Impressions of Marrakesh
Updated: Feb 23, 2020
This is most definitely not a travel blog (as a borderline-agoraphobic nerd who likes the sun less than your average vampire, I prefer to spend most of the time hidden in my flat exploring other worlds through the comfort of my PlayStation!) but my recent trip to Marrakesh was so interesting that, for this week’s post, I thought I’d download some of my thoughts about the city.
Me and my vastly superior half spent three nights there just over a week ago, staying in a riad (traditional bed & breakfast guest house place) in the southern end of the medina (the part of the city enclosed by old city walls and characterised by tiny, intersecting maze-like streets). Our accommodation was lovely, with really considerate and friendly staff, and seemed incredibly peaceful when we arrived via taxi from the airport to be treated to some delicious sweet tea and biscuits.
Once we had unpacked, we ventured outside, and that’s when we realised just how much of an oasis of tranquillity the riad really was.
Marrakesh’s old town is bonkers. You feel like you’re on a conveyor belt, part of some endless production line of tourists being funnelled through the souks (markets/bazaars) where you will be enchanted, annoyed, hassled, insulted, complimented, ripped off, massaged, stuffed with great food, nearly trampled by donkeys, and then spat out at the other end feeling completely exhausted.
When I started writing this post I was determined to avoid using the words ‘heady’ or ‘fragrant’, but it really is impossible to ignore Marrakesh’s extraordinary olfactory assault. Incense pours from the mouths of the shops that line the streets and alleys, particularly those selling herbs and other cosmetics, mingling with the scent from the brightly-coloured heaps of spices and the petrol fumes from the motorbikes that speed past, making little effort to slow down as they squeeze between tourists and shopkeepers alike. Sometimes you’ll inhale the enticing smell of sizzling street food, sometimes the reek of animal shit, sometimes the discarded rotting meat that the city’s army of stray cats is nourished by.
Your eyes will be equally stimulated, drawn into a charmingly-lit Aladdin’s cave of lamps and vases (until you realise that there are dozens of these, selling the same tat), peering down crooked alleyways at the slitted windows and salmon-coloured walls, or soaking in the mind-melting mash-up of modern and ancient technology (donkeys pull carts along the street while digital signs flash overhead, Marrakechis in traditional djellabas jostling for position with people in baseball caps and sportswear).
Of course, the side-streets pale in comparison to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, which you quickly realise is the inspiration for any chaotic market scene in any film you’ve ever seen. Performing monkeys on chains and snake charmers abound (avoid them unless you like animal exploitation), while vendors aggressively hawk their wares, laughing as they jab you in the stomach and tell you you could do with a good meal (I was happy with the compliment!) Henna tattooists, dancers and other gaudily-dressed performers vie for your attention (and your money), while wiser tourists observe the turmoil from surrounding cafes, whose rooftop terraces provide a perfect vantage point.
Every exploration of the old town seems, somehow, to lead back to this churning human maelstrom, as though even the city itself is in on the scam, shifting and reorganising itself around you like the maze in Labyrinth, determined to ensnare you.
If this all sounds intimidating, it wasn’t really that bad. The stallholders have mastered the art of parting you from your money, so it’s best to just accept that you’re going to spend a bit, and view it as a funny game; whether it’s exorbitant starting prices, pretending to misunderstand how many pastries you asked for, charming you with compliments while thrusting additional items upon you, or even offering to help with directions and then insisting that the place you’re looking for is closed (pro tip: it isn’t, they just want you to come to their shop or restaurant instead), you’ve got to admire the range of techniques that are employed. Yet it’s all done largely good-naturedly – as long as I smiled and declined politely, the vendors weren’t too insistent, and after a day or two I actually felt safer navigating the sprawl of streets than I do walking around some parts of London.
I even started to enjoy the bullshit (I lost count of how many times I bought a souvenir that had been made by the stallholder’s mum, or was an heirloom from his own home, or was a special price just for me, etc etc). My cynicism deepened with every visit to the old town; at one point we investigated a stall selling wooden kitchenware ostensibly hand-carved by the bloke in the back, who was busily hacking away at a block of wood, and I still can’t decide whether he was actually making the stuff himself or whether this was just another creative deception.
And I think that’s part of the old town’s appeal – it’s like stepping willingly into a beautiful web of lies.
You will grow weary of this, however, and there are many more sights worth seeing in this vibrant and captivating city. The obvious tourist attractions were all worthwhile, particularly Bahia Palace, which was completely stunning. Venturing outside the medina is also a good idea, reminding you that away from the enchanting illusion of the souks, Marrakesh is actually a modern city with a Mediterranean feel, boasting attractions like the small but absorbing Yves Saint Laurent museum.
On our final day we took a tour of the nearby Agafay Desert and Atlas Mountains, including a visit to a Berber village, which was fascinating and picturesque (although it did include a camel ride, which I felt pretty uncomfortable about; once you’re there, though, it’s hard to refuse for fear of offending your guide). However, one unexpected experience on the tour really stuck with me.
There were about twelve other tourists with us, the usual mix of Americans and Europeans, as well as a couple of other Londoners. One pair of Germans seemed to be a mother and son duo, and acted very strangely from the outset. The lady insisted that the guide turn off the Moroccan music in the van, and they did not join us when we all sat down for tea at the first stop-off point. Our guide was clearly confused and somewhat insulted, and we all collectively wrote their behaviour off as rude, perhaps a result of the language barrier.
When we stopped for a meal at a nearby village, we all sat together around a large table for a (delicious) tagine, and the woman insisted that some of us sit in between her and her son, because ‘he doesn’t want to sit next to his mother’. We all frowned and did as she asked, noticing that the son seemed agitated and was muttering to himself. The realisation finally hit me that the poor lad had some sort of mental health disorder, and his mother’s apparently discourteous behaviour was simply her taking the necessary steps to manage it.
When I spoke to her later, she told me in perfect English that her twenty-two-year-old son had autism, and that it had had a profound effect on her life. She had no partner and very few friends as a result of his need for constant care, but was still determined to show him some of the wider world. I felt terrible about the stupid, ignorant assumptions I had made about her earlier in the day. I could say that, as with many things in Marrakesh, the lesson is that not everything is as it seems… but the lesson really is not to be a judgemental arsehole.
And so, after the tour and our last evening in Marrakesh concluded, we slept in the riad for a final night and headed back to the UK the following day. We arrived home with some nice ornaments, some overpriced cosmetics, a pile of dusty and incense-infused clothes to wash, and loads of great memories.
I hope this has been an interesting and useful account; I won’t bore you with a load of ‘top tips’ as you can find those on many different websites, but I will say that I would definitely recommend a visit to Marrakesh… just don’t expect a relaxing trip!
Until next time,