The astute amongst you will have noticed that Marrakesh is not in South America. I have just returned from a few days there with Sam, a preamble to my big adventure, and I’ve decided to use it as a trial run for my first blog post.
In the heart of the medina, or old city, right next to the main square, we found a beautiful riad nestled between two pedestrian streets. Both the central location and beauty of the riad put us off at first, but because it was low season, we could actually afford to stay there. And not just for one night as originally planned, but for our whole visit.
As is traditional, the riad was centred around a courtyard. Each corridor and archway was hung with lanterns which spread dappled light across the walls in the evenings. When our beautiful room, with its stained-glass windows and intricately carved wooden doors, was cleaned each day, it was presented in a different way, so that our towels became swans or fans, and rose petals were strewn across the bed, bath mat, the furniture and filled the toilet bowl.
And so it was from this lap of luxury that we set forth each morning and returned each evening.
Our Caléche Ride
We spent our first two days visiting the main sights of the city, beginning with a ride on a caléche, a horse-drawn carriage, ambling around the old city walls and gates. Our driver had major skills; in the course of our hour we experienced squeezing through narrow alleyways and joined the main traffic of Marrakesh on wide dual carriageways.
We wandered around the sandy coloured ruins of the Badii palace, home to the sultan in the late 1500s. Storks have built huge clumsy looking nests all along the tops of the walls and gently swooped over us as we walked through the large central courtyard with orange groves and rectangular water basins arranged symmetrically and climbed the small tower at one corner just as the call to prayer began.
Next on the list was the Saadian Tombs, a burial garden right next to a section of the old city walls, reached only via a very narrow passageway as it was kept a secret for centuries. A path wound between brightly tiled graves set into the grass. There were various chambers with more tombs, held up by stone columns, and decorated with ornately carved wooden and stone archways, with stunning calligraphic Arabic running along the walls and the eight-point star multicoloured pattern of the tiling that we have seen all over the city.
A very unassuming doorway leading off an alleyway in one of the souks (markets), was in fact the entrance to the Ben Youssef Medrasa, an Islamic School founded in the 14th century. The central courtyard had the same brightly-coloured starry tiling, beautiful stuccowork, and intricate carvings into the woodwork which formed small windows overlooking the courtyard. At one end was a prayer hall, whilst the rest of the building was made up of two floors of student cells; apparently 900 students fitted into 132 dorm rooms.
After our couple of days hardcore sightseeing we decided to go a bit further afield, away from the bustle and sensory overload of Marrakesh. We travelled about 150km out of the city to the Cascades D’Ouzoud, the highest waterfalls in North Africa, and did a 4 hour walk down into the valley and back up the other side to see the falls from various points. At the bottom a local Berber guy rowed several of us in a raft romanitically (worryingly?) named Titanik around the plungepool so that we got drenched in the mist of the falls and looked up into the rainbows. Right near the end of the walk we encountered Barbary Macaques, a species of monkey. They were pretty timid around humans but nonetheless curious as to whether we had anything edible, and very interested in Sam’s GoPro.
On our last day, we hired scooters and travelled about 40km out of the city, purely for the joy of riding through the countryside. A rare activity for tourists it would seem from the reactions we got, from friendly greetings to beeps, and even a trailer full of locals dancing for us as they overtook.
We had a wander through the souks most evenings, and we devoted our last morning to getting well and truly lost in the maze of these markets. We found the metalwork workshops, with men hammering and welting metal into all manner of objects. We walked past the tannery section where workers rubbed away at sheets of leather, and got a quick tour around the dying area, with huge vats of boiling water, bundles of wool and silk hung from the ceiling and pots of various brightly coloured pigments laid out on tables. There were shops hung with musical instruments, stained-glass Moroccan lanterns, beautifully bound Arabic books. We accidentally found ourselves in the Souk des Babouches, exclusively selling slippers and shoes in all shapes, sizes and colours. We made friends with Ahmed, a woodworker who showed us his technique for making chess pieces, which involved spinning sticks of wood using a bow he pushed back and forth with his right hand, whilst carving detail with a blade held in place between the toes of his left foot and operated with his left hand.
A few last photos from the streets, market in the square, and the people we met.