Marrakech Stories and Tips

Morocco - Part 1

Djemma El Fna Photo, Marrakech, Morocco

Morocco

Sun, surf and sand. Lot's of sand. Lot's of camels too.

After failing to cross into Africa during my European vacation I was determined to return and managed to talk two foolish house mates into accompanying me. I spent twelve days in Marrakech, the High Atlas mountains, the deserts and on the Atlantic coast soaking up the sun.

I flew direct from London to Marrakech on a new British Airways route designed to ferry the pasty white British public to the heart of sunny Morocco.

Stepping off the air conditioned plane into the 35 degree heat of Marrakech's summer was only slightly less of a shock than stepping out of the stuffy and formal British culture into the warm and effusive Arabic culture of Morocco. The Arabs, renowned for their hospitality the world over are truly the most amicable of peoples. They will greet you on the street as if you are an old friend and, for the most part, cordially invite you into their homes or shops to share some mint tea and chat.

But within the velvet glove of their friendly handshake comes the iron fist of 1000 years of trader-culture. The most abiding memory you will have of Morocco will probably be of how everybody, and I mean everybody, tried to sell you a carpet.

Don't get me wrong – I bear them no malice, any of them. All of them, from the shoe shine boy who tried to polish my boots eight times in as many minutes to the Berber who tried to get me to swap my T-shirt for a £2000 carpet were lovely, hospitable and charming. I just wish that, occasionally, they wouldn't bother.

My own experience of Moroccan commerce started with the souks of Marrakech. While, to me, this was a fairly overpowering introduction it is apparently nothing compared to the tactics employed in the frontier port of Tangiers. One group of American students we met had literally been badgered into purchasing carpets by tactics that would have made Saddam Hussein or the Gestapo proud.

In Marrakech they are a little more restrained. They won't actually lay hands upon you but they will use the entire handbook of hard sales tactics in order to bludgeon you into buying some useless trinket. I can only presume that this practice is sustained by hordes of tourists who do in fact find a use for a copper ash tray in the shape of a blowfly, an imitation 14th century flintlock musket or a hand knotted carpet which is only slightly smaller than a football field, took 12 years to make and cost three lives in the process.

And before you convince yourself that you actually got a bargain by buying something at half the price you would have paid for it at home you should consider where it came from. It probably came into the hands of the merchant from a Berber or Touareg tribesman who swapped it for something trivial but valuable, like food. The merchant is therefore making approximately five-thousand percent profit on your hard fought deal. Stick that in your kif-pipe and smoke it.

The souk in the Djemma El Fna in Marrakech does make a fabulous sight though. By day the square is filled with snake charmers, petty merchants, water sellers and a horde of foreign and domestic tourists. Around the edges of the square are a line of stalls from which you can buy freshly squeezed orange juice and various food stuffs roasted over open fires.

By night the food vendors remain but the others are replaced with small groups huddled around the harsh white light of the gas lamp of an acrobat, jugglers or story teller. Men play dice or cards on upturned fruit boxes, beggars roam the crowd seeking gratuities and a steady line of beige Mercedes-taxis ferry more people into the square. From a distance the flickering light of the gas lamps reflects off the rising smoke from the barbecues and combines with the dull, throbbing roar of the crowd to give the place an infernal aspect.

Marrakech is anything but dull.

If, after a time the pace of life in Marrakech palls you can leave the city and head out into the 'country' side which, while not dull, is certainly less populated.

This is exactly what we chose to do on our second night in Marrakech. Aided by a very helpful multilingual woman from the Hotel Ali where we were staying we organised a four day tour into the wilds of Morocco.

A number of companies run independent tours in Morocco which allow you to experience the country in your own time although with not quite the same level of comfort as an organised coach tour. The Hotel Ali gave us access to a number of these and we finally settled on a four day tour south of Marrakech into the mountains, desert and gorges.

The first night of our excursion took us south across the High Atlas to the desert near Zagora. The Atlas is a mountain range to rival any in the world and although most of the peaks are not snow-capped at this time of year they are still magnificent. The highlight of the road over the Atlas comes at Tizni-Tichit the col at 3000m. To either side the bare flanks of the mountains drop towards the valleys below. The peaks of the mountains rise up to another 1000m with the highest being Jebel Toubkal at 4167m.

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