Snakes And Leather – An Overland Trip To Marrakesh

According to environmentalists planes are a major factor in the destruction of our planet. The emissions from planes accounts for up to 3% of all carbon emissions into our atmosphere and we all know what that does. It’s for this reason I decided my travel to Morocco from Madrid would be done by land. Oh, and I’m also terrified of flying!

The latter admission was a reason for my unusually relaxed attitude before embarking upon this particular trip. I saddled up to my trusty military issue back pack and made my way to Madrid’s Estacion del Sur bus station feeling calm and morally proud.

The bus was to take me from Madrid to Algeciras on the southern tip of Spain, a cheap overnight journey that would get me to the Algeciras port by early morning just before the first ferries to Tangiers in Northern Morocco. Traveling overnight by bus is never life’s most pleasant experience but my handy hip flask helped me through this one. A crowded bus of Moroccan émigrés looked on as this sleepless young Englishman slowly drunk his way through the darkness of Andalucía and onwards to the Strait of Gibraltar.

The ferry, like the bus, was reassuringly cheap (yet another endorsement for environmentally friendly travel). My lack of sleep on the bus meant I spent the ferry journey laid out on the conveniently placed restaurant sofa but before I dropped off I noticed that the ferry was almost empty.

The approach to Morocco started the minute we left Algeciras as it really is very close but my first sight of Tangiers was still enjoyable as the old towns meandering steep streets were clear to the eye. I wasn’t to stay in Tangiers but it was good to see the old headquarters of liberation and excess from afar. Upon arrival in Tangiers I was immediately set upon by endless willing taxi drivers all up for a bit of haggling. The first haggle of a trip is always the best as your energy is at maximum and it’s still fun! I agreed a fair with the most persistent of them and via an exchange bureau we made the five minute journey to the train station.

Tangiers train station was peerlessly clean and the staff very friendly and efficient. I bought a ticket for Marrakesh in the second class carriage that was to prove more than acceptable. The train only required one change in Sidi Kacem but it was a long journey. The journey didn’t seem long though as I was the trains main exhibit for the stream of locals passing past my carriage. Those with a basic grasp of the English language all stopped to ask me about my life and those without giggled and offered various forms of food and sweets. The scenery is interesting without being outstanding on the way to Marrakesh but the Atlas Mountains grow as Marrakesh draws nearer and these are more than enough to occupy your eyes.

I arrived in Marrakesh at nightfall and made my way to the cheap hotel I’d booked beforehand. I opted out of staying in a Riad on account of being offered a great deal by a friend who works in a travel agency but by all accounts they are a great experience and good place to meet other travelers. They are also a good option for the budget minded traveler. My hotel was situated in the art deco quarter of Guéliz built by the French in the 1930s. Fittingly the hotel was occupied by groups of French weekenders and I must silently admit that this only added to the experience.
My first day in Marrakesh was naturally spent exploring the Souk inside the medina. Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe the souk I think eclectic is the most fitting. Within five minutes I had bought some nougat, a scarf, a bag and some tea. I didn’t want any of them but I was easily drawn into the charm and sheer professionalism of the stall owners selling techniques. I quickly wised up and spent the day walking aimlessly around the myriad of colors, smells and noises that made up the souk.

I particularly enjoyed being invited to look around endless stalls for free! The kindness sincerely touched me! Despite the ramshackle appearance of the souk there is logic to its layout and to the experienced shopper or indeed the locals it must be amusing watching the directionless tourists pass by the same herb stall for the umpteenth time each hour. Each section of the souk is designated to a certain product and this made life easier when looking for a leather jacket. The problem was the overwhelming choice and carefully designed haggling techniques I encountered in this area. Despite that I strutted away gleaming with pride having just beaten them at their own game. The stall owner no doubt celebrated the extreme profit he’d just made with a tea and cat whistle at the nearest sunburned European girl.

As the sun disappeared behind the Atlas Mountains I made my way to the main square of the Marrakesh medina, the Jemaa el Fna. It was here I had dinner as maybe a hundred food stalls were assembled with ease in the square as the sun went down. More bartering followed and I was taken in a by boy whose impressions of every English accent under the sun had me laughing in stitches. His food stall offered the standard fair of tagines and couscous and I decided to try both. The dinner was extremely cheap and these food stalls would remain my main source of replenishment for the duration of my stay. My post-dinner entertainment was provided by the endless entertainers that roam the Jemaa el Fna with their snakes, monkeys and elaborate stories of Moroccan legends gone by. I bypassed the snakes but was enraptured by a magic show narrated by an old man clearly under the influence of something other than mint tea. At end the night I joined the French residents of my hotel in a local disco and watched with wide eyes as Moroccan pop music enabled people to move in ways they’d probably never moved before.

The following day, feeling a little worse for wear, I joined a group in exploring the High Atlas where we were able to visit several Berber villages and witness demonstrations of their customs. One such village was …and here it was a delightful experience to see a culture untamed by the rapid modernization that had occurred below on the plains. The return journey went through the Ourika valley, which was a sight to behold. An emerald green stream was engulfed by sheer cliffs dotted with olive trees and random villages seemingly immune to the perils of tourism. One such village was Moulay Brahim, which is actually mostly frequented by Moroccans from afar all seeking comfort from the shrine of none other than Moulay Brahim, which is said to help female fertility problems. The male virility shrine was closed for the winter!

I spent the evening in the Jemaa el Fna again but was this time enticed by a food stall named “Lovely Jubbly”. Brilliant!

My final day was again spent in the Medina exploring the sights it had to offer. I spent the entire day walking around in the February heat and found much needed refreshment in the many tea shops that are scattered around the city. These are unashamedly male compounds of gossip and the perfect platform from which to ogle to your heart’s desire. The Koutoubia Mosque dominates the medina skyline due to the fact no building may be taller. It acts as a convenient vantage point for the inevitable moments of confusion. Worth mentioning from my walk around the medina are the dyers quarter and tanneries. Despite the pungent smells these are great examples of traditions not lost to industry and the world of leather and textiles is all the better for it. Beware of taking photos as this is the basis of the local’s argument when you’re asked to pay for the pleasure of having walked around a public place. The Kasbah and Medersa Ben Youssef were interesting oases of calm where the feeling of Islamic intellectualism and tranquility are overwhelming. After weaving my way through these, then getting lost, I returned to the hotel to conclude my visit with a night’s bemusement observing French dancing.

I returned to Madrid the way I came with a brief stopover in Gibraltar, another reference to the convenience of traveling by land. Without polluting the atmosphere I had thoroughly enjoyed my short stay in Marrakesh and seen more than I could possibly imagine in the short time I had available.

Marrakesh is a city of mayhem and ultimate tranquility. This paradox is the key to its success. The city contains a people of overt kindness laid on in abundance for an extra buck. They will frustrate you but charm you at the same time. Although not obviously beautiful it’s the atmosphere and people that make it well worth a visit. It remains a liberal city kept in check by Islamic requirements that won’t affect most tourists. What’s more it is easily accessible by land for those of us in Europe. An option you should seriously consider when making this trip.