For those who have had the mind blowing experience of visiting Marrakesh you know how difficult it is to describe, for those that haven't here are a few words; intense, beautiful, colourful, chaotic, intoxicating, cultural, energetic. Intrigued? You should be, this incredible city is unlike anywhere else in the world and guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.
I had visited Marrakesh once before in 2006 and was curious to see how much it had changed. As a vacation destination it has been popular with Europeans since the end of World War II, attracting iconic figures in politics, fashion, music and film, but the last 15 years has seen a dramatic increase in the number of tourists, with low cast airlines and a significant push to promote tourism by the Moroccan government that appeal has intensified tenfold. Now over 10 million people visit Morocco annual and who can blame them, with guaranteed all year round sunshine, a rich and ancient history and culture in abundance it's a must on many people's bucket list. I loved it so much the first time round, I came back for more.
That inevitable change was clear from our arrival, the route from the airport to the medina, once a two lane A road surrounded by vast areas of rocky desert and olive groves was now a multilane highway passing through endless construction sites and new developments. However to my relief once we entered the medina it was apparent that Marrakech I had grown to love on my first trip was very much alive and well. It had appeared to recognise the importance of holding on to it’s heritage and maintaining the history of the city not only for it’s people but in order to continue it’s appeal to tourists. So in typical Moroccan fashion we held on for dear life whilst our taxi navigated pedestrians, cars, donkeys. mopeds and pushbikes bringing us to a stop at the edge of the souks, a short walk from our destination, everywhere was an assault on the senses, the colours, smells and noises, yes the Red City was still every bit as wonderful as I remembered.
Our home for the next seven days was the Riad Malika, like many of the riads it's small ornate wooden doorway was located down a quiet alley just off the souks. Behind the unassuming entrance we were welcomed into the cool tranquil oasis of the courtyard, a warm, friendly host, Moroccan mint tea, sweet pastries, the scent of jasmine and the sounds of songful birds greeting us on our arrival.
Our accommodation exceeded expectations in everyway, the interior of this former house, an eclectic mix of traditional Moroccan architecture combined with vintage Art Deco furnishings and private collection of 20th Century artwork had been compiled with impeccable taste. Our room didn't disappoint either, a visual treat of Moroccan and 1920's Parisian design; a vintage embroidered tunic hung above the large very comfortable bed, the sun shone through the stained glass windows on to vibrant red painted wooden wall panels and our private balcony overlooked the swimming pool below. Heaven!
Now I realise I have already rambled on somewhat, it's rather easy to get carried away when describing Morocco so without further ado here are the best bits and my recommendations for visiting this wonderful country.
Day 1. Acclimitising to Morocco
Fresh off the plane and keen to experience the city, yet fully aware that to enjoy the medina requires a certain frame of mind we left the tranquillity of our accommodation with a basic map and some directions from the riad manager we headed in the direction of the souks, convinced we would find the Jemaa-el-Fna Square in no time. However a short time later we decided to abandon that plan, the souks are a wonderful labyrinth of alleyways and shops but you will get lost and you will get hassled by traders keen to sell you their wares, this can be quite overwhelming if you haven't quite acclimatised.
The secret to having an incredible holiday in Marrakech is balance, ensure your accommodation is a peaceful haven ( in my opinion a traditional riad far surpasses anything a modern hotel can offer ) because this will become an essential element when the chaos of the city becomes too much, somewhere quiet to relax is key. Both agreeing we weren't quite ready to immerse ourselves fully in the souks we headed back to our riad to enjoy a nice bottle of President Rouge before dinner and what a dinner! A Moroccan feast of warm salads, lamb tagine with artichoke hearts followed by sweet crisp apple pastry for desert and creamy ice cream for desert. As with everything else we had experienced at Riad Malika the food was outstanding, we ended up eating several dinners in house during our stay and they were by far the best meals of our trip.
Day 2. The Marjorelle Gardens
Awoken first thing by morning prayers echoing across the city combined with the dawn chorus of 100's of birds outside our bedroom window it was an early start to our first day. Breakfast was just as wonderful as the previous night's meal although we weren't quite prepared for the enormous spread of fresh sweet orange juice, tasty rich coffee, pancakes, doughnuts, bread, tomato tart and yogurt. Delicious but forget the diet!
We had grand plans of visiting a number of tourist attractions that day but we got so lost trying to the first one (Marrakech doesn't do signposts) we aborted the latter plans and focused on just the one . The Marjorelle Gardens also known as the Yves Saint Laurent Gardens are an exotic haven situated amongst residential buildings and construction sites on the outskirts of the medina, not an easy to find I might add, you find yourself wondering down numerous dusty uninspiring streets leaving you questioning if this is indeed the right location for a tropical garden. However once you read up on the history of the gardens it becomes clear why they our located in a slightly obscure area, designed by French artist Jacques Marjorelle in the 1920's and 1930's it was open to the public as a gift to the Marrakech residents in 1947. Following Marjorelle's death in 1962 it fell in to neglect but was rescued by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge in 1980 to save it from falling in the hands of developers, seeing how the area surrounding the gardens, once olive groves has become victim to over development makes the existence of this space even more special.
The gardens are truly spectacular, built around the iconic electric blue villa the 12 acre sub tropical gardens are filled with streams, exotic plants, coconut palms and banana trees, a peaceful and serene piece of paradise despite the hoards of tourists that visit everyday. My top tips: arrive early to enjoy the garden in relative peace, treat yourself to a smoothie in the garden café (the date, almond, avocado and milk was divine), finally visit the Berber museum housed within the villa, a fascinating exhibition full of photographs, costumes, jewellery and artefacts giving a detailed insight into their history and culture.
Day 3 & 4. Sahara & Atlas Mountains
Our Sahara getaway, so fantastic it deserves a blog post of it's own.
Day 5. Gueliz
Our trip out to the desert had been one of those once in a life time experiences, we had seen and done more than we could ever have hoped for in 48 hours but it had left us in need of some series R&R. We spent the day blissfully enjoying the winter sunshine on the rooftop terrace of the riad, November is the perfect time to visit Morocco, outside of peak season the tourist attractions are less crowded, temperatures reach the early to mid 20's during the day, ideal for sight seeing especially the hotter areas of Morocco like the Sahara, where temperatures exceed 40 degrees in the height of summer.
Once recovered we decided to venture in to Gueliz the new district of Marrakech, a part of the city with a heavy western influence and a complete contrast to the medina, you could easily be in another city. It boasts many good restaurants and bars but they come at a price closer to what you would expect to pay in London or Paris.
There were a number of venues we fancied checking out but in true Marrakech fashion we couldn't find any of them, resulting in much frustration leading to a firm decision wine was now needed. We wondered in to the first place that looked nice and quite by coincidence it was one of the places on our list; the famous Grand Café de la Poste, the epitomy of French colonial elegance and every bit as classy as one would hope. We were immediately made to feel relaxed, the attentive staff served us a lovely bottle of red accompanied by olives, a creamy dip and homemade bread sticks, we would have happily stayed for dinner but they didn't start serving till 8 and we were hungry! So one bottle of wine down we set off to explore the ville nouveau further in search of food, within about 10 minutes we stumbled upon B.for Marrakech a high end bar that combines music entertainment with a restaurant focusing on Asian fusion cuisine, craving something other than tagine we were pleased to have discovered somewhere with Thai and sushi on the menu. Tastefully decorated, this chic establishment was clearly designed to attract a certain type of clientele, having casually wondered in from the street we did feel a little underdressed for the venue however the food was superb, the selection of sushi and massaman curry was delicious and the service by the waiting staff was outstanding. Would I recomend, absolutely but dress up it is an upmarket establishment and as with much of Gueliz be prepared to pay for the privilege.
Day 6. Baha Palace & Jemaa El Fnaa
We awoke on day 6 ready for more exploring, today's destination The Bahia Palace situated within the medina. Designed in the late 19th century by Grand Vizer Si Moussa to house his harem, this beautiful palace took 14 years to build by carefully selected artisans brought in from Fez, unfortunately only a small proportion of the 150 rooms are open to the public but nevertheless what is accessible is beautiful and allows you to see up close the craftsmanship and skill that went into creating this royal home, well worth visit
Having experienced the splendour of the palace we took the time to wonder around the medina without an agenda, absorbing the architecture, the colours, the people, smells, sounds, appreciating the beauty of Marrakech and feeling blessed as I always do to be in another country. We walked around the streets and city gardens including the Arsat Moulay Abdesalem Cyber Park and the iconic Katoubia Mosque, enjoying the quieter side of the city centre away from the souks and the square before heading back to the riad for some much needed refreshment.
In the evening we ventured in to the famous Jemaa El Fnaa, Marrakech's most renowned tourist attraction. During the day the square is relatively calm, playing host to numerous orange juice vendors, spice stalls and the occasional entertainer but sunset is when it really bursts to life. Full to the brim with food stalls, snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians and an abundance of other entertainers, it has to be seen to be believe, be careful not to linger too long in one place or take pictures as you will be asked for money, we found that a solution to this problem is to pick one of the restaurants overlooking the square where you can enjoy the spectacle over tagine and a glass of wine. We chose the well known Le Marrakchi restaurant with views across the square, packed to the brim with tourists the food was typical Moroccan fair and a little pricey for average food (you pay for the location and name) but it has a great atmosphere, live music and attentive waiters who flatter the men, flirt with the women and sprinkle you with rose water at the end of the meal. If it's an all Moroccan experience you are after then this is the place!.
Day 7. The Souks
Our last day in Marrakech, by no intention, became a list of things not to do when visiting the city. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I'm a firm believer in being honest with people about places I visit, travelling and experiencing new places is an incredible buzz and a privilege but it's not all sunshine and smiles, there are tough days too.
We awoke after rather a restless nights sleep, Scott had picked up a stomach bug, it transpired weeks later and after numerous visits to the doctor that he had a nasty bacterial virus, we suspect from eating salad leaves that had been washed in tap water. For the locals who are accustomed to it the tap water is fine but it is unadvisable for the rest of us.
It was quite clear he was not up to leaving the hotel but reluctant to waste the last day I decided to venture into the souks on my own. After a week in Marrakech I felt relatively confident I would be able to navigate the undercover markets without getting too lost, I ensured I covered up, didn't take anything of value bar my camera and kept my cash in a waist pouch under my clothes so I wouldn't need to take a bag.
My excursion began well, I meandered through the alleyways in awe of the shops and stalls, admired the artisans at work and the results of the labour whilst being careful not to venture too much off the beaten track. Unfortunately it is inevitable one will get lost in the souks even with a good sense of direction and it wasn't long before I was aware that I had unintentially wondered in to an area I was no longer comfortable, only too aware I appeared to now be the only tourist. It was at this time I was approached by a young man offering to show me the way, thinking better of it, I declined, he persisted, offering to show me on a map instead. This seemed like a safe solution, I listened and proceeded headed off in the direction I had been shown, unfortunately the story doesn't end here, a series of events followed resulting in me being led down alleyways by a stranger introduced to me by the young man.
Now you may ask, why would I follow a complete stranger in a city like Marrakech? Well when you are utterly lost and feeling vulnerable, the apparent kindness of strangers can I appear like a much needed blessing, even against your better judgement. I followed the stranger for only a matter of 10 minutes when two men in baseball caps on a moped screeched to a halt next to us, shocked I didn't have a moment to grasp the situation before the stranger was handcuffed by the two gentleman, in French it was explained to me that they were police and I needed to be on my way. Somehow in shock and fuelled by adrenaline I managed to find my own way back to the relative safety of the square. I was lucky, many aren't. I have no idea what fate awaited me had the police not come along, I suspect a mugging but it could have been worse!
I don't tell this story to discourage people from visiting Morocco but to make people aware of the dangers, it is far safer to travel with company especially if you are a woman travelling on your own, although a male friend of mine has been mugged in Marrakech too. I am an experienced traveller, I am used to travelling on my own but maybe this was my Achilles heel, I had become complacent. My advice; don't venture in to the souks on your own, if you are travelling solo hire a guide from the tourist information centre, they are reasonably priced, can be hired by the half or full day, and in fact you are more likely to have a more enjoyable and fulfilling experience by doing so.
Despite the incidents on our last day in Morrocco I haven't been deterred from returning one day. For anyone with an adventurous spirit Morocco is a must, it is a truly remarkable country, nothing about it is subtle and it will be an trip you won't forget, it can be rather full on on but the positives far out way the negatives. Infact one of my last experiences was one of the most memorable of our trip.
Around the corner from our riad was a little spice shop, every day since arriving in the city the owner, a friendly gentleman in his 60's had tried to persuade me to come in, every day I declined, telling him I would visit tomorrow. On my last day he approached me saying 'everyday you promise you come in to my shop but you never do, you must come in today' so I did. He spoke to me with great passion about his spices, teas, soaps and oils, introduced me to his lovely family, made me Moroccan tea and insisted we all had a photo together. I left having bought things I didnt need and paid far more than they were worth but it didn't matter, the experience was so wonderful and the family so kind, it restored my faith in the local people, which was needed after the earlier incident. My final words of advice when visiting this unique destination; stay street smart, be careful what you eat and you will fall in love with it like I did, vowing to return again and again.