Welcome to Part 2 of my holiday journal. In Part 1, my wife and I started a Winter break to the sun. We’re in Marrakech in Morocco, and we’re planning a trip to the Atlantic coast at Essaouira.
Won’t Get Fooled Again…
…though we probably will. Everyone gets scammed in the medina eventually. On Tuesday morning we walked the souks. A man who was going into a building said that further down there was a special festival, and today was the last morning. A bit of luck, wasn’t it? He said we shouldn’t miss it. He wasn’t a guide; he was just letting us know out of the goodness of his heart. We thanked his for his advice and trotted on, thinking no more about it.
Further into the dark heart of the medina, the same thing happened. As this chap was telling us about the fantastic photo opportunity this festival presented, he said something to another man passing by. I took it that this man was going in the direction of the festival, and he’d show us where to go. Before we knew it, we’d engaged an unofficial guide, who led us at a brisk pace into unchartered territory. We should’ve made our excuses, but we followed him. Eventually, he handed us over to another guy at the leather tannery. We assumed he worked there, but thinking about it, he was probably a chancer.
He showed us around the stinking tannery – basically concrete huge pots of sludge that raw hides are soaked in, then around to – quelle surprise – a leather shop. It was a nice shop, with some great stuff. The owner explained things but was disappointed when we made our excuses and left.
The tannery guy was waiting outside, and naturally asked for his tip. I’d a 20 dirham note ready (about £1.70) and gave it to him. He said we should give twenty each, but when he realised this was all he was getting he was happy enough.
We now had no idea where we were. We got horribly lost, but I wasn’t going to spend all day giving tips for directions (blokes don’t ask for directions anyway, it’s a sign of inadequacy). We found ourselves in some grim streets and I felt vulnerable: I’d earlier changed up some money, and I had my passport on me too.
I gave in eventually and asked for help. A man said turn left, then go straight. Instead of going into the square, we came into the street where our riad was situated.
The riad bloke kindly prepared us a 7am breakfast, and we crammed on to a mini-bus in the square to take us to the Atlantic coast. We were taken with Essaouira when we visited on a day trip from Marrakech in 2003, and I always vowed to return.
A very pleasant, humorous, local guide took the group of various nationalities on a quick orientation tour. There’s a wide expanse of beach. It’s known as the Windy City, but by the afternoon it was sunbathing weather. The craggy coastline, and little patches of sand reminded me of Northern France.
If Marrakech has a hippy vibe, it’s even more pronounced in Essaouira. Marrakech has the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin; Essaouira claims Jimi Hendrix as the patron saint of celebrity freak visitors from the 1960s and 1970s.
There are lots of artists’ workshops here, and it has an arty, spiritual, vibe. It’s more laid-back than anywhere else we’ve been in Morocco. Here you’ll see Moroccan gays, hippies and crusties. You don’t get hassled looking at souvenirs, it’s all very civilised.
The guide recommended a seafood lunch at the row of stalls by the fishing port, or a rooftop restaurant by the fort. I liked the display of fresh fish and live lobsters down at the port, but I didn’t fancy sitting on a bench. We opted for a comfortable, leisurely, lunch at the restaurant.
A mostly white cat with one yellow eye and one blue watched us as we ordered. Mo’s whole sea bass and my tiger prawns were excellent. We had our first lunchtime drink since arriving in Morocco, and my first beer in four days. I found Flag lager nicer than Casablanca, so I had three of them.
A freaky-looking woman started playing some strange instrument, sounding rather like a bass guitar. Bearing in mind my thoughts about being uptight and anti-social, I went up and had a few words. She’d made this electric three-string instrument herself from caiman skin and fishing line. I gave her 20 dirhams and asked for permission to take a photo. I put the banknote in the tip basket, not down her top.
The drive back took over three hours. There was concern when we were turned off the bus. Where was the square? We had no idea, and nothing was explained. The traffic was mad. We saw what looked like a taxi rank nearby. We didn’t have time to go back to the riad to change, so we asked to go directly to the new town restaurant I’d booked. I said I’d give him 100 dirhams, and this was accepted.
We had dinner at Bagatelle in 2011. On that weekend we liked it so much we went back the next day. It hasn’t changed. It feels very French and is quite upmarket. Bagatelle is considerably cheaper than Comptoir Darna; possibly because it’s away from the medina and less touristy. After we finished the wine I followed on with a pint of flag, served in a British-style dimpled jug from the 1970s. We asked the restaurant to book us a taxi.
After we got in, the driver did a U-turn. He was then shouted at by a policeman. The driver said he’d have to give him money, and went over to talk to him for a minute. We didn’t see him issued with a ticket, but suspected he’d made a donation to the “charity of his choice” to smooth things over. Emboldened by alcohol, I told the driver in French that I used to be a London taxi driver. I said in London there are no police, everything is on camera and you get a fine in the post.
We’d passed a few police checkpoints and police with speed detectors outside Marrakech, but we had to question their targeting. We’d seen youths on mopeds without lights, and even a few cars without lights. The school run is often done on mopeds: sometimes with mum, dad and a little kid on a moped. No crash helmets. Using a mobile phone while driving is normal. Mopeds were zooming through the No Entry sing near our hotel constantly.
The Deft Hand of Fatima
Another jingle-jangle morning in the souks of the medina. I had the notion of getting my hand painted with henna. We sat down with Fatima, and after leafing through the book of designs she grabbed my hand and went to work with her paint brush. Deftly done, Fatty luv. When it came to payment, she said pay what you want. The design book she returned to me had prices on it. I offered to pay approximately half of the average price. She objected at first, but was then happy to accept my generous offer. As well she might (you always get what you want for half the asking price, and you always get ripped off). She sprinkled glitter on for good measure. Feeling a bit like Dave Hill from Slade I wondered what they’d make of it back in my local in Bedfordshire. After 40 minutes I washed my hands, as directed. The glitter was washed off and the pattern remained brown.
*Fatima said it’d last for two weeks. At the time of writing it’s fading after three days, which is what I expected.
The riad provide free airport transfers. A bloke took us around the corner where a car was waiting. A school was turning out and the traffic was mayhem. I’m nervous being driven by someone whose religion believes it’s God’s will if you die in a head-on collision with an oil tanker. In a mixture of English and French we agreed it was chaos. He actually mentioned the “bicyclettes.” The driver comes from Casablanca. He said it’s a much bigger city, but they still have respect on the roads there.
It was great little holiday. Flights and five nights accommodation cost us £551. With a flight time of around 3 ½ hours it’s certainly do-able for a winter weekend break to the sun. And there was plenty of sun and warmth in the daytime too. You can’t really be neutral about Marrakech; either you love it or hate it. Your experience of the city can be as down-home or as sophisticated as you want it to be. It suits us as we like a mixture.