Shocked and gasping for air, I managed to open my eyes just as another large bucket of cold water was hurled over my head. Sitting on a wet tiled floor surrounded by an assortment of semi-naked men, I was in the middle of my hammam spa treatment on the third day of a last-minute October trip to Marrakech. This legendary Moroccan city has always been high on my list of places to visit, so having just turned 25 and with an urge to get away by myself, I booked four nights in a hostel and jetted off on my first solo trip and first ever visit to Africa. Stuck in a tedious two-hour wait at customs listening to white people moan about “not looking suspicious”, I drowned out the noise by playing Di mi nombre, the third single from Rosalía’s second studio album, El mal querer. The rapidly emerging Catalan star’s flamenco melodies and unique ethereal voice made it a go-to song for the rest of the trip. It was 1am by the time I finally made it out of the airport and was greeted with my name on one of those signs held up by an understandably grumpy driver. He seemed to cheer up as we chatted and drove along the wide highway that links Marrakech Menara Airport with the main city, and I voiced my excitement at being here for the first time. By the time we reached my hostel, the car could only just fit down the passageways which connect the historical centre of the city. I fell asleep pretty much straight away with very little idea of what I would rise to in the morning.
Located on the north side of the medina, the Rodamón Riad Marrakech is a bright modern hostel with a traditional Andalusian-style courtyard and pool as well as a roof terrace with views of the Atlas Mountains. Room types and prices vary from just £19 ($23) for a bed in one of the ground-floor dorms to around £80 ($99) for a superior queen room with en suite. Ever the adventurer, I opted for a dorm room and was pleasantly surprised with the overall cleanliness and general setup of the place. There is a breakfast room with a well-stocked buffet, and you’re welcome to take your food and eat it in the shady courtyard around the jade green plunge pool. Throughout my stay at Rodamón I enjoyed a relaxed atmosphere in a prime central location – the perfect place for families or groups of friends who want to stay within the medina rather than at one of the resort hotels. A friendly receptionist gave me a map and advised that I head towards Jemaa el-Fnaa, the grand market place which has been a focal point of trade between north and south for almost a millennium. He also told me not to agree to any guided tours.
Stepping out into the street in daylight for the first time felt like stepping onto a film set, only because it was so far removed from what I’m used to and anything I had seen before. I’m very wary of overusing western tourist tropes describing “hustle and bustle” or “sights, sounds and smells” as if I’m narrating a 9pm documentary on BBC4, but walking the medina really is a sensory experience like no other. Almost immediately, I took a different turn to the one recommended but didn’t much care. I was more than happy winding my way through the souks in the vague direction of the main square instead of religiously following a set route. You can find pretty much anything in Marrakech’s array of souks. The narrow streets are lined with stalls selling an abundance of riches, and for the whole trip I never tired of wandering and discovering new sections of this incredible place. Once you’ve finished admiring fine silks, exquisite jewellery, intricate carpets, silver teapots, ornate lanterns, spices, olives, dried fruits, cured meats and smoked fish, you can explore the craft sections and watch metalwork, fabric dyeing, carpet making or pottery taking place, then dive into a riad away from the crowds and sip on a fresh mint tea. Ok maybe I have slipped into the “gushing westerner” trap but it’s hard not to be in awe of the souks and their long history in Marrakech. After a morning of getting my bearings and acclimatising to the throng (you pretty much have to be on constant alert, with anything from motorbikes to donkeys trying to push past you), I took respite in the tranquil courtyard of Palais DONAB where I ate a colourful chicken and apricot tagine whilst making Instagram and Twitter aware of my whereabouts.
Diving back into the souk, I found myself in front of a clanging metalworks when a young man approached me to offer information. I was quite curt at first and told him I didn’t need a tour, but, introducing himself as Abdullah, he insisted he was not a tour guide and wouldn’t ask for money, he just wanted to tell me about the metalworks. One thing led to another and suddenly we were on a winding route through the souks towards a courtyard where fabric is dyed. Politely declining the offer of a pink pashmina, I then followed Abdullah back into the undercover section of the market with promise of visiting an apothecary. Torn between my crippling British politeness and my genuine interest in the places we were visiting, I couldn’t bring myself to just walk away. I decided to allow whatever was happening to happen, all the while knowing that this little jaunt probably wasn’t taking place out of the kindness of Abdullah’s heart. A voluptuous long-haired woman in a white lab coat was waiting to greet us at the apothecary. The woman, who incidentally looked like Rosalía, spent an extended period of time opening and closing jars while she took me through the various healing qualities in some of the hundreds of spices and concoctions before us. Abdullah waited out of sight whilst I enjoyed my 4D ASMR experience then reappeared as I emerged from the apothecary clutching a bag of nigella seeds with a newly instilled sense of calm. Next, onto the tannery which is away from the main souks on the east side of the medina. As this area is much quieter with hardly any shops and virtually no tourists, a sense of unease started to take hold. Outside the tannery we were greeted by a tall older man wearing a hooded djellaba – the traditional outer coat worn by the Berber people of the Atlas Mountains. He introduced himself as the manager of the tannery and handed me a sprig of mint “for the smell”, but unfortunately it didn’t quite do the trick in covering up the overpowering stench of ammonium chloride in the pigeon faeces used to bleach and tan leather. Spread out in front of us were an array of vats dug into the concrete, where two or three people stood soaking cow hides in the strong-smelling liquid. I was given a very brief overview about how the tannery works and then left to nervously stand around taking some subpar photos of the vats, before being led into a shop where I was met with hostility because I didn’t want to buy a brown leather jacket. Outside the shop, sure enough, Abdullah was waiting alongside the tannery manager. The jovial atmosphere seemed to have vanished as I was told I needed to pay the manager 200 dirham (£16.50) for showing me the tannery. I tried to protest at this price considering all I’d done was inhale ammonium chloride and avoid looking too closely at a pile of raw cow hides, but was met with anger at my “selfishness towards the Berber people”. After handing over the cash, Abdullah then demanded another 300 dirham for himself, even though throughout this whole affair he had insisted that it wasn’t about money and I had naively gone along with that notion. Deep down I had known all along that I was being scammed, but a small part of me had hoped that I’d made friends with a local who was just happy to show me round. After I argued the price down to 200 dirham, he snatched the money and stormed off, leaving me alone in this unfamiliar part of town.
Adrenaline running high, I set off walking in what I hoped was the right direction for the souks. The only people who seemed to be in this area were young men and older teenage boys who persistently tried to follow me telling me I was going in the wrong direction, that the street ahead was closed, that this area was “for Muslims only” and that they’d show me how to get out. I tried to ignore these calls and pretend that I wasn’t genuinely lost, but eventually a young man who seemed friendly enough promised to show me the way to Jemaa el-Fnaa and I gave in. Chatting and remaining calm, I followed him through a series of passageways until we were close to a main road. He gestured in the vague direction of the road and told me the square was “over there” (which turned out not to be true). He then demanded I pay him 200 dirham and suddenly we weren’t alone, as men appeared in the passageway both in front and behind me insisting that I hand over the money. Intimidated and annoyed at myself for being so gullible not once but twice, I handed over the cash and quickly got out of situation. Eventually I found refuge in the House of Photography and sat on its covered roof terrace with a mint tea as a thunderstorm rolled in, its loud claps coinciding with the sound of a nearby muezzin. Reflecting on the day’s events, I realised that to get by in this city you have to be resilient. The main trick is to walk with a purpose and not look lost, because the second you start scrabbling for a map, or your eyes display a hint of confusion, you will be approached from all angles with young men shouting “La Place?” “La Place?”. Yes, I got scammed out of 800 dirham on my first day in Morocco which isn’t a great track record, but I don’t particularly regret this because it hardened me up. These young lads are poor and have grown up into organised gangs through no fault of their own, so I felt embarrassment at my own foolishness rather than anger towards them; and if I’m honest, I was lowkey enjoying the drama of it all. For the rest of the trip, my tactic was to look any hustlers directly in the eye and say “Non merci, je ne suis pas perdu”, which seemed to do the trick.
Although it’s known for its usually scorching temperatures, the weather in Morocco during my visit was unfortunately quite bad, with a large Atlantic storm passing over causing frequent thunder and heavy rain. I didn’t actually mind this too much and indeed one of my highlights was witnessing a dramatic thunderstorm as I walked across Jemaa el-Fnaa, feeling very much *hashtag living* as I watched lightning strike while people dashed for shelter. On the only forecasted day of sun, I took the opportunity to leave the medina and visit the highly recommended Jardin Marjorelle, a 2.5 acre walled botanical garden which was developed by the French artist Jacques Marjorelle over a period of nearly forty years starting in 1923. After falling to neglect it was then purchased and restored in the 1980s by the fashion designers Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and is now open to the public, housing the Berber Museum and the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech, with the Musée Yves Saint-Laurent next door opening in 2017. As the queue for tickets took at least an hour, I would recommend purchasing in advance. Garden entry is 80 dirham (£6.45), while a combined ticket including all the museums is 200 dirham. The garden would have almost certainly felt like paradise if I hadn’t spent the whole time being jostled left, right and centre by Fjällräven Kånken bags and fully extended selfie sticks. Trying to imagine what the place must have been like as one of Monsieur Marjorelle’s guests in the 1930s, I wandered its leafy pathways and admired the vast array of tropical fauna on show. The jewel at the centre of the jardin is a distinctive cobalt blue villa, which Saint-Laurent and Bergé ended up living in together at one point, renaming it Villa Oasis – a name which probably sounded incredibly chic to them in the 80s but which today sounds like a timeshare in Sunny Beach. The building is stunning and now serves as an instagrammable goldmine, with tourists in their droves fighting for the best angle, the best lighting and the least crowded spot from which to take their pics. Rather than allowing myself to relax and enjoy being in this idyllic spot, my anxiety levels actually intensified as I joined the hordes in trying to secure the perfect photos with which to grace my feed and make everyone at home jealous. In fact, the only person who truly seemed at peace was a woman sitting in the shade facing away from the villa, engrossed in an oil painting of rich greens and blues. I know I’m very much part of the problem and to make this point will sound hypocritical, but it does seem sad that a tranquil garden like this has turned into a set for photoshoots rather than just being what it was intended for – a place of peace. I wondered how different my experience of Marjorelle would have been without a camera – would I have relaxed more and just enjoyed actually being there, or would the inability to carefully document my visit have made me even more anxious? Leaving the garden slightly frustrated, I found respite at the café bar outside Musée YSL, one of the most aesthetically pleasing places I have ever been. For a pretentious gay man like myself, the canary yellow furniture and turquoise ornamental pool were like a real-life dream next to the swaying palms and the earthy terra cotta brickwork of the museum building. I ordered a cloudy lemonade and sat facing the water, indulging in possibly my most wanky moment to date.
Much like Istanbul, Marrakech is famed for its hammam spa treatments which date back to Roman/Byzantine times and are prevalent across the Islamic world. Traditionally used for daily bathing and for performing ablutions before visiting the mosque, many hammams within the medina are now catered towards tourists and offer a wide range of water-based treatments and a variety of massages. With so many to choose from (La Mamounia and the Royal Mansour look stunning but come with an eye-watering pricelist) I decided I wanted more of a no frills option, a real hammam frequented by locals that I could just show up to without spending the whole time taking photos of mosaics and tagging the location on my story for once. Walking past the fish and meat stalls along Route Sidi Abdelaziz, I left the medina and found my way to Hammam Essalama, which is located to the east of the more modern Gueliz area. There is no need to book, you just arrive (men and women bathe in separate sections), pay 150 dirham (£12) and prepare for your treatment which takes around half an hour. The staff do not speak English but I got by with some very questionable French, and after getting changed into my trunks I was ushered into a white-tiled steam room and told to sit on the floor. I’ve visited many spas over the years and Essalama is definitely the most basic one I have been to. Forget fluffy white robes and ambient yoga playlists, this is about cleansing, rejuvenating and socialising without the nonsense. Men of all ages sat around chatting and glancing at me with mild amusement as the only bewildered tourist in the place. Someone pointed to a bucket of water and gestured that I was to wash myself with it. Eventually, after an awkward five minutes of splashing water on myself, a gruff old man came towards me with another bucket, a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush. I was instructed to lie face down on the tiles, where I closed my eyes and braced myself for whatever was about to happen. What ensued was a full body soaping, scrubbing, rinsing and pummelling on both sides, with the man showing no qualms about roughly pushing and prodding to make sure that every part of my body was free of muscle knots. I was next told to sit upright before having two large buckets of water unexpectedly thrown over my head, then handed a cup of mint tea as I sat against the wall and recovered. Obviously I take exfoliation as seriously as the next millennial man, but never had my skin felt quite so clean and smooth as it did now. Yes, lying on the wet tiles of a steam room floor may not compare with the luxuries of the Royal Mansour, but the staff at Hammam Essalama know exactly what they’re doing and follow routines that have been around for centuries, making it a Moroccan experience like no other.
Towelling off and exiting the hammam into heavy rain, I headed towards the main Gueliz area, taking shelter in an upscale supermarket where I deliberated over which paprika-flavoured crisps to buy as the rain subsided. Gueliz is a far cry from the narrow passageways of the medina and looks much like any modern neighbourhood in France or Spain. Up until this point my only view of Marrakech had been souks and riads, so I was a little taken aback by the sight of a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, a Zara and every other global brand which has engrained itself into every high street in the world. After a brief wander round a mall, I ended up having a coffee at the visually stunning but lowkey problematic Grand Café de la Poste. From its décor to its attitudes, this large French brasserie is steeped in colonial history and feels like stepping back in time to the 1920s. I was met with the typical snobbishness you might expect as a British person in Paris, and I couldn’t help noticing that the majority of the clientele were well-off, white and French. My main thought here was that if this were an English colonial-themed restaurant in India, I would feel uncomfortable showing my face. I’m not saying that Western colonial history should be ignored, but there is definitely something a bit off about an establishment which looks back with nostalgia at what was a pretty unpleasant era for many Moroccans. Taking a taxi back into the medina, I took a brief look around the ornate Dar Si Said museum before eating at Un Déjeuner á Marrakech, another French restaurant but this time one which actively incorporates Moroccan flavours and celebrates the cuisines of both countries. The service here was fantastic and the food (cream of carrot soup followed by Makfoul-style tagine beef) sublime.
Back at the hostel, my Mexican roommate shared some hashish with me which we smoked surreptitiously in an alleyway. Although cannabis remains illegal in Morocco, it is one of the world’s largest producers of the plant and there is a growing tourist trade around it, with farmers in the mountainous Rif region making a livelihood out of its cultivation. As with many other countries, its illegality is becoming somewhat of a grey area, with police often turning a blind eye to small instances of personal use. While various strains of marijuana (the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant) are more well-known in the UK, hashish (the resin of the plant) is what is commonly distributed in Morocco and surprisingly easy to obtain. With the plant now completely legal in Canada, Uruguay and eleven US states and laws loosening in several countries including Australia, Spain, South Africa, Portugal and the Netherlands, there is an ongoing discussion on its legalisation in the UK. It will certainly be interesting to see how global outlooks on cannabis change over the next decade as more research is done into its various health benefits, and what effect widespread regulation in the west could have on the industry in Morocco. On the hostel rooftop I stared out at the dark outline of the Atlas Mountains and up at the stars, just revelling in the fact I was here and not behind my desk at work. I had a “moment” playing Algerian singer Khaled’s 1996 single Aïcha, before listening once again to Rosalía’s Di mi nombre.
El mal querer (roughly translated as “The Bad Desire”) is Catalan singer Rosalía’s second album which came out shortly after my return from Marrakech and therefore ties in with my memory of the trip. It has brought her international fame for her distinctive blending of flamenco and Latin pop. With its celestial album cover, El mal querer is based on Flamenca, a 13th century novel about a woman imprisoned by her fiancé, taking us on a complex journey through pain and anger as well as sexuality and commitment. I discovered Rosalía by chance after stumbling across Di mi nombre, before quickly getting into the now iconic Malamente as well as Pienso en ti mirá. Whilst my experience of the album may be limited because I don’t speak Spanish, her vocals able to convey a mood and tell a story without language. With a minimal backing track of synthesizers, keys and flamenco guitar, the focus here is strictly on her voice as it weaves through the story via trills and fluctuations, with occasional support from a small group of acapella singers and traditional flamenco handclaps to keep the beat going throughout. El mal querer manages to create a distinctive medieval/arabesque/flamenco sound which feels refreshingly new and relevant. Listen out for the James Blake-inspired production in Nana, and the slightly unexpected Justin Timberlake sample in Bagdad. I have never heard an album quite like this, and have no doubt that it will be looked back on as a classic in years to come.
Over the past year, Rosalía has effectively “gone mainstream”, featuring alongside the one and only J Balvin in the solid gold reggaeton smash Con altura, which topped the charts in Spain and across Latin America. She has very firmly established herself as a household name in Spain, with her sudden omnipresence becoming a running joke on social media according to my Spanish friend. Although Con altura is undoubtedly one of the best pop songs of Summer 2019, it failed to make impact in the UK, presumably because music industry chiefs here didn’t think the British public could cope with a Latin song that didn’t feature Justin Bieber. The same is true for the sizzling hot Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi featuring Ozuna, and the insanely catchy Milionària. It has always been a matter of frustration to me that foreign-language songs do not impact English charts. Viral sensations like Despacito, Gangnam Style and La Macarena are the exceptions, but it seems there is no in between – we either get a global megahit or nothing at all. With Rosalía’s apparent move away from her flamenco roots to a more mainstream urban sound, it’s likely she’ll soon record an English-language song and earn more recognition outside the Spanish-speaking world, but for now in the UK we’ll just have to stay content with the ready-salted sound of Jess Glynne.