Thursday, 26 February 2009

Part 4 Where to Buy / Where not to Buy.. that is the Question

Bab Ksiba is a pretty little entrance into the southern end of the Kasbah.

Bab Kasiba ( pronounced Bab Lak-siba ) offers the wary traveller advantages.

Firstly... every Taxi driver in Marrakech knows where it is. If you have no easy form of communication, French, Berber or otherwise, by simply sitting in a taxi and saying "Bab Lak-siba" you can be assured of a correct destination.

Secondly... Apart from a "cigarette seller" lazing under the shade, provided by a giant Eucalyptus Tree, there are no hawkers. Unless, that is, you want to purchase a single cigarette or make the vendors day, and go the whole hog, buying a packet..

Thirdly... and most importantly, not only is it pretty much at the end of a 1 mile road that leads to Marrakech International Airport. Useing this destination as a "drop off" point and rendezvous, for a Riad assistant to act as escort, then you won't be lost amongst a crowd of european tourists. (Who all look the same !!)

Fiona elected to test her theory with and achieved instant success.

My wife stayed in the company of the cigarette seller and sent me off to find a local chap, who had not seen Fiona before, to see if he could locate her and guide her back to the Riad where we were staying.

This time.... I wasted a while before finding and instructing a local chap, as this time it was Fiona's solution and not mine.
I wanted, at least, a Pyrrhic Victory !

Sadly she returned with the local chap within minutes of my instruction and continues to bask in her glory.

The mission was now to find a suitable Riad as close to the pretty Bab Ksiba as we could.

We both agreed that buying a Riad actually adjacent to the Rue Bab Ksiba would be a mistake. It connects to the Rue de la Kasbah's southern end. As such... Rue Bab Ksiba gets it's share of arterial traffic and we wanted to create a quiet sanctuary.

To promenade through the Bab Ksiba entrance the very first Derb you meet, on the right, would be our first, and final, area of exploration.

This first right hand turning leads us to Derb Kadi (Street of the Judge). A charming tiny cul-de-sac, which circumnavigates an old stable and a mausoleum, where I assume the Judge is rested.
The Stable is home to Green Calesh No.215 (horsedrawn carriage) which visits the D' Jemaa el Fna (main square in Marrakech) to attract tourists into sightseeing the city using bygone era transport.

A small wall hides the base of an impressive Palm Tree at the end of this cul-de-sac and apart from a group of 5-year-old boys re-enacting a "Ronaldo penalty" against the mausoleum wall with a half inflated football the street scene, and it's silence, in comparison to the Rue de la Kasbah was measurable.

Fiona and I grinned at each other, as if we had discovered a lost Egyptian treasure, retreated from Derb Kadi and wandered round to Rue de la Kasbah to see if Mohamed Mahmouch was at his desk in Kasbah Immobilier...

Part 3 Where to Buy / Where not to Buy... that is the Question

The Saadian Tombs, by day, is a veritable carousel of tourists, guides, taxis and coaches all making a pilgrimage to a Marrakech tourist hot-spot.
Amongst the procession of camera happy snappers are a host of hawkers and there wears. Souvenir camels, postcards, hats and bracelets.
Bizarrely it is almost worth a visit to simply watch the occasional tourist become flustered and incapable when dealing with a hawker.

Perish the thought that I derive some internal amusement by this unfurling drama, but I do.
The Hawker is a professional, yet still it bemuses me over the length of time he'll persist on an obvious "lost cause".

The anguish, and my quietly enjoyed theatre, is short lived when the flustered American lady spots the salvation of her fortress sanctuary draw to a halt and the doors to her tourist coach ease open. Like a "greyhound out of a trap" she parts with polite etiquette and races towards safe custody.

As the lady exhales a sigh of relief, looking forlorn from her coach window, she catches my eye. I acknowledge her with a friendly grin and a shrug of my shoulders. She tuts, rolls her eyes and returns my grin with a huge smile underwritten by a theatrical "phew" as she wipes her brow.
Curtains close.
My show is over.

In the evenings the Saadian Tombs take on a foggy eeriness from steam emanating from the many local food stalls. Kebabs asunder. People everywhere.

The atmosphere is great... the smells...... intoxicating.

At twilight you really do feel that sense of being somewhere else.

Fiona and I ponder further...... Hummmmmm ... the Saadian Tombs may not be either a good place to use for a rendezvous, for somebody who doesn't actually know what you look like.

Likewise the Saadian Tombs, immediate vacinity, is equally not the best location to purchase a Riad ?

Sure... after a few days of occupation, the Hawkers would recognise us and we could go about our daily business un-hindered, but what about our friends and guests?
If they were visiting for the weekend, or indeed a week, then the Hawkers would naturally introduce themselves. Without the safe harbour of any tour coach to whisk our friends away, they may feel imprisoned in our Riad, uncomfortable with the prospect of venturing out, if greeted by a barrage of Hawkers, bombarding them with souvenirs, each time they lift their heads above the parapets.

Another rendezvous needs to be tested.

Bab Agnaou is the most impressive and most photographed of all the entrances into the Medina.
It even has Bronze Cannons.

To see if Bab Agnaou was a suitable rendezvous point, I sent Fiona to go and sit on a Cannon. Naturally she obliged..... under duress.
I found a different local chap who did not know what my wife looked like, to go and find her and escort her back to the Riad where we were staying.

Interestingly.... it worked, in fact it worked too well. Which is no real mathematical surprise when one considers that there are only 2 Cannons and only 1 person, suffering the middle-aged indignity of sitting astride one of them.

Fiona, however, was furious. "I have never felt so silly. I looked like a twisted Annie Oakley. If I had shouted Yee Haaa and slapped the back of the Cannon, I could not have attracted less attention".

Describing to Fiona that standing next to a Cannon would have been sufficient did not apease her viewpoint any lesser, in fact I simply added fuel to the fire.
My own fault as an argument usually follows when things go wrong and my instructions weren’t carried out to the letter.

Fiona's most significant observation was valid. The road in front of Bab Agnaou is used as a taxi rank.
Prior to her making a direct assult onto a Cannon she foud herself accidentally forming an orderly que !!

Our local chap escorted her........ but not by the normal route along Rue de la Kasbah.

For expedience he led her along a very pleasant walk, following the outside Medina ramparts and re-entered the Kasbah through a pretty Bab call Bab Ksiba.

We had found the perfect rendezvous. Bab Ksiba !!

Part 2 Where to Buy / Where not to Buy.. that is the Question

Not being a native Marrakechi has several drawbacks.
Language possibly being the greatest daily hurdle. My French is appalling and my Berber Arabic, non-existent. So how does one ask direction if one cannot understand the answer.
Grunt and Pay seems order of the day.

My wife and I felt that we should start to stay in Riads to get an understanding of how they operate, what we like, what works for us etc. To this day we are astonished at the varied choice and price range the Kasbah has to offer. Staying in Kasbah Riads proves to be great fun.

Added benefits are the owner’s own tales of renovation, corruption, despair and adulation when emerging from the other side of their experiences. This is possibly the most valuable advice one could ever receive, as it is real, relative and impartial to our own quest.

Fiona and I devised a plan.
To best agree on location I would arrange for Fiona to get lost and then be escorted to the Saadian Tombs !!!!.
A good plan thus far. (Well at least I thought so). The next phase of the plan was crucial. I asked a local chap, who did not know what Fiona looked like, to go and find my wife, looking lost, at the Saadian Tombs and escort her back to the Riad where we were staying.
I paid him some pocket-change and off he ventured.

The philosophy behind the plan was simple. If Fiona had just arrived in Marrakech and asked a taxi to take her to the Saadian Tombs "would she get there?" Answer... of course ... it is a significant Marrakech landmark. If she is to expect a representative of a Riad to meet her at the Saadian Tombs and subsequently guide her to our Riad to commence her vacation... would using the Saadian Tombs as a landmark prove successful?

The walk, along Rue de la Kasbah, from the Riad we were staying in, to the Saadian Tombs took approximately, 5 lazy minutes. Assuming that you do not stop to chat to everybody who wants to introduce themselves or pop into the "Complex Artizan" a huge supermarket of Artizan produced tourist goodies, from slippers, key-rings and Fez Hats to entire home installations etc. En-route there is a host of little kiosks supporting the local community from tailors, barbers, immobiliers, calligraphists to pharmacy, souvenirs and restaurants etc.

For my "local chap" these distractions would not deter his mission. 30 minutes went by...... 45 minutes went by and I was beginning to think that my choice of "local chap" had simply disappeared with his new found wealth. At 50 minutes he returned, without Fiona, looking somewhat perplexed.

"Mr...... there's hundreds of them.... tourists..... they all look the same !"

5 minutes later my "local chap" and I arrived at the Saadian Tombs.

"Look" I said.

"That's my wife, she's easy to spot".

How come” asked the local chap.

"She is the only tourist that looks ...well... Furious" !

Part 1 Where to Buy / Where not to Buy.. That is the question

"A Riad is a house with an internal courtyard - garden"

For years my wife and I have been trawling the narrow streets (derbs) in the Medina, the old walled-in city of Marrakech, looking for a suitable location for a Riad to purchase.

It dawned on me that I always chose hotels in the Kasbah district of the Medina, to set up Base Camp, whilst exploring.

The answer, for "Where to Buy"?, had been staring me in the face from outset.
The Imperial Kasbah. First Citadel of the Sultans of Morocco !!

The Kasbah is rich in community spirit, alive at night, has Royal Palaces, historic attractions and, moreover, feels safe.

Location... location .. location.... is the thing we "bang on about" in the UK.

The Kasbah is still a pretty substantial area to investigate and therfore location within the Kasbah would still be paramount. It made sense to add some criteria. Quiet, easy to access and MOST IMPORTANTLY ... easy to find.

Our first choice was dismissed for this very reason. The Riad was impressive and the price, on budget. All good so far..... our Estate Agent (Mohamed Mahmouch from Kasbah Immobilier) had been very accommodating and allowed us several arranged visits. When it came to decision time my wife and I elected to pay an unarranged visit to the Riad one evening, not necessarily to go inside but just to get a feel for the neighbourhood without the escort of the Estate Agent. A perfectly sensible and logical consideration.

"Well there's a thing"... we couldn't find it !!
Look hard.. oh yes we did. Look harder YES for 2 days!!

The problem was a simple but logistical and topographical nightmare. Each time we had visited the Riad with Mohamed, we had met him at his office, in Rue de la Kasbah (the main street in the Kasbah), and, without fail, he was always armed with a selection of keys.
Tapping his nose in an "all knowing" manner, we then darted and swerved across the Kasbah visiting alternative Riads en-route. It certainly helped Mohamed qualify the price of our chosen Riad and his un-supassed knowledge of the Kasbahs labyrinths BUT it did mean that we never visited our choice Riad from the same direction. He was keen to demonstrate his weaving techniques throughout the inter-linking derbs and we were always surprised to see what part of Rue de la Kasbah would eventually materialise.

The only thing that remained constant was the comment "how on earth did we arrive down here... or up here... or across here from over there".

Moral to the story. Don't buy a Riad that you cannot find again. If you can't find it then don't expect your friends to either.

Getting lost in the Kasbah is great fun. At the point where your suffering a sinking feeling that someone has blocked off the maze and your stuck inside the labyrinth forever wishing you had taken a tent, some water rations and an emergency flare, simply ask any local for directions to the Saadian Tombs. They'll gladly escort you and relieve you of some "small change". The Saadian Tombs makes the prefect landmark for you to re-gain your bearings.

Why the Kasbah ?

As a regular traveller to Morocco I am still amazed by the enormous diversity that Marrakech offers when one considers that it is less than three and a half hours away, from the UK, by plane. The main square of Djemma el Fna surrounded by its endless labyrinth of souks (bazaars) is well documented and conjures up visions of snake charmers, acrobats, sooth-sayers, musicians, food stalls and the like.
Fascinating, it certainly is and especially when the sun is starting to set and the rich abundance of gastronomic flavours fill the air, trapped in plumes of smoke and steam to give the Djemma-el-Fna a twilight eeriness, a mesmerising quality I have found nowhere else.

As the evening darkens, the hustle bustle of activity rages on. The exotic music appears louder and more hypnotic.

The Shaman display their apocotheries and cures, both living and dead, which always begs the question "how does one apply such a thing"? A fine example is the Black Scorpion trapped inside a jam-jar. "It's for haemorrhoids" I am informed. "well… um.. if I had Piles…. How would I apply it"? Seemed a suitable response. "I suggest you kill it first" Came the logical answer!

Directly south of the Djemma-el-Fna is Rue Bab Agnaou. A five-minute walk takes you straight to the famous Bab Agnaou entrance to the Kasbah district of the Medina.

The Bab Agnaou entrance, through the ramparts, is by far the most impressive entrance of all medina rampart entrances. This comes as no surprise when placed in context with the Kasbah.

The Kasbah was the first Citadel of the Sultans of Morocco, as such, Bab Agnaou is the posthumous entrance for Sultans, state visitors and their courtiers alike. Inside the Kasbah one finds a contrast between that of the Djemma-el-Fna only a short walk away.

The street stallholders are more accommodating and less insistent; there is an air of order, discernment and a lack of intimidation. The Kasbah is home to the Royal Palace, also the former El-Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs (an exquisite burial site of past Sultans that was only rediscovered at the turn of the last century). This naturally creates better security, cleaner streets and a hint of being a special place within the medina.

In recent years my family has visited Marrakech during most half terms, buying gifts for Xmas stocking fillers, winter sun, Easter exotic on a budget and have almost exclusively looked for Riad accommodation in the Kasbah.

A Riad is a Moroccan house with an internal courtyard. Most windows are inward facing towards the central atrium. This design of property suites Islamic tradition as there is no obvious wealth statement being made externally, no windows to peer through. Entering a Riad is like discovering an Aladdin's Cave in comparison to it's non-descript exterior.

The Kasbah has a good selection available to meet most budgets; the Kasbah also boasts three superb Riad converted hotels, La Sultana located next to the Saadian Tombs, which is very close to Bab Agnaou. Les Jardin de la Medina and Les Borjs de la Kasbah are within a minute of each other at the southern, quiet, end of the Kasbah very close to the entrance to the Royal Palace and the Sultans Agdal Gardens.

A pleasant route to access the southern end of the Kasbah is to follow the outside rampart walls past Bab Agnaou and Bab er-Rob gates until you get to Bab Ksiba, which is easily recognised by the huge eucalyptus tree on it's left hand side.

This route has a second advantage in the winter months as it gives you an un-hindered view of the Mighty Atlas Mountains, which lay due south of the Kasbah. From Bab Ksiba (the taxi drivers pronounce Bab Lak-siba if you simply want to visit) walk straight, then left at the end, then right and within 100 meters you will find yourself at the far end of Rue de la Kasbah which runs parallel to the outside walls and will take you back to Bab Agnaou and past the Saadian Tombs.

The Kasbah has it's own little bazaars (Souikas), food stalls, restaurants, hotels and riads for travellers to enjoy.

For my family…. We do enjoy the Djemma el Fna and it's cacophony of exotic wonders but would not want to be immersed in it 24/7 during our stay. The Kasbah is "not too far…. from the madding crowd" but a short peripheral distance away to enjoy then retreat to some semblance of tranquillity.

About the Author
As the Editor of I regularly travel to Marrakech to review riad, hotel accommodation, attractions, services and restaurants. I specialise in the Kasbah quarter within the Medina district of Marrakech.