Riad Urchins Faffing
Marrakech is very bamboozling. The local compass somehow swings around every few minutes, with the effect that clever people with impeccable orienteering credentials, for example, I (Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, Bronze medal, 1972) got completely lost within ten minutes of sallying forth from our snug bolt-hole for the first time. But the magnetic center of Marrakech, the Place Djemaa el-Fna, where we kept arriving after walking for several minutes in a straight line away from it, is filled with snake charmers, fortune tellers, henna tattoo artists, acrobats, amputees, potion sellers, snake oilers, red-robed water sellers, astrologers, healers, Koran-bashers, Gnaoua drummers, story tellers, beggars of all conditions, shapes and sizes, Berber musicians, moustachioed women and, in the evening, food stalls lit with kerosene lamps selling giant snails and sheep’s heads. We walked around (in circles) but did manage to find the expansive Palace el-Badi, the mystical Bahia Palace, the Saadian tombs, some of the Souks, the Majorelle Park and the Flint Museum. We stayed in a quiet and friendly riad (a boarding house) for three days in the southern Medina where breakfast and dinner were served with style on the roof, perfect for watching the resident clacking storks and doves flutter-nesting in and on the old walls and hearing the magical calls to prayer.
We took a midweek coach to Essouaira on the north west coast, following in comparative comfort what had been a hippy trail in the 1960s and 1970s. Essaouira had none of the stress that the urgent bustle in Marrakech had generated. On the first evening we wandered down to the port where the fishermen had just come in. Thousands of screeching seagulls were wheeling in the air, squabbling in large clumps by mounds of fish heads, bones and guts while bait was being prepared for the next outing. We were too early for dinner so we walked into a small enclosed beach bar packed with people drinking beer and contemplating the shortening tide. The bar and its tables were arranged to give everyone a widescreen view of the stunning Essaouira bay. It was as if we had somehow stumbled into a small arthouse cinema. I got talking to a crusty old Dutch expat who looked as if he had been there since 1968; there were pairs of shifty men huddled together, a few uneasy tourists finishing their beers quickly, and a man laconically rolling joints at the front, apparently to order. We went next door for dinner and watched the tide and the night fall across the beach as we ate fried fish. I had sea urchins for the first ever time, and will never have again since I was immediately laid low by a particularly abrupt form of food poisoning and had to spend the whole of the next day in bed, scared to move even a buttock while Alli and Gwen calmly went to the beach and sunbathed. However, Alli then fell victim to a similar complaint while Gwen sailed through, delaying her illness until she had to go back to school.
Before leaving, we all had a good dose of the afternoon Moroccan sun, a traditional do-it-yourself hammam, various types of massage, and Gwen rode a compliant camel along the beach with the semi-mythical island of Mogador providing a filmic backdrop. The island two thousand years ago provided the “royal purple” (Tyrian purple) die for Imperial Roman senatorial togas, after a Roman soldier took a walk in the hills and his dog came back with a pink-purple die all over his snout. The dog had been snuffling amongst the afore-mentioned giant snails who had been messing around creating mucus from their hypobranchial glands. After spilling a microscopic amount on my table I cannot now remove the dye from my fingers.
My health faltered for several days after we returned to Basel but the weather became intermittently cold and wet and so I was easily persuaded to stay indoors, but the month did end with some golden sunlit days. I noticed that Alli even snatched some sunbathing. We had some friends over for Sunday lunch, which featured a memorable apple crumble with custard and two little boys, scions of the McManus – French alliance. They made us realise what a toddler-unfriendly place our house had become. There was still time left in the month to spend an evening tasting wine in Hesingue, another evening celebrating Halloween with some Swiss friends, and to waste an entire afternoon faffing around in Basel failing in one way or another to do anything at all, despite a long list of required objectives. On some days it is just advisable not to emerge from the proverbial riad at all. So I suppose it’s time to begin the dark half of the year.
Yours from under the bedclothes,
Gwen, Lionel and Alli, Marrakech, October 2013