Peace and chaos in Marrakesh

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    Email the Travel Weekly team at traveldesk@travelweekly.com.au

    Peace and chaos in Marrakesh

    Peace and chaos in Marrakesh
    By admin


    With a turn of the handle, I am blinded. The sun funnelled beyond resolves into a courtyard that holds a fountain, ferns, magenta bougainvillea, cats and a tortoise. Captivated by this Aladdin’s cave, I trip through the medieval door, of which only a fraction opens. Noticing how frazzled I am, my host Hamza ushers me through to a mosaic tiled table where a lady wearing a thin white headscarf lays down a silver tray of glass thimbles before me. They are so stuffed with mint leaves and sugar that the hot water within has become almost redundant.

    After an hour spent trying to find this riad – a traditional Moroccan house – the tranquillity within is all the more welcome. You see, Marrakesh is not a city you can walk through and remain anonymous. Locals talk to you, try to sell to you and try to guide you, regardless of the language barrier. They generally try French first, then German, then English. These self-styled guides have seen many a visitor fall prey to the disorientating warren of lanes and pathways within the medina and it only emboldens them further.

    I believed I could find my own way, and palmed off all offers of help and guidance as any dignified traveller would. There are limited signs however and at some point the alleyways will outwit you. After repeatedly circling the same dusty path, I sacrificed my pride and accepted a personal tour.

    To reaffirm my navigational credentials, anyone could be forgiven for walking straight past these traditional riads. Located down gnarled lanes, each walkway looks like a dead end, but further exploration reveals yet more tight interlocking passages. The lane walls are high enough and narrow enough to catch the sun for mere minutes each day so the labyrinth is cold and damp, a respite from the desert heat.

    Traipsing through Marrakesh’s old city is an exercise in sensory overload. There is a smell that I have only ever experienced in the Marrakesh medina and it is that of dried blood, donkey manure and spice. But that is Marrakesh – occasionally uncomfortable, always in your face and unapologetically functional. People live and work here in the same way they would have done centuries ago. The traditional dress here is the djellaba, a hooded head to foot garment. To Western eyes, this is a Jedi outfit and Star Wars fans will have a creeping sense that the force is with them.

    For thousands of years the people of Marrakesh have converged in Djemaa El-Fna square, the thumping heart of the medina from which lanes and alleys snake off like arteries and force you forward like a pulse. Whether it’s a henna tattooist seizing your wrist, a hypnotic snake charmer manipulating his viper or a man selling donkey and cart rides, you’re not likely to feel lonely here.

    A boy no older than four years old grabs my calf while in the square. His upturned palm and large eyes speak a universal language and I fish out the only money I have – a small two pound coin. He starts bawling at the sight of it but manages to shed tears with his eyes wide open. His response is bewildering given that the money would be enough to buy dinner. It is upon the entry of a competitor, a tall girl who can be no more than seven years old, that the hustle ends. As she snatches at the coin he seizes it and runs off, giggling as he disappears into the crowded square.

    This overwhelming carnival of Moroccan life is overlooked by the minarets of mosques. In the daytime, a good idea is to head to the square for a bag of dates and orange juice that is pressed in front of you. For the more adventurous, snail soup is a popular delicacy, with the snails served in their shells. In the evening, follow the smoke that rises from the grills of pop-up kitchens covered by white tarpaulins, here locals eat lamb on plastic chairs. Fortune tellers and witch doctors pull the crowds in, often not by will but by sheer force.

    Local law dictates that no building in the medina can be taller than a palm tree, which ensures that the city has a uniform horizon of ochre roofs. This means that any roof terrace has a far reaching view over the city and you need only climb four flights of stairs to take it in. If you would rather observe the organised bedlam of Djemaa El-Fna from above, make your way up the red carpet stairs to Le Marrakchi restaurant, a plush venue that has intricate mosaic tiles on every wall and romantic window alcoves. Book a candlelit table by the windows to watch the square from the comfort of your throne style chair.

    If something catches your eye in the souk, buy it, then and there. The souk is a maze and it’s likely you’ll never be able to find the same shop twice.

    It’s foolish not to barter on the price too. It can take up to an hour of to and fro chatter that veers from price to the weather to where you’re from and back again to price. As you walk away clutching your shopping bag you will feel connected to the commotion of the bazaar. More than a cold capitalist transaction, you leave having made a friend – and if you do manage to find the same shop twice, your new chum will remember you and wave.

    I have never visited a place where public life is so divided from private life. While the streets are a free-for-all the interior spaces seem to be built as a relief, the precise opposite. There are no outward facing windows, meaning the riads are enclosed vestibules. Furthermore, Islamic tradition frowns upon obvious displays of wealth. All you see from the outside are dual wooden doors with bold brass handles – imposing as any fortress. There is no key to enter the riad either, you must knock, and each time I tap the brass knocker it echoes down the black alley, scattering stray cats out from behind metal bins.

    In the bedrooms, all windows face into the courtyard. Breakfast is served wherever the sun is – either in the courtyard or on the roof terrace. An extravagant silver plated tray as large as the dining table is delivered with a breakfast of hard boiled eggs and three types of bread – rolls, spongy pancakes and flatbread.

    After that carbo-loading session there is nothing for it but to walk. As overwhelming as the medina is, exploring it reveals small scenes of life playing out everywhere. I fall into a rhythm and cultivate a look of appearing found despite being gloriously lost. I’m sure someone will guide me back.

     

    THE INSIDER:
    HOW TO BARTER:
    1. Start by offering half the suggested price. 
    2. If the haggling stalls, walk away. Nearly every time the price will be reduced to lure you back.
    3. Keep smiling and be polite.

    WHAT TO BUY:
    1. Silk and cashmere scarves
    2. Leather bags and shoes
    3. Tagine cookpots 
    4. Teapots
    5. Jewellery

    Email the Travel Weekly team at traveldesk@travelweekly.com.au

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