“When you see the Crazy Boys you know you’re okay,” advised a grinning Rachid.
Almost anywhere else in the world, advice that included trying to find the ‘Crazy Boys’ would have had me grabbing an overpriced taxi back to the departure lounge. But in less than a couple of hours after meeting him I was sure that if there was one person that I’d trust to unlock the mysteries of the Marrakech medina for me it was Rachid, the house manager at Riad Merstane.
Reading that your riad is an easy 25 minute stroll from Jemaa el Fna square is one thing, negotiating the bewildering maze linking the two is another. Rachid, being house manager extraordinaire, offered to walk us through our first outing, pointing out landmarks along the way – a black and white tiled doorstep; the flour mill; a telephone kiosk; a music shop (totally unrecognisable as a music shop); a fountain where locals washed their feet; a rubbish bin marking an ‘invisible’ turn; three bollards (to stop cars and donkeys but not mopeds)… and the Crazy Boys.
Every so often Rachid was stopped by someone and there would be a big handshake and a bigger smile. Being an ex-striker of Marrakech’s football team (until a knee injury ended his footballing career) meant that every man, woman and child knew Rachid. Being in the company of a local hero meant that every man, woman and child remembered us and we were left relatively hassle free on subsequent travels through the medina (on this route at least).
When we reached Jemaa el Fna and the twister in my head had stopped spinning after trying to file exactly where the green wheelie bin was and whether it was right or left at the carved door beside the covered souk, Rachid revealed his value part II by pointing out restaurants in the square he liked to eat at as well as visitors’ favourites. As a result we ate well and very cheaply.
Before he left us in Jemaa el Fna to fend for ourselves, Rachid handed over the most precious treasure you could uncover in the old alleys of Marrakech – a hand-drawn map that was key to avoiding being lost in the medina for evermore. After four days of heavy duty use that map looked as though it really was a faded and battered antique treasure. But it did its job perfectly, with only a couple of mishaps (caused by innocent faced boys trying to ‘help’).
As well as unlocking the secrets of the city, Rachid’s knowledge of Marrakech and its workings were invaluable in numerous other ways; booking taxis at a fair price to get us to Imlil, sorting out Supratour bus tickets from Marrakech to Essaouira and buying wine to accompany an excellent meal of sardine tajine and other goodies at the riad. His help made many aspects of our stay in Marrakech very easy and it was all done with a sincere smile.
Apart from providing essential practical support, Rachid was also a font of anecdotes and information that provided a fascinating and often funny insight into the life and even loves of a young Moroccan. Over afternoon snacks of mint tea and pastries, he talked about the difference between the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains and the Arabs in the city (having a Berber mother and Arab father, he was well acquainted with both cultures). Young men in Marrakech apparently like to date Arab girls then marry Berber ones because of their legendary beauty. Rachid’s idea of the perfect potential bride was a Berber girl who’d swapped her traditional clothing for a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.
In many ways he was the perfect guide – honest and open, telling us all about the realities of the Marrakech he lived in. Subsequently discovering Marrakech with Rachid, or seeking out places on his advice, was like seeing a new city in the company of a particularly knowledgeable friend.
Not all riads in Marrakech will have a house manager exactly like Rachid but they will have one with similar qualities. Our advice would be to befriend them and make the most of their talents; they are your key to discovering Marrakech.
Rachid’s Top Three Tips for Things to do in Marrakech
1. Eat at Jemaa el Fna Square – It’s simply something that everyone should do.
2. Visit the Majorelle Gardens – They’re the pride of the city and beautiful.
3. Shop for clothes in Guéliz – Rashid likes to dress well and the fashion shops in the new town are a favourite haunt for him.
The Crazy Boys, by the way, was the nickname for Marrakech football supporters and their graffiti sprawled across a wall was the final landmark that our riad was around the next corner.