Marrakech – seventeen years between tagines

Marrakech first seduced me when I visited in 1988. So it might seem surprising it took me over seventeen years to get there a second time – what can I say, so many countries, so little time! And it just confirmed to me all over again, how much Marrakech enchants me. So what makes it so special

The colour pink.

How can you not love a city where all buildings are required to be an acceptable shade of pink. A dusky pink that mirrors the earth it is built on, the sand that blows through it. A shade of weathered pink that I imagine has survived hundreds of years, many sandstorms and a good few camel trains. In 1988 there was a lot more dust coating the average pink dwelling, by 2005 there is clearly a lot more renovation and repainting going on, but both create a feeling of being in a different time and place, a romantic vision of old explorers.

The food ( and drink )

Tagines – both the classic cone shaped lid and casserole, and the delicious melt in the mouth meat (or vege these days) stews with mouth watering spices, perhaps some softened dried apricots, soaked up with a good couscous. In 1988 I bought a solid terra-cotta glazed pottery tagine and have lugged it around every country I have lived in since, still using it regularly every winter.

BBQ’d garlic snails – this may not be the food most people associate with Marrakech, but it is for me. It’s partly the French influence – it also means the coffee is great and there are surprisingly good croissants and pastries. Like many towns, the night markets in Marrakech have all sorts of interesting food stalls.

I remember watching snails being grilled in their shells, and being dared by one of my fellow travelers to try one. Bear in mind this was a guy from England who had strong views on food – he would only eat meat and potatoes, no other veggies, and hated any herbs or spices, only salt – he wouldn’t even add tomato sauce. I certainly wasn’t going to let him win a food bet. The stall owner showed me how to fork the snail out of it shell, dripping in garlic butter, and savor it as it slid down my throat. Not expecting to like it, I found myself demolishing a dozen and coming back again the next night.

Oranges, dates, apricots and pistachios. Morocco is a fruit bowl slightly at odds with it’s reputation as a dessert destination, but I guess that where the oasis’ come in. The selection is much wider than I have mentioned but suffice to say, I have never taster sweeter dried apricots or dates, more delicious fresh orange juice or more moreish pistachios before or since. My mouth is watering just remembering that five years later.

The Souks of the Medina

You may have figured by now that I love a good market, and the souk in the walled old town in Marrakech is a good one indeed. It’s a maze of crooked alleys lined by stalls, occasionally opening onto a small square open to the sun, before you dive back into the covered alleyways again. The range of things to buy is endless, embracing tradition and more modern interpretations, and yet stays definitively Moroccan. It rarely falls into the generic “backpackers market craft” that turns up in so many markets around the world.

There are literal aladdin’s caves of bright multicolored and bejeweled pottery, while another stall is all minimalist pottery designs available only in bright red. There are traditional carved and punched leather belts and buckles, and studded punk inspired versions. There are stalls selling centuries old (dodgy) medicinal remedies along with chameleons and scorpions and bugs I don’t want to identify, and there are stalls of organic soaps and lotions worthy of any five star spa.

There are still donkeys carting in the market supplies, but vastly outnumbered by mobile phones for communication with suppliers, and credit cards are readily accepted.

On this trip I buy two kilims, strongly colored in the reds and blues of the land and sky, woven in intricate traditional patterns. Although new, they smell strongly of old dust and camel piss, a marketing trick I suspect, to make the whole buying prices strangely more evocative. Sealed tightly in thick plastic bags for the rest of my trip, to try and avoid stinking out my bag and clothes, I have to hang them in the sun for a week and then leave them on the garage floor for six months when I get home, before they can be safely brought inside. I think they look fantastic in my hallway.


The Djemaa el Fna

The famous central square of the old walled city is no square, it’s a huge crazy zigzagged open space, surrounded by buildings with great rooftop vantage points, usually on the third floor, many cafes, and the start of dozens of alleyways into the souks which surround three sides of the Djemaa el Fna. The open space fills up with stalls no more than a blanket on the ground and food stalls with tables and chairs to accommodate the local families who congregate every evening. Rows of juice stands are all arguing that their wares are the best, and for the tourists there are snake charmers and watch salesmen in equal quantities.

Every night the square is full of locals promenading, it’s like Edwardian England crossed with Arabian nights, it’s fantastic people watching. It’s a delicious and very cheap place to eat a wonderfully fresh dinner, and of course it’s where I originally experimented with snails.


The Riads and the people.

Accommodation options were a lot more limited in 1988, although given that usually we were sleeping in bunks in a double decker bus, the plain square room with a roof terrace overlooking the markets was a real luxury back then.

But now the old city is brimming with restored riads, the traditional housing, often three stories high around a central courtyard, which might hold a fountain or even a pool, and a roof terrace with billowing fabric overhead to give shade while lounging on the day beds. Most have been painstakingly restored, with beautiful mosaics of tiles, wrought iron and plush fabrics. They are some of the most glorious B& B’s I have found anywhere, and there is wide price range for just about any budget. And they are found in all the hidden lanes of the souk, but are cool and quiet as soon as you close the door to the street.

There are no vehicles in the medina, so your riad will send someone to meet your taxi at the medina gate, and wheel your bags through the medina to their front door, which gives you instant immersion into the culture. Don’t even think about staying in a hotel outside the walls of the old city, get online and book yourself a riad and ensure a unique and relaxing experience.

And as true here as anywhere, what ultimately makes the experience for me is the people. The Moroccans I encounter are friendly, shy, intriguing, hospitable,enthusiastic, and charming, and they make Marrakech great.

Camels, Dunes and an Oasis in Morocco

Liked the oasis, loved the sand dunes, hated the camels! – a twitter length summary of travelling in Morocco in 1988.

An Oasis in the desert

We head south from Fez for nine hours through red hard barren deserts. At one point we find ourselves above the snow line – well, it is January after all. We also pass the reputed original headquarters of the Foreign Legion, as in “I’m running away to join the foreign legion” – does any one even say that any more?

My naive expectation of an oasis is a half a dozen palm trees around a green fringed waterhole, with desert encroaching from every direction. Meski oasis however is much bigger than that, surrounded by irrigated fields in every direction. I definitely did not expect a large concrete swimming pool with umbrellas and sunloungers, created by diverting a local stream through the pool. As I gingerly tiptoe into the very cold water, I realise that the pool is also full of fish, and they seem to like nibbling on my legs, a very freaky feeling which does tend to put me off swimming. Little did I know then, that this would become a trendy spa treatment throughout Asia twenty years later.

Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco
Meski Oasis swimming pool, Morocco

Instead of swimming we wander off to explore the village and surrounds, quickly attracting a crowd of kids, who are already a bit bored with tourists giving them pens as gifts, but they take them anyway. We can see the old Casbah on a nearby hill, just across the stream.

At this time of the year the stream is more of a river, and the locals are suggesting that we don’t try and cross it – there are no bridges within sight. We decide to wade in and give it a try as it doesn’t look that deep, but it turns out our problems will be swamp and mud, not water.

As we inch forward, trying to feel for firm bits of ground to stand on for each step, I place my right foot down and find it is now knee deep in the swamp. I try and pull it up and out, and I am now thigh deep in the swamp. I need the help of two of my friends to pull me back onto dry land, leaving my right flip flop in the middle of that swamp forever.

At this point, we decide we don’t need to visit the Casbah at all, and head off to the little collection of stalls we had seen earlier. Meski is where I finally buy my first small Moroccan carpet – after haggling long into the night, I get it for the very good price of $10 plus a six pack of beer.

Sunrise on Sand Dunes in the Sahara.

post dawn sahara sand dunes
post dawn sahara sand dunes

Flat dry deserts are all very well, but how about some real Sahara, with huge rolling sand dunes? We set off at 3.30 am to drive two hours to a point where the sand dunes start. Its a really strange sight, all flat dry desert and then there is a sand dune, and from the top of that dune, all I can see is sand dunes to the horizon. An immense rolling pink open space.

We climb to the top of the highest sand dune we can see and wait for sunrise. This might be the desert, but pre-sunrise it is very cold. This is not a red sky sunrise, the sky gradually turns from black to a light greyish blue, while the sand dunes turn a delicate shade of peach.

Then, after it already seems to be daylight, the bright ball of the sun appears over the sand dune horizon, and the sand dunes that face west start to glow a beautifully red. Now I’m warming up. We sit and watch from the top of dunes for a while longer, it is immensely relaxing.

Once we leave the dunes we stop in Rissini to visit the local livestock market and check out the prices of the best goats and donkeys, just in case that comes in handy somewhere down the road. I wonder if a donkey might come in handy for the next day’s fourteen km hike through the long canyon of Todra Gorge.

Camels on the beach in Tangier.

Just outside Tangier on the coast are the ancient Caves of Hercules. There is an large silhouetted opening in one of the caves that supposedly looks like the map of Africa, and it is also claimed that you can see two profiles of Hercules face in the same map. There are supposedly old roman bath walls in the caves, which unfortunately look remarkably like modern concrete.

On the beach outside the caves, we meet our camels and camel wranglers for a beach ride. These are one hump camels, and I am soon sitting precariously on a bunch of rugs tied to the camel’s back. And this is where the nightmare begins. Most of the camels are female, including the one I am on. One of the camels is male. And it seems this is the season for the female camels to be in heat, therefore the male camel is now very randy.


Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers
Camels in heat on the beach at Tangiers

So we start our rolling walk down the beach, with the sun out and beautiful blue surf to our side. The male camel starts getting excited and comes comes racing up behind the one of the female camels and starts trying to mount it, much to the consternation of the people sitting on the back of both camels.

The local camel herders shoo him away so he makes for the next female, which happens to be the one I am riding. Not wanting to be squashed (or dribbled on) by the front half of the male camel as he tries to mount my ride, I kick and yell and desperately try to get my camel to run, which it eventually does. But not willingly, I suspect she would prefer the male camel to catch her.

Before long there are half a dozen female camels running down the beach, topped by out of control riders trying to hang on for dear life but too scared to slow their camels down. And the girl on top of the male camel isn’t exactly enjoying herself either. For a while the local camel herders are mainly rolling around laughing but eventually they catch up with us, and one by one slow down our camels and get us off them.

The last one they went to get was the male camel, who had been waiting for his opportunity, and before they could grab him he managed to successfully mount one of the now fortunately riderless female camels. Suffice to say the rider of the male camel made an extremely quick dismount. It is now a long walk back up the beach to our transport, but preferable to having to get near camels again. I think we’ll need a beer tonight.

Fez, Morocco – how I got the travel bug

Like many young Kiwi’s arriving in London in 1987 for my O.E. (overseas experience, common kiwi slang for heading to London to earn pounds and travel the world for a couple of years), I had vague ideas about working in London for a few months, saving my pounds, and in summer heading off to see Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and bits in between. It’s just what we did at that time, so even though I resigned my job, sold my car and jumped on a plane to fly 24 hours to the opposite end of the world, I had no real plan at all.

My expectations of England were mainly based on Coronation Street, a long running soap featuring rows of grimy terraced houses and interminable rain. An impression quickly reinforced as I arrived into a dull grey rainy day. I very quickly found myself a home in a two-bedroom basement flat in Lancaster Gate, sharing with four other aussies and kiwis (not counting the ones dossing in the lounge) and catching the tube to Brixton where I had picked up a job earning a good hourly rate.

Three months later I was hating it, and all due to the weather. It was now December, and while the parties and the lit up street decorations were fun, it had become progressively darker, colder and more damp every week. The continual chilling damp never left me, whether it was a rainy day or not, and I couldn’t stand it.

Morocco, it must be warmer?

“If I am going to freeze, I may as well do it properly!” I told myself, and promptly headed to the Austrian alps for some skiing over the New Year. Which was fantastic, but didn’t make me feel any better about chilly London on my return. “OK, head south for warmer weather” I told myself, and not brave enough to travel by myself yet, I signed up for a Top Deck tours “Spain, Portugal, Morocco” trip – after all, that is definitely heading south, and Morocco is in Africa, so that must be warm, right? Well, almost right, but January is still winter in these countries. At least we got some “t-shirt” days even if it was “winter woolies” nights. Top Deck was hilariously corny, but a surprisingly practical way to travel. Take an old double decker bus, put bunks in the top deck to turn it into one big dormitory, and put a kitchen, tables and chairs in the bottom level for living, and voila!, a combi on steroids, no tents required.

Morocco, here I come.

The stand-out memories heading south through France and down the eastern coast of Spain were: a foolish drunken midnight wander across the Pont du Gard, a roman aqueduct in the south of France, 50m high and 300 m long (more on that another day); the unfinished insane beauty of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; and the “arabian nights” air of Granada and the Alhambra in the south of Spain. Unfortunately at that time of the year there is not a lot of “sol” in Costa del Sol, it was raincoats all the way. Which then lead us to our first stop in Morocco, the ancient walled city of Fez.
Fez, for me, is all about the medina in the old walled city. It is reputed (by wikipedia) to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world – in other words it is a really big centuries old market, a byzantian maze of covered alleyways zigzagging in every direction, with people lugging goods on foot, on trolleys, or by donkey through dark and narrow streets. It is a place to lose one’s sense of direction, and then one’s self, so us girls on the tour banded together and hired “Good One” as our guide – clearly the name he had adopted for the tourists.

Fez, exploring the Medina.

I learned many things that I previously hadn’t known about myself that day. One was that I have a great innate sense of direction in markets – the more overcrowded, twisted, busy, loud and out of control the market, the more at home I feel. I can still get lost, but I always seem to find my way to a point I recognise without too much trouble. I must have been some kind of gypsy market brat in a former life. It certainly signalled the start of a lifetime love affair with markets throughout the world.

Good One walked us through the medina pointing out all the interesting areas – the olive market, the spice market, the jewellery market, the copper market, the carpet shops and the tannery. The tannery is a complete and unpleasant assault on the senses, but it is also a visual feast. I could smell it long before I saw it, indeed it is the permanent undernote to the smell of Fez itself. The tannery is the oldest in the world, dating from, and seemingly unchanged from the 11th century.
It is a honeycomb of stone vats through which the animal skins are transformed into leather. Fresh sheep and goat skins are softened in vats of diluted acidic pigeon excrement (so they say), and then coloured in various vats of natural vegetable dies, like henna and saffron, and hung out to dry. From the balcony where tourists can enter and look over the tannery, you simultaneously taste it and smell it as the acid sears your throat so that the dead animal smell can penetrate that little bit more. The tannery workers’ arms and legs are permanently stained as they physically haul hides in and out of the vats while standing in them. It is hard to imagine that this is a healthy occupation. Strangely none of this seems to dampen our ardour for shopping for the leather bags and wallets that Morocco is famous for.

Fez: finding our own way around.

Being cash strapped backpackers, we only hired Good One for a couple of hours, and after lunch we flung ourselves back into the medina unescorted. It was soon clear that even if I didn’t need Good One for a sense of direction, he had been extremely useful in keeping the touts at bay. On our own, they pounced, and were unshakeable, and at any time I would have two or three fighting for my attention, grabbing my arm to try and escort me, and if I showed interest in any particular stall they were quickly clamouring to the owner that they were the one that had brought me there and if I bought anything they were owed a commission.
A couple of the girls found the throng too intense and retired hurt, but the rest of us just went with it. Although it was intrusive and loud and relentless, we never felt unsafe or threatened. So we developed our own rules, giving a polite “no thanks” on the first approach of each tout and then politely ignoring them from then on, and always clearly indicating to a stall owner that no tout was our guide – not a straight forward task given the language barriers, but we quickly learned how effective body language could be. As soon as a tout trailing us started talking to a stall owner, we would loudly state “no, no, not with us” while vigorously shaking our heads and pointing at them – given the sulky looks we got from the touts, the message seemed to well understood by the stall holders. On a return visit to Morocco many years later, I discovered that touts had been effectively outlawed, and while an occasional one would approach you in a medina, they would disappear at the first “no thanks” – a huge change indeed.

Haggling in the Fez medina.

I also learned that I loved the process of bargaining. An early piece of advice from Good One helped – he told me “if they are still talking to you, they know they can still make a profit; if they turn their back on you, you have gone too low and they will make a loss”. The joy in haggling is not getting the lowest price per se, its the whole ritual. Its drawing it out for ten minutes, half an hour, or even a number of hours if its a pricey item like a carpet. It starts with exchanging pleasantries, names, where we are from, how much we enjoy this country/city, extends into discussion of alternative purchases that might better suit my budget, and will have moments of mock horror at how ridiculously high/low the price suggested is.

It may well involve clearing goods off a stool for me to sit on, and showing me the family photos, perhaps an offer of a cup of the local tea. If you embrace the process, then usually you part the best of friends, whether you have in the end purchased or not. The pinnacle of market haggling of course is carpets, and although I didn’t buy a carpet this time (not enough money to even try), this did sow the seed for twenty plus years of happily buying handwoven carpets and kilims in markets around the world.

In amongst the haggling, we lapped up almond milkshakes, and had handmade kohl makeup applied to our faces by the local, male “make-up artists” – not sure they are ready for a career in Hollywood yet. When finally exhausted we headed into the hamman, the local “turkish bathhouse”. Having never been in one before, this was the most confronting experience of all, getting naked and then being grabbed by one of the older woman working there, pushed to the ground in the few inches of slimy green water in the pool, and scrubbed abrasively, as if with pot scourers, until I just wanted to swear out loud. Definitely not a relaxing day spa here then! However it did remove several layers of built up backpackers dirt, and the soak in a deeper pool afterwards was relaxing, although still a bit greener and slimier than I would’ve preferred.

Catching the travel bug in Fez.

While eating a fragrant tagine that night for dinner, I realised that I had just well and truly acquired a travel bug. I wanted more of this feeling of excitement and immersion and being outside my comfort zone, whether from the sounds, the smells, the food, the art, the culture, the music, the natural beauty, or the people. Little did I know that I would now stay in London for a total of ten years, and my list of interesting places I wanted to visit kept growing and growing – the more places I travelled to, the more I wanted to keep going.