Morocco has long been on the bucket list and so at the beginning of the year I decided 2017 would not pass without me visiting. Unsure of the country and the culture the best option I felt for me to explore with confidence was with an organised guided tour. After some investigation I booked a 5 day Marrakech Express trip with On the Go Tours along with 4 of my friends. Based in Marrakech the trip took us to the desert and to the coast – you can read about the tour in the Travels section.
Having a bit of extra time in Marrakech either side of our tour my friends experienced just a taster of what the ochre city had to offer.
The Souks are a maze of all sorts of Moroccan goods, with sellers keen to get you to look around you’ll hear “it’s free to look” and “cheaper than chips” which does make one wonder about the authenticity of the goods. Bartering is all part of the game although there are some fixed price places if that’s not your thing. Luckily I had one very enthusiastic haggler with me! The general rule is to ask how much it is and offer, at most, half to begin. To negotiate a 40 or 50% discount is a very good deal. The small shops can be deceiving as they often open up into larger spaces like this rug “stall” where I was trying to pick out the designs being thrown at my feet but was distracted by this wonderfully ornate ceiling.
The best buys in Marrakech include Berber rugs hailing from the various regions of the mountains, each design will vary between the High Atlas, Mid Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains. Silver teapots made in Fez or Marrakech with hand blown glasses from Casablanca allow for an authentic Moroccan mint tea experience back home and freshly picked dates from Zagora make for a sweet treat.
Argan oil for cosmetic and culinary use is a must (check out the tour review for the goats up the Argan tree!), babouche slippers, leather handbags and colourful pottery also make great souvenirs.
You’ll find the souks throughout the medina but head to the maze of winding streets north of Jemaa El Fna for shoppers’ paradise.
Jemaa El Fna
This is the main square which lies at the centre of the medina. We passed through here during the day to see snake charmers and sample the fresh orange juice from one of the long line of stalls but came back one night with our tour group.
To have our local guides Hassan and Mustapha, was comforting amongst the throng of the gathering crowd. It was crazily busy but it took no time to get us settled at a benches at one of the many food stalls to dine on kebabs, tagines, couscous and salads.
Taking the opportunity to escape the masses a few of us took to the terrace of Café de France to gaze upon the drummers, henna tatooists, sellers, storytellers and revellers in a more relaxed setting.
Jemaa El Fna truely comes alive at night. We wandered past souks with twinkling lantern treasures, drummers encircled by people of all ages absorbing every beat and even a storyteller mesmerising the crowds with his tales. Be prepared to give a few coins (5 Dirham is 40p) to take photos or videos. The crowds can be a little intimidating and notorious for pickpockets, but if you stay alert the square can be an exhilarating place to breath in the life of Marrakech.
For a time out from the hustle and bustle of the medina Jardin Majorelle is the place to go. While you may find a queue to enter, once through the unassuming doorway you’ll be transported in to a tranquil and enchanting landscaped oasis. The Jardin Majorelle took French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) forty years of passion and dedication to create. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the Jardin Majorelle in 1980 and saved it from falling victim to a real estate project and becoming a hotel complex.
Inspired by Moroccan tiles, Berber cloaks and kasbah buildings Majorelle painted the garden walls, fountains, features and villa this intense shade of blue, for which he trademarked the name Majorelle Blue.
Located within the grounds is a small Berber museum giving visitors an insight into Berber culture. On display you’ll find many artefacts including pottery, woven baskets, textiles and intricate jewellery encased in a blackened mirrored room with infinite twinkling lights. Back out amongst the exotic palm trees, bamboo (which visitors have taken to scoring their names in) and cacti your wanderings will take you to the memorial garden of Yves Saint Laurent, a water lily pool and lots of vibrant nooks and crannies.
Tagines, couscous, dates and mint tea… Moroccan cuisine is a feast of flavours. Marrakech is full of ornately decorated restaurants hidden behind ochre facades and some with rooftop dining. Finding ourselves in the Kasbah area we were charmed by a friendly waiter to come peruse the menu of La Table de la Kasbah. I was hangry, I needed fed, so the girls didn’t get a choice, we were dining here. And (thankfully) we were glad we did. Following the waiter past colourful cushioned rooms we were guided to an enchanting rooftop with views of the Moulay El Yazid mosque.
It was our first taste of authentic Moroccan food in the city and it was absolutely delicious.
While the history of the sweet Moroccan mint tea is a debatable one, brewing and drinking mint tea is a much-loved tradition that signifies hospitality and friendship. I was in my element drinking it at every opportunity and while usually laced with spoonfuls of sugar it does have its antioxidant health benefits.
The Moroccan diet seems to balance out its healthy savoury cuisine with bread served at every meal. If you like carbs, you’ll be in your element, if you don’t you may struggle, particularly at breakfast which generally includes pancakes and pastries sweetened with honey and fruit preserves.
When in Morocco it’s a must to stay in a riad. The word riad comes from the Arabian term for garden, رياض , and refers to the traditional Moroccan house, normally with two or more storeys around an Andalusian-style courtyard containing a fountain. This inward focus allowed for family privacy and protection from the weather in Morocco, they were the stately city homes of the wealthiest citizens such as merchants and courtiers. Today a lot of the riads have been converted to small boutique hotels and most without the boutique price tag.
Coincidentally gravitating towards the Kasbah area we stayed at Riad Dar Alfarah in a palatial family suite complete with it’s own private terrace. The gasps on arrival said it all. It was magical. Whitewashed stone accented with hues of blue in its tiles and furnishings centered on a welcoming pool.
Riad Dar Alfarah is situated beside the Moulay El Yazid Mosque and near to the Saadian Tombs. Like most riads it can be difficult enough to find so best to ask a staff member to come meet you at one of the landmarks. The staff were very welcoming and happy to assist in spa treatments, tours, anything to help you enjoy your experience of Marrakech.
Traditional tales of Morocco
The Moroccan tradition of hikayat, or storytelling, dates back almost 1,000 years. Today this form of entertainment is in danger of becoming extinct. Previously, hikayat was found in cities throughout Morocco, but today Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna square is one of the last places to find the old stories and there are fewer and fewer storytellers. I watched the storyteller outside Café de France, where generations of storytellers once stood, amidst the gathering crowd. Dressed in the traditional djellaba gown a dark heavily lined face peeked out from under a Taqiyah cap, he paced along a crimson dusty mat splattered with coins thrown down by his listeners and various paraphernalia I can only imagine to illustrate his tales. The sky was dark and the air heavy with the fragrance of burning incense as he had people transfixed on his every word, laughing while he sipped on his mint tea. It was so atmospheric, I only wish I understood Arabic!
Back in our riad sitting in a cosy corner of the roof top terrace under a darkened sky drinking mint tea and sampling Moroccan pastries we listened to two storytellers from Café Clock as they told us traditional tales. Very Arabian Nights! The sounds of the Islamic new year – drumming, cheering, fireworks and the call to prayer ringing out from the streets below all added to the atmosphere as Hamza and Sara relayed two traditional fables. One of which was a story about a dim witted son of a butcher sent by his widowed mother with the last of their money to purchase a cow but instead he bought three wisdoms. Of course the wisdoms helped him to overcome problems and resulted in him marrying a princess. Each story has a moral, a lesson to be learned. They really piqued my interest in Moroccan tales, hikayat and the sad demise of the storytellers in Jemaa El Fna. If you want to read more Richard Hamilton’s The Last Storytellers, Tales From the Heart of Morocco is a treasure of a book with a vivid collection of stories.
Travelling in a group of women I was very conscious about my attire in Morocco. In Islamic culture it is respectful to cover shoulders and knees and I had read that short skirts, low cut tops and bearing of shoulders may warrant unsolicited attention. Even within a group of 5 females I have to say I didn’t experience any of this in Marrakech, it is full of tourists here and so the Western look is fairly acceptable. However I like to be respectful of other cultures so for me it was midi dresses, kimonos and maxi skirts.
The red city of Marrakech was an amazing place to explore, one visit just isn’t enough for me. As with any city with swarms of tourists it can be easy to get caught up in tourist traps. It can seem like everyone is on the make here, encouraging you to visit shops you have no interest in, to take a taxi journey to waterfalls 2 hours away or have locals offering to guide you to your riad when they have no idea where it is themselves. But with a little foreplanning you can peel away those layers and explore the heart of Marrakech, it’s vibrant culture and its wonderful people who love to show it off to the world.