Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Boxing, chocolate and tombs: Marrakech days three and four

I'll try to wrap up my last two days in Marrakech this time. On Tuesday our first port of call was the Bahia Palace, built in the late 19th century by one of the Sultan's Grand Viziers and dedicated to one of his wives. As with the Museum of Marrakech, it seems like there's going to be more to see than there actually is. As with all the other buildings we visited, the elaborately-decorated walls and ceilings are beautiful, but there wasn't anything else in there to see.

The courtyard of the Bahia Palace - hard to photograph due to all the greenery

Ceiling in the palace

More ceiling
So again, it was pretty early when we left the palace and set out for the Saadian tombs. First we stopped off in a shop where I wanted to buy a little present for Jules. In another of those trademark magic Marrakech moments we've all come to know and love, Liz and I had a whispered conversation as to whether the shopkeeper was watching porn on his laptop. We couldn't see anything, but some of the noises going on where a little explicit. In the end, we decided it was probably a sex scene in a movie rather than porn, as the background noises changed to something else, but it was still a bit dodgy.

For some reason, we still persisted with the transaction, and here was my chance to bargain. There are no price-tags or anything, so I just fixed an idea in my head of how much I wanted to pay and was surprised when the guy's opening offer came in well below that. I still bartered him down a bit for form's sake, but I didn't bother pushing too hard. It wasn't until after we left the shop and Liz remarked I'd given in easily that I realised it was actually ten times what I thought I was paying. D'oh! You'd think I'd be able to keep in my mind a (rough) exchange rate of 1 euro to 10 dirhams, but apparently not.

We then proceeded to get pretty lost in the Mellah and Kasbah neighbourhoods trying to find the Saadian tombs. One guy was very insistent that we turn left down a certain street, but with the help of a map, we were sure we should go right. Right turned out, as he had said, to lead not only to a dead-end but also a large refuse heap. And then we had to go back past him to get out again, giving him the opportunity to say "I told you so". Ironically, however, he was *still* lying about the way to go - the tombs were actually hidden away back the way we came.

The 12th Century Bab Agnaou gate, near the Kasbah mosque and Saadian tombs

The Kasbah mosque

Me, rocking it
First, a quick lunch break at the trendy-looking Kasbah café directly opposite the tomb entrance:


Liz and me at lunch

I was a little obsessed with the storks we could see from the roof terrace

View from the roof terrace where we had lunch. The Saadian tombs are back there
And then on to the tombs themselves. Again, smaller and less interesting than you might have thought, but with some pretty decorations. They date to the 16th century but were only rediscovered and restored in 1917. About 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty are buried here, although there certainly aren't 60 tombs on display.

Inside the Saadian tombs

Now home to kitties

The 'room with the twelve columns', the most beautiful of the tombs, houses the grave of the sultan's grandson

Shortly after taking this photo, this turtle totally bailed off the side of the tomb and then tried to style it out by eating grass with his bum sticking up in the air

Full disclosure, this is where it gets mildly embarrassing. Remember how before I said we stumbled across a supermarket selling Galaxy chocolate out near the Jardins Majorelle? Well, we just saw the little bars they keep by the checkout to tempt you with, and for whatever reason, we just grabbed one milk and one caramel bar each. (I don't know what Liz was thinking, I'm pretty sure I just didn't want to grab a hundred bars and look like a massive pig in front of an actual thin person.) But when it came to eating the chocolate back in the hotel, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth that we missed the chance to get more. So it was that we ended up spending a pretty big chunk of the rest of the day trekking back out to the suburbs to go in search of more Galaxy chocolate.

Remember that Simpsons episode where Homer sues the all-you-can-eat seafood place and then Marge breaks down on the stand describing how they drove around looking for somewhere else to eat and finally went fishing? Yeah, it was pretty much like that.

(Can't find the whole clip, unfortunately.)

We walked back into the city from the supermarket, in the Guéliz district. This was where we got the most hassle, and it was even more disturbing when the guys were following us because it was just a non-descript suburban area with no clues as to where we were or where we were going. Eventually, though, we did end up back walking through the souks to Jemaa el Fna. We ended up in one shop where the guy had a whole wall of photos of famous people who had visited his shop. For some reason, the three he pointed out to us in particular were John Major, Jimmy Carter, and... Michael Stipe. Well, why not?

By the way, as well as being stalked by random men, everywhere I went in Marrakech I was also stalked by shoe-shine men. They ignored Liz's trainers of course, but were drawn like catnip to my admittedly slipshod boots. They would clap their brushes together and call out to you, starting out with the innocuous call of "shoe-shine, shoe-shine" but then progressing on to "your shoes are dirty!", "you need to clean your shoes!" which would just crack Liz and me up. It was true, my shoes were dirty, and I'm a disgrace to my family. But I wasn't about to get them shined in Marrakech where the next minute they'd probably end up filthy again. It did have the effect of making me buy some shoe polish for once in my life when I got home though!

Nut seller in the souks
As evening drew in, we grabbed a drink on a terrace with a great view of the square down below. As night falls, it gets ever livelier, with everything from acrobats to amateur boxing going on, and best of all, being up on the terrace means you can watch it all without being accosted or having to cough up money for the privilege.
View of Jemaa el Fna from the roof terrace (roof terraces are big there)

At night you could really see clouds of smoke rising up over the square

A taste of the atmosphere in Jemaa el Fna (sorry, they get pretty blurry when Blogger compresses them, but it's mostly for the general noise and so on):

Acrobats performing in the square:

The amateur boxing match - which lasted about two minutes, as opposed to the hyping of the event which was about twenty. Liz and I had much discussion about whether one of the fighters was a woman. I think yes, on video evidence, right? I'm not sure who won, but the whole thing seemed a lot flailier than a professional bout.

Liz went home early on Wednesday, and as I said, I'd had enough of the hassle by then, so I spent my day getting a massage in the morning (the woman spent a disappointingly large proportion of the time massaging my legs - outside of a sports massage, surely everyone just wants back? - and threw in a bit of gratuitous boob-touching, but otherwise it was okay) and then just sitting in the sun on the terrace at the hotel, reading and drinking wine. Frankly, I needed a bit of R&R (and sunshine!) at this stage.

Action donkey shot from when I ventured out in search of food

A glimpse of the mountains behind the markets on my last full day

Then on Thursday, it was time to wend my way home, not too sorry to see the back of the place, as you will have gathered, but with lots of stories to tell!

Friday, February 13, 2015

In the souks: Marrakech day two continued

When we had finished with the madrasa and museum, we decided to do some more intensive wandering around the souks.

The souks are mainly semi-covered (remember what I said about shade in the last post), so although you're sort of outside, you won't catch a lot of sun spending a day moseying around in them. The souks were historically divided into different specialities, such as the tanners' souks, wool souks, jewellery, spices, lamps, etc. We definitely did notice different concentrations in different areas, but there are also many places, especially nearer to the main Jemaa-el-Fna square, which are just a random mishmash of all sorts of things. Most of the time we were either lost or just wandering around with no real purpose, so although over the course of our time in Marrakech we ended up walking past some of the same places several times, I couldn't really tell you where anything is in relation to anything else.

I mentioned the insistent "guide" trying to get us into one of the tanners' yards in my first post - you can see why I wasn't really too keen to go in to one of these places in sandals (big mistake), especially since the yards are apparently literally full of dung and urine and rotting carcasses and chemicals.  For once I was glad that I had a horrific cold, but even so some of the smell got through.

Peeping into a tannery

Looking on TripAdvisor, it seems we actually got off lightly - it's full of review after review of people who say they were bullied into taking a lightening-fast "tour" of the tannery before being pressured into buying overpriced goods or tipping way over the odds for their guide. So yay for the impractical sandals!

Leather drying in the sun
Ironically, we did actually want to at least look at some handbag shops, but they seemed really thin on the ground - it seems they are hidden away inside the tanneries, the better to strong-arm tourists into after they've had their "tour".

A spice shop aka "Berber pharmacy". I didn't want to touch the spice pyramids, obviously, but I think they're just thin layers stuck on to a cardboard cone or something
After we had seen the tannery area, we ended up outside the medina and walked around the city ramparts for a bit trying to get a good view of the distant snow-capped Atlas mountains. I would have liked to take a trip out to them (they are about 60 km away) or at least go somewhere where you could get a proper view of them, but Liz didn't fancy it and, although I had a full day by myself after she went home, I couldn't be bothered joining an all-day group excursion by myself. Still, we did manage to get glimpses of them throughout our trip, with these being the best views. (Unfortunately, my plane home flew first over the mountains to Agadir, with apparently spectacular views out of the other side of the plane from me.)

Once back inside the medina, it was time for lunch. This was probably the only really tasty/memorable meal we had in our entire trip, unfortunately. I'm not sure whether the food really is bland, or they just make bland food for tourists, but you'd think with all the million spice shops they're always trying to drag you into, the food would have a bit of flavour!

Yummy bubbling hot kefte/egg tagine. I bought a kefta spice mix at the spice shop above, so I'll have to see if I can recreate something along these lines. It's apparently called a Kefta Mkaouara.
Fortified by our tasty lunch, we returned to the souks in search of lamps. Actually, I don't know if either of us actually was in search of a lamp, but we both ended up getting one, after an epic negotiation by Liz. Liz is an amazing negotiator, who manages to do it with good humour and a smile. My only job in these situations is to shut my mouth, since we both know I'm the weak link who is liable to crack at any moment and blurt out an offer higher than the asking price. First up was picking the lamps, which took a long time in itself before we settled on two - I wanted one of the big rectangular ones, like I'm sitting next to in the photo below, whereas Liz went for one of the tear-drop shapes. Negotiations started out at 3000 dirhams for the two, about 300€. After a long, long, negotiation, we eventually ended up walking out with two lamps of the same style but a smaller size for 550 dirhams, or about 55€.

I lost patience with it - honestly, I don't know how long the whole process took, but easily an hour - and just said I didn't care, I didn't want a lamp any more, but Liz, bless her, kept going for the two lamps. The guy at one stage offered her lamp at x dirhams and mine at about 3 times the price, since he obviously found my lack of enthusiasm offensive! But we finally got there in the end, and everyone seemed happy with the outcome. The guy approvingly referred to Liz as a "Berber woman" - funnily enough, this wasn't the only time this happened at the end of a negotiation. I guess they have a reputation for being tough operators, unlike your average Western tourist. This was one of the occasions where we were having a laugh and a bit of banter with the guy and it did feel like we were being treated as equals, which admittedly is not exactly a high bar, but just to put that in there that not everyone we met came across was a horrible sexist. Liz then got them to rewire the lamps for us (to put in cables with on/off switches) and test them with lightbulbs to show that they were working. And refused the suggested tip for this service! Definitely a lot more backbone than I have!

Happy the negotiations are over!

It still works!
By the way, on the way back to the hotel there was another little incident I forgot to mention in my first post. This guy physically bumped into me like three times within the space of a few seconds in the crowd in the Jemaa-el-Fna square, which I thought was weird. And then when, a minute later, he somehow circled back around and bumped into me again, I definitely knew something was up. I told Liz what had happened, and we saw him circling around the back of some stalls and walking towards us again, so I pointed and said that's the guy. He saw this and, realising we were on to him, disappeared. The only things of value I had with me were my camera and wallet, zipped in an inside pocket, which I checked on. Liz suggested he might not be after my possessions, which didn't really make me feel better about things. So anyway, another dodgy little memory of Marrakech...

After all that, it was good to retreat to the roof terrace at the hotel with a bottle of wine. We brought a few bottles over with us in our suitcases. You can buy alcohol at the supermarket and at a couple of bars (which always tried to get us to come in for a never-ending "happy hour") but other than that, not so much. It was actually really weird sitting down to dinner without being able to have a glass of wine, and, without sounding like an alkie, I could have killed for a nice glass of rosé while having a long lunch on a sunny terrace...
Mmm, Chinon

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Museum and Madrasa: Marrakech day two

One thing I forgot to say when I talked about the convenience of staying in the centre of Marrakech was that by so doing, you *will* be within striking distance of a mosque and thus you *will* be woken up around 6 am by the call to prayer. It seems a common trope on travel shows and documentaries to start with a wide establishing shot of any Muslim city, accompanied by the quite musical sound of the call to prayer drifting on the breeze. Don't fall for this - at least in Marrakech, every one we heard was more like someone angrily shouting, magnified through a scratchy loudspeaker. Fair enough though, I suppose if anyone's going around filming snatches of a Catholic Mass for a bit of local colour, they'll go with a fabulous Gregorian chant rather than picking a priest doing the standard off-key drone.

Once we woke up properly (I had gone to bed around 9 pm the night before, due to the time difference, the fact that I'd gotten up before 4 am Brussels time to catch my plane, and a heavy cold, so pretty early), our first stop was the Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former Koran school hidden away in the souks. It dates back to the 14th century, and although there wasn't much in there in the way of explanatory materials, it was worth seeing the beautiful wall and ceiling carvings contrasted with the bare, cell-like dormitories where the students would have lived (until 1960!).

Near the Madrasa

Elaborately carved archway

The inner courtyard

Detail of the stonework

Amazing ceiling

Peeping into one of the bare students' cells

It cost around 4€ to visit the Madrasa, or for around 5€ you could go in both the Madrasa and the next-door Museum of Marrakech, so it is definitely worth doing both. I think we both wondered if it might be overkill doing one after another, but we found with everywhere we visited in Marrakech that it didn't really take very long to see all of a site. Often places would look large from the outside but have little on the inside, especially when it came to reading material explaining the exhibits, so it was actually pretty quick to go through each attraction. While the Museum of Marrakech does have some exhibits of decorative arts, musical instruments, jewellery, costumes etc., the main feature is really the building itself, the 19th-century Dar Menebhi Palace.

Beautiful inner courtyard featuring a massive Moroccan-lamp style chandelier. It's a shame it wasn't lit up

Looking up at the chandelier (stolen from Liz)

Corridor in the courtyard

Me in front of a tiled basin

You can see the average ratio of "exhibit" to "gorgeous backdrop"

Looking into the courtyard
It was still only mid-morning by the time we had finished looking around the museum, so we got a coffee and sat in the sunshine of the museum courtyard, which was nice and quiet compared to the city outside. It was nice to sit in the sun as well - like many hot countries, places are often geared towards providing shade rather than sun, which is probably welcome in the middle of August, but not so much for refugees from a northern European winter!

I think this is long enough for one post, so stay tuned and I'll fill you in on the rest of day two next time!