Holidays from the Island

After yet more airport terrorism in the UK, I was reluctant to take my annual holiday by travelling through London, so Morocco seemed to be an ideal destination. My friend Tricia could travel directly from the UK and I could join her, relatively easily in Marrakech from Fuerteventura. Binter Airlines fly "direct" from the Canaries - i.e. via Gran Canaria. OK so it cost me more and took me longer than it did for Tricia to travel, but it was completely stress free!

I did think about taking the direct ferry from Fuerteventura to Morocco, but Tarfaya is a long way from Marrakech and I didn't fancy travelling this on my own.

One very welcome sight for me on arrival at Marrakech airport was a sign to the smoking room. I expected the usual utilitarian extractor room with no seats but was very pleasantly surprised when I found luxurious sofas and tables!

I haven't been off the island for 8 months and I must admit the traffic was a shock. Moroccans drive on the right side of the road, most of the time, but there doesn't seem to be a concept of zebra crossings. They are there painted on the road, but the cars seem to take no heed of them. we found the best way was to wait for a local and then place them squarely traffic side to you and cross with them.  Mind you, all power to the creative modes of transport they use!

That looks heavy!

And that looks even heavier!

Just the four on a bike - the lady at the back has a child on her lap!

How do you like your eggs?

Anyone for watermelon?

The streets in the Medina are so narrow, it can be a very tight squeeze at times.

Once we'd worked out how to cross the roads, we headed to the shops! Marrakech is famous for its souks or markets. These consist of miles of narrow alleyways packed with stalls, all with the stallholder ready at the entrance to pull you in.

It is very easy to get lost in these streets as most of them have no names and even if they did, the maps of the area are very scanty on detail. There are specialist areas for particular types of goods, such as fabrics, carpets or jewellery.

Most of the goods are locally produced and often hand made, however you do occasionally come across a googly like this shop selling air conditioners and some very snazzy baby walkers!

When shopping here, most of the time you do need to be prepared to bargain and we soon learnt some of the principles behind this.

  1. If they ask you how long you have been in Morocco, tell them at least a week and they'll take your offers a little more seriously. Try and learn a few words in Arabic, even if its just thank you and goodbye.

  2. As goods are not priced you will have to ask the shopkeeper. Any response to his offer, apart from just walking away, means you have started the bargaining process, and it is unlikely that you will walk out empty handed - just with a lighter wallet! We had occasions where we were chased down the street by a thwarted shopkeeper brandishing his goods!

  3. When they ask you for your best price, you should be aiming to end the process at around 60% of their original figure, so start low.

  4. Have a joke and a laugh while bargaining to take the stress out the the process.

  5. There are around 11 dirham to the euro so remember this as sometimes you are haggling over just a euro!

  6. Don't listen to other travellers who have always got the bargain of the century. If you like what you've bought and were happy to pay the price than you have a good deal!

On the plus side, you are often offered a drink, water or mint tea, while you are bargaining and in the heat of the city this is more than welcome. If you're lucky the shopkeepers will also be prepared to help you to try the goods. In the photo below, we were n a spice shop where we were treated to a half hour lesson on using different herbs and spices, both in cooking and for beauty and medicinal purposes. Tricia then had the delight of being made up with a Kohl pattern on her face, and was thereafter called Fatima!

Be careful though, as I tried some rose oil to help ease dark circles under the eyes and found I was allergic to it and ended up with red circles instead! The spice shops are amazing with many mixes for different foods. One of them was a 65 spice mix. I didn't know there were 65 spices! You may also see live tortoises and salamanders in cages which are used for some sort of medicinal cure.

Smelling of musk and rose oil we moved on and found a lovely bazaar hidden away up some stairs where the prices were reasonable and they didn't haggle too hard. Here Fatima, aka Tricia, was treated to a demonstration of how the men from the Sahara wear their headscarves! Could be useful here when we have a calima or dust wind.

I bought some great leather shoes here for under 6 euros. It is called Bazar Clyna and is owned by Jaafar. To get to it. Go to the tombs and with your back to the entrance, go right and follow the road round to the archway. Just before the archway, turn right down a pedestrian street, go to the end and turn right again. The shop is on the right just after the junction on the left. If you go there, say hello to him for me, as he made shopping a very pleasant process!

If you really don't want to bargain, there are some fixed price shops. We went to the Complexe d'Artisanat near the tombs which is air conditioned and has three floors of goods to choose from, including some beautiful carpets, which they can ship home for you.

One other thing to watch out for is the unofficial guides. They will attach themselves to you at every opportunity and they make the PR's here on the island look like girl guides! If you ask them where a shop or restaurant is they may well take you to a completely different shop - where they get commission, or tell you the place has closed - which it probably hasn't! Another ploy they use is to ask you if you remember them from earlier on - even if you weren't actually in the country at the time!

You can easily travel round the city in petit taxis which will take up to three passengers. These do have meters, but you may have to ask to make them put them on. A lovely trip is to take a horse drawn carriage. This will show you the sites, including some of the newer areas where a lot of development is going on. It was nice to see that solar water heating was present on many of these new builds and I must admit the workmanship looked excellent.

We didn't get a commentary with this tour but this was probably because our French was not too good. There is also an open top double decker bus that you can hop on and hop off and you pay one price for the day - around 12 euros. This has commentary you can listen to in English.

We went to the Palais Al Badi which was built around 1600 and at the time was known as one of the most beautiful palaces in the world. It is largely in ruins now and has been looted at various times during its lifetime, but still retains a feeling of grandeur, with sunken gardens and a 90 metre central pool.

Tucked away in a corner is a fabulous Imam's chair used in religious ceremonies with intricate carving and inlay.

Not far from the place are the Saadian tombs which are stunning. These are not underground and you won't see any bodily remains, but the carvings and decoration are well worth seeing.

This is a detail from one of the ceilings, finished in gold leaf.

There are some lovely buildings in Marrakech and even on the simplest of houses, beautiful doorways.

Once you've done your shopping and sight seeing, a good place to go to recover is the Place Jemaa al Fna in the centre of the medina or old town. There are lots of restaurants and cafes with terraces where you can relax and watch the world go by. At night this is full of food stalls and entertainers.

We were staying the in Hivernage district which is wall to wall 5 star hotels. July is mid season so you can get some real bargains on accommodation. I used www.travelrepublic.co.uk  which had a good choice, reviews and very low prices. We had a great room with a balcony and a very welcome swimming pool!

You can also stay in a riad or traditional house in the medina area. In summer I would recommend you look for one with a pool and if possible air conditioning as it can get very hot.

The third main district in Marrakech is the Ville Nouvelle, or new town. We ate here on a number of occasions and had some wonderful food. Tricia is a vegetarian and its always tricky trying to get a meal that will give her some variety. One place went to was Al Fassir which is run by a women's co-operative. For her starter she had Moroccan salads and 17 of them arrived! She wasn't complaining after that. I had a tagine which is essentially a stew cooked in a traditional earthenware dish. Yummy.

On our last night in Marrakech before we headed for the coast, we went to the hotel across the road which had a sign for a traditional Moroccan restaurant. It seemed closed but we persevered and followed a sign to a Karaoke bar - aargh - and met the restaurant manager who led us to a delightful open air courtyard with a fountain in the middle.

 

Here we were treated to wonderful food accompanied by Andalusian music and a belly dancer who managed to pick up two little girls to help her!

Well rested and several kilos heavier - both in our luggage and in our stomachs! - we were ready to embark on the next part of or trip - out to the windy city of Essaouira on the coast.

Corinne Sellens