We were going to Marrakesh.
Long before my round the world trip and long before I ever thought I’d be capable of living out of a 30-litre backpack for 5 months I had longed to visit Morocco and sample the magic of Marrakesh.
Somehow it never happened. Real-life always got in the way. Work, boyfriend, London indifference. But thank god for relationship break-ups and wanting something more than grumpy faces at East Croydon station every day. Now that I’ve lived with my life on my back I can do anything and go anywhere and Marrakesh we are finally going to!
We were wise and booked our seats on the CTM bus on our first day in Agadir. I had wanted to leave Agadir and head up the Tizi n’Test pass through the High Atlas but we were advised by Driss that although the sun was giving our faces a lovely glow on the beach, this time of year up there in the mountains was a different story and given what a dangerous road it could be, we might end up facing a snowdrift or skidding… So we took the safe way and booked a bus that took a much less scary route, albeit perhaps a less scenic one.
Agadir’s Gare Routiere is well out of town and our petit taxi charged us almost 20 dirhams to get there. It was also gated off which we found unusual but given the many confusing touts at Essaouira’s bus station, its a good thing. We had picked up breakfast from Patisserie Moderne on the way and we took our comfy seats at the front. The route was somewhat hilly and mountainous and we could see the snow-capped High Atlas right close-up so we got the mountain experience but without the drops, haha! We also witnessed an accident – two vehicles had been going downhill back the other way and the van behind had ploughed into the truck in front. Nobody was hurt but I suspect this is a common occurrence as it seems everyone in Morocco drives right close up and dont touch their brakes til the last minute!
We had a toilet/lunch stop halfway through the journey and we were in Marrakesh by mid-afternoon!
Ben and I felt quite seasoned now in the ways in which locals could try to rip off travellers and sure enough we were about to face a consistent stream of hustlers trying to get their money’s worth out of us. At the bus station (which is quite a way away from the medina), we asked a petit taxi to take us to the medina and the riad that we had booked from Agadir. He told us flatly that it cost 60 dirhams. Now, having looked at the LP map and going by past trips, 60 dirhams would get us much further than the distance we wanted to go. No, we both said, we’re not paying that. Are you putting the meter on? I asked. No, says the man, because the Medina is so far away. I thought that as an explanation didnt cut it so we walked away. The man came after us saying if we wanted to walk we could, it was 7km away. I said OK, we’ll walk. A taxi stopped by us then and we asked if he went to the medina. He did, so we jumped in. He started to pull away when we both noticed the meter was not switched on. We asked him to turn it on but refused, saying it was 50 dirhams and so we said Merci and got out of the cab.
People, if you are not happy with something, don’t go with it and dont be afraid that you are not being polite!
Within a couple of minutes we had flagged down a taxi who both agreed to take us to where we wanted and to put the meter on! Result! He drove us by the Koutoubia mosque which looked amazing and I thought that the pink walled city, lined with palm trees was very pretty indeed. Traffic was hectic but it was all part of the charm.
Our taxi driver took us exactly where we wanted to go and pointed out the landmarks. We were staying very close to the Ben Slimane Mosque in the Northern Medina and he explained where the road led to as after the mosque, the road turns into a series of narrow lanes that cars cannot get down. I thanked him enormously for his honesty and gave him a large tip. His fare, by the way, came to….26 dirhams!
Luckily, the very organised owner of Dar Lalla Anne
had emailed us a good map of how exactly to get to her riad. It was virtually in a straight line from where the taxi driver left us but our confidence didnt stop a young boy, perhaps 10 years old coming and asking us in English if we needed help. We told him several times in a friendly way that we were fine and every now and again we stopped to check where we were against teh map, taking care that the boy couldt see the map and see what we were looking for. Eventually we came to a very dark alley and we turned to go down it as the map said we should and the boy said, ” Dont go down there, there’s nothing there except a couple of Riad… Dar Lalla Anne..”, at which point both Ben and I burst out laughing and the boy says, “Ah you’re looking for Dar Lalla Anne!” and rushed past us to press the buzzer.
Despite being down a dark alleyway, the entrance is well lit and the front door is a gorgeous big wooden one with Anne’s name engraved upon it.
I said to Ben, “Go on give this cheeky monkey 1 dirham then for pressing the buzzer”. Ben handed him a dirham and the cheeky brat didnt thank us. Instead he said… “This is nothing. You don’t have 15 dirham… 1 pound??” I scowled at him and Ben said, “But all you did was push the buzzer, you didnt show us anything!” and with that, the front door opened and Mouna, our housekeeper, invited us in, leaving the brat outside with his coin.
The Riad was calm and quiet. We were shown to our room which was spacious and lovely, and actually an upgrade because the room we had asked for, now we were told, was being refurbished. Mouna made us mint tea and we relaxed, flicking through stylish, big, French coffee table books! I think the riad’s owner, Anne was probably back in France. We assumed she would be here but she wasnt. We didnt ask where she was.
Mouna was very helpful and gave us an explanation of how to reach Djemaa El Fna, the main square of Marrakesh. We followed her instructions through the souks, past stalls of carpets, lanterns, baboushes, spices and sweets. We were stared at quite a lot and children followed us asking if we needed directions, all of which we politely declined.
We came to the square and it was as crazy as we had imagined. It was just before sundown and already, food stalls were enticing passers by with promises of free mint tea if they would only sample their couscous and merguez. I was recommended Stall 81, Chez Abdelsalaam, by a friend back home and we had only just seen the sign when one of the waiters, a really cheerful young man, came up to us and started with is mockney banter, “Lovely jubbly, alright geezer?” he says. This was already enough to have me in fits of laughter! “Sound as a pound!”, he continued but he’d already won us over and we took a seat on a bench at a communal table next to a another traveller.
With all the travelling I have done I am not afraid to eat anywhere or anything although I admit to drawing the line at snail soup (Berloush is extremely popular in Morocco!) and crickets in Thailand. Ben was a bit more apprehensive about eating at an open-air stall but I haven’t ever been sick from buying food in the street so I was willing to give it a go.
Several dishes were available for a very small price. The traveller next to us kept ordering small plates, first of chicken tagine, then couscous, I think he started on the fish at some point. The beauty of these stalls is that you can just try bits and pieces, as many or as little as you like. We did return to eat at the stalls (and never got sick), trying spicy sausages at Stall No 1 and Pastilla at Stall 90. The only problem I would say is that eating open-air in a market place (“air-conditioned!” as one tout sold it to us) is that you are more liable to get hassled by greedy professional beggars. One French pair we sat with once were giving out dirhams to everyone who walked past whether they asked or not and although the majority of children who try to sell you tissues or biscuits will leave you alone if you decline, there is always one who will not. One very mean-looking girl came and brazenly stood asking for money. We said no. She then asked for our bread. There was no please or thank you by the way, and we continued to say no. She didnt leave us alone and even after saying no in her language 3 times “Laaaaa!!!!” it took her sneaky mother in the background to come and pull her away before she would leave us alone. They walked past us again later on and the mean little brat made the most horrible face at me. Sooooo glad we gave them nothing!
We discussed this with Mouna later and she echoed what Driss had already told us in Agadir: There are many professional beggars in Morocco who earn more than decent hard-workers earn. As long as tourists behave irresponsibly, they will continue to earn a living in that way. And this was local people telling us that. Mouna also said its usually the people who dare not ask for money who are the ones that really need it. Occasionally we would see blind old people in the streets and we would give them something but the kids who ran around us and the men who asked us to buy them cigarettes? No. There is huge unemployment in Morocco but if a child is going to be taken on the streets by his mother to sell biscuits and old women sell cigarettes one by one, surely there are ways of creating work? Just giving money on the streets to able-bodied people is not going to solve problems, just create more, surely? How to give charity responsibly in less-developed countries is always a problem. Are there not hostels for the men who sleep rough in their djellabas every night? Do they not have soup kitchens for the kids who do really need a piece of bread and clean water? I just dont know but as Ben said, its not up to me to save every Moroccan or solve their problems. But just what is the King doing in his sumptuous Palaces, day in, day out as his people go hungry?
Another thing to be aware of in Marrakech was the adding on of huge service amounts to bills. We went to Ryad Mabrouka for coffee and ice cream because the roof terrace looked gorgeous. Indeed it was but for 3 items that came to 52 dirhams, we were charged 65. When we questioned this, the waiter said the extra 17 was service. When we argued that 10% (usual Moroccan service charge) was 5, not 17, the waiter muttered that we could give him a tip or not, snatched the 52 dirham we had laid out and walked off. He would have got his tip had he not been so greedy but in that instance we left him with nothing but a complaint to the manager. Ha! This did happen to us in a couple of other places but when we pointed it out, the server was always ‘apologetic’… yeah yeah…
Getting taxis to turn their meter on was a real problem but always by our 2nd or 3rd attempt we would find an honest taxi driver. We always thanked them for being honest and tipped them well and even then the fare was always less than half of what the greedy drivers would quote us.
Food was a great delight in Marrakech. Mouna prepared an amazing breakfast every morning, usually msammen, bread, omelettes and pastries. They really do make the best coffee in Morocco and I have never used the word sublime to describe anything before, but the cakes at Patisserie des Princes
were indeed that! I very much enjoyed the kefta (meatball) and egg tagine at Nid’Cigogne
and house salad at Cafe des Epices
(with a fantastic view of the Atlas) and we found that Kosybar
, Cafe Argana, Terrasses de L’Alhambra and Cafe Arabe
were great places to chill out with a hot chocolate or to enjoy escape from the hustle-bustle.
We visited many tourist hotspots such as the Saadian Tombs, Palace El-Badhi and Palace Bahia. My favourite by far was the Jardin Majorelle
. We sat there for hours in the sunshine on the steps of the Yves Saint-Laurent owned Museum of Islamic Art. There is a great collection of cactii and the museum is interesting if you like museums. I was disappointed to find that idiot French and Spanish tourists and locals had etched their names onto the bamboo stalks. They looked horrible. Did not see any identifiable English names though! The very friendly black house cat with a poor eye came over for a cuddle too. I was most tempted to catnap him back to England but as Ben pointed out he did indeed have a lovely home here with Mr YSL.
Unfortunately, my vision of Marrakesh as a mystical, magical city was beginning to wane by our 3rd night there. I was getting very fed up with the constant stares, people asking us for money, hagglers getting angry and actually being rude when we didnt want to buy their stuff. Even when you decline they continue to harangue you. I have never experienced that. You say no once usually and you leave or they leave. here, you try both but it just doesnt work. We even tagged on the back of a walking tour through the Mellah at one point so that they would think we knew where we were going. One fat bratty kid used the term ‘Jew!’ as an insult when we told them no we didnt want directions and no we weren’t giving them 10 dirhams for the privilege of talking to them. Being called a Jew really upset me. Not because I have anything at all against Jewish people but because I hate intolerance, especially from other Muslims. Jews still live in Morocco. Not as many as there were, but there are active synagogues, especially in Casablanca. I caught up with one of the fat brat’s mates and told him I was really annoyed with his friends and told him that Jews and Muslims should respect each other and that using ‘Jew’ as an insult was not on. The boy listened to what I had to say and agreed with me and said his friend was crazy anyway. I must add that the Islam we found practised in Morocco was very tolerant and welcoming. Some people did not like to talk about the extremist activity in neighbouring Algeria and wanted to distance themselves from that. I liked the way that everyone stopped what they were doing to heed the call to prayer. People were interested to find out where you were from and what you did. I never felt that anyone disapproved of our way of life. If anything, they seemed to accept that they had their way of life and everyone else had theirs. Women had seemed well-respected in Fes but in Marrakech I saw a group of young men behaving like dogs around a group of young women who were wearing really tight jeans, I think one of them had a mini skirt and boots on. The women ignored them. We met a female trader who told us she was the only one of her kind in Marrakech. She said she could guarantee hassle-free shopping! Lalla Mariem is at 367 Rue Kasbah, Bab Agnou.
On the subject of being an umarried Muslim woman in Morocco with my non-Muslim partner we had no problems. People generally only wanted to know if I was Moroccan and once they knew I wasnt they tended to lose interest. However, in Marrakesh I guess they get so many different visitors from all over the world I was asked if I was Brazilian a lot and also if I was Indian. Hardly anyone asked if I was Muslim and when they did and I replied yes nobody made comments about Ben as I had feared they might. They only welcomed him more.
Just as we were giving up hope of getting through a day through the souks alive, something happened. I decided to turn everything on its head and tell people that we were from New Zealand, not England and be really flamboyant and crazy. Maybe just taking a different approach could help us get through all the hustlers. Sure enough, talking in loud kiwi accents and shouting “ANDEK!” and “BELEK!” at people actually made them ignore
us. Anybody who saw us at a rare quiet moment did ask the usual “Are you Moroccan?” but as soon as I said “nah mate, Kiwi, New Zealand”, they pretty much lost interest. Even saying you’re from England is an invite to come and spend money, money , money! We had a very good day haggling then and came away with many things at good prices, hahaha! Much credit to our vendors who were good-humoured throughout. One offered Ben his shop for one night with me because I had ‘Berber’ eyes, LOL!!!
We ended our time in Morocco by going to a hammam for a good old clean up. I had been anxious about going to a local one as I didnt really know what would be a faux pas and so on but a foreigner-friendly spa does exist at reasonable prices: The Isis
. I paid 300 dirham (£20) for a scrub down -oooh all that dead skin! – and a 1/2 hour massage. Its fairly cheap by English standards but I think a local traditional hammam only charges 10 dirham for the turkish bath and about 60 for a massage! It was worth it though, they took great care of us and I felt smooth all over – think they used argan oil, its bloody good it is! Definitely go to a hammam, its up to you which!
So our North African adventure was over. Morocco was unlike anywhere I had been before. I thought after surviving cat calls on every corner from the boys in Borneo and hustlers urging us to go with them in Old Havana we could handle anything. You need a will of steel for Morocco but dont let your guard ruin chances of interracting with some impossibly friendly and warm people. Its true, we met some of the most greedy and nasty characters we have ever met on any trip but looking back, it was all worth it. Go forth, discover, have an experience! Morocco is indeed, magic.