We were just twenty-four hours into our first visit to Marrakesh. We had arrived in the city with high expectations. It had been on our wish-list for some years; and as this was the first holiday of any length that we had been able to take together for over a year, we were determined to enjoy it.
But on the evening of our first day, a lovely day spent visiting the Djamaa el Fna and the Majorelle Gardens, I stumbled on the edge of a tiled basin in a fancy restaurant and broke a bone in my foot. I spent the rest of the week on crutches, severely restricting our ability to see even a fraction of what we had planned.
The restaurant had been recommended by the owner of our riad. Even without the broken foot it would have been something of a disappointment, being seriously over-priced. Of course we were paying for the setting, which was admittedly wonderful; a beautiful old palace approached along a red carpet lined with flickering lanterns. The tables were set out in the central courtyard. It was here that I had my fall, not spotting the sunken basin at its centre (probably because I was marvelling at the building all around me).
I sat through the meal in considerable pain, hoping that I had simply sprained my foot and would feel better the next day. But after a largely sleepless and painful night it was obvious that medical attention was required. Fortunately the riad owner did a much better job of recommending a doctor than she had a restaurant. He spoke French and a little English, was used to treating tourists and soon had me whisked off in a taxi for x-rays. They confirmed the worst; I had broken my fifth metatarsal on my right foot, no doubt as it banged against the beautiful ceramic tiles of the basin.
Here in the UK the treatment for such an injury might be a little different (judging by what was recommended when I got back a week later); but there the solution was plaster to just below the knee and a pair of crutches. I was also prescribed pain-killers and a course of daily injections which it turned out were intended to minimise the risk of thrombosis caused by a lack of activity. The latter were an unnecessary precaution. I was on holiday, in Marrakesh for the first time, and was determined to keep walking – somehow.
Sightseeing on crutches
Marrakesh really isn’t the best city to explore with restricted mobility. There are plenty of cheap taxis, but our riad was at the end of a dead-end lane. And with the quarter’s narrow alleyways there were four blocks to walk before I could get into any sort of vehicle! But once I had negotiated those the city opened up to us a little. We had to cross many sights off our planned itinerary but there was still much to enjoy. Top of the list was people-watching and photographing. Could it be that this enforced week of relative inactivity first awoke the street photographer in me?
People-watching is an activity very compatible with a broken foot. I could find a table at any of the Djamaa el Fna cafés; order a strong coffee or mint tea; and sit back and wait for the world to come to me. And to observe life a little off the beaten path where tourists don’t out-number the locals, I perfected the art of propping myself on my crutches to get some shots on the side streets near our riad.
There is always something to catch your eye in this bustling city. A moped carrying a traditionally dressed man weaves effortlessly through the crowds. A donkey cart laden with mint and other herbs holds up all traffic in one of the small lanes known as derbs. Carpet sellers pause between customers to swap gossip or discuss business. A woman sells bread from a barrow; and another pauses to inspect the dried fruits and spices on offer at a stall. A musician plays in a back street hoping passers-by will reward him for his efforts (we did).
The Djamaa el Fna
But sooner or later it seems, all paths in Marrakesh lead to the Djamaa el Fna. The name means ‘Assembly of the Dead’ in Arabic but a visit here suggests life in all its vibrancy. To call this the city’s main square doesn’t begin to do justice to it. This is a meeting place, a shopping centre, a performance space, a happening.
Here is a snake charmer with a sleepy cobra waiting for tourists’ dirhams before luring him into action. There is a man with a monkey wanting payment to pose with him perched on your shoulder. And over there a colourfully dressed water-seller is making more money from posing for photos than he ever will from selling water.
Rows of stalls sell dried fruits; others freshly squeezed orange juice. Women offer to decorate your hand with henna, and men to shine your shoes – even if you are wearing trainers. You can buy a leather handbag or a packet of tissues, a lantern or a cigarette lighter. Mopeds weave past pedestrians; men push carts and donkeys pull them; horses trot past with tourist passengers perched in the caleche behind.
Over it all towers the minaret of the Katoubia Mosque, the tallest building in the city, and at regular intervals the call to prayer rings out above the hubbub.
But that one spiritual note barely seems to make an impression on all the secular activity at its foot, although the faithful no doubt pause briefly in their actions before returning to earthly matters of commerce and enterprise.
Day trip to Essaouira
Two days after my fall, and with one day of our holiday already lost to doctors and clinics, we decided to press ahead with our original plan of a day trip to the coast. Sitting in a taxi watching the scenery sounded a lot easier than tackling the streets of Marrakesh on foot. And so it proved; we had a lovely relaxing (if long) day out which showed us that something at least of our holiday could be retrieved despite the unexpected and unwelcome change in our circumstances.
Leaving after an early breakfast we headed west through a fairly dry and dusty landscape interspersed with villages and small towns. Most of these serve as markets for the Berber farmers in the surrounding area, so were full of life and interest for us. We stopped several times en route – for coffee; to visit a carpet co-operative (and succumb to temptation there!); and to see the local oddity known as ‘goats in trees’.
We arrived in Essaouira in time for a leisurely lunch in the main square. The light was beautiful, the sea air refreshing, the activity around us fascinating but much less frenetic than in Marrakesh. After lunch Chris had a walk around the port area and took lots of photos. Meanwhile I sat on a bench and did the same in the square. I also took my featured ‘selfie’ there!
I then managed a short hobble around a few streets in the old town before it was time to head back to Marrakesh. It was dark as we approached the city and a huge red moon was rising. It seemed a sign of hope after the mess of the previous day; and a wonderful ending to our day out.
The Ourika Valley
We also managed a day trip to the Ourika Valley, again by grand taxi; although the planned walk to some waterfalls had to be dropped. Instead we visited a typical Berber home and a women’s co-operative producing the local speciality of argan oil. Later we had a lovely leisurely lunch on the terrace of a hotel garden draped in bougainvillea. The greenness of the valley, and the views of the Atlas Mountains beyond, made a welcome contrast to the frantic pace of life in the city.
The Djamaa el Fna by night
Our host at the riad had warned us against eating in the Djamaa el Fna night market; but she had also recommended that very disappointing restaurant (and I say that not because of my fall but because the food was dull and over-priced). So we decided to ignore her; and one evening I hobbled to the taxi rank for the ride back into the city centre.
If the Djamaa el Fna is a performance by day, at night it becomes a spectacle. As we approached from the Koutoubia Mosque / Avenue Mohammed V side, our first sight of the square was the glow of a myriad lights, with against them the dark silhouettes of what appear to be thousands of people, and above these the smoke rising from a hundred barbeques at the many food stalls.
As we approached, and started to immerse ourselves in the milling crowd, I found every sense stimulated.
My eyes strained to make out what was happening in the shifts from darkness to pools of brightness, and darted from sight to sight. There were performers with locals and tourists jostling for position around them; women crouched over a few handicrafts they have brought to sell; stalls with steaming glasses of tea; family groups gathered in a circle to talk and eat; a couple in their best and most colourful djellabas on a celebratory night out …
My ears rang with the chatter around us; the drums beating incessantly; the haunting music of the street performers; the stall holders calling out to passers-by and extolling the wonders of the menu on offer at their food stall. Occasionally the voice of the muezzin rang out from the several minarets that surround the square; but it seemed to me that only a minority paused for prayer among this multi-cultural, multi-faith gathering of mankind.
I could smell the kebabs and spicy sausages grilling, fish frying, cinnamon and ginger from the tea stalls; and my mouth watered, longing to taste them too. After looking around for a short while we settled on a stand where we could see kebabs or brochettes being freshly grilled. A helpful guy found us a seat at the end of one of the long tables and whisked my crutches out of the way to the cooking area. There his colleague manning the grill proceeded to mime using them as extra-long kebab skewers, to the amusement of all around us.
The food quality was a little mixed: delicious olives, bread and spicy dips to start with; excellent kebabs, good couscous but flabby chips. But the prices were low and the spectacle and experience alone worth paying for. And no, neither of us was ill afterwards, and we had a much more enjoyable time than in that ill-fated expensive restaurant!
So I hope I have shown you that it’s possible to keep walking even on crutches – shared for Amy’s Lens Artists Challenge theme this week.
I visited Marrakesh for the first time in 2009. Seven years later we returned to the city, and managed to see much more of it; other posts on this blog refer to that second, fully mobile, visit!