Rock The Kasbah

Ait Benhaddou kasbah

So once again I embarked on a trip with Big Boy, after our successful tour of Iceland in the summer, this time heading to Morocco. On the plane flying over, Big Boy spent hours perusing the Lonely Planet guide-book, making seemingly fastidious notes on potential sights and travel arrangements. Upon arrival it transpired that he had spent all of that time researching what food he would like to try and which restaurants to visit. Priorities now set, we checked in to our Riad after being ripped off by some little street urchins who carted our bags along the narrow alleyways, deep in Marrakech’s medina.

We bumped into a couple of Kiwis on the first night who had paid for some henna tattoos in the souk. They had quickly realised that the lady had tattooed their names on their arms in Arabic, as all of the traders who saw them took great pleasure in shouting out their names as they walked past. As if it wasn’t hard enough to avoid the attentions of persistent hawkers…

Big boy and I initially thought that the locals were friendly, until the same people who had offered advice or directions whilst “on my way to work” suddenly reappeared a few minutes later, ushering us into a shop for “just looking”. One shopkeeper, on hearing that we were from England, said that his shop was Marks & Spencer. “I’m Mark and he’s Spencer” he claimed, pointing to a neighbouring shopkeeper. I wonder how many times he’s used that one.

Marrakech is an assault on the senses, with the narrow alleyways of the ancient medina where you compete for space with motorcycles, people pulling carts and locals out shopping. The souk is one of the largest in the country and is worth exploring until you grow tired of the constant hassle to buy. The five times per day call to prayer is a culture shock at first. Especially the one at 5.45am…

Djemaa el-Fna is the main square and it is a place for meeting, people watching, eating and street performers of various descriptions, including the more bizarre ones that appear after darkness falls. My personal favourites were the unusually tall, fully clothed belly dancers with big hands. Suspicious. They demanded money very aggressively if you so much as glanced in their direction. There were also the obligatory snake charmers, kid boxers and what appeared to be an old man who ‘drank’ steam. Not sure why.

They start them young in Marrakech!

After getting our fill of the entertainment we decided to head for some bars and we attempted to shake the attentions of a strange man who kept appearing out of nowhere, holding out his red cap to ask for money for the street performers. We really weren’t sure that he was actually affiliated with them! Most bars seemed to be populated only by men and were very smoky, so we took a taxi to find a Lonely Planet recommendation called Yellow Submarine. After spending 30 minutes searching for it, our driver discovered it was now called Punjab. And was painted red. And was now a late night venue, so we were too early. And the only people inside were a table of transvestites… Thanks Lonely Planet.

Particular highlights of Marrakech included the local’s fascination with Big Boy’s shaved head – they kept calling him skinhead, Bruce Willis or Kojak. And a group of small girls approached him and started slapping his head! Big Boy also made an impression by flooding the first floor landing from the shower. Twice. We also loved the uniqueness of seeing men in the pointed-hat djellabas riding motorbikes.

After three nights, we headed off for a short tour towards the Sahara, through the Atlas Mountains. But without a tour guide as such, since our driver seemed to only talk if absolutely necessary. Or if he thought of a joke. Bizarrely he said: “You know Jimi Hendrix? Camel is Hendrix in Morocco.” Wow, look forward to some tunes later.

Our main stop on day one was the impressive 11th century kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, the scene of several film scenes, including for Gladiator. It rocked! As a perfect example of an ancient kasbah, it seemed incredible that it had stayed standing after so long, with bricks seemingly made of mud and straw. We stopped overnight in the Dades Valley. Our hotel had no heating, served no alcohol and offered no entertainment. Early night then.

Brushing away the icicles from our eyebrows the next morning, we set off for the quite impressive Todra Gorge, before stopping for a tour of a ‘traditional berber town’ known as Tinghir. Interesting as it was, there was not a lot to see except for the ancient rug making process with, you’ve guessed it, hard sales pitch. Big Boy had stated previously that he wanted a Moroccon rug, so it was unsurprising that he declared his interest. What did surprise me, was that he came away with a secondhand an ‘antique’ rug that we had walked over on the way in, which included authentic Berber dust. “You must think I’m bonkers, but I like the worn look” he said. You certainly got that.

As the afternoon wore on we finally made it to Merzouga on the edge of the Sahara for a short camel trek to our overnight camp. If you haven’t ridden a camel before, you won’t know that it’s a great way to slowly stretch your groin, so you end up walking like John Wayne when you dismount the beast. The desert scenery was stunning, but we didn’t have much time to appreciate it as nightfall descended and the temperature dropped. Boy did it get cold! After a communal tagine, we enjoyed a few traditional Berber songs to the accompaniment of drum beats before retiring to our tents for a hypothermia-induced sleep. It was a nice tour, but not as good as it should have been; a ‘good enough’ mentality which seems to be the norm in Morocco. The next day we planned to head north.

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