Inland to Marrakech

Our room, Riad Morgane

The express train to Marrakech should take four and a half hours from Salé mostly because the line is still being upgraded beyond Casablanca.  Small delays meant Kevin & I and fellow cruisers Gordon & Elise were half an hour or so late arriving at our destination on Wednesday afternoon. A Mercedes taxi (the little taxis are cheaper but only take three passengers) then dropped us at a mosque near Bab Doukkala in the northern part of the Medina, we phoned our Riad and one of the staff came to guide us through the lefts and rights of Derb Sidi Lahcen ou Ali. The narrow alleys between the house walls are just wide enough for a small donkey cart or for two people to walk side by side. Many of the ornate doors that open into the courtyards are partly below pavement level they are so old. And as we were to discover the following morning at prayer time, tucked away amongst the houses was at least one more mosque. There was no chance of sleeping!
At almost the far end of the derb our guide came to a halt in front of an imposing wooden door and opened the smaller door set within it. We ducked and stepped through. An oasis of calm after the medina outside, two floors of rooms arranged on three sides of courtyard, a plunge pool at the centre graceful palms either side in large pots. Gordon & Elise had a ground floor room, ours was up some tiles winding stairs on the floor above and was well appointed with Moroccan painted furniture, shutters that could be left open, partly closed to be glazed or completely shut to plunge the room into total darkness.  In the ensuite was a huge terracotta coloured bath which I made good use of the following afternoon for a long hot soak.

The builder’s donkey cart
outside our riad every morning

On the floor above was a large terrace with sun loungers, patio furniture and along one side a majlis tent with Arabic sofas for lounging in colder weather. Here we were served Moroccan tea (sweet green tea with mint) and checked in. Riad Morgane was delightful, a real taste of Marrakech; the staff and owners friendly and helpful.  The four of us decided to make the best of what remained of the afternoon and set out exploring though we weren’t exactly certain whether we’d find our way back but were assured we could just call!

From the mosque we headed vaguely south along streets lined with open fronted shops one making intricate iron lamps, another fixing motor bikes, another selling garments and yet another tourist trinkets. As in Rabat most of the locals wear djellabas – full length hooded overshirts or coats; the women’s were often in bright pinks or blues or printed with large patterns, the men’s usually pale yellow or fawn either plain or subtly stripped. Some older women pulled up the large hood over their headscarf and then folded the front of it back over their head to ward off the sun, presumably the extra part could be pulled down over the face in a desert sandstorm. The fastenings on these surcoats were a mass of tiny silk buttons set along intricate picot work from neck to knee.  Young and old alike wear them although many young men were in jeans and t-shirts.

The focus of Marrakech for locals and tourists alike is the large open space at the southern end of the medina Djemaa el-Fnaa. Surrounded by narrow souks it is impossible to describe the clamour of the hustling stall holders, the noise of the snake charmers’ pipes and tabors combined with smells of spices, mint stalls, donkeys and drains; all that during the afternoon when it is not busy. As sunset approaches foodstalls are set up, the entertainment expands to include Berber dancers, storytellers, magicians, jugglers and more. Part tourist entertainment, part local way of life the area is filled and teeming. We decided to eat early in one of the rooftop terrace restaurants, that way we could take it all in from above before plunging in ourselves.

Foodstalls waiting for customers
Musician cum storyteller

The following day in complete contrast we headed out of the Medina to the tranquillity of Jardin Majorelle an amazing oasis of bamboo, cacti and raked gravel created by a French painter and more recently by Yves Saint Laurent. Cool and hushed the red paths are lined with large pots painted either deep blue or bright sunflower yellow. There were a lot of tourists but it still seemed peaceful. The Berber museum in one corner was surprisingly interesting, the Berbers are nomadic with a penchant for adopting and adapting religions that came their way – originally pagans they first became Jewish then later Christian but layered these on top of their original feasts and practices, now they would be considered Muslim but again their highly coloured clothes, unique language and tribal traditions set them apart from the Arabs.

From the gardens the four of us negotiated a price for one of the horse drawn carriage taxi’s and took a trip around the nouvelle ville on our way to the Ben Youssef Madersa (or Madrasa) which is deep within the medina. We were dropped as close as our driver could get but it was still some several hundred metres through the winding alleys to our goal. Lots of shops selling meat, vegetables, wooden boxes, spices and more lined our path. Mid-day prayers were long over and many places were “shut” for lunch and siesta – a single broom handle across the entrance indicating this. Hungary we were happy to let Kevin scout up the stairs to a restaurant. Dar El Walidin in Rue Sidi Abdelaziz proved to be exactly what was needed; traditional tajines, olives and bread served at a slow pace in the relaxed surroundings. We were seated on low plump sofas with plenty of cushions by our smiling host. His wife appeared to berate him about something in a flood of Arabic and then help out in the tiny kitchen, it was late and we were the only customers. When we had eaten we drank mint tea and enjoyed just sitting before heading out in the bustle of the streets to find our goal, the madersa.

The Madersa Courtyard

One hundred and thirty two student rooms once occupied by one or two students each surround a large ornate courtyard. The plasterwork, wood carving and architecture is incredible but what you see is only the restoration, from glimpses in hidden corners and from the villa (now a museum) around the corner the original would have been vibrant with colour, every surface painted in red and gold, greens and blues. This was an ancient “university” where young and presumably wealthy men studied the Koran. The school that was based here only moved out in the 1960’s to a more modern location in the nouvelle town, the plumbing apparently unable to cope with modern needs. Back in our Riad the plunge pool had been filled so Gordon, Kevin & I enjoyed chilling down, we sat until we were shivering despite the water being over twenty degree centigrade! I was glad of that hot bath.

Supper – we had tried to book a restaurant recommended by a local met on the train but despite Patrick, Riad Morgane’s French owner’s best attempts we couldn’t get a table at a reasonable hour, 22:30 is no time to eat! Back to Trip Advisor and we found that the 3rd most popular place in town was literally across the road from our Derb. Hotel Maison Arabe was founded in 1946 but although their craft shop is easy to find opposite the local mosque, the main hotel entrance is somewhat tricky but locals pointed out which alley to turn down. Drinks in the jazz bar downstairs with soothing live music from a grand piano in one corner, then on to the dining room when our table was ready. Service was everything that you would expect from a  place with such a French influence, the staff amusing yet attentive and the Moroccan food was superb, we all had the roast lamb a speciality of Marrakech, richly flavoured, succulent it melted in the mouth.

The rich colours of the Marrakech Museum

Early on Friday Gordon and Elise departed for a longer desert trip and exploration further inland. Temptress’ crew have unsurprisingly had enough sand and camels so were booked on the 14:55 train to Rabat. We wandered in the nearby streets and purchased some canvas from a workshop making patio umbrellas and majlis tents as well as school bags and shoe holders. Then Kevin tried some of the ironmongers in the same street but failed to find the U-bolts he wanted to fix some planks in place along the guard rails. Afterwards we found ourselves near to the carpet and furniture shops of Sharaz, our acquaintance from the train journey so went visiting. Mint tea, a warm welcome followed by a demonstration of the different types of carpet form the various regions of Morocco followed but we didn’t succumb to the gentle selling technique of his colleagues.

We returned to the Riad to check out before midday but were able to leave our bags whilst we found some lunch. One last wander through the souks of the medina led to discovering some more upmarket streets with art galleries and antique shops before plunging once more into the tourist areas with zillions of leather shoes, handbags, keyrings and more hanging from every possible surface, the ground covered with tangines and pierced iron lamps. Everywhere the stall holders called to us; “special price”, “you need a carpet” (a statement not a question), “what size shoe madam?” – it made a change from the “pashminas, handbags and t-shirts” yelled by the sellers of Dubai! Another terrace restaurant overlooking the Djeema watching people bustling here and there, carpets rolled out for prayers to enable the overflow of the various congregations to kneel even occupied some of the  space between the souks and the orange juice stalls.

Then it was a taxi to the station, foiling one final attempt to fleece us – “my meter not working sir” forty dirhams to le gare du train, Kevin offered twenty but settled for thirty (about £2.30). The train was late; first ten minutes prior to arriving then 25 leaving. It being Friday afternoon there was a huge crowd all getting away, going home etc for the weekend. Travelling first class meant a booked seat in a compartment. Our “voiture” (carriage) was number one so we climbed into the first one at the rear of the train, it being labelled as number one. Someone else came to claim our seats. He patiently explained that Car 1 was the next first class carriage further along in the middle of the train – so the rear of the train had car 2, car 1 was in the middle and car 3 was at the other end – presumably it all made sense to someone but at every stop there was confusion!

What with track works and the delays caused by our train being late leaving meaning it had to wait for access to the single line part south of Casa (the local name for Casablanca) it was almost nine in the evening by the time we reached the boat. An hour and a half after we’d thought but it was great to be home. We’d eaten on the train – poulet sandwiches turned out to be large baps filled with roast chicken, green olives and lettuce – so we weren’t hungry but purchased in the Ascima supermarket under the station 500ml of milk (for breakfast) and a large chilled bottle of “Fanta Limon” to quench our thirst once we’d opened up the boat hatches etc as it was steamy hot down below.

We had had a fascinating two days made more enjoyable by our companions Elise and Gordon with their tales of cruising S America and the Pacific. Marrakech is an amazing and unique place rich with history and tradition combining the modern with almost filmset perfect souks, mosques and restaurants in a way that can be described as only Marrakech. And next? Some more prosaic provisioning and laundry chores then sometime next week or perhasp the the week after tides and weather permitting a few day sails down the coast to explore more of this fascinating country.