01 May 2018

Marrakesh, Morocco 2017

Redux. Again, finding myself here, twelve years later. Some things were familiar!

The name Marrakesh has long conjured the essence of exotic faraway cultures. Many hippies of yore found a congenial stay here, some permanently. There is a considerable long-time ex-pat contingent among the population. While still the same city at its ancient core, certain elements have learned to cater to tourism ... to be expected. I have to say: unlike the lesser-known and relatively unspoiled city of Chefchaouen (an earlier post). 

The drive into Marrakesh from the southwest was a hellish traffic maze. It's the third largest city in the country with 900,000 population. First we had to find the right parking place in the medina, cruising streets so narrow I was sure our vehicle would get stuck between buildings. From there we walked to the riad, missing it on the first try; the GPS on Doug's phone did not work perfectly in the medina confines.

An elegant, pampering riad for two nights! Each riad we stayed in seemed to prove more special than the last one. Tucked away in the back streets of the medina, Riad Adriana was a serene rose-scented oasis. Literally. Fresh rose petals scattered in bed and bath greeted us.

We were completely entranced with our lodgings and its exquisite appointments the interior design; the obligatory fountain and a mountain of oranges piled nearby; the textiles, mosaics, lanterns, chandeliers; the gleaming brass sink and fixtures in the bathroom; lovely munchies awaiting. I was appointed to the "Bordeaux" ensuite on the main floor; all rooms entered from the courtyard or inner balconies.

But Doug was consulting with local guide Wafi and we hurried away since it was mid-afternoon. Our route to and from the riad only became familiar by the end of our stay. It consisted of navigating a few residential streets, then into the meat and produce section of the medina that eventually took us out to a parking area by the city wall. "Turn left at the barber shop," Doug reminded us if we should get lost. As if we would find the barber shop! Wafi had a heavy accent and as far as I could hear, had little to say; he was not a personable guy.


We drove, not far, to Majorelle Gardens, recently owned by Yves St Laurent who is venerated there; gay visitors (and others) pay homage at his memorial. Labourers were re-paving the entire street with bits of brick. We were lucky to bypass the queue stretching all the way along the block. Lovely place of tropical/desert plants, but crowded with tourists. A small museum showcases historical Berber dress and jewellery (collected by the original Majorelle owner, not YSL). Every piece was chosen with meticulous good taste, but alas no photography allowed inside. An elegant gift shop provides expensive souvenirs if you are so inclined.

Dropped off at Koutoubia mosque, we crossed the busy street to enter Jemaa el-Fnaa, the famous main square of the medina. But we had other purposes before joining the wide-open throng. We strode endless streets of souks following Wafi as he pointed out brass hammering, furniture making (a bridal chair!), weaving, wool dyeing; we saw the interior of an ancient fireplace bakery, a historic madrasa. and he steered us to selected merchants (always part of a tour guide's agenda). Wafi also ushered us into an argan emporium where we buy nothing. We nix the carpet seller. He was getting disappointed we were not buying from his selected souks. It was definitely a good tour but charmless Wafi displayed a certain air of bored superiority - for us or his job, we weren't sure.

Purchasing became a do-it-yourself project even though Wafi was supposedly there to assist. He sneered at the exorbitant price Catherine paid for a couple of scarves even though he silently observed the process. He disappeared when he saw me eyeing a colourful Berber dress. I persisted in a deal mutually satisfactory to buyer and seller. He, Wafi, then reappeared to steer us to an expensive dress salon of quality clothing. Nope, no interest from us. In his eyes we were irredeemable. Wafi apparently believes the myth that all tourists are exceedingly wealthy and have terrible taste. We saw the last of him not a bit too soon, all agreeing he had the personality of a cornered cobra.

We headed into Jema el-Fnaa for dinner, crossing part of the square. It was still daylight. I'd forgotten how much it caters to tourists — all the snake charmers, trained monkeys, trick performers, and so on. Surprising how many sad people were begging with signs claiming "Syrian refugees" ... Morocco has not been a known host to them. The famous water-sellers were absent at the time. Down a side street we went to Restaurant Riad Omar, climbing to the fourth floor dining terrace. Great view of the street and its bedlam below with the square in the distance, as twilight came. Best harira soup ever! Pastilla again, so big it has to be shared. Weariness sets in.

Thanks to Mark Charteris
The others stayed to stroll the square while Mohamed took me home. Crossing the suicide-traffic street to Koutoubia again, he took my hand protectively. A Casablancan, he told me he doesn't care for Marrakesh. I can understand why. The square is the iconic heart of the city, full of life night and day where you can seek out little gems of authentic interaction; but it is also like a hustler's paradise teetering on the verge of frenzy. After the short drive we got a teeny bit lost in the medina between the barber shop and the riad but someone helped us. We were grateful in many ways to have Mohamed with us. Doug calls him my brother. Since I'd dubbed Doug my son, now Mohamed is my other son.

We returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa next evening after a gorgeous day in the mountain villages. Three of us found a restaurant outside the medina where we could enjoy some wine. Grey (gris) wine on the menu amused me but it's pink, not grey ‒ mindful of a rosé. I learn later it's a product exclusive to the well-regarded Moroccan wine industry. An unexpected floor show added an aspect of social culture, although (dance critic) the belly dancer was too slim and dispirited to be truly authentic. The woman dancing with candles on her head was inexplicable: you had to be there.

Marrakesh, a city of contradictions, mixing tradition with tourism to the nth degree. It's busy and can be fun, exciting, but watch your wallet. In view of so many new places we'd seen outside the general tourism box, I have to agree with my other son.

© 2017 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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