The Ballards - Marrakech


We managed to get a January (2015) flight to Marrakech from Stansted for less than the cost of the petrol to get to, and the car parking at, Stansted Airport. Amazing....

You know you're outside the uber-sanitised world of the EU when you disembark from your EasyRyanbe jet at Marrakech airport and watch a Royal Air Maroc ATR72 twin turboprop reversing itself off the stand and turning itself round using beta mode.
Everywhere I've ever seen in the EU and USA they use a tug to do this but here they actually trust the pilot not to hit anything.
The scene in "Airplane" where Leslie Neilsen puts his 747 in to reverse gear (with genuine gearbox crunching sound to boot) was playing through my mind.

Everyone thinks "Marrakech" and immediately hums "Marrakesh Express" by Crosby, stills and Nash ("All on board, that train....") but actually a more appropriate tune is "The Fez" by Steely Dan because yes, people really do wear them (even in 2015, after all those Tommy Cooper "just like that" jokes....).

It's a medieval city: that's obvious from the narrow medina roads you enter the moment you approach the centre. These roads are far too narrow for cars.... so they drive down them anyway. A dizzying array of local and tourist pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, cars, taxis and minibuses drive on random sides of the roads, missing each other by millimetres.
Or sometimes not: we witnessed one road accident and there are apparently huge numbers, often involving mopeds and life-changing orthopaedic injuries......

Riad Hikaya appears as just one more door in a blank wall. Because of the heat and the press on the streets the houses and Riads look inwards, based around a central light well, and present a blank face to the street.

Opening the front door reveals a Hobbit-like warren of small, dark but beautifully decorated rooms. The staff look after us like old friends and cannot do too much for us. I cannot over-praise the Riad, it's quite the most luxurious small hotel I have ever stayed in.


Venturing out from your Riad womb the contrast is immediate: the hustle and bustle of the street starts steps from your door with over-enthusiastic salesmen offering guides, restaurants, crafts, everything.
To a Western mind this is poor marketing: we are not used to being hassled and find it hard to deal with. Eventually we learn to treat any offer, regardless of content, with a cheery "got one already, thank you!" They're only doing their job, and some of what they have to offer is very good.

One thing we did try at the Café Clock (all round excellence) was a camel burger: these guys are definitely worth at least one visit and they are trying to popularise camel meat as a healthier alternative to beef.

The driving..... ah, the driving.
It's madness. Even on the 6-lane divided major roads surrounding the cente of the city people habitually drive mopeds the wrong way down the side or the centre of the road. Mopeds go everywhere, ignore all traffic signs and are often grossly overloaded. Yes, it is possible to carry a bed on your head as a passenger on a moped. Seeing 3 people on a Honda 50 is common. We even see a souped-up Disability scooter used like an electric moped.
We saw many, many youths on mopeds driving at 3 times a safe-ish speed (or what Douglas Adams would describe as 3R). We watched traffic policeman idly watching kids on mopeds riding the wrong way down the road. Many women drive in full veil: how do they see where they're going?

We saw two women walking across the 6-lane highway with traffic tearing by them in front and behind, not looking at the traffic at all, smiling and laughing at us watching them horrified from the pavement expecting a sickening thud and screech any moment.....

Longer-distance travel is handled by a huge homogeneous fleet of yellow Mercedes 240D taxis. At some point in 1974 Mercedes must have done a deal, and now it has become self-perpetuating because all the local mechanics know how to fix 1974 Mercedes 240Ds and nothing else! One morning a pavement-side mechanic had the front axle off, the Merc up in blocks on the pavement. By the evening it was fixed and re-assembled.

Every 10th shop is a Honda 50 mechanic with the ability to perform major crash and engine rebuild-type repairs. And they're busy, often down on their haunches working on 5 or 6 mopeds at once. All their tools are universally beautifully arranged in racks in the back of the shop.
I like to see good tool organisation: anyone who has ever done any serious mechanicking knows the value of organised tools. A lot of efficient mechanicking is down to logistics: if you have the right tool, it's next to you and you know how to use it you can be far more effective than if you take 30 mins to undo one screw or 10 minutes looking fo rthe right spanner....

In many other shops are artisans making real things, not just for tourists, but for actual use: handmade metal sinks, gates, doors, hinges, tools, leather. The craftsmanship in metal and wood and leather is often superb. Maybe this is the place to get my favourite dream project - wheeled leather pilot bags - manufactured?


There are distressing beggars: we even saw one man in a wheelchair with a bleeding stump leg.To this day I dont know if it really was blood, or tomato Ketchup.

Islam is a religion struggling with the effects of The Pill: the liberating effect of the control they may effect upon their own fertility is causing subterranean tremors in a society where women are cloistered. How long will increasingly educated women accept a subservient role in society? All over the Middle East they are finding the trouble is that educating women is a one way road to them demanding equal rights incompatible with the traditional Islam male primacy doctrine. There will be trouble ahead.
Morocco is a traditional society: like Britain in the 1960s young men socialise with each other as do women: we saw very few girlriend and boyfriends, but this is changing. Give them 30 years and they'll be like our kids.

We came across the Moroccan fascination with decorating absolutely every flat surface (and many curved ones) in Moroccan fashion. Where else would you see decorated electric plugs?


We saw the Yves St Laurent Foundation garden which was a pleasant surprise. Rather a lot of pastel blue, rather too much Art Deco, why is he so revered?


We also visited the Mamounia hotel, frequented by Winston Churchill, nicely redone. Tea. Many wealthy Frenchmen, much Botox in evidence...

Morocco is a land of cheap labour: it is possible to get more or less anything made and the craftsmanship is often superb, but it is usually cheaper to get someone to do something than it is to use a machine, unlike the West where the opposite is true.
So you get degrees of decoration on objects perceived to be important (like palaces) that would be considered extreme by Western standards.

Every night the main Jemaa el-Fnaa square comes alive as they assemble restaurants across the whole square, then cook the most delicious street food.
As usual, Nessa ignored the touts trying to corral us to poor quality restaurants and managed to find us one that didn't poison us - the food was very good and cooked fresh. Worth venturing out for.

Morocco is rapidly headed in the EU direction.
A recent Open Skies agreement underlines the closeness it feels towards the EU, if not necessarily to Spain, it's nearest neighbour, who owns numerous small chunks of land on the North coast of Morocco including the enclave of Ceuta, blowing huge underwater holes in its argument that Gibraltar be returned to them from the UK.....
But it's civilised, well-policed and modern. The electricity and water work, the drains work and despite reported corruption and mis-management it all seems to work OK. Moroccans seem happy, pleased to see you and willing to work hard to get on.
We'll go back and see the rest of the country one day.