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Marvellous Magical Marrakesh, Morocco

To be in the Moroccan city of Marrakesh is to be surrounded by an almost overwhelming mixture of colourful sights, overlapping scents, crowds of people and a cacophony of honking horns, roaring motorbikes and barking dogs. It is one of the four imperial cities and the third largest in the country.

The city includes two parts: the historical old city known as the Medina, and the modern city known as Ville Nouvelle or Gueliz. Gueliz is where modern restaurants, stores, and businesses are located. The Medina is an enticing labyrinth of narrow pathways and local culture. This post will share some background history as well as the activities that I most enjoyed and recommend, as well as some tips for travellers to Marrakech.

The main languages spoken in Morocco are Arabic and French but many involved with tourism industries speak English. English is more common in Gueliz than in the Medina but most vendors in the old city will have a basic understanding.

Officially, the local currency, the dirham, is a closed currency and can only be bought and sold in Morocco. In practice, however, you may be able to get some from travel agents or major airports outside the country. Credit cards are not accepted in many smaller shops and kiosks, so it's likely that you will need some cash. Transaction and conversion rates at the Airport ATMs are slightly higher than in the city. Many hotels and riads will exchange small amounts of euros for dirham -- most at a reasonable rate for their guests. Any dirham you have left at the end of your trip should be given as tips or converted before departure.

When ATB and I landed in Marrakech on a July evening, the pilot told us it was 47C (116F) degrees. We smiled smugly as we had heard several poor translations throughout our flight from Spain, and assumed he had made an error. It only took a couple of steps on the tarmac as we offloaded to realize he had not made an error -- it really was that hot!

After clearing customs and finding the car sent by our riad, we were soon experiencing a rather terrifying drive from the airport. Every car on the road seemed to be scraped along both sides and missing bumpers. Cars, buses, motorbikes, donkey carts, bicycles, and pedestrians all seemed to be playing a game of chicken as they careened along roads and through intersections without any clear patterns or rules.

Stay at a Riad

We had chosen a modest 3-star riad, the Riad Fabiola Et Spa for our 4 night stay. We were greeted warmly with a mint tea by the pool and many tips for enjoying the city. Because we had arrived late, we decided to enjoy a traditional tajine dinner offered at the riad. The manager, Aziz, acted as an amazing host and concierge throughout our trip both professionally and personally. To learn more about riads, check out this post.

Getting around in Morocco can be done on foot or by hiring taxis. Taxis in Morocco have a poor reputation with tourists, so Aziz organized trusted drivers when we wanted to go further afield. Each driver was given strict instructions to look after "the mothers" and escorted us door-to-door, shooing away persistent local vendors. By the end of the week, we had evolved from generic mothers to "friends and guests of my mother". Because of the heat, we tended to get out for sightseeing in the mornings and late afternoons. We spent the early afternoons at the riad enjoying a swim and a nap. We wandered the souks and streets of the Medina every day.

Soak in the Buzz

Modern and traditional mix and collide in every direction in the Medina. It's not unusual to see carts and trucks competing for space on the roads. Be prepared to leap sideways to avoid motorbikes in the souks. Locals are dressed in a wide assortment of styles and fabrics, many reflecting their traditional or religious backgrounds.

Small open workshops produce goods using a blend of hand tools and machines. Herbalist shops display hundreds of herbs in clear jars, ready to prepare a remedy or tea to cure all that ails you.

Feral cats are everywhere -- be careful, they aren't aggressive but they are literally crawling with fleas!

Be prepared for some pretty aggressive vendors and street performers. Most will call out loudly, a few will actually reach out to stop you. If you stop to watch or photograph performers, the performers will pursue you for a tip. Keep some coins handy. Keep your valuables close to your body as pickpocketing and other snatch & grab crimes are very common.

Little markets are everywhere. Souvenirs kiosks are outside of every tourist area. I recommend holding off buying for the first day or two while you practice haggling prices to get a feel for how the process works.

Saadian Tombs

The Saadian Tombs are a royal necropolis in the Royal Kasbah district where the tombs of local royals and their household staff are found.

Sultan al-Ghalib Abdullah built the first tomb for his father, Mohammad ash-Sheikh, the founder of the Saadian Empire. Later, Sultan Ahmed el Mansour added many of the major buildings within the complex to honour the lives of himself and his closest friends and family.

After Sultan Ahmed el Mansour died in 1603, a successional war erupted and within a few years the Saadian dynasty ended. The capital was moved to Fes. The new ruler sealed the tombs and hid them from view, leaving only one hidden passage from the Kasbah Mosque next door.

The tombs were neglected and forgotten for nearly 300 years until aerial photographs reveals the tombs in 1917. The site was reclaimed and has allowed visitors since.

Palais Bahia

The 19th-century Bahia Palace was built to be the greatest palace of its time. Bahia means "brilliance" as the inspiration of the Islamic and Moroccan style of architecture. The palace was renovated and used by Abu Faris Abdallah as a harem for his wives and concubines. Abu was the son el Mansour and one of his Black slave concubines and famously rose to great power and influence.

When Morocco became independent from France in 1956, the palace became a royal residence until King Hassan II transferred it to the Moroccan government for use as a cultural icon and tourist attractio