In August 2008 we visited Morocco; before going to Spain and Portugal. We flew into Marrakesh from Malta and then used the train via Casablanca to Fez; before train-travelling further north to Tangiers.
As usual we booked most of the trip on-line in Australia before departure. This allows a certain amount of research into accommodation and avoids wasting a lot of very expensive overseas time queuing for tickets and so on. The down-side is a loss of flexibility during the trip and thus spontaneity. But it is a lot less prescriptive than using a package tour.
Experience suggests building-in some unscheduled time; particularly around transport to allow for cancelled flights; delayed trains or broken-down busses.
It was a bit of a surprise when arriving in Marrakesh to be driven to an outer carpark and then led into what looked, to untutored eyes, like a slum.
The old city of Marrakesh is not a slum; it’s a full-blown tourist theme-park; like Venice.
After a short walk into what looked to be increasing decay we reached Riad Eden our accommodation. Entering the heavy door was like walking into Aladdin’s Cave, a sumptuous courtyard surrounded by the well appointed bedrooms on two levels and a very pleasant roof garden.
It was a short walk in the other direction to Djemaa el Fna (the main square); that figures in all the images of the city.
The square has changed little since Alfred Hitchcock used it as the kidnap site in The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956; except the French are gone. There is even some consistency in the way people dress, although today many younger people wear jeans and t-shirts; and the tourists certainly don't wear suites; or twinsets and pearls. The cars have changed but the buildings look much the same.
There is one unwelcome addition; the annoying motorbikes scooting as high speed through even the narrowest walking street.
In the labyrinthine markets there are many spice stores featuring large hessian bags of spices of all kinds; as well as food stalls selling everything from olives and dates all kinds of meat; except pork. These apparently cater to the domestic market and the food industry.
Within a few hundred yards of our accommodation there were dozens of eateries, varying from elaborate restaurants with a bar and entertainment, to small cafés specialising in Moroccan targines. We mostly ate at the local cafés where the food was inexpensive and delicious but treated ourselves to more up-market restaurants on several evenings.
Although the food was generally excellent, a walk through the food markets can be alarming; seeing how it has been exposed to flies and general handling.
The flies are a worry. Near to one of the entrances to the old city is a wall in a small park (Jardin Sidi Hmed El Kamel) that generally serves as a urinal. We didn’t observe the act but evidently it serves the other bodily function too on a fairly regular basis.
We reasoned that the food would have been fly-exposed no matter where we ate and stopped thinking about it. No illness resulted. At least people wash regularly in Muslim countries.
It tends to be hot and a pleasant alternative to bottled water is the freshly squeezed oranges, available from many vendors. This is best ordered at ambient temperature straight from the squeezer. The stall holders offer tourists iced orange juice. This has ice, presumably made from tap water, added. It is thoroughly diluted usually in a jug under the counter for which some pay whatever the stall holder can get. But we found no difficulty in getting the pure juice, at the standard price, by simply offering the money and pointing to the juicer. We drank a lot of it.
There is street entertainment in the square; some of it the same style as you might see at Circular Quay in Sydney. But the snake charmers are more of a local feature. If you photograph them they expect you to pay; and sometimes if you just give them a glance. We crossed the square many times and had had our fill of snake charming after the first day. Most of the snakes are non-venomous pythons and quite unremarkable.
One afternoon we were crossing the square when suddenly a snake was dropped over my shoulders. Apparently the owner felt that I/we had ignored him; or perhaps it was my ‘Indiana Jones’ hat.
I am not particularly phobic about snakes. Friends had them as pets and I have handled lizards that can give a nasty bite since childhood, blue tongue skinks occasionally come into the house in Mosman.
A chameleon in the market - on the back of my hand
But some snakes in Australia are very venomous and getting one dropped over one’s neck unexpectedly from behind was something of a shock. Without being conscious of what I was doing I emitted an expletive; had the snake by its neck; and twisted away; to be confronted by its owner with a terrified expression on his face. He clearly thought I was about to kill his livelihood; or him. I wondered if he is unofficial heart tester in Marrakesh? I trust he won’t do it again.
The old city (the Medina) is the main attraction surrounded by the well maintained city walls; now ringed by a narrow park and a highway.
To the west of the main square is the Koufoudia Mosque, with its distinctive tower.
In the middle-ground, is the leafy park at which the horses and carriages await tourists who can be persuaded to take a ride; shades of Hitchcock.
Unlike more secular countries in the Muslim world, we were unable to enter any Mosque even if appropriately dressed. Tourists are encouraged instead to visit the Ben Youssef Medrassa (Islamic school)
and Dar Menebhi Palace; a classical Islamic building now the Museum of Marrakesh.
There is also a Roman cistern and the city walls and gates to be seen. There is in fact a long history to be explored. This was once the centre of an empire that included southern Spain. Unfortunately for the amateur archaeologist or historian this history is best explored at home.
Whereas in Europe; Asia and the Americas there are informative and well resourced public museums displaying cultural origins back to the Stone age or earlier, few Islamic countries have the public interest in the past that we do. It may be a fear that this knowledge will challenge religious faith; or both a symptom and a cause of low levels of literacy. Scholarship of this kind is not absent but it is the province of the elite.
So for tourists the main attractions are the ceramics and handcraft markets, which extend well beyond the souk (Berber market); the restaurants and cafes; and the street and night-time entertainment.
Bargaining is a popular pastime for one and all.
Some of the goods on offer are handmade craft but most are mass produced.
Marrakesh boasts genuine manufacture of cushions and other soft-goods and a guy who makes pots out of old tyres.
But on the whole the goods on offer are quite evidently made in conventional factories, possibly sweat shops, around the world. Small stall holders and shopkeepers sell more or less the same mass produced goods. The pottery is locally manufactured but much of the clothing is from India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
As in all tourist-traps there are some more commodious stores that cater to package tours and the less adventurous souvenir hunter.
These can usually be identified, all over the World, by the crafts-persons supposedly making, the patently mass produced, items on site ‘in our own weaving/jewellery/carving/painting factory’. Tools are taken-up as the tourist bus arrives; then downed as soon as it leaves. In India the storefront crafts-person might be some poor child or senior citizen laboriously carving a half-made stone elephant; in South America someone hand making a stone pot or carving a gourd; and almost everywhere, someone working a loom or soldering jewellery. That vast pile of carpets was supposedly all hand-knotted by the women out front, at fifteen knots a minute, a hundred knots to the square inch. It takes little maths to compute that a single tourist shop contains many hundreds of years of work by hand; and a lot less for a machine.
In these markets the stall holder’s skill is in how much mark-up they can achieve; while the tourist’s is getting the best deal on some trinket to be assigned to the back of a cupboard, or given away, when they get home. The actual good for sale is just a pawn in the game.
Wendy loves to bargain and as she expects the same thing to be on sale in half a dozen places is quite prepared to walk away. She can spend hours at this game. The stall-holders, often with no other customers to amuse them, are usually happy to do the same; particularly with a skilled opponent.
Both smile broadly. What fun, for a whole 20 minutes! W hands over a large note. SH provides the correct change without argument - come back soon!
Wendy is now a world expert; she has done this on four continents.
Depending on how much language they have in common (Wendy can say: ‘too much for me’ in several languages) a really good session will include a lot of interplay about the seller's profit margins; their relative living in Sydney/Melbourne; where else Wendy can get the same thing for less; and the discount for buying more than one etc.
Walking away can be even more interesting. In Morocco she was followed around for an hour by a man with a basket progressively lowering his price; in Vietnam, or was it Cambodia, she was hit by a woman with a fan. In China a man with a watch followed us for about a mile.
Whenever I lose her she can usually be found bargaining for a trinket in some shop or street market.
They play this game very well in Morocco. Wendy loves the place; along with the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; and the Silk Market in Beijing.
We went to the station to confirm our tickets the day before leaving and went for a stroll outside the Medina. Most of the conventional hotels are located east of the station; and west of the old city. The architecture in this area is much like many other cities in the world and some of the hotels are very up-market.
We booked first class tickets and shared the compartment, by chance, with other Australians. A local man introduced himself as a businessman; he was very charming giving us his card and offering to show us around. At one stage wanted ‘the ladies’ to come with him to another carriage for some indeterminate reason. His whole demeanour shouted: con-man! We were glad when he gave up on us and went off down the train. He was later seen deeply engaged in ‘helping’ a middle-aged male American backpacker.
The train from Marrakesh was very good. The track had recently been upgraded, the older French style track, with steel bars in the centre of the sleepers, abandoned alongside. The rolling stock also appeared to be in good condition.
Local people credited the young King (Mohammed VI born 21 August 1963) with many recent improvements of this kind. The King has made public statements in support of women and the Berber Culture, including making the language official (along with Arabic); and has instigated parliamentary democratic reforms. 99% of Moroccans are Berbers (Moors - see my article on Spain for more information). His picture hangs in many cafes and other businesses.
King Mohammed VI (not my photo)
Although some women do work in shops almost all are illiterate; as are about half the men. It is pointless showing them a map even in their own language if you are lost. As in some other fundamentalist Muslim cultures women are traded as wives and their function is to bear children; keep house and obey their father then their husband; not to read or write.
As a result the population has exploded as modern science, technology and agriculture has been introduced. The resulting human population bomb is destroying the country; like a plague of locusts. For miles from the train all we could see was bare soil; the occasional small plant covered in plastic bags that sweep across the plane in the wind. To the east and south the Sahara Desert is making inroads at an alarming pace.
This is the fertile part, nearing Casablanca
The King seems prepared to try and change this; but is he fifty years too late?
If we thought Marrakesh was like entering a slum it was because we had not yet experienced Fez. The cab from the station went to a gate, or was it a just a hole in the city wall, which was like someone’s back yard of rutted mud. We were met by a waiting guide and led along a narrow path strewn with bits of fallen masonry; pulling our bags behind us. Thank goodness for bags with good wheels.
We didn't see another soul for some time then a train of donkeys and their handler appeared.
Eventually we reached some steps.
Up we went to a solid door and low and behold another demi-paradise; more opulent than the one in Marrakesh. Our room on the first floor was huge, with a twenty foot ceiling and a bathroom larger than many standard hotel rooms. In our private sitting area a light meal welcomed; along with the manager/owner offering a glass of wine.
Unlike Marrakesh Fez is not flat. Much of it is built in the valley of a river with steep sides and paths running longitudinally and vertically.
Again the buildings are close on each side and the street pattern apparently random. This is more so because many of the streets/paths are covered over so it is not possible to use the shadows to get a bearing.
But we knew our accommodation, Dar Roumana, was high on the left of the valley, near the old Roman wall and ruins. The main street heads down-stream (north), towards the Mosquee Sidi Ahmed Tijani from the Blue Gate (Bab Boujloud). From our rooftop garden we had an excellent panoramic view that allowed us to get our bearings more easily.
The local sport is taking tourists on a three mile trip via a dozen shops ‘owned by my uncle’; to a spot just around the corner. Dozens of young boys earn a living this way. We quickly learnt to avoid their help.
One of our fellow guests was a gay man; awaiting his partner before setting out on a planned camel safari to the Sahara. Lawrence of Arabia here we come. One of the guide boys attached himself to our co-resident. Despite his protestations that he didn't want to go to another shop and ‘just take me home’ the boy led him around all day; completely lost. Finally the boy relented and delivered him to the steps and then demanded some outrageous fee for his services.
Our friend fled up the steps and hammered on the door pursued by the boy. Much drama then ensued as the manager took the guest into his protection and the boy, now with reinforcements, waited outside for our friend to emerge. He was still housebound, waiting for Peter O’Toole (as Lawrence) to rescue him from the young sentinel outside, a day and a half later.
Fez has an active pottery industry that uses olive pits as fuel and dark black smoke often drifts into the sky over the city; it also has its own tanneries. In this respect the handcrafts are more convincingly locally made than those in Marrakesh.
The tanneries are outside the old city walls and many guides will take you to one because they get a commission for delivering tourists.
Looking over a very smelly tannery is free. You are supplied with mint to hold to your nose.
We felt no pressure to buy leather goods at the tannery we visited. But Wendy was in a coat buying mood anyway.
We have been told since that other tourists have been frightened into an unwanted purchase, perhaps at another establishment; the one we went to had quite an up-market professional shop.
We were left to our own resources getting back. So it might have been a good idea to take better note of the route on the way. But this is almost impossible within the old city labyrinth.
We got so lost returning that we gave up, left the old city and caught a cab to the blue gate.
We were about as far away from our goal as we could get; but we did see a lot of the city tourists seldom visit; including a man completely surrounded by mint!
Wendy has since bought me a compass for my key-ring.
It can’t be too far to the tannery if you know the way because Wendy twice sent the coat back for changes before paying the balance owing. The guy doing the running, back and forth, seemed to waste little time.
Another good thing about Fez is the lack of motorbikes. There are a lot of donkeys, horses and mules; but they are much nicer than motorbikes.
Outside the blue gate there is a large square, like the one in Marrakesh, complete with snake charmers and acrobats.
And there was a pleasant restaurant nearby where you can sit above the street and watch the passing parade.
Again we departed by train this time for Tangiers. And again there was an incident on the train.
We were happily sitting in our compartment with a middle aged woman and a twenty-something girl; both apparently wealthy locals. At an intermediate stop we saw the girl flirting with a couple of young men. When we got back on the train they came into our compartment with their bags, throwing them onto the rack above the head of the woman. She was clearly distressed by their presence.
Initially we put up with their antics around the girl. But they became more loud and annoying and I asked them to go back to their own carriage. When they refused I went down to the conductor and suggested that he should check their tickets and seat bookings. They saw him coming and were about to take off; but without their bags. So I grabbed a bag and suggested they take them too. The big noisy one stood up to me; macho in front of the girl. I thrust his bag in his chest and dodged his half-hearted swing at me. I've plenty of experience wrestling with the kids; and of course many years ago as a student. So off they went.
The girl, then, somewhat unconvincingly, explained that they had annoyed her too but she couldn't get rid of them.
I was a local hero, in our little world of the train compartment. Wendy says: Ha! In your own mind! - Such is connubial loyalty!
But I was secretly afraid that I would have a real fight on my hands when we got off the train in Tangiers. I contemplated the possibility of knives and so on. Fortunately they were nowhere to be seen.
Wendy was most impressed and gave me this birthday card inscribed: ‘To My Hothead’…