I was greeted by a familiar musky smell as I entered the arrivals terminal at Menara airport on a warm North African night. I associated this smell with the east as I'd concluded it was the combination of spices, incense and sweat (grim but true) among other things that created this distinct scent that was enhanced by high temperatures. It was also, in my opinion, the smell of a rich culture (and I don't mean economically…) where food was flavoursome, music was enchanting and traditions passed down through the generations were a part of average daily life. It was a smell of the ‘east’ because it reminded me of home, of India. Yet here I was geographically in the west, in AFRICA, and quite a long way from home.
Immigration was slow as is the norm in the developing world but I passed the time observing the array of visitors and tourists in the queues around me. I always love people watching and an airport is a particular hot spot when it comes to ’all sorts’. The world was present in that humble immigration queue and visitors ranged from Central Africa and Spain to the Orient and the Middle East. The efficiency of the luggage conveyor belt made up for lost time at immigration and within the hour we were greeted by our driver who was there to take us to the Riad (a traditional Moroccan home) we were booked at.
Pre-booking a taxi through the accommodation provider was a good call as navigating a medina (a walled city with narrow alleys) is task enough during the day and worsens at night. We (my boyfriend and I) were dropped off at a busy little cross roads surrounded by little lanes and I soon realised we weren't quite there yet. One has to have ‘faith’ in a country that seems to run on the concept. ‘Faith’ that ‘Insha'Allah’ those guiding me through the lanes accessible only on foot are trustworthy and that the narrow dark lane we are now walking on is indeed the best route. All was well of course and we arrived at our destination!
Within minutes of leaving the car we entered what I can only describe as an oasis of beauty and calm. If you are in Morocco (in the bigger towns and cities) and are able to stay in a Dar (similar to a riad) or Riad then I’d say you’ve hit the authenticity jackpot. In fact, I would NOT stay anywhere but when in Morocco…
The Riad was a sanctuary and retreat from the chaotic labyrinth that we encountered a little later on. Set around a narrow central courtyard, a breeze flowed at leisure through a 3 storey atrium keeping the building cool. Each level offered a different setting and the higher you climbed the better the view. Verandas, terraces and alcoves frame each level and offered places to relax. The smell of incense rose and as it followed me I was transported ‘home’ to a childhood in India.
Having been fed a wonderful Tagine meal of chicken cooked with olives and rested in a basic but tastefully decorated room we woke up ready to explore. Of course, a breakfast of fresh local breads, honey, mint tea and fresh orange juice prepared us further for the day!
The heat in May can be as intense as the initial encounters one has with this new city. The people are hospitable, kind and welcoming but out in the medina, as tourists and travelers, you can be on the receiving side of pushy and sometimes rude behaviour. Almost everyone is trying to sell you something and everyone is trying to direct you somewhere. Unwanted items and help are in abundance and chargeable. I read a lot about some of the hassle faced by tourists before going to Marrakech but brushed it off with my ‘I won’t fall victim’ attitude in addition to my strong belief in making up my own mind about situations and places.
I am somewhat hardened to haggling, pushy selling and all the other rubbish that one can encounter as a foreigner in a different (and at times tricky) culture. Honestly, even I, having lived in India, found it difficult sometimes. Marrakech is but an example, a city and these experiences were to be expected. I am keen to revisit more rural areas and encounter Moroccans uninfluenced by tourism and the west. If anything, it makes me more eager to seek out real Morocco.
By day 3 you have your orientation and bearings a bit more and also, having grown accustomed to your surroundings you ease into the Moroccan pace of life with all its nuances and all its wonder. You soon figure out how things work. For example, you know what the best conversion rate is, you know that if a taxi is asking for 60 Dirhams (approx. £4.20) that it needs to be less than that. It all comes from trial and error and making mistakes or being a plonker is completely fine.
NOTE: If you pay attention and credit your memory abilities then visually following the route of a taxi from a given point (i.e. a landmark) can help you navigate the same route on foot and save you some money.
Marrakech was as rich and as intriguing as the spices used in its cuisine. I’m normally not the biggest meat eater in general and when I travel I avoid it even more just to be ‘safe’. However, all that got put on hold when it came to Moroccan food. The meat is cooked to perfection in a Tagine and is some of the most flavoursome and tender I have tasted. The vegetables are infused with herbs that give it such a delicious taste that I felt I should relearn everything there is to know about the cooking of vegetables. Cloves, mint and cumin are the 3 ingredients I saw most frequently used and I conclude that spice really is the key to bringing food to life.
If you have a soft spot for animals like me then you may find some sights hard on the eye. It is an old culture with deep rooted traditions and a different way of viewing the world. Animals are used not only as pets but for entertainment and labour. Donkeys are used to cart around heavy loads, horse pulled carriages are used as tourist transportation, domesticated monkey’s used as photo opportunities and snake charmers put on a display for tourists and locals alike. I had a tough time seeing the treatment of some animals but had to remind myself it was a different world and to some, it was a means to a livelihood.
The architecture and heritage of the city was inspiring and quite simply breath-taking. The 19th century Bahia Palace offers a glimpse into a time much before ours as does the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college named after the Almoravid sultan Ali Ibn Yusuf. The intricacy of the woodwork and tile work (zellij) in both locations was the thing of dreams. I thoroughly enjoyed all the gems this city had to offer with regards to its history. The souks are a weaving maze of colours, smells, sounds and activity. There are many bargains to be had and you could really buy a lot of stuff. Stuff you quite frankly don’t need, if you’re anything like me. It is a shopping paradise and there are assortments of colours and patterns in every item imaginable. Leather bags and carpets are particularly popular purchases along with household décor and artifacts such as mirrors, tables and poufs. I was very good and came away with a woolly hat (for my arctic adventures obviously!) and a bag which I reasoned I NEEDED for the summer. (Oops!)
With regards to getting around the souks, each time I felt I was making progress in the right direction, I’d turn a corner or miss a poorly positioned sign and end up somewhere unexpected. It was both a great chance to see areas I wouldn’t otherwise have explored but was also rather frustrating when I was traipsing around in the midday heat with zero idea of which lane to go down. I was travelling with my boyfriend and felt safe enough to allow for tricky situations as he could be a calming influence on me. Of course, you can hire a local guide who speaks a language of your choice and that takes away all the headache of navigation and having to skim through guide book pages. We however do things budget and sometimes can’t afford the little luxuries.
I’d say the things I most enjoyed about Marrakech were not in any guide book or in any tourist area. I enjoyed the feeling of being there more than anything. Each day brought a little magic and another adventure. I never knew where I’d end up or how delicious my next cup of mint tea would be. I enjoyed the unpredictability of this city and it really made me feel alive, in every sense. As I write this I already feel nostalgic realising my love for Morocco may have only just begun…
Tips for breezing through Marrakech (or any Moroccan city):
1. Don’t look lost even if you are (play it cool)
2. Always ask the price BEFORE you buy or use anything or it could cost you more than you thought!
3. Give yourself landmarks that you can get to with ease from your accommodation. As long as you can get back to that landmark you can roughly work out your route home.
4. If you do need to ask for directions, asking a local shop keeper is often easier as you are more likely to get an answer out of goodwill rather than for a tip.
5. Don’t walk in a daze, you will need to be aware of everything- traffic, donkey carts, the lot. It is a busy place and keep an ear out for ‘Balak!’ which basically means ‘coming through!’
6. When in doubt, TAXI!
Taxis are relatively cheap because fuel is much cheaper than the UK so if you really are lost jump in the next taxi you see and get back to a familiar place.
7. Learn to pronounce words as locally or as clearly as possible. That way you have better chance of ending up where you actually want to go.
8. Know the address of where you are staying, you will need this for immigration control on arrival and departure.
9. Pack a hat or scarf and ALWAYS have water. These all come in useful if you're walking in a mid day heat.
10. Have a stash of small notes because it is common to hear 'sorry no change' from taxi drivers and stall vendors.