Friday, 21 March 2014

Exploring Marrakech

My criteria for a pre-Christmas break was relatively simple. I only had six days, so didn't wish to spend too much time on a plane, was eager for a little winter sun (or at the very least, somewhere where it wouldn't rain day and night as it had been in the UK), and it had to be budget-friendly. Morocco ticked every box. Only a few hours from London, it was ideal for a short trip, the weather was reasonably warm in December and the cost would be minimal. Not wanting to try to squeeze too much into our visit, we decided to base ourselves in Marrakech, with a short side trip into the Western Sahara.

Marrakech was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Colourful, bustling and steeped in history, I loved the contrast between the noisy central square and souks and the quiet back alleys situated in the shadow of imposing fortified walls.

We woke every morning to calls to prayer, our beautiful and welcoming riad right next to one of the smaller mosques. Glistening pastries were washed down with fresh juice in quiet squares or perched on low walls as we navigated our way around; dinners a more frantic affair as we trialled different street stalls, jostling for a seat along long benches and mopping up the oily juices from tangine pots using thick hunks of bread. One lunch time we stumbled upon a small restaurant selling lamb sandwiches, taking our pick of meat from a hot spit hosting a whole animal before pulling off tender strips and licking the fat from our fingers. With our bellies full, we would join the crowds in the evenings wandering the central square, buying boxes of sweets and watching women tell fortunes, fellow tourists given henna tattoos and storyteller musicians entrancing crowds.

The city is often accurately described as a maze - we certainly would never have made it to our riad for the first time without being collected from a main road by the owner. But the winding streets and narrow alleys were part of the appeal for me - all paths eventually led somewhere, and by orienting ourselves with one of the larger mosques we could always find our way back to a central area. There were a few moments of frustration when seeking out an attraction or museum that seemed to melt into the many twists and turns, but we nearly always found something interesting to see along the way. One afternoon, retracing our steps for the third time after failing to find a historic house, tired and thirsty, we saw a bundle of newly-born and still blind kittens resting under a tree, overlooked by their protective yet relaxed mother, surrounded by local men who were cooing over them and leaving pieces of meat and bone. We stopped to watch for a few minutes, frustration forgotten, before realising that there was a tiny sign just behind the group pointing to our destination.

The souks were particularly enjoyable to just stroll through - there was far less hassle from stall owners then we have experienced in other countries, and with the long stretches of markets winding through the city, they never seemed too crowded. Bright fabrics hung across the ceiling, offering shade, the scent of spice wafted from tall pyramids and lanterns dangled in dense groups. Of course, just as you might have convinced yourself that you had stepped back in time, there were also many stalls devoted to designer rip-off clothing and bags to dispel the illusion...

There were some aspects of the city that were not as pleasant - I couldn't help feeling sorry for the cobras dancing on woven mats, and strongly disliked the early evening boxing, especially as there were children involved on a couple of occasions, cheered on by a thick crowd as we quickly walked past. We had been warned about not accepting directions offered by eager locals (who were equally eager to relieve tourists of payment for their services) and politely declined assistance, at times with a very firm 'No, thank you'.

As with many cities, there is a blend of older traditions and modern luxuries, but the overall atmosphere was friendly and we did not experience much hassle at all. The greatest inconvenience was the traffic - I wouldn't have believed it possible for so many motorbikes and scooters to fit down such narrow streets...


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