I am not a natural traveller, so you should not be surprised to read that this is Marrakech by package holiday, not an off-the-beaten-track tale of staying with a local family in their riad. Nor am I an experienced traveller, having been abroad fewer times than I have fingers, so to the more worldly this may all seem very banal.
I expected Morocco to be much like our honeymoon in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt – very hot, and with a choice of either a sanitized hotel culture or being terrified by desperately pushy salesmen if we stepped outside the hotel. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great honeymoon, but it didn’t leave me enamoured of northern Africa. And you must bear in mind that we went to Egypt only 8 weeks after their revolution and although the UK government was of the opinion Sharm was safe enough when we went, many other European governments had not yet lifted their travel bans on Egypt, so the desperately pushy salesmen were indeed desperate. People who managed a hand to mouth existence selling tat to tourists ordinarily now had so few tourists that they could not take no for an answer. If there was any chance of converting their stock to coins they were going to do everything they could to get it.
Also, Sharm el-Sheik is not a “real” place – it’s kind of a manufactured resort destination, so it doesn’t have any true native culture. Pretty much every “local” is there to serve the tourism industry. The sea and the sea-life are fantastic, but otherwise there’s not much there apart from shops, bars and manufactured excursions.
So I didn’t really expect much from Marrakech except for a pleasant climate and a hotel to relax in. I could not have been more wrong. Upon arrival it was … not warm. It was a little warmer than the UK but a little on the uncomfortably cool side. But that coach ride from the airport to the hotel already had me realising this was a lot more interesting than our Egypt coach rides. The roads were lined with orange trees, at least one every three meters, and almost all showed flowers or fruit. The roads were … interesting. Our holiday rep. warned us that here red traffic lights are seen more as being for decoration. And zebra crossings … purely for decoration. And donkey carts were a common mode of transportation. LOOK MR S IT’S A DONKEY!!
Yes I got quite over excited about the donkeys. In fact, donkeys are not just common in Marrakech, they are essential. In the medina, the old walled part of the town containing the souks, cars cannot fit down the narrow streets. Donkeys (or less commonly mules or ponies) are the best way of transporting anything from A to B. Outside of the towns, donkeys are the small farmer’s all terrain vehicle and then they can take you and your produce to market. Remove the donkeys from Marrakech and it would not function. There are also horse-drawn carriages – small carriages with pairs of little horses. These are for tourists, but the donkeys are a part of the local culture.
I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the horses. Once back in the UK with the power of the internet at my fingertips, I discovered that this is due to the good work of the charity SPANA, who ensure these horses have regular free health checks. We did see one pair of horses that were not in good condition, but all the others looked well. The donkeys showed more variety – some clean and beautiful, others bedraggled and thin. But the same can be said of the humans – in areas where human life is hard, equine life is hard. All things being equal, the donkey owned by someone doing comfortably in his business has got a better chance of good health than the donkey whose owner is struggling to meet his own needs.
I was delighted to see a few mules – I don’t think I’d ever seen a mule before. I’d always wondered what was the point of mules. Not a horse, yet not a donkey; sterile, so nature’s dead-end. But now, having seen a few mules, I now can imagine that something bigger and stronger than a donkey, yet hardier than a horse is a really useful working animal, and in a culture like this a good mule would be something to be prized.
Perhaps to many people the prevalence of equines would not naturally equal the exotic, but to me it was a real flavour of the culture. Perhaps those people would be more impressed with the fact that in one view you can see palm trees and snow-capped mountains.
Although this is not the most picturesque view it does appear to be the only picture we took with both mountains and palm trees. If it helps to paint the picture, this was taken just near the local supermarket. For a more rural view …
But if you think this looks rather European in a Von Trapp Family Singers kind of way, when you look in the next field you will be reminded you are in Africa because the sheep are “wrong” – long legs, long necks, long floppy ears and not much wool. I’m pretty sure these sheep have a lot more street smarts than the British wool-bales on legs. In fact all the animals in Morocco seemed to have more street smarts. I actually saw a street dog in the city walk to a zebra crossing, stop, look each way, check each way again, and then trot smartly across when it was safe to do so. I kid you not.
Even when I try to tell you about the landscape my description seems to come back to animals against my will! Flora and fauna fascinate me. I was amused to see the local approach to barbed wire fencing – simply plant a “hedge” of prickly pear cactus. A cheap and extremely effective solution.
So I suppose I must make an effort to talk about people and people-things. The souks were large, full of lovely shiny things and people keen to sell them. They were fascinating, and should not be missed. Yes, you need to be very clear if you’re not interested in buying, and a stubborn haggler if you want to get a good deal, but after the intimidating shopping on our honeymoon, it was a piece of cake. Especially as Mr S is no slouch when it comes to haggling and I am always ready to walk away if the price is not right. It’s amazing how quickly the price drops if the seller really believes you are leaving. The leather goods are very nice, although it’s worth checking that the quality of stitching matches the quality of the leather, which is made within the medina, i.e. within a mile of so of where you are buying the finished article. One bag and scarf seller, wearing a Nike jacket, was very keen to get me to part with the Nike cap I was wearing. First he tried to give me a handbag for it, then a silk scarf, then a pashmina, but I held firm and retained my cap!
Marrakech is the tourist capital of Morocco and it far surpassed my expectations. Exotic without being too intimidating, a mix of African, Middle Eastern and European influences make it a place like no other. Travel had never really captured my imagination before this trip, but suddenly I can see the appeal. And although our first few days were inclement, with lots of unseasonal rain, by the end of the holiday the weather was absolutely beautiful.