Tuesday, 2 October 2012

3 Nights In Marrakech - Part 1

Day 1  - Crossing Roads, Couscous and Carnage - Medina Madness

A truly liberating feeling surfaced as we began trekking down the wide, smoothly tarmacked road towards the Medina. To our immediate left lay some well maintained gardens, the vivid green of the bushes and plants a marvel considering the arid conditions, and to our right, across the road, lay flat desert-like plains dotted with palm trees and cactus', that seemed to run all the way to the invisible distant Atlas Mountains. The sun beat down upon us mercilessly from a cloudless sky and a few camels looked on at us nonchalantly.

The feeling of liberation arose from a mixed bag of anxiety, excitement and insecurity. I was in a place I had never been before, I didn't really know where I was going to or from, I hadn't a clue what might be experienced in the next few days. I was in an entirely new environment and culture. I was in Africa. I suddenly felt an affinity with Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild.
The main difference was, however, that I had company in the form of my old school friend Matt, and I was just on holiday for three days in Morocco.

As we walked down that road, the Avenue Prince Moulay Rachid, from the Hivernage (the modern hotel district), towards the Medina (the old walled city) our 06:25 flight from Gatwick seemed an age away. The trip had been born, (aside from the usual love of travel, escapism, the exotic and the learning of new cultures) as the result of trying two Moroccan recipes and visiting one Moroccan restaurant. It would be futile to deny that a large motive for travelling here was the food.

Before long we had crossed over the road by the Place Bab Jdid roundabout (and almost been killed: the first of many close shaves), entered within the ancient, 12th century city walls, been accosted by two men attempting to sell their tour guide services, and were passing the famous Koutoubia minaret (also 12th century).

We learned quickly in Morocco. The roads are scary and dangerous to cross (despite, I couldn't help noticing, being better surfaced than most of those in England). Your best bet is to try and find a local who is crossing and tag on to him or her – without asking, of course; otherwise you would probably be expected to pay a tip. When near market stalls or stationary locals don't stand still, look lost, or make eye contact with them. Or they will start trying to sell you something. Initially I would show interest out of politeness when someone tried to sell me something, but I soon learned that the more interest you show, the harder and harder it becomes to try and drag yourself away. A firm 'Non, merci' or three usually does the trick.

Eventually we reached the famous Djemaa el Fna square, the centre of the Medina and the beating heart of Marrakech itself. In the day time though, it has a slower pulse. We decided to head north into the souks; a labyrinth of (often covered) narrow alleyways crammed with small shops and stalls which are piled high with all sorts of wares, from lanterns and shoes to tagines and rugs. So many of them were selling identical products, it was no wonder that they worked so hard to sell you stuff. The myriad of smells (sometimes including less than pleasant aromas wafting from a butcher's shop), sights and sounds, the constant flow of people, plus the regular interruption of motorbikes and mopeds, meant it was all quite an assault on the senses.

As night fell we returned to the square, where the activities were gaining momentum. Entertainers had sprung up and were gathering crowds, whilst rows of food stalls had appeared out of nowhere. We decided to to have dinner at one such stall. As we began to walk amongst them we were immediately accosted by one or two representatives from the nearest stall. This seemed to happen every two steps. They would all ask where you hailed from, and upon telling them, they would say things like “come and eat here we have air conditioning” (flapping a menu at you), “this is better than Marks & Spencers” “this isn't Asda Price”, “You have Jamie Oliver, but this is better than Jamie Oliver” and so on.

We soon realised we had made a mistake. It got to the point where Matt had one person pulling his right hand and shouting about their restaurant, another pulling his left arm from the other side and another in the middle seemingly about to grab his waist. We managed to break free and made a dash for the edge of the square, where we decided on a simple strategy: approach from a different side of the square and simply eat at the first stall you come to. After all, they all sold roughly the same food. So that's what we did.

It was certainly an atmospheric meal to say the least, more simply for the locale than anything else. Bread and olives were immediately brought to the table (a standard procedure), followed by a starter salad. The salad turned out to be the best we had all holiday, comprising of several elements including a fresh tomato salsa, a warm fluffy potato cake and some oily fried aubergine. The range of tastes and textures made it a fantastic dish that could almost serve as a main in itself. Speaking of which, the main course was less satisfactory – lamb, couscous and carrots; it was a great heap of flavourless couscous with some carrots and pieces of lamb that were incredibly chewy and rubbery.

Dried apricots, prunes, dates... you name it, they got it.

The taxi ride home was fun. I found myself feeling strangely relaxed as I clambered into the back of the battered, khaki Peugeot 205 and discovered it had no seatbelts. The driving in Marrakech seems quite simple – if there is a gap, stick your car/motorbike/horse-and-cart in it. Kind of like an oversized game of Tetris, but with mortal consequences should you fail. Don't worry too much about lane discipline, just make sure you are on the correct side of the road as much as possible. The congestion doesn't seem to thin down at night either, so I simply sat back, completely happy with the fact that my life and safety were well and truly beyond my control.

Pink lamb? Medium-rare is for pussies...

Continue to Part 2...

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