Arriving abroad….

The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.
The tower of the Koutoubia Mosque, Marrakech.

Don’t you just love that moment when, having left behind a dull and breezy spring day in the UK, your flight Captain announces that the local temperature is 39 degrees?

We landed in Marrakech-Menara airport at 8.40pm. It was already getting dark, but the heat that hit us as we stepped off the plane was almost tropical. The muffled voices echoing around the Arrivals hall were mostly speaking French, and signs in French and Arabic added to that lovely feeling you get when you’ve just arrived somewhere new and exciting. After the compulsory visit to the loo, we joined the queue for passport control (had my passport stamped – yay!) and went to collect our suitcase from the carousel. Then changed British money into Moroccan Dirhams, and headed out to our transfer driver, Faisal, who had been waiting patiently.

The roads of modern Marrakech are wide and busy; while Faisal told us all about the trips he would be happy to arrange for us, we watched as modern buildings, billboards and palm trees sped past in the dark, and we clung on to our seats as Faisal cut up every vehicle that tried to pass us on either side. Marrakech – so far – looked nothing like I expected, until Faisal pointed out the approaching walls of the Medina (the old town) looming in front of us. We pulled into an entrance to the city at exactly the same time as about 3 other vehicles, all with horns blaring, but Faisal, un-phased, just continued his commentary, narrowly missing a parked donkey cart. This was the Marrakech I’d imagined: increasingly narrow streets, tight corners, roads lit by lights radiating from tiny shops and stalls, boys on bikes, old men sitting on the pavements, dark doorways, and noise – everywhere, noise: car horns, bicycle bells, cart wheels, motor bike engines, shouting…..

Suddenly we stopped, and in the same breath as pointing out his ‘Travel Agency’ close by (“…where I will meet you first thing in the morning to book all your excursions…”), Faisal was barking instructions and passing our luggage to a teenage boy who turned and started walking off down a smaller lane, among several cyclists and people pushing carts along through the dark alleys.

Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad...very strange in the dark!
Tiny alleyways to get to the Riad…very strange in the dark!

We hastily tipped Faisal and followed after the boy, turning into smaller lanes and then yet smaller and darker ones. A group of young children crouching on the corner watched silently as we passed.

 

The doorway to our wonderful Riad.
The doorway to our wonderful Riad.

Finally we were at an impressive, open doorway. The sign above showed we’d arrived at the Riad El Youssoufi, and a young man of about 27 was standing in the warm light just inside. “Welcome,” he said, “and mind your heads!” Julien took our luggage from the boy and stood back to let us stoop carefully down into the calm, cool oasis that was to be our home for the next 6 days…..

A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech
A typical alleyway in the Medina of Marrakech

There’s something very magical about that first couple of hours when you arrive at a foreign destination. Something extra special about that first sniff of foreign air, that sensation of being in a different climate, the sound of a different language being spoken; seeing signs in different alphabets, faces with different features, cafes serving different food. As you leave the airport for your hotel in a car, taxi, minibus or coach, you see different shops, different brand names above petrol stations, unfamiliar road signs and place names, buildings that could be schools, clinics, libraries, police stations. Or you take the metro, watching locals get on and off, immediately recognising you as a tourist with your map and suitcase, as you pass through stations with unfamiliar names.

The beautiful central courtyard of the Riad El Youssoufi.

Then you arrive at your hotel or lodging with a feeling of trepidation. Will it be as nice in real life as it was in the photos? Have they given you a decent room? All the other guests know their way around and look at your untanned skin and travel-crumpled clothes (flight socks under sandals – good look!) with curiosity as they amble through the lobby on their way to the pool/the nightclub/dinner.

The view from the bathroom.
The view from the bathroom.

You spend half an hour unpacking the essentials, finding places for everything, checking out the bathroom, reading any guest information, logging on to wifi, locking and unlocking the safe (if you have one) – not sure how much cash to keep on you for your first night, not sure where to keep your camera/ipod/documents….Within a couple of days, it will all be familiar; your room will feel like home, and you will know exactly where to go for a bottle of water/the best spot by the pool/some great local street food.

But for now, it’s all out there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be discovered…..exciting, uplifting, exotic; and you relish that tingle of expectancy that runs through you as the adventure begins.

 

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A Surprise Holiday!

I had dreams that our 30th wedding anniversary would involve my husband whisking me off to an exotic island –I have been hinting about Bora Bora for an awfully long time, after all! But deep down, I knew this was never going to happen – for several reasons:

  1. Bora Bora is VERY expensive to get to.
  2. Despite leaving suitable travel brochures laying around, with pages turned down and hotel descriptions heavily ringed in black biro, my husband has not noticed that Bora Bora is El Numero Uno on my bucket list. I suppose the fact that there are always numerous holiday brochures, travel magazines and guide books covering every surface in our house may make it easy for these to be overlooked….
  3. Bora Bora is VERY, VERY expensive to get to.
  4. My husband – bless him – readily admits he would have no idea of where to start when it comes to booking a holiday, even though I have travel agent friends who would hold his hand and gently guide him through the whole process! My fault, I know; having had a travel-obsessed travel consultant as a wife does rather mean he has had no involvement in organizing any of our travel plans…
  5. My husband would be terrified of Getting It Wrong….he knows there would be dire consequences if he booked the wrong flights/airlines/hotels!!!
  6. Bora Bora is NOT CHEAP.

An expensive trip to a tiny speck in a distant ocean on the other side of the world merits a stay of at least two weeks; Hubby would have to clear it with my employers behind my back and it wouldn’t be easy for him to take time off (he’s self employed…)

So…..it was up to ME to surprise HIM.

And now the tables were turned, I realised that it’s actually not quite that easy to organise a surprise holiday; I asked him if he’d be happy for me to surprise him, and gave him some rough dates. Yes, that was fine, he said (with a slightly worried expression).

So; where to go? Bora Bora is out of the question until we win the lottery. We couldn’t be away for more than a week due to work constraints. We both hate the idea of spending all day, every day on a beach. I didn’t want to stay in a bland hotel.

My first thought was Madrid. I love Madrid with a passion, and I’ve been there several times, although Hubby has never been. But I’ll be going again in September – maybe better to look at somewhere I’d never been before. Cordoba? Granada? Seville…?

I looked at Seville; cheap flights, some beautiful, Moorish hotels….which made me think of Morocco. Marrakech – perfect!! Both our son and my aunt have been to Morocco and loved it. It’s very cheap to get to, it’s a perfect destination for a shorter break, it would be a new experience for both of us and it would be full of colour and noise and smells and…..well, exotic-ness!!!

I found the flights. I found a BEAUTIFUL Riad within the walls of the Medina – small and romantic, so perfect for the occasion. I booked the airport parking. I organized the travel insurance. I checked our passports…….Oh dear: Hubby’s passport would expire less than 3 months after our return date, and the Moroccan websites all told us that he’d need at least 6 months remaining. I told him he’d have to renew his passport.

I spoke to a nurse at our local GP surgery to check that we were up to date with our travel vaccinations. Although not compulsory, she strongly recommended that we had the appropriate jabs, although she couldn’t fit us in for the same appointment. I had to explain that my husband had no idea where we were going, so she was under strict orders not to give the game away! So off he went, bless him, to be prodded and pricked….he came back with a glint in his eye, though; “Well, that rules Madrid out!” he said.

Then, as the holiday got nearer, I asked Hubby to get together some clothes that he might like to take; I could help him decide what would be suitable and what else he might need to buy. “Will I need beach clothes?” he asked. “…..Possibly,” I told him, mysteriously (I knew we might have a day trip to the coast). “Will it be hot?” he asked. “Hmmmnn…hotter than here, I expect,” I said, trying to look as though I’d had to think very hard about that one. “How much money will I need to take?” he asked. “Well, just enough for food, and a little extra in case we take an excursion, and some more for bits and pieces, ice creams, souvenirs, postcards……” “OK; Euros….?”

In Morocco the currency is the Dirham. It is possible to use Euros in a few places over there, particularly in Marrakech, but it is expected that visitors bring Dirhams – which you can’t get until you arrive in Morocco. “Maybe you should just bring all your currency in Sterling?” I told him. “But you always tell me it’s not safe to take too much cash on holiday,“ he said; “Will I be able to use my cards while we’re away? Shouldn’t I advise my bank in advance…?”

With just a few days to go, I realised that it wasn’t so easy to keep everything secret. Perhaps, if we’d been going off on a standard package tour to a Mediterranean beach resort, it would have been simpler. Regardless of which country you’re in, you kind of know what to expect from a beach package. But I was beginning to realise that he needed to have an idea of the destination; even though I could tell him what clothes, toiletries and currency to bring, he needed to mentally prepare for where we were going – just as I would have wanted to. It also gave him a chance to read a little about Marrakech, to get an idea of what he might not want to miss when we were there. Perhaps keeping the whole thing secret was more for my own benefit – it gave me total control, and I had an excuse for not sharing the planning and the details with anybody else. But it can’t have been easy for him. So, two days before we left, I told him that we were going to Morocco. Which he’d already guessed, anyway.

An olive stall in Marrakech.
An olive stall in Marrakech.

I still had the satisfaction of knowing that the location inside the Medina walls would be a surprise, as would the tasteful, romantic and exotic Riad that I had chosen. I knew the holiday would be special, because of the occasion it was celebrating. And to an extent, it would be a surprise to both of us – however much I’d been told by other people, however many photos I’d seen, however many books I’d read, I knew Marrakech would be different to anywhere I’d been before, so I hoped and expected that it would still surprise me.

And I’m still hoping that, one day, he’ll tell me to book two weeks off work and to stock up on sun cream, ready for when he whisks me off to…….well, hopefully it’ll be a surprise…!!!