Monday, 24 February 2014

Morocco – The calm of Marrakech

February 21-24

Salam!

I'm led to believe that this is how you say 'hello' in Arabic, the language of our latest destination: Morocco. Most people actually say 'bonjour', but there is a valid reason for this which I will explain shortly. Hannah and I will be experiencing life in Northern Africa for the first time as adults, both of us having been to other countries on the southern side of the Mediterranean in our teenage years. Not that drinking alcohol or other adult things is on our agenda.



A brief information overload before we begin. Morocco is situated in the northwest corner of the African continent. It is home to snow-capped mountains, the Atlas range, and the world's most famous desert: the Sahara. Like most African countries, it was under the control of a European protectorate. The fact that many here will say 'bonjour' and 'au revoir' should enlighten you as to which country exerted heavy influence over Morocco in the first half of the 20th Century.




If you have seen the classic film Casablanca – here's looking at you kid, if you haven't – you will be aware that Morocco was involved in the Second World War, supporting their French masters. Independence, and the establishment of the Kingdom of Morocco, was achieved in 1956. Their flag is a distinctive green star on a red background, and can be found proudly fluttering around the country.




Aside from Casablanca, couscous and the Sahara, you may know little of Morocco, its culture and history. A quick Wikipedia search led me to realise that famous Moroccans are few and far between (Adel Taarabt and one of the Sugagbabes, apparently). The capital, Rabat, though recently shortlisted as a top travel destination by CNN, is in reality seen as an administrative city. So what would bring a person to the Maghreb on their travels?




We'll start the adventure in Marrakech. Not that we really understood where we were, having spent the night trying and failing to sleep in Milan airport in order to catch a very early flight to the High Atlas region of Morocco. We were particularly puzzled trying to locate our riad, essentially a bed & breakfast. Unless you opt for the life of luxury in an extortionate five-star hotel, your accommodation in Marrakech will be hidden down a network of narrow alleys. Narrow doesn't do it justice, particularly when considering the number of people using this confusing myriad. Nonetheless, a few friendly locals managed to guide us to our riad. It's fair to say we would probably still be looking otherwise.




Marrakech is a low city. I don't mean low geographically – the vision of snow on the distant mountain ranges would make that a foolhardy statement – rather, the buildings rarely sprout above three floors, with the exception of the towering minarets dotted around this Muslim city. The combination of this and the arid climate results in all riads having beautiful, tranquil rooftop balconies. Even the fact that ours was being painted couldn't dampen the aura of calm we experienced.




Calm is a word that most tourists would certainly not use when describing Marrakech, but the reasons for that will become evident in the next blog. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by the opportunity provided for relaxation in a city stereotyped as being chaotic and cacophonic. Considering the dry climate, I was actually quite shocked to find the volume of lush green parks that are dotted around the outskirts of the old city walls.




One of the more famous gardens, the Majorelle, is a shrine to global flora. Of course, the lack of rain means that many of the plants on display are of the cacti variety. It is an exotic and eclectic array of greenery and shrub collected from lands as far away as Mexico and South Africa. The garden itself was bought by Yves-Saint Laurent in order to preserve it, which I imagine costs quite a few dirhams to do.




Even away from the parks and within the walls of Medina it is possible to find a silent alley, more so north of the main square, and meander along without seeing a soul. These pathways house lots of beautiful Islamic architecture and designs; the doors and arches being particular highlights.




The quietest place we have found so far is silent, but for a reason: it isn't finished yet. The National Theatre, located across the road from the train station, looks majestic from the outside. As you can see, however, the inside is very much a work in progress. It was thus surprising that the 'concierge', as he introduced himself, was keen to show us around. Not at all surprising when he asked for a tip at the end of our journey. I have a secret tactic for tips which I will share next time, but I thought the idea of seeing a building during its construction phase was worth a small fee. You wouldn't want to do that in Brazil at the moment, though...




At the beginning I mentioned that alcohol will, in all likelihood, not be consumed over the course of the next week. Though not a fully dry state, you would need to be a devout worshipper of beer or wine in order to find relevant watering holes in Morocco. The drink of choice out here seems to be either black coffee or a mint-infused tea. We have opted for the latter, and spent our afternoons sipping on this sweet drink whilst watching the world go by.




So Marrakech is a place where you can channel your inner calm and unwind in a peaceful, quiet and naturally green setting. Well, it can be. As you'll see from the next edition, however, you would be missing out on the wild side of Morocco's culture capital.




Love you all


Matt

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