Open City

Marrakech
September 2014

My mother told me to never accept gifts from strangers. So, why in the world did I take the cookie from the man near the Koutoubia Mosque without thinking there’s a catch? “It’s from La Mamounia,” the city’s famously exclusive hotel, he tells me. I take a bite. “Thirty-five,” he then says. My smallest change is a fifty dirham note. “Can you make change?” I ask.

The man hands me a one euro coin and a fifty-cent piece. That’s three and a half euros for a small lemon cookie. That’s about four dollars. An expensive cookie.

Compared to the claustrophobic Fes medinas, Marrakech is an open city. When I got off the bus from Merzouga last night, the taxi set me down in the middle of the chaos of the Jemaa el-Fna — part street circus, part Las Ramblas, all pandemonium — on a Friday night. I thought I knew where I was going. And I almost made it to my hotel without asking. I was only off by half a block. A man near another hotel “directed” me. My smallest bill was twenty dirham. He acted as if it was Christmas as he hurried away with it.

Despite being adjacent to the Jemaa, Le Gallia is refined and surprisingly sleepable. It’s French in spirit, with a flowery courtyard and a fluffy white cat surveying the proceedings. That’s good because I’ll need the peace and quiet after a long day in the souks.

I thought I had the way mapped out, but I was wrong. Unlike in Fes, where there’s only two main routes, both of which are hard to stray from, the Marrakech souks weave in and out and go in every direction. Signs overhead are misleading. At one point they direct me toward two locations that are supposed to be in opposite directions. And the vendors are more pushy here than in Fes. David Abraham, I miss you.

Ben Youssef Medersa

Ben Youssef Medersa

The jewel of the northern medina is the Ben Youssef complex, with a fine mosque, an ancient koubba (a small, domed building that was once part of a mosque), the Marrakech Museum, and the Ben Youssef medersa. The medersa is the finest I’ve seen thus far. It has a long courtyard with a pool at the center, which was created with an optical effect that makes it look deeper at one end, when actually it isn’t. There’s also a large prayer hall at the far end of the courtyard, and a pair of two-story pavilions along each side that at the medersa’s peak housed more than 800 students in its tiny cells.

Nearby, the Marrakech Museum is a marvel of art and cultural items. Its main feature is a covered courtyard with an opaque ceiling that bathes the space in a muted amber glow. Along each side there are rooms displaying exhibits. In addition to relics from the Berber region, such as clothing, knives, jewelry, and woodwork, there also is some good contemporary art.

I’m hopelessly off track in some kind of local’s only souk.I won’t bore you with my sojourn past the smelly tanneries to the medina’s eastern gate. Only, if one more hustler tries to give me directions, I’m probably going to punch him.

Fresh from the souks, I go to the artisinal market near the Jemaa to look at carpets and crafts. The prices are fixed here, so at least you can get a sense of what you should pay for comparable goods when you’re haggling in the souks. I buy a nice red rug for about seventy dollars. I’m not going to look at it again until I get home, so I won’t decide I hate it.

Northern SouksAfter some shopping, I hit the souks in search of one of two restaurants I saw earlier today. Of course it is dark now, so I can’t find them. I end up getting hopelessly off track in some kind of locals-only souk. It is another half hour before I am back in the Jemaa, dodging some overly pushy food stall touts, one of whom actually grabs me. They want me to sit with other tourists, but I’d rather go where the Moroccans eat.

Or so I thought. I’m sitting in this cafe now, off the Jemaa. There’s lots of Moroccans here, but I’ve just realized they are only having coffee. My beef brochettes are tough, but the potato-carrot-green bean vegetables are nice, and half the plate is salad. It’s fine people watching, though. There are teenage boys hitting on girls, who rush by to avoid them. I just saw a bald, middle-aged man with angel wings, looking anything but, trying to sell these glow-in-the-dark toys. Every now and then someone comes up to try to sell me something.

In the cafe, there’s a black mother cat leading her kitten on a scavenger mission. The kitten keeps climbing up on the menu board to get at something and then getting shooed away by the waiters. At one point, one of the waiters grabs the kitten and drops it down and kicks at it to go away. The next time it climbs up there, he just lets it be, although the kitten does avoid him just in case. That may be because a pair of European tourists have just sat down — a mother and teenage daughter. Tourists hate it when you are unkind to animals.

Back at Le Gallia, there’s no real view from the rooftop terrace. I’m lounging here and plotting a better day among the palaces tomorrow. I’m feeling a bit groggy, and I’m out of bottled water. Hope we’re not getting to the part where not taking care of myself comes back to bite me.

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