What a marvellous day we’ve had. Nicktor’s dislike from last night has been completely replaced with a new fascination for all things Moroccan. That may be a slight exaggeration. He wasn’t that keen on the barely grilled capsicum we had at dinner tonight. Still, he has become very enthusiastic and allayed any fears I might of had of sharing this amazing place with Mr Morose.
The morning started, as mornings generally start, with breakfast. Unlike most mornings, however, we had an incredible view on the terrace which overlooks the iconic Koutoubia Mosque.
It stands almost 70 metres tall and is an excellent landmark for navigation. Especially given our hotel is opposite it. Actually, one of my greatest fears was that the call to prayer would ring out, waking me every morning with all the charm of a bucket of icy water. Mirinda claimed they did this every morning at 5:30.
We heard it happen later in the day but the only annoying thing I heard in the wee small hours was a squawling cat. Some people may say it sounds the same.
So, breakfast over, we headed out, walking towards the Kasbah area, north of the Medina.
I thought the Beijing traffic was bad but, I reckon the traffic here might just beat it. As well as masses of pedestrians wandering haphazardly everywhere, there’s buses, cars, motorbikes (both big and small), bicycles, horses pulling buggies and, my personal favourite, mules pulling carts. It really defies all logic and the laws of physics that we didn’t see any collisions of any kind.
The best way to describe life on the streets of Marrakesh is to say it’s frenetic. Without pause. You don’t realise when you’re in it but sitting sipping sweet coffee on the edge of the footpath makes you see it in all it’s insanity.
We managed to reach the Saadian Tombs unscathed and entered our first tourist spot. I’m ignoring our visit to Jemaa el Fna last night because we’d only just arrived and Nicktor was being a bit on edge.
This is where the Saadian Dynasty (1554-1669) buried their dead. There are some amazingly ornate buildings with many coloured tiles decorating everything. Interestingly, it remained largely hidden until a French aerial survey in 1917 spotted it from above. The reason no-one knew it was there was largely because Sultan Moulay Ismail, who defeated the Saadians, decided it was bad luck to rob or disturb the dead and had all the entrances blocked off apart from an obscure one from the nearby mosque.
It’s a quiet and beautiful place, high, thick walls separating you from the traffic frenzy just outside. We both thoroughly enjoyed it, even with a complete lack of signage (thank you, Rough Guide).
We eventually returned to the melee and went for a long wander through the Kasbah and out of the old city walls. Both of us were told off by policemen for taking their photos – different policemen at different times – but otherwise it was just a delightfully unhurried stroll with a big dollop of people watching thrown in.
Eventually we found ourselves at the amazing old ruined El Badi Palace. This wonderful place even had a nickname, The Incomparable, and I reckon that’s pretty right. The size and scale of the place is the first thing that hits you as you walk through from the ticket office. You get a real appreciation of this from the top of the small terrace high above one corner.
You also get an appreciation of the storks. At the top of the walls, built with great skill and care, are numerous stork nests. In the nests are enormous storks. At various times, as we roamed the ruins, their deep booming calls echoed around the big courtyard. It was quite ‘otherworldy’.
El Badi was the residence of Sultan Ahmed el Mansour in the 16th century and was, to put it mildly, somewhat ostentatious. Four massive sunken gardens, today mostly filled with orange trees, dominate the courtyard with great pools separating them. The pools were empty but, apparently, they are filled for a festival in August and it all looks quite beautiful.
While the central courtyard was quite amazing, below ground there’s a mazelike collection of corridors and rooms to entice and delight. Nicktor made excellent use of his iPhone torch app in order to see into one of the pitch black rooms (there’s no lights) as we journeyed through the centuries.
We spent enough time wandering to work up an appetite so we headed out to a street corner cafe for some lunch.
In Marrakesh, touts lure you into their eating establishments with the promise of all manner of things. They are always cheerful and friendly, they can even direct you to wherever you’re going, parting with a “maybe see you later.” You sit down, you get a menu and you wait. You wait for them to ask for your order then you wait for that order then you wait for your change. It’s all about the waiting. While being on holiday is not a time for rushing about and vast quantities of it should be spent in quiet nothingness, it can get a bit annoying after the first few hours.
Something a little more annoying is how they put plates of stuff you didn’t order, in front of you then charge you for them. In our case, at lunchtime, we were presented with two plates of pastries. They were delicious…and, much to Nicktor’s chagrin, a bit expensive. It was a valuable lesson: if anything appears on your table that you didn’t order, send it away immediately. But they were so nice…
After lunch we slowly walked back to the hotel via firstly the Jemaa el Fna where we sat on a low wall and watched the general hustle and bustle around us and, secondly, around the Koutoubia. We were constantly approached by men trying to sell us stuff, mostly hashish. Last night I joked with Nicktor because I’d been asked three times while he’d only been asked once. I said it was because he looked too straight. Things evened up today, making the score now three each. We’ve also had alcohol mentioned and a bar pointed out. And, of course, the interminable call of “Taxi? You want taxi?” So far, Nicktor is being extremely polite and very English. I wonder whether this will change.
After a lovely relax back at the hotel where Nicktor borrowed the wifi connection in order to send and read some emails and we had a couple of small whiskies (we bought a bottle duty free at Gatwick), we ventured out to the main square for dinner. Nicktor wanted to try one of the places in the centre so we allowed ourselves to be coerced onto a long table by a tout who thought I was German.
We had ‘skewered meat’ as they called it with an aubergine side dish. I had mine on a bed of couscous while Nicktor had chips. The thing about this meal was the amazing taste of the aubergine. It can be very bitter if not cooked properly and even when it is, it can be a bit bland. Well, I have no idea what these guys fry theirs in but, by God they taste fantastic. We both ran out of superlatives to describe the divine flavour.
What wasn’t so good was the couscous. It was, basically, flavourless. Nicktor, who has said from the start that he despises couscous, had a taste and declared it nice. Seriously? There was nothing ‘nice’ about it. It had been prepared in plain water with something lightly brushed over the top of it. And the mint tea was a disappointment. Tepid and delivered in a plastic cup. Mind you, all up, the meal cost about £4 each, so I really can’t complain.
And that, basically, was that for our first full day in Marrakech. Tomorrow I hope to drag Nicktor around an art gallery…