Marrakesh

Visit my friend Othman!

Just before sunset every evening food stalls are erected in the main square of Marrakech – the J’ma el Fnaa. They are all quite similar, so it’s hard to discern which might offer the best deal. I always go to stall 72 where Othman works – I first met him a few days before his 21st birthday, when his ambition was to learn better English so he could progress to become a Silver Service waiter in one of the upmarket hotels. He’s changed a bit over the years: still working the stalls, he’s become a bit cynical, but when on form can be helpful and funny. He may remember me. Some stalls offer you a complimentary mint tea after you’ve eaten. If you’ve any food left over, and you are accosted by a woman selling tissues, you might offer her the remains of your dinner. She’ll have a plastic bag to gather leftovers to feed her family. They’ll be slopped in like a flash.

Museum Tiskiwin (aka Maison Tiskiwin) was created by Bert Flint, a Dutch anthropologist, and features art from Morocco, Mali and nearby in the Sahara. Housed in a beautifully restored riad tucked between the Bahia and Dar Si Said palaces, it showcases a selection of North African arts and crafts that chronicle the region’s cultural trading history. The attendant has a bee in his bonnet about ‘not taking photographs’. It is NOT forbidden, but he is of the opinion that it detracts from your experience and he informed me of such with force! Nevertheless, if you are interested in fabrics, carpets and quirky objets then it’s well worth a visit. The main exhibition info is in French but English handouts with copious descriptions are available.

The five-star Hotel La Mamounia, opened in 1923, is set in superb gardens that are almost entirely surrounded by the city’s 12th century ramparts. It is possible to get a taste of the luxury and experience the splendour without actually staying there. The main thing to note is that there is a dress code, so don’t turn up in trainers and jeans! It’s huge – so once inside keep walking straight through the building till you reach the café terrace area leading into the gardens. For the steep price of a drink, you can stroll through the extensive gardens, where you’ll also find another small café selling ice creams and pastries. We had a buffet lunch at the poolside cafe, which was frustrating as we were not permitted to swim – for that privilege you have to buy a day-pass. Check their website for current prices which seem to change by season. There’s also a Spa pass but you can get a more authentic Hammam experience elsewhere for a fraction of the price. 

There are so many wonderful Riads to discover at a good range of prices. I’m  recommending just one, Dar El Mudal. I met Gloria, its owner, in Kolkata, India, before she and her late husband, the artist Norman Douglas Hutchinson, settled in Marrakesh. The decor reflects their life-long and eclectic interest in beautiful works of art and furnishings and has many wonderful images (many of Gloria) painted by Norman. It has four air-conditioned double bedrooms available for adults only, each with its own bathroom.

Why would you want to stay there? Gloria is a gracious and delightful host. If you’ve had enough of tagine or couscous she may, for a fee, offer you an Indian meal using the locally available spices. We even ate home-made kulfi (Indian ice cream). She will help you organise a visit to an authentic Hammam where you are unlikely to see other tourists. Be prepared to be scrubbed and pummeled and showered as clean as you’ve ever been and hang out with the locals, who choose to go through this ritual on a regular basis. Men and women are kept apart.

In my opinion an excursion from Marrakesh to the Kasbah du Toubkal is not to be missed, despite the cost which is midrange, ie pricey for Morocco. The location is spectacular, at the foot of the highest peak in North Africa, and the cheapest option is to take a Berber Salon for four. If you are a couple, then paying the full whack is still worth every penny. Stay at least two nights and if you have the time and funds, enjoy trekking up to the comfortable Azzaden Lodge too.  It’s a challenging mostly uphill six-hour walk (though you can take a taxi back if desperate!) but thoroughly worth it for the views and the experience of passing through traditional mountain villages. You will stop half way up to eat a freshly cooked feast and take a rest before completing the hike. If you don’t have the time or funds, then, instead, opt for the complimentary walk offered each day to a number of nearby villages, generally taking a couple of hours or so. The Kasbah has won awards for its approach to responsible tourism and runs a project which contributes towards the education of local girls.

Another rather upmarket experience worth going for if you have limited time but not limited funds is to venture out to La Pause, just 45 minutes from Marrakesh in the Agafay Desert. It’s called ‘a luxury retreat’ – and offers a whole expensive holiday experience with accommodation and activities, I visited only to eat a traditional lunch, which was copious and served in my own tented dining/sitting room. There’s use of a shady new swimming pool and a great short walk to the top of the hill nearby for extensive views back towards the city and over to the Atlas range. If you wander in the other direction towards some prominent sculptures you’ll find a small valley where camels rehydrate at the stream. Lizards of all sizes scuttle by and a variety of birds are accustomed to swooping down to clear up the crumbs. La Pause is not easy to find on your own so you’ll need to arrange a pick up.

La Pause

Top tips

I booked my onward travel by rail, via this website, before I left home. My tickets were delivered a day in advance to my Riad, which saved me hassle and benefitted a local children’s charity!

Finding your way around the souks can be a challenge, particularly in Marrakesh.  If you ask for directions they often offer to accompany you and you end up taking a circuitous route to a completely different location (usually a friend who is hoping to sell you something) and can be expected to tip for the privilege. On the other hand, if you simply ask to be pointed in the right direction, the last few times I was there, you are pointed the completely opposite way.  Solutions: 1. Buy a really good map to the souks. 2. Know ahead of time the general direction you are heading. 3. Remember that some people are still trustworthy and kind and helpful! I found young boys who expect only a few coins very helpful and the older men approve of their entrepreneurial spirit. If all fails, it’s really quite fun and an adventure to get lost in the souks!

Medina Bikes

It used to be said that you can identify a true Marrakechi by his or indeed her bicycle. The city’s streets were once busy with cyclists, but they are now clogged with scooters and cars. To combat this congestion, electric buses were introduced in June 2016 and in November North Africa’s first bike-share scheme was opened here. There are 300 bikes stationed at ten hubs across the city; rental is not cheap enough by local standards (and you need a credit card or smartphone) and more cycle lanes are needed to encourage potential users, but it’s a start.

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