28.2.17

Meet Me In Morocco, Part 1: Marrakech


There is no other place in the world where a distinct sense of exoticism, unparalleled beauty, and the promise of a unique holiday experience lures in travelers from far and wide quite like Marrakech. I say this because I've noticed a certain degree of glamorization that comes with talk of this city. 

Indeed, Marrakech is as stunning, as captivating, and as full of life and unbridled energy as many make it out to be. And this blog post will certainly highlight the beautiful places I visited, and the delicious food I ate. But there are challenges that come with visiting a place where you know neither the first nor second language of the country. Where poverty runs rabid among 5-star hotels and luxury spas. And where not every aspect of the city is tailor-made to Western tastes and expectations.

Don't get me wrong: I don't aim to give a negative view of Marrakech. In fact, I would go back in a heartbeat if I could. But I want to give an honest account of the best, and most frustrating times. This first blog post is going to focus on just our time in the city of Marrakech itself. I'll be back next week with a post on our trip to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert! (that way, these posts will be shorter and a bit easier to read)


They say first impressions are everything. And Marrakech airport certainly didn't disappoint. With a quick dash through border control, we were well on our way to the city center. That wasn't before admiring the architectural prowess of this airport, and converting our Pounds to Dirham. Since Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency (meaning you can only use it and acquire it in Morocco), then you'll have to get your money on arrival (note that 12 Dirham = £1). 


Greeted by a tax driver organized by our Riad (more on that in a bit), Ben and I hopped into an SUV, totally unprepared for the pure insanity of driving through the city center. With cars squeezing down alleyways that are far too small for their size, and motorbikes weaving in and out of the space between the cars, it was a true lesson in madness. Luckily, we weren't the one's driving. But we would later experience what being a pedestrian was like on these same streets. 

For the two nights that we spent in Marrakech itself, Ben and I stayed in a Riad just North of the Medina (the center of town). Riads are the most common (and most aesthetically beautiful) form of accommodation in Marrakech. Multi-level square buildings with open courtyards in the middle, Riads are somewhat of a dream. And- get this- you don't have to spend a fortune to stay in one! Ben and I definitely erred on the side of frugality with ours, spending just £9 a night for the room, but for as little as £50 a night you can stay in some pretty luxurious spaces. 

What our Riad lacked in glamor was greatly made up for in the warm welcome we received. The owner of Riad Itry, where we stayed, is somewhat of a character. Not only is he accommodating, but he exudes kindness in every way. He was quick to give us advice that we didn't know we needed (like to never ask for directions from a young man- a woman or an older man is your best bet). And he was always in the courtyard in the evenings, willing to chat about how our day went. He even contacted us before the trip to pre-book our trip to the mountains and desert. 


Equipped with a bit more knowledge about Marrakech, Ben and I set out to explore the surrounding area as well as the Medina. Smells of grilled meat, fresh fruit, and warm bread fill the streets before lunch time, making it hard to resist popping into one of the many local cafes in our area. We pointed at different items of food, and sat down in anticipation of the meal to come. Most notably, this was where we first experienced Moroccan bread- warm, toasty, and unlike any bread in the UK or US, it comes free with almost every meal. 

We took to the streets once again to try to find our way to the Marrakech Museum. While we though a spot of "wandering" might be a good idea, we were soon regretting that choice.  Even the most seasoned of orienteers are no match for Marrakech's winding alleyways and labyrinth of covered souks.  

The hectic streets got the better of us, and we had to consult to map a few times, which is a double edged sword. Sure, you might find where you're going (if you're lucky enough to have a map that lists all the streets, that is), but you also become a target for locals to try to point you in the right direction (often in exchange for money). Ben and I did, however, ask for directions a handful of times and were quite surprised at how kind those we did ask were.   
  

We finally found ourselves at our destination, the Marrakech Museum. We handed over 50 Dirhams each and embraced the relief of being in a quiet, serene museum. An oasis of peacefulness if you will. The museum houses a number of works from Morocco; from ancient artifacts to local modern paintings. The central courtyard in and of itself is a sight not to be missed. 



After a draining day of attempting to navigate the city, and a period of rain, we sat down for tea at Cafe des Epices- a sprawling cafe which takes up two separate buildings in the Medina. We grabbed a seat on the upper floor to get a view of the compact market below, sipping on traditional sickly sweet mint tea (a common theme among our days in Morocco). 


A short nap back at the Riad was much needed before dinner. We had our sights set on Chez Brahim, a “budget” restaurant recommended by our guidebook, that we probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to otherwise due to the pushy flyer-giving staff outside. But trust me, the outside doesn’t do justice to the inside.


We ordered up a storm of lamb tagine, vegetable couscous, a chicken pastilla, and an eggplant salad. While we would have many tagines during our time in Marrakech, the one we had at Chez Brahim was the best of the best. With lots of  tangy lemon, its flavors were second to none. I’m also glad we ordered the chicken pastilla then, because we never saw it on a menu afterwards. A pastilla is a fried pastry parcel filled with shredded meat, raisins, and cinnamon and then topped with powdered sugar. Strangely good.





Speaking of food, I have to talk about the absolute best restaurant we visited. It was after we returned from our trip to the mountains and desert, and we decided on a whim to go to the place we had planned on checking out for lunch the next day. But I’m so glad we went for dinner. A candlelit courtyard and a family-run vibe pushed Jama to the top of my list. This was also the first place that offered wine, and while the price tag was higher than expected, it was worth it for our last dinner. We over-indulged a bit in a three course meal, complete with salads, a fig and lamb tagine, the best chicken couscous I had the entire trip, and homemade yogurt with honey. If you ever go to Marrakech and want a romantic meal with wine for under £30 go here.



Our final day started with an on-the-go breakfast bought from food stalls for legit pennies. Pistachio pastries and the freshest, juiciest oranges in the world were consumed in the palm-tree lined gardens outside a Mosque.


Keen to fit in as many sights as possible on our last day, we headed toward El Badi Palace to explore some ancient ruins. We went early in the morning, before the crowds arrived, weaving in and out of caverns, admiring mosaics, and taking in a birds eye view (equivalent to that of the storks nesting there) of the palace.




After about 30 minutes of getting lost in a two-square mile area, we finally found our way to the Saadian tombs. At that point, we hadn’t beat the crowds, and were forced to queue to see the most beautiful mosaics in the whole site. It was worth it, but I’d recommend going earlier.



The last few hours of our trip were spent doing the most quintessentially Moroccan activity: shopping in the Souks. Wandering through the open-air shops, we peaked into each stall, evaluating whether the seller could offer something we wanted. Teapots, lanterns, shoes, spices, pillowcases. There was nothing the shops didn’t have. But beware- some of it isn’t too nice. Be willing to barter- aggressively.  And don’t walk into any souk if you aren’t willing to stay there for a long period of time- the owner will likely try to hard sell you.


If you find yourself wandering around the souks, but don’t know where to start, make sure you visit Benzarou Jaafar. Don’t be afraid to ask for where it is, because everyone knows where the best slipper shop in the entire area is. With a  rainbow of leather, suede, and embroidered flat slippers, you’re really spoiled for choice here. And the quality is second to none.   


We came away with a few bits and bobs, sore feet, and full stomachs after a pit stop at Restaurant des Epices’ patisserie.


But what we really came away with by the time we hopped on our flight home was a new perspective: that traveling away from mainland Europe is tough. And while I had the most fantastic time in Marrakech I didn’t want to sugar coat the challenges- of getting lost and getting frustrated, of feeling helpless when I was misunderstood.


But what  I’ve realized from this trip is that what I love about travel isn’t the ease of going somewhere familiar. What I love the most is the lessons I learn from pushing myself into unfamiliar surroundings, and trying new things. After all, if traveling was so easy, we'd do it all the time- and it certainly wouldn't be as fun! 


Make sure you check in next week for my recap of our trip to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert!   

4 comments:

  1. Looks amazing! Hopefully I will make it to Marrakesh one day myself :)

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    1. You should do it!! It's so inexpensive...

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  2. Loved this! I'm dying to go soon so was really helpful in terms of tips too! x

    http://www.stylepetal.co.uk

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's such a wonderful place to visit! I'm glad I could be helpful :)

      xo Leda

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