If you expect me to begin by spouting some amazing travel guide-like description of Marrakech (or Marrakesh as some people spell it) with lots of superlatives, you’ll be mistaken.
To be quite frank with you, when I got in a taxi from the airport to the Riad Sindibad where I was staying, the first thing that went through my mind was “What the hell kind of city is this?” When you think of Marrakesh you might conjure up images of fantastic vibrant fabrics, tajines, souks and mint tea, which it does really have. But Marrakech as a city, especially when driving in, looks rather dismal. Run-down streets, garbage, dust, dirt terracota buildings all built at the same level, beggars, emptiness…there was nothing characteristic or attractive about it.
But Marrakech, as I learnt, isn’t about the city itself but more about the jewels that it contains inside.
My taxi drove through Bab Yacout entrance and down another narrow run-down street, which reminded me of the back street to my university house in a dodgy area of Leeds. He pulled up at a non-descript doorway. “I think I’m at the wrong place”, I thought. However the sign read, Riad Sindibad and he knocked on the door.
Sure enough a little Moroccan lady dressed head-to-toe in white opened the heavy black door and it was as if I had found the Secret Garden. What I stepped into was a little luxury haven in the middle of the medina. Riads were important houses embellished with central gardens and shrubs and were inhabited by the privileged upper classes. Today many riads have been refurbished and made into guest houses, and the Riad Sindibad is definitely a peaceful hideaway from the crazy world outside. With rooms organised around a courtyard garden, a plunge pool, spa, rooftop jacuzzi, suite and cook, this was my luxury getaway after months of backpacking. It was pointed out to me that the Riad is the real Marrakesh; the opulence and the private haven behind closed doors.
But there were plenty more jewels to be found as I explored Marrakech.
I asked Fatia, the housekeeper, how I could get to the main square so I could go and play with the snake-charmers in the souk. She took me out into the street and in French told me I could get a taxi from the end of the street. I, being a dumb tourist, was walking around with my bag still open so she quickly shut it before anyone could see and told me to be careful. I asked her if I could walk to the Jemma el Fna but she insisted I took a taxi.
I ignored her and walked, I figured there was no need to be wary of the Marrakechis. I did a little internet research about what to wear as a female in Morocco before I got on the plane, and there were mixed opinions. At the airport I eyed up girls in dresses and heels versus girls in capris and long sleeves. I’ve seen tourists walking around the souk in shorts and a T-shirt, and I’ve seen them more covered up.
I wanted to be on the safe side wandering around by myself and since I didn’t own anything below the knees, I opted for leggings underneath my shorts along with a long sleeved top and scarf. It’s not the most comfortable thing in 56 degree heat during the middle of August, but I thought it would be respectful.
Before I left Portugal my friends joked about my blonde hair and to make sure I don’t get kidnapped, but their worries were completely unfounded. In fact the Marrakechis never said a thing to me, less people stared at me than back home and souk sellers barely hassled me or asked me to buy anything. A simple “Non, merci” and they wished me a nice day and I carried on walking. Another lovely thing about the people of Marrakech is that they were very helpful and if I looked like I was going the wrong way, they pointed me in the right direction. I had to dust off my French a little bit but since it’s the only language I learnt in school, I quite enjoyed being able to actually understand the locals for the first time in Europe.
I walked past the unmissable Koutoubia Mosque towards the main square, the Jemaa el Fna, where there’s an abundance of entertainers; everything from water sellers, teeth pullers and storytellers, to snake charmers, potion makers and Berber dancers. They will come up to you and offer to take a photo of you, but be aware they are asking for money in return.
At night the square is packed with people and food stalls selling everything from tagines to snail soup. It was especially busy as I was there during Ramadan, when the Muslims fast as soon as the sun comes up and then party and feast all night after the sun goes down.
If you manage to make it past the snake charmers this is where you enter the crazy, disorinetating world that is the souk. You’ll never feel so distracted, confused, amazed, baffled and lost at the same time in the labrynthe of streets but that’s half the fun.
My advice is to let yourself get completely lost in the labryinth and don’t fight it, just go with the flow and absorb everything it has to offer. You’ll lose all sense of direction in the souk but that doesn’t matter, just keep going and sometime you will come out the other side.
As I went further and further down into the souk and the streets got smaller there were things coming at me from every direction; out-of-control donkey carts trying to manouvre, people shoving fake snakes in my face, sheeps heads hanging from a stall… it was an assault on my senses, the delicious smells of spices, figs and olives, the bright colours of the scarves and tea sets that caught my eye and the sounds of Moroccans haggling with tourists in my ears…
Then comes this great sense of urge to buy something, you become drunk on the power of the souk. Whether you need it or not you feel this sudden instinct to engage in the game of haggling and claim your prize for making it this far. For me it was handbags. I bought one handbag playing the game of walking away and pretending I didn’t want it, before the man ran after me and took the price I offered. But then I walked further and I saw better handbags and then,you guessed it even better handbags. After two days in the souk I became a handbag fiend and bought two more.
After all those mind-boggling distractions, the craziness starts to subside and then…calm. The stalls start to get fewer and far between, the crowds subside and then suddenly you realise what you’ve bought, probably a pile of rubbish you’ll never use, but at least you had fun doing it.
That’s when I found my second Jewel, the Bouganvillia Cafe. This, like the Riad was a little oasis in the sprawling madness of the souk, a cafe built around a courtyard with little pink parasols and ivy growing up the walls. There were only a couple of people in there despite the food menu looking absolutely delicious. I had a coffee and let myself unwind whilst I perused my purchases and pulled myself together.
Which brings me to my third jewel which I went to the following day, the stylish but expensive Kosybar. I previously mentioned I was there during Ramadan, and as a result alcohol is very scarce. But to prove I was drinking alcohol in the Kosybar at Ramadan, here’s a photo of my Heineken bottle.
The final jewel in the city of Marrakech was the Majorelle Garden desgined by 20th century painter Jacques Majorelle. The garden has the most beautiful bright blue Art Deco pavilion along with cacti, bamboo groves, shrubs and lily ponds along with a memorial to the great fashion desginer Yves Saint Lauren. Yves Saint Lauren had a second home in Morocco and often went to the garden, where his ashes are now scattered. This was a truly relaxing way to spend the afternoon out of the sun under the shade of palm trees.
I made several visits to the main square and the souk, and each time I saw something completely bizarre. Forget your western supermarkets, in the souk you can buy bags, belts, scarves, daggers, old camera lenses, tea sets, wooden boxes, carpets, lanterns, mosque alarm clocks, food, trotters, sheeps heads, bunny rabbits, kaftans and even kitchen sinks!!!