Stepping out of a taxi and into the middle of a bustling square in the center of Marrakesh was unlike any other travel experience I’ve ever had. There were whiffs of the chaos that I’d experienced in the Marshall Islands, sure, but this was something different. It was hot, boiling. And the roundabout we were in the middle of seemed less like an orderly management system for traffic and more an inconvenience to the bubbling melange of donkey carts, scooters, old cars and walker trying to cross from one of the streets to another.
Our taxi driver had picked us up at the airport and then passed us and our one little carryon over to a man who was meant to take us by foot to our riad – this is standard practice in Marrakesh, with the riads existing inside the maze of alleyways, little to no signage and nearly impossible to find for the uninitiated. But then he asked us for money as we stopped in front of the Riad Africa- pounds, euros, dirhams, he didn’t mind – and this is how we knew we’d come across our first scam, as he wasn’t the man from the riad at all! It was an appropriate introduction though, to this city where no price is set, and haggling can get you anywhere and anything, even when you don’t want it.
I didn’t know what to expect from Marrakech. This marked my first visit to Morocco and to the African continent itself, and to be honest (shamefully), all that ran through my mind were bits and pieces of the Disney movie Aladdin – treasures in the marketplace, camels in the dessert, incredibly clever monkeys wandering the streets. And to be honest, all those bits are real! (Even the monkeys, unfortunately – they take the form of chained monkeys in diapers and little outfits in the main square, being hawked by their owners to take pictures with tourists for money).
I knew it would have similar aspects to Istanbul and Oman, but with a twist all it’s own. And it did – it’s a very specific mix of Middle Eastern and African cultures. It is equal parts riotous and chaotic, peaceful and zen. It is its own place, completely unique in the world.
The most famous part of Marrakech is definitely the souk – the endless winding narrow streets filled with hundreds of stalls and shops selling everything under the sun. Olives in a rainbow of colours, a world of pastries, rugs woven by Bedouins in the Atlas mountains, all manner of dress for men and women, curly toed shoes and bags of the softest leather, and lanterns made of hand beaten copper, silver, and tin. And of course the regular tourist tat – t-shirts and magnets, postcards and keychains.
The food is nothing to sniff at either. Morocco is famous for their tagine, a a North African/Berber dish named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. Jon ate one featuring every type of meat I think, during our short stay – chicken and lemon, beef and olive, lamb and more lamb. I stuffed myself on couscous and fell in love with msemen, a flattened, square dough made from semolina that is maybe the most perfect breakfast food of all time.
When we weren’t getting lost and haggling in the souk (and taking pictures with the sellers – every time I bought something they made me come inside and take a photo with them!), we were taking in the Islamic architecture on display. The Sadiaan Tombs, the Bahia Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, and the Jardin Majorelle all proved to be respites from the noise and clamour of the streets.
The “Majorelle blue” of the Majorelle gardens was breathtaking, and seemed even more vibrant after getting used to the subdued peachy pink walls that exist everywhere else in the city. The main building and its gardens got us used to blues and greens and quiet before being thrust back out into the city again.
My favorite place in the city had to be the Ben Youssef madrasa. An ancient Koranic school where the tiles crumbled beneath our feet, it was founded in the 14th century and finished in the 16th. It was closed down in the 1960s and stood derelict for decades before being opened again to the public. Its 130 student dormitory cells cluster around a beautiful courtyard carved in cedar, marble and stucco, with no representations of humans or animals (as required by Islam). Purely made of inscriptions and geometric patterns, the effect is mesmerising. The madrasa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students during its hey day. Now it sits on the edge of the medina, gently crumbling, empty except for the tourists wandering through.
Another thing I’m glad we made time for during our trip was an afternoon at a spa. Morocco, similar to Turkey, has a very famous public bath culture, but when you travel with a couple it’s difficult to take advantage – all the public baths are, obviously, gender segregated. Wanting to experience it together, we did some research and found a place close to our riad that had good reviews of a couples hammam and massage. This meant we went in together and did the hammam (a steam room that’s really really hot), followed by various scrubs with regional oils like argan and clay, then some shower stuff, a shampoo, and eventually, an hour long massage, with more oils. Rounded out with Marrakech’s famous mint tea drunk by the pool, it was a wonderful experience. (KosySpa, if you’re interested!)
At night the city changes, particularly in the Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the old town medina. More stalls open up selling even more kinds of food – snails and kebabs and fresh pressed juices. Games abound, there’s dancing and the snake charmers and fortune tellers are out in full force. Women get henna and smoke steams everywhere – it is intoxicating and chaotic.
Alas, our four day trip came to an end all too quickly. It seemed like we’d seen everything (or at least all the big things)- which is great when playing tourist in a new country. We brought home some bits and pieces and a prized new rug and far too many photos. And it seems like we timed this trip perfectly, with England having embraced autumn while we were gone. Nothing better than coming back from 98F days to most crisp and cool weather imaginable!