Last weekend I spent an extraordinary three days in Marrakech, a city that can make you feel about a dozen different emotions – wonder, excitement, fear (particularly if you’re not a snake person!), calm and even a bit of frustration – sometimes in the space of an hour. Add in some seriously beautiful sites and easy access to mint tea, and you’ve got a recipe for a truly unforgettable trip! 🙂
Rémi and I arrived in Marrakech late on Friday night, and after waiting for what seemed like an eternity to have our passports stamped (although I’ve never seen an airport with such an overabundance of border control agents), we finally made it to our riad – Riad Soundouss – located in the western corner of the old city. I had high hopes for the riad after seeing the pictures online, but it completely exceeded my expectations. As soon as we walked inside, we were hit by the smell of incense, the sight of a beautiful courtyard with a fountain full of rose petals, and an immediate offer of hot mint tea. I think at least some corner of heaven looks and feels exactly like that. 🙂 We weren’t even asked to pay; as soon as we finished our tea, we were taken up to one of the riad’s five rooms, where, upon seeing the enormous bathroom, I actually asked if we had to share! 😛
The next morning, we got up fairly early to make sure we got our complimentary breakfast in the courtyard and oh, my goodness. There were Moroccan-style pancakes with honey, fresh orange juice, and some seriously incredible cheese… My mouth is watering just thinking about it! 😛
Then it was time to explore! From my guidebook, I knew that during our trip we would frequently get offers from people asking to be our guide. I thought it would be pretty easy to say “no”, but in reality, it was fairly difficult! Less than five minutes after entering the medina, we already felt disoriented, so we logically pulled out our map. This, we quickly realized, was the equivalent of wearing “PLEASE TAKE OUR MONEY” t-shirts. 😛 We were immediately inundated with people telling us which way to go and offering to take us there. The tricky thing was that they all seemed so friendly, so genuinely interested in helping us, that at first it felt unkind to tell them that we preferred to explore (and get lost) on our own. After checking out a very-hipster store called Max & Jan, we finally relented and let a nice-seeming man show us where the leather tanneries were – especially since they were “just around the corner”.
15 minutes later, after winding through the quietest, most residential parts of town, and with no leather tanneries in sight, we finally told our unsolicited guide that we were done with our “tour”. He didn’t take this very well, and only begrudgingly accepted our euros (we didn’t have any small coins yet) after throwing a few English swear words in our direction.
Although a bit unpleasant, we learned a lesson that I think most Marrakech tourists have to learn: unless you’re willing to pay for services or objects you don’t want, you just have to say “no”. And there’s often no way to say “no” that is going to make people like you. Whether firmly, politely, with a smile, or without saying anything, a good portion of the people making these demands on your time and money are going to get upset. Not that we didn’t meet some nice people! Plus, it was Ramadan, so I completely understand if the city’s residents were a bit more on edge than usual. But we quickly learned that in order to enjoy ourselves, we had to stop caring too much about hurting people’s feelings. Anyway, rant over! (Although in my next blog post, I will regale you with my story of the overly aggressive henna tattoo artist I encountered on Day Two. Stay tuned!)
Luckily, we quickly recovered from that slight detour and made it to one of the sites I was most looking forward to: the Maison de la Photographie of Marrakech. Most of the photographs were absolutely stunning black and white portraits of people from Marrakech, Tangiers, Fez and the Atlas Mountains from the 1880s up until the 1930s. It was such a pleasure to take our time and really look at each and every one – and the riad surroundings were pretty great as well!
After the museum, we began to make our way into the heart of the souks, and it was time to start comparing prices and figure out exactly what we wanted to buy from one of the thousands of truly appetizing-looking shops. I went in thinking I wanted a pair of leather slippers, but I couldn’t stop looking at all the circular straw bags. They were the same kinds of bags that I had been seeing all across Instagram, and now I was in circular straw bag heaven! Once we entered the covered portion of the souks – where things really start to get crazy, how did all those people, not to mention motorcycles, fit in there?! – it actually only took a few minutes to find the perfect one. This meant that I had to haggle, which is really not something I excel at. I think I was visibly sweating the entire time and I only managed to get the price down from 350 dirhams to 300 (or about 30 euros), but I still was very pleased with myself as I walked away with my little straw and brown leather bag. 🙂
After all the excitement of the morning and early afternoon, Rémi and I felt like we deserved some lunch, so we left the covered souks and found a prime seat at Café Des Épices, which faces a beautiful sun-soaked square. We both got chicken and pear tagine, as well as some avocado, orange and date juice. It was nice just to sit in the sun and watch all the people in the square, which included at least two bachelorette parties (obvious thanks to their matching t-shirts) and lots of women weaving an endless supply of straw bags, hats and giant decorative cacti. Throughout the trip, I was continually impressed by just how crafty everyone seemed to be. Everywhere we looked someone was weaving a rug or punching holes into a metal lantern, and even if it was just for show (although I really don’t think it was), it made me feel like I should learn how to do more things with my hands!
After eating, we both admitted that we could use a nap, so we decided that we would at least head in the direction of our riad, visit some more of the souks, and maybe stop at the intriguingly-named “Le Jardin Secret” on our way back. I couldn’t resist buying a little hand-painted street sign from one of the shops (the options ranged from dentist to psychologist, but I got one that said “chocolatier”, or chocolate-maker. :P)
Afterwards, Google Maps led us safely to the Le Jardin Secret, which was really two absolutely spectacular gardens – one for exotic plants and one traditional Islamic garden. The original gardens were built in the 1600s and were later reconstructed in the 1800s, before finally being restored in 2016. I could have cried, it was so beautiful! (But I really, really love cacti and elaborate gardens, haha!)
Forced out of the gardens because it had to “close” (I hate when that happens :P), we realized that if we returned to the riad we definitely would not have the energy to leave, so we decided to go to the famous (and somewhat infamous) Djemaa el-Fna for dinner.
Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech’s biggest square and it’s famous for its food stalls, musicians, snake charmers and assorted entertainers (including some folks with monkeys, which I especially didn’t care for). I think we both knew that we wanted to see if for the spectacle of it all, but maybe not spend too much time there. We found that the best thing to do, after running a literal gauntlet of food stall operators, who I think would have dragged us to their stalls if they could, was to find a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the square. We chose Le Marrakchi, mainly because it was one of the only places that served alcohol nearby. 😉 We both got cocktails and shared a pigeon pastilla – a savory hand-sized pie that is topped with sugar – and enjoyed watching the sunset and seeing the square light up.
Around 10 o’clock, we returned to our little riad oasis absolutely exhausted, but also energized by the sheer volume of sights, sounds and emotions we had experienced in just one day! Even though I had been to Morocco before, I was shocked by just how much the city had surprised me, and I couldn’t wait to see and experience (and eat) more. 😊