It was inevitable that one day my travels would take me to Marrakech. Having worked in the travel industry, I spent a fair bit of time writing about Morocco, but had never actually visited it. Having spoken to people who had, I got the impression that you either fell in love with the city and you’d go back in a heartbeat, or, you wouldn’t! I’m one of the ‘falling in love and would go back in a heartbeat’ travellers.
I remember reading before I visited that the city was eclectic, full of colour, hustle, bustle and you’d 100% get lost in the streets…Fast forward and Marrakech was everything I’d read and more. It’s a mix of Moroccan and international culture; the food is delicious; the pace of life chaotic and the people forever on the move….and yes, you will most definitely ‘get lost’ in the city streets – I’d liken it to a never-ending maze of alleyways all leading off into different alleyways - but that’s half its charm. And, there are quiet spots where you walk through a doorway to find yourself somewhere where you can sit and drink delicious mint tea.
I usually travel alone, but for this trip I had two travel buddies – Andrew (@andreweggy) and Nipon (@slipongravel). I’ve known Andrew for six years. We worked together and he’s like another brother, and Nipon, I’ve known for three years. We met at one of my very first instameets. We all get on pretty well, which is important when you’re travelling. If there’s one thing to learn in life, it’s to pay attention to the dynamics in a group, and what everyone is into and wants. Another thing when you’re travelling with others is the excitement. The excitement of travel buddies is that holiday enthusiasm rubs off on each other, and by the time you’re due to fly, excitement is at a high and you’re ready to burst!
Nipon was in charge of booking our Airbnb, and Riad Chorfa didn’t disappoint. Our Riad had a separate Douiria which is where we would be staying. This is essentially a private annexe with separate bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchen and a rooftop, and it was perfect. And, we still had access to the main Riad, which amongst its residents had a couple of cute tortoises. We pretty much took a quick tour around our home for the next couple of days and headed out eager to explore.
First impressions were wow. The three of us were wide eyed and raring to go with our cameras. We were so excited to be standing in Jemaa el Fnaa that we didn’t know what to do first. Explore or eat. We opted to refuel and headed to one of the restaurants on the square, Café Zeitoun – this became our meetup spot if any of us wandered off for alone time, or if we got separated from each other. It was a perfect people watching spot and the food was so delicious we returned a few times.
In my mind, I pictured Jemaa el Fnaa as a tightly packed ‘square’. However, it’s more a huge sprawling square with alleyways and streets leading off from it, and the Koutoubia mosque overlooking it all. But, it is just like everyone describes – a large chaotic – I guess you could say…mess! But it’s a mysterious and magical mess with hundreds of people always on the go; shopping, chatting, getting henna tattoos, talking loudly and generally just gathering to pass the time away. You could also describe it as an open-air cinema, food festival and living museum!
The three of us loved strolling through the square. Despite being hectic, loud and fast paced, it’s absolutely fascinating. It’s probably one of the most fascinating people-watching places in the country. We were mind blown, and in my head, I was thinking ‘how do I go about capturing this on my camera?’
One thing I should mention is that you do have to keep your wits about you. I never felt unsafe, but Marrakech as a whole is very busy. You have to remember it’s cultural different – not everyone welcomed having a camera pointed at them. It’s also ridiculously easy to get lost and disorientated in the alleyways. By the end of our few days in the city, we worked out that it’s fairly easy to find an alleyway, walk down a street and at the end you’ll find the minaret, and then you’ll hear and see the square!
As the sky starts setting, the square takes on a different feel. It gets even busier during the evening. The Koutoubia minaret is silhouetted against the setting sun, and the crowds gather even thicker than during the day. You’ll see street entertainment at its best. Berber musicians, dancers, fire-eaters, sword-swallowers, people gather to listen to bands and storytellers, smoke billows from fires as groups gather to settle down for the evening. Performers lead their monkeys and lizards past stalls selling fresh juices, peanuts, kebabs, snails and tajines. And, around the edges of the square are scribes, travelling dentists, doctors with potions and barbers wielding their razors. The atmosphere is electrifying. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It’s crazy and intense, but it’s also hypnotic and I relive the scene whenever I look at one of the photos I captured.
We had so many favourite moments, but here’s a few to mention. Oh, and I’ve added a funny story I just had to share with you…
Place des Epices is vibrant and colourful. This ancient square characterizes Marrakech in a fusion of Africa and Arabia. Come here to buy all sorts of mysterious lotions, potions and spices. From magic spell potions, live chameleons, roots, bark, herbs, leaves, horns, tusks, cures for everything imaginable from herbal remedies to cure a broken heart to essential oils. You name it, they had it! We made friends with a stallholder here wearing a hat with ‘Happy’ embroidered on the front – he was indeed a happy chap, so we named him ‘Mr Happy’.
This is where you’ll find one of Marrakech’s famous restaurants, Nomad. We’d read great reviews about the food here, but we opted to go to ‘Café des Epices’. Here you can sit at tables watching market life or head up to the little roof. We came here a couple of times, but I remember having lunch on the roof terrace and then hearing the call to prayer bellow across the rooftops and market. I think there’s something beautifully melodic about hearing the call to prayer. Seeing people flock to mosques in their prayer clothes was quite a unique cultural experience for the three of us. It’s also the best alarm clock at 5am. It’s something I missed hearing once I’d returned home to London.
After the rough-edged chaos, noise and heat of the hurly-burly bustle outside, stepping into the Ben Yousef Madrassa is like stepping into an elegant refined sanctuary. It’s also very beautiful. Marrakech is known for also having its fair share of western glamour – luxury hotels, spas, shops and restaurants, but it’s still very much an Islamic city and holy pilgrimage site. This college which was one of the largest theological colleges of its time is most definitely one of the most dazzling examples of Moorish architecture, reminiscent to Alhambra in Granada.
We stayed a fair while in the school. We could have got around faster, but because the three of us found different things to photograph or we were waiting for people to pass, we didn’t hurry.
What we quickly worked out was that it’s fun to have banter with the locals and stall holders. A polite hello or bonjour went a long way. It costs nothing to be friendly and it brightened up their day and ours. Quite often it felt like many of the stall holders needed that friendly hello to perk them up from what’s probably a long day. It became a fun thing for us to do, the locals got accustomed to us and some even remembered us the next day. They probably thought we were a trio of three strange English people, but it didn’t stop us from ambling along the streets saying hello to anyone that crossed our path. It’s something we remembered to do on our next Moroccan adventure. I think we got hassled less because of our friendliness too.
The souks of Marrakech are some of the largest in Morocco and famous for being exotic places to shop. Each souk is named after the products being sold, and asides from the allowances for modern tastes, they sell products as they would have a thousand years ago. The best time to take a wander around the souks is in the cool of morning, or in the evening when the sun seeps through slatted roof shades, illuminating a million golden dust motes. It’s quite beautiful.
Andrew is great at pre-holiday planning, while I’m more of a wanderer and if I bump into a cute restaurant, I’m a pop-in and try type of person. However, I’m thankful Andrew found the Earth Café when he was pre-planning. It was a little adventure locating the place, but the Earth Café was a delicious find, and so friendly. The food is all vegetarian and because we didn’t know what to order – the mouth-watering smells hit us as we arrived, we wanted everything – I think we ordered a few dishes on the menu. Safe to say, we left with full and happy tummies that evening.
There were so many high points in our trip, but the day of our hot air balloon saw us wake up super early. This was a day the three of us had been super excited about for months! It wasn’t just a hot air balloon ride, it was a sunrise mission. Navigating ourselves to the bab (gate) to meet our driver was a little quest. Walking through the square at silly o’clock while it was still dark was eerie, and crazy to think in a few hours the square would erupt with life. I made a note to myself that if I returned to Marrakech in the future, I’d take a day to document a complete 24-hours in the square.
So, once we found our driver and picked up a couple of other people, we headed off along dirt tracks and into what I can only describe as empty land - save for a few shepherds - until we arrived at a spot where a Berber breakfast was laid out in front of us. We tucked into local honey and olive oil with freshly made crepes and Moroccan pancakes teamed with salty olives, eggs, mint tea and very strong coffee. It was delicious.
After stuffing ourselves, it was time to head to our hot air balloon. Our pilot Abdel, who was quite the joker had us laughing a lot throughout the build up and during the flight. It was fascinating to watch the flames and the balloon take shape. Abdel even let us stand right inside the balloon as they were firing up. Now, that was a surreal experience.
Clambering in and out of the balloon was quite the experience too, especially for someone with short legs. It gave the crew and group a fair few giggles.
It was such an incredible feeling to float in the air. The adrenaline rush and excitement had me shaking, and all of us wowing. The sun was rising and as we got higher and higher all we could see was bare land. Everything you can imagine about a hot air balloon flight is true. It’s magical; drifting over the surface of the earth in the cool of the morning air, silent except for the woosh of the propane and our joker Abdel.
After we’d calmed down from the flight, it was time for more excitement and more giggles...a camel ride where we were dressed up in traditional Berber dress and led off for a short trek. Nipon has video footage of me squealing like a piglet as my camel stood up and sat down. Once back on un-bumpy land, Andrew and I had a grand – and we realise now a ridiculous plan – ‘let’s go to Chefchaouen for the day’….we had it all planned out, only to be told by our Riad that it was a six hour car journey there and back….we decided that was one for another adventure and instead went to Essaouira for the day which I’ll share with you on another post…
I wanted to share this story as it’s one of the funniest – there were so many, but this one is one that I won’t forget. This was my first experience staying in a Riad, and by now you’ll have worked out that I like exploring and getting lost…so after exclaiming I needed to use the bathroom, I set off in the direction my two travel buddies pointed at (or at least I thought they pointed at). I found an open door and went in to the bathroom…however upon leaving the bathroom I saw a bed, sofa and a suitcase. Shock on my face, I scurried out of the room, barely being able to get the words out of my mouth to tell Andrew and Nipon that I’d just had a wee in someone else’s room! The shame!
I loved our chill-out moments, when we’d arrive back at our Douiria late at night and spend an hour or so on our rooftop, gazing at the stars, chatting and sipping mint tea. Little things, special moments…
A few things to note…
While this is good advice for any country, Morocco is slightly more intense than your average destination. Even though we never felt unsafe, it’s always good to be aware. Be careful walking late at night, you never know what lurks around a corner. As a female who loves travelling alone, I’m not sure how I’d feel about walking late at night in Marrakech. Dress conservative and avoid being flashy. Don’t carry your passport out, and don’t venture too far from crowded areas. You should also be aware of scams. If someone asks you into their shop for tea, they’re going to use it as a pre-text to get you to buy something. Say no to random street guides, be firm, no matter their age. A simple question of asking for directions often leads to people asking for money. On many occasions, whether we went off on our own or even when we were a trio, we were told ‘the street ahead was closed’ – it wasn’t, it was just a way of someone getting us to go with them. We got used to making out like we knew where we were going, when in fact we had no idea!
I fell so in love with Morocco. It’s a country where I felt a little out of my element at times; it’s somewhere new and different, and I loved that feeling. Ok, at times it was chaotic, extremely hot (exceeding 45 degrees some days) and definitely there was sensory overload, but it’s an incredible country, and somewhere I know, I will return to. When I say I have so many memories, experiences and photos from our trip, I really do.
Oh, and please if you do visit this city, do go and get lost. Away from the main square, you’ll find pockets of the most wonderful streets and really friendly people going about their daily life.