Marrakesh in January

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For as long as I can remember my son had wanted to be James Bond, so when he said, a couple of months ago, that he was applying for an MI6 job and needed a copy of my passport to confirm that his parents were British, I thought nothing of it.

When, a few weeks later, he Whatsapped me asking to keep the 10th to the 15th of January free, I didn’t ask why, I just thought he was probably planning to take me out to dinner on one of those days and was not yet sure which one exactly. He is a busy young man after all.

When, finally, on Christmas morning, his present for me, methodically covered in thick layers of sellotape, turned out to be a dog-eared travel guide to Morocco, I thought he’d lost the plot. I showed the book to other family members ready to put it down, when I noticed a folded piece of paper inside it. I took it out, thinking, the cheapskate hadn’t even taken the Amazon receipt out. The A4 page contained a travel itinerary for the two of us for a five day trip to Marrakesh.

So anyway.

Just as the rest of the country had accepted that Christmas would not be stretched any further and they settled down to the inevitability of January, dry or otherwise, I was going against the traffic, on a 7.40 EasyJet flight towards North Africa.

We landed at midday local time. The airport was nearly empty and soon we were out to enjoy warm winter sun.

The taxi pickup was pre-arranged by my ever so grown-up son with our Airbnb host. The airport was only about 10 minutes’ drive from city centre.

We gave the driver the name of our apartment building and showed him the address on the map and he said alright no problem but he looked confused. We stopped half way to ask for directions. A few minutes later the taxi pulled over outside Della Rosa hotel and the driver gave us a big friendly grin and a thumbs up. We pointed out to him that our hotel was called Generosa. The driver called our host for further directions. We carried on. We turned left by a restaurant with its name – Salad Box – written in big black letters, and our hotel was just round the corner.

‘Oh, no, taxi drivers can’t read maps here, they don’t know street names either, they go by nearest landmarks’, our host explained matter-of-factly.

A few minutes later we were striding towards the Medina, the hub, the main town square Jemaa El Fna. We walked through a park, enjoying a peaceful afternoon among picturesque palm trees and snapping pictures of orange trees laden with perfectly ripe fruit.

Our mellow tranquillity was shattered the moment we entered the square.
Snake charmers with their screeching flutes, groups of men shouting in Arabic, sellers of every piece of Moroccan cliché waving their wares in front of us, women beckoning me to have an intricate henna pattern caligraphed on my hand, men with monkeys on a rope trying to catch passers-by’s attention, more men huddled together in small groups, more shouting, argan oil sellers squatting on the ground, pigeons, birds of prey, rows of orange and pomegranate stalls offering freshly squeezed fruit juice. Men in traditional woolly dress, long and hooded, looking exactly like Star Wars desert people on a planet whose name I cannot pronounce, never mind spell. George Lucas’ source of inspiration no doubt.

We were taking it all in, meandering among other tourists and pushy traders, bicycles, mopeds, donkey carts and occasional cars, careful not to step on tiny wooden figurines of camels, woven baskets and colourful hats.

We decided to sit down outside Cafe de France to people watch with a teapot of sugary mint tea for my son and a watery coffee for me. Matt has developed quite a taste for Moroccan mint tea, which is basically a syrupy sweet boiling water poured over generous handful of chopped mint leaves topped up with a few mint sprigs stuffed inside a cute little silver teapot. To me it tasted like warmed up toothpaste with several lumps of sugar would probably taste.

Next stop, the souk, a labyrinth of interconnected alleyways under a makeshift roof, home to countless market stalls flogging all flavour of Moroccan artisan produce. The souk has everything you could ever want as a souvenir from Marrakesh and nothing you actually need. By the time you realise the latter, you are carrying three bags full of bright yellow Moroccan slippers, silver plated tea sets, three types of tea light holders, embroidered purses, ivory encrusted boxes, cushion covers, leather pouffes, rainbow patterned shawls, a bucket load of spices, a small rug and a slab of lime green pistachio nuts nougat.

We strolled aimlessly  around the souk for a couple of hours until Matt started showing unmistakable signs of distress, because let’s face it, no matter how much the guidebook window dresses the souk as a not to be missed Marrakesh experience, it is just hard core shopping, to be attempted by men at their own risk.

Dinner was a tagine at Zaza restaurant off the main square. Look it up if you are in the neighbourhood as it might just be the Medina’s best kept secret. The restaurant has a great view over the rooftops and very reasonably priced choice of delicious dishes.

After dinner it was time to go home. After six hours of walking we decided to get a taxi. We approached what looked like a taxi rank and Matt showed our hotel location on the map to a group of drivers. Blank faces stared back at him. He read out the street name a couple of times, loud and clear. No go. We looked at each other and I resigned myself to a long walk back to the hotel, but then I said, without holding out much hope, Salad Box?

The drivers broke into bright smiles of happy recognition. Yes! Salad Box! Oui, bien sûr! We were on our way.

Three action packed days followed, including two trips out of town, one of them to the seaside town of Essaouira. We saw as much as is physically possible for a middle aged woman of modest fitness level to see within the time limits.

We walked straight into a few textbook tourist traps, including the infamous Marrakesh tanneries scam. Please look it up if you are planning a trip, it will save you a lot of time. I wish I had.

We also took a minibus tour to Ourika Valley and were shown around so-called authentic Berber house in a Berber village. The Berbers are an indigenous ethnic group native to this part of Africa.
I had serious doubts whether anybody lived in that house outside the hours of tourist groups visits. Then again, perhaps the friendly lady and her eight children really did live in the sparsely furnished partly roofless dwelling, and shared it with a cow, a donkey and sheep. This was just one of many impenetrable mysteries Morocco throws at its first time visitors. I am fine with that, all part of the magic.

And finally, a word about our Airbnb. Great find. It turned out it included breakfast, which was as welcome as it was unexpected. Bakery opened at 8am, and our host bought us fresh croissants and baguettes every day, served with filter coffee and orange juice with bits. He also sat with us at the breakfast table, and shared his ex-pat stories about life in modern day Morocco and about his three rescue cats, Louis, Lulu and Lily. Not what you normally expect from Airbnb, so I thought I’d just mention it.
Generosa 1, Rue Hafid Ibrahim, Hivernage, Marrakesh. You could, you know, look it up.

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