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Arches, Doorways & Spices

MOROCCO | Monday, 10 March 2014 | Views [2055]

Colourful stall in the Marrakech Medina

Colourful stall in the Marrakech Medina

Technically my one year of travelling is up, however since the original 360 days of adventure was reduced to 348 days, I feel justified that, after an 8 week hiatus back in a damp and grey England, the time has come to complete the original mission. Accompanied by my son, I am adding Morocco to these adventures.

The taxi coughs and splutters its way through the narrow streets that form the maze of Marrakech's Medina, or old town. Stopping outside an unpreposessing facade which is notable as a riad only by the sign above the heavy, studded doorway. The first lesson here is not to judge what may lie behind an unimpressive frontage!

Morroco is quickly revealing itself to be a land of doorways and arches, but it is behind these that its treasures are found - coloured glass, carved wooden furnishings and ornaments, cool mosaic tiled flooring - all permeated by the lingering scent of heavy spices tinged with a mild stench of rotting garbage, hidden from view. At once pleasant and offensive, depending which odour wins out at any given time.

Wandering through the narrow streets, where most street names are written in Arabic makes navigation rather confusing. Noting landmarks and relying on one's inbuilt sense of direction can prove challenging, especially when little shops opening onto the roadsides bombard the senses with a myriad of vibrant colours in cloth, rugs, ornaments, pigments and ceramics, while large sacks of aromatic earthy coloured spices emit their heady perfume and vendors beckon you in to browse, testing your resistance to their persuasive sales patter. Trinkets of silver and brass sparkle in the naked light of the overhead energy-saver bulbs. Wooden carved souvenirs, jewellery inlaid with turquoise and amber, woven baskets and a few gaudy key rings complete the impression of having stepped into a genuine Aladin's cave. We are invited to sit on a carpeted bench where soaps, oils and spices are presented and explained. All that is missing is the flying carpet, but at this point anything seems possible and the appearance of one would not seem untoward.

From the narrow partly-shaded alleys where cars, scooters, bicycles and pedestrians jostle for space, the large market square basks in the full midday sun and provides welcome relief. A sole olive tree stands forlornly among the scattered stalls - some shaded by worn umbrellas, whilst others are left to be embraced by the perfectly blue skies. The warbling sound of a local flute-like instrument alerts us to give wide berth to a nearby spot where two old men sit on a worn carpet shaded by a large, faded umbrella. Beside them are large circular discs about 15cms thick, and under which lie the snakes they purport to 'charm'. More appealing are the monkeys which have been trained to obligingly clamber onto your shoulder as you pass by, inviting a photo opportunity - for a fee!

"Guides" are to be found at every turn and at first it is easy to mistake the offers of help as being genuine hospitality. Some are. Some will tell you that there is no charge but then you find yourself being hustled to 'just have a look at my shop'. Time is something they appear to have in abundance and even after your prolonged leisurely stroll through whatever attraction they have pointed you to, they will still be waiting at the exit - next stop, their shop! I presume this works on some sort of introduction commission as clearly you could not run a shop whilst wandering around the streets guiding tourists.

The Ben Youssef Medesa was the lodging for a centre of learning, specialising in the sciences and theology, that was considered well ahead of its time. Students with the financial means took rooms overlooking a main courtyard decorated in mosaics, arches and with a swimming pool as it's central feature. None of the 132 rooms could be considered large, but some of the smallest ones are little more than the size of a cell, without even that most basic necessity, a window! Today, long after the last students have left, it remains an interesting attraction.

According to some of the locals, no trip to Marrakech is complete without a trip to the tannery. Countless uninvited offers of directions attempt to push us in that direction, even telling us that the museum was closed being a Friday. It was not! I'm not entirely sure what their motivation was, but we did not go there.

Six hours on foot and we have visited the main attractions we had hoped to see today, as well as finding a few extras along the way. Back in the main square and a glass of chilled freshly squeezed orange juice is a welcome distraction from aching feet. Tourism ensure that cafés abound serving both fast western and delicious traditional food. Perhaps the hop on - hop off bus would have been an easier option?!

Against the skyline the snow-capped mountains sit in stark contrast to the flat bustling city where a thin veneer of dust gives everything vaguely static a matt appearance. Dusty green foliage against sandy terracotta walls, no flowers in evidence on this warm March afternoon. Donkeys, their coats matted and dirty, stand resigned to their fate in front of battered carts pulling the livelihoods of their owners. Some of the finer horses find themselves, blinkered against the traffic, pulling carriages of fare-paying tourists. From the weathered old man selling loose cigarettes off the top of a cardboard box, to the veiled lady walking through the souks selling small packs of tissues, each Dirham is hard-earned and each day the cycle of survival begins again.

During our many wanderings through the confusing streets of the Medina we find Kui-Zin, a restaurant whose virtues have been extolled on Trip Advisor, and we head inside for a light supper. The walking has worked up an appetite and the food is so good that we find room for a slice of French-inspired tart, following the incredibly aromatic and delicately flavoured lamb and orange tagine and delicious Moroccan chicken curry. Mint tea completes the meal and we leave feeling comfortably full and extremely pleased with our restaurant choice.

There is an unmistakable stamp of French colonialism here and after Arabic, French is so widely spoken that I am grateful for having a good command of the language. There is an effective transportation infrastructure in place so that getting to Essaouira (our next destination) is straightforward - although not having booked in advance we have four hours to wait for the next bus!

There is a strange feeling that Morocco does not quite belong in Africa. The Africa I know, in the East, Central and the South bears no resemblance to the North, which feels more like it should belong in the Arabian Peninsular. Given the vastness of this continent, it really should come as no surprise that such diversity exists.

Tags: arabic, architecture, marrakech, medina, souks, spices, tagines

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