A first timers guide to Marrakesh
I didn't think about it much when I booked my flights to Marrakesh (or Marrakech if you're spelling it the French way) they were cheap and it was someplace new so I hit 'confirm purchase' without so much as second thought. As I would come to learn, Marrakesh is not your typical summer holiday destination. Despite Morocco's close proximity to Spain and having been colonised by the French, it's worlds apart from Europe. At first I was overwhelmed, for the first time in over five years of travelling I was whumped in the stomach with a real sense of culture shock. It was a foreign sensation. By nature I'm a head strong person and am rarely frightened by anything but Morocco gave me a run for my money! during those first few hours I was legitimately panicked. I undertook minor research before I went, I knew that it was a strict Muslim country and therefore women should dress appropriately, I also knew that women travelling on their own should expect to receive the occasional sneer and look of detest no matter how appropriately they're dressed. Besides that, I was completely unprepared. This post is intended to provide you with every little detail, what you should and shouldn't wear, what to eat, where to go, what to expect, and how to behave.
What to expect
Prepare yourself for a very different culture. A culture that can be a little overwhelming and hard to adjust to at first, but which is wonderfully unique. Rich with history and tradition, bursting with colour, tantalising smells, exotic sounds and surroundings that make you feel as if you're in a dream. Morocco bombards the senses and brings colour to your mind, particularly minds like my own who've come from dreary, sanitised London. Walking through the winding and dimly lit cobble stoned alleyways you'll find a tapestry of twinkling amulets, rough Berber rugs, terracotta pots with intricate designs, mountains of spices, glistening olives and pickled lemons. There's the clunking sound of metal on metal in the distance, men using thousand year old methods to create unimaginable treasures and the smell of cedar wood infused with leather hangs in the air. It's an experience right from the pages of Arabian Nights and you won't find it anywhere else in the world. The people keep to themselves mostly, quietly bustling about their day. If you do interact with the locals you'll find them to be modest and kind people whose lives are bound by respect and honour. The only types you need to be aware of are young male hustlers which I'll explain in more detail below.
Where to stay
As most of you will know I'm an advocate of having the most culturally authentic experiences possible when travelling, so I suggest you skip the impersonal hotels and stay in a Moroccan Riad. They're not only rich with culture, infused with thousands of years of history and tradition, they're also inconceivably charming. A Riad typically has two to six floors built around a small courtyard that usually contains a fountain or a small pool. Riad's are open spaces so it's easy to hear the voices of other guests but just take some earplugs for sleeping at night and you'll be fine. Staying in one feels exotic and as a bonus it's cheaper than staying in a hotel. I stayed at 'Riad Chameleon' and I highly recommend it. It's in a quiet part of the city on the outskirts of the Medina, a 20 minute walk to the main square. It has a pool which was a welcome treat upon returning from a day of exploring in 45 degree heat! and the owners, Maggie and Tony treated me as if I was their very own daughter. Tony met me at the entrance to the Medina when I arrived and walked me to the Riad, he then took me for a walk through the rabbit warren Medina to help me get my bearings and even gave me a local phone so that I could call if I got lost or in trouble. It was affordable too, at £40 per night including breakfast you really can't go wrong. http://www.riadchameleon.com/ If they're fully booked I would still suggest contacting them to ask for recommendations of where to stay.
What to eat & drink
Sweet mint tea - Seriously the best tea I've ever drank in my life. It's a tea typical in North Eastern African countries, prepared with fresh spearmint leaves and sugar, simple but divine.
Tagine - Any tagine in Morocco will blow your mind, the cocktail of flavours are a taste sensation. The dish is named after the traditional tagine dish it's served in. My favourites were lamb tagine with figs and walnuts, beef tagine with tomatoes and caramelised onions, and chicken tagine with preserved lemons and ginger. My mouth is tingling thinking about it!
Makouda - Moroccan street food is legendary and the best place to sample it in Marrakesh (maybe in all of Morocco) is Jemaa el-Fna square. Here beside the kebabs, calamari and grilled sardines you'll find less conventional dishes like sheep’s heads, snails cooked in a broth, and skewers of lamb’s liver. Makouda will be among them! they're little deep-fried potato balls, delicious dipped into spicy harissa sauce.
Zaalouk - Moroccan meals begin with at least seven cooked vegetable salads to scoop up with bread. Zaalouk is a smoked aubergine dip seasoned with garlic, paprika, cumin and chilli powder - yum!
Harira - During the holy month of Ramadan the fast is broken at sunset each day with a bowl of harira soup. Rich with tomatoes, lentils, chickpeas and lamb, it's finished off with a squeeze of lemon juice and chopped coriander then served with a sweet pretzel called chebakkiya.
Where to explore
Palace Bahia - It's name means 'brilliance' and rightly so. Palace Bahia was built in the 19th century and was intended to be the greatest palace of all time, of course grander palaces were erected since but it is still one of the most beautiful in all of Marrakesh. Entry is free, or at least it was when I went and it's definitely worth the visit.
El Badi Palace ruins - The El Badi Palace was one of the highlights of my trip, although in ruins it still holds a grandness that I didn't feel at any of the other, more in-tact palaces. Walking through the wide open spaces I was transpored to a time when the Sultan ruled and for a brief moment I imagined a Princess Jasmine style scene straight from Aladdin. You can also see giant storks nesting high on the palace walls, hundreds of them with nests as big as bathtubs. Entry is free, don't be fooled by the "ticket stand" at the entrance!
Ben Youseff Madrasa - This was another highlight of my trip. I was in awe of the enormous doorways and the intricate designs they bore, the tilework also took me aback. You can almost feel the precision and care it took to create such detailed mosaics seeping from the tiny little fragments of colour. The Madrasa is an old islamic college, the word 'Madrasa' means school. This one is the oldest Madrasa in all of Morocco, built in the 14th century and is surprisingly in tact for being so old.
Garden Majorelle - An absolute must see. It is quite touristy and therefore can be annoyingly busy but if you arrive when it opens you'll have the entire place to yourself for half an hour (it opens at 8am) the entry fee is 70 Dirhams, about £5. It's a true desert oasis and the photo opportunites are endless! interestingly it was also home to the late Yves Saint Laurent who happens to be buried there.
The souk - Exploring the Souk is probably one of the best ways you can get close to true Moroccan culture but it's not for the faint hearted! Below I've mentioned an offline map you can download that details the winding alleyways, but even with the app it still presents a challenge. I got very lost on at least three separate occasions but that's half the fun right? I've also mentioned below what you should do when people approach offering help, in a nutshell don't go with them! Besides the fact that you'll get lost (think of it as an adventure) it's a magnificent sensation overload, your sight sound and smell will be in over drive trying to take it all in at once.
Jemma El Fina square - There is so much on offer in Jemma El Fina square, from freshly made fruit juice, baby turtles, snails cooked in broth and the mesmerizing sound of snake charmers. I have never heard so many different sounds all at once somehow harmonise to create one perfect sound that I could listen to all day. Anywhere else in the world all those different noises mashed together would irriate me and cause an ear splitting headache, but not in Morocco. That sound was divine, it quintessentially defined the desert kingdoms thousand year old culture and I was besotted by it.
Day trip to Essaouira - Essaouira is a seaside town a one hour drive from Marrakesh. If you have a spare day up your sleeve I definitely suggest taking a day trip out there. You can ride a camel on the beach and explore the much smaller and more relaxed Medina of Essaouira which is painted white and blue, a photographers dream. Contact Tony from the Riad Chameleon for a reasonably priced and quality private day trip which will literally be catered to you. You could also do a group day trip for a cheaper price.
Overnight trip to the Sahara Desert - This is one thing that I didn't get to do as I was short on time. If you've got a week or more you really should take a trip out to the Sahara Desert. Can you imagine anything more exotic than waking up in a tent surrounded by nothing but an ocean of golden sand? You can do overnight trips from Marrakesh but it's a long drive out there (8 hours) so to properly enjoy it I suggest opting for a two or three night trip instead.
If there is such a thing as hell, I'm pretty sure that third world public transport is the portal to get there. Take my advice and get taxi's. They're cheap so although you would be saving money getting the bus is it really worth the £5 you'd save to experience a real life nightmare? in my opinion the answer is no. You just need to be careful which cabs you get into, one of the most common ways people get scammed in Morocco is by taxi drivers. There are two types of taxi, 'Petit' taxi's and 'Grand' taxi's. You should always try to get a petit taxi, they're the little fiat style hatchbacks you'll see driving around with taxi signs on the roof, they use meters so the rider can't be cheated and the rates are the same in every city. There are no taxi stands for Petit taxi's so you'll need to stand on the curb and wave one down. If a Grand taxi is your only option make sure you fix the price before you get in the car because they don't use meters so without a predetermined price they'll over charge you... by alot.
Tips and general rules of thumb
Download the 'Marrakech Riad' app - If you only take one thing away from this post, make it this. The app is an offline map that details the intricate maze of the Souk. Google maps only recognizes official streets and large walkways so it's useless in the Souk. It's still difficult to navigate even with the app but without it I'd still be trying to find my way out of there!
Always be respectful, even in difficult situations - It can get a little frustrating walking through the souk and touristy parts of the city, shopkeepers are very persistent in their attempts to lure you into their stores and if they snag you on their hook they won't let you leave easily. There are also beggars who will follow you for quite some time before giving up, using the method of 'persistence beats resistance'. Ladies (especially solo women and women dressed inapropriately) you'll be jeered at occasionally and will experience what to you, will feel like extreme disrespect. In all of these scenarios it's important to remember that it's the way of life in Morocco, that's how things are done and no matter how annoyed and/or offended you feel you must never be rude. The best thing to do is simply ignore them and walk swiftly away, engaging even a little bit is a bad idea.
Ladies, dress modestly - Morocco is a strict Muslim country and therefore it's seen as obscene for women to bare alot of skin. The locals will know you're a tourist and Marrakesh is more relaxed than other parts of the country but for your own peace of mind I suggest that you dress appropriately. You don't need to walk around in a Burka or cover your face with a veil, but you should cover you legs (light weight maxi skirts and dresses are great) and keep your shoulders and chest covered too. Having your arms bare is fine so t-shirts are ok, if you do wear a singlet top that shows your shoulders and negligee you should throw a light shawl around you. Keep your cleavage to yourself, it's never a good look no matter where in the world you are but in Morocco it's especially frowned upon. Nothing will happen to you, i.e. no-one will hurt you if you don't adhere to the rules but wouldn't you have a more enjoyable trip if you weren't being verbally harassed constantly? It's also a matter of respecting a culture that isn't your own.
Don't trust anyone - As I mentioned above, Moroccan people will keep to themselves for the most part. But there are those we refer to as hustlers who are out to scam you for money. Some lines you might hear are "wrong way, the square is this way" "are you lost? come, I will help you" "do you want to see the tanneries? they are this way" "that road is a dead end, you can't go there, you must go this way" If you are approached by anyone who says anything like that politely shake your head and keep walking, if they follow you give them a firm no and keep walking. Whatever you do DON'T GO WITH THEM! they will purposely lead you in the wrong direction, taking you on a goose chase. Sure they'll eventually get you where you want to go but you'll be obliged to pay a hefty tip for their time and chances are you were already on the right track to begin with. In regard to the tanneries, there are none in Marrakesh worth seeing. If you follow someone to them you'll be led to a bad part of town that's really no place for tourists and the tannery itself is disgusting. The pretty pictures you see on Instagram are of the tannery in Fez. When it comes to shop keepers, you mustn't let yourself be a pushover! If you genuinely want to buy something bargain hard, the first few prices they give you are way above the going rate. If you don't want to buy something don't let them guilt trip you, have the guts to walk away.
Delve into the culture but be smart about it - In many of my posts and across my social media platforms I encourage fellow travellers to 'venture off the beaten track' because doing so always leads to more culturally rich and authentic experiences and in most parts of the world this is true, but when it comes to Africa my friends this advice doesn't apply. In Africa the road less travelled leads to danger so I advise that you stick to touristy areas. Besides, you don't need to venture off the beaten path to experience true Morocco! The desert kingdom is as it has been for thousands and thousands of years, tradition is so valued that the culture has barely changed at all so even when you're in tourist hot spots you're still experiencing authentic Morocco.
Don't drink the water - Most people will have enough common sense to know that drinking the water in a third world country is a bad idea, but I've thrown it in here anyway! I didn't even use it to brush my teeth and when showering I was very careful not to swallow any of it. I had a friend who got very sick from accidently drinking some tap water in Morocco, you've been warned!
Don't participate in anything that involves animals - Morocco oozes charm because centuries have passed yet the way of life has hardly changed at all, unfortunately the down side of this is that animal cruelty remains rife. You'll see monkey handlers and snake charmers, exotic parrots and lizards but you must refrain from approaching them. Don't take photos and don't give them money, just don't give them any attention at all because doing so encourages the practise to continue. The only way the industry will cease is if tourists stop showing interest. Camel riding is ok, it's in their nature to walk alot and when they're not walking they like to just lay about. From what I saw they are well kept and looked after.
Enjoy your time in the worlds one and only remaining desert kingdom. Morocco is truly unlike any place I have ever been before and for that reason I loved it, I hope you will too!
Over and out x
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