I have, sort of, a love-hate relationship with Marrakech – I found it crowded and chaotic with poor air quality and deceitful locals; yet exotic, exciting and eye opening. I was flustered and frustrated by the narrow, winding and super difficult to navigate streets of the medina, despite having access to Google Maps. If you stop to check your phone or map, or glance up at the corner of an intersection wishing for an indication of the street name, then you’re instantly flocked with locals of all ages (even young school children are in on the gig, sadly) offering “directions.” The trouble is, they aren’t directing you to the location you request, but are trying to either get you even more lost so they can demand payment to get to your real destination, or trying to lead you to the tannery or a particular shop where they receive a commission for delivering tourists.
We stayed at a riad inside the medina walls and were in the thick of the Marrakech chaos for most of our stay. Upon exiting the city walls, we realized that there was a whole other side to this city that we had missed; my first word of advice would be to stay outside of the medina. The city walls encapsulate another era, where locals dress in the traditional garb and recreate the souks and market life, though selling touristic souvenir junk rather than the daily necessities as they once did. There are snake charmers, henna artists, live music and food vendors in the medina’s Jemma el-Fnaa or “big square.” The medina is certainly a site to see, but feels like a staged experience for tourism purposes, I would recommend a guided tour of the medina, something like this which includes a run through the souks, the Bahia Palace and the Photography Museum – a few of the medina highlights. We had to pass quickly through both the palace and the photography museum, but I believe that they are both worth the effort to visit. There is certainly sensory overload with the bright colors, loud sounds, varied scents and bustling brushes or shoves from passersby.
We enjoyed the elaborate breakfasts at Riad Adore, and loved the staff there as well as the aesthetics of the place; though, as mentioned, I would not prefer to stay in the medina on a return visit. One of the managers at the riad, Ibrahim, gave us this advice upon arrival:
- Don’t buy from the souks, instead look at the artisanal market (we concur with this advice)
- If you are going to buy in the souks, negotiate to less than half the initial price
- Don’t take directions from ANYONE on the street
- Don’t walk down Rue Mouassine (street) at night because it is not safe
- Use “Hip Marrakech” app for maps – we didn’t have much success with this, but maybe you will
I would say that the highlight of our Marrakech trip was a High Atlas excursion with Arib Voyages, a company run by a few brothers who grew up in the nomadic Tuareg tribe. They aim to create the perfect day/multi-day adventures for tourists around Morocco. We did their “Atlas and 3 Valleys” tour and enjoyed the education our guide, Bachir, provided during every minute of the trip. We sipped mint tea and dipped our feet in the stream of the Ourika Valley while Bachir explained the development of the building materials and architecture of the berber village homes around us. We were hosted in the home of a berber family in the Sidi Fares Valley for an elaborate lunch spread (couscous, chicken tajin, tomato salad, bread, more mint tea), homecooked by the mother and daughter-in-law of the house. Bachir explained the difficulty and negotiation required in setting up this collaboration with a local berber family in order for us to get to tour an actual residence in the mountainside and experience their home cooking. We were all intrigued by the family hammam or steam bathing room used for cleansing and warmth and grateful that they allowed us to visit. The picturesque lunch spot on the roof of the residence was created for the purposes of this tour group, as Bachir noted that hosting guests outside on the terrace is not polite in the berber culture. We didn’t spend too much time in the Asni Valley, except to pop out of the vehicle for some panoramic views. We also opted to visit a local market being held on this particular day, which was another very memorable experience as we were the only non-local visitors and we really felt like we were getting a glimpse into ordinary life in the Atlas Mountains, so I would highly recommend adding this stop if available. We also opted to stop and ride camels around the Ourika Valley which we all agreed was not worth the time and was, perhaps, quite cruel to the camels seeing as we were headed nowhere. I would highly recommend selecting a tour from Arib Voyages as their professionalism, smarts and entrepreneurship are inspiring in addition to the pleasure of the excursion itself.
I had participated in a local cooking class on a visit to Myanmar earlier this year and had such a nice time that I decided to seek out a similar experience on this visit to Morocco. I was particularly interested in the Amal Center Cooking Class which is a non-profit dedicated to restaurant training and job placement for disadvantaged local women, however their classes run from 9am to noon, and we did not think that we could make it that early since we were driving overnight from Chefchaouen and arriving in Marrakech at 5am. Instead, we opted for an afternoon pastry class at the beautiful Riad Monceau. My friend, Katie, and I were accompanied by a group of 4 Italian men and the chef, Rachida Sahnoune. Chef Rachida speaks Arabic, French and English. The Italian men preferred French so we received the instructions in a variety of languages with Chef Rachida delivering mostly French, the Italians repeating to each other in their native, Italian; and Katie and one of the Italian men reproducing bits in English. It was fairly easy to follow along – add some of this, roll that out, fry this up, etc. We made 3 different types of pastries – a sweet samosa, a more savory puffy Moroccan crepe, and an almond filled dumpling. After the food preparation, Rachida’s husband walked us through the ceremonial preparation of traditional Moroccan mint tea, which involves Chinese green tea, handfuls of Moroccan mint leaves and TONS of sugar. It was a special demonstration and we thoroughly enjoyed devouring the pastries and tea – Katie and I might have made the Italian gentlemen uncomfortable by the number of pastries we put down, but what else is new?
After our cooking class, we asked Chef Rachida to recommend a dinner spot for that evening and she happily divulged that there were reservations remaining at her restaurant at Riad Monceau. We put down a booking for four, hoping that our travel companions would be able to meet up with us. Despite having international texting and data plans, we had quite a lot of difficulty communicating with our travel buds when we weren’t together, but we luckily bumped into each other in the Big Square when we were exploring to pass the time before dinner. We all enjoyed the 3 course pre-set menu at the restaurant, the food was fantastic and the atmosphere, charming. We also walked through the restaurant at Dar Essalam, which is an experience in itself just to see, but apparently there is live entertainment as well during the dinner hours which sounds enjoyable.
One thing to keep in mind is that, again, the streets in the medina are SO confusing, so while google maps told us it would take 15-20 minutes to get to Riad Monceau from Riad Adore where we were staying, we left over an hour in advance and barely made it on time. An additional warning, as the day goes on, the air in the medina becomes noticeably more polluted – by nightfall, I felt like we should all be wearing respirators. Also, as anywhere, there is a lot of poverty evident in Marrakech, particularly heartbreaking are the begging mothers lining the tourist streets of the medina until late hours of the night with tiny children laying on their laps like puppets when they should be snuggled into a warm bed. While these types of iniquities are unpleasant to see, I think it’s an important part of traveling (and just of being a human) to take note that there are starving, struggling, persecuted, rejected and neglected people all over our earth. It makes you at least a little more thankful, if not a bit ashamed, for the ease of your own daily life.
Lastly, just some random shots around the medina: