Marrakech

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Marrakech was my second visit to Africa (after Accra). Morocco is becoming more of a tourist hotspot year after year but they still maintain their traditions and Islamic culture. I did a lot of reading before I visited to make sure we were well prepared for the experience.

Few tips:

1. If you know any Arabic or French, it’s so useful when trying to communicate with the locals.

2. As a woman, it’s ideal to dress modestly in public areas to try and blend in (having your hair out didn’t seem too controversial). But you will still look foreign so prepare to attract some attention. It is harmless so don’t be afraid to just keep walking on.

3. Alcohol isn’t widely available but is served in some restaurants and sold in a few shops.

4. It’s quite difficult for vegetarians and vegans to order appropriately when eating out. When you ask for a non meat/other variant option, make sure you reinforce that you don’t want meat and actually describe the meal including the sauces that you want otherwise you’ll end up with a plate of fairly dry vegetables (which happened to one of our group!).

5. Make sure you have a pen to fill out the cards at the airport both when you arrive and leave Morocco.

6. It’s best to get the Moroccan currency (dirham) once you arrive..there are many exchange places in the airport and around the city. Keep your receipt as you will need it to change any money back before you leave.

Me and four female friends visited in Jan 18. Morocco is a 3 hour journey from London (except on our occasion, it took 5 hours due to delays and then Ryanair dropped us off at Agadir due to apparent fog so we had to endure 4 hours on the road to get to Marrakech). During this long journey, we met a nice Brit who has been working and living in Marrakech, now speaks Arabic and gave us tips on how to make the most of our time. Finding a trustworthy local/long term resident will be your key to saving time and money.

We finally arrived at Riad Faraj 13 hours after initial takeoff from Stansted! Our gorgeous house is owned by a lovely Italian-Australian couple. They waited around to meet us so we could be orientated to the surrounding streets and best places to eat, drink, visit and enjoy a spa day. They had a lovely driver for our airport transfers and day trips if needed, as well as a cook who made us an incredible breakfast daily (on request plus dinner if you require).

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I would highly recommend staying in the Medina to be at the centre of the action. It is the old fortified city which contains the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square, souks, many tourist attractions and beautiful riads within its walls. Riads are glorious houses which you can find on Airbnb to rent. They range from ones that can accommodate a group privately to much larger ones which contain spas and multiple bnb rooms.

First dinner of the holiday was at Niranj. We had a feast of hot and cold mezze, various meat dishes and mint tea. There is something very addictive about Moroccan tea…I challenge you to resist!

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I used Triposo (my fave travel app if you didn’t already know!) to take us around as we didn’t have free roaming. I was impressed at how well the offline map navigated us through the confusing Medina streets. Our first sightseeing day took us to the spice markets in the Jewish Quarter where your senses will be truly satisfied. Be wary of anyone who wants to direct you to specific stalls/shops..the pressure is then on to buy something from that vendor! Or you might have to pay a tip for their services..so we tried to look as confident as possible even when we were completely lost!

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After a long morning of haggling prices, we were all craving a filling tagine lunch. We found ourselves in a popular but tiny cafe called Châibi Meryem. The waiting staff were lovely and created a new table for us as it was too cold to sit outside. Food was okay, prices were better.

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Chicken tagine and cous cous

Only 3 minutes walk away was the Bahia Palace. The entrance fee is a mere 10 dirham. We confidently strolled in following a large group, expecting to hit the ticket office somewhere in the courtyard. However it was Friday, the day that Moroccans get free entry here, so this crowd of locals had already walked past the tiny ticket office without us realising. Embarrassingly they singled us out to go back and pay!

Bahia means brilliance which was clearly seen in the beautiful tile work both inside and outside.

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Another highly recommended place to eat dinner is at Le Salama..prices are more expensive than other places but it’s a nice treat. I had a beef kebab and couscous for 175 dirham. The restaurant has rooftop views, serves alcohol with happy hour deals (not the easiest to find in Marrakech) and Shisha too.

Jardin Majorelle is a BEAUTIFUL garden which was owned at one point by THE Yves Saint Laurent! Within its grounds, it has the Islamic Art Museum, Berber Museum, YSL’s own museum and memorial to him. It costs 70 dirham for the gardens alone and more for the other attractions. One word of caution..be prepared to queue if you go in the middle of the day (it took us a whole hour to get in). Early birds or those who prefer to go nearer to closing time will get in quicker.

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We came back to the medina to immerse ourself in the souks. These are giant marketplaces selling everything you could want (and things you didn’t know you needed). You need to haggle down the price for everything but it can be really exciting if you’re good! There are also many vendors in the rest of the side streets of the Medina and we found a few absolute gems…one local who was married to a LA resident but still enjoyed selling lamps for a living and another local who looked like he was straight out of a quirky French show and had some cracking one liners. My favourite being: “Those spices are only useful if you know how to cook!”

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An array of items including Argan oil, perfume, tea, spices and more

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We found a rooftop restaurant called La Terrasse Ben Youssef for a late lunch. This has incredible views across the city with Ben Youssef Mosque, Koutoubia Mosque and the Atlas Mountains clearly seen. We heard one of the prayer calls whilst up there which was surreal – I spotted a man on his rooftop joining in with the speakers.  Although we heard prayer calls multiple times in the day, each time was so powerful yet soothing.

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Lamb tagine

Have you ever been to a Hammam spa? They are quite the experience! We visited Les Sources Berbères Riad & Spa and during the 3 hours we each had a massage, exfoliating scrub and free jacuzzi time for an absolute bargain compared all the spa experiences I’ve had in London! If you’re lucky, you can walk straight in to a free slot but if not, they will happily fit you in later/the next day. It is well worth it to de-stress from all the haggling!

On our final day, we found a camel ride tour happening in the nearby Palmaerie Village..a short drive from the Medina. All half day and full day tours can be booked through tour agents scattered throughout the Medina…remember, the first price isn’t the last!

I had never ridden a camel before so this was a new experience. We were all given matching traditional dress and headscarves to wear. Our guide taught us Berber songs during our ride (Berbers are indigenous to Morocco and other North African countries) and he happily took pictures of us for a tip.

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Our final sunset was spent on the rooftop of the lovely Islane Hotel Restaurant which overlooks Koutoubia Mosque. This is the largest mosque in the city and can’t be visited by non Muslims like the rest (some allow courtyard visit) but it is gorgeous to view from outside…or better still, a rooftop.

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The evenings and night time can be spent in Jemaa el-Fnaa night Market. It is full of food stalls, market stalls, entertainment, snake charmers and more. It is so crazy and had an energy like nothing I had experienced before. During the day, everyone is vying for your attention but it seems amplified at night. FYI haggling rules still apply at night, which we learnt the hard way with the henna…! To escape the madness, there are many rooftop restaurants and bars surrounding the square for great views.

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We had a lot of stress with the cost of this as it wasn’t agreed before. Moral of the story…ALWAYS agree a price before! 

Unfortunately due to our delays on the first day, we couldn’t visit the Atlas Mountains or the Sahara Desert as planned. However we managed to fit in a lot in our days and truly experience the Moroccan way.  January was a colder month to visit than we anticipated…especially with those desert nights! To experience the African sun, I recommend visiting from March/April.

Have you visited Marrakech or another part of Morocco before? Let me know about your experiences!

 

J Xo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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