Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Marrakech Souks and Gardens

We've found it! The best hotel yet. Thanks to the Rough Guide we booked the Hotel Gallia. It's a beautiful little hotel based around two tiled courtyards near the Djema el Fna. It's cheap, clean, warm and joy of joys: there is a bathtub! The staff are warm and welcoming and always on hand. They speak French and English. It is bliss after the rather grim and cold Hotel Terminus last night.

I get up early to check out the dyers' souk at 6.30am – like the guide books say – but it must be too close to the Festival of the Sheep; everything is closed and dark. Never mind. I go to a hammam around the corner. This one is called Hammam Polo and I have to go upstairs to the women's section. It is pretty basic with only two taps for hot and cold, not a nice 'Roman' basin like the hammam in Fes. Someone should do a 'good hammam' guide.

Afterwards I'm ravenous and have breakfast in the courtyard of the Hotel Gallia with two women from London, one an Australian and one from South Africa. (I promised Richard he could lie-in as long as he wanted). The breakfast is bliss. Fresh squeezed orange juice, lemon for my tea, honey with croissants and fresh bread and 'Moroccan crepes'. Yay, Hotel Gallia!

Richard is up by 10.00 and I sit with him while he has his breakfast on the sunny roof terrace which I discovered after a little explore. At 11.30 we get a petit taxi to the Jardins Majorelle, one of the must-see sights of Marrakech. These gardens, created over several decades by French artist Jacques Majorelle, are a stunning visual feast. The green of the bamboo, palms and shrubs contrasts beautifully with planters painted in cobalt blue, turquoise and lemon yellow.

After that it's back to the souk for another attempt to find the dyers' souk. This time the souk is packed with people doing last minute shopping and we find the dyers' souk. Colourful skeins of yarn glow in the sunlight slanting through the reed roof. There are necklaces, tassels, garments, all in jewel-like colours. We stop at a paint and spice shop and the owner shows us the jars of powder used to colour plaster for walls.

Back in the Djema el Fna we rent yesterday's Independent (a British newspaper) for 10 dh and have a coffee and salad on a terrace overlooking Marrakech's most lively square. It is glorious in the sunshine, almost warm.

A quick stop back at the hotel to freshen up and then we are back to the Djema el Fna to hire a calech (horse-drawn carriage) to take us to the Palmerie, the closest thing to an oasis we will get to see. We agree a price for the two hour round trip (250 dh) and set off through busy pre-holiday traffic. Our driver Said wears a sombrero and sometimes I think I am in a Western. After negotiating hellish traffic of buses, huge trucks, mopeds and people with sheep in wheelbarrows we reach the outskirts. There seems to be a knife sharpener on every corner, making his stone wheel spin with a foot pedal as sparks fly off the razor-sharp blades of knives. Everywhere is the bleating of sheep and rams as people lead them off home.

Finally we reach the relative tranquility of the Palmerie, which turns out to be an expensive residential area of houses with walled gardens. And some palm trees. If Chella in Rabat was an amazing revelation, this place is a bit of a letdown. Never mind. We stop at the 'Caravanserie' and take a photo of two camels and have mint tea in the weakening afternoon sun. Tomorrow is the Festival of the Sheep when we will have an unforgettable experience but for now we carpe the diem.

[This trip was to research Roman Mystery 14, The Beggar of Volubilis.]

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