Our flight was at 6:15am so we had a very early start to our day. The duration of the flight from London to Marrakech was only 3.5hrs, although not enough we did manage to get some sleep to make up for the 4am journey to Gatwick airport.
At Marrakech airport we met our chauffeur who was kindly arranged by our Riad (name for a house, although many Riads have been transformed into hotels for tourists). The drive to the Riad was no more than 15mins but we had a chance to practice our French with the driver. From the airport we notice high salmon coloured walls and the driver explained that Marrakech is known as the Alhambra (means red in Islamic) or pink city because the walls are built using natural clay or stone of a terracotta colour.
The driver stopped at the Bab Dukala mosque as vehicles could go no further into the area past this point. The Riad owner; Michael was waiting to welcome us when we arrived. He walked us through the alley ways (advising to walk on the right hand side) to get us to Riad Al Massarah. We had to be very aware of the motorcyclists as they can drive through the alleys, which are probably no more than 2 metres wide! There were mini souks (markets) in the alleys which also made it quite tight to get through. We stopped at a black door and pressed the bell. As it opened our eyes lit up to a beautiful indoor outdoor space with a well-groomed tree in the middle. One thing I loved about this city is you don’t know what’s behind each door or wall. It’s like walking around a maze with many doors making one very curious to know what is behind each one. It’s s well guarded city. From the outside it looked like a plain wall but once we got in, we were in a beautiful building, designed by Michel who is the co-owner of the Riad. Every part of the Riad is detailed from the tiny fountain by the pool to the flowery design under the light bulb holders. Apparently Moorish people are to thank for the beautifully designed Riad. They left Morocco and went to live in Spain for around 700 years before they came back with brilliant architectural skills. Once you enter a Riad you are in a tranquil space away from the souks and traffic. This Riad had 6 rooms, a pool, hammam (spa) and roof top terrace. After a tour around the Riad we had a delicious mixed salad with rice and fruits for lunch. We freshened up and our official local guide arrived to give us a tour around the Medina. Tourism is a large industry and being a tour guide is a lucrative job for Moroccans. We had a female guide who was very knowledgeable and personable.
We learnt that the city is divided into quarters. Each Quarter has a public hamman that Moroccans, including children use at least once a week. A quarter also has an outside oven mainly used to bake bread. Morocco is 98% Islamic and the 2% is a mix between Jewish and Christian (came with French). A Jewish quarter was built in Marrakech during the 16th century, although most Jews are now living in Casablanca.
Walking through the areas you hear different dialects as many languages are spoken, however French is their first European language. French is taught in schools from a young age.
The Souks (markets) had a world of their own. They open anytime of the day except Friday, which is a holiday. (FYI office hours are 8:30-12 with a break for lunch then re-open at 2:30-5/6 and closed on weekends). There are around 12000 shops in the Souks, where Moroccans do all kinds of work to make a living as ‘there is no unemployment benefit’, which our guide explicitly pointed out a couple of times. So basically everyone is an entrepreneur, which is not uncommon in Africa. The Souks sell lots of textiles, arts and crafts and have special sections for leather and metal. There are free schools dedicated to teaching natives (even prisoners) how to craft. This is part of Morocco’s human development strategy to help empower people to make a living. Back into the alley ways we went past Fondouks, which are known as hotels for traders. Traders sleep in Fondouks and store their goods and live stock within the compound over night.
We saw three main landmarks; Le Musee de Marrakech, Medersa Ben Youssef and the Square. Le Musee de Marrakech, was once a private home that was turned into a museum displaying things about the city. The Ben Youssef used to be a traditional university where people could study art, science and medicine. This boys only university accommodated 900 students in 132 rooms. The last students left in 1962 after more mordern universities were built. The building was made with clay and marble that was brought from Europe in exchange for sugar canes. In those days Marrakech had trade of salt, sugar, spices/herbs and slaves. To make the colourful wall patterns inside the uni, clay is mixed with water, put under the sun to glaze or paint and then put in oven to cook. Each part of this colourful mosaic is handmade one by one. Parts of the walls have Arabic words written (from right to left) on the bottom of a border with flowers above for decoration. No animals or human figures are allowed to be used near Arabic text. (All Arabic decorations are made in Fes). The words written mean ‘There is one God. He hasn’t been born. He has no son. He is one’, which is repeated all around the walls.
The Square is called Jamaa El Fna, which means to gather people in a big square. This is where people gathered to listen to stories, sell books or start a market. There are magicians, food stalls, snakes, monkeys and a fleet of horse & carriages used to attract tourists. At night is when the Square really comes to life with sounds of various music and entertainment.
After 4 long hours of walking we got back to the Riad to freshen up for dinner at Latitude 31, where we tasted the infamous lamb tagine. It was absolute delicious. A generous portion of lamb, vegetables and cous cous that was enough to send anyone to bed 😉