Marrakesh is the most modern of all the cities I have seen since arriving in Morocco – even more so than Casablanca. There are KFC’s; McD’s and Zara boutiques everywhere. A crazy blend of developing and developed world. It’s busy and cosmopolitan and here for the first time I see local women as well as tourists, (soooo many tourists) with hair and arms uncovered.
Outside the medina walls the smell of human urine mixes with that of donkeys and the fumes from the cars and buses. Within the medina it is much bigger than Fes el Bali (old Medina in Fes) it is also filthier, (It reminded me of Naples) now it is not only organic waste from the stalls and donkeys but human litter and oil and grease from the many, many scooters that race in what seems a suicidal manner around the narrow lanes and yet, somehow avoid hitting anyone..that I see at any rate. I wonder at the fact that poverty and litter are so often correlated… Is it a self defeatist sense of not deserving better? Does anyone know if any research has been done regarding this?
We encountered the odd chancer in Fes, one fellow who followed us for a long while trying to convince us to hire him as a tour guide or go see his uncles carpet shop, here however it is on another scale, “this way, this way” they call. Yeah. Like you know where we are going. Not that we knew where we were going to be honest but I for sure knew not anywhere these street corner fellows were pointing to. Much much bigger than Fes there are lots of shops with the typical and beautiful Moroccan wares for sale and busy does not begin to describe the hustle and bustle of the crowds and vendors, the parp parp of the scooters or the rattle of metal wagons.
The pace is faster than elsewhere we have been in Morocco and for the first time I see things I would prefer not to. Donkeys with raw patches where they have carried overladen carts for too many hours for instance. Elsewhere in Morocco the animals I saw while not ‘well’ treated were not mistreated and at any rate valued for what they provided – transport, food and wool – here everything seems rushed and the animals are seen as simply a means to an end. Although I also see for the first time, with the exception of Riad Laaroussa, dogs as clearly loved pets.
Pierre and I started our first morning in Marrakesh with a visit to the Jardin Majorelle. When Jacques Majorelle, the French orientalist painter arrived in Morocco in 1917 at 31 he fell in love with Marrakech. A few years later deciding to live in Marrakech he purchased an immense palm grove and commissioned a famous architect (Paul Sinoir) to build an artist’s studios around which he designed a beautiful garden filled with exotic and rare plants. I never thought I would feel I owe gratitude to Yves St Laurent but I do since it was he, together with Pierre Berge who acquired the gardens saving it from real estate thus providing this sanctuary of green and blue in the middle of the bustling city. We spend quite a while wandering around the garden and just sitting and enjoying the sense of peace that pervaded throughout this place despite the constant flow of tourists.
Later that day we wandered through the busy medina picking up a few last memento’s and then visited the Djemaa El Fna square. Animal lovers beware, you do not want to wander into Djemaa El Fna square in Marrakesh. Performing monkeys wearing nappies in particular slices through my heart and I wish I could just buy them all and put them in a sanctuary but, that would not solve the problem – the monkey men would just steal more from their mothers. And, I cannot judge them when in the west we still need ‘proof’ that animals should be accorded the same rights as us, where we farm them as though they were things on a production line. Instead I vow to find out what is being done to change the circumstances of these unfortunate animals. (In Fes they had a donkey sanctuary for old donkeys) I will add a link at the bottom that I am going to start with in terms of trying to help these poor creatures. I cannot for the life of me understand why this square is apparently so popular.
As you may have guessed we did not linger and I was grateful to retreat to our beautiful Riad Kniza for a much needed soul restoring Hamman (where I could see the fact that I was from South Africa but not Black totally baffled our therapist. I am pretty sure she still didnt believe me even after I explained) followed by a romantic dinner for two on the terrace under a Xmas full moon. What a blessed way to spend a Xmas evening.
Saturday morning, after a great night’s sleep we take a stroll through the medina to find Ben Youssef Madrasa. Founded during the Marinid period (14th century) by the Marinid sultan Abu al-Hassa it was an Islamic college named after Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf who reigned from 1106 to 1142.
You enter a courtyard with beautifully carved cedar, marble and stucco with geometric patterns and inscriptions – Islam forbids the representation of any sentient beings so no carvings or pictures of animals or humans. During it’s time it was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and some estimates say it could have had as many as 900 students. This beautiful courtyard is surrounded by about 130 student cells. Although I am not religious some places of worship seem to absorb the good intentions / prayers / devotion of their believers and this certainly feels like one of those places.
After that we found Maison de la photographie de Marrakech a stunning exhibition of black and white photos depicting Morocco over the past two centuries. Not only were the pictures stunning it also gave us a break from the chaos in the streets.
Finding ones way around the Medina is certainly an adventure and part of the fun, though in parts I am grateful that over the years I have perfected the skill of breathing through my ears ;)Truly I suspect you could find anything here, from beautiful local crafts to second hand goods. Pierre and I agree, this must be the graveyard for all our old washing machines, microwaves, flapjack machines, PCs , dstv dishes and lawnmowers. The lawnmower really boggles my mind since, aside from a small postage stamp of a lawn at Chez Talout, I have seen no lawn anywhere we have been! When we arrive back at Riad Kniza we are rewarded with clean laundry!!!
That evening Pierre and I venture once more into the fray to find a most simple but delightful street cafe, Rota Dior, where we sit outside on the sidewalk to enjoy a lovely meal that for a change does not involve a tagine. Enroute back I get my hands painted with Henna, only realising halfway through that I have not negotiated my price! Shit! Never take me bargaining, I am so crap at this, but Pierre comes to my rescue with some awesome negotiation. I am impressed at his new found haggling skills as are my hand painters who commendmy choice of husband. “Real Arab man.” Good Berber husband” they say laughing. I make it back to the Riad with surprisingly few smudges given the sea of human traffic we must navigate.
Back in Fes the Fes’s told me that from their view while good for shopping Marrakech lacked soul, I thought perhaps the were being a little territorial but to be honest I have to agree. While exciting and busy and not without its charms I certainly found Marrakech the least charming and authentic of everywhere we’d been before. I admit that I was possibly very much influenced by the very Western city surrounding it and the rife animal abuses within that dastardly square. I would however should you find yourself in Marrakech definitely consider staying at Riad Kniza with 5 star accommodation that beats any of our luxury hotels back home.