Marrakech here we come
Feeling left out as the modern apprentice booked himself a ‘work trip’ skiing, I decided to book a revenge holiday. Childish, but true. So, on a whim under the corruption of eldest child (and youngest too for that matter), we considered locations. Barcelona, Prague, Rome all ruled out. From nowhere ‘Marrakech’ was mentioned. Yes was my reply. Absolutely no idea about the place but that’s what it’s all about right?
Next - I have a bank holiday blunder history and again I thought May Day was being moved for the King's Coronation - nope; I’d made a catastrophic blunder. 'Darling, I’m taking the children on a 4 night break, you’ll be ok to manage'. ‘Yes’ his reply, eyes lit up at the prospect of time without us. Then the bombshell - it’s bank holiday weekend, campsite is just opening and you are in charge. Oh and we’ve a corporate booking of 19 for alpacas too. In fairness, Team Beirhope were all in to help, so really it was all fine!
Alpaca my bags
The wonderful Kath at Borders Global Travel booked everything for us. Do you want to stay in a Riad? ‘Yes’ my reply, unable to admit I had no idea what a Riad was. Booked, we stayed at Riad Sable Chaud in the old part of the city. With no roads.
Con number 1, everyone expects a tip in Marrakech. The taxi threw us out, arranged a barrow and possibly the oldest man on the planet to take us. Problem was he had nae idea where he was going and took us on an hour long walk of Bab Dekallah looking for our Riad in the rabbit warren of streets. Then expected a tip. Morocco operates a closed currency - only available once there. We had euros which are acceptable too and our bag transportation informed us coins aren’t but notes are. €10 later, best tip of the year I bet, he left. We were overwhelmed and melting in 39 degrees. Recognising our rabbit in the headlights look, Mohammed, our Riad manager, scooped us up, poured us mint tea, drew us a map and told us never to speak to anyone outside. His card in our hands we were to ring at anytime - bodes well doesn’t it…
After a good rest, some food and more mint tea we were ready to head back out. Aim of the day - to do what WE wanted and not get conned. Approximately 4 minutes on leaving, armed with Mohammad’s map, we failed in our quest. ‘Hello, remember me, Mohammed from hotel’. Us: ‘you look different’. Him ‘I’m on day off’. We hadn’t seen him that morning! He looked very different and much more forthright. ‘ATM very far, take taxi and go to Berber market, but first to Tannery’. We suggested an alternative that to Mohammed was completely unacceptable. He frog marched us to a taxi, fixed a €5 price and off we went.
ATM, Tannery, and 30 minutes later with leather goods hanging off every arm half the holiday budget spent. Epic fail on our aim of the day. The taxi cost double what it should, the tannery tour could have been for free if we’d just said no to a guide and probable we hadn’t learned to haggle very well and Mohammed from the hotel was not the real Mohammed from our hotel. We did however get mint tea at the tannery which was awesome. During the visit you are given bunches of mint to sniff as you pass the particularly rancid parts of the tannery. I scoop poop for a living so my mint was never sniffed.
Meanwhile, the children were most disturbed by the ‘bloody rank smell mother’, I however gave not one care as to the cherubs displeasure. They are 28 & 23 so technically big enough to look after themselves. It was only that evening it occurred to me that the mint tea was made with fresh mint, probably the stuff that had previously been held and sniffed repeatedly by unsuspecting tourists. Maybe that was the key ingredient, sweat, suncream and goodness only knows what else that attached itself to the mint.
Agafay Desert Adventure
Given our epic fail of the daily aim, we felt it best to book a trip through the real Mohammed (as he was now to be known) at the Riad. The Agafay desert, quad bikes and camels. This taxi driver arrived at the Riad door and guided us to his parked car. No barrow this time! We booked a private tour thinking the private bit was our transport and we’d join a group once there, based on online prices for similar experiences. But no, real Mohammed is now a legend to us; our private trip was simply fantastic and just for us. The quad bikes were immaculate, the garage spotlessly clean as was the machines. Our guide Halik was fabulous, fun and helpful.
We navigated various terrains before stopping at a Berber station for mint tea. And the most delicious wee biscuits that looked like nuts but weren’t! It was awesome, sitting under shade overlooking the Atlas Mountains. Sweltering heat with a backdrop of snow capped mountains. Just wow. We learned about the Berber village, only 300 residents and about the difficulty in keeping animals and growing crops in a lack of water. Many of the established olive groves had died due to the lack of rain/water. A reminder as to how climate change affects us all. The village is served by a water hole, bored to 150m depth. We talked at length about water as ours at Beirhope comes from the hill. This came as a huge surprise to our host and stemmed quite a conversation as not many tourists have to think about where their water comes from.
Onwards to meet our camels, Malkie, Zorro and Fatima, along with guide, Mohammed. Camel Mohammed was fab; his friendly banter welcome and enthusiasm great to see. Our 3 camels were angels and much to the disappointment back home our adventure passed without any camelcident. Upon return, having had a desert shower (compressor hose by quad garage owner!!) daughter and I really did fancy a spa. We’d researched Hammams and felt the private option was more akin to a spa that we are used to. Public nudity we felt was NOT for us (remember this statement).
The Real Deal
So, having unsuccessfully tried a couple of local spas, eldest headed off to find the real Mohammed for options. Two minutes later it was decided that Fatima 1 would take us to her Hammam, no questions that we absolutely were NOT going to a ‘touristic’ spa. A massage was arranged for afterwards with someone they knew coming to our Riad just for us. All sorted in 90 seconds and far cheaper than spas and massages advertised elsewhere. Now is a really good time to remind oneself one gets what one pays for.
Like lambs, we followed Fatima towards the Hammam, stopping in the local souk opposite the sardine stall for some clay stuff. Serious negotiations took place and then we were led to the changing rooms. Some broken English, mixed with school French and some gesticulation later, it dawned on us that we were in a public Hammam, where nudity is the norm. Banished from wearing anything at all on our top half I looked at eldest child and thought many bad things. She was to be disinherited. I’d specifically said I’d only have a private spa and a foot massage because that was perfectly adequate - that I’m ‘funny about being touched’. Well, to my horror I sat almost but not quite naked while people scrubbed each other ALL OVER with the clay stuff purchased from the stall opposite the sardines, then rinsed off by way of lobbing buckets of water over and over again. Because we were newbies, Fatima had arranged that the attendant scrub us. Oh my god. Talk about living like a local - bloody hell it doesn’t get anymore authentic than this!
Off spring was selected first. As she lay cradled in the lap of the local attendant mostly naked, getting scrubbed, we took the giggles. My turn came, in a way I wished I’d been first as in that moment knowledge was not power. As my Bridget’s were transformed into dental floss one cheek at a time, layers of skin appeared like parmesan shavings on my limbs. As the only westerners in the Hammam our first outing was gaining attention. A lady sat two foot from us, almost naked too as if it was (because it is in Marrakech) the most normal thing in the world. No longer Hammam virgins, we did something that many westerners would never have the chance to do and honestly it was fab. If not a lot scary and a little surreal. The evening rounded off perfectly with a massage. This was in our room, but this time only one at a time. Again it’s not like UK. The towel is whipped off but by this stage we were professionals.
So, usually holibobs, spas and massage calls for a wee prosecco or six. Goodness only knows that following the previous days nudity, alcohol was never more needed. But this is Marrakech and alcohol is not served on every street corner as it is everywhere else. Feeling like bootleggers we stumbled into a restaurant that sold the moonshine. To be fair in the more touristy parts of Marrakech it is becoming more easily available. But remember we were now living like locals and our Riad was not ‘touristic’. Our wee shop sold water at 2 Dimah while touristy places was 6. We really were experiencing authentic Marrakech and it has to be said loving every minute. Surprisingly cocktails were half the price of a glass of wine. Well, it would have been silly not to take full advantage. Following our 3 day alcohol drought and heatwave of 39 degrees the only sensible option was to have a couple of cocktails, retell our Hammam encounter and laugh uncontrollably.
Composure regained we stumbled across Baddia Palace. It was beautiful, breathtaking and peacefully calm inside this city of throng. We arrived towards the end of the day and were blown away by the place. So worth a visit at 70 Durham each. Yves Saint Laurent can keep their over priced, over touristy gardens and museum because real Marrakech offers so much more. On that note look out the Photography museum too - just excellent. So would we swap our Riad for a hotel, our Hammam for a Spa or our clay from the stall opposite the sardines? Absolutely NOT. We’ve had a wonderful 4 days in Marrakech. Quirky, authentic and at times bonkers but always fantastic. And a reminder that the best things in life aren’t overpriced, common or conventional but rather unique, real and very much in the moment.