Marrakech

 

There's something about the frenetic glamour of Marrakech that just shakes
out your inner hippy. You can't help it. You get off the plane in the
designer shades and the nearest Emma Hope can offer to practical footwear
looking like a well, if not particularly sensibly-heeled, traveller - and
then, suddenly - you come over all winsome Kate Winslett in tie-dyed
cheesecloth.
Ever since I saw the film Hideous Kinky, based on Esther Freud's book of the
same name about her experiences growing up in Marrakech, I've had a yearning
for a trustfund and an exotic childhood. Forget that I grew up in a bungalow
in Blackburn and that my only holiday abroad until the age of fifteen was a
Girl Guide's trip to Amsterdam - in full official uniform, with, I add
proudly, an arm full of badges including that of Hostess.
In Marrakech you're not a middle class matron on a mini-break. You're
really a laid-back free spirit in a long embroidered frock and an ankle
bracelet, with your hair snaking across your face like an untamed cobra, and
an intrepid mother who dragged you off to North Africa for a thrilling young
life full of Eastern Promise. Iit's enough to make you kick off the kitten
heels and slip into your flip-flops - to throw away the lipstick and the
curling tongs, and let yourself go native in the 'real' Morocco.
But this is a particularly ironic notion when you're staying at La Mamounia
- the big, fat maraschino cherry on the cup cake of Marrakech's luxury
hotels. Whatever else you do in the punishingly expensive, plush Art Deco
meets Alhambra bedrooms - when you're breakfasting on your balcony
overlooking the lush gardens, you certainly won't be roughing it.
Of course there are budget travellers - trekkers and African over-landers,
with plenty of the cheaper sort of accommodation that caters for them,
mostly East of Rue de Bab Agnaou. Furthermore, since Morocco and
particularly Marrakech is the most exotic place you can get to in the
shortest possible time - it is a popular European weekend destination so
there is something to suit every pocket. Imagine, only three and a half
hours from London and you're on the road to Timbuktu a stone's throw from
the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.
However, there's no escaping the hard cash fact that Marrakech is exactly
the sort of place where the rich and famous go to play at being barefoot
bohemians in authentic ethnic surroundings, albeit in luxurious seclusion
with a dedicated staff of ten. Riads - converted homes and palaces
containing a select number of bedrooms and private apartments, often
surrounding a private swimming pool, have become the residence of choice for
moneyed travellers to Marrakech. Most riads come with their own army of
staff rendering a number of essential services such as that of ladies maid
or private masseuse and can be rented in their entirety for you and your
posse, or by the room for those with no mates - or at least those whose
mates have insufficient dosh to sign the credit card slip.
So where does the happy hippy come in? Where is it exactly, when you're
polishing up your Visa card to pay for it all, that you get carried away
with the whole 'let's go native, buy a toe ring, and pretend I'm a
back-packer' moment?
Well, naturally, it's the square that does it - the Djeema el-Fna that
fronts the writhing labyrinth of souqs that curl and intertwine around the
shadowy, narrow streets behind. Like a scene straight out of Indiana Jones,
this is the teeming Kasbah of your imagination, except that it's not just a
manufactured magnet for overly romantic touristas in kitten heels. Go
off-season - if there is such a thing in Marrakech - and you'll find locals
enjoying the weird and wonderful sights with the same enthusiasm as the
gawping foreigners.
And there's a lot to see, from blue-eyed Berber acrobats, jugglers, both
expert and inept, and asbestos tongued fire-eaters, to the kind of care in
the community people that, in the West, usually sit next to me on buses,
talking to themselves. It's all here - from the bizarre to the benignly
barking - they're all spread out in a smorgasbord of street life.
In daylight, the square is merely set to simmer, but at night it explodes
with energy. Dusk is the time to aim for. The place is shrouded in smoke
rising from the fires of the food vendors ranked along the edges cooking
everything from wrung-out glassy-eyed chickens trussed up by their feet and
just a skewer away from dinner, to whole sheep rotating lazily on a spit.
Frenzied drummers accompany male belly dancers that, over their Western
style jeans and t-shirts, don the full Turkish-delight regalia and gyrate
gleefully for their mostly-male audience. For a woman to dance in public
would be the social and moral kiss of death, so good-natured Drag offers the
closest approximation. Or that's what they tell themselves while they're
clasping hands and dancing.
The pungent aroma of roasting meat, cut with the sharp citrus scents from
the pyramids of oranges, mixes with the smell of charcoal and kerosene until
your eyes water. Fortune-tellers and henna artists crouch on low stools in
the midst of the boiling crowds, story tellers orate and flamboyant water
sellers pose for photographs, and then - of course - there are the
ubiquitous turbaned snake charmers waggling their ropey cobras in your face
like grubby old men in raincoats as you skirt past them.
Hands grab at you, voices entreat you, elbows jostle you and fingers pinch
you. It's like being in the Thriller video without the zombies - unless you
count the dazed tourists carefully clutching their wallets. Crossing the
square as night falls is the tourist's equivalent of a Bushtucker trial in
I'm a Hapless Foreigner Get Me Out of Here, where you run the gauntlet of
every possible street hawker and bewhiskered Antipodean in four wheel,
all-terrain, trekking sandals that you might ever hope to come up against in
your life. And if you manage to reach the souqs at the other end you are
rewarded with the grand prize of a lurid nylon djellaba, with tassels.
The souqs are brimming with every possible combination of Wee Willie Winkie
wear that you could possibly imagine. You'll also find more than enough
glass, ceramics and soft furnishings to turn your terrace into a themed
Moroccan palace, albeit without the accompanying genuflecting servant in a
Fez who - let's face it - would get a few odd looks pushing the trolley
round Waitrose at the weekend. Yes there is tourist tat, but there are also
countless things to buy, with prices rising exponentially according to
quality. And though the merchants can be, by turn, beguiling and aggressive,
there's always the chance of witnessing two Macho Arab men giving an
impromptu duet along with a Celine Dion song, blasting from their stall.
I'll never think of The Power of Love in quite the same way ever again.
But it can be relentless and exhausting. By the time you've braved the
square and the souqs a couple of times and stocked up on Djellabas - or
dodged the traffic while visiting the twin must sees of the Palais el Badi
and Palais de la Bahai for luxury living - Sultan style - your inner hippy
starts longing to hang up her bangles and throw in the, warm fluffy, bath
towel .
You think - I don't want another person to touch me unless their name begins
with Brad or Keanu. I don't want to drink fresh orange juice squeezed by a
man in a night-gown no matter how authenitc it is, or to ever see a chicken
again unless it's shrink wrapped in a supermarket. The henna tattoo on your
hands starts to look suspect as it begins to fade, Djellabas, quite frankly,
make you look like Demis Roussos and the humidity does nothing for you hair
and makes you long for a secret fix of the Carmen rollers. You get fed up
being mobbed by crowds of little boys trying to sell you matches, and begin
to wonder just what kind of flaky, feckless woman would bring her kid to
live in Marrakech when there are cosy places like Milton Keynes beckoning
with open arms. Esther Freud can keep her hideous kinky childhood and
anyway - I don't have the waterwings to impersonate Kate. Maybe I'll just
stick with the Marrakech for pampered softies and the stilettos who love
them, thank you very much.
This is when you're glad you're staying at La Mamounia. You stop wondering
why, in the deep of Morocco, at the very gateway of Africa where Arab meets
Berber, the bar is tricked out to look like a 1920s jazz club, or why the
ballroom looks like it belongs on an ocean liner, and you just get yourself
in there and order an, admittedly not great, vodka martini . And for the
next day and each successive day of your holiday, you prostrate yourself by
the pool and join the entire work force of the hotel in wondering why the
breasts of the woman on the sun bed next to you, don't move as much as a
millimetre when she lies flat on her back. Those twin peaks point
unflinchingly upwards like the High Atlas and the hotel staff, to a man,
watch them like lemmings. Very 'Hideous Kinky'
But at least it means the waiter always comes over when you order a drink.