Saturday, 7 February 2015

'We're off on the road to Morocco...we certainly do get around!'

29-30 January: Air travel is probably the closest we're all going to get to time machines, apart from ignoring when the clocks go backwards or forwards and then spending some time in the past or future.

Within the grounds of the Le Meridien N'Fis Hotel, Marrakech
On Thursday morning I flew out of London Gatwick to Marrakech in Morocco, North Africa. I've never been to Africa before. The weather in the UK was cold. Snow had been threatened and, as usual, I was not really dressed for the occasion: the cold wind howled right through me whenever I found myself out in the open air.

Le Meridien N'Fis, Marrakech
It had been a busy schedule from the word go mainly because I'd decided to spend Tuesday night in Leicester so that I could attend a small seminar and exhibition the following morning. It was cold in Leicester too and while I should have stayed in the hotel for dinner, I foolishly ventured out and rather than arrive at my destination chilled, I was blast-chilled and then I had to endure the cold again for the walk back to the hotel.

An orange tree inside the hotel grounds
When I reached home on Wednesday night the power had gone off. Well, not all of it, just stuff that was linked to a specific 30-amp fuse. I didn't have any 30-amp fuses so I spent until 10pm driving around the streets of Croydon in a desperate search so that my family would be able to use things like the iron and the oven. No joy. It also meant that I couldn't iron any clothes for the trip to Morocco and time was running out.
The labyrinthine streets of the Marrakech souk
I was due to fly out of Gatwick for Marrakech on Thursday morning and, as usual when an extremely early start is involved, I didn't get a good night's sleep. I was up at 0400hrs slinging a shirt or two in a suitcase and getting together all the things I thought I would need for the trip. The blown fuse meant that I couldn't use the power shower the night before so I resorted to the olden day practice of having a bath, which was quite pleasant. Bathing and shaving the night before saved time and when a colleague from work, who lives locally, rang the doorbell at 0500hrs I was virtually ready to leave.

Looking down on the souk
We drove along the A23 towards the office where we met our other work colleagues and jumped into a coach for a short ride to Gatwick airport. Within around 15-20 minutes we were there and I had what amounted to breakfast: a large paper mug of tea and an almond croissant from Starbuck's before heading to the gate and flying off to Marrakech.

Another aerial view of the souk – check out the rugs
The flight lasted just three hours and it went by pretty quickly. The skies were clear, there was very little in the way of turbulence – none, in fact – and we arrived safely in Morocco where the sun was shining and there was neither cloud nor snow.

Yours truly on the main square, Marrakech
How incredible when you sit and think about it: just three hours from Gatwick airport and I was in North Africa looking at camels and snake charmers, monkeys dressed in suits and men wearing hooded garments and those hats made popular in the UK by the comedian Tommy Cooper (the Fez). It was even more incredible that I was there for just one night, although, effectively, with such an early flight, we would have the best part of two days in an environment reserved for the likes of Peter Laurie, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Ustinov, not forgetting Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour (the last three from Road to Morocco).

Avenue Mohammed V1, Marrakech...nearly back at the hotel
Our hotel was a short drive from the airport and it was an oasis of palm and orange trees, trickling sprinklers keeping the lawns green and the pleasing and calming sound of birdsong from the lush foliage of the flora and fauna. In short it was another world; a world far-removed from what I was used to, but a world strangely appealing. Like in most hot countries there was the sound of whining mopeds on dusty roads, but there were camels and snake charmers too.

Only yards from the hotel. Out of shot to the left is a shopping mall
The hotel room was roomy and luxurious, like any hotel you might find in the western world. There was the obligatory Samsung flatscreen television and a fully-stocked minibar and decent and proper coathangers. Two things that bug me about hotels everywhere is a locked or empty minibar and those awful coathangers that don't have proper hooks. Both are signs that the hotel doesn't trust its guests, but not the LeMeridien N'Fis in Marrakech. It was perfect. I didn't get much of a chance to sample the food other than the breakfast – fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereal – and a club sandwich, but what I did try I enjoyed, especially the Moroccan mint tea – if you haven't tried you really must. I know that Whittard's sell it. In fact, let's have a little rave about Moroccan mint tea. It's amazing. I had my first glass when I arrived at the hotel (it's the way the hotel greets its guests). It's minty and sweet-tasting so I'm assuming there's plenty of sugar, but it's wonderful. I had a pot of it in the souk and the pot was crammed with mint leaves, but there's more to mint tea than mint leaves and hot water and I'm guessing the extra ingredient is sugar. I'll have to check it out online, but next to Twining's Lemon & Ginger tea and some amazing jasmine tea I enjoyed in Qatar, Moroccan mint tea gets a tremendous thumbs up from yours truly.

We had the whole of Friday as free time as our return flight didn't depart until 8 o'clock. There was plenty to do: a bike ride into the Atlas mountains had been mooted and I was kind of up for it, until I realised that it wasn't an organised trip with other like-minded individuals but one of the guys in the office checking out a route on his iphone GPS, and besides, who wanted to ride 56 miles to and from the mountains when there was a risk of kidnapping in Morocco's remoter outlying regions (I'm guessing that means the Atlas Mountains)? Well, what about a spot of quad biking? Rik Mayall immediately sprung to mind and so did Ozzie Osbourne, both of whom had quad bike accidents. Ozzie is still with us and so was Rik until recently and it is widely believed that his quad bike accident contributed to his sad demise. Alright, well, what about horse riding? I've never riden a horse but I know people who have and one of them fell off and broke her back. Not pleasant. She's alright now, but why take the risk? I wasn't alone in my cautious attitude. A group of us headed into town to mooch around the famous souk where Moroccans sold everything from leather holdalls and handbags through to woollen hats and it was well worth it. The souk was like a kind of shanty town: narrow, dark alleys twisting and turning and never seeming to end. I love mooching around too. I do it all the time. Mooching about. If I had the financial wherewithal I'd be a professional moocher.

We wandered around and eventually stopped for a cup of tea in a restaurant offering an aerial view across the top of the souk – corrugated iron roofs, satellite dishes, rugs draped over the sides of buildings and a hazy blue sky. Temperatures reach almost 50 degrees C in the summer but now, in January, it's a pleasant 20 degrees, just like a summer's day in England.

The people are pretty friendly too. In fact I wouldn't mind returning to Marrakech for a holiday.

Left to right: Martin, Jezza and Jason on the main square, Marrakech.
After a while I decided to walk back to the hotel, which took about 20 minutes in the warm sun. After a club sandwich and a jolly decent glass of draught ale, the name of which I can't recall – although the bottled Casablanca beer was also very pleasant – I waited for the coach to the airport, then endured the usual airport security and the long wait until the flight was called.

The journey home was fine, but I was tired out and wanted to get home. We were in the air for about three hours and because it was a night flight there was nothing to see out of the window. When we eventually landed we all queued for passport control and because I only had hand luggage the whole process was fairly smooth. A colleague gave me a lift home and at around 0100hrs I hit the sack. I was so glad to be home, even if it was freezing cold.

Over the weekend I decided to take it easy and not go out cycling as it was far too cold.

As for Marrakech, it was fantastic and if you haven't been there yet, I suggest you book a flight immediately.

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