A winter break with sunshine – brilliant! The only thing I was nervous about was getting from the airport to the accommodation, and then negotiating the dark alleys of the old town to find somewhere to eat on our arrival.
There were taxis operating outside the arrivals hall, but there was no discernible ranking system. The taxis don’t have meters. Like many cities around the world, they charge what they can get away with. With my suitcase loaded, our man asked for a price that was undoubtably over the going rate. In the end I gave him slightly under the asking price, and he seemed happy.
He negotiated the crowded old town streets by satnav. It was quite an experience. The old town – or medina – is made up of narrow streets and alleys. There don’t seem to be any parking controls, and pavements are few and far between. Consequently, what little space there was, was taken up by parked vehicles and pedestrians. Pedestrians and car drivers were terrorised by people of mopeds zooming around at reckless speeds.
The driver eventually stopped on a small road, and pointed down an alley where he couldn’t drive down. When he drove off into the medina night, I just hoped this was the right place. It was a dead end with several little branches running off it.
A little kid and a bloke, who I took to be his dad, appeared. They offered to help us find number 58, without using English. Wise to this, I knew this was an angle for a tip. We looked for number 58, with the kid following. I pressed the buzzer at number 58, but it was the wrong 58. The man who answered pointed to the 58 opposite, and seemingly told the kid to bugger-orf. There were three number 58s, and they were separate riads. By the time the door to Riad 58 Blu was opened, the tearful kid had disappeared.
Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
A riad is a historic dwelling set around a courtyard: most accommodation in the medina is in the form of a riad. There was nothing modern about this one: there’s no card-entry, or even the kettle and Nescafe sachets you often get in mid-range hotels. There was a small TV, but we never got it to work. I didn’t get the impression they’d be leaving towels folded like swans on the bed. Those reading this who prefer a Mandarin Oriental would hate it, but we like a bit of rustic charm, and admired its quirky character.
We put our valuables in the room safe and the man walked us out of the alley and pointed us in the direction of a recommended restaurant. Youths were groped in the dark streets, and one or two tried to get our attention. They’re harmless. Crime is low in Morocco, but if it was your first time here, you’d certainly feel intimidated. In old town areas you’ll be accosted by hawkers trying to sell you stuff, and pickpockets operate in crowded areas. You’re unlikely to be mugged though, and no-one’s going to throw you under a New York subway train for a laugh. I led the walk at a brisk pace, while youths on those confounded mopeds weaved around us on streets too narrow for cars.
At Un Dejeuner Marrakech we were ushered to the roof dining area. It was open to the sky, but not too cold at first. There were six other Europeans up there. I had lamb chops and Mo had chicken. Both very spicy. I had two bottles of Casablanca lager.
At 8.15 we made our way to the famous Jem el F’naa square. This large space was once the site of public executions. It’s now a multi-function market place and entertainment arena. As a daytime market it concerns itself mostly with fresh juice stalls and souvenirs. Hawkers attract your attention, but not hassle you. At night, food stalls are set up, and tourist and locals alike, sit on benches and chow down on kebabs.
We were booked on a Colourful Souks walking tour. We’ve been on tours of the media before, but it’s a labyrinth and it’s easy to get lost. A guide also keeps chancers away from you. Thankfully, we found Jem el F’naa to be an easy walk from the riad. We expected to be part of a group, but when our guide greeted us, it was just us. The tiny streets and alleys of the medina make up a mix of commercial and residential buildings. There are shops, cafes, bakeries, workshops, mosques and hammams; plus private dwellings. It’s considered distasteful to display ostentatious wealth here, and there are no windows facing the street. Behind those anonymous doors there could be slums, or palaces with gold bath taps. It’s cheaper to live in the medina than the new town, but rather cramped and noisy for me. The smell is a heady mix of spices, perfumes, and donkey shit. Yes, donkey carts are still used.
A hammam at its most basic is a public bath, mostly used by Moroccans. There are more upmarket hammams, more like the spas we have in Europe. We were guided down to a grim basement where a man was burning wood to power a hot water boiler for a connected hammam. He also had lots of pots of stew on the fire. After five hours they’d be ready to supply to local restaurants. They’ve probably working like this, and in similar conditions, for centuries. The whole medina is pretty medieval. Not to everybody’s taste, but we love it!
There are some fascinating, and high quality, goods on sale. Many are made by hand in the little workshops. We saw blokes cutting out leather for sandals, banging metal for lanterns, and making rugs. Carpets, T-shirts, football shirts, and bales of dyed wool, are on display. There’s lovely pottery and jewellery: lots of brilliant Arabian and African stuff to wow anyone at an Islington dinner party. Just about anything is available. I’ve been here enough times to know that if a shopkeeper hasn’t what you want in stock, he’ll send you to a neighbouring stall, or fetch it himself from a relative somewhere else. You’ll probably be invited to sit and wait with a mint tea. They never admit defeat. And he’ll inevitably have an uncle in London who he thinks you might have come across one time on Oxford Street.
Our personable guide would’ve received a commission should we have bought anything from a shop he took us to, but there was no pressure. I think he realised we weren’t shoppers early on.
At the tour’s end back in the square he recommended three places for an inexpensive lunch. We chose one and ate nice tajines on the terrace. A tajine is a stew slow cooked in a conical earthenware pot (also available at Camden Lock market).
After an old age nap we started the journey across town. Pushing through the market square, we fought our way through the crowds to the other side and took a taxi into the new town. I don’t think traffic conditions were as bad in the past, and it was close in, hand to hand, fighting for space, with cars and mopeds coming at you from all directions, almost touching wing mirrors.
My guidebook done us proud: the Comptoir Darna was plush and characterful, with great staff and food. It was dark, but still colourful with the dimly-lit lanterns. I had a Thai-inspired steak dish called “The Legendary Weeping Tiger”. My wife, Mo, had wood-fire-cooked chicken.
Four of five musicians played Arabic music sat on the stairs. Later, the belly dancers appeared. One danced with a tray and a candelabra of lit candles balanced on her head. The others gyrated in skimpy belly-dancing costumes. When a bloke from the table of fifteen Americans slid a twenty dirham note into her top I felt that was maybe going too far, but it was clearly expected. She left the note there, and other folk stuffed notes down her top. There was a great atmosphere and we all enjoyed it immensely. Things like this could’ve got out of hand in England, but it was all in the best possible taste! Personally, I couldn’t bring myself to stuff a banknote down a strange woman’s bra in public. That kind of behaviour would get me an injunction back at the Black Lion.
We found a taxi outside. He asked if I knew the fare. I said one hundred dirhams. He said yes. We were off. I overpaid on the way there, but I was now learning.
I wanted to visit the terrace of the colonial-type shabby-chic landmark of the Café de France. You could sit on a café terrace all day watching life below in the square. Marrakech is a city of movement, colour and noise. Jem el F’naa is the centre of it all. There’s noise all day and evening, with drums and those squeaky clarinet-type instruments. It’s quite laid-back in the day, but at night it attracts acrobats, snake-charmers, koran-readers, tooth-pullers, cross-dressers (apparently), and folk sat selling stuff from mats on the floor.
Eating lunch and looking down into the square, we were fascinated by the woman trying to sell pigeons, chickens, and a peacock (we later saw she also had guinea pigs and tortoises). Mo didn’t like the idea of the chickens being allowed to wander around the stalls, but I reasoned it was free range, so should be applauded. The henna artist ladies seemed to be doing good business.
We talked about having a Moroccan nite back home. I said I wish I wasn’t so uptight. I felt like throwing caution to wind: maybe buy a huge lump of hashish, then get lost in the medina and have an adventure. Buy a goat’s head on a stick, or a snake; or perhaps negotiate the purchase of a camel for a good price. If I woke up in a police cell, or in a lorry park in Mauritania, so be it. What’s the penalty for transporting belly dancers across state lines anyway?
Goat’s Head Soup
In the square, the food stalls were up and running. Every stall had its hawkers accosting everyone passing. It was persistent but good-natured. There were kebabs, sausages, tajines, mountains of stewed snails and sheep heads. We picked one and took a bench next to some young Europeans. The staff manning the stall get everyone to greet the newcomers: this involves clapping and singing “That’s the way, uh huh, I like it!…”. We ate decent mixed kababs, enveloped by plumes of smoke. It was a bit much for Mo, but that’s the way I like it (uh huh). Fine dining isn’t for every night, you have to mix it up a bit.
Part 2 of this journal is coming soon!