Morocco was one destination that I wanted to visit for a number of years. After watching old movies like Casablanca and Laurence of Arabia, I fell in love with the culture and old colonial feel from that part of the world. There was something rather romantic about exploring the ancient walled cities and I could already imagine the smell of incense filling the narrow alleyways of the souks and night markets.
After telling my girlfriend about my idealistic break in Morocco, she caught the bug as well and we booked two tickets to Marrakech for a long weekend from Friday until the following Monday in August.
Arriving at the airport, we could take a bus to the city centre, but with no previous experience of this place we decided to get a taxi and showed the driver where we needed to go. We realised that it was a good idea to print off a map showing the route from the airport to the boutique hotel where we were staying, which was more to do with luck than judgement.
But there was a second reason I wanted to take a taxi. I love seeing the hustle and bustle of new, unfamiliar cities and street level. It’s the first impression you will get so it should be a good one in my opinion. As we drove through the new developments we finally reached the old city where the streets winded narrowly between rustic buildings. The first thing that struck me was the colour of everything, like a rich orange, warm and inviting.
Needless to say, the traffic in Morocco is chaotic with the bravest driver getting right of way. We brushed past other vehicles and swerved through crowds of pedestrians, who seemed to time their walk across the road perfectly so they wouldn’t get hit by oncoming traffic. It was entertaining to say the least and, although I had similar experiences in other destinations like Mombasa and Egypt, Morocco seemed to win the prize for the most daring passenger experience.
The driver stopped and explained that we needed to continue the rest of the journey on foot down an alleyway flanked by market stalls. We paid him and exited the car only to be greeted by a group of children willing to carry our bags and take us to our hotel, at a price of course, sort of like an unofficial concierge.
One child asked where we were staying in broken English and excitedly declared that he knew exactly where to go. He picked up our bag and signalled us to follow him without a reply from us. I looked at my girlfriend with a shrug as if to say, ‘this is it darling, our holiday is in this kids hands’ which was answered with a roll of the eyes from her.
A two minute walk later and we were standing in front of a big, heavy looking wooden door. Our self-volunteered baggage handler and temporary guide held out his hand awaiting his reward. It was at this point that I wished I had some small change on me, but all I had were notes of 10 and 20 dirhams. I begrudgingly handed over 10 dirhams to the kid who thanked me with a bow and pottered off the way we came. I couldn’t help but feel a little robbed within the first 20 minutes of our arrival but I only had myself to blame.
We rang the buzzer to our supposed hotel and, with a sigh of relief, were answered by the concierge… the official one this time. Introducing ourselves, we had a bit of paper work to fill out and then we were ready to settle down.
In booking our accommodation, we had decided to stay at a riad, which is a kind of boutique hotel. It had a very unique, cosy style with a mish-mash of furniture and decorations which seemed to resemble an art nouveau feel. I have recommended staying in a riad to everyone I talk to about Morocco. The service was very personal with a friendly atmosphere and almost felt like a home from home.
You wouldn’t be able to tell that the riad was in the middle of the hustle and bustle, but once the front door was closed, it was like entering another world. We were greeted by a lush courtyard populated with colourful finches that chirped away in the towering palm trees and played in the water fountain standing in the middle of a mosaic floor. The sound of falling water and the shade from the trees provided cool respite from the blazing midday sun.
As we entered our room we were greeted with a breeze from the wide open windows with slatted shutters, overlooking the small pool which was in a neighbouring courtyard. It all seemed very intimate and I couldn’t help feeling that we made the right decision staying here rather than a modernised hotel.
The Night Market
After familiarising ourselves with our accommodation and meeting some of the other residents, we decided to venture out into the city and explores the souks. It was reaching dinner time and the sun was setting making it bearable to walk out in the open.
The night market is a must-see when visiting Marrakech and has featured on many a ‘before you die’ list. It was a simple walk to get there from the riad, down the main road, which tested our traffic dodging skills. We could see the Koutoubia, the city’s main mosque, lit up in the distance which acted as a beacon for the market.
We reached the main square, mainly by following other tourists, and were bought in by the smells of the food market along with the sounds of whirling dervishes and snake charmers.
Walking through the markets will subject you to a bit of banter from the stall owners, but it’s all in good humour and isn’t as aggressive as other destinations such as Tunisia or even Egypt. You can easily brush off a merchant looking to barter with you, only to be greeted by another.
We decided to enter the rabbit warren that was the souk, a winding labyrinth of the market network. It’s easy to get lost in here and is almost encouraged, as you will enter through one end of the square only to emerge on the other side half an hour later.
It’s easy to notice a trend in what the market is selling, whether its leather products like hand-made bags and shoes, to the more sensory goods like incense and spices. This resulted in a pleasant ambient smell as we strolled through the crowd.
After familiarising ourselves with the market we decided to grab something to eat at one of the many food stalls which was a fairly ad hoc affair. We sat down on a long table alongside other diners with their food overflowing as they shared with each other. The menu comprised mainly of seafood, which wasn’t my girlfriends favourite, but she made the most of it. We also received a complementary bottle of water which was welcomed as the evening air was still warm.
After we finished, it was a lazy walk back to the riad to hit the hay with the air conditioning on.
During our stay, my girlfriend had the idea planted in her head that we should go to Essaouira, a seaside town on the Atlantic coast, for a day. To avoid any chastising whilst on holiday I agreed to get up at stupid o’clock and go with her on the coach.
The coach station was located right next to the train station in the new city and, like the ignorant tourists we were, we got our tickets with a bit of loud, slow-talking English and made-up sign language. We ended up just repeating ‘Essaouira’ at the ticket desk whilst holding up two fingers. Mission accomplished. We had two tickets to Essaouira and we looked far too proud of our achievement despite the haphazard approach.
The coach journey was just under 3 hours and ventured through rural Morocco. It’s a nice scenic drive, but the landscape doesn’t change enough to deserve undivided attention, so I read a book for most of the way.
When we arrived, I couldn’t help but feel that the sea air made Essaouira a bit chilly and overcast. It was nice to be on the beach for a day but it certainly wasn’t sun bathing weather.
The city itself was a contrast from the warm oranges and reds of Marrakech, instead comprising mainly of white and blues. This is where the contrasts end however as the atmosphere and culture is still very much the same.
It was nice to see another side of Morocco, but unless you want to spend a whole day, I would give Essoauira a miss as it is very samey to Marrekech, only on a smaller scale. After deciding against a camel ride, out of sheer fright of the monstrous animals, we decided to get the coach back in the afternoon in time for dinner.
You may already have an idea of what the food is like in Morocco. A lot of it is spicy dishes cooked with a tagine, a ceramic pot traditional for the region. You will however notice some westernised restaurants catering to tourists as a novelty.
It’s a culinary experience for the adventurous foodie to say the least, but is well worth the endeavour. I enjoy all kinds of food so I was happy to taste the different tagines on offer in the various cafes and restaurants we tried, which vary in many ways, usually coming with lamb or chicken and a variety of cous cous.
The best tagine we had however, and probably the best I ever had, was eaten at our riad on the last night, which augmented my reasoning for staying there further. It was a set menu of lamb tagine with dates which just fell apart after being slowly cooked. The cous cous was light and fluffy with the tang of apricots and a hint of coconut, bringing a sweet and savoury sensation together effortlessly.
When staying in Morocco, you should also try the mint tea at least once, if not to cool down, then to experience the refreshment on its own. There’s something quite theatrical about having a pot of mint tea delivered to your table and poured into a cut glass to sip.
The experience of Marrakech was everything that I had hoped for and felt like a box I could tick off. The heat and the vibrancy made it feel like an adventure and I couldn’t help thinking that this destination had become a popular choice for city breaks rather than the regular holiday.
Spending more than a few days in Marrakech could become a bit samey, unless you venture into the desert for a few days or visit some of the neighbouring towns and cities. It’s an experience rather than a holiday, but I would definitely return in a year or two to savour the sights, sounds and tastes.