We arrived in Marrakech in the dead of night. Our driver, sent by our riad to pick us up, stops at the end of a deserted dusty derb and leads us to our home for the next few days. Aziz greets my sister and I with a massive smile as his head ducks out of a tiny studded doorway. Its nearly 2am and he has waited up, knows we need to rest and shows us to our room. As I drift off to sleep in our traditionally decorated room, my mind bubbles with excitement. I am finally in the land of my dreams.
In the early morning sparrows chirp and flitter back and forth between plush orange trees in the courtyard. Breakfast is served beneath them by figures who fast become our friends; Aziz, Azizah and Sayeed. Their enthusiasm and warmth was our first and lasting impression of Marrakech; these qualities seem to come so naturally to the people of Morocco. We are presented with a detailed and jovial orientation, a map and possibly one of the most important tips we were to receive “If they say the road is closed, don’t believe them.”
Aziz then accompanies us the small distance to the main square, Jmaa el Fna, Marrakech’s tireless heartbeat. Just as he leaves us, we miss him immediately. We seek each others arms for comfort in a moment of anxiety, linking tightly as we struggle to make sense of our surroundings. We see snake charmers and monkeys, we hear cat calls and unfamiliar music, we narrowly escape being run over more than once. We squeeze each other at every loud noise and sudden movement. Veiled women follow us, overly eager to decorate our hands with henna which is rumored to be poisoned. Men in turbans motion and shout, others pass us by a bit too closely. Svelte horses appear out of the dust and charcoal smoke, mounted by majestic faced men donning wide brimmed hats. Its arid, the baked ochre buildings hum under the relentless sun. I couldn’t have guessed that in just five days from that moment I would have fallen deeply in love.
My experience in Marrakech wasn’t a ‘holiday’; it was a roller coaster of emotions which threw me from extreme anxiety one minute to absolute calm the next. It was an achievement of sorts, after navigating the souk’s complicated network of nameless alleys and derbs without a map and trekking 22KM through the meandering foothills of the Atlas mountains with a single Berber guide, Said. When my sister left Marrakech two days before me, I reveled in the beauty of its chaos, stopping every so often to soak it all in. I’d mastered the art of haggling which earned me several pats on the back from both the shop keepers and Aziz as if I’d been initiated to the Marrakchi way of life. If you plan to go to Marrakech, do it and do it wholeheartedly. Its a city which heaves with life and creativity; a flying visit would barely scratch its rugged surface.
Stay at a riad in the Medina because its like staying in someone’s home. The inward facing traditional style buildings offer an oasis of calm just steps away from most places you’ll want to visit. Tiny doorways give way to splendid courtyards and traditional welcomes. I cannot recommend Riad Aguerzame enough; after hectic days exploring the city it were as if we returned home to friends or extended family. Beautifully decorated without being in any way pretentious, breakfast and dinner is eaten in the central courtyard. They have a roof terrace which is private enough for sunbathing and its conveniently located close to the Jmaa el Fna square. The help and advice we received went above and beyond what we expected.
Another gem in the Medina is Riad Quara , located further north beyond the square and close to the main souks. Hayet runs this riad as a reflection of herself with elegance and warmth, offering a traditional welcome. They also offer cooking lessons from resident chef Hanane on the roof terrace where you can learn to cook Moroccan dishes like Marrakchi salad and tagines and learn the ritual of how to prepare traditional mint tea. Most riads in Marrakech are run with the guests experiences of the city at heart; many offer excursions and it seems no request is impossible.
Plan loosely! Marrakech will pull you this way and that. You can be drinking tea with a turbaned nomad when you had actually planned to visit the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Pick a few things you want to do and just go with it as best you can.
Sip tea on a rooftop and soak it all in. Watch the Jmaa el Fna come alive at sunset when the atmosphere ignites, fueled by hypnotic gnawa drumming, storytelling, snake charmers and buzzing street food stalls. The mayhem ceases briefly only for the call to prayer. The best rooftop cafe for a view of the entire square is Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacier; pull up a chair and order a drink. Another place for a great atmosphere and people watching is Bakchich Cafe, a lively cafe behind the square which mixes modern cool with Marrakech vintage. The staff are welcoming and local bohemian types flock here for avocado smoothies, panini and tagine. Sit outside and take time to make some local friends.
Marrakech is spoilt for choice when it comes to trendy rooftop cafes and restaurants. Le Jardin is a luxurious oasis of calm a stone’s throw away from the souks, with an organic feel and tortoises wandering around jade tiled floors. Cafe des Epices gives views over the spice market. Sip a noos-noos (Moroccan style cafe latte) while inhaling the scent of freshly milled spices from below. Cafe Zwin’ Zwin’ does modern African chic with great views of the Marrakech skyline. Maison de Photographie has a simple roof top cafe beyond its historical images of the city and its people. This is the perfect place for a moment of calm above the chaos, and was perhaps one of my favourite places. Le Comptoir Darna, a short distance away from the old city, is guaranteed to give you a great night out. With belly dancers, women balancing trays of candles on their heads, music shows (go just for the Gnaoua Experience band because they are GREAT!) and a DJ until the early hours, the food will probably food take a backseat but is never the less great.
Getting lost in Marrakech isn’t at all a bad thing, in fact it was one of the highlights of our trip. We’d been trying to find our way back for some time and despite a gut feeling that we’d taken a wrong turn, we continued after stupidly having taking the advice of another tourist who we suspected was a bit lost herself. We went on and walked some more. We turned our map this way and that, trying to understand just where the hell we were but it was useless. The maze of alleys and derbs had gotten the better of us and in a moment of panic as the sun began to set we found ourselves completely lost way beyond the tourist trail. Two disorientated girls were easy prey to the opportunistic street urchins but we forcefully declined offers of ‘help’ sure that we’d be led even further astray. Yet in the depths of the medina we saw the real Marrakchi way of life. Donkeys brayed and fading sun beams threw irregular golden form on the narrow streets. Kids played football while women glided past, having just left the local hammam rejuvenated. Men in hooded djellabas crouched in doorways, taking respite from the heat. Getting lost was actually a blessing in disguise; we passed derbs where blacksmiths sparks flew and shoemakers lathes scraped. We passed markets with silent, veiled women atop piles of old clothes and fragrant organic produce splayed haphazardly onto the ground. The souks live and breath.
Be inspired. Marrakech gives generously to the senses with colours, textures and scents awakening even the most dormant of creative minds. Within the old city walls, even the most humble of facades hide interiors of ornate zellij tiles, arched doorways and intricate carvings. Artisans and craftsmen create their wares zealously, working within tiny doorways which dot the medina in their thousands. Ceramics, leather goods, textiles, drums and metal work are all made with painstaking attention to detail. For all of the Arabesque style geometry in its art and architecture, there seems to also be an alluring tribal simplicity and disorder mirroring Morocco’s Berber and Tuareg influences. Marrakech is order and chaos, traditional and modern, complicated yet simple.
The work of the Yahya Group, whose gallery is in the new part of town, Gueliz, is particularly inspiring. With contemporary, arabesque inspired design, beautifully hand carved and hand turned pieces of metal are transformed into atmospheric lighting pieces and sculptures. The work revives old practices and makes play of light and space. They defy the rigidity of their substance by appearing fluid and weightless. You can view some of their work here, including pieces from their Invisible Light exhibition at the Royal Mansour.
Visit the Jardin Majorelle, one of Morocco’s most visited botanical gardens with its vibrant cobalt and lemon yellow structures. Do visit the Berber museum inside which although small, displays a stunningly evocative collection of Berber costume & jewellery. Stop at Kaowa cafe, also on Rue Yves Saint Laurent, for a smoothie and a light lunch of local herbed cheese, olives and wholemeal flatbread.
There is so much to see and do both in the city and nearby, from the sea to the mountains and just beyond them, the Sahara. Although our days in Marrakech were just a handful, by doing two tours recommended by residents our experience was wholly authentic. An afternoon tour with Marrakech Food Tours ensured we discovered the real food of the city, the food of the locals. Organised by Amanda of MarocMama and her husband, MarocBaba, our small tour group was taken for Tangia, slow cooked meat and spices in a clay pot (cooked on embers which heat the local hamam), and Meshoui lamb, slow roasted in large underground ovens, pulled apart and eaten dipped in cumin salt. We wandered the souks and sampled olives, stopped off for a spiced sardine meatball sandwich, visited a communal oven, dropped in on the man who fires the hamam and cooks the Tangias, and stopped off at a small family run eatery for couscous which topped all other couscous I have ever eaten.
If you want to leave the city behind but don’t have time to visit the Sahara, take a trip to the foothills of the high Atlas mountains. We did just this with a Berber guide, Said, who runs tours of the Berber countryside and treks. Picked up from our riad in the morning, we were driven two hours south of Marrakech to the gentle slopes of the Atlas. On foot from there, Said led us through golden wheat fields, lined by eucalyptus trees and cacti, down ochre dirt tracks revealed a raw, rural Morocco. Our first stop was at his home for tea, homemade bread, olives and olive oil. There are moments in life which leave a magical imprint on the memory. This was probably one of them; a warm welcome into a strangers home in a Berber mountain village, surrounded by brightly painted clay walls, playing with a gentle toddler, talking about Berber history, listening to guardian peacocks howl somewhere in the near distance. Its a memory I can recall with vivid detail. Onwards we went, climbing higher and passing villagers on donkeys or working in fields. They chattered in the Berber language, Tamazight, stopping to throw us a wave and a smile. Soon we were meandering through the pine trees of the mountain tops following barely-there trails. Said navigated them effortlessly while we lagged behind taking extra caution around a few dubious bends, almost forgetting to stop and admire the views. Said pointed out trees and herbs such as juniper and lemon balm, explaining their medicinal uses. He picked fresh almonds and shared them, their milky juice more than welcome on our descent. We stopped at a secluded guest house for a tagine and tea, then at a potters house to see how raw earth was transformed into tagine pots. Endless rows dried in the sun, ready to be sold onto the souks below. The beauty of this tour was that it was 100% authentic; with no other tourists in sight or for miles around, we had climbed a mountain and experienced a rural Berber way of life in all of its wonderful simplicity. Book this wonderful tour with Atlasnaturetrek.com and say hello to Said and his family from me!
If its the allure of the Sahara which has brought you to Marrakech, most riads and hotels can offer advice about excursions, but look around for other options too. I’d seen a shop opposite my favorite hang out Bakchich cafe, with several young turbaned men inside, sipping tea and chatting with tourists. On one of the days that I was alone in Marrakech, I became one of those tourists sipping tea inside that shop. It wasn’t really a shop at all but a small family run tour company called Travel Tamgroute who offer trips into the Sahara for up to a week and classes such as pottery and darbouka drumming. Tarik showed me stunning photos of the excursions which unfortunately due to timings I had to decline. Next time. Definitely next time. I couldn’t think of anything more liberating than drinking tea around a fire, sitting under a thick blanket of stars.
In a city like Marrakech you must live like a local and keep a sense of humour. Barter hard and argue your point with a smile on your face. Laugh at shopkeepers first offers then offer a far less amount, working your way up slowly. Pretend to walk away, they’ll make another offer. Be firm, eventually they’ll get annoyed with you and take whatever you think to be fair. Haggling is a charade and a true art form easily mastered. They’ll probably commend you on your haggling skills, shake your hand and offer you a tea! Tea should really only be accepted once a deal is made otherwise you’ll feel pressured into buying something and find it difficult to get away. It is true that tourists are hassled, but remember that for the most part people are not being aggressive, they’re just trying to earn a buck. Plain clothes police are around in abundance and there are measures in place to ensure safety.
In more hidden parts of the medina you shouldn’t let men or boys pressure you into showing you the way to anywhere, they’ll demand a fee after, one you’ll probably not feel comfortable with. This is not allowed even if they’re you feel like they’re genuinely helping you. Chances are if you don’t end up arguing with them, police could whisk them away and chuck them into jail for being a ‘false guide.’ If they tell you the street is closed, don’t believe them. Carry on walking. This was a big thing for us, “Lady the road is closed. There is a mosque, it’s forbidden.” Sometimes, just sometimes the road really is closed and you must pass the boys who insisted that the road is closed again with your tail in between your legs! Agree prices for taxis before getting in. Aziz said that taxis should cost no more than 30 to 40 Dirham and we found this to be true. Some drivers may demand more, but most would agree to 40.
However tempting it is to try to capture the essence of the Marrakechi people on film, always always ask before taking their picture. In Morocco people take great offence to their photo being taken without permission. This stems from the belief that it captures and takes away part of your soul.
Five days was barely enough time to get a real sense of Marrakech. We were pulled in so many directions that we did about half of what we’d planned to do. I came away feeling a sense of achievement but also a burning desire to return. There is something for everyone from grandeur and luxury to simplistic authenticity. I prefer the latter, but then I always have. It’s a city with soul, a place you want to inhale and keep forever.
“Be careful Adina, Marrakech is strangely addictive.” says Sarah, a west Londoner like myself who has been living in Marrakech for some years now. Her words ring true as I find myself restless, waiting to return.