In just two short hours I’ve left the green rolling parks and lush beer gardens of a warm London summer far behind and I am gliding over the arid dessert, salmon pink houses and swathes of olive tree farms of Morocco.
They say that Marrakech is an ‘assault on the senses’ and the first comes as my partner and I leave the air-conditioned cocoon of the airplane. Arriving around 10am, the barometer is already pushing 40C. The oppressive heat radiates off the run way like a mirage during the short walk from the plane to the airport lounge and my shirt is soaking with sweat within minutes. There is no respite once we reach customs and despite a relatively small line-up, it takes us an hour to get through. Then, I’m happily reminded I am back on African time …
Stepping into our riad is an oasis of calm out of dusty walk ways and the path of noisy local motorbikes. Our host greets us with freshly made sweet mint tea and we kick back on comfy lounges under the shade of a huge palm tree that reaches out from the open courtyard. As always, I ask the receptionist for food and sightseeing tips and he recommends some local eateries around the medina. He also knows of a local guide that will take us over the Atlas Mountains and camel riding in the Sahara. It’s all organised within one hour.
Stepping out again, we join the crowds in the thoroughfare leading to a greater maze of souks at lunchtime. The aroma of chargrilled meats, spicy tagines and sweet pastries from hole in the wall bakeries mingle with exhaust fumes from local motorbikes. Stallholders beckon me into their shops of colourful pottery plates and tagines, gold and silver jewelry, saris, lingerie and tacky souvenirs and convenience shops.
I choose a restaurant and order a vegetable tagine which comes accompanied with roast eggplant, olives and chilli sauce. When the bill arrives, I’m a bit perplexed to find that the cost has blown out by an extra $15 AUD then I realise they have added all the extra accompaniments that I didn’t order. Cheeky. I learn my first rookie mistake.
After lunch I’m drawn to the perfect cylindrical cones of yellow, orange and brown hues and the wafting scent of tumeric, corriander, cumin and cinnamon which entices from each spice shop. I ask the shop owner what the secret is to getting each pyramid of spice to stand up so perfectly. He smiles and pulls an ace of spades out of his back pocket. With one steady stroke of the card, the spice keeps its place.
As we pass the beautiful pottery and lattern shops, I truly wish I had more space in my backpack!
As we reach Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, snake charmers gather under wide umbrellas with their cobras to escape the glaring mid afternoon sun. A few foreign tourists have been roped in for the obligatory snaps with a python wrapped around their necks but it doesn’t appeal to me at all. Colourful horse and carriages wait on the other side of the main square to whisk tourists around the old city and we retreat to one of these and head for the Jardin Majorelle.
The Jardin Mojorelle is a beautiful botanical garden and artists landscape which was designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920’s and 30’s when France still occupied Morocco. The garden is home to a vast collection of cacti, exotic plants and a variety of bird life. You feel like you’ve stepped into a secret oasis.
Brilliant cobalt blues, primary reds, yellows and whites are splashed between Moorish archways, trickling fountains and palm tree groves. Flushes of pink, purple frame white trellises and tickle the nose with warm floral scents. The gardens were cherished by part owner and flamboyant fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and on the event of his death in 2008, his ashes were spread here.
Eventually we retreat back to our riad where we fall into a deep afternoon nap.
As the sun sets, the Medina takes on a carnival atmosphere. Snake charmers are replaced traditional guitarists, singers and drummers. I see Mini Put Put, games such as “get the hoop over the coke bottle to a win a prize”, a huge outdoor screen playing old Charlie Chaplin movie, cigarette sellers, local women painting henna tattoos and vast orange juice stands all claiming to sell the “best” orange juice in Marrakech.
Beside the orange juice stands lie a patch work of dried figs, fresh pears, avocado and whole pineapples. Spruikers in white coats call out for customers to try their bowls of hot steaming snails. Carts of sweets roll past me sporting patterns of filo pastry, pistachio biscuits and flaky twists, the sellers all imploring to take a whole box “free to try”.
As I enter the main night food market, the heady aroma rising from smoky bbq’s and chargrilling seafood fills the air. Each stall has a number but I’m looking to the where the locals are lining up to get served; the food is guaranteed to be hot and most importantly, fresh. I’m conservative with my choices as potential sickness is on my mind given we are heading to the south of France after this. It would be a travesty to miss out on all that lovely cheese and other goodies if the stomach isn’t right.
I come to a stall whose specialty is roasted sheep’s head and steaming plates of succulent lamb that fall off the bone. The customers are three deep especially with European tourists. I strike up a conversation with the Italians sitting next to me while the shop owner serves me a mint tea. They are dipping their spoons and bread into the brains and slurping as they go.
“C’mon” they say, “just try it, you’ll love it” Well…I’m not convinced and I politely decline. I do make a point of trying most things at least once when I travel overseas, but the buck usually stops at offal and other such meaty ‘delicacies’. After dinner, we retreat to a roof top bar away from the main square. It’s warm, quiet and a welcome relief from the bustling night market.
Somehow Barry White has found his way to Marrakech tonight and his voice carries over warm breezes, swirling around my cocktail in hand. He only stops for the evening prayer that calls from one of the nearby mosques.
Marrakech looks beautiful from here – a sea of fairy lights and smoky haze.
We stayed at Riad Celia
We strolled in the Jardin Majorelle
Adhoc Travel Tips – Marrakech
Clothing – This is Muslim country – be respectful. Leave the short skirts and booby tops at home. I wore long light cotton pants or maxi dresses with cotton shirts. I also wore a light shawl around the shoulders. Plenty of tourists wear far less than this but they also attract less than favourable attention ranging from staring, head shaking and spitting. I traveled with my partner so did not notice undue attention but other girlfriends travelling alone have had a harder time.
Personal Safety – The souks and medina are generally pretty safe with the usual smarts about keeping an eye on your bag (zippered shut) and not flashing the cash around. Once the shops shut in the side alleys off the main square, these are pretty lonely places with a high concentration of young men out late. We lost track of time one evening and found ourselves making a very fast and unsettling walk back to our riad. We were fine but we felt unsafe.
Food – Go for hot, freshly cooked meat and seafood. Look for shops that have a line up which means plenty of turn over. Avoid salads and dairy in less reputable eateries and accommodation.
Taxi’s – As in any foreign country, always ask the driver to put the meter on. The correct price should be between 70-100 Dinah ($18-20 AUD) to the old city. We didnt follow this rule on arrival and was quoted 70 Dinah however when we got to town, the driver tried to charge 70 pp then was angry when we wouldnt pay up
Getting Directions – For any assistance given to you, a small payment will be expected.
ATMs – Most banks have a limit of $200 AUD per transaction so keep this is mind with bank charges – they can add up quite quickly