‘Look at the map,’ Andy urges, a growing sense of frustration in her tone.
‘I’ve got this… just give me a second,’ I wasn’t ready to admit defeat.
My normally reliable navigational system had completely abandoned ship. Negotiating a series of narrow alleys, identical souks and dark tunnels had left me completely confused. I didn’t know where the hell I was but if we stopped walking or, worse, consulted the map in my pocket, we’d be cannon fodder.
Two minutes later and we’d come full circle. A lack of street names or anything identifiable meant that one claustrophobic red house-lined alley looked much like the next.
“Just take a look at the map,” Andy repeated more forcefully… there may have been the addition of a colourful adjective.
The Marrakech Medina had beaten me; I could hear its mocking laughter as I pulled the crumpled white piece of paper which bore the legend ‘X marks the spot’ (our riad) from my pocket. I hadn’t fully unfolded it before our weakness was spotted and they were on us in the blink of an eye.
“You need help? Come with us, we’ll show you the way.”
Fascinating but frustrating, the Marrakech Medina is full of wonders for sure but the level of mithering in certain areas can be overwhelming and exhausting. Instead of lingering over beautifully intricate, handmade goods that we wanted to admire rather than buy, we’d focus straight ahead, avoiding eye contact until we had emerged from the parts of the Medina most populated by tourists.
But the shopkeepers aren’t really the issue. They try to attract your attention as you pass their shop but once you move on without showing any interest, they lose interest.
The most annoying aspect of wandering through the Medina is the army of ‘helpers’ on hand to assist anyone who shows weakness by a) consulting a map or b) looking the slightest bit confused. The fact that there are hordes of people wanting to ‘help’ isn’t an issue in itself. It’s a poor country and people need to earn a few Dirhams any way they can. I get and respect that.
The annoying part is that a significant amount of ‘guides’ will show you to your destination via the scenic route (i.e. an uncle’s shop).
This is the maddening Medina.
But it’s not all like that.
Our base, Riad Merstane, was on the opposite side of the Medina from Jemaa el Fna. Every day we’d make the 25 minute journey between them at least four times. Walking the breadth of the Medina revealed an intriguing maze with split personalities.
Our return route lead from Jemaa el Fna to the Marrakech Museum and the Medersa Ben Youseff, meandering via Bab Ftouh and Rue Mouassine. This is the Medina of souks and spice shops that everyone visualises when they think of Marrakech. This is also the part where you’ll get mithered like mad.
After that it changes. The exotic spice, shoe and lamp shops are replaced by barbers, tiny bars, bread stalls, bicycle menders, clothes shops selling djellabas and dark workshops where artisans make tin lamps and wooden tables destined for the souks.
In this half no-one tries to sell you anything because the shops are aimed at the people who live in the Medina. When people try to attract your attention it’s to tell you that you’re going the wrong way – ‘the big square is in the other direction’ – assuming you must be lost because you’re wandering alleys where most tourists don’t venture.
In many ways it is the most compelling part of the Medina; it’s less frantic and more authentic. Our riad lay at the end of Bab Taghzoute – a typical market square on the opposite end of the spectrum from Jemaa el Fna. I like Jemaa el Fna and disagree with those who dismiss it as being too touristy. But Bab Taghzoute is less chaotic – it’s simply a friendly, local market where no-one took any notice of us as we perused makeshift stalls selling huge eggs, chickens, flat breads and camel kebabs.
Ironically, I liked the Medina more after dark. By 10.30-ish, the shops in the souks are closed as most visitors have returned to their hotels in Guelíz or to riads on the fringes of Jemaa el Fna. The Medina calms down and is a nicer place to explore. Tunnels that are threateningly dark in the day are bathed in a welcoming soft golden light; the mad mopeds have disappeared and the narrow alleys are populated by chattering women, men playing cards and would-be Messis (Barcelona being the team of choice). Local shops are still open with the busiest establishments being the numerous barbers which double as the place to watch football.
This is the marvellous Medina.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+