The wonders & perils of Marrakech
Well the eleven hour shore excursion ended up thirteen hours. In fairness, Marrakech is a good three hour drive, plus toilet stop halfway in each direction. Although assembly for the excursion was at 8.45am, it was 9.30 before we were able to start the bus trip after immigration finally granted their approval for the ship to disembark.
Fortunately, I got the best seat in the coach. The first one past the second door. The view is expanded due to the row of seats in front of you missing, and if you happen to travel solo, there is a good chance of having the two seats to yourself if the bus isn’t full.
We made our way through Casablanca and the weather seemed pleasant, I was wearing a cardigan on the way to the bus. Morocco is an unusual country language wise. Arabic is the official language, although our guide told us that the children start learning French at the age of 10. Our guide Mustafa, though spoke six languages fluently and yesterday’s tour was in both English and Spanish. When you think about it, Morocco is only 14 kilometres from Europe, with a 30 minute ferry ride going between northern Morocco and Gibraltar.
As I said, it was not quite ‘ the Marrakesh express’ with a toilet stop approximately halfway (sorry, I couldn’t help myself there). The stop was a good introduction to the ways of Morocco. They probably take Euros as well as their currency of Moroccan Dirhams, but then they may not. If they do take Euros, they might only like €1 or €2 coins, and the €5 note, depending on what you want to buy. Chances are if you pay in Euros, you are likely to get your change in Dirham. Roughly speaking, €1 = 1 Moroccan Dirham ,MAD (Yep, that’s the currency code, I kid you not).
The other weird thing (well, for an Australian at least) about shops, etc is that prices may or may not be fixed, therefore they may (or indeed may not) expect you to haggle. I will call a spade a spade, I am not good at haggling, my method of dealing with it all is just to say ‘no, sorry’ and walk off. A lot of the time the vendors chase you asking what you want to pay. I just keep walking. If they do drop the price to something I find acceptable, I agree, otherwise I just keep walking.
Also, don’t necessarily buy something the first time you see it. I was astounded at the shop at the toilet stop, shop man told me a bracelet I liked was €10. I politely declined. He then asked how much I would pay. I just left. I saw the same bracelet in Marrakesh for €3, even before any haggling.
Oh, and before I forget, Toilets. A couple of things. Firstly, I didn’t find one that was free. I am not sure there is even a thing of public free toilets in Morocco, I didn’t see any. The owners of toilets in places like restaurants and cafes welcome folk to use their toilets, at a cost, (even, it seems if you are a diner there, they expect the coin). Generally one Euro will keep them happy. Look at this way, at least the restrooms are somewhat stocked with toilet paper, soap, paper towel, etc and are reasonably clean. The other thing that may or may not be high on your bucket list of toilet experiences; some are squat toilets. Still functioning, just make sure your knees are up to it.
OK, so we got to Marrakech, which like a lot of places has the old town situated behind ancient walls. The Koutoubia Mosque is the 5th largest in the world and no building in Marrakech is allowed to be built higher five floors, so everyone from all over Marrakech can see the tower of the Mosque. Palm trees are absolutely everywhere around the city. There is a large vacant (apart from some of the omnipresent palm trees) block of land close to the heart of the new town. Apparently, it is worthless, because it is not permitted to remove palms. Foot paths have been built around palms, no matter if the presence of the palm makes the footpaths impossible to be used. They take their palms very seriously.
We entered the ‘medina’ or the old city of Marrakech.
One awesome Idea I saw near the Koutoubia Mosque was a palm like ‘tree’ with a seat around it. What made it special was that it was a fake tree, the large ‘leaves’ had solar panels on the top and (now the absolute kicker) power point charging points around the trunk. Good work, Marrakech!
This is a good time to give some money hints for Marrakech.
Have €1 and €2 coins. Keep any notes in very small denominations (hide the big ones). If possible, have a purse with very little in that can show to the Marrakech folk that you have almost no money, so they leave you alone when it comes to photo opportunities with snakes, monkeys or strangely dressed men holding brass bells, or people trying to sell you jewellery, souvenirs, pottery, henna tattoos, freshly squeezed orange juice, etc., etc.
If not interested, just try to put your hand up and shake your head. This way, they don’t know what language you speak and it’s harder for them to hassle you. Apparently to some, I look German.
We first went to the Saadien Tombs which date back to around 1600. They were discovered in 1917 and contain tombs of 60 members of the Saadi dynasty within three rooms. Outside there are tombs of soldiers and servants and some lovely gardens. Getting to the tombs involves following a long, very narrow laneway with sharp turns so you don’t actually see the foot traffic coming from the other direction until they are pretty much in the way.
Then it was off through a labyrinth of narrow, market stall lined laneways to find the restaurant for our lunch.
I made the mistake of answering the first veil clad lady who approached me and then followed me (I was hurrying to keep up with the tour group) asking if I wanted to buy some bracelets. The price didn’t drop, but the number of bangles increased. In the end I gave in thinking it was worth it for the peace.
I just possibly had an invisible target attached to me, attracting every veiled woman in Marrakech selling bracelets and inviting them to follow me. I even tried to palm them off to others in the tour group.
Lunch was at Dar Esslam. Table allocation was dependant on the language spoken. After having (on my part) a silent breakfast the other morning with two German couples, I was pleased. On the table were bottles of water and red wine. Entrée came in the form of bread and five plates, that apart from tomatoes, I really don’t know what they were. When in Morocco….. I had some of everything and it really was quite nice. Next was a main of baked chicken with olives and a side plate of cous cous, vegies and chick peas. Lastly, there were biscuits that tasted not unlike shortbread and a small glass of hot, sweet, aromatic alcohol. I have no idea what it was, but it was nice. I used the toilet and not thinking, left my bag at the table, fortunately I had a coin in my pocket.
Oh, I almost forgot the entertainment. Aside from the music being played in the other room which I am guessing was coming from live musicians rather than someone’s ipod; there was an unusual lady wearing a full length purple sequined dress with a candle laden tray on her head work her way through the room. Shortly after, a belly dancer appeared and targeted the men of the room.
Next it was on to Kisbet Nhas, and Palais el Badii. This palace was built to house the then Prime Minister, his four wives and twenty four concubines, oh, and their children. I believe once a young lady was brought to the palace as a concubine, they were not allowed out…. Ever. Their families were able to visit, but they were there until death.
After the palace, we were then taken to a place that made Argan oil, and also sold herbs, spices, lotions and potions which was located in the heart of one of the souks (covered laneways lined with permanent market stalls)
After that is time for Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square and market in the middle medina quarter. It is quite the eye opener. The action just increased as the day got longer. Seriously, this place is not for the faint hearted. It seems everyone is in your face and want to get money out of you.
As I said earlier, keep your money hidden and have a small purse with only a few Euros, so you (if needed) can show to demonstrate that they are not going to be able to get much money from you. Be careful who or what you photograph. The monkey handlers, snake charmers and men in funny clothes holding the brass bells do this for a living. Also, don’t photograph police or members of the military.
From the Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can watch the sunset behind the Koutoubia Mosque, which is located to the west of the square past the dozens of horses and carts in their festive finery ready for the tourists.
After a very long day, we rejoined the coach for the trip back to Casablanca, and indeed, the MSC Magnifica, arriving back at around 10.30pm. Guess who managed a sleep in this morning?
Palais el Badii