Naturally, as Phil's 50th birthday fell this year, many of his college friends were also reaching the same milestone in 2005. One such friend was Al who, never one to do things by halves, decided to invite his friends to celebrate in the Moroccan city of Marrakech.
Villa Dar Zina and Hotel Dar Schama
Every building in Marrakech must by decree be painted in ochre, said to be the colour of the desert. The Villa Dar Zina, where we stayed for our first three nights, was on the edge of town. We were upgraded to a lovely suite with no less than two terraces overlooking the pool. As hoteliers however it was difficult to avoid thinking everything was very over-priced, but then we were the only guests most of the time and the weather was perfect for lazing on the sun beds which was all we really wanted to do after a busy season. An accidental 'overbooking' meant we were shunted across town to the Hotel Dar Schama for the fourth night.
Riad Chorfa - The Party Begins
A phone call, a hair-raising taxi-ride across town to meet a mysterious stranger outside the Café Les Négociants - it felt more like Casablanca than Marrakech! Julie (an arabic-speaking local resident, and not to be confused with Al's wife Julie) was to be our guide into first another taxi and then through the alleyways of the Medina until we finally entered a wooden doorway.
Al and Julie (with the help of the other Julie) had hired a 'Riad' - a traditional townhouse built around a courtyard - for the weekend. Our room had a staircase onto the roof terrace, where breakfast was served in the November sunshine the first morning.
Exploring the Medina
We were glad that we had diminished the culture shock slightly by spending our first few days in Marrakech in a "safe" tourist environment; many of Al's friends had flown directly from a normal week at work in the UK to a weekend on a different continent.
When making purchases in one of the thousands of tiny shops in the Souks, we left the haggling process to Julie. She also kept us from getting lost in the maze of alleyways which make up the Medina.
eaten seated around a stall in the main square ('Jemaa El Fna') the previous night,
Al and Julie had picked more of an international style restaurant in the
'New' town for Saturday evening's meal.
But the means they had chosen to transport the sixteen people from the riad in the Medina to the restaurant turned out to be more traditional as we climbed aboard four carriages (or 'Callèches') each pulled by a pair of horses.
Sunday Night - Al's Birthday
Tonight - Al's 50th birthday - the restaurant was in the Medina, within walking distance of the Riad Chorfa. The restaurant management helpfully posted guides to escort diners through the alleyways.
The courtyard setting, the roving musicians and other traditional touches turned the meal into an experience. And the quality of the dishes served dispelled any lingering doubts about the national cuisine.
The Atlas Mountains
way of a hangover cure Al and Julie had hired two minibuses to take us all
an hour south of Marrakech into the Atlas mountains. We were to go
on a 'leisurely stroll' through the foothills, but some of the obstacles
proved more challenging than anticipated.
But despite the stunning views and chilly temperatures some of the party were looking distinctly queasy on the journey back. A short stop for some traditional mint tea in a real Berber house may have helped a bit, but the numbers eating the meal in the riad that evening were well down.
We flew out from Marrakech early on the Tuesday morning, spending one night with friends in Paris before returning to Exeter airport on Wednesday.
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