I have travelled this half term. No, I don’t mean Disneyland, waterslides or eat-till-you-pop all-inclusive buffets. I mean exposing yourself to a different culture in an almost violent way – the kind of travel you can’t do with children.
My husband and I (guiltily) left our children with their grandparents at our home and skulked off in the middle of the night to Gatwick – heading for one of the most exotic places on the planet.
By the time we arrived in Marrakech – three and a half hours later – we’d (nearly) forgotten that we’d ever had a child, never mind three. From the plane, the ochre-hued city set against the parched backdrop of the sub-Saharan desert hinted at the culture shock ahead.
Maps are futile
The airport bus deposited us in the madness of every day life and we quickly realised the futility of a tourist map. We would probably still be looking for our riad (hotel) if I hadn’t accepted some local ‘guide’s’ ‘generous’ offer of showing us the way, to my husband’s dismay.
We snaked our way past locals in kaftans and headscarves crowding in doorways and around street shops and trolleys, selling anything from toiletries, sweets, spare parts for motorbikes, raw meat, jewellery and spices to the ubiquitous flatbreads, that accompany every Moroccan meal. The smell of burning meat skewered over open fires mixed with the stench of overflowing drains and bins to welcome us to what would be our home over the next few days.
Our little oasis
The Riad El Noujoum became our lovely oasis from the scorching African sun and sensory overload, located within the medina or old Arab town, which is still enclosed and separated from the modern European part of the city by high salmon-coloured walls. We had the first of many pots of fresh mint tea and Moroccan pastries at a mosaic-tiled table in the courtyard of our hotel, overlooking a tiny pool. Our room featured typical Moroccan décor and lampshades and a stunning black marble bathroom with walk-in shower. No Disney channel, no television and Wifi only really worked from the rooftop terrace, but we didn’t care.
The pulse of the old town
The throbbing pulse of the old town is the Jemaa el Fna – a huge square, maddening at every hour, but which really comes alive after sunset when locals and tourists flood the area like swarms of locusts on their way in and out of the surrounding souks (markets) and restaurants.
It is the kind of place where you need all your wits about you. Roads become meaningless as speeding mopeds, cars, cyclists, donkey carts and horse carriages swerve through crowds of people, narrowly averting fatal accidents every few seconds. The thought of negotiating your way across this square with three children in tow is enough to make the most easygoing of mums reach for a gin and tonic.
Traditional Arabic storytellers hold their audiences spellbound – even if you don’t understand a word. Monkeys hop from shoulder to shoulder, flute players entice dancing snakes to rise from baskets and acrobats and other performers thrill the crowds. Beware the tourist who tries to take a photograph of this spectacle – as nothing is free in Marrakech!
We learned this the hard way as a street hawker offered each of us a glass of ‘free’ ginger tea and sticky mud-like spice cake before charging us a small fortune. At least we got to take a picture of him!
Arab and Western culture side-by-side
The call to prayer broadcast from mosques and traditional Arabic music contrast with booming pop music to create a background track to the madness, but the most memorable sound of the trip remain the honking of motorbikes slicing their way through the crowds.
From a rooftop terrace we watched Muslim men line their little mats for the afternoon prayer ritual in front of the square’s mosque against the backdrop of flashing tourist cameras and fast-food restaurants. The juxtaposition of traditional Arabic culture and Western ways is evident in every part of the city, but appears to co-exist in some sort of chaotic harmony.
A never-ending Aladdin’s cave
Entering the labyrinth of souks spilling over with collection upon collection of lampshades, carpets, shoes, handbags, belts, and colourful mountains of spices, silver jewellery – is an overwhelming experience. The never-ending Aladdin’s cave is every woman’s shopping dream come true, but the aggressive hawking and necessary haggling is hard work.
By the end of our trip my husband and I had perfected a good cop, bad cop routine, whereby I would first avoid all eye contact, ignoring any advances – then once I’d identified a potential purchase I’d show some interest and my husband would take over and stomp off in disgust a few times before settling on a much reduced price.
Scrubbed clean in a hammam
My husband is not quite the spa-type and has never had a massage, so I was surprised when he agreed to experience a hammam with me. A bit of sunstroke probably.
Two women splashed us with numerous buckets of water, covered us in a gooey plant extract and then scrubbed us down with something akin to sandpaper, before giving each of us a full-body four hand massage. As we lay sipping mint tea, covered in white robes and glowing from head to toe afterwards, my husband could not stop grinning.
Eating in Morocco
Despite the heat and slightly unsettled tummies, we enjoyed numerous rooftop meals consisting of spicy vegetarian soup (harira), tagines of chicken and stewed fruit or chicken and lemon, skewered meat, couscous topped with vegetables, a spicy tomato-based salad and homemade yoghurt or slices of orange splashed with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon for desert. All of this was washed down with litres of Fanta, freshly squeezed orange juice or mint tea – you can’t get alcohol in any restaurants or shops, which made for a sobering experience in itself as Chardonnay usually features strongly on our holidays.
Although the children were always on our minds and we love spending time with them, we really enjoyed exposing ourselves to a different culture in a way that was out of our comfort zone. This week I returned to the school run routine revitalised and inspired, vowing to book at least one weekend away a year just for us.