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Magic and mystery in Marrakesh

Posted by pakin On January - 20 - 2016

Overly persistent vendors and noisy motorcycles aside, Morocco makes for a fascinating and friendly holiday

Thousands of Thais visit Europe each year but the number who cross the Mediterranean into North Africa is considerably lower. That’s beginning to change, fuelled no doubt by the arrival of Moroccan-themed hotels in Hua Hin and Pran Buri and the efforts of the Moroccan Embassy in Bangkok to promote its country’s sites.

I start my trip from Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca, climbing into a rented compact Skoda Octavia TDi for the motorway ride to Marrakesh, 240 kilometres away, the North African country’s fourth largest city.

The air’s clear and the temperature a pleasant if slightly chilly 15 degrees Celsius though much hotter in the impossibly bright sun. The road is good, on par with any European expressway and the drive is easy, at least until I turn off on to a minor road, where we are stopped several times at police checkpoints. Just as in major cities around Europe, security has been heightened in Muslim countries in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks but a few smiles and a flash of our passports do the trick and we are soon on our way.

The road narrows as we approach the world heritage city of Marrakesh and deteriorates further as we pass the city centre and Ville Nouvelle, the new town. Traffic is backed up in the labyrinth of lanes leading to the Medina – the old city behind the ancient walls and I start to juggle for a piece of road that pedestrians, motorcycles, cars, trucks and mule-power carts also feel is theirs.

We eventually make it to our accommodation – a room in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around an interior courtyard. From the outside, our guesthouse looks old and uninviting, the small holes in the exterior giving it an almost spooky ambience. Inside, we are stunned by the majestic arches and the flamboyance of the architecture and can almost feel the hospitality beaming through the tiles. The rooms on every storey open out to the central atrium space, which is naturally lit by a rooftop made of glass.

The room itself is thoroughly Moroccan and despite its finery, priced at a very reasonable Bt4,000 a night.

Later in the day, we walk to Place Jemaa el-Fnaa, Marrakesh’s world heritage square. Cries of “Monsieur, monsieur. Come have a look” ring in our ears as the vendors try to entice us to buy their fancy products. While irritating after a while, it is nothing compared to the noise and pollution emitted by an army of two-stroke engine motorcycles that are driven through the Medina at terrifying speed.

Place Jemaa el-Fnaa is not to be missed. This Unesco Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity has a dark history – it was once used for public decapitations by rulers who sought to maintain their power by frightening the public – but today is home to souvenir shops, food stalls, men handling monkeys and even the odd snake charmer or two. We are drawn by the sound of drums to one of several circles of men, who are performing in the centre of the square, telling the stories of nomads through dance and music and stand watching for a while.

As we move on, we quickly come to understand that nothing comes without a price. Here, you see, you pay. The Moroccans waste no chance to part tourists from their money and experience quickly teaches me to be generous rather than suffer their curses. Besides, I prefer to pay for this street entertainment than be bullied into buying overpriced merchandise that I don’t really like, never mind need. Many of the Moroccans are obviously poor but rather than beg, they perform to make money. And despite the crowds, the city feels remarkably safe even in the deserted Medina at night. The locals may ask for money but they do not steal.

For the Thai visitor, the Moroccans are probably not the nicest people with whom to pass the time. They push hard to sell souvenirs and mutter when you leave their shops after doing nothing more than take a few photos. The kids, who offer to guide you through the maze that is the Medina in exchange for a tip, will undoubtedly get you totally lost, sometimes deliberately, but these things don’t really matter. What’s important is the experience.

While the Red City, as Marrakesh is also known, has much to offer the visitor, Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city with a population of some four million, is something of a disappointment. Dirty, bustling and very run down in parts, it does however feel safe. And despite the extortionate fees for parking, it is relatively easy to get around thanks to a modern tramway.

Fes, on the other hand, is much calmer with fewer clamouring merchants and a ban on motorcycles in its architecturally alluring Medina. So too is the blue city of Chefchaouen in the Rif Mountains.

And then there’s the scenery. The landscape of this North African country is breathtaking with lakes, valleys and canyons showcased in all their splendour as you drive north towards the Sahara.

Yes, it can be frustrating at times and Thai visitors used to a more laid back lifestyle might find it more than a little overwhelming. An open-minded attitude and an enquiring mind however make a visit more than worthwhile.

Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, Etihad and Air France offer flights from Bangkok to Casablanca with stopovers in Doha, Dubai and Paris.

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