Personal blog: Marrakech, Essaouira, and Atlas Mountains

¦ dialling in from the Sky Bunker ¦

Just got back from a few days in Morocco. Amazing trip. Used Marrakech (inland, car fumes, crazy mopeds) as base. Road trip to the coastal town of Essaouira (Atlantic breeze, seafood – yum! history of white slaves) and another one into the foothills of the Atlas mountains (alpine scenery with a Berber and Arabic vibe). Poverty and palaces. A real medley of experiences, finished off the final night by a magical kalesh ride and dinner and belly dancing at the lavish Palais Donab Dar El Bacha.

The trip gave me a pleasant nostalgia vibe of when I wrote God Seed back in 1996. Helped by an album I bought to provide a soundtrack to the experience: Zeebratta by Mike Score (Flock of Seagulls), which is an awesome hark back to sounds of the 80s with a 21st century tone.

Start of the trip did the usual early morning ride into Bristol city and grabbed coffee and breakfast at Cafe Amore. Launch pad of most of my travels around the world since the 1990s. Nice tradition. Flew into Marrakech, short ride from airport to Hotel Opera Plaza. First impressions are endless rows of pink clay buildings and broad roads crowded with fast-moving traffic… a lot of fumes. Mopeds with young people zipping down between lanes or weaving dangerously between the asteroid belt confusion of moving objects; French style roundabouts where traffic going round has to give way to traffic trying to enter… that’s the plan but I saw two moped crashes in two days, one of which left a large smear of blood on the tarmac.

From bedlam to the cool comfort of the hotel. Large open spaces and glass. All the staff talking French to you. Good hotel on most counts.

Raining! Bizarre. First day we headed to Saadian tombs (16th century) on our way to the Medina and the souk, coming out into Jemaa el-Fnaa – the main square – which was a little subdued due to the weather. Like the square, the souk is an experience not to be missed. The traders are not too tenacious with their hawking and you see a lot of the artisans crafting their wares. Most folks there don’t enjoy being photographed every few minutes of their working life so always ask first and be respectful, and expect to pay a couple of diram (20p) for snapping pics. Went to Ben Youssef Medersa, a historic Islamic school, and saw where students were locked away with tiny windows in small stone rooms in order to focus their minds on study without distraction.

That night Oj and I went back to Jemaa el-Fnaa to enjoy the atmosphere after dark. What a transformation. The rain had stopped and everything was noise and chaos. Snake charmers and the shrill warbling of their flutes. Dancing men dressed as woman and the pounding of dozens of drums. Found a cafe with a roof terrace after spending some time mingling through the throngs of performers and dubious eating places (no running water so consider what your food is served on after a day of use).

Mint tea and panoramic vistas. By time I got back to the hotel I was feeling the first twinges of stomach cramps. I guess they didn’t wash the glasses either. Stomach problems passed but a couple of people from the hotel who we saw in the square and on the terrace experienced dodgy stomachs too.

Day 2 saw the sun again. Lovely and warm. Took a trip to Jardin Majorelle, legacy of the French painter who came to Marrakech in 1919. After falling into total disarray after his death in the 1960s it was acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. It’s a nice little oasis of greenery and colour. The Berber museum is a must. Took a trip out to an oasis and then to Bahia Palace which has exquisite rooms and courtyards.

Day 3 early start and road trip with a guide to Essaouira. It’s about a 3 hour drive each way but is worth it for the green plains with gently rolling hills, tree groves and then the coastal landscape with a sharp Atlantic breeze to take away the blunt hammer of the heat. Ate swordfish tagine at a place called Il Mare, recommended because of the terrace with a sea view and the fact it had a reputation for hygiene. Very good food, and they serve the ubiquitous Casablanca beer – which is very nice, strong and malty. Essaouira is a great place to wander for a few hours, stopping at small cafes in the main drag and exploring the alleyways.

Day 4. Another road trip with our guide – Mohamed – this time south towards the majesty of the Atlas mountains. And like all mountains, impressive for its own reasons…. these ones rising up from the dust and heat to produce slopes covered in trees, through which you glimpse snow-covered peaks as the narrow road switches back and forth. Many places to pull over and stop for a panoramic view but all the good ones are camped with hawkers who have ridden there on mopeds. They can be pretty persistent. Also watch out for pick-pockets. Stopped at Kasbah De La Ourika, a tourist place perched on a mountainside with terrace views of epic scenery.  It has the prominence of a temple with all the steps leading up to it. Had a glass of their freshly squeezed orange juice – one of the best ever.

That evening we joined a group from the hotel to take part in a Kalesh ride convoy through the streets, alleys and avenues of Marrakesh. The ride had been arranged by the quietly efficient Mohamed and we were guaranteed not to be taken to somebody’s uncle to haggle over a carpet. Brilliant experience. Really recommend doing this.

Oj and I stopped at Palais Donab Dar El Bacha for dinner. Mohamed had been a little naughty and told them about my books, so I got escorted by the co-owner to a place where I was asked to sign a hand-crafted leather-bound guest book for important visitors… a number of big name actors and other individuals were in there. A bit out of my league but I felt flattered. The place is described as a riad. And it has to be a must on your itinerary if you go to Marrakech. Not cheap but not outrageous and you get wonderful value for your dirham. The food is incredible, the service top class, the belly dancing and percussion performances were subtle, authentic and delightful. But more so the building itself is a true delight. The interior decor, the attention to detail. Palatial comfort and entertainment.

Final day I got to practice my haggling skills. Hawker asked for £45. I suggested £5.  Eventually settled on £10.  Fair price.

Photos and videos to follow.

 

 

 

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