.  So how do they differentiate themselves?  By the come-ons.  Each restaurant has a bunch of young guys whose job it is to get you to sit down.  These barkers have refined their technique.  First, they quickly figure out which language you speak.  I was particularly impressed with the guy in booth number 81 who said his restaurant had 7.5 Michellin stars.  When we told him we were from Canada, he said “We are like Eatons!” and then corrected himself saying, “But they are gone, so we are like the Bay”.  We didn’t sit but he was good natured when we walked on.  At booth 97 they claimed 4 Michelin stars and said 97 will send you to heaven.  We walked around a bit more and finally settled on booth 97.  The food was delicious and cheap.

The Souk

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Souk
Inside the medina is the souk.  These markets sell everything from livestock, spices, artwork, clothing and of course carpets.  Here, the buildings are very close together here and many of the roads are roofed.  Most shops are tiny, only a few feet across, and completely filled with brightly coloured goods.  The attempts to get you into the shop are persistent.

Carpet buying

The most aggressively flogged products are the locally made carpets.  In fact there are stories of people being strong armed into buying carpets they don’t want.  We briefly entered the carpet souk but we had no intention of buying and the vendors are too pushy to allow casual browsing.  There are government sanctioned shops which in theory provide a set price and send a fairer shared of the profits to the craftsmen.  We went to one of these place to buy some clothing and were invited upstairs to see the carpets being made.  Even though we have no place to put a carpet we accepted.

Upstairs were three women gathered around a frame, handing weaving a white carpet.  After about 15 seconds our host invited us to tea.  This is the formal beginning of negotiations but we were warned that it is tremendously insulting to refuse.  After a short conversation the carpets started coming out.

Each carpet was laid out on the floor and our host described the region, the style and the artist.  After a dozen carpets had been stacked up, the selling began.  There was no mention of price and we were assured that fixed prices were far too expensive and it was better to make an offer.  The assistants would hold up a carpet and we were look and reject it.  Eventually, we got fed up and left.

Contrasts

Overall, Marrakech is worth a visit, but you have to be on your guard when walking the streets of the Medina.  Try to get off the street as often as you can to enjoy the fantastic private spaces that Marrakech offers.