Marrakech: Markets, mountains and mayhem

Anyone who knows me will know I’m not a fan of the winter. Or, more specifically, the darkness that accompanies winter. Without fail I will moan like mad when the clocks go back and have regularly expressed my desire to hibernate until they go forward again. But, with a life and a job to attend to, it doesn’t seem hugely practical, so, I usually decide the next best thing is to book a holiday somewhere lovely and hot.

This year, unfortunately, we can’t afford it, so I’m making do with poring over photos of trips from previous years.
Here’s a selection from our trip to Marrakech a few years ago:

We stayed in the heart of the medina, or old town, in one of the many riads hidden within its walls. As we got out of the taxi and stared down a dingy alleyway we wondered what we’d done . Had we really come to the right place? And, if so, did we really want to stay?

But as soon as the giant, heavy doors of the riad swung open, we knew things were going to be ok. Stepping in to the peaceful surroundings from the hustle and bustle of the street outside was like stepping in to another world entirely.

We were led in to a courtyard with rooms surrounding it on all sides and given our first of many cups of mint tea. Served in tiny shot glasses, the sweet, syrupy tea soon became our new favourite drink – handy in a city where no-one really drinks alcohol.

We’d pre-ordered dinner that night and were presented with two huge chicken tagines, accompanied by mountains of cous cous and beautiful lemony chunks of potato.

Later that evening we decided to head out to the city’s main square Djemaa el-Fna to experience its bustling night market.

It’s hard to believe that by day the square is empty when, by night, it transforms in to a riot of noise, sound and smells, as stall-holders set up their wares and vie for your attention.

Stalls are piled high with food and diners sit side by side on ramshackle benches as they feast on a vast array of culinary creations.

While it was like no market I’ve ever seen before, it still had its parallels to those in Britain, with colourful characters all trying to get you to stop at their stall. “Jamie Oliver, Jamie Oliver,” seemed to be one of their favourite catchphrases.

While the square is undoubtedly one of the main draws for tourists in Marrakech, it is also full of the local population who come here to socialise and eat every night.

We were intrigued by a group of men on the fringes of the market who gathered to play a game which involved a sort of makeshift fishing rod with a hoop on the end, and dozens of empty Coke bottles – the idea being to place the loop over the neck of a bottle.

I’m not sure what the prize was as we were soon accosted by a man who I can only describe as a whirling dervish. Grinning a toothless smile he proceeded to dance in circles spinning the strands on the top of his fez, while holding his hand out for money.

Clearly, he’d spotted the naive tourists from a mile off and we had to be very persistent to get him to leave us alone – this for me was the main downside about the square. If it wasn’t him and his funny hat it was the henna ladies who grabbed your hands as you walked past and refused to let go.

While it is an amazing spectacle and one I would not have missed out on, it’s not somewhere to go for a relaxing evening stroll. You need your wits about you at all times. We ventured back on a second night and had a much better time, simply because we knew what we were in for and were much more prepared.

On that occasion we ate at one of the stalls and picked up a delicious meal of chicken, vegetable patties and rice for less than £5 for the two of us. It pays to choose your stall wisely, but we had a great time chatting to fellow diners who were sharing our benches.

During the day time we headed back to the vicinity of the square and the souks behind it. Here, you can literally get lost in the maze of alleyways, all lined with colourful bags, slippers and jewellery, or venture even further in to the spice markets where the smells wafting from the stalls are unbelievable.

It sounds like a cliche to say somewhere is ‘an assault on the senses’, but Marrakech really is. The markets are hot, noisy and smelly – not always in a good way – but they’re a real adventure, and so totally different to anything you’d find in Europe, even though they’re probably quicker to get to than certain parts of Greece or Italy.

An open-top bus tour on the second day took us around the walls of the medina and in to the newer areas of the city, but we found that the most interesting parts were those that could not be reached by car – let alone bus. The tiny alleyways of the medina are home to all sorts of amazing little markets and shops, as well as some beautiful architecture. It was much more fun to stroll around those and make our own discoveries, rather than relying on a tour guide.

On our last day we decide to escape the madness of the medina and head out to the Atlas mountains. Staff at the riad arranged a driver for us and, for less than £40, we got to see a very different side to Morocco. Less than an hour outside Marrakech the surroundings begin to change dramatically, and within two hours it’s a different world entirely.

Winding roads snake up in to the mountains and buildings are few and far between. Tiny grey houses, inhabited by the indigenous Berber population, cling to the hillsides. Living facilities are basic. Clothes are washed in streams  – no matter how cold the weather – and children walk miles along the steep roads to get to there nearest schools. But despite their remote location, all the children we saw had brand new backpacks adorned with popular TV cartoons – a strange contrast to their simple surroundings.

Our driver, Kaboor, was a star, taking us up through the clouds to an area used as a ski resort during the winter. There was no sign of snow during our visit, but the biting winds meant the temperature must have been a good 25C cooler than down in the heart of the medina.

We both agreed that heading out of the city for the day was a real highlight of the trip – and gave us a much better insight in to the country and its people.

Our final day was spent relaxing at the riad and soaking up the sun on its rooftop terrace before heading out to wander round a few more of the food markets located in the side streets. I ended up wishing we’d stayed for longer as it took until day three for us to really acclimatise to the madness and mayhem of the medina.

It might not have been the most relaxing holiday I’ve ever had, but it was definitely one of the most eye-opening and, as I sit here on a dreary November day, I would like nothing more than to be sipping peppermint tea on the rooftop of that riad…


One thought on “Marrakech: Markets, mountains and mayhem

  1. Me too Gilly, take me to the riad! We managed to find a few places that sold wine on stunning rooftop terraces all lit up with Morrocan lanterns. What I’d do to be there now! xx

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