Saturday, October 22, 2011

DAY 4; MOROCCO TRIP WITH PRINCESS DR BECKY LEOGARDO AND MICHAEL MANTZ

KEE@FSWMAG.COM

DAY 4; MOROCCO TRIP WITH PRINCESS DR BECKY LEOGARDO AND MICHAEL MANTZ

18 OCTOBER 2011
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Kee Hua Chee being welcomed at La Mamounia in the style he is accustomed by 4 doormen in traditional, palace-style costumes.

MAGNIFICENT LA MAMOUNIA AND MARVELLOUS MARRAKESH!

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Kee Hua Chee, Princess Dr Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz relaxing in the lobby of La Mamounia

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Kee Hua Chee, Princes Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz beneath an original artwork in La Mamounia

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Princess Dr Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz in the lobby of Le Meridien Marrakesh

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Princess Dr Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz in La Mamounia

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Micheal Mantz's departure was looked after by 7 staff!


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A grand send-off in the style they are accustomed!

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La Mamounia conserved these historic old palms so cars have to pass between them! Luckily the gap is big enough for Rolls-Royces and Maybachs!

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One of the palm trees even appears to grow from the floor of the entrance!

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A helping hand is always welcome

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La Mamounia's walls resemble a fortress to keep peasants and sightseers with no intention of dining away

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I am used to such attention!

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There was a fashion shoot for Morocco's top glossy so naturally I felt obliged to pose with the model!

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By the way, the entire photo team was busy taking my photos as they could not believe my attire and jewels

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Two beauties

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The large dish on table is filled with dates for guests to enjoy

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This sculpture is the centrepiece in the lobby

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The grand foyer

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One of the exceedingly beautiful courtyards in La Mamounia

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The fabled gardens fron the balcony of Sir Winston Churchill Suite

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Balcony with a view of the famous garden of La Mamounia

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I can laze here all afternoon

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I can gaze at the beautiful garden all day

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The mature trees are over a century and the garden has remained intact from the time when original owner Prince Mamoun lived here

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Portrait and sculpture of Sir Winston Churchill at the entrance of the suite named in his honour

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The luxurious living room of Sir Winston Churchill Suite combines Art Deco with Moroccan elements. The paintings are originals painted by Sir Winston Churchill who spent several winters here

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The sitting room in Sir Winston Churchill suite

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Gold and velvet make a luxurious blend

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The Arabic characters above the bed means 'Winston Churchill'!

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I can soak in this tub for hours, preferably with MM

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Luxurious His and Hers basins

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Most beds look like this

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The Katoubia Suite is vast and this is just the living room overlooking Katoubia Mosque and its famous minaret

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The balcony offers magnificent view of the fabled garden of La Mamounia while Katoubia minaret looms beyond the high protective ochre walls

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My Leica zoom lens got this sharp clear picture of Katoubia minaret

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Princess Dr Becky Leogardo in a pretty pose

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One for the road

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A separate rainshower in the bathroom

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A cosy enclave in Katoubia Suite

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Which leads to this cool and serene livingroom

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Certain parts of La Mamounia resemble a fortress but these balconies overlook the famed garden

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A stained glass roof allows natural light to flood in

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Kee Hua Chee, Princess Dr Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz beneath this rather bizarre painting that resembles a scary scarecrow

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I bet the painting is by some famous artist as a similar sculpture is on show in the lounge

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The ghostly sculpture in the tea room does nothing for the appetite

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One of several glam corridors

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The swimming pool and deck area

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These rooms overlook garden and pool

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Main entrance to one of the 3 Riads or private villa in traditional Moroccan style, ie a rich Morrocan who can afford the style! Each riad costs RM 36,000 per night and accomodates only 6 guests

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Your own private pool with sundeck. At RM 36,000 a night you deserve it

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Your own private oasis

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Your own pool with outdoor dining table

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Perfect for a cuddle

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His and Hers basin

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Even the wardrobe doors are works of art

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It does not snow in Marrakesh so the fireplace is for show only

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One of the 3 bedrooms with attached bathroom and toilet

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Moroccan decor

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The outdoor dining table beside the pool

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The living room in the Riad

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Drawn curtains open onto the patio

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Drawing room

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Kee Hua Chee, Lamia Sardy the comunications officer, Michael Mantz and Princess Dr Becky Leogardo in the Italian Restaurant. Our lunch for just the three of us cost Princess Becky around RM 700 and we did not even have wine!

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The live music area in Italian Restuarant

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The lounge in the Italian restaurant

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The patio from the Italian Restaurant

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The Bar at Italian Restaurant

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Enjoying lunch at La Mamounia

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We both ordered Spaghetti Bolognaise which was delicious as expected

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So romantic this couple after shopping at Fendi

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The centrepiece in the lobby

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Princess Becky Leogardo, Lamia Sardy and Michael Mantz by the dramatic octagonal airwell

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La Mamounia is an architect and interior designer's dream

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A chat by the dramatic airwell

THE PHOTOS BELOW WERE TAKEN AT JEMAA EL FNA SQUARE, THE WORLD FAMOUS SOUK OR MARKET THAT HAS BEEN ESTABLISHED AT THIS SPOT FOR CENTURIES. HERE IS AN AMAZING BLEND OF CULTURES OF THE MOROCCANS, ARABS, BERBERS FROM ATLAS MOUNTAINS AND BLACKS FROM THE SOUTH.

MICHAEL MANTZ TOOK ME TO CAFE GLACES TO THE TERRACE WHICH OFFERS THE MOST SPECTACULAR 180 DEGREE VIEWS OF THE HEAVING MASS OF HUMANITY BELOW, THE FOOD STALLS AND SHOPS

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Michael Mantz in the street leading to Jemaa El Fna Square

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A matching couple as I always felt Princess Becky was always too petite for him

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Gateway building at the entrance of Jemaa El Fna Square

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Bird's eye view of the square from the terrace of Cafe Glaces

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Preserved fruits like dates and nuts are the best buys and delightfully healthy too!

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Horse carriage rides are a fun way of taking in the sights

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I would love to hang ALL these multi-coloured lamps in my house!

After breakfast at Le Meridien, we whiled away some time relaxing in our hotel before driving to the BEST HOTEL IN AFRICA the world acclaimed La Mamounia!

We drove past it last night while cruising the streets of Marrakesh and noted the gates seemed tightly closed and heavily guarded. So I phoned Lamia the communications manager to request for a guided tour of La Mamounia and to reserve a table for lunch at the Italian Restaurant. Lamia graciously agreed and said she would leave my name at the security guardhouse.

True enough, getting in was no piece of cake and even hotel guests had to prove they were staying there by showing their room card keys. We were stopped but I gave my magical, famous name ‘Kee’ and we were waved right in.

My first surprise (one of many to come!) was the sight of a mature, fully grown palm tree growing straight in the middle of the drive! There were three but one was growing right in the middle of the tarred road from a protected round circle! There was just enough room for a large limousine like Rolls-Royce or Maybach to pass through since His Majesty King Mohammad VI visits La Mamounia often and well he should as he owns it.

Our Renault Megane glided through easily and we emerged to be confronted by 6 doormen in traditional royal guard costumes! I felt like I was back in the days of the turn of the 20th century when travel was a major adventure.

The lobby was grand and superbly decked out in classical Moroccan décor with modern touches. On the right was a sitting area with a huge low table laden with dates.

The main foyer was spectacular and expensively decked out with precious works of art and elaborate carvings, embellishments and concealed lighting systems made possible only if you stripped the hotel bare to instal the wires!

Lamia appeared looking like a young actress as she was so pretty and charming. “Yes, this hotel underwent a massive renovation so now what seemed like an old Moroccan palace comes with modern amenities and advanced technology!’ she beamed.

“It proved impossible to close part of the hotel as renovations were carried out as the noise and inconvenience would never be tolerated by our guests used to the very best so we closed La Mamounia for 3 years! From 2006 and 2009 La Mamounia underwent its most extensive refurbishment, changing its Art Deco interiors back to its Moroccan roots. The 230 rooms were reduced to 210 and 3 new riads (traditional Moroccan homes) were built, each with 700 sq metres boasting 3 full suites and private swimming pool. So while everything seemed like it has been around all this time, all is brand new.”

The cost of creating this illusion of timeless elegance was a staggering RM 700 million but every square metre has been reworked and refined to an inch of its life so it was money well invested. The last renovation was in 1986. But this latest round should last for at least another 50 years though maintenance is constantly carried out.

Everything was as magnificent, splendid and impressive as RM 700 million could produce. The décor was an interior designer’s dream and extremely grand but not ridiculously over the top like Burj Al Arab in Dubai. I love Burj Al_Arab as it is flashy enough for my taste but while La Mamounia is stealth wealth and reeks of old money, Burj Al-Arab or Atlantis is all about nouveau riches from the new kids on the block.

Explained interior designer Jacques Garcia, “I wanted La Mamounia to be reminiscent of a faraway time and place, evoking a moderm day fairy tale. Combining the best the modern world can offer with traditional values, La Mamounia offers an experience so unique it becomes the integral part of the myth that surrounds it!” A veritable hymn to the mystical palaces of 1001 nights reduced to 210 rooms!

As we arrived 12.30pm and our meeting with Lamia was 1pm, we wandered a bit and bumped into a fashion shoot. The tall blonde model was so lovely I felt obliged to have my photo taken with her. Of course the entire photo team was also busy taking photos of me since I was wearing my pink shirt and scarlet pants painted with my faces. So they were only too happy to return the favour by taking photos of me with the model who turned out to be Russian. Strange considering Morocco has so many stunners of both sexes.

La Mamounia opened as a hotel in 1923 but was the private palace of Prince Mamoun, one of the sons of King Sidi Mohammad Bin Abdullah who gave each of his sons a palace with vast garden on his wedding day. When the palace with its 8 acre garden was turned into a hotel, a suitably royal name was needed so La Mamounia came into existence as it is the feminine form of Mamoun.

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Kee Hua Chee with Princess Dr Becky Leogardo and Michael Mantz in the lobby of La Mamounia


The original Art Deco interior reflected the era it was built when this stylishly elegant and geometric artform replaced the flowery Art Nouveau style. Now it has returned to its roots as classic Moorish architecture and Moroccan details take over. Wonderfully worked sculptures contemporary and traditional vie for attention with ornate details and extravagant flourishes like gold curtains sensually folded halfway and suspended that way. The ceilings are worked in arabesques that are repeated endlessly while velvet walls are matched by identikit velvet jackets worn by the staff in Marjorelle Gallery!

“It is the loveliest spot in the world,” enthused Sir Winston Churchill who stayed at La Mamounia several winters and painted the gardens and landscapes. Some of his original paintings now hang in the Sir Winston Churchill Suite named in his honour. Yours at RM 12,000 a night. Churchill invited President Franklin Roosevelt in 1943 to visit this ‘loveliest spot” in the winter of 1943. General Charles de Gaulle also stayed here and the general manager had to install a new bed to accommodate the statesman’s full height!

Yves St Laurent and his partner cum lover Pierre Berge bought a villa in Marrakesh on their very first visit in 1968 and later Marjorelle Garden after they learned it was to be demolished to build a hotel.

The corridors of the bedrooms are lined with modern versions of burning torches and the carpet is so deep my heels sank right in and I was wearing flats!

Stationery sets are of orange leather and all rooms enjoy fabulous views of garden, pool, city and Katoubia minaret, the symbol of Marrakesh. If I have to split hairs, it must be the excessive number of doors inside the suite. Some bathrooms have 4 doors and can be claustrophobic as I bet the doors, lavishly hand painted as they may be, are hardly used for the purpose they were intended---to be closed. Why would the occupant close and lock the doors inside his bathroom as presumably he would be staying alone or sharing with someone dear and near? The doorways are not big either and the overfed may have to struggle through.

The 2,500 sq metre Spa is a world onto itself with handmade beauty products like ghassoul (mineral clay from nearby Atlas mountains), black soap (vegetal mixture without seeds) and argan oil, all of which can be purchased.

The 3 Riad villas are your own home away from home. Each has orange trees at the entrance and 3 individual suites each with attached bathroom, large dining room, hall, private terrace, sundeck and swimming pool. At 700 sq metres it is the size of a large house as my condo is only 160 sq metres!

Each Riad or traditional Moroccan house with walled compound comes with its own butler and kitchen which is used mostly for presentation as there is a secret underground passage leading to the main kitchen where Chef Fabrice Lasnon will cook your meal to perfection before sending it via the underground tunnel back to your Riad!

However I was surprised there is no covered or sheltered pathway from the Riad to the main building! At a shocking RM 36,000 a night (for a maximum of 6 adults) the occupants have to trek under the searing heat to the lobby, bars, restaurants, pool or shops. Worse, the road is of broken gravel which will make mincemeat of your Christian Lauboutin heels. Gasped Princess Dr Becky Leogardo, “Luckily I am wearing low wedges!”. To add insult to injury, there was no buggy or any other means of locomotive transport.

“Er, there is a private gate where you can drive in,” explained Lamia Saydy. But most would have to check in at the main lobby unless you are a Moroccan VIP. I will stick to the rooms and suites in the main building.

Princess Dr Becky, Michael Mantz and I lunched at the Italian Restaurant where the tiramisu was out of this world and Princess Becky ordered two. Service was extraordinary. A waiter hurried to produce a velvet stool to place my bag. My mineral water was refilled constantly and a waiter walked me to the loo and opened the door for me.

But I must say I have tasted better spaghetti bolognaise. The bill for three was around RM 750 so don’t over-gorge. Lucky I was not paying but even so…

In the evening Michael and I took a taxi from Le Meridien to the famous Jemaa El Fna Square, a vast open air night bazaar which was declared ‘Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by UNESCO in May 2001 so I was agog to see, smell and taste this ‘oral and intangible heritage’. We walked through a typical pedestrian mall filled with the usual suspects of blah boutiques and mediocre restaurants and uninteresting shops selling fake Louis Vuittons only to be stupefied by Jemaa El Fna Square.

The vista and mass of humanity hit me smack in the face and I instantly understood what the mincing words mean. After all, UNESCO is not one to dole out flattering accolades for nothing.

I stood gaping at the heaving throng, the air thick with spices and the limited space filled with horse drawn carriages. Vendors released little blue flying saucers up into the sky which fell near their feet. I was not trampled but felt like I was in a movie scene and on the verge of being kidnapped. A sort of openair version of ‘Meet Me in the Kasbah’.

Michael came here 25 years ago and miraculously remembered he was taken to the rooftop of a nearby restaurant for a panoramic view of the square during lunch. Amazingly, the same building was till there! So we climbed the steps to the third floor to the roof terrace for a bird’s eye view of the swarming mass of humanity below.

The view was not free as the sign read ‘Consumption Compulsorie’ but all we needed pay was for a soft drink under RM 8. The views from every table by the terrace were stupendous and it is imperative any tourist must gawk at the square from a rooftop terrace. There are many such places so just pick any one but ours was called Maison Glaces and I am convinced it offers the best views as it straddles the corner so you get to admire Koutoubia minaret as well as the stalls in the square.

On the right side of Maison Glaces was the Koutoubia, one of the most important mosques in the Islamic world, built by the king of Almohad dynasty in the 12th century. Its famous minaret is the symbol of Marrakesh while then name ‘koutoub’ means ‘book’ in Arabic and the Malay word for ‘book’ is ‘kitab’ is obviously derived from this word.

In the middle of the square are food stalls and hawkers’ wares surrounded by the old souk or market stalls within a sheltered compound. The square literally throbs with activities and roadside entertainment. Here is an amazing melange of cultures of the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains, the Arabs of the plains and the blacks from Africa.

Jugglers do their thing, charmers charm their snakes, musicians play their instruments and herbalists concoct magical mixtures. Forget the snake ointment and herbal remedies derived from dubious substances. I recommend argan oil which is available everywhere and made from the seeds of argan fruits. The oil is used both for massage/skin moisturiser or as cooking oil so do try remember which bottle is for what if you buy both. They are said to work wonders as anti-aging agents and I can vouch for it.

I never knew Jacky Chan is so internationally renowned as he really must be the most famous chink in the world. So many vendors and peddlers called me ‘Jacky Chan’ and only a few said ‘Moshi moshi’ so they got my race right. I am not a fan of Jacky Chan as I prefer to be called ‘Bruce Lee’ or ‘Elvis Presley’ which I received now and then.

Since I stood out so prominently, I had to deal with touts and curious locals who asked if my snake necklace could bite. One asked if I could give it to him!

Remember, the locals DISLIKE being photographed so be careful. Use your zoom lenses! The younger ones seemed more agreeable but even so, don’t chance it. If they ask you to delete their images, do so immediately in front of them. Picking a quarrel here should be the bottom of your ‘To Do’ list.

Even standing still and watching the musicians, singers, magicians and jugglers attracted attention. If you are a tourist (being white and blonde or yellow carrying camera will give the game away) watching the activities more than 10 seconds, someone from the group will ask for donation. Irritating but what to do?

I was fascinated by one toothless musician playing a traditional, guitar-like instrument, not because of his dental challenges but he had one real chicken sitting on top of his turban and a pigeon perching at the tip of his guitar! He kept nodding and grinning at me as I stared open mouthed and it was all the chicken could do, flapping its wings to maintain its balance on his turban! I wanted to take a photo but decided against it as he might charge 10 euros or something horrid. At times like this, I wished I had a local tour guide so if I can get Moroccan Tourist Board to sponsor my trip next time, I will have a less stressful time. After a while, being hounded by the usual questions of “Where are you from? China, Japan?” and “Come and see inside” and “Hello I want be your friend” can get on my nerves though I understand their natural curiosity and the need to make a fast buck.

Like everywhere else in the world, every bazaar has touts who insist on showing you around and following you. Since he and you have the right to walk anywhere in the souk, you cannot shoo him away. The best is to ignore him. If you enter a shop, he will quickly try chat with him to give the impression he brought you to the shop so if you buy, he may come later and claim a commission. Nothing too wrong with that but I wish he would ask upfront if he could be my guide for a certain fee as most speak remarkably good English.

French is spoken and written everywhere and not all Moroccans speak good English though you can easily get by if you speak slowly and coherently and avoid using ‘lah’ and ‘aiyo’.

Getting a taxi back to Le Meridien was also a hassle as most drivers demanded 3 to 5 euros when it was less than 1 euro. In the end, Michael paid 2 euros or 20 MAD.

But the sights, sounds and smells of Jemaa El Fna is an experience you miss at your peril if you are in Marrakesh.

THE END