(Original art work by Aaron Lee @aaron_illustration)
Wonky eyes, huge and gluey, glanced up as we were lead down the streets of the Medina to Riad Dar Moulay Ali (£44 a night). A minute, dusty kitten, paws and tail tucked neatly away, was watching a world of legs striding past. Curious about the pedestrian traffic, it shied beneath a derelict wooden door in response to my extended hand. I could just see the eyes of the mother guarding several other kittens, my kitten pushing in amongst them.
Behind the thick and elaborately carved doors, punctured here and there into the flat earthen clay street walls, you are just cm’s from the turbulent noise of city life but you would not know. The sound is soaked up by the soft, absorbent walls of the Medina; reaching high, protecting the sanctity of their peaceful innards .
Through a cool, tiled corridor we turned into the bright sunlight of the Riad’s open courtyard and found a romantic oasis. Subtle, dusky coloured mosaics patterned the walls and tables and a deep azure pool glimmered as the centre piece. Three storeys above, the whitewashed inner walls of the Riad opened up to the blue sky, drenching the balconies below in sunlight. Our room inhaled the fresh air through wide Moorish doors and patterned glass windows flung open.
I threw myself down onto the Berber fabrics of the bed, but with only three days to absorb our first African experiences, I was soon hustling Aaron back onto the busy streets.
Le Jardin Secret
The labyrinth of russet walls lead us to Le Jardin Secret; the photosynthesizing embodiment of my aspirations for my own window-sill cactus collection! Palms, cacti and succulents burst from the beds of a Riad renovated from parched ruins. Their ferociously repellant spikes guide you from ragged beauty, the feisty nature of the surrounding desert entrapped within formal beds, and into the meticulous geometry of the Islamic Garden. Here, the rogue, waxy leaves of the exotic plants are replaced by resilient specimens with gnarled brown trunks and water conserving, musty green leaves, more suited to the demands of geometric taming. This bounty of water was a statement of wealth, even the green and blue tiles are so vivid they seem to be dripping with condensation.
In a roof-top café a waiter poured us sweet, fresh peppermint tea from a silver pot into gold decorated glasses. Thick with sugar and the bitterness of fresh leaves, it soothed the dryness of my throat from travelling and refreshed us in the mid-day heat.
As the sun dropped, so did the temperature. The juxtaposition of desert city and the Atlas’s snow capped peaks became less pronounced. We joined the spectrum of human and animal life in the UNESCO world heritage Jemaa el-Fnaa square looking for dinner.
The square is a maze of pop up food stalls, juice vendors and roaming hawkers; everyone wants to stop you and give their pitch. Burning food, enticing food, raw food, stale sweat, overpowering aftershave, stray dog, begging children, screeching vendors, excited children, tourist chatter, thieving hands, persuasive arms, watching eyes; an assault on every sense.
We stepped towards a menu and an arm ensnared Aaron.
“All stalls sell the same, but we are the best, fuck the rest.”
Variations on the theme, all rhyming, were shouted by every vendor. We pulled ourselves away only to become wound up in successive arms. Before we knew it we were being herded towards tables already laid with bread and olives.
“Come with me Ali Baba,” followed us, singling out Aaron for his facial hair.
I was seriously hangry at this point and aggravated by all the shouting and grappling for our attention so we just sat down at a table. The aubergine we’d been promised was suddenly no longer available once we’d parked our bums so despite having torn hungrily into the bread set before us, we waved the man away and left. He cut his losses and moved immediately onto the next passer by.
Aaron’s flowing locks and abundance of facial hair was not conducive to anonymity as we tried to slip back through the tourist crowd. We are stopped wherever we go by people wanting to comment on his hair, why should Marrakesh be any different? As Aaron’s hairy profile came into view, the men we’d previously brushed off renewed their attack with increased familiarity.
Eventually we gave in and were charged an extortionate 300 DH (~£24) for a tiny plate of lamb skewers and fried aubergine! I was just glad to finally have a full stomach and be out of the hell hole!
Sitting in one of the roof-top restaurants on Jemaa el-Fnaa’s periphery the next night, we laughed at our beginner’s mistake; always agree the price first. For the same price, this evening we each had a tajine and 2 glasses of fresh orange juice! I spent the rest of the holiday in search of something as delicious as the beef and aubergine tajine of Café Kessabine. There was however no comparison and we returned on our last night!
El Badi Palace
With a bloated stomach (no restraint exercised at our carb-filled breakfast) I needed to burn a few calories before the Hammam we had booked that afternoon. We power walked to El Badi Palace (70DH) to explore the ruined ‘stork palace’. Storks nests line the high walls of the Saadian Dynasty Palace, after whose decline the majestic birds claimed what was left of the place.
We entered through a side alley off a busy road; still not used to the peace afforded by the absorbent walls in Marrakesh. In the first courtyard, more massive than a football pitch, your mind is given leave to paint splendor upon the rugged bones of the palace, bleached and weathered by nature’s hand. Four sunken, thirsty gardens, each as large as Le Jardin Secret (but deprived of its pampered beauty), flanked a shallow, algae clotted pool running the length of the courtyard. A dilapidated structure at its head, mirrored greenly in the still water, reminded me of the carefully conceived water features and reflections at the Taj Mahal.
Everything is on a grand scale, but dust now dominates these ruins; monotone reddish-browns where vibrant tiles, paints and fabrics would have been. A corner stairwell containing delicate tiled steps leads to a balcony view across the city; a patchwork view of flat roofs, bright cloths lifted in the breeze and a rainbow of cultivated leaves and flowers. Either side, the storks watched from their vast, straggling nests.
Hammam at Riad Galli Spa
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried about spilling over my bikini in the hammam; there was no bikini involved! For Aaron there were fairly modest, disposable black shorts, for myself little more than a string thong – there was almost no point to it! For the lady who bathed us, scrubbing the boobs, bums and everywhere else of strangers was an every-day occurrence; she didn’t care in the slightest about our nudity.
No-one was embarrassed when my string thong slipped or when she scrubbed all the way up Aaron’s leg under his pants! We sat against the warm walls of the vaulted, underground wet room, like drowned rats, and giggled rather than giving way to very English blushes.
(I remembered this from Thailand where I went for a massage with an almost stranger. We were brought into a twin cubical and told to strip. Whilst being manipulated through a Thai massage, we both had our boobs flung around by the masseuse’s jerky movement’s right in front of each other! It was hilarious, and a very quick way to make friends!)
We were first rubbed with black olive soap which was scraped off with a rough sponge glove. Using broken English we were all in hysterics at the amount of hair which came off Aaron! It wound itself firmly amid the fibers of her glove – you could have made a small cat from it by the end of the session!! I hope she threw away that glove!
Sahara Desert Trip
The Saharan Desert awaited us at the end of an 8 hour mini bus journey. At 7AM we were outside the Medina walls, waiting for our pick up. It didn’t arrive until gone 8AM and, as catching a desert sunset was a major selling point of the trip, any stops along the way were rushed.
(We booked our trip in advance from the UK, most sites looked to offer the same experience so we just opted for a one with a mid-range price. We booked through Get Your Guide with a company called Marrakesh Travel Services, and I would not recommend them. The trip was rushed due to the late start, the camel ride in the evening and morning was only 15 minutes each, not the 2.5 hours advertised and the food was meager.)
Gaining height as we left the dusty bowl of Marrakesh, the moisture saturated air allowed prickly pear cacti and argania shrubs to flourish. Eventually though, altitude and cold again restricted life to those more hardy species and the bare rock of the landscape was softened by a layer of snow. We could see the veined peaks around us with rivulets of black where snow-melt brought stone to the surface.
On a lofty plane, 1160m above sea level, resides lonely Aït Benhaddou, once a vital stop on the camel caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. It began as a fortified granary on the crest of a low hillock, a rough outcrop of buildings now topples downward from the peak. Made entirely of earthen clay, the walls, floors, roofs, seating areas and even ovens; the city blends primordially into the rock.
The comings and goings of so many stars and film sets has left little visible trace of glamour (besides the gateway built for Lawrence of Arabia). No electricity or fresh water flows for those who chose to carry on the traditional way of life in this village.
A gaggle of children awaited us at a sand-bag stepping stone river crossing. Wise to the ploy, I refused the reaching hands and hopped precariously to the other side unaided, breathing a sigh of relief when Aaron followed suit. (I’m not normally so mean, bringing only about 400 MAD for the trip we had to be stingy!) On our way back the sturdy down-stream bridge served us just fine.
Men tightly wrapped against the sun and wind-borne sand were re-plastering the walls and buildings of the village. A continuous layer of this clay coats literally everything, as if it were all just a play dough model stretched and formed from one ball of material and baked hard in the sun. They dipped caked hands into mucky buckets for a handful to daub against the wall and smooth flat. They live their lives here, our guide explained, and did not invite the hoards of tourists with their cameras.
This green smear of land is so isolated. From the high granary all around is brown, until the snow capped peaks of the High Atlas rise still devoid of vegetation. Despite the apparent oasis, the water flows heavily burdened with salt dissolved from the mineral rich Atlas lands; a respite for neither man nor camel.
Moving down the opposite side of the mountains, we passed through towns and villages whose buildings blended perfectly with the sandy ground. Long facades of walled-in settlements let slip a break here and there; We glimpsed the vitality of the private lives pulsating inside the practical, mundane fortifications. A further drive and 15 minutes by camel into suburban dunes, still clinging half to the tall rocky outcrops, not yet ready to be birthed into the desert proper and we were at our Berber camp.
Heat seeping still from the depths of the sand, warmed our backs, juxtaposed against the cool breeze. Aaron and I lay still and silent whilst a myriad of shooting stars swooped above us. That night I was offered more wishes than the UK skies give up in a lifetime!
The cold eventually triumphed, penetrating though my thermals and driving us to the quilted nest in our tent.
At three am the cold had really taken hold, gripping the night with its teeth; unwilling to let go. Icy claws snuck under our sheets and scratched at my skin which demanded layer upon layer of clothing before I could drift back to sleep.
8 hours back through the low and high Atlas returned us to Marrakesh. The stops were barely worth mentioning and it was night when were arrived at our Riad. Four days is far from enough to discover the secrets of a city as ancient as Marrakesh. I was returning though with beautifully exfoliated skin, sand stubbornly hidden in my shoes, fur on my clothes of the many cats I stroked and memories of a clay city bedecked in the most inspirationally beautiful mosaics. Enough to make me want to return and explore deeper into the continent of Africa.
In My Footsteps:
- We stayed in two different Riads:
- Riad Dar Moulay Ali for £56 a night. This Riad is beautifully rustic, in the quieter end of the Medina. The host couldn’t be more attentive and the rooms are huge and comfortable, the breakfast has more choice than most places I’ve stayed but is carb-heavy!
- Riad Chamali for £74 a night. This Riad is glamorous, the epitome of what you imagine a pristine Moroccan Riad to be; sparkling mosaic, orange trees blooming in the courtyard and fresh bright colours. However it didn’t feel authentic, the breakfast was uninspiring and was in a rather unfriendly neighbourhood. I felt like we got much more for our money in Dar Moulay Ali.
- We flew into the country and took a private car directly to our hotel. If you’re going to go in using public transport, Mymap’s free offline maps app is a must – the riads are difficult to find even with directions!
- Not including the fee for the Sahara trip Aaron and I each had around £40 a day – this did not stretch as far as we thought – souvenirs = cheap, food = expensive. Expect to pay around £13 (low end) for a meal with a soft drink inside the Medina.
- Sahara Trip – do not book through the same company as me. Most Riad’s will book these trips (and many others into nearby towns and the Atlas Mountains) for you once you’ve arrived – I’ve got friends who had much better experiences this way. (For reference we paid £75 per person for a 2 day trip, only dinner and breakfast included, 2 camel treks and a tent with a bed in over night.)