Marrakech

Tibby and I spent five days in Marrakech from Wednesday 16th June 2010. This was our second trip and was just as exciting as the first.

The trip was organised by Kuoni. We flew with Air Maroc and stayed at Angsana Riad Lydines.

Wednesday 16th June

After an easy flight our taxi dropped us off at about 17h30 next to the Saadian Tombs on the Rue de la Kasbah. We were greeted by Abdul, the hotel manager, who led us 400m through the Kasbah. We passed through a covered market area with several butchers displaying their unrefrigerated meat including hoofs and intestines on their street side counters. There were also stalls selling spices, olives, vegetables, water melons, household items and clothes as well cobblers at work. The stalls are only 1.5m wide. We turned off the main way into a side street with women in full burqa as well as others in more relaxed wear. We passed a very local mosque and turned into a small square. Little boys were replaying the World Cup Football games in the intense heat.

We entered our riad and found a different quiet relaxed world. Five rooms on each of the ground and first floors surrounded a 20m x 6m courtyard open to the sky. A 7m pool formed the focus of the courtyard with stone benches, chairs and a table to relax at. There are seven bedrooms in the riad. Ours is on the first floor overlooking the courtyard. It is 4m high and has four high arches over the bed. The one window opens on to the courtyard and the lighting is poor. The room is air conditioned and lovely and cool after the continual heat outside. There is a terrace on the roof with sun loungers and other seating under cover. The view from there is of endless interesting roofs. Google defines a riad (رياض) as a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, “ryad”.

Once we had settled in the riad’s security guard walked us for fifteen minutes through the Kasbah to the restaurant that we had selected from our guidebook, Le Tanjia. This is a large restaurant on three floors catering only to tourists. We sat on the roof terrace with views across the city and down to the local square. We ordered the special taster menu. The starters were twelve small bowls of vegetables including aubergines, carrots, cucumber, onions, tomato, potato and cauliflower. These were tasty and ensured that we got our five that day. The main course was six small bowls including couscous, fish, chicken, beef and two lamb dishes. This was an exciting mix of tastes. Desert was orange slices and small pastries. The wine was a local Medallion Cabernet which was disappointing. Two nubile belly dancers, with amazing stomach muscles, were not disappointing! We amazed ourselves by finding our way back through the Kasbah at about 10.30. Contrary to my expectations the streets were still full of life. A good first day.

Thursday 17th June

We walked for twenty minutes north to the medina past auto repair shops and horse drawn carts waiting to transport goods. We risked life and limb crossing a major street and then dived into the hustle and bustle of the souks. Our senses were confused by the smells, colours, sounds and the pressure of crowds. There were clothes, textiles, carpets, leather goods, jewellery, baskets, ceramics, lamps, metal ware, spices, olives, nuts, dried fruit, melons and much, much more. We were called to, invited and had our way blocked by vendors wanting our custom. We bought a bedspread and were further seduced by a shawl; and paid about half the price we were first quoted. The passages got narrow. They headed in unexpected directions. They took us past workshops of metal bashing and leather workers. We showed an interest in some ceramics and then back pedalled. With relief we stumbled across a cafe in the souk and gathered strength to continue. And continue we did. Lots more fun. We bought a mirror, bowl and leather belt that we hadn’t realized that we needed. We also bought some dubious looking saffron for the cooking of our daughter, Juls. And eventually we emerged back on the main square, Jemaa El Fna, and bought orange juice, squeezed in front of us, from one of the many vendors. We headed back to the riad for an icy cold swim in a pool that sees little sun and relaxed through the heat of the afternoon.

Dinner was at Le Foundouk to the west of the souks. Our taxi dropped us and a man asked us if we were going to the restaurant. He told us to follow him, which we did, through narrow alleys. Just as we were questioning whether we were being silly we arrived. This was another large three storied building where we sat on the rooftop terrace on a lovely evening. Tibby did not have great success where her cheese spring roll starters were dominated by grated carrot and her chicken tagine was not as tasty as last night. I was more successful with tasty foie gras and a lamb tagine with prunes and nuts. It is a joy to see so much lamb. It is my favourite meat and I missed it in Israel.

Friday 18th June

For the second day running an impressive breakfast in the courtyard of bread, pastries and a choice of eggs, omelettes or fruit was spoilt by an invasion of bees. I don’t mean five bees. I mean thirty dead in the jam and masses more buzzing around! Interestingly there is no sign of bees during the day, just at breakfast. I have now realized that the Angsana Hotel Group, of which our hotel is a member, is quite a substantial group with six other riads in Marrakech, hotels in The Maldives, Indonesia, Australia, Laos, Sri Lanka and India as well as being part of the Banyan Group. The problem in such a group of having riads, like ours, with only seven rooms, is that the local management is not motivated to solve a problem like bees at breakfast.

We joined five tourists from other hotels in an excursion in two 4×4’s towards the High Atlas. Our guide explained that the 36 million population was comprised of 85% Berbers and 15% Arabs who had lived peacefully for centuries. The Berbers speak their own language with different dialects between those of the north, centre and south of the country. The common language in the country is Moroccan Arabic with classical Arabic being used to communicate with visiting Arabs. They revere the 46 year old Arab king, Mohammed V, who seems to rule in an enlightened, progressive and benevolent way. I think that we travelled south east towards Ourika. We left the flat plain and started climbing into the foothills and stopped at a women’s cooperative that was extracting argan oil from nuts. We were shown how the women crack the shells and grind the kernel to produce an oil and paste which is used in cooking and beauty products. A sample of each cost far more than I expected. A while later we took a small side road to a Berber village that had been there for centuries. We were shown through a stone built home comprising several small buildings including an oil press and a fire driven stove but then also saw the result of the introduction of electricity and running water in the house in the last decade. There were lights, electrical kitchen goods and a TV with large TV dish outside. It occurred to me that the way of life of these people must be changing dramatically as their young people compare their relatively basic existence to that which they must see portrayed on TV. Our guide confirmed that while most families lived a subsistence life with goats, sheep and barley and maize crops they often also send one or more family members to work in the towns to provide money for their other needs. I suspect that these houses are very cold in the winter.  We sat in the courtyard while the 65 year old patriarch prepared mint tea with fresh mint and huge chunks of sugar and his great grandchildren played with others from the village outside.

The road climbed higher and we marvelled at the green of the valley interspersed with brown Berber villages. As the road levelled out on to a plateau I was struck by the fact that there was a village, of between forty and one hundred houses, every few kilometres. The barley crop was being harvested and although there were a few tractors to be seen most of the work was manual with the assistance of donkeys. I was amazed that anything could grow in the very stony fields that we were passing through. We took a side dirt road where the going got more difficult, passing more Berber villages, eventually reaching a view point where we looked down on the 7kms length of the Lalla Takerkoust dam which provides both water and power to Marrakech. Our route took us to the lakeside where we had lunch under nomad tents.

As we headed the 35kms back to Marrakech I was struck by the large number of villa complexes which were being developed for foreigners. Some of them were isolated in fields 20kms from Marrakesh and far from any facilities. Some seemed to be grand in scale including golf courses. Many seemed to have been abandoned midway through construction. I was left with a sense that the global credit crunch had spoilt development plans that were overambitious in the first place.

We stayed in the hotel in the evening and watched a completely lacklustre no score draw between England and Algeria in the Football World Cup. We had arranged with the riad to eat after the game and were the only guests to eat in that night. The small amount of chicken in my Massaman Curry was spicy as I like it, but was crowded out by potato. I gave up on my Moroccan crepes desert.

I suppose this is a good time to reflect on the hotel. It is comfortable and attractive. Their Wi-Fi works well. The manager is the only one who speaks English which can be a disadvantage when he is not on duty. Some people would find the route to it intimidating. Breakfast is spoilt by the bees. But the real killer is the prices that are charged for extras. The overall accommodation cost had been low as we signed up to a special deal through Kuoni but I resented paying almost £100 for two beers, a plate of olives, a bottle of still water,  a two course mediocre dinner for two and a disappointing Moroccan Shiraz. Cokes cost £2.80 and small local beers cost £6.50 equivalent.

Saturday 19th June

We pretended to be absorbing culture as we walked past the Koutoubia Mosque (non-Muslims are not allowed to enter). Its 69 metre high tower is the tallest building in the town and a beacon from all over town.

We entered the Coopartim Ensemble Artisanale which is a collection of shops selling Moroccan crafts for fixed prices. The quality of items seemed to be better than those in the souk and we were tempted by a leather overnight bag and a dress for our daughter, Megan, as well as an attractively shaped silver coloured metal display bowl. We loved the metalwork and the mosaic topped tables and would have spent a lot more if transport back to the UK had not been a problem.

We meandered back to the riad buying a small tagine for Juls on the way. We returned to the square in the early evening and after having my shoes cleaned we climbed to the first floor terrace of a restaurant at the entrance to the souk. We had a wonderful view of the square transforming into an open air food court as night fell. Lights sparkled, grill smoke rose to the heavens joined by the hubbub of thousands of people. We both lost the battle with our meals which won the prize for the toughest lamb in Marrakech. The chef had certainly not bothered to slow cook my tagine of lamb and figs.

We dived into the souk for one last attempt to empty our pockets. With great success we bought a large carpet covered floor cushion and two more bowls. I trust that the airline will take a tolerant view of our luggage weight.

Sunday 20th June

I made a last gasp attempt to correct my cultural deficit by visiting the Saadian Tombs. This is a cemetery of the 16th century Saadian dynasty within a courtyard and two large mausoleums. It has some beautiful arches and mosaics. It is accessed by a very small winding passage and was hidden from western eyes until 1917. I spent the following hour wandering through the Kasbah marvelling at the hustle and bustle and the vibrancy of the local fresh produce market. I was alone at this stage because Tibby had booked a two hour hammam, black soap body scrub and massage at a sophisticated looking establishment, Les Bains de Marrakech, on the edge of the Kasbah. She returned relaxed and happy.

As we headed for the airport I reflected on our short trip. Marrakech is a delight but one must enjoy the hustle and bustle of people, the need to haggle and the smells and sounds of a different world. French is the language of the previous colonial power and of the majority of tourists so English communication is sometimes difficult. The people were friendly and open. I felt very safe, even in more remote parts of the Kasbah. We felt that the city had become far more sophisticated in the eight years since our last trip. One has the sense that the authorities are making good progress in developing facilities and education for the population as a whole. One can see why Morocco is ranked fifth in Africa by GDP and first in Africa by the Economist Intelligence Unit for overall quality of life. I would like to see more of the country.

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