Somewhere between last Christmas, my birthday and New Year, Louveteau decided that it was time for me to explore an Arab country. For some reason, he was sure that I would say no. Out of principle, I said yes. On impulse, we took last moment Transavia/ Easy Jet tickets (which costed us like Air France Paris-Rio one way) and soon after were queuing at the immigration service at Menara airport.
Fast forward: getting in Morocco was much easier than getting out (at least to me on my lavish Russian passport – who could have thought! Louveteau had to showcase his entire passport collection to enter). To leave this beautiful place, we had to gather all possible stamps, which would be a very powerful impression on its own but was overshadowed for me by the separate lines for luggage scan for men and women.
Here is France, Marrakesh is considered to be very exotic, very popular and very chic. Going there makes you a world traveler with an adventurous halo. It is a different continent, – tell all French with the meaning suggesting that Morocco is at least five timezones away (in reality, it is 3h flight and one timezone away from Paris). “The Red City”, “The Ocher City”, “The Daughter of the Desert”: Marrakesh has a long list of fluted nicknames, all praising its riads, palaces, mosques and gardens.
Ok, technically speaking, it is a different continent, but to me, Marrakesh felt like a faded (and miniature) version of Istanbul. Like in Istanbul, there are palaces, but mostly empty inside or renovated into fancy hotels. There is a market, souk, with lamps of all sizes in all metals and shoes of all the colors of the rainbow in all possible combinations. The souk of Marrakesh is the largest in Morocco but it is just a fraction of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, even without The Spice Market (there is no cool jewelry, either). There are, of course, mosques, but nothing like the Blue Mosque of Istanbul. There is a central square close to the biggest mosque, but it does not have Istanbul’s good-natured roam. The merchants of Jemaa el-Fnaa, UNESCO heritage place since 1985 (!), are way too aggressive (and have snakes, at which you are not even allowed to look without paying). There are cats, many and loved, but even the cats in Istanbul were friendlier and happier.
A couple additional common reference points between Marrakesh and Istanbul. Both used to be (then lose it, then be again) the capitals of their respective empires but their statuses were gone along with that of the empires. (Marrakesh is probably the most famous city in Morocco but only the fourth largest, after Casablanca, Fes and Tangier. Yet, the capital of the country is Rabat, something that I did not know before.) Shopping malls are the centers of civilization in both cities compared by popularity maybe only to mosques.
Like in Istanbul, there is great food, even though of a different kind. Our favorites are posh, slightly mysterious Azar for dinner and Le Grand Cafe de la Poste, a kill-for European cuisine with a gentle kiss of Orient in a lavish decadent setting, for lunch. If I lived in Marrakesh, I would definitely become a regular.
And yes, Marrakesh is all red, and there is a certain charm around it, but so is Roussillon in France. But there is no Bosphorus with its stunning views, no Olympus hill like oligarch-populated Bebek and no water reservoirs in general excepts for the swimming pools of the hotels.
What Istanbul (and most places in the world) does not have, however, is the desert.
It was the first time I explored the desert, and I was in awe. Tucked in a gentle sky at the bottom of the Atlas mountains, so calm and so pure, the desert is a striking contrast to the swirling noisy city with its constant traffic (a loose term for cars, people, carts and horses), sporadic attempts to buy and sell here and there, ongoing arguments over the taxi prices and persistent attempts of self-appointed guides.
The desert was amazing. I mean, just look at it. The camels, fully conscious of the magnificence of the place they belong to, did not hurry to carry us to our destination: a Berber village to enjoy simple, presumably authentic Moroccan food: pancakes and tajine pots with vegetables and meat. Of course, with a sweet mint tea served afterwards (and Coca-Cola meanwhile). I petted the next camel in the caravan on the way, scratching behind his velvet ear, and played with the caravan’s baby which was following us. After lunch (another hour back on camels to make 4 km to the camp) we went out on quads.
The promised fair warning about quads: quads do that! They turn. This is exactly what happened to me (fortunately, after 1,5 hours of racing, so I did have a lot of fun) at one not very fortunate dusty turn. The quad landed on my back (and on my hands): the move which was supposed to send me directly to the hospital, only that the nearest one was two hours away (and, as we learnt after another one hour and a half of waiting, there was no doctor to see me.) We called the hotel, changed the hospital after their recommendation and finally got all the checks, scans, long awaited shots of painkillers and some heaps of prescriptions. Next day, we returned to change my bandage and to correct some insurance papers that we overlooked the day before (it then took Louveteau less that one month to cash them out in Switzerland, and around half a year for me to do the same in France). This time, as regular customers, we got the service for free. Later in Paris, every time I was telling my story to a looong line of French doctors, nurses and insurance agents, everyone was saying, ah quads, of course, they do it! They turn. And told me some horror stories to show how lucky I was, of course. Many of my colleagues reacted the same way. Quads turn, of course, that’s how the world works. Ah, really? Why no one told me that before I got on one?
As much as I was put off by the Jemaa el-Fnaa square, I warmed up by the people in the desert – and at the hospital. Berbers were very sincere in having us over for lunch. The kids gave us simple food along with shy smiles and a few English words they knew. There was no feeling of being served and no trace of tourism. For a moment, it really felt as if we were invited to a family table. Everyone was very peaceful, direct opposite from people in the city. Time seemed to slow down and flow, gleaming under the rays of the desert sun reaching us through the clouds. People working at the hospital were super nice as well. Jokes, empathy, willingness to help (except for a nasty receptionist, but I guess that’s part of the job description). It was Sunday, and the head of the clinic stayed with us until 9 pm, to make sure we are all set with the papers and are clear on how to live from now on. That warmed my heart. In some Eastern European countries that could have happened as well, but in the civilised West, God forbid.
So these are my notes on Morocco, with good and bad. I thought I should inspire you to visit the desert in case you go to this part of the world and to pet the camels behind their velvet ears. And warn you about quads, of course.