I believe the best holidays are based on experiences rather than sights and I can really see that. I’m probably a little odd but my own favourite moments have been the holidays where I’ve felt challenged and maybe seen something that most other package tourists wouldn’t. Its always better in a memory and at the time it can even feel threatening.
I think the journey from an airport is a real insight into any city – before you get to the manicured bit – and in Marrakech it is certainly true. It’s only about 20 minutes to the Medina but within a few hundred yards a scooter goes the wrong way around a roundabout, a drunk tries to get in the taxi with us and cyclists perform a display-team interleaving trick at a crossroads.
Prejudices and values are put to the test. The transport stops by the roadside in a shabby commercial street and the driver struggles to find the phone number of the hotel. We are persuaded to put our luggage in a handcart and we are then led down increasingly narrow alleyways and into a doorway. 50 yards along a dimly lit passageway we come to another big doorway and inside that… a beautiful palace that was our accommodation. Incidentally I watched a couple of British tourists arrive just as we were going out for the evening. They had been persuaded to follow a “guide” to an excellent place to eat and were clearly nervous about going through the door until we gave reassurances.
The markets are Dickensian with beggars, performers, stallholders touting for your business and lots of people trying to make a quick Dirham by being your guide. We took a while to adjust to a world where we were surrounded by people wanting to provide us with services without us realising it and then expecting payment. We’re just not used to it – hundreds of people wanting your money and willing to work for it. There is many a retailer in the UK who would love to have staff as keen and as knowledgeable.
From a food perspective we plenty of pigeon pastilla and some wonderfully fragrant and deep flavoured tagines. The mint tea was everywhere and there always seemed to be a man with a teapot on a tray taking it somewhere urgently. The French tea houses were a fascinating interpretation with flies and currants trading resting places in the heat. The almonds were fabulous.
Talking to people subsequently I have had it described as “threatening” and “dangerous”. Statistically it is actually a very safe place to be but its full of images which we associate with risk; we routinely treat smiling helpful faces as suspicious. Walking along narrow dimly lit alleyways at night is normally to be avoided. We are also constrained by language. There’s that awkward situation where you wish you had a neat Arabic or French phrase to get you out of trouble but there’s not time.
Months later and I’m still thinking over some of the sights and situations. Yes, we sat in the sun on a roof terrace but we also had a freshly made avocado and almond juice with a fabulous cheese and vermicelli “scone”, honed our French day by day, and deliberately got lost in the souks just to see what we would stumble upon. The main souk was extraordinary -a place where I genuinely got lost on a number of occasions and stumbled across meetings and stalls selling some very strange items. To get the best from a holiday always eat the local specialities, visit places which don’t speak English, have a look down the side streets and stay patient with a smile on your face.