Due to our enforced stint at the Golden Arches the previous evening, we alighted the train at Marrakech station scarcely more Morocco-savvy than when we had disembarked the ferry at Tangier. This time, though, we were at least better prepared for the predatory descent of local taxi drivers as we exhaustedly staggered into the forecourt, almost blinded by the startlingly intense sun. Our confidence slowly building, we gravitated towards the most friendly-looking driver and successfully negotiated down on the price of the ride to our hotel. We were, however, rather perturbed when he pulled up not outside the requested Hotel Sherazade but at the corner of the legendary Jemaa El Fnar Square, before gesturing towards a narrow gloomy alleyway leading off it. We quickly gathered that our hotel was not accessible by car – something not at all clear from our rather inept print-out from Google maps. Dismissing in our now customary fashion the “guide” who, as we opened the taxi doors, offered to lead us to the hotel himself, we hesitantly entered the alleyway, clueless as to exactly where our hotel was going to be.
Our previously sheltered lives had never thrown up a street quite like this one. Lined with beggars, overrun with cats, soundtracked by kids on mopeds and odorous with the stench of rotting meat, we had entered a world far removed from our own. We trudged through this melee feeling entirely fraudulent with our bags laden with western comforts but we had no choice but to press on, hoping and praying that our hotel would soon present itself. Thankfully, after a couple of minutes, it did, with an emblazoned sign directing us down a side-alley. Our hotel, or “riad” as they are termed locally, was a little oasis of calm compared to the madness outside. Built up around a series of ornate courtyards and decked out beautifully with tiled walls, fountains and plants, we felt safe and relaxed here and spent a couple of hours lying drowsily up on the terrace as we tried to recover our composure.
Sleep-deprived and sweltering in heat in excess of 40 degrees, we’d probably not been in the ideal state to confront this remarkable new land but after our rest, we felt refreshed enough to embark upon some proper exploring. The initial shock of the street outside began to wear off after a while, particularly when viewed in the context of the rest of the city. Jemaa El Fnar was every bit as weird and wonderful as the guidebooks had suggested. The sheer scale of the place was enough to impress (it was a good five minutes’ walk from end to end) but the amazing cast of characters that we found there provided people-watching opportunities far beyond anything else we had experienced on our travels. Not that we were allowed to restrict ourselves merely to watching the market traders here: the slightest eye contact would result in shouts and heckles, mostly in good humour but nonetheless aggressive and initially intimidating for the virgin Morocco tourist. We had been forewarned by friends to be especially wary of a group of monkey owners, who would not hold back from throwing their hyperactive pets on unsuspecting passers-by and only reclaiming them after an exchange of coinage. Snake-charmers and on-street, plier-wielding “dentists” further distinguished this market from your average local green grocer, but there was still a dazzling array of products on show that we’d have happily snapped up if we’d saved up a little bit more spending money.
Exploring the famous “souks”, a maze of undercover stalls and shops leading off from the back of the square, was undoubtedly the main highlight of our time in Marrakech. While the outdoor market revolves mostly around food stalls and circus acts, the souks offer a dazzling array of fabrics, animal skins and pottery. Illuminated by the shafts of sunlight that strike through the wooden slat roofing, the stalls are an intoxicating cocktail of colours and smells. We quickly realised that variations on a small handful of products - silk scarves, “baboosh” slippers, tagine pots and sheep skin bags – represented the vast majority of sales here but actually getting to the point of owning one was far from straightforward. For a start, any hope of “browsing” was immediately scuppered by the stallholders, who would bombard you with aggressive sales patter the moment you showed the slightest interest in a particular item. It made for a fairly fraught shopping experience, especially since Holly is not always the quickest to make a decision, especially when it comes to clothes and handbags... The next obstacle was negotiating blind on the price of the item as we understandably had little idea of its true value. After a while, we learnt to play the stallholders off against each other, suggesting to one, for example, that his mate down the street was offering the same product for a much cheaper price. Though aggressive, the negotiation process was usually good-humoured and we ended up acquiring a few bargains, including a sheepskin bag for which we paid under 40% of the original asking price.
After a couple of days, this at first intimidating country had become one of the most colourful, vibrant and sensory places we had ever visited. Once we’d acquired the confidence to banter back to the locals, there was a lot of fun to be had, especially for Holly, who delighted in some of the jibes and nicknames that were slung my way by the locals. Of particularly amusement was the constant mistaken belief that I was Irish, but at least that had a vague ring of truth, unlike the bizarre greeting I received from one market trader, who addressed me as the presumably ironic “Slim Shady”. Equally baffling was the claim of one to be simultaneously offering both “Primark” and “M&S” prices, though you had to admire their engagement with western culture.
Outside the square and souks, we found Marrakech to have few other points of genuine interest, though the mosque and surrounding gardens provided some wonderful dusky photo opportunities, and our evening of fine dining at the 5 star La Sultana Hotel – a gift from my former work colleagues at Walker Media – was one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Much as we came to love the place, though, our walk back to our hotel each day ensured we would never forget the poverty and poor life quality that afflicts so many here. While we felt two days represented the optimum length of time for a holiday here, we knew that was just a blink of an eye for the homeless and destitute that live here.