A varied exploration of the attractions of Marrakech - visited September 2012
by Slug on October 2, 2012
If you want to get just a flavour of Moroccan and Andalucía Architecture then you can do little better than to visit the Saadian Tombs near the Kasbah area of Marrakech. The Saadian Tombs are burial grounds first built in the late 1500s for the local sultan Ahmad al-Mansur and his family and used by them and their sons until the 1700s, when the tombs were blocked off by a new Sultan keen to create his own dynasty. It was only in 1917 when the French were undertaking aerial photographs of the city did anyone realise that these tombs still existed. Today entrance to the tombs is through a passageway cut through a very thick wall at the side of a mosque. Entrance is 10 Dirham (or about 70p). The buildings take about 30 minutes to wander round and you cannot access the actual buildings themselves; you get a view through the doorway. The tombs comprise of three much decorated rooms and some outside space now inhabited by graves of servants and soldiers, and lot of stray cats and kittens playing in the sun shine. There are over 60 bodies in total and most point towards Mecca. It was only during a period of plague when there wasn't time to arrange the bodies appropriately were any buried at a different angle.Unusually for Morocco where men often held the positions of power, one of the tomb buildings is dedicated to a woman; the mother of Ahmad al-Mansur who was a great battle strategist and who just before her death advised her son on how to invade and take Timbuktu, then a great trading centre for Gold and a place of great wealth. This was a famous victory for the Moroccans who used just 4,000 men using the modern guns of the day to defeat a defending army of 40,000. The rooms in the Saadian are made from beautiful tiling, plaster carvings and cedar wood (which can withstand the extreme heat of Marrakech).
by Slug on September 28, 2012
Our first and final hotel of our Mt Toubkal Trek was at the Ryad Mogador on the edge of the centre of Marrakech. In terms of location the hotel is in a reasonable position; not being too far from most places of interest in the city. A walk to the main square in Marrakech took us around 20 minutes. If you are on public transport the Ryad Mogador is also handily opposite the main bus station. I understand rooms at the hotel can be snaffled for around £20 a night for a double so it can make for a clean and inexpensive base for those on a budget. We had been told that Ryad Mogador was a "dry hotel", but I didn't really anticipate that in addition to only serving soft drinks at the bar, that the ruling would also extend to the toileting facilities. We found that the toilet flush in our room didn't automatically fill, but we used the jug thoughtfully left by the hotel management in the bathroom to fill up the cistern. Our travelling companions meanwhile found the cold tap to their sink not to be working. In the scheme of things these were rather small grumbles for a budget hotel; the rooms were clean and tidy with tiled flooring and crisp white bedding. The furnishings may be a little tired, but all rooms also had a TV. Rather strangely only some had access to the BBC world news channel, but who comes to Marrakech to watch TV?There is also air con available although to varying degrees of effectiveness depending on the room you are allocated. I much prefer a fan personally as they are quieter, more eco friendly and allow you to acclimatise to the ambient temperature outside so again I wasn't too troubled. In terms of noise, being opposite the bus station and the main Marrakech ring road makes for a lot of traffic noise; while the hotel is double glazed it is still quite noisy if you are at the front of the hotel. Light sleepers may get some respite if they ask for a room at the side or back of the hotel; I know one of our party had such a room and said it was pretty quiet. The dining facilities are on the second floor and we had an evening meal and two breakfasts here (no we weren't greedy, we visited the hotel twice). The evening meal was rather ho hum, but we managed to pick our way through it. The breakfast was rather better with juice, bread and jam, and pastries. The dining room is vast, and I presume designed to hold huge Muslim weddings from time to time. There is also a small (and clean and tidy looking outdoor swimming pool if you need to cool down. To sum up; the Ryad Mogador seemed a reasonable budget choice and certainly ticked two of my main requirements in such a hotel; central and clean. I would happily save a few ££ by staying here the odd night should I pass through Marrakech any time soon.
by Slug on September 30, 2012
The Djemaa el Fna might be the Main Square and focal point of Marrakech but I personally find the place a difficult site to love.The square is at the gateway to the old Medina and Souk (area) of Marrakech and at the other end stands the beautifully constructed Koutoubia Mosque dating from the late 1100s and inspiration to many later architects in both Spain and Morocco.Unfortunately the overriding sensation I get when visiting the square is the strong smell of urine. I'm not sure if it comes from some of the visitors or perhaps the horses standing around waiting for tourist fares for the carriages they lug around the city, but the thought of dried specks of urine drifting around the square doesn't exactly attract.The square was originally used for public hangings until the early 1800s and when these were banned, the local residents needed something new to entertain themselves with. Today, all manner of "entertainment" is provided, although again, much of it doesn't do much for me. In the day time, the main "attractions" of the square must be the 40 or so orange juice stalls; a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice can be had for 4 of the local currency (around 30p), or more exotic juice like grapefruit can be had for 10. It must be scant reward for the poor vendors spending all day stood at that hot, dusty and noisy square. Also around in the day time are women offering intricate henna tattoos for hand, arm, foot or leg. The hat sellers are particularly persistent, and you will also find scarf, sunglass and bangle sellers following you around unless you give them a firm but polite refusal. The other thing I dislike about the square is that some vendors rely on animals to turn a buck or two. As well as the horses sweating it out in the square, snake charmers will play their flutes and encourage their snakes (with hand sewn up mouths allowing just a little gap for the tongue to emerge) to come out of a jar. If you are immune to the cruelty you can pay for a photo or to hold the snake if you wish. There are also chained and sorry looking dancing monkeys for your pleasure and entertainment. When I visited the square for the first time a decade ago, it was coated in thick tar which melted, leaving a half inch high tide mark on my treasured converse trainers. At least that ignominy was spared me as it has been repaved in more practical concrete tiling.At night, the square becomes a massive food hall, with a large number of individual food stalls available for you to chow down with thousands of others. I'm told the food is cheap and fresh, but must confess have never dined here. Also in the square at night are the entertainers such as fire jugglers and dancing boys. Each group is quickly surrounded by enthusiastic onlookers, although most of the shows I've seen have been a little too 1970s TV talent show for my taste. Obviously, the square is a haven for the odd pick pocket, so be careful if you do find a display that attracts and distracts you.Given the bustle and noise in the square one way I do quite like watching the activity is to have a drink or meal at one of the restaurants that face onto the square. Most, if not all of these establishments do not serve alcohol, so anticipate sipping on orange juice, Fanta or coke. My tip is to sit upstairs to avoid any disturbance from street vendors (unless of course you are in the market for a fake watch, sun hat, glasses or such like).
by Slug on October 1, 2012
After our return to Marrakech, our tour operator had arranged a couple of free meals and a free city tour to see us on our way. Our first meal in Marrakech was for lunch at a rather basic looking place, the Oscar Progres right in the centre of town near the dusty and hot main square. After the culture shock of seeing so many people after a week up in the mountains it was a relief to sink into the clean and shiny tiled Oscar Progres where there was much less noise and bustle. The restaurant Oscar Progres is set out in rows of long tables so you may have to share with other diners; the clientele were mainly tour groups when we visited, but encouragingly there were also some local families dining here. We ate from the set lunch menu for 100 dirham (about £6 for 3 courses). You can have one course for around £3 if you wish. The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol so you have the standard Moroccan choice of water, fanta orange or lemon, coke, sprite or pom (a fizzy apple drink). I chose the latter and actually rather liked it. For starter I chose the simple Moroccan salad and liked my fresh tomato and onion with herbs. It wasn't too over facing but neither was it a simple teaspoon full or two either. For the main dish, again the restaurant largely offered the choice of one of Morocco's three main staples; Tagine, Cous Cous or kebab. The folks that chose the mixed Kebab did the best as there was plenty of meat (minced, lamb and chicken tikka) with freshly cooked rice. I chose Chicken Tagine which was huge, but arrived without the Chicken. It was OK but unexceptional; after a week in the mountains where Tagine with courgette and carrot loomed large another pile of the stuff didn't exactly entice me.Our sweet was a tub of yoghurt which again was hardly luxurious but they had sold out of all the other sweets on the set menu. Service was very good if a little surly; we had arrived a little later after 1:00 pm and our guide suggested they were anxious to serve our meal before their 2:00 prayer. We ate on Friday the main religious day, so we should have known better. To sum up; the Oscar Progres gets top marks for cleanliness, the food was very Moroccan and although very good was nothing exceptional but was good value for money and our service was quick. My only advice is that perhaps the set lunch is not the best deal; a main course will fill you up, and if you are arriving for lunch then arrive by 1:00 pm to ensure the staff aren't trying to rush you out of the door so they can make prayers in good time.
One of the products fairly unique to Morocco is the production of Argon Oil. This is the oil of a nut that is reputed to have healing and health preserving powers. Why is it that every country seems to have such a product that its residents swear upon and yet is barely heard of in the West?Whether you choose to believe the claims that a few drops can stop cancer, reduce wrinkles and generally make you live a full and happy life is up to you, but if you spend any time in Morocco then you will see the products of the Argan Oil before too long. We were invited to stop at a women’s cooperative in the scrub land a little way out of Marrakech and starved of any shopping opportunity beyond bottles of water and fanta for 6 days, we all jumped at the opportunity. To be honest, the Argan is a good tree with deep roots which helps reduce the relentless spread of desert land, and I really don't mind spending a few dirham helping to support a poor local community (and to give our helpful guide a cut too). If you get out into the countryside outside Marrakech, you may even spot goats climbing the tree (they are more like large bushes) in search of Argan nuts to eat. I'm sure the process is the same in the countless number of Argon Oil producers and show rooms up and down the south of Morocco. The building is a quite attractive traditional ryad with central open courtyard and attractive plants, pottery and tiling. Inside, a line of women demonstrate the cultivation and harvesting of the nut; using a traditional stone grinder to extract the paste from which the oil is produced. Of course, much of the Argan Oil is now extracted under factory conditions although that is less attractive to display, and you will soon spot the women stopping their "grinding" once you have passed the "show". The oil is processed into a mind numbing number of products, from moisturisers, lip balms (actually really good for sorting out our dried lips after 6 days in the sun), lip sticks, fragrant oils and the like. Then there is the food stuffs including cooking oil (where only a drop or 3 should be added to cooking or salads for flavouring) and in a peanut butter type substance. Our travelling companion happened to pick up a bottle of this stuff and found the lid to be loose; her husband was wearing Argan butter on his shorts for the remainder of the trip. If you buy your goods from the showroom then prices aren't particularly cheap; our small little plastic bottle of oil cost around £7, the perfume oil around £10 and so on. However, in UK terms they don't exactly break the bank and you are getting a good quality product (whereas in Marrakech market who knows?). As I said, in any case I don't mind spreading a little wealth in the rural community; it looks to me like life there is tough enough.Whether the claims of a long and healthy life are true (and some studies do suggest a health benefit) or not, we enjoyed the look around the production and shop and didn't begrudge spending a few pounds on some unusual nic nacks to take home.
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