OLD CITY CHARM IN MARRAKECH

BAB AGNAOU, ONE OF THE 19 GATES OF MARRAKECH

DATE:20-23 May 2014

It was a 7-hour transit in JFK airport, the longest transit we had to endure, before we continue our trip to Madrid, and then Marrakech. It was a sunny and pleasant afternoon as we walked across the tarmac towards the airport terminal in Marrakech.

Outside the airport, a sign posted taxi fares. The fare for a large taxi is 100 dirham. We were made to pay 100 dirham per person. Less than 15 minutes later, a long reddish wall came into sight. It’s the perimeter wall of the Medina, the old city. As the streets are very narrow, the taxi could not take us right to the hotel. We had to walk and tow our three pieces of luggage another 200-300 metres. A local youth who speaks English offered to take us to our hotel. The Moroccans speak French and Arabic, but few are fluent in English. On either side of the streets are high walls without windows, while doors on the other hand appear at irregular intervals. We made several turns along the cobbled, uneven and dusty streets before arriving in front of a large black timber door.

BREAKFAST AT THE RIAD AGDIM HOTEL

BREAKFAST AT THE RIAD AGDIM HOTEL

“Be generous, be generous,” said the youth, asking USD 5 for his services. Amin, the hotel staff seated us in the small courtyard serving us sweet mint tea. Our room just next to the courtyard was quite spacious with dark furnishings and beddings. The light was however, a bit too dim.

Jemaa El-Fna, the famous large square in the Medina was only a two-minute walk from our hotel (Riad Agdim). In the daytime, stalls selling freshly squeezed juices, dates, henna ladies, the snake charmer and beggars take up their positions around the large unsheltered square. Snap a photo or two of the snakes and the handlers will lure you to come closer and take more pictures or hold the snakes. However, they will not let you off without paying them sufficient money. Cafes and shops lined the perimeter of the square. Further along the road, horse carriages eagerly wait for passengers.

ONE OF THE NUMEROUS FRUIT JUICE STALLS AT JEMAA AL-FINA

ONE OF THE NUMEROUS FRUIT JUICE STALLS AT JEMAA EL-FNA

DAYTIME AT JEMAA AL-NA

DAYTIME AT JEMAA EL-FNA

As the evening approaches, the atmosphere in the square gets livelier. Rows and rows of food stalls are being set up. There are basically several kinds of food; grilled meats and tajine, stewed cattle head, fried seafood, soups and the egg-filled bread. There are also stalls selling snails boiled in herbs. Each stall would call out to attract customers as both the locals and tourists walk by. The stalls may offer similar menus, but prices could differ. Where Nik came from, sheep head is a savoured delicacy. So, this is a dish he will not miss out. Music fills the air as male dancers dressed in female clothes swayed away. The amateur magicians never fail to attract large crowds. It’s cheap entertainment for the locals and an amusement for the curious tourists. For our dining experience at Jemaa El-Fna and more photos of the square, please visit http://budgetglobaltraveller.com/what-where-i-ate-marrakech/

SHEEP HEADS READY TO BE SERVED

SHEEP HEADS READY TO BE SERVED

Between our hotel and Jemaa El-Fna, the Souks or bazaar, the largest I have come cross, spread in the centre of the Medina. There are probably thousands of shop selling goods produced by the local cottage industries. Brightly coloured rugs, leather shoes and bags, copper lamp shades, jewelleries, herbal teas, perfumes and spices are some of the goods sold in the souk. As we strolled leisurely across the souk, I marvel at the vibrant colours of the merchandise on sale. However, I see very few people making purchases. Perhaps most visitors are aware that the whole of Marrakech is a tourist trap. I wanted to buy a pair of leather sandals. The shopper keeper quoted a price. Then I went into the shop to make my choice and bargained for a lower price which he agreed upon. However, when Nik wanted to make payment, the shop keeper asked for the original (higher) price he quoted. Motorcycles, bicycles, pulled carts and pedestrians try to accommodate each other along the narrow streets. One is morely likely to get lost in the souks than in New York City for there are few signages or directions posted. The souks is really a colourful place as you can see in the pictures here.

Most things here are still done the traditional way. Goods are tranported by carts pulled by men, donkeys or horses. The items sold in the shops are generally hand-made. Time probably has not moved on here except for the modern attire the younger generation dons and the mobile phones they carry around.

HANDICRAFT IN THE MAKING AT THE SOUK

HANDICRAFT IN THE MAKING AT THE SOUK

The minaret of the Koutubiyya Mosque soared some 77 metres and is visible from the airport. Like most of the buildings in the Medina, the mosque is made of reddish clay. Outside the mosque there is a large area that looks like some ruins while on the other side is a garden planted with orange trees and rose plants. The Koutubiyya Mosque is opened only during prayer times.

INTERIOR OF THE KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

INTERIOR OF THE KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

THR KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

THR KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

Another attraction is the Bab Agnaou, one of the many gates serving as an entrance to the kasbah district of the Medina. At times I can’t help but hold my breath for the streets reeked of urine, that of the horses and also men. Part of the Kasbah Mosque is undergoing restoration. The Saadian tombs on the other hand had been restored to its former glory and has been a popular tourist attraction. The mausoleum was constructed by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur in the 15th century as a burial ground for himself and his descendants. The main mausoleum, the resting place of Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur, is in the chamber of the Hall of Twelve columns. It has an awesome decoration and is the most beautiful. Enchanted by the serenity of the place and the lovely garden, I forgot that we were actually in a cemetery.

THE SAADI TOMBS

THE SAADIAN TOMBS

THE GARDEN AT THE SAADIAN TOMBS

THE GARDEN AT THE SAADIAN TOMBS

On Thursday we visited the ruins of the Badi Palace. This palace is only about 500 years old but, most part of it is in ruins and have not been restored to its former glory. On top of the thick walls several pairs of stork are seen nesting. This palace was built by Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur over the course his reign (1578-1603). It was meant for festivities and official audiences with the sovereign, foreign ambassadors, distinguished visitors, wise men and poets. Whatever lavishness of decor and lushness of vegetation it was proud of is now reduced to a few tiles on crumbling walls and some orange trees in the court yard. The mimbar of Koutubiyya mosque, a masterpiece of medieval woodwork and carpentry is exhibited in one of the rooms. To view the mimbar, a visitor has to pay a separate entrance fee. It is nearly a thousand years old and has been restored to an almost perfect condition, apart from a few missing pieces.

THE BADI PALACE GROUNDS

THE BADI PALACE GROUNDS

THE MIMBAR OF KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

THE MIMBAR OF KOUTUBIYYA MOSQUE

THE RUINS AT BADI PALACE

THE RUINS AT BADI PALACE

A short walk later we came to the Bahia Palace where there was a larger crowd. Many of the tourists we encountered spoke French, therefore I assume they are from France. The rooms in this palace are exquisitely and beautifully decorated including the ceilings. I wonder if the people then spend much of their time lying on their backs admiring the ceilings. The typical courtyard with a water feature fountain or pond is present here. And another feature is the perimeter wall and the windows which open into the courtyard.

INSIDE THE BAHIA PALACE

INSIDE THE BAHIA PALACE

A RICHLY DECORATED CEILING OF THE BAHIA PALACE

A RICHLY DECORATED CEILING OF THE BAHIA PALACE

We took a lunch break before visiting the Musee Dar Si Said. The architecture of this palace is similar to that of the Bahia Palace. It was formerly the home of Bou Ahmed’s brother, Si Said, which now houses a collection of Moroccan Arts. Its entrance is very much like the door of any house. The exhibits only have brief labellings and no description or history. Carpets, woodwork, embroideries, armoury and ceramics made up the small collection in the charming house. The rooms on the ground floor are beautiful, comparable to those in the Bahia Palace. In the middle of the lush garden stood a decorated gazebo. From this position one could view the doors or entrances to all the rooms on the ground floor. At the centre of the gazebo was a small pond. A few of the beautiful and richly decorated rooms and the gazebo at Musee Dar Si Said are featured in the photos below.

Our last evening in Marrakech was spent in Jemaa El-Fna, soaking in the atmosphere of the bustling food stalls and the antics of the amateur performers, the crowd pullers. By dusk the crowd had filled almost the entire square. The muezzines’ calls for prayer failed to distract the crowd from their engrossment in cheap entertainment.

Marrakech was our last destination on our trip that took us to Madrid, Granada, Pittsburgh (where we attended our son’s graduation) and Washington DC. Our round trip put us on 12 flights with 53 hours and 20 minutes of airborne time. It saw us through seven airports (went through Madrid airport four times) and took us to 5 cities. In the last league of the journey from Kuala Lumpur to Penang, we boarded the plane without our baggage which had problems catching up. They arrived only a day later.

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