The taxi turned through a sand coloured gate in a sand coloured wall, taking us into the Marrakech Medina. We drove through streets barely wider than the taxi, finally coming to a halt at a dead end. The driver got out and led me through the stifling heat and bustling, djellaba wearing crowds into alleys where my nostrils were assailed by a barrage of odours – fish, cinnamon, freshly baked bread, sewers and rotting vegetables registered in quick succession.
We turned into a tunnel so devoid of light I could barely see where my feet were falling. Beneath a low archway and into another pitch black tunnel before reaching an ornate door on which a brass plaque announced Riad Merstane. Stepping into the perfumed silence I felt as if I’d fallen through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia, and after settling with the taxi driver and closing the door behind him, I considered the possibility of not going through it again until my flight home.
Less than four flying hours and a sun filled universe away from the bleak UK winter, Marrakech has long presented an exotic short break getaway option, until that is, a bomb exploded in the Café Argana in April 2011 killing 17 people, many of them foreign tourists. The effect on tourism was immediate and devastating. Six months on, Marrakech was still paying the price for that bomb and for the instability of its North African neighbours.
“The souks used to stay open until 9pm or 10pm,” says Kate Elliot who, along with her husband Alan owns the beautiful Riad Merstane deep in the residential area of the medina where I am the only guest this week. “But now they close around 6pm. The tourists just aren’t there any more.”
Kate and Alan Elliott have owned Riad Merstane for the past ten years. For most of those years it has been the private home to which they and their three children have regularly decamped from Britain. A couple of years ago Kate and Alan decided to open their home to guests.
That night Rashida, the cook, prepared a savoury and aromatic sardine tajine dinner for me which I enjoyed in the sanctuary of the candle lit garden courtyard.
“Do you ever feel nervous here?” I asked Kate.
“No, I’ve never really felt nervous,” she replied. “Sometimes I feel odd if I’m coming home on my own through the medina in the early hours of the morning. You just don’t see women on their own at that time of night. But I always feel safe.”
The next day the riad manager Rachid takes me through the medina to Jemaa El Fnaa Square, pointing out every turn on a hand drawn map one of the riad’s former guests created. With street names either non-existent or in Arabic, my landmarks are a motley collection of coded clues.
“See on the wall there ‘Crazy Boys’” says Rachid, pointing to graffiti. “When you see Crazy Boys you know you are nearly home.” He grins and we continue. “Here, black and white tiles, and there too. Remember, black and white, black and white.”
For 23 minutes we thread our way through souks and alleys where wheelie bins with cats, a hidden passage, two butchers and a bamboo roof are all map referenced. When we reach Jemaa El Fna Rachid writes his phone number on the back of the map and leaves me with a wide smile and the words “If you get lost, text me, I’ll come and get you”.
Aptly awarded the status of ‘a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of humanity’, Jemaa El Fnaa defies description, its ordered chaos verging on madness. But where thousands of inappropriately dressed British and French day trippers should tread, mere hundreds of inappropriately dressed Spanish holidaymakers stroll instead. The orange juice vendors frantically gesture and shout to every passer by, filling a glass and offering it with outstretched arms. The snake charmers and henna tattooists seem resigned to the drop in numbers, literally sitting out the lull patiently. Waiters push menus under every nose, the ‘ave a butchers’ invitation lost on Spanish ears.
An old woman stands in front of me, muttering, her cupped hand mirroring my every movement. After a while she moves to the group of Spanish next to me and tries to catch every eye. When another woman arrives with her hand similarly cupped, the old woman loses her temper, screaming at her competitor and sending any chance of either of them getting a handout evaporating into the smoke filled air. These are desperate times.
That night I have two choices – go without dinner or go back out into the medina after dark. With nervous fingers, I open the front door of the riad. The passage is brighter than the sun, a bare bulb blazoning from the roof. Two young boys are playing football in the passage, one is wearing a Barcelona shirt with Messi emblazoned across his shoulders. Beyond the boys I can see more bulbs, lighting up the passages which are filled with life now that the heat of the day has subsided.
Emerging into the open space of Bab Taghzoute, barbecues and tajines sizzle in doorways; women sit on the ground in front of piles of freshly made khubz loaves and crêpes; kittens eat fish heads from plastic tubs outside front doors and the noise of football commentary carries from tinny TV sets in kiosks and barber shops where men sit drinking mint tea and watching the match.
I make my way to Jemaa El Fnaa feeling safer than I do in parts of my home town of Manchester where, coincidentally, one bomb did not an unsafe destination make.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+