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Skyros Blog

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How was Marrakech? Well it was brilliant – just a short break – six days if you include both travel days – a wonderful exotic city break and a good opportunity for some sunshine before the English winter. We were staying in the Riad Star, hidden among the narrow lanes of the Medina, the old part of the city, only accessed on foot or two wheels. It is so called because Josephine Baker, star of outrageous dancing fame in the Twenties, lived there for a while when she fell ill, and the current English owners are doing their best to revive her memory. It is a beautifully restored Arab style building with a small pool in the central courtyard, two storeys high with a roof garden where we breakfast each day in the cool early sunshine. There are touches of Art Deco in the pictures, ornaments and lamps and in the corner stands an original Josephine gown. There is a headdress from the Folies and a rail of 1920s clothes for dressing-up, including hats and jackets for the men. The owners went to the auction and got carried away!

The Riad is a haven of peace and quiet disturbed only by the twittering of small finches and the call to prayer echoing across the city, in sharp contrast with the hustle and bustle of the world outside.

On the first morning we ventured forth with a guide for a walking tour and were firmly told to keep right in to the right of the alley and it was immediately obvious why... Donkey carts and every kind of two-wheeled vehicle, sometimes overloaded with a pile of rugs or skins from the tannery, dash at great speed, but luckily with great skill, down the centre of the lane.

We ventured into the Medersa Ben Youssef, a former boarding school for boys, which is covered in decoration. There are whole areas of tiles in geometric patterns, borders of writings from the Koran in hand-carved plaster, archways and columns elaborately carved and fantastic woodwork in the beams and balustrades. Everywhere you look there is a different pattern and amazingly it all blends together into a harmonious whole.

Next stop was a pre-arranged visit to the carpet shop or should I say ‘emporium’. We were welcomed in and seated by the owner himself in a vast space, several storeys high, smelling faintly of wool and absolutely filled with rugs and carpets, rolled, stacked and piled to the ceiling. “A thousand carpets?” I asked, to clarify what I thought I heard.. “No, fifteen thousand carpets!” Wow!

Mint tea was brought and as we sipped and savoured, two young men unfolded fabulous carpets in a huge variety of intricate designs for our delectation. The boss regaled us with details of his wares but no prices. He started to test us by asking which ones we liked and how much we would like to pay, but it soon became obvious that we were not buying. So the young men switched to laying out throws and table covers in a rainbow of glorious colours. Much interest and temptation on our part but still no sales.

 Shopping in Marrakech is a game and usually everybody wins. The shopkeeper states his price – his so-called ‘fixed’ price. According to our tour leader, we quarter it and say that’s what we want to pay. Then the dance begins. He says that price, we say this price. He says a bit less and we say we’re not interested after all and walk away. If he really wants a sale, he pursues us down the street, decreasing the numbers all the way. We might say “Yes all right” after all, and he’s still making a healthy profit. It’s all very good natured and absolutely expected..

Our guide took us into the wholesale and manufacturing area of the Medina and we acquired a new understanding of the phrase “made by hand”. The craftsmanship is excellent, especially as the tools and methods are simple and all materials are transported by muscle power or on two wheels. The putrid smell of the tannery, the clang and clash of the metal workers with hot spots of welding, the thump and hammer of the shoemakers, the raw colours of the dyed fabric hung to dry, all create an assault on the senses. Add to that the hubbub of the people, motorbikes tooting, dust and hot sunshine.

Suddenly all is green and quiet and cool. We have stepped through an arched doorway into a garden café. The contrast is palpable and lunch is a selection of Moroccan salads or Moroccan pastries – tasty and delicious..

Contrast is everywhere… The narrow alleys open out into the main square, the Jemaa El Fna, an enormous open area, filled that Sunday night with crowds of people, whole families, strolling among the fresh orange juice wagons, the spicy aromas from the food counters, the trinket stalls, the acrobats, snake charmers and beggars. It’s a kaleidoscope of colour, smell and sound. But one old man sits very still on his low stool, eyes closed, chanting, with his hands patiently cupped, hoping for a few coins.

We took a horse and carriage trip, and our obvious enjoyment left a trail of smiles in our wake. We went trit-trotting from the organised chaos of the Medina, through the city walls, past the high ramparts of the Kings Palace where the storks roost and the Alice-in-wonderland trees of his coiffured garden, down the palm-tree lined main roads past the smart modern hotels to the haven of the Majorelle Gardens.

This beautiful calm place has every kind of palm tree, bamboo and cactus among the winding paths, pools of cool water here and there, brightly painted pots and a deep, deep blue house. It was owned by Yves Saint Laurent whose memorial sits in a quiet corner of the garden.

On our return, we went clip-clopping among the rush-hour traffic. Our two horses were quite steady, steadier than the passengers actually, surrounded by cars, bikes and buses, all going at different speeds and criss-crossing noisily at the junctions. They were cleverly controlled with a tickle of the whip to hurry up a bit and catch the green lights before they changed.

We took another trip, up a valley into the Atlas Mountains, surprisingly green along the river, where the village houses blend with the red earth of the hills. A visit to a real Berber house showed a simple life with all generations of the family living together and all mod cons, especially two steam rooms or hammams, small and beehive shaped, heated by solid fuel of some sort, one inside the house for the women and another outside for the men. Animals are stabled right by the back door.

Another flurry of haggling in the souks next morning and a certain amount of walking in circles till we orientate ourselves again and suddenly we’re up and away from the colour and contrasts of Marrakech and back to the grey and the cancelled trains of England.



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