On my journey from the airport to hostel, I already felt warm breath of the evening air, while silhouettes of tall palm trees, minarets and old riads in the dark, and smell of blooming orange trees reminded me of a magical oasis. Yes, I was finally in a fairy tale…one of those that you read as a child and it involves characters like Ali Baba, Aladdin and his lamp or Scheherazade with her 1000 and 1 stories and are set in caravanserais in the middle of a desert or lavish palaces with harems that boast some of the most beautiful women in the world!
Our hostel was located in Medina, an old part of town dating all the way to 11 century. It looks and feels like a big fort surrounded by tall and thick walls within which everyday life is all about hassle and bustle. Yet here it feels like the time has frozen – little narrow streets make you feel constantly lost, old men dressed in hooded Djellaba (Berber traditional long, loose-fitting outer rob) look like alchemists, tired donkeys pull loaded carts and only cats are doing nothing!
Yes, cats rule in Marrakech, but Medina in particular. And if you don’t like cats, that’s too bad because they aren’t going anywhere!
So, without any specific plans or agenda, we spent the first full day in Marrakech by wondering around Medina. There are few historical sights worth visiting. The Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, apparently one of the most famous squares in all of Africa, is buzzing day and night, and here you can see everything: from snake charmers and female henna painters to dancing lady boys and traditional Arabic male dancers.
During the day it’s mostly a trading place, while by night it becomes a place to eat, watch and entertain. Here you will find many traditional treats, including sheep’s head, tagines and fresh juices. Speaking of juices, if you are at the Jemaa el-Fnaa, stop by 7 Saints café and try traditional avocado milk shake with crushed almonds. It’s divine, I promise!
Another Medina attraction is the Ben Youssef Medrasa, which used to be one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and largest Medrasa in all of Morocco. It boasts beautiful interior with traditional Moroccan mosaic tiling and wood-carving.
Next to it is Musee de Marrakech, which unfortunately I didn’t visit. It is housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace, built at the end of the 19th century. It is definitely worth checking out as it features objects representing Moroccan Jewish, Berber and Arab cultures. There are also three major palaces in Medina – Badi Palace, the Royal Palace and Bahia Palace. While the Royal Palace is privately owned, the other two are open to public. We went to Badi Palace and for 20 dirham, which is about £1.5, we were able to view the ruins of what once used to be a lavish residency of Sa’did Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur. It took 25 years to build and consisted of 360 rooms, a huge courtyard with orange trees and a pool of 90x20m meters. Here you feel that if you put your ear next to its walls, you can hear some interesting stories of things that happened here 400 years ago! And only storks that populated its ruins leisurely observe wondering around tourists.
There are many mosques in Marrakech, which you soon realize by multiple calls for prayer and apparently muezzins who try to outdo each other. But one that you will see from many points is the Koutoubia Mosque, a beautiful tall minaret that boasts curved windows and decorative arches. It is the biggest mosque in Marrakech, surrounded by a large plaza with gardens, which becomes populated in the evening with people chatting and getting some rest.
On the way to Mosque, stop by street vendors and try snails boiled in spices. For 5 dirhams you get a cup of snails and a handful of toothpicks to get them out. I am not a huge fan of such delicacies but tried them with enthusiasm and they were quite tasty!
As the sun went down and day was coming to a close, we decided to venture out to New City for dinner. New City is a complete opposite to Medina and you feel like you travelled in a time machine in just 10 minutes. Donkeys and motorbikes are replaced with cars, trucks and buses; women here prefer skinny jeans and revealing tops to headscarves and abayas, while small brick constructions and food stalls are replaced with tall modern buildings, designer boutiques, plazas and McDonalds! There are many restaurants and posh cafes in New City that cater to various Western tastes. Prices vary as well. Some of these places are a bit pretentious and full of folks drinking and dining with a purpose to see and, most importantly, to be seen.
Our second day in Marrakech fell on 8th of March, which is International Women’s Day. My male friends had a surprise in store for me and another female companion by taking us to Ourika valley in the Atlas Mountains.
You can easily make a day trip out of it and you can book a tour, hire a regular taxi or go in a grant taxi (which takes 6 people). With help from hostel staff we flagged and negotiated a regular taxi (500 dirhams for return journey for 4 people), which is actually cheaper than booking a company tour and frees you from their programme. Just 1-1.5 hr away, Ourika is located high in the mountains and getting there involves picturesque drive through traditional villages along the Ourika River.
Once we reached village up at the top, the driver dropped us off and we started walking towards the waterfall. We haven’t figured it out if there were more than one waterfall or just different pathways to it. The route we took was quite steep and I regretted not having sports shoes on. For 20 dirhams any local will lead you to the waterfall and offer a hand crossing streams and climbing big rocks. Close to the waterfall, three of us gave up since it was getting steeper and steeper and only my friend Alisher continued his journey to see it.
After a great workout what could be better than relaxing by the Ourika River, eating yummy tagines and sipping some traditional Moroccan tea? That’s exactly what we did! There are several cafes with sofas and rugs placed right on the banks of the river, which offers cool breeze on a hot day while the bubbling noise of water streams complements people’s chatter. We ordered vegetarian and chicken tagines, which were the more authentic than what those made for tourists in central Marrakech. Plus the portions were bigger for the money you pay – 80 dirham each. After stuffing out bellies, we lounged around and talked about kinds of things, including observations of the local residents and visiting here Moroccans.
On the way back we continued wondering around Medina. Its endless streets sooner or later bring you to souks, local markets or bazars, we call it.
They are a true paradise for serious shoppers like myself. Here you can find some of the finest locally produced leather goods (bags and sandals), beautiful lanterns and lamp shades made out of different metals and stained glass, traditional clothing and high-quality fabrics, colourful pottery, silver jewellery and beauty products! Sellers use everything from smiling and giving you compliments to using chameleons and turtles to lure in customers. I can talk for hours about Moroccans’ love and appreciation for natural products. Unlike western counterparts, they prefer spices, herbs, various roots (like ‘natural’ Viagra!), and natural oils and fragrances. In fact, here you can find any of that in huge quantities and choices for pennies. For example, they make great solid perfumes that resemble various designer fragrances and 15 grams of my Chanel perfume cost me 15 dirhams!
Also, you haven’t been properly to Morocco if you didn’t buy some of the argan oil. I already wrote about great properties of argan oil in my fashion blog. So, instead of trying to convince you why you should buy and use it, I will just tell you about different products with argan oil I found in Marrakech. First, argan oil is sold in its original form that can be used both for cosmetic and massage purposes. There are many brands and it’s hard to choose which one is better. Some sellers told us that cheaper versions had only 35% or more of argan oil in the bottle, diluted in other, cheaper, oils. They would demonstrated this by shaking the bottle and turning it upside down to point how many air bubbles would raise to the top. On the other hand, I realize it can be a sale trick to make tourists buy more expensive brands. In any case, just ask which ones are made with hot or cold press and buy latter since it is better. A small bottle (75-100ml) costs about 20-25 dirhams, while a facial moisturiser (100ml) is about 30-40 dirhams, not more. Argan oil is also a main ingredient in various face creams and hair products. Many creams claim to be anti-aging, anti-acne and so forth. I bought Assila moisturizing argan oil cream, which, unlike Maroc brand’s creams, is made with cold pressed oil. It’s thick but is not oily and gets absorbed into skin very quickly.
But enough of the beauty talk! On the way back to the hostel, we stopped at the hotel Les Jardins De La Koutoubia. If you want to see some of the beautiful views of Marrakech from above, take hotel elevator to the top floor which features posh swimming pool and Indian restaurant. This 5-start luxury hotel also has Clarins spa and several bars and restaurants. Very lovely spot if you get tired of hassle and bustle and want some of western comfort with exotic twist.
Amazing day ended with a dinner that even featured camel tagine and some of the best French desserts I have ever tasted at the 16 Cafe!
So given fun and light-hearted atmosphere in our hostel and the fact that we became good friends with its staff, I wasn’t surprised when one of them jokingly proposed to me. For those who’ve never been to Marrakech, you need know that Moroccans (especially Berbers) are very flirty and playful with the opposite sex. So mutual teasing is actually a normal part of the daily life. After having talked jokingly about the prospective wedding and negotiating 20,000 camels, my friends and I went off to get some breakfast of local croissants and explore another gem of Marrakech – Jardins Majorelle. The ticket to gardens costs 50 dirhams. It is a twelve-acre botanical garden, which was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s-30s, during the colonial period when Morocco was a protectorate of France. The garden was open to the public in 1940s and since 1980s has been owned by one of my favourite fashion designers, Yves Saint-Laurent.
You can tell it was a natural sanctuary for him as his ashes after his death were scattered in this oasis of peace and harmony right in the center of Marrakech. The gardens are made in the art deco style featuring gorgeous cobalt blue villa, small ponds with fish and turtles, a fountain, small bridge and pagoda, and a great collection of the exotic plants and rare species from all over the world such as bamboo, cactus, yuccas, water lilies, jasmine, palms, coconut and banana trees. There is also a museum in the gardens that hosts a collection of the Berber and Tuareg jewellery, textiles and pottery, as well as Majorelle’s work.
Since this was our last day in Marrakech and we were leaving the same evening, after touring the gardens we stopped at the local market to get some fresh fruits and veggies (which by the way are really cheap yet tasty) for lunch at the hostel while one of us went to a neighbourhood hamam. A simple hamam that locals use costs about 20 dirhams and covers towel and access to a steam room. For more sophisticated hamam go to a nice hotel or check out these ones but expect higher, closer to western, prices.
Lounging around on a terrace under the Moroccan sun my new local friends, Khadija and Fatima, decided to give me a Moroccan henna tattoo. If you are in Marrakech, avoid black henna tattoos from the Jemaa el-Fnaa Square, which apparently can burn your skin. The tattoo that my friends did on me was actually made out of the ground henna leaves that result in light brown coloured pattern. Unlike Indian mehndi, which has to be drawn by someone skilled using a cone, in Morocco they sell premade cut-out patterns, which are used like stencils upon which henna mixture is applied. Designs and shapes vary depending on where they are applied – hand or foot. So, I was leaving Morocco with a beautiful reminder on my hand and foot of great times there.
That’s the thing – I was leaving sad. I realized not only I got attached to this mysterious and hospitable city but more importantly I got attached to its people. They opened their hearts to us and shared some of their most sacred thoughts, hopes and dreams. I already miss them but I know one day I will be back…
Where to stay: Riad Massin hostel, Medina
What to buy: leather goods, pottery, oils and herbs, silver jewellery
How to get around: taxi is cheap but be sure to negotiate and set the price (write it if you don’t speak any French or Arabic) before you get in
When to go: go in the off-season when there are fewer tourists but also keep in mind seasonal weather. We went in March and it was summer like weather during the day and quite cold during the night, requiring layers of clothes and a warm jacket for the evening time
What to wear: bring comfortable and non-flashy clothes if you are a female. Locals won’t give you much trouble if you wear some of the western clothes (especially in the New City and if you are with a male companion), but I think it’s more practical and respectful to the local culture to bring comfy and more conservative (less revealing) shirts and tops and longer dresses/skirts to avoid attracting much of the male attention
How much money to bring: it depends on your spending habits. I managed to spend less than £100 in 3 days, including payment for airport pick-up, 3-night stay at the hostel, all meals and gift shoppinng