“I believe that Marrakech ought to be earned as a destination. The journey is the preparation for the experience. Reaching it too fast derides it, makes it a little less easy to understand.” ― Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights
Just the name solicits a rush, a place I have longed to see for as long as I can remember. Bright colours, crowded squares, snake charmers, street food. I was keen to rush in to it, immerse myself in the whole experience. But of course you can't leave the scene of all those movies without a bit of drama first.
Flash back to Ait Ben Haddou and 8am in the morning. Vanessa sits on the wall, peacefully taking in the view, as the small town with its tourist stalls and street vendors starts to slowly come to life. A local store owner calls up to her, asking if she can write, as he has a friend in Australia he would like to thank for some gifts. Of course being helpful, she follows him to his store to assist, sits down and pulls out her wallet setting it on the floor to search her bag for a pen….. Like the obvious plot of a movie…you can immediately see at which point things went pear shaped…
No more than ten minutes would have passed between Vanessa leaving the store and realising she had left her wallet behind. However, questioning of the store owner and a quick search of the store did not present her wallet, which unfortunately carried a large sum of their US dollars for the trip.
Over the next five hours we got to see Moroccan law enforcement at work. Essentially this involves a 15 minute drive to the police station and filling out reports amid some “heated discussions”, driving a number of local police officers back to the scene – their operating budget appeared not to include police vehicles. Yelling, wringing of hands and crying at the store, followed by driving the police back to their station. More form filling out. Driving the police officers to a larger police station about an hour away – they really need their own car!
In the end it was up to Vanessa to decide if the store owner went to prison to await a trial. This is a country where you are guilty till proven innocent. Being that this had taken most of the day in 30 degree plus heat, and while it didn't look good for the store owner, I guess it was circumstantial evidence at best and Vanessa finally decided to drop the case. The local police would pursue the matter, but you have to wonder how hard, or what would happen if the money was found.
Two lessons for all of us – especially where the law works differently and at its own pace. Don't carry all your money with you at once and don't leave sight of your wallet.
So at 3.30 in the afternoon we finally set off for Marrakech. And by this time I felt we'd earned our destination.
The name Marrakech originates from the Amazigh (Berber) words mur (n) akush, which means “Land of God.” After Casablanca and Rabat, it is the third largest city in Morocco and is nestled in the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the dunes of the Sahara Desert. Its location and contrasting landscape has made it a enviable destination in Morocco.
The best place to start exploring Marrakech is without a doubt Djemaa el-Fna – the famous main square. Walking across the square during the day – dodging cars, bikes and horse carriages, it is easy to get waylaid by snake charmers, henna tattooists, potion sellers. At night it's dancers, singers, acrobats and the fabulous street food market. Djemaa el-Fna is a place that engages all your senses.
Sadly though it is still only a shadow of its former self, almost exactly a year from the deadly bombings in a popular tourist cafe overlooking the square., For locals life goes on and they continue the daily performances for theslowly increasing number of tourists returning to this amazing city.
From the northern side of the square narrow streets wind off into the medina and souks, promising all sort of delights and souvenirs to bring home. But be prepared to bargain hard.
But there is plenty to see in Marrakech outside of shops, if like a number of long suffering husbands and boyfriends you get tired of the souks and the hassle. There are a number of attractions either free or for as little as 10 durham (about $1.30).
The first of these are the Saadian Tombs. The tombs, belonging to the dynasty which ruled Morocco from 1554 to 1669, escaped plundering by the rapacious Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail, probably because he feared bad luck if he desecrated them. They lay half-ruined and half-forgotten until they were rediscovered by a French aerial survey in 1917. The tombs' long neglect has ensured their preservation and they have since been fully restored to their original glory.
A short walk from the tombs is El Bahia Palace, an ornate and beautiful palace, popular with both guided tours and stray cats. The palace is well worth a visit and gives a great impression of what it must have been like to be a 19th century nobleman in Morocco. There is a nice garden with banana flowers, tranquil courtyards, and other lovely plants.
Koutoubia Mosque, right besides Djemaa El-Fna, is named after the booksellers market that used to be located here. It is said that the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque is to Marrakech as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. At night, the mosque is beautifully lit. Like most mosques however, non-muslims are not allowed inside.
Two days is not enough time to get to know Marrakech intimately… the city is more of an acquaintance, that promises a friendship full of surprises and wonder if you make the effort to know it better. Perhaps now I have the benefit of hindsight and experience, I will return one day to better appreciate Morocco's crown jewel.
Our final day in Morocco is as good a time as any to reflect on overall perceptions of the country. Morocco gives the impression of being a country under construction. Mohammed VI, the current king seems beloved by all. And why not? After the rule of his autocratic father, the reforms and restoration of the country are widely welcomed by the Moroccan people, and it is a contributing factor as to why Morocco was one of the few arab countries not caught up in the “Arab Spring” revolutions of North Africa and the Middle East. Moroccans are essentially happy.
The country itself is varied, much more than expected. Coastal cities with crashing surf, the rolling green hills of agricultural lands along the coastal strip and inland valleys, snow capped ski fields of the Atlas Mountains and sandy peaks of the western Sahara.
Driving from one side to another gives you the chance to stop and take it all in. The roads for the most part are well maintained, though if travelling solo, be prepared to be checked by police who are situated at the main exit and entry to each town. The trains running between major towns are clean and usually run on time. Travelling through Morocco seems to be easy and fairly hassle free – lost wallets not withstanding!
It is this varied landscape that shapes the lives of the Moroccan people. Traditionally better off arabs live in the cities in the north leaving the more rugged and harsher landscapes to be farmed and grazed by the berber tribes. The sand dunes of the south are the domain of the nomadic “blue-men” who wander the desert in their blue robes and turbans leading their caravans of camels.
To meet the locals you need do nothing more than sit outside a cafe and drink mint tea…the national past time it would seem. Particularly outside of the main cities people seem genuinely happy and friendly. Inside the cities medina's young men joke with the tourists who walk past, flattering them to improve the chances of a sale. But the selling pressure is fairly good natured and easily handled for the most part. You could imagine that things have changed little in hundreds of years.
Yet scratch the sruface and everywhere are the effects of modernisation, nomads with mobile phones, berber villages with satellite dishes. City cyber gardens with ubiquitous free wi-fi through out. For better or worse – Morocco is being brought into the 21st century.
But for now at least – it still retains all the romanticism I had hoped for.