Sunday, January 27, 2008

Morocco travel letter: Marrakech

In Marrakech we want to take a petit taxi – they’re beige here – but 2 or 3 in a row refuse to turn the meter on and ask for too much money. It’s time to start bargaining. We settle for 30 dirhams with one driver who at least seems to know where to take us and we have no idea how far we are from the Medina or the old town. When we reach the place it’s clear we’ve paid too much, since the ride is not long. At first I’m not sure we’re even in the right place, it looks like a ghetto. For some reason I’ve imagined Marrakech to be bigger, more pompous and cleaner. We make our way through the dirty street in search of our guesthouse. The kids are running around and staring at us, men in jellabas pushing carts, there’s a stall selling vegetables and another one selling raw meat. Our guesthouse is on a small side alley and nothing from the outside indicates there could be this beautiful place waiting inside, that we’ve seen on the hostelworld pictures. However, the Riad Dar Badra is truly beautiful with its small and cosy in-yard (the riad) and the colourful Moroccan furniture. The hostess offers us tea and we’re shown to our room, which is also very pretty and almost as big as my flat. She also assures us that despite all the hecticism Marrakech is a very safe place with police everywhere, also in civil clothes, keeping watch.

We head to town for our first fix of shopping and bargaining. Marrakech can be truly overwhelming, if not shocking, when you first come to contact with it. Everyone’s shouting and trying to get you to come and buy something off them or use their service. It takes a bit of learning of how to deal with their intrusive manners. A woman wants to force a henna tattoo on N’s hand but we manage to escape and head for a terrace café overlooking the main square Jemma El-Fna to set the game plan. After a coffee we’re ready to tackle the souqs – the endless maze of streets turned into market. We get loads of attention. “Fish’n’chips”, the salesmen yell, thinking we’re English. Everyone keeps asking where we’re from or offers their own guess – English, Polish, German, Australian, Finnish, Swedish. None of them guesses Estonia, so we’re really putting our country on the map here. “Nice eyes,” they shout, even if we’re wearing sunglasses or the guy is staring about a foot lower than where the eyes are or even if we’ve passed them and all they can see is our backs and the fair hair. Slowly we get the hang of it and get some shopping done.

We head back to the guesthouse for a bit of rest before making our way back downtown for the famous food stalls and storytellers’ market. The Jemma El-Fna is now filled with about a hundred or so food stalls, with about 5-6 men in white overalls fussing around each one. One of them is an agent getting the people to sit down at the stall’s tables, the rest take care of the waiting and cooking. The stall counter is laden with vegetables, shrimps, squid, French fries and different meat on spits – brochetts they call them. Everything is cooked on spot and it all smells delicious. We take the mix of brochetts and different salads. Actually, the salads are just brought to the table without anyone asking us. That they all cost separately, we’re just about to find out. Nevertheless, the meal together with the drinks costs approximately 60 Dh per person. It’s not expensive but still the food here is not cheap, compared to the prices of lodging and transport. But it’s all worth trying, for they’re masters at using the spices here. And in any case, you never leave hungry, even if the meal is small, as it’s always accompanied by a lot of bread. We head back to the riad, completely satisfied.

The next morning we’re sure we like Marrakech, a lot, and decide to stay for at least another day. The preview gave us a pretty good idea that there’s a lot of shopping to be done. Everything has to be bought in Marrakech, as there’s nothing there back in Agadir. We have an abundant breakfast on the riad’s terrace, catching the first rays of morning sun, which gradually gets warmer. The night had been rather cold, since the houses are built to keep cool in summers when the temperatures reach higher than 40C and have no heating system. And of course we forgot to use the luxury of air conditioner. Our room is not available for another night, so we are moved to another one very near by, called Riad Badra . This is another gorgeous riad, if not so cosy as the previous one.

The joys of shopping
Soon it’s time to head to town again. This is going to be a serious shopping day. And so it is. Having some experience already, I believe we’re making some good deals. I buy a jellaba, some scarves and jewelry for gifts. N buys a tea-pot and also some scarves and jewelry. We eat lunch on another terrace. This time we try tajine (or tagine) and couc-cous, which again are very tasty. N also buys freshly pressed orange juice from the juice stalls, which costs just 3 Dh a glass. I take a sip but refrain from the whole glass, since I still can’t be sure if the horrible allergic reaction a few years back in Madrid was not from fresh orange juice.

We’re in luck
Then we try to organize our trip to the desert. It’s not easy, since there aren’t any goers for the 2-day trip and just for the 2 of us it would be too expensive, not to mention, slightly boring. Everyone opts for the longer one, to go and see the bigger sand dunes, but we don’t have 3 days to spend. We’re told to come back at seven in the evening to check the situation. After some rest at the guesthouse we hurry back and find out there is indeed a Brazilian guy who’d like to go with us. He is in even more luck, because they wouldn’t make the trip with just one person. The deposit is paid and the meeting is set for 7 in the next morning.

Ville nouvelle
In the evening we decide it’s time to check out the ville nouvelle or new town. Not that we really want to leave the medina – it’s already grown on us – but there’s supposed to be a good bar, highly recommended by Lonely Planet. The bars mostly are located in new town with the medina being pretty much alcohol free. The new town is quite a contrast. It’s like stepping from the middle ages right into today - big houses and roads and less and less people in jellabas. The petit taxi drops us off at the beginning of the right street, which looks spooky, with no people and not much light. However, our plan is to find the bar, but there doesn’t seem to be any and the women at a little shop tell us it’s been closed for three years. N promises to write to LP about it. We get offered some hashish by a man hiding behind a car and we can’t be quicker in leaving the place and getting back to the comfort and security of the medina and the riad.

No comments: