Marrakech is like nowhere I’ve ever been, which made it a shocking place to be dropped into.
The shocks began from pretty much the moment we arrived: the first being the unfeasibly long passport control lines that refused to move for what felt like hours. Once we eventually reached the passport control desk, the man there treated us with deep suspicion on account of us having jobs in the media.
Then followed the taxi ride to our Riad — something I would liken more to Grand Theft Auto than to a taxi ride in the UK. On roads seemingly without rules, our driver sped and swerved around people on bikes, mopeds and in other cars as if in a police chase, shouting at fellow road users throughout. He slowed down only to have actual arguments with a moped rider and two pedestrians.
We sat stunned into silence on the back seat, awed by what appeared to me as chaotic squalor unfolding all around us. Scruffy men shouting and gesticulating, women shambling about underneath swathes of material, dirty children running around, feral cats rolling in the dust and motorbikes roaring past in clouds of smog. We didn’t know what to expect when our taxi finally parked up in the midst of this shambles. But we followed our driver down a narrow street where some children were playing — I stopped to high-five a couple of grinning little boys — to an ornately carved wooden door. This was opened by a smiling French woman — Valerie, Riad Cherrata’s owner and our hostess for the holiday – who warmly invited us inside.
The moment the door shut behind us, it was as if we had again been transported into another world: one of perfect quiet and tranquility.
Invited to take a seat in a beautiful marbled room with a turquoise pool of water and piles of large, jewel-coloured cushions, we sat recollecting ourselves and moments later were presented with a glistening silver tray holding an ornate silver teapot, a number of little glasses and a plate filled with tempting little pastries. A smiling maid silently poured steaming greenish liquid from the teapot into two glasses, giving us our first experience of the ritual surrounding Marrakesh’s much loved thé a la menthe, or mint tea.
Expecting something herbal and slightly bitter, I took a tentative first sip from the hot glass and quickly fell in love with the sweet peppermint nectar that followed. The Moroccan pastries were soft and filled with marzipan, making for an addictive accompaniment that we easily reduced to crumbs.
After several more minutes, Valerie sat down opposite us and began to give us a ‘survival guide’ of sorts for Marrakech: how to find our way around, where to go, what to do, and how to stay safe amid the madness. She annotated much of this on a map that she drew while speaking, which she called her “magic map”. This really came in useful when finding our way away from and back to the Riad. She also thoughtfully gave us a mobile phone on which to reach her if we needed help.
Back into bedlam
Having been shown up to our elegant room and shown how everything worked, we readied ourselves and ventured out, primarily in search of a specific currency exchange she’d said had the best rates (there are restrictions on the Moroccan Dirham meaning you can only import and export a very small amount, so have to change the bulk of your currency within the country). Following the magic map, we went back out the door and turned onto the main street that would take us to the city’s main square, Jemaa el Fna (also spelled Jamma el Fna, Djemaa el Fna, and multiple other ways).
Even after our rousing arrival within the Medina’s walls and Valerie’s warnings, nothing could have prepared us for the vivid foreignness of the environment we found ourselves in. We made slow progress down the street, walking through bustling crowds past piles of rubble, wall graffiti and chaotic market stalls. The crowds were so thick that we could barely move at points, however that didn’t stop moped riders from ripping noisily through the masses of people, their fume-spewing exhausts sounding a constantly swelling and receding drone. This awful noise remained a constant in pretty much every street we walked through, regardless of time of day, vehicle restrictions or breadth.
When we finally emerged onto Jemaa el Fna, the overwhelming foreignness of our surroundings swelled to an awesome crescendo. Ragged donkeys piled with cargo, horses decked in regalia pulling carriages and men demanding our attention in hope of selling things left, right and centre. Desperate not to pull out our map and attract offers of ‘help’, we ventured down and subsequently backtracked up a couple of bustling side streets in vain; myself steadfastly ignoring various adulatory exclamations uttered by men upon clocking me (my pale complexion and long, freely flowing blonde hair undoubtedly made me quite the spectacle).
We eventually found the correct currency exchange place, the one underneath Hotel Ali, almost right under our noses; and it did indeed seem to have decent rates. Moroccan Dirhams in hand and unsure of what to do next, we began walking towards the Koutoubia Mosque, grandly towering over the square. To get there, we had to cross the craziest road I have ever seen. Imagine, if you can, a large road of multiple streams of noisy, fast-moving traffic where men, women and children dart fearlessly between unstopping cars and mopeds at random points. The only way of crossing safely, that we could see at least, was relying on safety in numbers — tagging along with large groups of unfazed locals.
The mosque was statuesque and backed by gardens (currently shut) but ultimately quite uninteresting. After taking it in, we returned to Jemaa el Fna and began to ponder dinner. I’d been considering eating food from one of the many stalls in one corner of the square, but after being subjected to the hard sell a couple of times felt too intimidated to do so. Instead, we fell back on something we remembered Valerie telling us about a restaurant in the opposite corner of the square with a red roof, next to two with green ones: a popular restaurant called Toubkal.
What immediately struck us as odd at Toubkal was the way in which we were shown to seats that were next to, rather than facing, each other on a long row of tables stationed outside. We found ourselves elbow-to-elbow looking out onto the bustling square, along with many other tourists. The next confusing thing was the prices on the menus we were handed, which seemed too low to believe. We thought the dishes under main courses must surely be starters with their tiny prices of 20-30Dh, which we’d learnt to equate to just under £2-3. Drinks, predominantly fresh fruit juices, came in at around 6Dh — less than 60p!
We went ahead and ordered anyway. Having read that pastilla was a national dish, I decided to try the chicken pastilla with orange/apple juice, while Steve had the chicken couscous with orange juice. This pastilla was one of the strangest things I’ve ever tasted: a sweet, crispy pastry case dusted with icing sugar and filled with a sweet, powerdery kind of mincemeat and dry shreds of chicken. Steve’s couscous was a little dry too and lacking in flavour, but otherwise decent. The juices, on the other hand, were lovely and fresh — as were all juices we went on to drink in Morocco. We finished our meals little more than satiated, but when the bill came back for around 80Dh (less than £8) we felt we really couldn’t complain.
It was then time to make our way back through the square that now, draped in darkness save for glowing lanterns and candlelight, had taken on a tantalising exoticism. What had felt dirty and chaotic now felt to be buzzing with life and magic.
The air of danger surrounding Jemaa el Fna’s various occupants had become one of mystical other-worldliness. The air rang with banging drums, jangling bells and chanting as brightly-dressed men danced; swelled with the whimsical piping of snake charmers; and echoed with creepy recitations of the Koran that emanated from loudspeakers on trolleys. Our eyes were drawn by jumping monkeys in nappies, pulling at the chains restraining them, and old women painting henna onto tourist’s white hands. The rows upon rows of market stalls fronted by piles of oranges, mountains of spices and rows of local crafts glowed magnetically. All of this stirred a thrill in my chest: a feeling that I’d been transported to the kind of Arabian wonderland depicted in one of my favourite story books, the One Thousand and One Nights. Warmed by this thought, I followed Steve back down the street that had brought us to the square.
Though the street was now far quieter and less crowded, the shops were still very much open. Locals looked to be falling over themselves to grab last-minute bargains from the piles of clothing on the floor, and crowding round a hole in the wall selling fruit smoothies as if it were a late-night vodka bar. The hubbub died away as we approached our Riad’s door, the maid letting us in with a friendly “bonsoir!”
Back in the tranquil haven of our room, we collapsed onto the bed and began to recollect our initial impressions of Marrakech. Our first few hours in the city had been surprisingly exhausting — mentally more than physically. It had been a great deal to take in for two ‘sheltered’ Westerners on their first trip outside Europe. But it had also been exhilarating. This was a place completely unlike anywhere I had been before, and my sense of adventure was awake and tingling. I looked forward to our first full day in this strange and wild city with trepidation, but, far more than that, with excitement.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2014, unless otherwise stated.