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.
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.
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 attraction.
The Palace is divided into business/administrative rooms and residential areas. Each of Abu's four wives had a room of equal size, indicating they were of equal status. His 24 concubines shared 12 rooms and a separate dining room which was used as a school for the children and was also used as a mosque where prayers were given 5 times a day. Many rooms open onto courtyards in the expansive garden.
I really enjoyed this peaceful palace with its beautiful mosaics, carved wood lintels, and stained glass. The Palace was the first building in North Africa to use decorative stained glass. The coolness was a pleasant contrast to the desert heat outside.
The Palace is open daily from 09:00 to 17:00. Admission is 70 MAD (under $9 CAD).
YSL Museum, Jardin Majorelle, and the Berber Museum
The fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, artist Pierre Bergé, spent a great deal of their life in Morocco, and especially in Marrakech where they became important members of the community. When Jardin Majorelle was threatened by property development in 1980 they decided to buy it and the adjoining villa.
The garden and villa was originally created and designed by Jacques Majorelle in 1931. During the 40 years that he owned the property, the garden was planted with species from 5 continents. When Saint Laurent and Bergé bought, they renovated the villa and gardens and created a museum of Berber art and culture in the atelier.
The colour scheme of structural features is bright yellow, green and cobalt blue. Between the high cactuses and the bamboo forest are lovely mosaic fountains. This is not a lush garden, due to the climate but it is cool, fresh and lovely.
The Yves Saint Laurent Museum describes the life, career, and creations of the designer. There is a permanent exhibit of some of his most iconic designs.
The Berber Museum, located Pierre Bergé's former studio, includes over 600 pieces of Berber art that reflect the creativity and diversity of the Berber tribes. The vast majority of these displays were donated from Bergé's personal collection.
Admission is 100 dirhams ($13 CAD/$9 USD) to visit Jardin Majorelle). For a combined ticket including the museums, the ticket costs 220 dirhams.
There is bustle and activity in every direction and corner of the Medina. It is a challenge to keep your bearings in the medina and souks, so expect to get turned around. Anything you could ever imagine purchasing can be found in the souks (markets) surrounding Place Djemaa El-Fna from beautiful leather, jewellery, carpets, and Moroccan kitchenware to spices, herbs, meat, fish and fruit. I bought argan oil, saffron, a tajine pot, and some jewellery.
Bargaining is required, and walking away is sometimes part of that process. As a tourist, you will pay higher prices than the locals but haggling will still result in a bargain that will make everyone happy.
The central square, Djemaa el Fna (also known as La Place), is probably the most iconic sight in Marraakech. The Place is large, incredibly chaotic, and quite touristy. There is a constant hustle and bustle with vendors, jugglers, drummers, food stalls, and constant demands for your attention and money.
There will be performers of all types. Over the days that we visited we saw dancers, local tribe performances, and circus-style tumbling.
There are also many locals with various animals. There are numerous trained monkeys, snake charmers, and other assorted beasties. Remember to give a tip if you take a photo.
The square gets busier and busier throughout the day and by evening it is very crowded as the street restaurants fire up their grills and the square fills with smoke and delicious smells. When the energy becomes overwhelming, find one of the upper floor restaurants surrounding the square to sip some mint tea and watch the action below.
Make sure to enjoy some fresh orange juice from one of the many stands. It will be absolutely delicious. All the stands charge the same price but some are obviously more hygienic than others.
Spend an Afternoon in a Carpet Shop
A visit to a carpet shop is an amazing experience. We were introduced as "friends of my mother" by riad manager, Aziz, in one shop and spent an amazing afternoon drinking mint tea, socializing, and negotiating for items in the carpet shop and from surrounding merchants who brought their goods to us.
When I spotted a djembe in the corner, a jam session was quickly arranged. Guitars, rattles, hand drums and bells were pulled from every corner of the lounge area.
While checking out some gorgeous fabrics and scarves, we were taught how to wear a Tuareg turban. By the time we left, we all felt we had shared a memorable afternoon with new friends and had made good deals on the items we purchased.
The Koutoubia Mosque, located in La Place is an impressive minaret that can be seen from many areas of the city. The mosque is one of the oldest in the city dating back to the 12th century. The Koutoubia mosque can only be visited by Muslims.
Up, Up, and Away! Sunrise Balloon Ride
As budget travellers, we also make a point to splurge on a special activity on each trip -- something that we anticipate will be a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity. In Marrakech, we enjoyed one of our best days ever, which I wrote about in detail in a previous post. In this post I will just hit the highlights of our amazing day that included a sunrise hot air balloon ride, breakfast in a Berber village, a camel ride, and a Hamman massage.
We choose the first flight of the day. We were picked up at our riad at 4am and driven to the Berber village in the desert where the balloon crew was already setting up and were soon filling the balloon with hot air and loading passengers into the basket.
It was a gentle and magical experience floating over the desert, seeing the villages below. Watching the sun rise over the Atlas Mountains is a memory I will cherish my entire life.
Visit a Traditional Berber Village
After landing, we returned to the village for a traditional breakfast. The official name of Berber tribes is Amazigh, which means "free people". The Berber people consider themselves to be distinct from mainstream Moroccan people and culture. Each tribe has their own unique traditional dress and culture. There are approximately 15 million Sunni Muslim Berbers in the country who speak several dialects of the Tamazigh language.
The main industry for the Amazigh is agriculture, cattle and goat farming. Both men and women look after the domesticated animals but traditionally, it is the men who shepherd and move around with the animals and the women who tend the home and children. This village seemed to have a more equitable sharing of tasks. Not only did we see women working with the animals but we also watched an older man comforting a crying infant when wee arrived.
Typically, a Berber home has a kitchen and several rooms around a courtyard. The bathroom is usually very rustic with a squat toilet and a bucket of water. Bring your own toilet tissue.
We were seated in the courtyard and served a large breakfast consisting of honey pancakes, eggs, and fruit with the inevitable mint tea.
Enjoy a desert Camel Ride
The Palmeraie is an oasis on the outskirts of the city with many palm trees, and a few hotels. There are several companies and families that offer a camel riding experience.
We were introduced to the animals and were led on a lovely trek. It isn't the most comfortable of rides and took a little bit to get used to the movement but we enjoyed the experience.
Have a Hammam Massage
The word hammam means "spreader of warmth" in Arabic. A hammam massage is a ritual to scrub and cleanse in a warm, humid room. Muslims place great value on cleanliness and a hamman is a place to purify the body and is part of a process to purify the soul. A typical hammam is aa bathhouse with multiple rooms. There are hammams of many different sizes and price points throughout the city, as theey are one of five obligatory institutions found in every neighbourhood (the others are a communal bakery, aa fountain, a school and mosque.
There are two types of hammams; public and private. Public hammam is usually single-gender with men and women having separate bathhouses or times. Private hammams is more of a spa treatment. Many riads, including the one we stayed in, have their own hammam rooms where guests can arrange for a private treatment.
A full experience has two parts, the scrub and the massage. The scrub is a full body, aggressive scrubbing of your entire naked body using an exfoliating mitt. This is followed by a good rinse and a deep massage using various oils. The entire experience takes about an hour and a half and will leave you feeling absolutely boneless for the rest of the day. You will love the feel of your skin.
Check out the Fantasia Show
On the outskirts of the city is the restaurant and exhibition complex of the Chez Ali restaurant that offers a dinner show called Fantasia featuring the 12 Berber tribes. This high-energy show includes riders, dancers, fireworks, and an explosion of energy.
Upon arrival, performers gather outside for tourist photos. Some will ask for tips but our driver scolded them, telling us that tips should not be requested as the performers are well-paid and are not supposed to take tips.
Visitors will first walk through a rather cheesy Ali Baba's Cave exhibit and into the main arena to be seated at large tables under tents for the dinner meal. There are several different menus to choose from. We chose an incredibly tasty lamb and prune tajine. The meal includes many traditional dishes to be enjoyed as musicians and performers move around entertaining the diners.
Following the meal, guests are ushered into the stand surrounding a large arena where the show begins with a parade of artists, dancers, and riders.
We weren't really clear on the storyline but thoroughly enjoyed ourselves watching as the
riders performed tricks and rode in formation while firing guns and engaging in mock battles! The horses stayed very calm in all the commotion.
The costumes and skills of the performers and riders are complex and beautiful and we felt it was a fabulous end to our short visit to this magical and mysterious city. It will cost between €40-50, depending upon the meal you choose. Dinner is served nightly at 20:30, with the show beginning at 22:30.
Tips for Visitors
1. Vendors are aggressive and persistent. I found some success in complimenting their wares while firmly saying I wasn't buying on that day.
2. Most people who offer to "show you the way" will expect a tip. Some may have poor intentions. Be wise and take precautions. As two mature women travelling, we were advised to leave the souks by darkness.
3. Negotiate all prices... merchandise and even taxis.
4. Watch for pickpockets, especially in the medina and Jamaa-el Fna Square. Keep your valuables close to your body. 5. Book your accommodations in advance. You will be asked to provide the address of where you are staying when clearing customs. 6. While Morocco does allow drinking, all alcohol must be purchased and consumed in licensed hotels, bars, and tourist areas. Alcohol can also be bought in most major supermarkets but is usually in a separate room. Licensed bars do not usually have windows because drinking is not allowed to be seen by people outside. There are a handful of bars and restaurants with outside drinking that only serve tourists.
7. The call for prayers is broadcast five times a day from the mosques over loud speakers. You will hear it throughout the city. 8. The Moroccan people are very tolerant of visitors but do expect modest clothing when visiting important cultural sites. Carry a scarf and wear longer skirts or trousers.
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