The International Writers
After this rather inauspicious
start at the hotel, we swiftly decided to take a wander and try to get
our bearings. Our hotel was located in Gueliz, the new city
and was about a twenty minute walk to the old city, the Medina. In retrospect,
the Medina was a much nicer place to stay, although everywhere we saw
was booked at least six months in advance. After wandering rather aimlessly
in the midday heat for about an hour, we eventually found, totally by
accident, the heart of the new city. We realised that this was what we
had stumbled upon by the increasing number of cafes advertising pizza,
pasta and hamburgers in neon on every street corner. We found ourselves
fending off increasing number of locals avidly extolling the virtues of
Mont Blanc pens for 300 Dirhams, (about £18,) and genuine
Prada purses and belts, readily bargaining down to 50-100 Dirhams at the
first sign of a disinterested back turning toward them. Gueliz teemed
with fast food restaurants, taboo alcohol-selling bars and European clothes
shops. This was not really the culturally rich, exotic Marrakech that
we had come to see. We carried on walking.
Hammam and Hucksters in Marrakech
me, Marrakech evokes images of shopping in moonlit markets, eating
lots of couscous, and its liberated shenanigans of the swinging
sixties and seventies.
It was not our first thought of destination for our honeymoon; we
explored lots of options including the Caribbean and Southern Europe.
In the end, we settled for Marrakech as a first tentative step into
The hotel itself
included a roof terrace, which was the main attraction for me as
it was a sunny and quiet place to spend the morning rather than
by the poolside which only had six sun-loungers for a five storey
complex. It was disappointing that the hotel did not resemble the
pictures on the website at all and was actually quite misleading
when describing its facilities, such as the gym which was locked
for the entire week and the sauna that you had to pay a minimum
of 60 Dirhams, about £5 to use. Both the sauna and the gym
were locked rooms in an unlit basement that did not look particularly
appealing even in daylight, despite the hotel having received good
reviews on a popular tourist website.
We approached the old city of the Medina on a different route to most
of the other tourists, but when we reached the city walls, we knew we
couldnt be too far off. We passed through the archway, and were
immediately greeted by a friendly local asking in French if we needed
any help. I was a bit wary as the guidebooks warn of locals who adopt
you and then proceed to demand money ten minutes later after having shown
you precisely nothing, but with our quizzical expressions and map held
before us like a protest banner, we were hardly in a position to refuse
his kind offer. He did not ask for any money, so I took his kind offer
to be a genuine gesture of hospitality and we headed in the direction
The first sign that we were in an area not often frequented by tourists
was the distinct lack of women in the street. Whereas Gueliz attracted
women clad in skinny jeans, tight tops and high heels, the only women
apparent in this new part of the city were veiled head to toe or sitting
on the curb begging. I admit to finding these male dominated street gatherings
quite intimidating. We turned into a narrow alley and started to wind
away from the city walls, in the belief that all roads, in Marrakech at
least, lead to the Medina.
We trailed through alleys clogged with smells of raw meat, spices and
diesel fumes spewing from motorbikes that seemed to be aiming for us until
we reached a sign directing us to, "Big Square." This must be
what we are aiming for. The souks sucked you almost into a vortex where
you can hardly see the sky though the thatched reed roofs designed to
keep the alleys cool, and where the promise of more crafts on offer right
in front of your nose forces you blindly onwards. I felt the power these
market stalls had over me and made the decision not to buy anything on
that first day in case the urge to shop took over and I ended up spending
my whole holidays budget on a whim.
When we eventually made out way past the scarves, wicker baskets, musical
instruments and cashew nuts out of the maze, we were greeted by the sight
of what must be the most sociable town square on the world. It felt like
everyone in Marrakech must have been there, all at once, right at that
very moment. In the Big Square, all the smells that had been
so powerful in the alleys drifted into a potent background and took second
place to the din of noises jostling for attention. There were drums and
maracas being played by busking musicians in full tribal dress, monotonous
calls to prayer from the Mosque that opened out onto the square itself,
and, if you werent careful, a cheery greeting of, "Welcome
to Marrakech," whereupon you swiftly got a monkey placed on your
foreman and a hand held out asking for money. It overwhelmed all my senses
at once, and without realising, I found myself in situations I hadnt
anticipated and saw those hands creeping towards me. However, the monkey
on the arm scenario was a lot more pleasant than the alternative
snake around the neck scenario that I witnessed a few of my
fellow travellers get accosted with, an experience I narrowly escaped.
We headed away from the main alleys towards the north side of the square,
and the action quietened down a little, and we found a place where it
was possible to survey the surroundings without being perpetually harassed.
Remembering this feeling, a few days later we started our day by wandering
up an alley that still promised shopping, but seemed a little less crowded
and a lot less noisy. In reality, I was on a vague mission to track down
the Hammam featured on a flyer that had been thrust into my hand as we
careered into the main square aboard a pony and trap the previous day.
It promised a deluxe beauty spa offering traditional Hammam for only 50
Dirhams, and sounded too good to be true. When we arrived, it was quite
what we were after, as it offered a pseudo-traditional experience of bathing
with your own toiletries in a Hammam individually or with my husband.
As local Hammams normally involve a social side of bathing with your friends,
this seemed to have the worst of both worlds by the lack of both luxury
and socialising. Call me a philistine, but I struggled to see how this
was hugely better than showering at the hotel.
No, I was after pampering.
After a little more investigation, we found a place that offered my husband
and I the experience of being washed with coal soap and exfoliated together.
I had to try this. From my earlier foray into guidebook territory, I joked
to my husband that it sounded as if someone was getting to get in the
bath with us. Turns out, I wasnt that far off. My first fears were
realised when, as we were undressing, the lady who was about to pamper
us instructed me that I was to go into the Hammam naked. I conceded the
bikini top but resolutely hung on to my bikini bottoms. The process involved
lying on a heated stone floor, having warm water poured all over my body
and generally being exfoliated, massaged and scrubbed. It was heavenly,
if not slightly uncomfortable at first. The whole process lasted for an
hour and cost 120 Dirhams each, approximately £8.
My final thoughts on Marrakech are that it seems like a crass mixture
of modern consumerism and traditional conservatism. Nowhere was this more
apparent than in a main square of Gueliz, Place du 1 Novembre that lay
at the heart of Avenue Mohammed V. The square was full of western fast
food and designer labels, with the image of a western woman clad only
in lingerie sitting neatly in the shadows of an imposing minaret. As local
women tottered past in their burkas and high heels, I couldnt help
wondering what I would find if I were to revisit Marrakech in a few years
Turner July 2007
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