Marrakesh is a bucket list kind of place, this mystical North African city has been on mine for more years than I can remember. With its ancient red sandstone walls, the Moorish and Arabic influences imprinted all over the architecture and the pop of colours and smells, it’s a feast for the senses and a traveller’s adventure playground. Finally landing there this June I had a healthy concept of what lay ahead, or so I thought…
The mysterious streets are chaos and bustle, jasmine and musk floating across the hot dry air, silks and cinnamon sellers called out from their Aladdin’s cave stalls inside the winding and confusing Medina streets, motorbikes speed down narrow streets, forcing our backs quickly against the sun drenched walls and tired donkeys hauled their masters wares to and from the souks in the midday sun.
As the daily adhan (call to prayer) filled the air and the sunlight scattered through the wicker walk ways of the Medina, we quickly realised what a fascinating city this was, steeped in culture and where stillness is a rarity.
The sensory overload is as wearying as it is mesmerising and fascinating in its richness. One minute you can be strolling across the busiest square in Africa, Jemaa el-Fnaa, taking in the night time sellers, the bob and bustle of wide eyed tourists in the middle of the melee, and the next second you’re reeling backwards away from a man approaching with a snake pointed towards you, almost crashing into the waiting path of begging children with big brown eyes and hands outstretched, feeling utterly overwhelmed.
Every now and then a souk seller with a face crumpled like worn leather and wrinkled like a map from the harsh sun will hastily take your hand and close it around some mint tea leaves, then with a quick squeeze, crunch them in your palm, releasing a scent so wonderfully vibrant, delicious and intense, you will come away with a lighter purse and bag of tea, cinnamon or dried roses.
Even though we chose to cover from shoulder to shin in 40 degree heat to be respectful of the Muslim culture, we were slapped across our arms by men yelling abuse in Arabic or French as they sped through the Medina on their motorbikes.
Coming from a different culture, such as London it is a little tricky to comprehend that women are treated so differently here, but it’s to understand the Muslim and very traditional culture in Marrakesh that makes up many of the reasons why tourist women are sometimes treated in this way.
It’s not that women are second-class citizens, as that’s a misunderstood view of Islam, more so to do with the traditional roles women fill – men work and are visible in the streets outside of the home, and women are almost invisible as they stay indoors and look after their homes and families. Just bear in mind that no respectable Moroccan would condone any sort of harassment. We met some wonderful, kind and incredibly welcoming Moroccans on our journey and the giggling women working in the hammams were a tonic along the way.
If you are after some calm respite, hop in a cab and zoom away from the city walls, driving an hour toward the Ourika valley in the cool shadows of the Atlas mountains, the landscape changes dramatically as the deep burnt orange mountain sides of the Atlas mountains rise all around you, covered with lush emerald green vegetation where the Ourika River flows down from high up in the mountains, complete with waterfalls and spectacular scenery, and home to the traditional Berber people.
You can balance out the madness with calm by figuring out what it is you want to see and do, my advice is don’t spend every day visiting the Medina and souks, there are day trips a-plenty and even a luscious country clubs to roll around in.
A visit to the the gorgeous and serene Beldi Club. A sprawling estate, filled with flowers and fields of roses tucked behind red walls, just 15 minutes drive from the city is worth every penny. For around 39 Euros, we were able to have access to the pool and beautiful grounds all day, with a three course lunch included, utter heaven.
La Majorelle Gardens (also known as Yves Saint Laurent’s Gardens)
An artist’s garden, built with love and filled with plants from around the world fell on hard times when it’s owner Jacques Majorelle’s health and wealth declined, it was saved from being sold off and turned into a hotel by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge in 1980 and cultivated and restored to the beautiful gardens we visit today. A perfect spot for a peaceful wander and a people watching lunch in an oasis of calm. Entry to the gardens is is 70 dirhams (approx 7 euro), well worth it) and entry to the museum is 30 dirhams on top, but optional.
Quenching Your Thirst and Filling Your Belly…
The Nomad – Definitely book in advance (our riad kindly reserved it for us) and request a 7.30pm roof terrace table for sunset at this gorgeous restaurant, on the roof a cool breeze passes over hot skin and a gives you a chance to look over the roofs of the city. Pop through their lovely homeware shop on the way out, for some pretty things.
Cafe Des Espices – run by the same folks as the Nomad and you can see one from the other. Lovely food, although the one tiny candle on our roof top table wasn’t providing enough light to eat by, I had to use my iPhone flash light to see my food after sunset!!
Le Salama this grand restaurant, hidden away off Jemaa El Fna square offers a beautiful space to eat traditional dishes in a setting out of a movie, head up to the top floor to the sleek and modern Sky Bar for 2 for 1 cocktails and nibbles in a trendy and relaxed setting.
Where to Lay Your Hat…
Where to stay? There are riads-a-plenty, so many options your head will spin. Where to locate yourself? In the winding roads of the Medina? Out out of the old town walls?
We picked the Medina and a traditional looking riad called ‘Palais des Princesses– so fitting….
If you want to stay a little further north on the edge of the old town, check out the beautiful Riad Tizwa, run by a friend of mine.
Haggle: test your bartering skills with the locals in the markets and the medina, you’ll likely walk away with a bargain, and if you can hold it down hustling a deal with a Moroccan man I think you could sell ice to an eskimo afterwards.
Shopping: you’ll probably want to come back with gorgeous patterned plates, traditional Moroccan lamps, spices, oils, leather bags or ‘genuine fake’ designer goods as the souk sellers like to call them.
Word of warning: June is scorching with the heat turned all the way up, that’s why our flights were cheap – (at £63 with Ryan Air from Luton to the very modern Marrakech Rak airport).
It began with a managable 34c on our first day and hit 45c on our fourth day, which really isn’t for the faint hearted, my darling fair skinned ginger friend just about survived and we all managed not to keel over in the unrelenting dry heat.
Tanneries: We were recommended by a local to visit the traditional tanneries, he kindly took us and confirmed he did not expect money (nothing is free here, not even directions when you’re lost – sort of a shame), except we were handed off to other people on a long walk to the tanneries, in a sort of chain, without knowing what to expect – and of course much anger ensued when we refused to give them money as they promised it was free. The tanneries are not for the faint hearted, new animal skins in a deathly pile to one side, maggots crawling around soaking skins in various soaking baths of some sort… its quite a putrid smell and trying to make our exit was met with angry cries of ‘Money, you pay!’. So be careful.
Marrakesh is so worth a visit though if you are a little bit prepared that will help, it is an incredible place. If you balance the trip with hammams, Atlas Mountains and souks you will have a wonderful trip, it a terrific experience you will never forget.
(ALL PHOTOS BY ME/ MY TRUSTY CANON – SHOUT IF YOU’RE AFTER ONE :))