Dawn and dusk are my favourite times of day … at least when I’m travelling. There is something about seeing the day emerge from the night; cities and landscapes come to life. And dusk is the busiest and often happiest time of day wherever you are – the work day is over, food is being prepared, children are playing after school, friends and families gather to talk and relax. Marrakech delivers at both ends of the day.
Travelling to Marrakech at the end of April last year, I was overcome with excitement. A new country, a new continent awaited. Flying down from Madrid, as we crossed Gibraltar I looked out the window of my Easyjet flight, and saw two continents. Extraordinary!
Arriving in Marrakech at dusk, the road from the airport was lined with flowering rose bushes, we smelled the scent in the still warm air and watched lovers sitting chastely on benches amongst them. Families and friends strolled the wide roadside pavements, the women colourful but demure in their long gowns and scarves, the children playful. The tourists in their horse-drawn carriages snapped shots as the setting sun gave a special light to the city, the ochre buildings and city walls taking on a beautiful dusky pink hue. Entering the old walled town, the bustle of the early evening was evident, the streets thronging with life – women shopped for dinner at the open air markets lining the narrow streets, children played and the weary men made their way home after the working day.
The car pulled up in the middle of a market area. A man waited – “Mo” the manager of our Riad. Following a warm greeting, Mo and the driver took our bags. “Follow us,” they said, plunging into one of the darkening and narrow paths leading off the street. And so we did. Blindly following our bags and two strange men as they twisted and turned down the narrow alleyways, until we came to a walled off dead end. There is a beautiful, ornately-carved but very small door in the alley wall. “Mind your heads,” Mo said as he opened the door and ushered us through to our Riad, “people were smaller 400 years ago.”
A Riad is an old private home converted into a hotel. Our Riad had only six rooms, and was gorgeous. After the chaos outside, it was the clichéd tranquil haven behind the plain walls of the alley. Personally, I’m quite partial to a cliché if it looks like this. The building was based around a tiled courtyard, with a fountain, small plunge pool (which looked decorative but was actually quite deep, as swimming pools are not allowed in the city walls), flowers and friendly smiles. After settling into our divine room, we were served a candlelit dinner in the courtyard. Traditional home-cooked Moroccan food under the stars. Perfect.
At dawn the next morning, we awoke to the sounds of the call to prayer from the nearby mosques. What a fabulous way to begin our days in Marrakech – listening to the call to prayer, seeing day break through the stained glass windows of our Riad bedroom, and hearing the birds and the city awake. Of course, being a heathen, I fell back to sleep until it was a more decent time to face the day. (I said I love dawn, I didn’t say I was a morning person!)
Dawn and dusk may be special in Marrakech, but the times in between were full of colour and exhilaration. We knew this new continent would bring some excitement. And it did. Whilst Marrakech can be stressful, dirty and dusty, crowded, noisy and hot, there is such an energy, a vibrancy about the city, you can only feel stimulated when there. I cannot imagine being bored in Marrakech.
Breakfasting on the roof of the Riad gave a hint of the delights to come. Across the rootops, all a uniform height with hundreds of satellite dishes, we could see the odd palm tree, minarets, and the snow capped High Atlas Mountains. It was hard to imagine that the Sahara Desert was beyond them.
The souks – a section of the old walled town where winding alleys become bustling markets – are the place to start and finish in Marrakech. At first it was thrilling, then frustrating as I realised no holiday snaps could ever convey the sheer number of exotic photo opportunities.
Getting lost in the souks (or the rest of Marrakech) is part of the fun of being there. Sure we probably ended up walking a kilometre or two (or five!) more than we had planned every day – and took several hours longer – as a consequence, but there were always interesting sights, sounds and smells to hold our interest and forget our sore feet. At first it can be daunting, as the stall owners pounce on you, seeking their first sale of the day. But a smile and a joke eases the pressure. We found they loved to laugh. “Berber belly” they said to my husband as he tried to bargain them down. I on the other hand was offered a student discount for the first time in 20 years. They definitely had a sense of humour!
Everything was for sale in the souks. Vegetables of all colours, flowers, sweetmeats, and raw meat for sale, where no part of the sheep was wasted. Recently tanned leather was rather smelly, but was transformed into colourful slippers, handbags, and luggage. Metal products – lamps, vases, teapots for sale. Spices piled high, bright and colourful, competed for space with equally colourful silk stalls. A particularly friendly spice stall owner, trying something other than the hard sell, showed us all his spices, herbs, and medicines, letting us touch, smell and taste them, teaching us the uses of each – frankincense and myrrh, sandalwood and amber – saying simply “learn today, buy tomorrow.” Chameleons and tortoises were for sale – whether for pets or food we were too nervous to ask.
Although the alleys were too small for cars, donkeycarts and motorcycles seemed to manage to manoeuvre everywhere. Poor old donkeys, they were a common sight pulling carts laden with building materials, or goods for sale. Truly beasts of burden, they are still integral members of the Moroccan workforce.
The ultimate destination at the end of a souk shopping adventure for all tourists was the Djemaa el Fna, one of the largest squares in Africa. After the dark, crowded souks, emerging into the square we felt as if we could breathe again. But spacious doesn’t mean boring. Surrounded by shops and stalls, restaurants, banks, hotels, and the mosque at one end, and filled with orange juice and fruit stalls, henna sellers, snake charmers, cock fighting and performance groups, it hums at every time of the day.
We found seats at a restaurant overlooking the square, and another day on its edge. Over a mint tea or a cool drink, these were great places to watch people – locals and tourists alike. The food here was not of such good quality, and service was perfunctory at best. But the view made up for it. Dusk though was the time to be there, when in the centre of the market food stalls were set up. Kebabs – skewers of beef and lamb and chicken – were popular but there are more exotic things to try if you dare. Steam rose across the square as the sun set.
We didn’t see much animal life in Marrakech. Unlike Asia there are few dogs. Muslims believe they bring evil spirits into the home. So conversely there were a lot of cats. I like cats, so I wondered what they lived on. I do know they can’t catch these birds anyway.
The beautiful storks, with their huge nests, and swooping flight over the city were a thrill to see. We sat eating a relaxed tagine lunch watching these two come and go from their nest.
Which brings me to the food. The Moroccan cuisine was a highlight of the visit. It is known for its tagines and couscous. We had some delicious tagines – lamb and prunes, chicken and apricots, meatball and eggs, and my favourite, beef with fennel and peas. Spicy and delicious. Tagines came off the charcoal fires fresh to us, and so we felt perfectly safe eating them at local stalls around the medina. The best food though was at the Riad, where we got good home cooking – much better than that in the modern, sophisticated, designer restaurant touted in the guidebooks and unfortunately recommended by a tastebudless English couple from the Riad.
Our Moroccan meals began my favourite part – the appetisers. The Moroccans call them salads, but they’re really selections of cooked vegetables, dips and other nibbles, similar to tapas. At one restaurant our set menu included these salads, and we were served 11 (!!) small plates with olives, cooked beetroot dip, aubergine mixture, zucchini/nut concoction, liver, tomato salsa, roast potato, lambs brains, pureed pumpkin, roast nuts, lentils. Our favourite of these though were at our hotel, and there was one which was grilled eggplant stuffed with a tomato /capsicum mixture. Yum!
Pigeon pie or Pastilla was also popular, if impossibly sweet, along the lines of baklava. We couldn’t believe the size of the pie we were given at one restaurant, as it was supposed to be an appetiser but could have fed a hungry family of four! And it was all washed down with Moroccan wine – we had a chardonnay at the Riad which was surprisingly good – or more commonly, mint tea. Mint tea was hot and sweet, but the real drama was when it was poured. Holding the glass as low as their left hand could reach, they lifted the teapot above their heads, pouring it into the glass without spilling a drop!
Back out in the medina, just as the bustle, the crowds, and the chaos in the markets got too much, we would come across welcome oases – like the palaces (both modern and ancient),
or Ben Youssef Koran school.
I fell in love with Moroccan architecture. It was just stunning – elegant, symmetrical, heavily decorated but with subtlety, and not at all garish.
Sadly, we only had five days in Marrakech. Our visit was merely a side-trip from Spain, a taste of Morocco to see what we thought. A taste was all we needed. Marrakech is obviously entry-level Morocco, exotic but manageable. But it left us wanting more. Tangiers, Agadir, Ouarzazate, Fes, Casablanca, Essaioura, the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains. They’re all calling to me …