We were happy the next morning to get back on the train and head into the desert like interior of the country to fabled Marrakesh. The view from our window was of dusty, crumbling towns that looked half built and the occasional sheep or goat herder walking by with his animals. Still there was a certain beauty to the arid countryside and it made you admire the fortitude of the people who live here.
As you enter Marrakesh, its beauty is immediately apparent. Wide, French style boulevards are lined with enormous date trees and palms, and every house and building is coloured light pink from the local clay used to build them. Against this is the striking backdrop of the snow-covered Atlas mountains.
Finding a taxi certainly isn’t difficult, but agree on the price before you get in, and get ready for the craziness to begin. In Marrakesh there doesn’t seem to be any reason for painting lines on the streets. Cars, buses, trucks, donkey carts, and mopeds carrying three or more people (none of whom wear helmets) race alongside one another with horns blaring. The only two rules of the road are; keep to the right, and slow vehicles give way to faster ones. Speed limits and seat belts are definitely optional, as are the number of vehicles that can be squeezed into the width or direction of a single lane.
Passing by some of the most expensive hotels in the world, including Churchill’s favorite, “La Mamounia”, we drove straight into the old walled-in part of the city, known as the medina, and checked into the “Grand Hotel Tazi”. Junie was quick to note that it didn’t look very grand on the outside and she would have preferred to stay where Churchill and the gang hung out, but we wanted to be where the action was and, the hotel inside was a very pleasant surprise decorated in beautiful mosaic tile and furnished with an indoor swimming pool and a bar.
Finding a bar in a muslim country is always a challenge but it was here where we reunited with some fellow travellers we had met at the "Siege of Tangier". Determined to make the most of this extraordinarily colourful city we set off together in a hired caleche (horse drawn carriage) to take us around the exotic sights of the medina. With Jaleed, our driver, cracking his whip at the children who tried hard to hang on to the back of his buggy, and keeping the crowds of hustlers at bay whenever we stopped to look at some monument, it was a very entertaining way to get a feel for what we would be seeing the next day on foot.
We even went on the proverbial camel ride which is always fun if not a little uncomfortable for the tourists but rather boring for the camel.
If you don’t like shopping, this is not the place to be, but if you appreciate the expression, “shop till you drop”, there is nothing else like the souks and bazaars of Marrakesh. This, after all, is where the wholesalers of the world go to shop and, after engaging an official guide, (an absolutely indispensable and most worthwhile necessity) we were ready to enter the maze of countless stalls and craftsmen’s shops that make up this amazing indoor/outdoor spectacle. Even under the wing of Abdullah, how could I describe the madness, high pressure closing techniques, riot of colour & selection in the most free wheeling place in the world.
Horrific working conditions to be sure, but the production of leather products, shoes, clothes, utensils, wood carvings, pottery, wool, jewelery, and of course carpets was astonishing. Infinite variety and selection, but you needed infinite time to haggle over the prices. Too much for one day, but we did get some good buys in the end including a leather wallet that was stamped with my choice of brand name, in this case Gucci, and a beautiful carpet.
After emerging from the market we made our way to the main square, known as the Djemna el Fna, where the action was starting to build. Here the storytellers compete for audiences, tooth-pullers set up their folding tables, boxers, jugglers and acrobats put on a show, and snake charmers display their cobras. Accompanied by your guide, you can have your picture taken with a cobra around your neck for a small fee and, after a little momentary panic, Junie took a beauty.
Without an official guide, this fee will suddenly become very large once the snake is around your neck, and we witnessed some less wary tourists pay the price. But it’s all part of the fun, and as the smoke from hundreds of BBQ’s mixed in the air with the strange and eerie music blaring from everywhere, we found ourselves being caught up in a very intense and hellish sort of live interactive theatre. The most unique and exciting spectacle we have ever seen.
There were no 1st class cars available on the train for the night we wanted to leave to we hired a private taxi to drive us back to Tangier which was another adventure in itself. Junie was so afraid of being abducted and sold into white slavery that she made me select the smallest, slightest taxi driver available and I had to stay awake the whole time. But her fears were unfounded in spite of us breaking down in the middle of nowhere and me having to be the one to push start the old Mercedes.
I got to practice my French with the driver, and we listened to that wonderfully strange Arab music I’ve grown so accustomed to. Our way was lit by countless stars and a classic crescent moon, and our security was assured by the endless roadblock checks of the “gendarmes”. After the inevitable “tip” to the characters lurking around the port of Tangier, we were on our way back to Spain safe and sound.
On our second trip to Morocco, things started off rather nicely. We knew the ropes for getting around, and our apprehension about the hustlers of Tangier was short lived once we quickly dispatched the few we encountered. We then had the pleasure of bumping into some newlywed Moroccan acquaintances from Vancouver who were also on their way to Fez, and we decided to all share a taxi.
Once again an amazingly colourful journey, passing countless pottery stalls, fruit & vegetable stands, and other peculiar sights, while listening to great Arab music and being stopped every twenty minutes or so to pay a small bribe to the local police. We ate a delicious late lunch at a roadside café whose principal decorations were the freshly slaughtered lambs hanging out to dry, and ready to be cooked to order. But we arrived safe and sound in Fez, ready to explore the medieval city and UN heritiage site.
Once again we checked into one of the few hotels with a bar but, other than that, there were few other redeeming qualities. Awoken at 4 a.m. by the cries of the mezzarine calling everyone to prayer, we eventually pulled ourselves together over a lovely French style continental breakfast. Sadly, it's only the old French things, from colonial times, that seem to function properly in this so typically neglected 3rd world country where everything is dirty and poorly maintained.
The view of the old medina vividly illustrates the changing times with a thicket of satellite dishes on every crumbling rooftop. In the absence of all else there will always be TV.
Once again we hired a guide, Rashid, for our tour of old Fez but it wasn’t the same. It was bigger, filthier, and even more crowded than the souks of Marrakesh, but it had none of the magical qualities that somehow made it truly interesting instead of simply shocking. The tanneries in particular which are the biggest tourist attraction were the most colourful but also the most disturbing.
Then it was back on the train to Tangier, and goodbye to Morocco, the most liberal of Moslem countries, and one with such a profound impact on Spanish culture and history. The great cities of Andalusia owe so much of their beauty and craftsmanship to the Moors and, after visiting Fez and Marrakesh, one begins to appreciate their gift to that particular era. But Moorish influence peaked long ago, and has been in decline ever since, though nothing seems to have changed for the poor donkey.