Morocco (Part 1): Marrakech
In our three years of travelling from London, we’ve more or less stuck to what we’ve known: Europe. But more recently we’ve been itching for something different, especially as we’ve started to feel complacent in our comfort zone. Our travels have been missing the adventurous mystique they had in the beginning, when we didn’t really know what to expect or what we were doing. Britt had been thinking about Morocco for the past couple of years, and it seemed a reasonable first jump outside Europe our comfort zone, so our first big trip of 2018 brought us to Morocco for 10 days—3 in Marrakech, 4 on the road to and from the Sahara, and 3 in Fez!
Riads—traditional homes built around open courtyards—are the best kind of accommodations in Morocco’s major cities for those desiring to stay right in the medina (Arabic for “city”, but in this context referring to the old Arab walled area of North African cites). They range from basic to luxury, and with travelling costs quite low in Morocco compared to western Europe, you don’t have to spend a lot to get a lot. We stayed in the Sabba Junior Suite at Ryad Dyor, located in the quiet northern end of Marrakech’s medina. We were introduced to Moroccan hospitality when, upon arrival, we were treated to mint tea (which became a staple throughout the trip) and pastries and shown around the riad’s courtyards and roof terrace. The staff at the riad offered lots of advice on where to go, what to see, and how to detect and avoid common scams.
Anyone that spends even a minute online or in guide books reading about travelling to Morocco will find lots of advice about safety, security, and etiquette. Indeed, for those like us who have only barely glimpsed non-Western tourism (Sarajevo in Bosnia probably being the closest for us), places like Morocco can be a shock: the call to prayer five times a day, sights of crippling poverty, chaos in the streets, pushy vendors and shop owners, kids telling you streets are closed or off limits—it’s almost impossible to stop for more than 5 seconds to look at a map without being accosted by people whose intentions aren’t usually kind!
But don’t let the fact that Morocco is different and oftentimes overwhelming stop you from visiting. In fact, that’s all the more reason to have a look for yourself! After all, we wanted to visit to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, and by default that meant things would sometimes be difficult. There were a handful of things that helped us cope which we’d recommend to anyone planning to visit:
Learn some basic Arabic. Our most used phrase by far was la shukran (“no thank you”).
Be confident but friendly. Shop owners can be aggressive, but that’s their style. If you’re not interested, tell them that in a straightforward manner, but there’s no reason to get upset at them. Keep a smile the whole time!
Offset the chaotic energy of the medina with the tranquility of your riad and some of the city’s sights (many of the museums and gardens are beautiful respites from the hustle and bustle outside).
Walk on the right in the crowded alleyways of the medina and let motorbikes use the middle of the road. Once you find the rhythm and order of Marrakech’s chaos, it becomes much more enjoyable.
Use the Marrakech Riad travel guide app. The app has a detailed map of the medina (which tracks where you are if you have GPS enabled) and a handful of helpful articles on getting the most out of the city.
Be prepared to haggle for anything and everything in the souks. There are many guides online to haggling in Morocco (including in the Marrakech Riad app), so get reading!
Both men and women should dress conservatively. Rico wore long pants and a t-shirt at a minimum. Britt was covered wrist to ankle with loose-fitting clothing at all times. Regardless of your personal views on this convention, you are a guest in another country and should follow basic etiquette. If anything, it will help shield against the worst abuse. We saw on multiple occasions groups of women dressed in inappropriate clothing, and in each case they were the targets for the worst harassment.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but these tips helped us cope with the differences and enjoy our time to the fullest. Lastly, we’re aware that our experience might be different from others. For one, we visited as a man and a woman who kept close to each other at all times. We read a lot about harassment toward women, but Britt did not experience nearly anything as bad as she was prepared for. Our preparation as per the points above and the fact that she was with a man no doubt helped.
OK, OK, let’s get to it! Unfortunately, the famous Ben Youssef Madrasa was closed for renovation, so our riad suggested we visit Dar El Bacha Musée Dea Confluences instead. The museum was not yet officially open, but was allowing visits for people who knew enough to go—this probably explained the lack of crowds! The museum was our first view of the intricate detail of Moroccan architecture, something that blew our minds time and time again over the course of the trip. The serene courtyard dotted with orange trees also served as a restful break from the streets.
We left the medina walls for visits to the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and Jardin Majorelle. The queue for tickets to the garden was very long, so we bought combination tickets from the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, which has much shorter queues, allowing us to skip the line for the garden. After a quick museum visit, we wandered the gardens to seek out viewpoints from which to appreciate the villa’s deep and vivid Majorelle blue color. Check out the 33 Rue Majorelle concept store on your way back toward the medina.
Terraces abound in Marrakech’s medina, and the one at Maison de la Photographie is, in many people’s opinion, the best. The museum is fine, but the view from the top certainly is the highlight. Another breath of fresh air away from the crowds can be had at Le Jardin Secret. Despite the name, this garden is on the list of many of Marrakech’s visitors, but the atmosphere was peaceful and we got to rest our feet and soak up the sun on one of the garden’s benches.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jemaa el-Fna, one of the Africa’s largest and most unique squares, is a living and breathing example of the city’s frenetic energy. When you’re tired of being approached by vendors, snake charmers, and henna artists, head up for a drink on the terrace at Hôtel Restaurant Café de France (skip the food) to appreciate the spectacle from afar.
Most mosques in Morocco are off-limits to non-Muslims, so you’ll have to settle for views from outside. This is the case at Koutoubia Mosque, one of Marrakech’s most celebrated and recognizable landmarks. The park on the mosque’s west side offers nice views. From there we walked to and through Bab Agnaou, one of the medina’s many gates, toward Tombeaux Saadiens. The area of the tombs that is open to the public is small and fills up quickly, but it’s worth a quick stop.
El Badi Palace, mostly in ruins, is a much larger space with a reflecting pool and some panoramic views from above. Nearby Palais de la Bahia is very popular and packed with crowds. The architecture and courtyards are beautiful—we’d recommend visiting first thing in the morning to properly appreciate it all.
We’d love to offer specific recommendations for the souks, but it was difficult to keep track of exactly where we were once we got sucked into the labyrinthine network of alleyways. We wandered the souks quite a bit, especially on our last day. You can hire a personal guide to take you through the souks (and assist in haggling), but we liked wandering on our own, especially since we had time to get lost and take it at a slow pace. The Marrakech Riad app has a few self-guided souk walks and there are many guides online and in guide books to help you make the most of it.
Our big haul from the souks was a handwoven Berber carpet from the High Atlas mountains. The vendor we bought it from is based in the Souk de Tapis just off Rahba Kedima—there are plenty of carpet vendors to choose from in this area. We had a specific carpet in mind but played our interest down a bit for the negotiation, allowing the vendor to show us a dozen carpets before we finally got to the one we were interested in. He asked 4,800 dh for the medium-sized carpet, which according to our prior research was a reasonable starting price. After deploying some of the haggling tricks we picked up in the guides we’d read, we got him down to 3,000 dh—a price that we were happy with. And that is one of the key secrets of haggling: only haggle for things you actually want, pick a price that you’re willing to pay, and go for it if you can get down to that price! There’s no use wondering if you could have gotten the price down any further. (The carpet is now the centerpiece of our living room.)
The food in Marrakech—and the setting of many of its restaurants—was incredible. We started each day with a hearty breakfast on our riad’s terrace (cereal, fruit salad, yogurt, bread with jam, tomato and mozzarella salad, juices, teas). Lunch was had at Atay Cafe (chicken tagine, spinach and cheese ravioli) (terrace with nice views), Terrasse des Épices (vegetable couscous, ice cream) (as the name suggests, another nice terrace), and Zwin' Zwin' Café (chicken pastilla, avocado salad) (we tried to get into Restaurant La Famille but it was full). Dinner was had at our riad (couscous, chicken, vegetable tagine, apple tart), Nomad (vegetable pastilla, beef couscous, vegetarian plate) (another great terrace!), and Le Jardin (vegetable couscous, vegetable pastilla, lemon tart) (no terrace, but a great atmosphere).
Marrakech is a city of contrasts. One moment you’re thinking “it’s too hot, there’s people everywhere, is this motorbike going to kill me?, what’s that smell?, did I just step in donkey poop?, is this kid going to tell me this street is closed too?, where’s my riad?, was it this way?” and the next, “wow this is so peaceful, I’ve never seen anything like this before, the sun feels amazing, look at that beautiful tile, the light here is amazing, this food is delicious, I recognize this street!, I could stay here for a while…” It was all such a rollercoaster ride. We’d find ourselves tired of being out in the hustle and bustle, so would head back to our riad for some rest—and then 30 minutes later we’d be itching to get back out there! We’d heard such mixed reviews of Marrakech, but we’re confident in saying that it was one of the most captivating cities we’ve ever visited. We think of it often and our hearts ache to return.
As amazing as Marrakech is, the rest of the country is equally as incredible. Stay tuned for the next stage of our trip: a three-day road trip into the Sahara Desert!