Days 15-17 Crazy frantic Marrakech - All Around The Atlas - Morocco 2019 - CycleBlaze

December 26, 2019 to December 28, 2019

Days 15-17 Crazy frantic Marrakech

Marrakech (to London)

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Day 14 - Marrakech

The first lie-in I've had all trip and it felt so good. I probably would've taken a full rest day if I'd passed through any major cities on the route, but I didn't really want to take a day off on a campsite in the middle of nowhere. 

There were a couple of jobs to do today, mainly getting some tape to hold the bike box and pannier bag together. It was a decent walk to the modern city side of Marrakech and was like stepping into a completely different country altogether compared to the chaos of the medina. The first small supermarket I checked had some parcel tape which was a relief because all the proper hardware shops were miles away on the outskirts. I wanted to just lock my bike up on the railings outside the store, but a guy in a high-vis jacket came over and said that I had to put my bike with all the motorbikes and get it 'watched over' while I was inside. A 3 MAD fee is virtually nothing, but this whole concept was still a bit annoying- if a group of guys want to steal my bike, the warden isn't exactly going to put his body on the line for a measly equivalent of 25p!

After stocking up on some Western comfort food like Haribo and Pringles, I decided to walk across the street to a McDonald's (yep, they have the main chain fast-food restaurants here) to see if there were any interesting Morocco-exclusive things on the menu. The selection was actually really boring compared some countries I've visited like Austria and Spain, and it was hard to believe that they were charging almost the some prices as you'd get in the UK. 

Rows of fruit and spice stalls at Djemma el Fna.
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A while later and I went to check out the bustling Djemaa el Fna square. The tourist-to-resident ratio was crazy; almost everyone looking around the stalls and restaurants was on holiday. You can't take more than a few steps without someone trying to sell you something, and these guys are super persistent- 'no' isn't a good enough answer for them. After a bunch of these attempts, I started to almost enjoy the ridiculous attention you get and ended up deliberately walking back and forth to see what sales patter they would try to entice me in with this time. The strangest of all were the handful of young black guys selling sunglasses and watches (like you get around touristy Spanish beaches), because they wander the square all day, yet I never saw anyone even slightly interested in buying something from them. There were also a few dodgy animal performers like snake charmers and monkey handlers. These are horrible to watch because the snakes are clearly sedated (and probably de-fanged) while the men with the monkeys drag them around roughly by the leash on their necks and shove them onto unwilling tourists while demanding money for a photo. You can literally see them smacking the monkeys for the slightest misbehaviours, yet idiots will still happily pay for photos opprtunities in their droves. 

I thought the regular narrow streets were a labyrinth, but the souks were another thing entirely. It's a completely disorientating sprawl of undercover alleys selling absolutely all sorts of artefacts, crafts, clothes, antiquities, jewellery etc. There was a steady stream of tourists walking on the main alleyway, but the deeper I walked into the souk, the fewer Western faces I saw and eventually I realised that the tourists had disappeared completely. It didn't feel good to be lost. A few Moroccan youths frantically tried to direct me to the 'way out', but I was wary of this considering it didn't feel like the exit, and scams of this kind exist where someone shows you way and then either demands payment or tries to get you even more lost. There was no real danger, but my pulse quickened and I walked briskly through the winding alleys until eventually finding the main route. Wearing sunglasses definitely helped because you can't accidentally make eye contact with a pushy vendor this way!

Motorbikes would regularly speed through the alleyways, almost hitting everything they passed.
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The endless sprawl of undercover souks. These are now more frequented by tourists than locals trying to buy and trade.
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I would've liked to take more photographs of the souks, but Moroccans are notoriously camera-shy and I've reads lots of stories where people in the background of photos have been unhappy or tried to demand money.
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A suprisingly tiring and thrilling day, but what did break my heart was the amount of people begging on some of the streets. In the UK, we are so detached from world atrocities, buts it hits hard when you have a whole family with young kids sat on the floor holding a sign saying they're Syrian war refugees. It's emotional, but there is a small guilty shred of sceptic inside me that reckons the backstory will pull on so many heartstrings, and that they could be fakes making a decent living from the regular food and money handouts I saw. Either way, it really wasn't a nice situation and dampened my mood.    

The 12th century Koutoubia mosque. Sadly non-Muslims aren't permitted inside.
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Day 15 - Marrakech

I decided to do a practise run to see if my bike would actually fit in the box and within moments it was apparent that it was going to be an insanely tight squeeze. They didn't have any larger boxes at the bike shop so this was going to have to suffice. 

Today was a bit of lazy day overall and I spent most the time lounging around in the hotel room playing on my phone. It always feels like the end of a cycle trip is really anti-climactic. There was a week waiting for my flight back from Australia on the previous trip and that was the same feeling. Truth be told, there wasn't much more I was interested in seeing in Marrakech. I had explored the medina, main square and souks yesterday, and there weren't that many attractions except for some tombs and a palace which I didn't really fancy after browsing through some photos. Being solo and on a budget, restaurants aren't a great way to pass the time either, so I opted for the much cheaper cafe food- 28 MAD for shawarma, chips and drink isn't bad.

Moroccan flags on the edge of the square.
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Djemaa el Fna is meant to be really impressive after sunset, so for my last night I decided to have another stroll around it. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. I've seen it described as an assault on the senses, which is a perfect summarisation. There was somehow even more people around than during the day and the normal market had vanished, replaced with every imaginable food stall. Ostrich heads, camel parts, stingrays... there was all manner of bizarre delicacies alongside the usual tajines and brochettes. Entrancing music from groups of men playing instruments cut through the air as charismatic vendors strode among the crowds waving sparklers and strobes. There was an amazing energy to the scene that no camera could ever hope to fully capture; it was a great end to my trip here.

The alleys and streets stay busy long into the evening.
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It was hard to capture the spectacle of Djemaa el Fna at night.
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Back in the hotel, I started to suspect it would be a noisy night. The room offers virtually no sound-proofing anyway because it's right by the reception and backs onto the square, but it was made worse by the speaker system on a temporary stage in the centre. Djemaa el Fna would be hosting a concert featuring a famous Congolese rapper in the next few days, and the organisers seemed to think that the best time to test out the bass capabilities would be from 10pm onwards!  

Koutoubia mosque minaret illuminated at night.
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Day 16 - Marrakech (flight back) to Gatwick

The usual paranoia of missing my flight kicked in and I somehow woke up before my alarm had even gone off. A taxi to the airport with all my luggage woud've probably been a pain to sort out, so I was resigned to cycling the 4.5 miles to the airport with a flat-packed bike box tucked under my arm. I was aching by the end, but overall the journey was a lot easier than I expected thanks to the wide footpaths on Marrakech's boulevards. At the entrance to the terminal, an officious looking man stopped me and appeared to be explaining that I shouldn't come this way. It seemed like he thought I was just a cyclist trying to take a wrong turning and my French vocabulary isn't good enough to explain that I was going to pack my bike into the box to fly with. He spoke no English, but after a few failed attempts I got him to understand by pointing to my bike and repeating 'avion' while miming a take-off. 

There was loads of time to spare so I leisurely started to disassemble the bike and suddenly heard a voice behind me. It was yet another cyclist, a friendly Swedish guy (with perfect English of course) riding a lightweight backpacking setup. He was waiting for some family to arrive and helped me to wrestle my bike into the box that was almost a millimetre perfect fit. Another half-inch off the chainstays and it would've have made it. Once I got my helmet in, there was no room for a pannier at all (like I'd done on the outward flight), so it's a good job I was flying back with the more luggage-lenient British Airways instead of Ryanair.

Interesting facade of Marrakech airport. It's a shame my window seat was facing this way, it was a backdrop of the snowy Atlas mountains on the other side.
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Marrakech airport wasn't anything special inside and it was weird to have everything listed in Euros instead. There was still an hour before check in, so I decided to use up the last of my Dirhams on a nice traditional Moroccan meal of... Japanese beef yaki udon!

The planned journey seemed to drag a bit this time and it was grimly comical to be flying over a beautiful sunny Morocco, Portugal, Spain and France, but almost exactly when reaching the English channel, there were thick clouds covering the whole country. I almost burst out laughing when the plane descended through the low cloud and we were treated to the most depressingly grey rainy scene imaginable. Welcome home!

Goodbye Morocco, goodbye Africa.
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3 guesses as to what country we're flying over...
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