Please enjoy this story from my friend Richard Joseph from his recent visit to Marrakesh in Morocco …
It wasn’t Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1969 “Marrakesh Express,” but rather Ryan Air that deposited us in this fabled Moroccan city.
Outside of the modern airport a prearranged taxi took us back in time, it seemed, to the edge of the old city or medina. A quick glance revealed there was no way this taxi could get into the maze of narrow streets ahead.
An old man with something that resembled a wheel barrel took our bags and we followed him through dark alleys and covered markets (called souks) to a very non-descript old door with a small sign above it that read “Riad Dar Zaya.”
A riad is a very unique elegant accommodation that stems from a traditional Moroccan home.
The door led us into an arch filled gilded hallway. At the end of it we entered a beautiful courtyard with a small pool at one end and a table at the other. On that table we were greeted with the traditional welcome of tea and some sweets.
This riad had just three elegant rooms that would have fit in 1001 Arabian Nights. The price $90 per night including a delicious breakfast.
Using a map and a phone GPS (just like the olden days) we navigated from our riad to one of the main passageways and began to wander.
Every step we took was a, “Hey look at that!” In every direction there was something incredible from heavily packed donkey carts to an artisan forming a piece of his work using his toes.
Ok, warnings. if you go to Marrakesh be sure to walk on the far right because pesky motor scooters are constantly buzzing by at unreasonable speeds.
Speaking of unreasonable, we were walking to the city walls when I made the mistake of asking a man for directions.
The “helpful” man was more than happy to oblige and promptly attached himself to us as our unhired guide.
He led us first to the tanneries which looked interesting. Here where they turn hides into leather. A man named Ali presented us with “gas masks” consisting of mint leaves to hold up to our noses to counter the smell. Everyone seemed so kind.
Our “guide” then told us the city walls were closed, but he had a place with a similar view, it happened to be his friend’s store.
We somehow managed to avoid the hard sell for leather jackets, but we did emerge, after bargaining, for some decorative glass cups.
Leaving the store our “guide” and the tannery guy, Ali, were waiting and proceeded to shake us down for a little baksheesh for their “hospitality”.
My offer of 50 Moroccan Dirham ($5) to each was met with angry shouts of, “This is nothing”. A stronger willed, or much larger, tourist might have walked away, but I coughed up 100 Dirham each for safe passage.
Feeling we had seen the medina, the next morning we headed to the desert. Our tour was not by camel, but on ATVs or what they called “quad bikes”. We were escorted along paths through sand, palm trees and into a small village for tea before being brought back to Marrakesh.
The timing was perfect as we arrived at the Jemaa el Fna, the famous main square of Marrakesh.
As the sun was heading down and we headed up to a restaurant overlooking the square and the old city.
The Muslim call to prayer rang out from the large minarets at mosques providing a soundtrack to beautiful scene before us.
The Jemaa el Fna has two faces. By day it is loaded with entertainment consisting of such fare as snake charmers with their obligatory cobras and men offering you the chance to have your picture taken with their monkeys. Either will cost you whatever you negotiate.
By night “dozens of pop up” restaurants emerge with smoke and exotic aromas filling the air.
As we walked among the many eateries touts would stop us and try to persuade us in any language possible to come to their tent. One man literally grabbed me to try to pull me in.
At the restaurant we chose (or chose us) the staff sang and clapped each time a new customer would sit down.
We had done the city and the desert so for our final day we decided to take a trip to the Atlas Mountains.
At the main square we spotted a driver with a New York Yankees hat figuring maybe he spoke some English. He did, at least enough.
For $70 he drove us through the Ourika Valley past villages and ready-for-tourist camels to the final town in the valley.
A stream runs from that town into the valley and the water is lined on each side with plastic restaurant tables and chairs. We sat down to some mint tea and kebabs before a scenic drive back through the valley to the airport.
If you can take having people constantly in your face, eager to help you spend your money, then fascinating Marrakesh may be just the place for you to experience a 1002nd Arabian night.
Story by Richard Joseph
Cover photo: Restaurant in Ourika Valley, Marrakesh, credit Richard Joseph