The tone of this trip to Marrakech, Morocco became apparent within the first hour or so of arrival. Sharing a ‘petit’ taxi with a French guy from the airport, the driver probably charged a little over the top but neither of us were in the mood for bartering.
“An adventure had already been experienced however”
The driver did not know where the Riad was so tipped us out in the Medina, which means ‘old city.’ Almost immediately a barrow guy arrived confident that he knew the way to the Riad, it would take five minutes to get there and it was possible to choose my price, so I placed my bag in his barrow and we set off. One hour later, after visiting a dozen different but incorrect Riads, seeking advice from passers-by, stallholders and anybody else in the vicinity we eventually stood in front of the door to my digs for the trip. Where upon despite it being his fault, he proceeded to ask for one hundred dirhams, he received fifty!
An adventure had already been experienced however, I’d already explored half the back streets of the Medina, and had an insight into how the local economy works. Marrakech promised a great deal!
The following day entailed negotiating the labyrinth of streets that are the Medina; this is no easy task, requiring the dodging skills of international rugby players. Avoiding speeding scooters, impatient groups of local pedestrians, hesitant groups of tourists and donkey drawn carriages, survival is the order of the day.
“Assembly of the Dead”
On arrival at the main square however this pre-conditioning will be useful. It may at first seem a little less congested, but it quickly becomes clear that this is just not the case at all.
The square known as Djemaa el Fna which means “Assembly of the Dead” however taking the first steps into this UNESCO recognised site it is soon clear just how inappropriate this seems. It is an unpredictable heaving mass of humanity from relatively early in the morning; performers of all kinds, musicians, snake charmers, story tellers, acrobats and monkey wranglers to name a few descend upon the square eager to part tourists from their cash.
Children play and sell paper tissues, fake snakes and small macaroons, they dart between the stalls of traders selling spices, souvenirs, henna tattooing, medicinal herbs, dried fruits and even teeth! The square defines the phrase ‘hive of activity’ it is not wise to stand still for too long or a monkey will almost certainly be dumped on your shoulder, a snake thrust into your arms or wrapped around your neck by their ever persistent wranglers.
“Brits must say “lovely jubbly” much more often than ever realised”
The centre of the square seems strangely open for most of the day but as evening closes in the reason for this soon becomes clear. A small but hectic tented city of food stalls seems to magically appear, within a couple of short hours the area becomes transformed, dozens of food stalls appear. Catering for those in need of a little sustenance after the hard day haggling in the souks, sipping mint tea on the panoramic view balconies of the coffee shops surrounding the square and fending off the myriad of ways to lighten the wallet.
Snail soup, lambs head, fish dishes, grilled meats, salads, all usually supplied with bread and chilli sauce. The stalls are generally white but the various, foods, vegetables and spices give each a splash of vibrant colour, reds, greens, blues and yellows every stall showing off its wares with resplendent displays, each one attempting to outdo its neighbours.
The intense aromas of the cooking food seasoned with exotic spices drifts around the square on even the slightest breeze, enabling the hungry to literally follow their noses to the next meal. For the slightly hesitant the multitude of enthusiastic ‘touts’ will help decide. Armed with a vocabulary of clichés from the visitor’s home country, which are readily spat out in rapid succession immediately after discovering this snippet of information. Brits must say “lovely jubbly” much more often than ever realised. This phrase was repeated continually with total sincerity, I lost count how many times, it just endeared them to me.
The unwary or timid can often find themselves being guided expertly towards a stall before they realise it. Numbering the food stalls aids finding them, and informing the tout that it’s not time to eat yet, will immediately result in a reminder of the appropriate stall number. My personal favourite; “117, stairway to heaven!” Simply priceless.
“Not all the western faces seem totally enthralled”
This general cacophony of sound from diners chatting, traders, musicians and the hypnotic woodwind instruments of the snake charmers adds to the overall assault on the senses. The sights, sounds and smells are all part of the unique atmosphere of this amazing destination within a destination.
There is little escape from the full on intensity of the square, the well-heeled of Marrakech society, artisans, performers and tourists all mingling in the main square and surrounding souks. It is hard not to imagine all city residents are wandering between the rows of stalls and meandering their way through the teams of performers. Not all the western faces seem totally enthralled, some appear slightly shell-shocked by the experience, others bemused and still more seem weary or irritated by the constant harrying that almost accompanies every step.
Time to get an excellent freshly squeezed orange juice, at a paltry 4 dirhams, extremely refreshing, unbelievable value and will return the spring to anybody’s step. This genuine bargain is available without the need to barter and is due to availability of oranges, which grow at the roadside all over the city.
The tented city disappears even more quickly than erected, and the cleaners arrive almost immediately to clean up. Arrive early the next morning and they are there again as the first souvenir stalls begin to open, performers begin their day as the keenest tourists drift in looking for some breakfast, just another day assembling the not so dead.
Marrakech is not everybody’s scene, but it’s a completely alien culture for most of us and ripe for an adventure. Remain firm but polite and it will be an enjoyable one.