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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - All Souk Up

The Jewish Chronicle, 6 August 2002

All souk up - Peter Moss

Peter Moss goes shopping (and sightseeing) in Marrakesh the Moroccan city that's in the pink

I travel a lot, though I guess you already know that. What's more I love every last moment of every last journey, and never mind the scorpions that only I seem to find in my tent 18,000 feet up the Andes.

Sometimes, though, it can get pretty damn tiring, and after my last three-weeker in South America I needed a change of scenery, a breather, an antidote.

Ah, Marrakesh, the perfect antidote to anything, any time. This is particularly true of Dar Moha Al Madina, the 19th-century riad (a cross between a boutique hotel and up-scale guest house) and wonderful restaurant that once was home to designer Pierre Balmain.

With its cloistered garden, billowing palms, hanging bananas, and mosaic swimming pool, it was hard to believe we were in the heart of the Medina, the old walled city of Marrakesh. It felt for all the world as though we were way out in the back of beyond - the foothills of the High Atlas perhaps, or amid the olive trees and farmland of Ouirgane.

But a climb to the riad's roof terrace soon put us right, the palaces and mosques of Marrakesh opening up before us in a panorama of living colour. The colour happened to be pink, a hue which seems to cover every last inch of this remarkable city. Pink roads, pink walls, pink roofs, pink mosques. So pink, in fact, that Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds could drive her Rolls Royce through the heart of the city in perfect camouflage.

I was in Marrakesh with my pal David - male bonding, you know the sort of thing - and we had the riad all to ourselves, which is pretty much how you book these atmospheric old town houses.

And how we basked in the serenity of the place. No phone, no papers, no e-mail - the woes of the world held blissfully at bay.

Marrakesh, though, is peaceful only when you are on the inside. Open the door and you step out into a city of joyous energy: raucous, frenetic and vibrant - and enormous fun.

The pulsating heartbeat of the city is the Djemaa El Fna, the sprawling expanse of downtown tarmac that morphs at dusk from a grand-prix circuit of taxis, scooters, horse-drawn carriages and hundreds of misguided pedestrians, into a tidal wave of jugglers, balancers, acrobats, magicians, soothsayers, storytellers, snake charmers, sword swallowers and hundreds more pedestrians - less misguided this time - as vehicles make way for a myriad street performers.

In the twinkling of an eye all transport evacuates the scene. In their place, al fresco eateries set themselves up all around the perimeter of the square; battalions of trestle tables armed and ready to feed shishlik, tajine and a score-and-more varieties of couscous to the hordes of hungry revellers. The Djemaa by day is a sight to behold. By night it is truly awesome.

David and I gloried in this unique spectacle from various vantage points, mostly of the rooftop cafe variety, where the mint tea flows like Tetley's on a wet Wisbech Wednesday.

From the Cafe Argana we gazed across the Djemaa to the ceramic-inlaid minaret of the Koutoubia. From Cafe El Badi we sat eyeballing a family of kamikaze storks who had set up home on a quite absurdly narrow ledge atop the Royal Palace walls. I've had some pretty surreal experiences on my travels, but engaging in some sort of stare-out contest, glass of tea in hand, with a great furry black-and-white thing 50 feet above Marrakesh is, I'm prepared to wager, as daft as it gets.

Even more surreal - and brave, let me tell you - is knocking back Whiskey Marocain (as the locals call mint tea) when I should have been making serious inroads into my daughter's shopping list. Lucy knows Marrakesh to the last stall, including its closing time, and she had no trouble identifying which souk would provide what merchandise.

Thus was I to work my way from Souk Btana (for sheepskin slippers) to Souk des Babouche (for pointy pink slippers) via Souk des Bijoutiers (amber necklace), Souk Cherratin (double-stitched, floral-patterned shoulder bag) and Souk Smarine (some yashmak thingy that I felt decidedly odd asking for, though trying it on certainly broke the ice).

Marrakesh's Jewish flavour is alas no longer quite as pungent as it once was. But wander through the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter beyond the Place des Ferblantiers, and ye shall find. The embers of a more haimishe time still hang over the Mellah, where the streets, enclosed and brooding, retain their distinctive and utterly beguiling air of days gone by.

Several small synagogues remain, though only a few still reverberate to the sound of prayer, and those that do are mighty hard to find, largely because they look like - and indeed are - private houses. But meander along these narrow lanes on a Friday evening and the odds are you'll spot a knitted kippah. A friendly word and you'll be welcomed with open arms to a true Moroccan Shabbat.

David and I did our Jewish bonding - after leaving the city for a week trekking in the Atlas mountains - at the Israeli-owned Riad Souika, tucked away at the end of a tiny cul- de-sac right around from the Royal Palace in the Medina's Berrima sector.

After seven days hard walking in the mountains, we thoroughly deserved the tranquillity and comfort this lovely old riad offered, from the fountain and lemon tree in the courtyard to the menorah-adorned salon. Plus we'd earned the right to gaze fondly at the mountains from the panoramic roof terrace.

Before long we were back on the streets, soaking up the rumpus. Noise starts early in Marrakesh - at four in the morning to be exact. This is when the prodigiously vocal muezzin booms his first call to prayer across the city. This sets off the roosters, which set off the dogs, which set off the rumbling dust carts (collecting or delivering, it's hard to tell), which sets off - well, think "Had Gad Ya", it's that kind of story.

Better yet, think Joe Pesci, desperate for a night's sleep, in "My Cousin Vinny." It's that kind of place.

But Marrakesh would not be Marrakesh without the prevailing din. It's a din which defines the old city. And you can forgive the city all manner of din when you stumble, as we did, on a tiny, sun-drenched, almost magically silent backwater like the heroically ramshackle La Criee Berbere, where every last inch of pavement, railing, and tin roof is draped with exotic, kaleidoscopically patterned floor coverings, a sort of al fresco Allied Carpets.

Such is Marrakesh. Dusty and colourful, boisterous yet oddly calming, a city with a warm heart and an endearing, and enduring, post-hippy vibe. All I lacked was my guitar, my love-beads, and the words to "Marrakesh Express". Now where did I put my Crosby, Stills and Nash songbook?

Peter Moss travelled with Best of Morocco Best of Morocco can also offer expert advice on sites of special Jewish interest.