If the lanes and alleys of the souk and Kasbah are the arteries of Marrakech, then Djemaa el Fna is its heart- a central square pulsating with life.
During the day it’s a comparatively sedate scene although still impossible to cross without being intercepted by trinket hawkers, water sellers, snake charmers and orange juice vendors. Horse-drawn carriages lug tourists around its periphery while those on foot vigilantly dodge having snakes around their necks or monkeys on their shoulders. Water peddlers dressed elaborately in coloured robes rotate tassels on their hats are more about a posed tourist opportunity than quenching your thirst. Squeaking, oboe-like instruments warn of a huddle of basket-covered snakes; wander too close or feign interest and a shiny black cobra will sway erect from under the basket next to a thick, coiled, motionless viper. Traditional herbalists sick cross-legged under the shade of parasols, attracting a gathering of curious onlookers and patients hopeful that the concoction of ground herbs and animal parts will cure their ailments.
By late afternoon the food stalls begin to set up; rows of temporary eateries consisting of central preparation and grilling area surrounded by a few tables and benches. Fiercely vying for business, menus are eagerly waved in your face accompanied to chants to remember their food stall “117, taste of heaven!” Smoke wafts from these makeshift restaurants that serve up Tagines, spicy sausages and grilled kebabs, cous cous, steamed snails, whole sheep’s head and brains, sweet chicken pastilla, salads and bowls of steaming Harira soup.
As the sun sets, storytellers and acrobats attract crowds encircling their animated performances. Impromptu music sessions start up with amateur musicians perched on wooden stools around lamps illuminating their faces nodding to the hypnotic drum-beat.
The transition from European familiar to African unfamiliar is only a 90-minute sail across the Straits of Gibraltar. As with the arrival to any foreign country for the first time, there is always the excitement, yet slight trepidation of the unknown; language, money, people, food, culture, roads and everyday life.
Our initial route in Morocco took us down the Atlantic coast; after a very chilly drive through France and Spain the days were now warmer but by sunset the temperature fell sharply. A wild coastline worshipped by windsurfers, big waves crash along rocky shores and small towns nestle in sheltered bays. Our first stop, Asilah, was our introduction to a Moroccan town; the medina (the walled part of an Arabic town) is a labyrinth of narrow lanes and alleys dotted with doorways encircled by intricate, colourful tiled mosaics.
Tiny, wobbly, wrought iron balconies overlook streets so confined you could reach across and shake your opposite neighbours hand. Flowerpots bursting with vibrant geraniums adorn the small windowsills. Revving scooters veering perilously through the alleyways break the silence along with a chattering group of neatly uniformed children rushing to the cramped grocery shop to buy sweets after school.
Outside this enclosed, peaceful hive of habitation, you step onto the main street and are met with an immediate sensory onslaught. Donkey carts, cars, bikes, horses and people jostle rowdily for position on the road. Men wearing the traditional wizard-like overcoat, complete with pointed hood, congregate noisily in busy cafes lining the streets drinking mint tea and playing dominoes and backgammon. Women barter for fruit and vegetables from piled-high, rickety market stalls while chickens peck blissfully unaware of their fate on poultry ‘death row’. Distorted Arabic hip-hop blares from the stereo of a make-shift stall selling pirate CD’s, inharmoniously clashing with the Muezzin call to prayer of several nearby mosques. Locals clamour round snack stalls selling hot fried sardines, snails, smoking charcoal-cooked kebabs, sizzling, oily flatbread and sweet sticky doughnuts.
As the sun sets over the harbour, the medina walls glow varying shades of red in the fading light and we settle down into our roof tent… we’re going to like it here.
(Photo by Thomas Ozanne)
We received extremely sad news last week that two of my good friends, ex-work colleagues and fellow artists from my home island of Guernsey were tragically killed in Thailand. Peter Root and Mary Thompson were hit by a pick-up truck in a province east of Bangkok last Wednesday whilst in the middle of their 'around the world' cycling odyssey.
Pete and Mary have always been a great inspiration to me, both creatively and in their adventures. I've had the pleasure of working with them professionally when they exhibited at the gallery I used to own as well as working with Pete for several years at the local art school. Both Pete and Mary were two genuinely beautiful people who will be sorely missed.
It is comforting only in the knowledge that they died following their dream. Pete and Mary were cycling around the world and we had planned on meeting up with them in the 'stans prior to our unplanned return home.
Our condolences go out to their family and friends, you were great people and will be missed greatly.
A wet, drizzly morning in Weymouth and Bee-Bee is having the last couple of boxes loaded in; map at the ready and the 11pm Portsmouth - Le Havre ferry booked. With our family situation currently stable and itchy feet so bad we are practically doing the river dance, we are swapping our sunset chase for a longitudinal course. A quick drive through France and Spain (it is winter and we’re camping!) and a sail across the straits of Gibraltar to Morocco and the start of our North-Western Africa adventure.
An interlude to ‘Rock the Kasbah’ with family in Marrakech will be followed by a meander to the Western Sahara by which time we should have warmed up considerably. Limited by a closed border to Algeria in the east and an increasingly dodgy pass to Mauritania in the south we are land-locked by civil unrest and political restrictions. However, with around 450,000 km2 we should have plenty to explore with the Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains, wild Atlantic coastline and nomadic Berbers.
We intend to explore rural Portugal and Spain on our route back north; keeping plans minimal and simply going with the flow.