Ah, Marrakesh – the grown-up Aladdin’s cave of beautiful souks, scary snake charmers and magic lamps (aka Moroccan tea sets).
Before I travelled to Morocco I’d heard a few scare stories from various friends and acquaintances:
“Watch your purse”
“I felt on edge the whole time I was there”
“Be careful walking back to your riad at night”
All were statements from seasoned travellers and so I didn’t take their comments lightly. Which is why when we arrived in Marrakesh after work on Friday 13th, I was a little wary but excited all the same…
A short plane ride from bustling London town (well, Stansted) and we (my friend Charlotte and I) were soon in the warmth of Marrakesh. But before we could even enjoy the heat, we first had to join the hordes of people who had also just landed and were waiting to change their money at the airport exchange booth. We’d already been warned that you can’t take any Moroccan currency in or out of the country, what we hadn’t been warned about though, was the fact that the airport exchangers are a little fussy about the state of your bank notes – no rips or writing here merci beacoup!
Once we had our Moroccan money in hand, the adventure could finally begin. We’d arranged a transfer from the riad (which is advisable if you’re travelling to Marrakesh for the first time as the riads are incredibly difficult to find, as we were just about to discover!) Our driver stopped at one of the main squares just north of the Medina and from there we followed him along the busy streets until we reached a door in the wall which looked like it led on to a construction site. You want us to follow you down there?! (I thought). But Charlotte didn’t even turn to hesitate and so I followed quietly and prayed to God that we weren’t about to be mugged or worse.
Despite the dubious start to our trip, once Riddy (our host) opened the riad door to our home for the next three nights – Riad Dar Ourika, all concerns melted away as we stepped inside this haven of tranquillity.
We dropped our bags and followed Riddy around the small but perfectly formed riad (which I soon discovered means ‘enclosed garden’). We marvelled at the intricate carvings on each and every window and door frame, the colourful lanterns dotted along the staircase and the beautiful trees growing up from within the walls, but it was the stunning aerial view of the city from the rooftop garden that really took our breath away.
After a relaxing night’s sleep in our picturesque room, we rose early to enjoy breakfast in the garden. Freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, jams, Moroccan pancakes and freshly baked bread were served to us on a silver platter (literally) and we were soon energised enough to face the Medina. Thankfully, despite the fact that Riddy had finished his evening shift, he waited to take us into the heart of the Medina so that we wouldn’t get lost on our first day. On the way I checked for landmarks so that we could find our way back as Charlotte chatted away with Riddy.
That morning we spent a little time wandering around the souks in Jemma El Fna (the main square). Stall upon stall of leather goods, brightly coloured fabrics and exotic trinkets greeted us at every turn but we soon discovered that ‘just looking’ isn’t really an option. Everyone was friendly enough though and we didn’t feel intimidated or pressured as I had imagined we might.
Stepping away from the souks, hard as it was, we ventured south of the Medina to El Badi Palace. The grounds were stunning and it made for a refreshing change from the hiked up European city sights for the entrance fee to be so low (about 5 dirham, or 50p).
3pm rolled around all too quickly and so it was about time for us to have a taste of our first Moroccan cuisine. We opted for a set menu of tomato salad, chicken tagine and Moroccan mint tea, all for 45 dirham, at the Taj’in Darna overlooking Jemma El Fna.
From my handy little ‘Pocket Rough Guide to Marrakesh’ I’d discovered that tagines are meant to be ordered in the morning ready to eat for dinner so that the spices have time to infuse the meat and vegetables with plenty of flavour. I figured that the tagine we had ordered would have been cooking all morning and we’d be in for a flavoursome dish….wrong! But I guess for the equivalent of £3.50 we could hardly complain too much.
Despite the lack of tasty treats, the setting was beautiful. High enough above the square that we could escape the chaos from below but still enjoy a view of the action taking place. We could also hear the distant sounds of the snake charmers playing their melodic tune, battling with the rhythmic beat of the drums and the occasional ‘ommmmm’ escaping from the mosque.
After lunch, we took a stroll around the Palais Bahia, straining our already achy necks to peer at the intricate designs of the mosaic and stucco ceilings.
We had a few moments of peace before the tour groups descended and then it was time to escape to the adjoining Restaurante El Bahia for a beer on the ‘terrasse’ overlooking the Palais’ gardens.
After a quick change back at the riad, that evening we headed to Cafe Arabe (thanks for the recommendation Rosy) where we waited for a table at the rooftop bar, sipping on the cocktail of the same name (a refreshing concoction of gin, vodka, orange juice and strawberry juice). A little more exclusive than the lunchtime restaurant, we had high hopes for tonight’s dinner and we certainly weren’t disappointed.
Day Two: A day beside the seaside
Despite the fact that we were only there for three days, on Sunday we decided to escape the city and took an excursion to the beach. We booked directly with the riad (as had been advised) and rose early for our ‘two hour’ mini bus journey to the coast, Esssaouira to be precise. As predicted, the two hour journey took more like 3.5 hours which was a little disappointing as we were only there for a day but with four hours to enjoy the port side town, we set about making the most of it.
We took a short walk around the pretty seaside town and then opted for an hours sunbathing before heading to Taros Cafe for lunch.
Overlooking the port, the Greek-style taverna served a delicious lunch for around 110 dirham (£8.50) on the sunny roof terrace.
I’ve heard a lot about Essaouira – an ideal spot for surfers and yogis apparently, and would have liked to have more time to explore but sadly, time flew by all too quickly and after a couple of hours lazing on the beach (plus a little detour to the market to purchase a gorgeous leather handbag for the bargain price of 150 dirham), it was soon time to get back on the bus and head back to the city.
Thankfully we’d had the foresight to order dinner with the riad that morning and as we walked through the doors feeling weary and hungry, we were greeted by the biggest (and most delicious) chicken couscous dish I have ever tasted.
The Medina by night
After our mammoth dinner, despite the fact that we were absolutely shattered, we couldn’t miss seeing Jemma El Fna square in action at night and so we dragged our tired feet along the maze of paths, back to the main square.
Bustling in the day, the square is another place entirely in the evening as it really comes to life.
Belly dancers swayed their hips to the beat of the drums, food stall merchants waved tasty treats under our noses and old ladies sat huddled on low stools, ready to paint our hands with the most beautiful henna designs, all in the blink of an eye.
Day three – Market Day
Our last day was spent haggling our way around the markets in the Medina. Leather handbags, sandals, Argan oil and the like were top of our list and we soon realised that you can quickly get the price down from 350 to 150 dirham in a matter of minutes – if you have the confidence and determination to walk away.
An hour or so of haggling soon took its toll and so we headed back to the Restaurante El Bahia for a ‘speciale flag’ (the local beer) to calm our stress levels. It didn’t take long to relax and soon we were ready to head back out for our final bargain hunting of the day.
Shopping bags escorted back to the riad, it was now time to step outside of the old town walls and head north west to the Jardin Majorelle.
Designed by Jacques Majorelle in the 1920′s and 30′s, the gardens are now owned by Yves Saint Laurent. A true haven from the neighbouring highway and busy streets, the gardens are breathtakingly beautiful. Cobalt blue, sunset orange and citrus lemon plant pots are dotted along the pathways, contrasting the rainforest-like greenery of the tropical plants. You could almost mistake yourself for being in the Amazon rainforest were it not for the onsite museums and cafe.
Sadly the gardens were the last stop of our trip, as soon it was time to head back outside into the bustle and back onto a plane to encounter a bustle of a different kind at home in London.
Au revoir Marrakesh! Next time I’ll bring a couple more empty suitcases so that I can purchase even more delights in the souks.
Tips for visiting Marrakesh:
- Return flights from Stansted in September were £166 (including a checked bag to share) with EasyJet. Three nights at the Riad Dar Ourika was 132 Euros for two people, which included a delicious breakfast each morning and one of the most helpful hosts I’ve ever met.
- Changing currency at the airport when you arrive is the easiest option but beware that they only accept ‘clean’ bank notes (no rips or writing)
- Food isn’t as cheap as you might think – if you want good quality!
- Have your wits about you, but on the whole, I would say it is a safe place to visit as a couple or with a friend, although it might be a little intimidating to travel alone.
- Haggle, haggle, haggle! If you are English, expect prices to be raised accordingly and so you will need to haggle to get a fair price.
Next on the travel list for 2013 was Central America. Not necessarily the safest of places for a solo female traveler so I had to ponder whether to tour or not to tour…