If you think you’re well rehearsed in the choreography required to navigate Oxford Street at rush hour on a Friday night, then try any street in the medina of Marrakech. Dropped off by our taxi from the airport, we found ourselves wading upstream as cyclists, donkey carts, the odd car and a multitude of mopeds (often carrying whole families of father, mother and child) all share the same three-metre road, forcing you into a series of exotic acrobatic positions.
After this bombardment through a riddle of streets our riad’s small yet very solid wooden door and four thick stone walls created an almost fortified home, which we were relieved to be welcomed into. Following a rather warm night’s sleep, but a good breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and flat-breads with home-made jams, we set off to be bombarded once again with the visual sights of the city. On first impressions El Badi Palace can appear more grave-like than the Saadian Tombs with its haunting yellow ruins, inhabiting storks and underground dungeons. In contrast, the elegant Saadian tombs fizz quietly with stone carvings as delicately intricate as lace adorning archway after archway. This subtly prepares you for the Dar Si Saad Museum, which is positively effervescent. Every design radiates out from a single shape, but this time far louder through patterned tiles on the floors, bright mosaics on the walls and hand-painted ceilings above. Although this would seem to compete with the artifacts displayed behind glass, in my opinion the interior design wins – triumphantly.
Knowing we had over-stretched ourselves the day before, we spent our second day in the souks. This sprawling market is covered overhead by reeds allowing it to be a cool place to wander even at midday…but we wished we’d packed a compass. At times the souks seem as complicated and maze-like as the intricate stone carvings, and this can definitely set off a hot sweat as you attempt to read a map and dodge the children offering to take you the "right" way for a tip. However, after gaining some confidence (and a bottle of water) we were ready to squeeze the souks for all they were worth: we explored the cave-like shops bursting with silver and jewels, the range of babouches from classic yellow leather to a mock Burberry design, an array of spices, and a slightly disturbing stall selling tortoises stacked like bricks and baby Peregrine falcons.
Worn out from haggling on teapots and lanterns, we’d hoped to eat dinner at the renowned food stalls used by locals and (fearless) tourists alike, located in the main square: Jemaa el Fna. But something about the out-of-date English phrases from the nineties used by the waiters urging us to enjoy their kebabs/soups/snails/sheep’s brains, combined with our realization that we were not so fearless, led us to one of the cafes that frame the square with large terraces on which to view the chaos (and not be part of it for a change). After a hearty beef tajine and a big pot of sugary mint tea we descended back into the square, this time staying clear of the electric lights and white smoke of the food stalls, and headed instead towards the mysterious clusters of people in the dark. Behind these round walls of people, acrobats climbed one another, dancers pranced, musicians played and storytellers captivated with dramatic expressions strengthened by the chiaroscuro sourced from a single light bulb.
The next morning brought with it a slight breeze, blowing away the kaleidoscopic spectacles of the night before. We seized it with both hands and immersed ourselves in the Majorelle Gardens. The impact of this place is immediate: the reds and oranges of the medina become lost under the towering palm trees, fruit trees and eccentric collection of cacti. Two ponds create an oasis-like environment, which is heightened by the famous blue house that remains bewilderingly brighter than the sky on a clear day. Unlike the traditional Moroccan decoration that is so overwhelmingly detailed, the Majorelle Garden was begun by a French artist and then taken over by Yves Saint Laurent who confronts you in boldly painted pots, a rainbow of rare plants and amongst other species – a striped bamboo, that looks like it could only have been drawn up by a graphic designer.
After snacking on lunch and hiding from the sun in our riad, we took a taxi to our next place of accommodation: a hotel located fifteen miles south of the medina. As we moved further from the city, wagons selling watermelons (or the more modest stalls of cactus fruit), began to disappear as ochre wastelands took over. Our "grand taxi"; a Mercedes, seemed completely out of place as it strove over a dirt track swollen with hills and dropping with valleys. On arrival we were greeted by our friendly host with Moroccan biscuits, juicy oranges and a pot of mint tea, which we enjoyed in our new room: far more rustic with a wooden ceiling that scented the whole space; a subtle reminder that we were now in the country. Refreshed and excited, we set off for a walk that brought us closer to the Atlas Mountains, but, still shrouded in the summer haze their shadowy presence was sadly no clearer than the day we arrived. In the foreground straw-hatted shepherds and farmers waved to us, returning to their homes conjured from the red earth and clustered to form one of the many Berber villages dotted around the mountainous regions. We did the same, and returned to our hotel to find another dinner on another terrace. But this time it was a totally different experience: fresh bread and olives picked from the olive groves six-hundred yards away were the best we had ever tasted and were followed by a terracotta tajine, in which a whole chicken with currants and prunes awaited. It would have to wait, looking towards the city over the expanse of the plains finally allowed us to rest our eyes on a panoramic view of the sun setting.
Isabel Galleymore travelled with Morocco Gateway to Marrakech and stayed in Riad Zina and Tigmi: