102. Moroccan red – Marrakech

marrakech-storks-palms-riad-morocco.jpgThe late October evening is already falling as I start my run. It’s only two weeks since my last marathon, and it’s not certain that I should be out at all, but the warm weather is just too insistent to ignore.

The streets are already busy here, with people hungrily rushing home to eat. I dodge the scurrying pedestrians waiting at the lights, and scamper across the road through a gap in the traffic.

It’s easy running, past the tower and out through the city walls, into the open countryside beyond. The sky’s been clear and blue all day, but now has turned opaque, a smoky grey canopy to drape the hills to the west of town.

The road is long and straight as far as I can see. I’m not sure how far to run, but it’s flat and I’m feeling good. So I carry on, another mile or so into the distance. The traffic’s thinning now, and there are no other runners on the streets, but the man coming the other way is happy to stop and let me pass. He waves encouragement – “Bon courage,” he says.And then he smiles, every bit as broadly as the camel he’s riding now.

Marrakech.

The Red City is behind me, with the open plain of North Africa stretching out in front. The sun’s gone down by the time I reach the Ménara Gardens, and turn north to loop back around the town. The elegant hotels of L’Hivernage have given way to rougher districts lurking here behind the road, and I press on as best I can. The silence is interrupted by the siren sounding to signal the end of Ramadan’s daily fast, and just then a car screeches off the road in front of me, its headlights resolutely dark despite the gathering gloom. The driver’s late for evening prayers, as he slams the door and dashes down the lane towards the mosque, a sea of white fabric swirling behind.

A mile or so of stock yards and half-built factories stalk the pavements next – a scary territory for the unwary tourist in a North African nightfall. But I meet no one – not another soul, and before too long I’m back under safer streetlights by the Théâtre Royale. From there I know my way, down the wide boulevards of Guéliz’s French city to the deserted place du 16 novembre. Then it’s a right turn back towards Liberty Square, the floodlit tower of the Koutoubia Mosque now shining my route ahead. A few minutes more and I’ll cross the ancient walls, and into the Medina, the heart of this oasis city, to find the riad, our city retreat with its central courtyard and cooling pool.

It’s red, this city, it’s exotic, and it’s all that’s Africa and much of Andalucía, too. Full of mystery, the beckoning East, and the barter of the sidestreets full of carpet stalls. The storks I saw in Spain last summer are here as well, nesting happily on the red walls of the Badi Palace as languidly as if they’d never flown.

Our party have booked a table in the main city square tonight. I’ve seen this legendary place by day, an incredible arena of snake charmers and hustling showmen. By night it offers a food market and more amazing entertainments. My evening in Djemaâ el Fna awaits – amongst the best experiences in the whole of Morocco, says our guidebook. I shower and change, but it’s not to be. Robert is suffering from the unfamiliar food, and someone has to stay at home. A simple plate of rice and vegetables is all that’s on offer for the nurse tonight. I tuck him in, as everyone goes out, and turn the TV on with a sigh – there can’t be much to watch. But what other unexpected gem I’ve found instead – what’s this – a full live transmission from West Ham on TéléFrance ?

I pull a beer or two from the apartment fridge and before my rice is finished it’s clear that Middlesbrough expect to win. With their attacking play bringing out the best of the Hammers, it’ll be an even contest. Robert is fast asleep by the time the final whistle goes, the empty bottles beside me telling the tale of an entertaining match, with the Irons’ second goal having just sealed the game. It’s ‘controversial’, too, with the replay showing the ball not across the line. But although there are 34 000 in Upton Park, and just another one more here tonight, not a single fan’s complaining at this perfect way to end the day.

It’s a fascinating city, Marrakech – a place to captivate and entrance the soul. I’m sure I’ll come again, like Churchill often did, returning to marvel at the feast for all the senses which this reddest town purveys. Where else has a camel driver ever cheered me on a run ?

And yet, of all the memories I’ll take away from Marrakech this time, I wonder. Because, you see – perhaps my season ticket from the Medina proved to be the unexpected bargain of them all.

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