We arrived in Marrakech on May 28th via the night train from Tangier. We had a whole berth with four beds to ourselves and although it wasn’t very big, it was plenty of room for the night and was comfortable enough to get a good rest. The train left around 10:00 PM and arrived in Marrakech at about 9:00 AM. It was a great way to make the trip as it saved us a hotel room for one night and allowed us to sleep through what would have been a very long long trip. After some breakfast and coffee in the nice, new, peaceful train station we headed out into the chaos of Marrakech. We got a taxi from the train station to the Medina where the taxi driver was kind enough to drive into the Medina as far as possible before the streets got too narrow, which got us pretty close to the hostel. A word about taxi drivers in Morocco here. Always, always, always ask how much the ride is before getting in. We’ve been good about this so far, but if you don’t you could end up at your destination and have the driver tell you the fare is an exhorbitant amount of money. This actually goes for pretty much anything in Morocco, which I have learned the hard way a couple of times now. We paid this particular driver 100 Dirhams, which was probably too much but I didn’t feel like haggling and it works out to about $12, which is still a bargain for a taxi rid in the U.S. When we walked into the Medina, the “guides” descended on us like flies on the proverbial excrement. This is where I made the first mistake of not asking for the price up front. Actually, the first mistake was engaging him at all. He approached and asked which hotel we were staying in and I told him. At that point, he said follow me, which we did, mistake number two. As we started walking, there were signs everywhere for our hotel and it was only about a five minute walk, maybe less. We could have easily found it ourselves but since I had talked to this guy he was now officially our guide. He was friendly enough on the walk there, asking us where we were from, etc. However, when we arrived at the hotel, the shakedown started. He wanted some money, which was fine and I was prepared to give him. When I offered him 10 Dirhams (about $1 for five minutes of work, which I thought was reasonable), he balked and said it was 200 Dirhams, more than $20. I told him no way at which point a friend of his showed up and they both started hounding us. It was actually a bit scary, but luckily we were right outside our hotel so there was an escape hatch if need be. After trying to scare us some more, I gave him 20 Dirham and they went away, thankfully. So, the lesson learned here is if you don’t want or need a guide in the Marrakech medina, don’t even engage them, and definitely don’t tell them where you are going and if you do, don’t follow them. If you do want a guide, make sure you agree on the price up front before going anywhere.
Our hotel was a place called Riad Caleche, which was really great. When we arrived at the place, I was a little skeptical because it was down a narrow alley, behind a metal door, and then another wooden door that was only about 4 feet high. When we knocked on the door however, the staff person opened it up and ushered us inside to a beautiful courtyard with a small pool, a tree, and tables surrounding. It was a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, but a nice surprise. They gave us tea and we talked for a while and decompressed from the train ride and the experience with the “guide” just a few minutes before. After settling in to our room, we headed out to the medina to find some lunch. Marrakech is a much bigger city than Tangier and the medina reflects that. Not only is it much bigger, but it is more confusing with tiny streets and dead ends all over the place. To add to the chaos there are motorcycles and donkey carts sharing the narrow streets with throngs of people. It is really an amazing place with so much energy and life happening all around, but it is very chaotic which takes a little bit to get used to. We headed to the main square called Jemaa el Fnaa on the edge of the Medina. The square itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site that has been used for hundreds of years as a market and the center of cultural life in Marrakech. When we first arrived there in the heat of mid-day it was a little empty, but still very lively with orange juice sellers and snake charmers plying their trades. We had some lunch at a small cafe near the square that was typical Moroccan fare of olives, bread, and salad made with onions, cucumbers, and tomatoes. After lunch, we went to the end of the square and checked out the Koutboubia Mosque, which is the largest one in Morocco with it’s minaret visible from just about anywhere providing a good landmark. It is a beautiful building from the outside (non-Muslims are not allowed in mosques in Morocco) surrounded by gardens that provide precious shade along with nice benches. We took a long rest on one of the benches in the shade before going back to the riad for a little siesta before heading back to the square at sunset when things really get lively. The mosque garden was also where we had our first encounter with an Islamic evangelical. He was a man walking around selling coffee to people in the park and I bought some from him. The coffee was really good, sweet with spices kind of like Turkish coffee and we talked for a little bit as best we could. He came around again after I had finished the coffee and told him how good I thought it was and thanked him for it. At this point he told me that I really need to read about Islam because he thought I am a good man, but I’m going to go to hell unless I convert. That was the gist of it anyway. It’s pretty much the same as I’ve gotten from Christian evangelicals in the U.S. and just goes to show that silly religious beliefs don’t discriminate on the grounds of religion.
At sunset, we went back to Jemaa el Fnaa for some food and to take in the carnival that it turns into every night. At around sunset, food vendors set up stalls in the square and compete vigorously for business. As soon as we arrived, we had them coming at us from every direction showing us menus and exptolling the virtues of their food. We finally chose one that we liked and sat down for dinner where I had some delicious kebabs and Jocelyn had vegetable tagine. After dinner, we walked around the square and took in the sights. There were women telling stories under tents by lamplight that had crowds of people enraptured. Of course, we couldn’t understand anything, but it was really great to see people so enthralled by traditional oral storytelling in the age of TV, movies, and the Internet. There was also very amateur boxing with fighters working for tips from the crowd, dancing boys (as it would be unacceptable for women to dance in public), and many musicians playing traditional Berber music with drumming, singing, and of all things, banjos. We spent most of our time listening to the music which fills the square and really creates the atmosphere making the place into a huge joyus party. The people of Marrakech are known as “the joyous ones” in Morroco and it’s easy to see why when you are in the square listening to all the wonderful music. The music is so fun to listen to with the drums pounding out complex rhythms and the singers executing beautiful harmonies. Just listening and watching, you can tell it is very spiritual as well as joyous music for all involved. Every time I hear it, I can’t help but have a giant smile across my face.
The next day, we did a self guided walking tour of the Medina. Highlights included the Ben Yousef Madrasa, which is an old Islamic college, and the Bahia Palace. Both were interesting and really great examples of Moorish architecture with the intricate tile work and stone and wood carving. The Bahia Palace is definitely the best Moorish site we’ve seen in Morocco with architecture that rivals the best Moorrish sites in Spain such as the Alhambra and the Alcazar.
That about does it for our time in Marrakech, and now on to the the Saharra!