I have wanted to visit Morocco for many decades. I have saivated at the sight of the food markets, the bread ovens and the tagines on cookery programmes and longed to wander the exotic, labyrinthine souks in search of treasures and spices. And I have wanted to stay in a riad hotel, the ones with roof terraces with views over the medina to the Atlas mountains and internal courtyards. So, this Easter, I was excited to be making a longheld dream come true.
Casablanca is our first stop. With our hotel beside the medina we headout for a wander and soon a lovely chap stops to tell us he isn’t a retailer or a guide but just likes speaking English.
“You know there is a women’s artisan market today?” he tells us. “Today is the last day. Then closed. I take you.”
So he does and we find ourselves being taken to an upstairs room just off the souk, where an older man we assume to be our non-guide’s father, introduces us to his wife and all the lovely carpets and silks she makes with her own fair hands. This is no artisan market. We extricate ourselves and return to our wander over towards the mosque before heading for dinner. On the way, we give a man up a ladder, who is painting the walls, a wide birth but I still manage to get splattered with white raindrops. We discover that the local Berber dress is a long, warm jelabi with a pointy hood, making the men look like jedi monks, while many of the women appear to favour a velveteen fabric decorated with the kind of kitsch decoration that looks at home on a beach towel. I love the fact that everyone speaks French and is welcoming and friendly.
At seven, we hail a taxi and give the driver the name of the restaurant we have chosen from Tripadvisor.
“Closed,” he says.
A pity. We show him the rest of a long list of places we have selected. “No,” he says swiftly. “I take you somewhere better.” He promptly offers to take us to a great place the locals love, apparently. When we arrived it is full of English people. We leave. Is the owner related to our taxi driver? Has our restaurant really closed down, we wonder?
The next day we hail another taxi and ask in perfect French to be taken to one main square, only for him to drop us at a completely different one. So we decide to skip the taxis and walk to the Sacre Coeur cathedral. It is covered in scaffolding and closed to visitors. We sit in a nearby café for mint tea. We hope we’ll have better luck in Marrakech.
Our taxi takes us not directly to the hotel, but to a gate in the city wall, where a wiry man places our cases in a pushalong cart and leads us to our accommodation. The terracotta walls that line the arteries towards Mouassine, our neighbourhood, are filled with the promise of carved lanterns, soft leather-panelled pouffes and brightly-coloured babouche slippers, spices, pale from the sun, are piled into rush baskets. The lanes are narrow and mopeds and bicycles passing through force us constantly to squeeze ourselves to the side.
“Welcome to Marrakech!” call the shopkeepers. We have no time to linger.
Our riad is found down a tangle of dark lanes. It is sunset and some of the crumbling passages are ominously dark. The many riads, we soon learn there are 800 of them, are indicated by little more than a dull brass plate beside a door in a wall.
We step inside to find a two-storey boutique hotel totally hidden from the outside world and set around a square courtyard. Bougainvillea blooms and birds flit between the branches. I look up to see the sky and am saddened to find a plastic sheet has been erected to keep the rain out, I guess. It also stops the fresh air getting in. Our bedroom has windows, sure, but any air that may find its way in has to first penetrate that plastic roof.
Over the next few days we learn to navigate the souk towards the famous Jemaa el Fna square, where smoke rises from the sheep’s head soup stalls and masked women sit on low plastic stools hoping to decorate your hands with henna. The sound of drumming is pervasive as makeshift groups of men sit and play before passing round a hat. There are performing monkeys, fortune-tellers and juice stalls. Gazillions more slippers, pouffes and lanterns. Kilometres of them. It soon gets rather old and though we do stop to admire the odd item it is a matter of seconds before the hustle and hassle begins.
“Welcome to Marrakech! Where you from?”
We eat out moderately well but it soon appears that tagine and couscous are the only things on offer, in addition to tangia, which is a tagine in a different pot.
The next day we plan to visit some palaces. Kindly people appear to be on every corner. The moment we stop to consult a map, a small boy, an old man in a high-vis jacket or a chap in a jacket, claiming not to be a guide, appears and asks us where we are heading.
“It is closed,” they say. “El Badi Palace closed today.”
“Then we’ll go to Bahia Palace.”
“Also closed today. Go to the souk. I show you. Come…”
We walk miles through the melee of the Jewish Mellah district in baking heat down lanes that do not appear on an of our maps and fail to find any palaces, open or not. In the end we aim for the Hop on Hop Off Bus and sit down for a breather.
We have read about La Mamounia hotel, a place Winston Churchill called the most beautiful place on earth. We rock up, hoping for a peek for the price of a cup of mint tea.
The guard on the door looks us up and down.
“It is closed today. Only if you have long trousers, after four o’clock.’
Back at our riad we ask the manager whether the palaces are indeed closed, and, of course, they aren’t. We try again, hailing a taxi only to be coerced by what I now refer to as a ‘taxi pimp’, who appears the moment you look towards a cream petit taxi to lead you an own overpriced cab or their choice.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.
“Al Badi Palace?” we begin.
“It is closed,” he says.
“No it’s not,” we respond. “We want to go there.”
He shrugs. “Sure, you want to go to a place that’s closed?” he tries again. “Go to the souk.”
“Very sure,” we say. We go. It is open. Of course and gorgeous. The scent of orange blossom knocks us sideways and the birdsong drowns out the cacophony of the souk. Storks build their nests on the prominent points and the bright white Atlas mountains fringe the horizon.
The same with the Bahia.
This time we wear the right clothes for La Mamounia and return at one minute past four precisely.
The guard shakes his head. “Closed now,” he says. “Come tomorrow, eleven o’ clock.”
I pile on the charm. “We came yesterday too. We have long trousers. We leave tomorrow. Please?”
“OK, I make exception,” he says. We are in! With gold carpets, the pile rising higher than my soles, staff dressed like they had come off the set of Aladdin, our orange pekoe made all earlier stress and altercations melt away.
Our last day and we are glad to be saying goodbye to the airless bedroom deep in an anonymous artery and try the Jardin Majorelle, a garden that belonged to Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner for fifty years and is open yes open, for the public to wander among the zen-perfect walkways of bamboo, cobalt blue pots and peacock green benches to enjoy the palms, cacti, ferns and cycads that have been placed perfectly in raked gravel beside perfect ponds crammed with water-lilies and coy carp. It is our second attempt to visit here too. The previous day, arriving at 11.30, the queue had been huge and hardly moved in the 30 minutes we waited. This time, however, we arrive by nine and discover to our joy, not the threat of failure or closure but a sign announcing that for this weekend only, the private house and garden are open too, for Easter, I suppose. Coupling this delightful oasis of tranquility and beauty with the quite phenomenal Yves Saint-Laurent museum and we end our visit to Morocco on a high. This is definitely worth the wait.
But has Morocco redeemed itself? We loved the tea, the gardens, the sunshine, smiley faces and the language. We loved the orange trees and the birdsong and the glorious Islamic architecture. The taxi pimps, hassle, bustle and being led astray down endless dark alleyways however, these they can keep.