23 March 2012
Our last day in Marrakech was cooler and a little overcast, which was welcome as we were still feeling a little overheated from the day before (see my previous post about the Cascades d’Ouzoud). We left our riad around half eleven and headed straight down the Rue el Gza to the souqs, dodging donkeys, carts, mopeds, sheep and whatever else decided to use the narrow, covered road as a freeway. Having found our bearings, we were more confident than the day before and found that the souqs are far less stressful when you’re not trying to get somewhere specific.
By accident, we came across the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa (I don’t think we’d ever have found it if we’d been trying). This Islamic college, no longer in use, is the largest of its kind in Morocco and a fascinating historical site. We paid Dh50 each for entry and had a look around. Built in the fourteenth century, the religious school has survived the years incredibly well. Inside are narrow white-washed corridors with tiled floors, and panelling in a heavy, dark wood. The interior is cool and dimly lit, with still, stifled air that had the historic smell found in museums and churches. We poked our heads into the dormitories and shuddered at the thought of seven people crammed into the tiny, cell-like rooms, with bare walls and floors, and often no window. Some had a ladder build into the wall which led to an overhead sleeping area in the ceiling – just a few feet high – which was utterly black. I read that up to nine hundred students would have shared the one hundred and thirty rooms and a single bathroom; I tried to picture them bent quietly over the Koran by candlelight, and wondered what they would make of today’s tourists posing for funny photos in their cells.
The outdoor courtyard is the most impressive aspect of the Medersa, a large, clear space with a rectangular central pool. The surrounding walls, in a pale terracotta shade, are richly carved with geometric patterns and Arabic inscriptions, with pink marble pillars and intricately carved cedar panelling around the top. Turquoise mosaic tiling circles the walls around the bottom, matching the blue-greens of the pool and creating a lovely, cooling effect.
After leaving we walked slowly around the souqs, looking for souvenirs and gifts. I bought some amber – a sweet smelling perfume sold in crumbly soap-like bars – from an apothecary which was lined from floor to ceiling on three walls with huge glass jars. The store owner switched on a light behind the jars of dye and sent a dazzling display of colour across the dusty shop floor; vibrant magentas, yellows, and indigos which come as a surprise in the darkness of the souqs. The smells of the spices were amazing; so rich and warm that my mouth watered for tagine.
We wandered into an Aladdin’s cave of wonders, where piles of silver tea sets, decorated treasure chests, sparkling bejewelled jewellery boxes and hookah pipes created a genuine maze in of the shops interior. Dazling stained glass and carved bronze lanterns bobbed overhead, meaning that we had to stoop to move around. Sam haggled relentlessly for a shisha pipe, getting the price down to Dh450 from Dh900.
Emerging into the clear space of the Djemma el Fna, I felt that we were finally on top of Marrakech, having fully mastered the arts of haggling, navigating the souqs, and keeping hold of our money in the face of opportunistic ‘guides’. Dodging musicians and henna ladies, we headed for the terrace of the Cafe Glacier on the far side; our favourite place to watch the comings and goings of the square without the frequent harassment. Over a cheap lunch of pizza and coke (Dh80 each) we watched a nearby group of snake charmers hustling, and tried to work out if the ape-handlers were cruel. Most of the apes seemed happy enough in spite of the chains and small rabbit sized cages, and cuddled and played with their handlers affectionately.
In the afternoon, it rained for about an hour; thick, heavy drops which felt alien in the warm air. Ignoring the distant rumble of thunder we walked to the Jardins Harti in the Nouvelle Ville. After the stunning Marjorelle Gardens, these were a little disappointing. The Harti gardens are somewhat lacklustre, and seem to contain more pathways and empty spaces than plants. Luckily, the they were free, and I imagine that on a sunny day this might be a pleasant place for a walk.
With the darkening sky threatening another downpour, we called it a day a little early and jumped into a taxi back to the riad. All in all, a fairly gentle, easy-going final day in the city.
InformationAli Ben Youssef Medersa – 9am – 6pm, Dh50. Just off Rue Souk el Khemis. 212 (0)44 39 09 11 Grand Balcon Café Glacier – 8am – late. Djemaa El Fna Jardins Harti – 8am – 7pm, free entrance. Place du 16 Novembre, Nouvelle Ville. ** All the photos in the post were taken by me and were re-touched by the awesome Sam Larner – firstname.lastname@example.org **