We love Morocco, but then it would be hard not to. It loves you back. Several people have said to us, “Thank you for choosing to come to Morocco”. Marrakech is just as friendly as Tangier in that respect.
I had my first glimpse of the countryside around Marrakech before Christina woke up in our couchette. It was devoid of trees in most places. Around some settlements there might be a row of trees and around one or two fields a barrier of small cacti, but not much else. The previous day's rain still held in puddles, but otherwise the soil looked dry. A couple of donkeys leaned against the walls of a house and a couple strolled at dawn along a dusty path towards a settlement that might have been a single house, but it was impossible to tell with a high wall around it.
At Marrakech station, a taxi driver approached us, shouting and rushing to make sure nobody else got there first. He grabbed our bags and stowed them in the trunk of his cab, which I noticed did not close properly. I showed him the hotel address and asked the price, which he said was 100dhs. We got in, but it was clear he had no idea where our hotel was and made a phone call to find out. He took us across town through what were wide modern streets, lined with large office buildings and apartments. Before long we approached the old town and came across a square that looked like an earthquake had struck the centre, but saved the buildings. There was a double fence across the middle, directing traffic through a series of increasingly larger and deeper potholes. Our luggage rattled around in the trunk and threatened to bounce out onto the road. I will think of this Main Street through a city centre when I feel like complaining about potholes in Northumberland.
The road began to wind through streets surrounded by high terracotta walls. Ahead looked like a dead end, but at the very last moment we swung right through a hole cut in the red stone and took a sharp turn left on the other side. The next road looked the same and at the end we turned once more. At this point, just as I was thinking how difficult it would be for someone coming the other way, a man tried to embed himself and his bike into the metres thick wall to avoid certain death at our hands. Perhaps that's why the walls are this colour I thought. After a few more hair raising turns, negotiated without maiming or killing anyone, we arrived at a door buried in a high wall with the name of our hotel Ksar Anika as the only sign there was anything behind it.
The door opened and we were ushered into a cool and lamp lit reception area. It was clear our arrival so early was unexpected. However, unpeturbed, they led us through to a double courtyard with a small pool on one side and huge pots of plants on the other. They took away our order of drinks, leaving us to relax with the scent of orange blossom and the sounds of small birds. After breakfast we were shown our room, where a large double bed sprinkled with rose petals awaited us.
No time for that we thought and after a change of clothes we chose the Jardin Majoralle as our destination. The people at reception thought we should take a taxi, but we were determined to walk and so they accepted our decision, but not before equipping us with a card in English and Darija (the local Moroccan Arabic) to show to strangers and taxi drivers should we get lost and an umbrella to ward off the threat of rain. The latter worked as a talisman in that the sun shone the rest of the day.
Google maps did get us there and back without mishap, but its simple street plan did not do justice to the patchwork of narrow alleys and backstreets full of market stalls and the Souk with its smells sights and sounds. The journey was around 4 kilometres, but of this only the last half a kilometre was not lined with stalls and stores selling Berber handcrafts, clothing, fruits, olives, shoes, barbers and a host of cafes offering 'cuisine morocaine ou vegetarienne'. The latter were advertised with flyers carrying the same pictures and details with only the names of the cafe changed.
When we got to the Jardin Majoralle there was a queue to get in. Something we didn't expect on a late February afternoon. We paid for the garden and museum and really enjoyed both so much I cannot say which I would recommend more. The garden was the work of Yves St Laurent and is a spectacular, yet very intimate space, an homage to Henri Matisse. That Matisse was a great influence is shown not only in the the use of colour throughout the garden, but in the exhibition of 'love posters' near the museum which St Laurent sent as new year greetings to friends and customers. The garden is an oasis in the city, a mix of tropical, desert and mountainside planting, with cacti, tree ferns and jasmine alongside bougainvillea and bamboo groves, interspersed with pools full of golden carp, or rills in the Islamic style, dividing different areas. The pots that line the walks are a mix of terracotta, powder blue and lemon yellow. The pools and the museum building are a deep Majorelle blue that belies any notion that this colour is cold and unfeeling. It sings.
The museum contained within a painters studio, built by Jaques Majorelle, is a story of the Berber people told through its culture and crafts. These are not viewed as dead artifacts from a different era, but manifestations of Berber tradition that still resonate in the life and politics of modern day Morocco or the Mahgreb. Many of the things on display can be bought in the stalls in the market place and not just for tourists. If the Berbers as a people have been marginalised in many of the places they live, it is apparent that they have not only pushed back, but their influence is everywhere in local culture and architecture.
One thing we still have to find out is how and where they make their things. From the cottons and wool used in carpets and clothing, the dyes, the intricate metalwork and jewellery, the wood used in combs and other furniture, there is no sign of that locally. We will have to find that out.
Traders in the markets in the old Marrakech are not as persistent as in Tangier, perhaps the result of more exposure to resistant European tourists, but there are still lots of young men waiting to point you into their restaurant or guide you to the major tourism spots. In Marrakech they assume we are French. Their opening gambit is to ask, “Vous ettes Francais?” As a respite from this, I started using the few random words of Welsh my dad used to adorn his English. As most of them I only know orally and could not therefore write down and one or two are not to be written in a blog that might be read by sensitive souls, I should just allude to the fact that I got a few people to say 'Wales is great' as they tried to pick up what I was saying to them. I might try the other idiom my dad used, Cockney rhyming slang and see what the linguists make of it.
In the marketplace, much of the produce is made by women. However, most of the sellers are men and the customers women. Christina finds it easier than me to dive into the scrum of women searching for a bargain in the clothes stalls. She's used to jumble sales in England and this is tame by comparison. Some of the cafes here by contrast are strictly male affairs where you don't see any women. They are places full of smoke too, so we are not missing out on something we'd like to join in. Other places are less gendered to use the current parlance and not just the tourist venues.
Women are not absent from any where we could see and styles of dress are as varied as in any Global city. It is not uncommon to see pairs of women riding a motorbike through the streets of the Medina. These bikes and bicycles are a serious hazard in places and riders get up very close to pedestrians, making a real fuss if people don't get out of their way. If I was whatever the equivalent of mayor is here, I'd ban them, certainly between normal market hours. There are other vehicles moving around, from carts pulled by donkeys, or specially designed ones with motorbikes welded to them and even handcarts. Most of the streets are too narrow for ordinary vehicles even without people in the way, but there are some where taxis can get to.
We took our food back to the hotel having failed to find a bottle of wine. I did buy one from the hotel and it was both Moroccan and very tasty. It went well with the olives and bread. Went to bed exhausted but happy, not having heard the result of the Man City-Liverpool match, otherwise these Liverpool fans might not have slept so peacefully.