Marrakech sits at the feet of the High Atlas mountains, whose snow capped peaks form a natural border between this rich agricultural corner of Africa and the Sahara desert that spreads to the south, imposing itself firstly in the form of rocky arid tinted red Mars like landscape, and eventually giving way to vast sand dunes, only navigable by the ancient Berber and Sahrawi peoples.
Marrakech - the madness
Marrakech is a vibrant place that can be a bit overwhelming at first glance, hard to navigate at a second and tiring at a third. To have fun, you need to nail the basics and these include seeing the sights, haggling in the souk, getting good food and knowing where you are allowed to imbibe.
The city is an ancient settlement where traveling peoples would meet to trade goods and then hang on a while to have a good time. Keep this in mind as the city’s vibrant, sometimes hysterical mannerisms can debilitate the senses and switch from being enticing to repelling. This guide is an attempt to ensure that the scales are always loaded towards enticing rather than the other. After all, you want to preserve energy and have fun.
Moroccan people are innately friendly, hospitable and happy go lucky. They can at times be too pushy and are nearly always, in the presence of a westerner, in sales mode. Once inside the medina you will experience the full gamut of the Moroccan character by varying degrees depending on where you are. Sometimes it can be intensely all at once and other times you cruise passed street hawkers and hustlers as if wearing a cloak of invisibility. I prefer to think of it as the safety experienced in the presence of a lion just after it has feasted heavily.
Walking through the medina you will notice that nothing has prices. You are literally haggling for everything. If you look lost then an opportunist will offer to show you the way even if they have no idea where you are going. The mere effort on his part will mean you owe a tip. To counter this, try to get some bearings quickly and look confident even when you’re lost. The best people to ask for directions are people working in shops or stalls who can be very helpful once they are assured there is no sale forthcoming from you.
Accommodation - The Riad; it’s a must
I’ve stayed in Marrakech twice and both times I have found the riad accommodation to be the best. These are traditional Moroccan homes with few outfacing windows and at least one internal courtyard. The architecture of the house is designed inwards and, in contrast to the chaos outside, is the ultimate in tranquility.
We stayed in the Riad Les Jardins de Mouassine last time and it was a bargain at €60 a night. Friends staying around the city who dropped in remarked that they were either paying nearly double for the same comfort or the same amount for more stringent house rules.
The tranquil riad pool cleanses the spirit from the mayhem outside
Our riad managers were very cool about alcohol consumption. Obviously this isn’t important to everyone but to some of us, after a hard day in the souk, the sundowners are important. We could also invite friends over for a drink on the large comfortable roof terrace, enjoying a G&T whilst listening to the muezzin, the muslim call to prayer, that reverberates across the city at set times of the day. The riad guys were also happy to provide wine and beer if desired. On our last night after a trip to the desert, we dined in, stoked the fire, supped great Moroccan vin rouge, whilst the hectic madness of the trip gently ebbed away.
We also had a small but gorgeously warm and aesthetic swimming pool. The best way to transition from day into evening. The in-house hammam was there for the taking for free and could also be accompanied by a massage if desired (€40 per hour).
Jemaa el-Fna - the main square
You’ve either seen it in Hitchcock’s iconic movie ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ or have heard about it. It is the centre of the Marrakech universe. By day there are street sellers and snake charmers everywhere. It’s the bustling entrance to the many tentacled souk and boasts a number of cafes where you can enjoy a “Moroccan Whisky” on the terrace with panoramic views of the large faceted chaos of Jemaa el-Fna. Learn to say “Jemaa el-Fna”, as it’s not hard and is the main landmark for when you need to pinpoint where you are.
My favourite cafe on the square is the ‘Cafe de France’. It’s very retro colonial and has sweeping views. I wouldn’t eat in any of these places and there are few places on the square that serve booze. So just come here to soak up the atmosphere.
Jemaa El-Fna by night is shimmering mass of noise and contortion - best policy is immersion!
By night Jemaa el-Fna goes ballistic. Whichever point you enter it from you eyes will be consumed by the ebbing sea of people and shimmer of lights. You’ll here the loud clatter of the desert music and hundreds of people in huddles participating. It looks intimidating but if you allow your curiosity to take you in, you’ll find you are offered a seat and possibly even a chance to sing or play an instrument. Of course, you’ll need to pay a tip to someone but it’s probably worth it if you want to be enveloped in the mood.
One tip is that you should dress light for the evening in terms of carrying cash, cards and valuables. No point tempting fate.
Into the souk - slippers, herbs, carpets and so on
The stalls around the square tend to sell a mix mash of all that is sold in more detail in the heart of the souk. The sellers are persuasive but hold out. There are far far better deals at far better prices inside. One guy tried to sell me 100g of cumin for the equivalent of €10. A few minutes walk inside I bought the same amount for £1. Look for specialists in whatever you are selling. Often certain areas are designated as selling one type of thing, be it nuts, spices, olives, slippers, leather bags, fabrics, carpets. There is also an area selling cheap western goods if that is your thing.
Haggle well but keep it friendly and be respectful. Oddly, my best haggling is done when I least care whether I am buying or not. I was looking disinterestedly at a leather wallet and the price dropped from €25 to €8 just from saying a couple of times “I don’t need it.” The seller took my money shaking his head as if I was the hardest negotiator in the district. Obviously I repeated this tactic elsewhere with equal results!
The souk is a labyrinth so prepare to get very lost. That’s a good thing and part of the charm of the place. Sellers can be very funny once you get over the imposing sensation of being pitched heavily every two seconds. Best thing to remember is they’re just people trying to etch out a living and you are the source of revenue. If you don’t want to spend just be politely firm. They get it.
Eating and drinking
Before we come onto the obvious, I would strongly recommend the harira soup, a light dish, traditionally served as a first meal at the end of ramadan. It contains cinnamon and cumin, noodles and chickpeas among other ingredients. You can buy it on the Jemaa el-Fna for as little at €0.50 a bowl or as much as €5 in a restaurant. I ordered it in a range of places from the local street cafes to the more touristy restaurants and have just cooked my first attempt at home with pleasing results.
Morocco is all about the tagine; lamb, chicken, “meat”, vegetables and so on. They are varied and they are delicious. I love the chicken and lemon, or the lamb with sweet potatoes and dates. You really have to delve in and enjoy. The good thing is that they (should) always arrive piping hot so the risk of getting stomach poisoning is nil.
Ask your riad for a tip if you’re unsure and specify if you’d like wine. Here are a few tagine serving tips we tried and enjoyed:
A better wine than the Cuvee El Presidente - bright blueberry and blackcurrant - really pleasant
Obviously all the wondrous sights of Marrakech are there for the taking and the info for these is strewn across the web on other sites. This was just a practical guide to the basics.
If you’re planning a trip to the Atlas mountains or further a field to the desert via Ouarzazate then you should certainly pursue that. I’ve booked cars through the riad on more than one occasion and have learned one lesson quite severely: specify you want a “slow driver”. On my first visit we had a driver to take us from Fez to Marrakech via the desert dunes and various other sights along the route. We specified slow and we had a very nice ride. On the last trip we assumed safety was a given and were (mis)treated to a death-defying and harrowing journey across the mountains. Our driver clearly had a death wish and it took a pint of G&T to restore the inner chi after we returned to the riad. You have been warned!