Published: June 12th 2011May 1st 2011
The heart of Marrakesh that comes alive at night with restaurants, belly dancers and fortune tellers.
The one cool thing about my train rides in Morocco has been how a group of 6-8 strangers who had never seen each other before would end up in a train cabin and by the end of the journey, be having an animated full-on conversation, all good-natured and full of laughs. Something like this would never happen in London. Shame I couldn't join in - my Arabic sucks.
The one shit thing about my train rides in Morocco has been how the cabins fill up with pollen once we get to the countryside. My hayfever was soon forgotten however when I received this text from Davies; "U in marrakesh already? Just heard there was a bomb. Hope u safe."
Maybe this was why the group conversation in my cabin was so animated.
I ask him for more details and he tells me that it happened outside a cafe, with ten fatalities. Shiiiiit.
I get a taxi from Marrakech's rather flash train station into the medina where my hostel is located. Unlike the medinas of all the other cities I have been to, Marrakech's is not walled-in, as the circumference of the town walls stretches for miles and the space
The biggest and most famous mosque in Marrakech. Admittedly most minarets in Morocco look exactly like this, but vary in size.
within the walls is vast. The medina is just a maze of streets, souks and alleys north of Djemaa el-Fna, the main square and epicentre of the city.
The taxi driver rather unhelpfully drops me at the end of a wide pedestrian street and tells me that Djemaa el-Fna is at the end of it.
This street is rammed
, shoulder-to-shoulder with locals and tourists alike. Progress is slow and I keep getting hassled by hawkers selling excursions and food. They all shout "Japan" and "Korea" at me and are really annoying. Carrying all my stuff, I look out for people who might try to nick something off me. It's all very unsettling.
I have walked down this street for a while now, but I still don't see the square. I decide to turn back.
My hostel directions tell me to look out for Cafe Argana, and to walk under it. Apparently this cafe is known by everyone, so I could ask just about anyone where it is.
I stop outside a massage parlour of all places, and I am asked by the man outside it if I need any help. There is a younger guy standing with him.
Equity Point Hostel
Yes, this was the hostel I stayed at. A hostel!
I ask them.
They both look at me in shock.
"Have you seen the news?" asks the young guy. "Cafe Argana...boom!!", he tells me as he uses his hands to mimic an explosion.
You are shitting me - the cafe I was supposed to find and walk underneath, was the one that was blown up eight hours ago?
"You are very lucky!" the young man tells me. Indeed.
I only had the hostel's address and a very non-detailed map on me, but the young man knew where it was - he tried to explain how to get there, but his English wasn't quite good enough. My directions weren't really of any use to me any more because Cafe Argana was blown up and police had closed off access to the area - I simply had no idea how to get to the hostel.
"Follow me", smiled the young man.
I normally wouldn't have, but this time it might just be worth paying a faux guide - the young man seemed friendly enough.
The young man was quite chatty - he introduced himself as Ismail, and asked me various questions about where I was from and whether I was religious.
Streets Of Marrakech
Parts of town that had little foot traffic were almost silent within the tightly packed walls of the medina. It was so easy to get lost in Marrakech.
When diplomatically I told him I wasn't religious at all, he was surprised. He then started slagging off Catholics and complained how they could do whatever they want ("they can drink, have girlfriends, anything") before talking about girls ("I like big butts - and Japanese women are very beautiful").
Ismail walked very fast - I had a hard time keeping up with him even at London pace. We seemed to be walking right around the medina before ducking into an alley and walking through a maze. It was a good twenty-minute walk.
"How much" I asked him.
"30Dh" he replied.
"How about 20Dh?"
"OK", he replied, still smiling.
I have to say he was worth every penny - arriving at the hostel, there was no way I would have found it myself.
I bade Ismail goodbye and thanked him for his help.
Equity Point Marrakech is aesthetically, the best hostel I have ever stayed at - the place was like a palace. The foyer was full of cushions and low-lying benches and chairs, set out in typically luxurious North-African style. There were two outdoor courtyards, surrounded by the dormitories - the main one had a swimming pool in
Where we gathered to drink and smoke in relatively luxurious surrounds for a hostel.
the middle of it. There was an eating area on the roof where they served food, and free-Wi-fi in the foyer.
After accidentally locking one of my dorm mates in the bathroom, it was now quite late and I wasn't too keen on venturing outside the hostel tonight - there would be no guarantee I would find my way back - as there was an anxious vibe in the air due to the bomb. So I decided to have dinner at the hostel.
"Dinner for one?" asked the hostel worker serving me.
"Yes, thank you", I replied.
What came out was a ridiculously humongous feast - a bowl of bread; a large plate of vegetables including boiled carrots, fried aubergine, rice and potatoes; a large bowl of lentils; a large bowl of Moroccan salad; and finally, about four skewers of grilled meat.
"I ordered for one", I told the hostel worker, "is this all for me?"
The hostel worker nodded while the two girls next to me give me a smile as I contemplated how to finish just half of this meal.
Towards the end of my feast, an Australian comes over to me and introduces himself as Craig. He
Not every shop sold leather handbags or metal trinkets.
invites me to join him and his crew for a few drinks after I have finished, which was nice of him. Sitting around the table was Craig, Scott from Scotland, and Tom, Ben, Jack and Gillian, all from England.
Inevitably, conversation moves on to the bomb blast - that Craig was just 50m away from when it went off. He was still a little shaken up by what he saw, as would anyone. He showed me a video of a man in the cafe just after it had happened - he was covered in blood and writhing around in his chair, in shock. He didn't seem to have any idea what was happening. Debris shot up into the air and started to rain down on the crowd. It was chilling to watch - you felt like you've seen a scene like this in a movie, but this was real.
Tom was also nearby when the bomb went off, and get this; during the commotion, he had his wallet pickpocketed! Are you kidding me? That has got to be the most opportunistic and morally bankrupt steal ever.
Everyone had heard different stories about what exactly happened but the most common story
These shops were the coolest looking.
going round was that a man walked into the cafe and put a briefcase on the counter while ordering three orange juices. He drank two of them very quickly, while standing up which was a bit strange, before saying he had to go and get something, leaving the briefcase on the counter. A couple of minutes later...BOOM.
Some were saying it was al-Qaida, some saying it was the Algerians, but it was definitely not a suicide bomber. Coward. The death toll at the time was about 15, most of them Spanish tourists apparently - people were all saying and hearing different things.
The hostel workers then tell us to scram as the eating area closed up, so we continued drinking and talking downstairs in the lobby for a while before eventually hitting the sack. I used the free Wi-fi to let everyone know I was OK - my parents wanted me out of there ASAP, fearing that the bomb was part of an uprising similar to what had happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. To me it was unrelated - terrorists - and security in the city would now be on red alert. Lightning doesn't strike twice either, so to
A common occurence in Marrakesh where a motorbike will go speeding through a souk. Crazy and annoying.
speak, so perhaps Marrakech was the safest place I could possibly be right now.
Having met up with my friends Sherry, Pratiksha and Lily in Fes
, I decided to meet up again with them today as they were now in Marrakech with their tour.
Just to show I really had no idea how I had got to the hostel last night I ended up down a dead end immediately after leaving the hostel.
Being right in the heart of the medina, all the roads are pretty much pedestrian, but it seems that you can drive motorcycles at absurd speeds through these "pedestrian" streets. You'll be walking through a street in a souk barely two metres wide with people walking in both directions before hearing the revving of an engine steadily creeping up behind you before flashing right past you before you even have a chance to turn around - just inches away from taking you out. The worse ones are the motorcyclists who charge right at you. You literally have nowhere to move to dodge them because the alley is so narrow so you just stand there and pray they don't hit you as they zoom past. You eventually
The Aftermath Of The Bomb
This is just f*cked up. Although I am counting my blessings - I supposed to come to this cafe en route to the hostel. I missed the bomb by eight hours.
learn to trust them as any sudden movement might take you straight into their path. It is all rather distressing and annoying and they really should ban motorcycles from the medina - it's crazy.
On the way to the cafe where the girls are having brunch, I pass Cafe Argana and survey the damage done by the bomb. The front of the double-storey cafe was completely blown out, and there was mangled framework jutting out everywhere.
Cafe Argana was chosen by the bombers presumably because it was a well-known tourist-dominated cafe that looked right across Djemaa el-Fna, and it was a location where the bomb could have maximum impact, both physically and symbolically - they were trying to scare everyone by choosing such a high-profile location.
To the locals' credit, people seemed to be just getting on with their lives, which is the best thing you can do in such a situation. The general mood of the city was slightly sombre but I didn't feel threatened or unsafe.
I end up meeting the girls at a cafe on the extremely busy street I was dropped off at last night. Walking around the place in daylight only highlighted the
If they had caught me taking this photo, they would have run after me and try to charge me for it.
fact I wouldn't have got anywhere last night without Ismail's help - the best 20Dh I have spent so far.
The girls wanted to check out the souks and do some shopping so I just tagged along.
I'm really not a big shopper or souvenir hunter and neither was Sherry so we both went for a walk through the souks while the other girls checked out a handbag shop.
The souks are covered mazes with shops all selling the same things, mostly leather and metal trinkets. The lantern shops probably looked the coolest. We then explored and sampled the atmosphere of Djemaa el-Fna and it's snake charmers and monkey handlers who only come out during the day. Rather than finding it an authentic part of the local culture, I thought it was all pretty gimmicky and deliberately aimed at tourists like most things are in this city. We also explored the area outside the square, including the Koutoubia Mosque.
An hour later and the girls are still in the same shop - it seems that the shop owner can change the colour of a bag right on the spot using some sort of polish for no extra charge - it
A bit gimmicky I thought, but still kinda cool to see. Just like you'd always you'd see.
just took a lot of time.
Having had a short tour in the morning, the girls wanted to head back to their hotel in the new town - so I bade them farewell and made my way back to the hostel.
Back at the hostel I bumped into Craig, Jack and Ben on the roof. They were there with their Jack and Ben's friends Elliot, Leo and Phil who had just arrived in Marrakech. They had all been participating in a charity hitch-hike from Edinburgh to Marrakech which was pretty cool - Jack and Ben had had some pretty rotten luck (stolen phones and belligerent policemen) so they just ended up taking public transport here to Marrakech, while the others actually managed to hitch-hike most of the way.
With not much doing, we ended up all having a few beers together where Craig told us a story about three Dutch guys who were extremely fortunate to escape the bomb yesterday.
Apparently, the Dutch guys were sitting right next to the guy with the briefcase, and when the guy hurriedly left with one of his three orange juices left untouched along with the briefcase, one of the Dutch guys suspected
One of many performers that brings the square alive at night.
something wasn't right and talked his friends into following the guy out the door. A minute later, with all three of them well away from the cafe, the bomb went off. It just goes to show the fine margins between life and death - pretty scary, but at the same time you just have to accept that these kind of things can happen and that whether you survive them or not comes down to blind luck. You can't live your life in paranoia.
We all started to get hungry, so we decided to head to Djemaa el-Fna for a feed.
I have to say that Djemaa el-Fna really comes alive at night.
The snake charmers and monkey men are replaced by belly dancers, fortune tellers and musicians. It was just a shame that you would be hassled into giving them money, and it was even worse if you attempted to take photos. This kind of behaviour is all down to economics - a lack of jobs and welfare make people desperate.
As well as performers, the square comes alive with temporary restaurants and food stalls that are erected in the square every afternoon. The restaurants are nothing more
"117 To Heaven"
The most entertaining of all the restaurants in Djemaa el-Fna.
than tents and they are all identified by numbers. As we approach one - "One-one-seven To Heaven" - the restaurant hawker came up to us and our British friends and started making the funniest English impressions, saying stuff like "bloody marvellous" and "hellodily-odily!" (even though that has more in common with Ned Flanders than the English, they kept on doing that one).
It was enough to get us sitting down in their restaurant where the entertainment from the waiters continued as they sang KC & The Sunshine Band's "That's The Way (I Like It)", pointed to Craig's shaven head and goatee while singing Cypress Hill's "Insane In The Membrane", and imitating Achmed The Dead Terrorist
- "Silence! I kill you!" - which definitely lightened the mood in an ironic way given the events of the previous day.
The food was good too - the fried aubergines and deep-fried potato cakes were delicious - even if the meat got a bit stuck to the skewers. I usually hate compulsory tipping, which in Morocco is the norm - but these guys definitely earned theirs. They thanked us for the tip - but they also thanked us for not abandoning Marrakech after yesterday.
The chef at 117 shows his defiance against the terrorists as well as having a bit of fun with it in an effort to raise spirits.
To be honest, it would have been too expensive to get out of Marrakech any sooner than I had planned and I only had to survive four days.
During our meal, a TV crew came in and judging by the reaction of the locals, the reporter was quite a famous one. He then came over to us and conducted a short interview with Jack, who I presume has now appeared on Moroccan TV. The interviewer basically asked him in English what the mood was like in Marrakech today and his thoughts on how the bomb has affected him personally and how it has affected tourism here. Jack pretty much responded that people were pretty much getting on with their lives and that things seemed pretty normal, which was pretty much the case - it was probably what the Moroccan government and the Moroccan people wanted to hear.
After walking around the square for a bit, we ended up back at the hostel, drinking and smoking hashish in the hostel lobby. There are a group of youths who constantly hang around the entrance to the hostel - which at first seemed pretty dodgy - offering hashish to all the backpackers,
Jack's 15 minutes of fame, albeit on Moroccan television.
so hashish was in pretty good supply. I imagine they must do good business, and I wouldn't be surprised if the hostel workers get a cut for letting them linger - they certainly got on well with these youths, joking and laughing with them.
While we were all having a few laughs, some of the other hostel guests didn't see the funny side as they stormed into the foyer asking us to shut up, as we were keeping them up. The hostel workers would then ask us to quieten down before kindly asking us to go to bed. While I can understand people wanting a good night's sleep, you are in a hostel so you should probably be expecting a bit of noise.
This illustrated one of the annoying things about Morocco - what everyone needed was a bar or a pub. But they just don't exist within the medina in Muslim Marrakech.
Meanwhile, I had been shifted to another dorm, that I had all to myself - in fact I seemed to have an entire wing of the hostel to myself, meaning my own new, refurbished bathroom, shower and toilet and uninterrupted sleep. As I was still suffering a
Where members of the ruling Saadi dynasty of the 1500s and 1600s are buried.
little from food poisoning, this was especially awesome.
Two days in, I thought I had better do some sightseeing.
On the way out of Djemaa el-Fna, a road into the square had been cordoned off and people had gathered in huge crowds along it. They were all waving Moroccan flags. Like he was in Fes a couple of days ago, the King's tour was in town - and I don't mean Elvis.
The first sight I went to see was the Saadian Tombs. The tombs date back to the Saadi Dynasty in the 1500s and 1600s that ruled Morocco. The tombs are beautifully and elaborately decorated and contain the tombs of the members of the ruling family of the time. The highlight is a tomb that contains twelve columns and is eerily lit.
After that, I went for a walk around the royal palace. It is not open to the public and the King's visit meant that security was extra-tight and extra pedantic. I had taken some photos of the outside of the palace walls and the vast amount of space in front of it, when I was angrily called over by a guard who demanded to look at
Twelve Column Room
Central and most important room in the Saadian Tomb complex.
my camera. Deleting the pictures I had just taken, my heart was in my mouth as I feared that he might confiscate it. He couldn't speak English but I worked out that he wanted me to flick through all my photos on the screen - hundreds of them. He soon realised that I wasn't a terrorist and handed the camera back to me and left, as I sighed with relief.
Although I now had a more detailed map, it still wasn't very detailed and pointed out restaurants and other businesses sponsoring the map better than it did the actual sights I was trying to get to. After a bit of an aimless wander, I finally found the Palais el-Badi.
Nicknamed "The Incomparable", the Palais el-Badi was meant to be one of the most splendiferous palaces in the world. These days all that is left are the towered walls that are full of storks and their nests, the once-resplendent gardens, and the 90m pool that once sat inside the palace. A refurbished pavilion contained some very interesting historical photos of what Marrakech was like in the early 20th century - it was very dirty and basic, a hub where traders met.
Ruined palace known as "The Incomparable".
There is also an underground network of tunnels in the palace that used to house prisoners as well as store chattels.
That night I ended up at another restaurant in the square where I met up with two of my colleagues who happened to be holidaying in Marrakech at the same time as me. Amy and Fabienne, along with Amy's friends Abby and Anne had been out til quite late the night before so it wasn't the most liveliest conversation we were having at dinner, but it was enough to talk about our experiences in Morocco.
The food again was good - we shared around a few plates of stuff and the lamb tagine, lamb skewers and deep-fried potato cakes were the winners. I was well and truly over my food poisoning, as I vacuumed up all the leftovers.
Despite it being a Saturday night, I think everyone was just wanting to get to bed. There is nightlife in Marrakech, but the clubs are too far away from the medina, in the new town.
We wondered around the souks again where Amy bought a handbag - I was after a fez, but they were charging 200Dh for them! Screw
Ceiling Inside The Bahia
The ceilings are always the most elaborately designed things inside a palace room.
that. Sherry got one the other day for just 25Dh. These things are only made of suede and cardboard you know. I did buy some overpriced nougat from one of the stalls - it was quite nice.
The girls then headed back to their five-star hotel in the new town, the Meridian - Amy had managed to get a hookup for some cheap rooms through a friend. Nice.
I would be seeing Amy and Fabienne again just a couple of days...back at work.
I had just three more places left to see in Marrakech on my final day.
Having got lost the previous day, I arrived at the Palais de la Bahia after it had closed. At least I knew exactly how to get there this time.
Nicknamed "The Brilliant", the Bahia was only built in the late 1800s and it was probably the most impressive sight I have seen in Marrakech. The palace seemed quite vast, rooms and courtyards all interconnected in a typical Moroccan, open-plan style. Feng-shui gurus would love this place. The detail on a lot of the ceilings in particular were pretty elaborate.
Next, I was having trouble finding the Ali Ben Youssef Mosque so
Another Ceiling Inside The Bahia
Funny how the ceilings are the centrepieces of each room.
when a guy asked me what I was looking for, I decided to let him take me there, knowing full well he would ask for a fee when we got there.
Sure enough when we arrived at the mosque two minutes later, he asked for 20Dh. I gave him 10Dh, before he rudely asked for more. I told him to forget it and walked off.
You could see the minaret of the mosque and it's compound from the outside but non-Muslims are not allowed in. Non-Muslims can however, enter the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa (college) right next to it which is supposed to be really pretty inside. I wouldn't know - it was closed.
The mosque is in a poor area of the medina and I was getting hassled relentlessly. A combination of trying to avoid hassle and my natural inclination to explore side streets meant that I made a few wrong turns, and wrong turns in a medina can cost you a lot of time and energy.
I got completely lost.
I walked through what seemed like slums and ended up on a wide road leading out of the medina. This didn't look right at all as there
Poor part of town that I walked through while completely lost in the medina.
were no tourists anywhere apart from a couple who looked just as lost as I was.
I normally don't mind getting lost in maze-like towns such as Venice and Dubrovnik where an architectural delight or an impressive sight awaits you around every corner - here in Marrakech, I was surrounded by dirty buildings with men and boys eyeing me up like a walking wad of cash. I just wanted to get the hell outta there as quickly as possible.
After about an-hour-and-a-half trying to extricate myself out of the medina, the biggest feeling of relief came over me when I re-found Djemaa el-Fna. I was now completely over Marrakech.
Overall, I didn't really like Marrakech. I'm not a shopper so I found the souks more of a nuisance than a treat, the sights here aren't that impressive and there are too many tourists which makes the locals pander after them and results in everything feeling forced, gimmicky and non-authentic.
I found it difficult to relax here with everyone hassling you and the place was always so busy - but I guess the hustle and bustle and the atmosphere in Djemaa el-Fna, particularly at night, is what Marrakech is supposed
to be famous for.
Overall, I though Fes was much more authentic in terms of delivering the riot of exotic sights, smells and sounds that you expect when visiting Morocco.
Although I hope it didn't - and I am sure that it really didn't - but the bomb may have had an effect on the atmosphere in Marrakech and my experience there. I admired how people just got on with it - I suppose there isn't anything else to do - and I hope that it doesn't scar the people of Marrakech too badly.
I had one more thing that I had to do before I left - I climbed up to the roof terrace of a cafe overlooking Djemaa el-Fna (where it is compulsory to order something - so I had another mint tea) to take some photos overlooking the square. Doing the same thing, were four peeps who I recognised from the hostel. Sharing some mint-tea-with-a-view with me were Alay from England, Jan from Norway, and Mike and Hannah from Canada. It really was a good view, and we sat back, chatted, and enjoyed it despite the chilly temperatures.
We then decided that we'd like to get
The most impressive thing I saw in Marrakech. Known as "The Brilliant", and it wasn't far off.
to a bar for a couple of drinks. There is nothing in the old town, so we jumped in a cab to the new town asking the driver for some tips. He ends up taking us to this Mexican-themed bar with no-one in it, which looked suspiciously like a strip club. The beers cost 25Dh each during happy hour, which was thankfully still going when we got there.
Conversation tended to focus mainly on football (or soccer if you were Canadian) and the curious, cheesy soundtrack that the place was playing. After our second drink, happy hour was up, so we thought we should probably move on - beers were now 50Dh, which got you a three-course meal in Chefchaouen
. On the way out, were some gentlemen at the bar with ladies that, let's put it this way, had that lady-of-the-night look about them.
There was a dearth of other places to go in the immediate area so we ended up sitting in a fairly upmarket Chinese restaurant just drinking. We all had done a bit of travel around the world, so we mainly talked about our experiences before moving back to football, which was always going to happen once
Inside the Bahia.
you got an avid United fan, an avid Arsenal fan (Alay) and an avid Liverpool fan (Jan) together.
Enjoying a quiet drink with a bunch of a people I had just met - a good way to round off my trip of Morocco, despite the fact I had to get up in five hours to catch a plane to Madrid...
I suppose I should leave with some final thoughts on Morocco;
- Food was on the whole very average apart from the meatball tagine I had in Chefchaouen, meat skewers, and the pastilla I had in Tangier. Tagines and couscous were very bland.
- People were friendlier than in Egypt and were more polite and courteous with their relentless hassling and they weren't as persistent. Morocco seemed more developed than Egypt - but most people are still very poor.
- In terms of sights, I think Morocco is more about the atmosphere and experience than it is about what there is to see. In saying that, I am a fan of the Moroccan and Andalusian architecture of the palaces and the general design of them. Mosques tend to all look the same though.
- Apart from Fes and Casablanca,
Also inside the Bahia.
the weather in general was average bordering on atrocious. I wasn't prepared at all for the cold and wet, which you wouldn't normally associate with Morocco. Even Marrakech was wet.
Overall, I have to say that Morocco isn't my favourite country - I enjoyed the experience, but I'm in no hurry to go back.
However, at the end of the day I'm an explorer at heart and when you explore, you discover. I might not like everything that I discover, but I get joy and satisfaction from making these discoveries and finding out for myself what different places are like. I never regret going anywhere - even Bratislava
. More often than not though, you discover something really cool.
I haven't finished discovering on this trip yet however - I have ten hours to kill in Madrid on the way back to London. What will I do with them? Find out in the next entry.
There are more photos below