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Africa » Morocco » Marrakech-Tensift-El Haouz » Marrakech
February 2nd 2019
Published: February 3rd 2019
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It’s always pleasing to set off on holiday when the weather at home is bad, but it’s a bit worrying when the first snow of the winter strikes the night before you leave. Mercifully, the roads remained clear, and BA cancelled European flights but not our flight to Marrakech. Despite a delayed departure, we arrived almost on time. We watched with a mixture of fascination and horror as the luggage carousel threw suitcases down a two foot drop, round a sharp bend and crashing onto the belt, inflicting visible damage in some cases. Mercifully ours survived unscathed! Aziz, our guide for the trip, met us outside, and in 15 minutes we were at our riad. Well, almost – building works meant we had to walk the last few hundred feet.

We were welcomed with a refreshing glass of mint tea, learning our first lesson of the holiday always to specify you want your drink without sugar. After settling in, the hotel owner walked with us to the main square, to be sure we knew the way. The need for this became rapidly clear as we set off down narrow alleys with tall red stuccoed walls, full of 90 degree turns and few recognisable features. Second lesson of the holiday – hug the walls to avoid being mown down by people on bikes or motorbikes.

The Place Jemaa-el-Fna features in all the promotional photos of Marrakesh and is billed as a highlight, but it definitely did not feel like that. Granted, the weather was grey, windy and cool, but the square was just a big open space with no notable buildings, just an unpleasant smell of mingled piss and horseshit, lots of stalls selling overpriced souvenirs, and people posing with monkeys on leads, playing music or charming snakes, all hoping to sucker you into paying to take a photo. Sub-Saharan Africans are everywhere selling fake Ray-bans, shirts, trinkets, watches etc. You cannot help thinking they are being trafficked north to try and cross to Spain and being forced to work by gang masters en route. We had a short walk, changed some money and retired back to our riad. We opted to eat in, which proved to be a sound decision as half way through dinner it began to pour with rain. Harira soup, lamb tagine and orange – probably the first of many such meals but very tasty, and cooked just for us as we sit by the log fire. And it saved going out when we were tired and it was pouring with rain outside!

Next morning daw clensar and sunny if cool. We meet up with our city guide, Massoura, a jolly if somewhat stout Berber who charges around the town at a cracking pace. He takes us first to the Bahia Palace, the home of the erstwhile Grand Vizier built in the 19th century. It is a fine palace but only a small proportion is open for viewing. It was subsequently occupied by the French when Morocco was their protectorate following the Conference of Algeciras in 1906 held between the Great Powers, when Morocco was placed under French and Spanish influence. The French made modifications to the Palace, but all quite tasteful – fireplaces to make themselves feel at home, sound ground floor windows etc – local architecture does not have ground floor windows as they don’t want people looking in at their women apparently.

We leave and walk through the Jewish quarter – there used to be 16,000 Jews living in the Mellah, the quarter near to our riad, but now there are only 150, most of them having departed en masse to Israel in 1956. There is one remaining synagogue when once there were many. It is the Sabbath so the guide suggests we say were are Jewish and go into the service, but we decide we cannot carry this off. It would be disrespectful and anyway we would be too easily caught out! It is fascinating though to see a Jewish community living and working in harmony with their neighbours in a Muslim country - although Islam here seems much more relaxed than elsewhere in the Muslim world.

We walk on and skirt the Royal Palace, the residence of King Mohammed VI and his family. It is vast but you cannot visit it or get any glimpse or impression of the treasures within. On to the Koutabia mosque, the largest in town and the one with the big tower you see on the tourist photos of Marrakech. However like every other mosque it is closed to non Muslims. Minarets in Morocco have square towers not the normal slim circular minarets as the style was adopted from the Romanesque style of church towers in Spain assimilated by the Moors when they conquered southern Spain in the eighth century onwards. Next to “le Jardin Secret”, built in the late 16th century by the local Sultan and recently renovated. It is two paradise gardens in the classic style – a fountain in the middle, the garden divided into four equal quarters divided by channels which feed the fountain with water piped from the Atlas Mountains since ancient times. In the corner of the larger garden is a tower and terrace where we take tea and a well earned break. We visit the tower where the tower guide explains the Sultan came here to make clocks, to admire his garden, and keep an eye on proceedings in the surrounding quarter. You get a good view over the city from the top of the tower.

Next we dive into the souks, an extensive warren of arcades, alleyways and shops selling all sorts of goods, interspersed with quarters where people do ironwork and silver work, make lamps, shoes, bags, sell spices etc. It is full of tantalising smells and the light tumbles in where it can to cast light and shade over the proceedings.

Emerging from the souks we are back in Jemma el Fna, where the guide says goodbye and indicates a good place for lunch. We go there, having decided he had no reason to lie about it, and we have a very pleasant lunch of chicken shawarma kebab and chips. The square is much improved after the rain, the smelly stuff having been washed away, but our feet are beginning to ache so we return to the riad to spend a few hours relaxing on the roof terrace surveying the town and the Atlas mountains which are unfortunately rather in the cloud today.

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