We set off at 3.15am in the dead of night. Our boiler had broken the day before so my mornings preparations involved using a kettle and bucket to shower ahead of a long day that would see us into the Kingdom of Morocco.
I glanced out of the reflective window into the black abyss to the side of the M11 as we hurtled towards the airport, Magic FM a slow lullaby in the background. Our friends were kindly dropping us off to Stansted, an hour till the gates closed, leaving things late as usual.
If I were to ever be early, where would be the excitement?
The take off was smooth as can be expected on a £100 flight. Once I could no longer feel the pull of the engines, I dozed in and out of slumber as we soared high above the carpet like clouds.
Beyond the metal wings outstretched, the white horizon vanished into a sea of deep blue. Rif had the Morocco guide firmly in his sights and seemed to be digesting it at an alarming rate, enthralled by all the Riffian references. My camera provided some entertainment at the spectacle outside my plexiglas window, giving me a perfect opportunity to become accustom with the relatively new piece of kit. Our stomachs grumbled with the pains of an early start, lack of sleep and excitement of the day to come.
The flight in was bumpy due to strong cross winds, but as the clouds parted, they gave way to the views of vast expanses of farmland. The landing was firm and abrupt with the flight attendances final address incomprehensible over the cheap Ryanair tannoy. It was raining but that didn’t stop the flood of anxiety rushing into my stomach.
It was a rather uneventful journey through immigration and we strolled past the vast queues for the bureau de change in the departure lounge to change our money outside of the terminal, providing swift and preferential rates.
Then it was the laborious task of securing a taxi ride to the train station to book our night train to Tangier for the next day. We stood around, talking to various Berber cloaked taxi touts, all asking double the acceptable rate. We finally found a man willing to bring the price closer to what we assumed as reasonable.
He spoke very little English and we spent the ride over to the train station making broken conversation in what French we knew. His name was Isham and he had a strange sense of humour by rising the price of the ride in jest (I hoped) on every turn. I waited in the cab whilst Rif went in to the train station, in the Guéliz district, to buy the tickets for the next day. Isham had kindly agreed to wait and take us on to the Djmaa el Fna where our Riad awaited. We made jokes about the fare again and I delved into the logo on his jacket, revealing his past as a Royal Guard, a job he had left for an unknown reason to become a taxi driver. Rif returned bearing the ‘billets’, only the equivalent of £25 each. As we journeyed on past the rich mansion like resorts to the main square, an elderly Berber gentleman hitched a ride at a traffic light, which we realised must be a normality. And so we were thrust face first into the crazyness of local culture.
We said our salaams, shaking Isham’s sturdy hand vigorously and followed his directions out of the square down a small side road bustling with life, under his direction.
The square itself is a large expanse, filled with snake charmers, monkey handlers, markets and food stall. A bustling area of all sorts. The sights and smells hit us immediately and we knew we were finally in the Kingdom of Morocco.
The walk down the cobbled street had us bobbing and weaving through the human traffic, narrowly avoiding the oncoming scooters, skilled in the art of pedestrian avoidance. Quick flicks of the handle bars had them meander through crowds reminiscent of Oxford Street during the Christmas rush.
We took a sharp left down the arched alley way, not quite sure if we were on the right track.
A few streets down the red clay walled street and we finally stumbled upon the old wooden door into our Medina oasis.
Marrakiss is a lovely quiet accommodation set in an old house with three floors decorated in a very Arabic manner. The ivy clad central courtyard provided a mint tea fuelled respite whilst our room was prepared. Josef provided an excellent host and informed us our 4×4 was booked for the next morning to take us into the High Atlas.
It was all hitting me in a rush of sensory overload. I was in a dream. The room was small but well decorated and it really felt like we had delved back in time to an era of wealthy inner Medina family life.
We regrouped our thoughts, packed the day sack and headed out onto the streets of Marrakech.
The square provided lunch at an excellent little joint called Toukbal, on the corner of the southern stretch . An exceptional recommendation by Josef. I had the lamb tagine which came bubbling from the kitchens and served with fresh sesame seed sprinkled bread.
I was in love. With the food, the atmosphere and the people. A salaam, a nod and a friendly hand on the shoulder from the waiter. We paid the 40 dirham total and ventured out into the cultural savannah that lay before us.
We walked and walked. And then walked some more. To the great tower to the west of the square, through to the souk markets to the north. The maze of small arched alleyways, although dimly lit by cracks in the roofing, was illuminated by the vibrant colours of dyed cloth, scented spices and candle lit lamps.
The rain gave way to sunshine and the streets were dry within minutes.
Every turn took us deeper into the souk (market) and further from any knowledge of our location.
We truly felt lost in a completely carefree kind of way and ungrudgingly submitted ourselves to the slow crawl of people through the markets tight gaps laden with wares. Each turn of the head opening up a world of trinkets, beset into shop fronts, seductive with the mysteries behind their veils.
It was everything I had dreamed of and some more. We were not hassled and drifted from market to market, artisan to tanner, Berber to Arab. The mix of the Moroccan locals really gave insight to the plethora of lineages the nations people descend from.
We finally found a goal to reach on our map. A fountain at the north end of the souk. We wound our way for over an hour through the dimly lit streets going in the direction of various people, only to find ourselves back at the entrance of the artisans market. We had no choice but to venture further into the tightly woven streets that steer haphazardly through the market stalls. You think you are being overwhelmed by the sights, smells and bustles but just as quickly as your brain in submerged in a deluge of action, you turn to your right to see a tributary of peace and tranquility. A quieter street. Dark from the boards over the thin road but illuminated by the hand crafted lanterns littering it’s sides. This was my favourite area of the whole souk. There was hardly anyone inside the light area of the market and I felt as though I had found my own little haven. Rif was having a conversation with a local salesman about Pakistan at the entrance to the small street whilst I let my camera run wild and my pupils dilate.
The market seemed to flow from tourist to local within a few streets and we noticed the drastic change from pretty useless but beautiful crafts to the everyday essentials you would find in a super market.
Alas, the fountain remained elusive. We walked much further north than expected. Into what looked like a pretty non-tourist zone. The smells of the bakery rushed out from draped curtains, kids were playing football in the street and the architecture had taken a turn for the dark ages.
After asking local after local for direction to the fountain, we had found ourselves no where near the location shown on the map and demoted the landmark to myth. This part of town was laden with mosques dating back hundreds of years. Some so small and hidden that we practically had to trip over the bicycles outside their gates to discover them.
But bicycles weren’t the only thing we were tripping up over. Medinas, especially the souks within them, are a haven for the tightrope walking, tourist book avoiding, cats of the market. These little dainty scruffs find the excitement of the markets pleasurable. Especially with the constant promise of food from the passers by. They are taken care of by the shop owners who seem to have a symbiotic relationship with their fellow street inhabitants. Food for affection.
We somehow found our way onto an arched street that we knew would lead us back to the main square. I had grown to love the architecture and the incongruent building works that make the souk such an exciting and ever-changing place.
Just as we entered the clearing of the Djmaa el Fna, Rif had a monkey thrust upon him. To my amusement photos were obviously taken and before I knew it, the heavy furry beast was on my arm and the camera in Rif’s hands.
The owner’s smile dropped to a serious stare as he demanded 100 dirhams each for the unwarranted experience. I gave my usual face of shock and shook my head, parsing him off with a 5 dirham coin which he accepted to my surprise and walked off!
We were back in the square and retired to a quiet cafe for some Moroccan mint tea and a look at our map.
Deciding to head south and see what the palace had to hold, we journeyed down more tight streets and found ourselves at the ruins of the once lush gardens of Badi. Set to the south of the Medina next to the Kasbah, the ruins house an old mosque at the back of it’s main courtyard and a view of the many storks nesting in its dilapidated walls.
The rain stopped play, seeing us take refuge in another cafe for more mint tea and by this time we had whiled away much of the afternoon. A lull in the downpour meant we could make a break for the Riad and a well deserved freshen up.
We rested our weary legs and then made our way back out. Crossing the square as dusk set in, highlighting the dusty haze that haunts the square before dark.
Another recommendation for dinner which took us to an establishment overlooking the square. As we had another tagine, the sun dropped behind the buildings and we watched the market in the Djmaa grow with onlookers and performers. As the light dimmed, candles and lanterns were lit across the square making a spectacle for our evening meal. My camera was being used to its full advantage as we sipped Moroccan tea, allowing the sounds of the market to flood into our ears. A deluge of drums, flutes and the steady boiling noise of conversation.
We paid the bill, left a generous tip for the prolonged stay and ventured beyond the well lit food stalls and into the dark large expanse of the Djmaa el Fna. The crowds huddles in tight circles around musicians lit by a single lamp. Other groups stood patiently listening to Berber stories whilst others partook in the snake charmers and monkey handlers antics. It was a feast of the senses. One which we savoured as we walked from encircled group to acrobatic animal.
Our legs began to tire and the patisserie shop for the next days breakfast was about to close so we made our way back to the Riad, picking up some French style apricot tortes.
And as the warm African raindrops fell across the rooftops, sleep came swiftly, switching off my senses that had been overloaded by the days experiences.
Tomorrow was the High Atlas and sleep was fleeting.