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Moon over Marrakech.

Moon over Marrakech.

It is often tricky to know quite where to pitch yourself in terms of audience knowledge base, often times resulting in writer’s block. Even with all the inspiration, structure and enjoyment of writing combined, a block can rear its ugly whatever (see), rendering a normally affluent or rather, fluid, fluent, writer somewhat flabbergasted or, flummoxed, if you follow. The point, in essence, is that even when inspired to communicate, there is a question of doubt as to how much of what you wish to express is already known and written about. Facing facts, we live in such a densely populated world, in which humankind has spent centuries thinking, talking, doing, debating and writing these thoughts, actions and consequences, that it feels like after its all over (which it ultimately is, in spite of the continuation) that there’s not much left to say. We are stymied in our quest for silence by the effervescence of creation as much as we are beleaguered yet inured and anaesthetised by information overload. Too many words, too many words.

At this point most sensible folk would have hung up their fez and gone for a stroll to the local souk to smoke a shisha and gaze at the stars. That is if they were living in Morocco, or Edgware Road.

Leaping haphazardly to an altogether different subject, partially just as an excuse to use the word haphazardly. Beat. Its easy to make art really; you just do stuff then say oh, look, this is clever because etc etc and usually at least someone will go “oh yes that’s clever because what he / she said” [sic, straight up] then the sheep thing kicks in and before you know it there’s a movement. “What was that?” Oh nothing don’t worry just a little movement. It all started when someone did something, effectively because they didn’t want to get stuck in a banal office job. Who can blame them really? A fate worse than a fate worse than death. To sit there clock watching all day, wishing one’s life away in a vain bid to avoid the slings and arrows of corporate misfortune. Art or whatever passes for art now is far more preferable to key tapping, the newfangled equivalent of pen pushing. Who says newfangled these days? Its so oldfangled. So where is all this going? No matter, it will simply be passed off as a new kind of rambling rant, termed rambling rantism and called a movement and people will say oh yes I like that etc etc. Quite why they will say etc etc is not clear. What is Latin for “I don’t speak Latin?”

Morocco has always held a fascination for me. The Berber people and their way of life, the ancient mysticism of Islam, the geometry, architecture and interiors, the food and most certainly the nature and landscape all hold immense appeal. So it was without hesitation that I agreed to climb Mount Toubkal with Skye Bond, a notable bon viveur and all round good egg. As if one good egg wasn’t enough, along came two more in the form of Sophie and Sarah and then there were four, a veritable omelette ready to take on the mosques, the souks, the High Atlas mountains, the Berbers and anything more that the Maghreb dare throw at us. We had thermal underwear and Ray Bans; what could possibly go wrong? Cue drum roll. Shoot drummer. Easy.

Flight landed early Tuesday morning and we jumped a clapped out beat up run down tin can Merc taxi with no seat belt only faith in Allah, to our riad, named Riad Dha Khmissa. Feral youths met us at the cab and instantly grabbed our bags, urchin-like porters with broken English and the same was true of their teeth. We meandered through a maze of high walled alleys, peppered with locals set to their task of either making, selling or begging. The Riad was a welcome haven in a warren of grit and grime. Inside through the low solid timber door frame, we were met with intricately carved woodwork, tadelakt plasterwork and tiles adorning walls, floors and table tops. Wrought iron furniture was scattered with gaily coloured textiles at once bridging the gap between homeliness and style. It felt almost a relief to finally be inside a proper Riad, at last witnessing the fabled funnel of light pouring down from the vaulted ceiling three floors up, to an open plan atrium style courtyard below. The doors to rooms off the courtyard were heavy, with patterned brass handles, swinging softly and giving a satisfying clunk as they shut. Logs smoldered in a hearth beneath a flue that led to the rooftop terrace. We were happy to be there and the girls were shown to their palatial first floor boudoir, whilst the gents were roundly relegated to the ground floor corner dorm. Such is life.

I repaired alone to Marrakesh town square, Djemaa el Fna, in search of nothing much save perhaps a tagine or to buy some of the leather goods they are so justly famous for. The side street to the square is like a practice run for the square itself. Here you can visit a hamam should you wish to be roasted, rubbed, scrubbed and spanked by a total stranger, or purchase a silver and glass tea set for making mint tea, or a massively oversized leather holdall that would dwarf even Dallaglio. Nestled between such delights you will also spot a butcher’s kiosk where a lad diligently hacks away at chicken and lamb carcasses that are lovingly laid out for your delectation, a blind man or seer, cap in hand, an aged lady hawking nail clippers and gaudy bangles, handmade silver jewellery, kaftans and beads and baubles and generally anything of that ilk you might wish to score. All this before you even hit the square. Hit the square is in fact inaccurate as you don’t; the square hits you. In much the same way Glastonbury hits the newbie, Djemaa el Fna accentuates the rabble, rendering even the most stoically anti-social among us part of the fray. Every evening at around dusk, stall holders light up their coals to get the brochettes sizzling and the marketplace atmosphere bubbling away, with Berbers blowing their horn pipes, acrobats flipping and contorting themselves about the place for Dirham, hustlers touting their wares. I ate lemon chicken tagine with olives on the terrace and it was just fine.

Bizarrely, in spite of this hive of activity, the city has a certain feeling of calm, perhaps due to the fact that whilst there are irascible dervishes leaping maniacally about the place, they are the minority and many, myself included, will simply sit contentedly to watch the circus of the setting sun and the rising moon over Marrakech.

Back at the ranch, we lounged on the rooftop and cast our gaze out to the Atlas mountains as the skyline faded down in shades of dusty pink and duck egg blue, low cloud hovering as if to proclaim the stature of the majestic range.

The scent of wood fires blends in the crisp early evening air with the muezzin’s raucous piped call to prayer.

For dinner, our delightful hostess pointed us in the direction of a restaurant by the name of Le Tanjia, which felt a little like a Moroccan theme park in as much as everything about it was utterly Moroccan from the hole punched lamps to the profusion of tagines on the menu to the wine list, the belly dancers and the fairly lax service.

We opted for the degustation menu for sharing, meaning you get to eat virtually every dish on the menu in miniature. Not a bad idea at all until the tagine and cous cous fatigue kicks in. Moroccan food whilst delicious doesn’t have a great deal of variety. Its basically lamb and chicken brochettes and tagines with cous cous and vegetables. Throw in lemon, olives, almonds and prunes and you’re pretty much there. As delicious as these dishes may be, our spoilt Western palettes demand more variety. Chefs, being creative souls, have spotted this gap and begun creating fusion cuisine, usually blending Moroccan and French, to arrive at what is effectively French cuisine with a Moroccan twist. This is a common and perhaps inevitable theme in countries with one dimensional cuisine where there is any French culinary historical presence. To give the French their dues, the basis and vigour of their culinary endeavours has landed them international recognition and presence. Anyway the pigeon pastilla was delicious, a small parcel of slow cooked spiced pigeon wrapped in filoux pastry and dusted with icing sugar. Other notable dishes included  the lamb tagine with prunes (always better when cooked on the bone, as this retains more moisture in the meat), the preserved lemon chicken and monkfish in lemon sauce. We quaffed chilled Poire William, a delightful eau de vie made from  Sweet William pears, which Skye informs me is pronounced Willy Arm as opposed to Will I Am so try not to order up a Black Eyed Pea if you can help it.

In the next instalment you will read about our ascent to the summit of Mount Toubkal, an epic tale of derring-do, guaranteed to slake even the most avaricious literary bounty hunter’s thirst. …or not perhaps.

    2 Comments

  1. This is wonderful writing! And the photography is equal to it. Thanks for it. I would be interested to be led more deeply into the background of the culture – to get a feel for how people live there really with more detail as to what was being served up to you. The humour is great. Looking forward to more.

    • Thank you for your kind words Alex, I hope you enjoyed the articles that followed. Sadly we didn’t have a lot of time to spend with the locals to get a true feel for the culture, as this was primarily a climbing expedition.

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