Marrakech… city of Morocco – It’s a rare conundrum of a place that cannot be summed up in a postcard… Thailand for example could be ‘Tropical and exotic’? New York – ‘Cosmopolitan and iconic’? France – ‘Chic and historic’? After just a few hours in this frenzied city however, you’re left scratching your head. Is it enjoyable? Is it relaxing? Is it a worthy destination to escape the cold over those wintry months? It is certainly fascinating, bewildering and intimidating – all at the same time. As a man walked past us, sporting a goat around his neck, it felt surreal that we were at Gatwick airport less than five hours ago.
It didn’t help that we had unintentionally chosen a national holiday to visit. This particular festival was Eid-Al-Adha, The Festival of Sacrifice, which explained the sighting of many a machete armed man chasing petrified sheep. Our chosen destination for our weekend away suddenly didn’t feel so romantic when we witnessed a machete meeting the jugular of its fluffy white victim.
Thankfully we were staying at the Riad Madina Mayurqa, a quiet oasis nestled inside the Medina walls; a shield of serenity against the madness of this ancient city. Once the doors of the riad were open and we stepped in to our suite, it felt like we had transcended in to one of the stories of the 1001 Arabian nights.
Our suite was more a tent really; canvas on all four walls with a pitched ceiling protecting us from the outside elements. It was decorated with Moroccan touches to give it some authenticity… colourful rugs & oversized embroidered cushions strewn here and there, big metal lanterns hung from the ceiling… It was tempting to spend the entire weekend here and lap up the atmosphere but the countdown had already begun…
Arguably, the first and obvious ‘must-go-to-do’, is the red city’s most celebrated attraction – the souk at the Djemaa El Fna… Few other places rival the intrigue of these labyrinthe-like lanes where the smell of Moroccan sweets and pastries, intermingling with the rich spices of cardamons and saffron, tease and test your sense of smell.
The souk takes the form of a covered market place spreading out into a maze of narrow alleyways that leaves you questioning the merit of your internal compass. We turned from one corner to the next, Moroccan rugs on one side, bright coloured pashminas on the other, leather wares and Moroccan earthenware dotted in between… all sense of direction completely lost now. To add to the mayhem and madness, scooters raced up and down the narrow lanes almost knocking tourists and barrow wheeling locals to the ground.
Throw away your map, resign yourself to getting lost and allow yourself a few hours to lose yourself in the trinkets.
By the time you navigate your way back to the Djemaa El Fna, the square will have become one big pulsating party as nightfall descends…
Eateries – quite literally hundreds of them will have sprung up from nowhere. Snake charmers, fez wearing men with scraggly monkeys, musicians and dancers fill the square, even your unsavoury characters. ‘Rolex!’ a man approached us, gesturing to the plastic looking watches taped to the inside of his jacket. One man even tried to sell us marijuana and would not leave us alone until he spotted security. I’d hate to think what the penalty is for buying drugs here. It’s not worth finding out. In the words of Sammo from ‘Grange Hill’ – “Just Say No!”
Choosing a place to eat can be a daunting prospect as there are so many rows of food vendors but it’s one of the best places to get acquainted with the rich flavors and textures of Moroccan cuisine. The trick is to grab yourself a seat where there are plenty of locals. We finally settled on to a bench at one stall, sitting shoulder to shoulder with other diners where plates of Moroccan bread and freshly grilled ‘merguez’ sausages were thrust under our noses. It didn’t look very appetising but we tucked in anyway ravenous after our walk around the souk.
After a frenetic start to the weekend, why not spend a tranquil Saturday afternoon at Les Bains de Marrakesh for a hammam spa…
Set in a beautiful Riad with a landscaped courtyard and white kabanas, you will forget all your troubles for the best part of two hours. Work was far from my mind as soon as we slipped in to our towelling robes, stepped in to a pair of white slippers and sipped our complimentary sweet Moroccan tea.
Our host came to greet us and ushered us in to a fully tiled 8ft by 6ft room. As soon as we walked in we were blasted with heat. She signalled for us to take off our robes and slippers which we did obediently. Thank goodness I had put on my bikini underneath. I gave myself an imaginary pat on the back for doing so, but she was now gestating in front of her chest with her hands and saying the same thing over and over in French. Ah! She wanted us head to toe completely starkers. Typical Brits, we stripped down bashfully and dutifully went to lie on our stone slabs covering our bits and pieces. With an amused grin on her face, our lady left us without a word.
Two minutes… five minutes… ten minutes… fifteen minutes later, a different lady entered the room and motioned to my boyfriend to sit up. She picked up a wooden pail that had been sitting on the floor, scooped up the tepid water from the trough that ran between the marble slabs and poured it over his head without any warning – once, twice, three times until he was soaked.
Next came a thick black substance which she liberally slapped and rubbed on to every inch of us. Yes, every inch… Arm pits, inner thighs, between the buttocks… Remember to leave your modesty at the door! Once we were covered in this curious goo, she left us again for what seemed like an eternity.
Cake mixture firmly encrusted by now, she returned and this time turned to my boyfriend brandishing a huge loofah. She seemed to relish scrubbing his skin with vigour; every inch of it, until rolls of grey dead skin clung on to his now red raw skin.
Srubbed, showered and now as smooth as a baby’s bottom, we were ready for our finale and followed two young women through the courtyard for our aromatherapy massage. Save for my masseuse who was suffering from a cold and kept sniffling every two minutes, I was in heaven for an hour. Stresses of work dissolved as each knot was plied and eased.
You will find many hammam spas inside of the Medina but I recommend Les Bains de Marrakesh (near the slave gate to the Kasbah). Cost is on the upper end of the scale but worthwhile for the level of service and one of the few places that offer couple’s treatment rooms. Book in advance though as they can get booked up weeks in advance. A traditional hammam and massage will set you back 580 dirhams ($60 US dollars) for a 45 minute hamman and 1 hour massage treatment. Further details can be found on the following link – http://www.lesbainsdemarrakech.com
After your hammam spa take a leisurely stroll and cool off at the shaded gardens of Jardin Majorelle…
The best public garden to explore is the Jardin Majorelle, north of the Medina in the new town on Avenue Yacoub El Mansour Marrakech. Created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924, it is a beautiful tranquil place that provides a wonderful escape from the red, dusty city of the Medina. It is relatively small and will only take an hour of your weekend but worth the entrance fee of 50 dirhams (around $5 USD). Amongst the exotic plants, the cobalt blue architecture and sunflower yellow planters, you’ll find a memorial to the late fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent.
Window shop and lunch on a tajine at Les Place des Ferblantiers, a small square with lots of antique shops, spice merchants and traditional lamps and lanterns.
We stumbled across this quaint little square after being chased by a machete armed man, intent on giving us directions! ‘Stop! Stop! Is this way! I show you the way!’ he called to us, pointing his machete in the opposite direction to where we were headed. We didn’t care if he was right or not… and I can’t even recall where we were headed, but Place des Ferblantiers was a nice surprise.
Much quieter stalls selling tajine pots, spices and traditional lanterns border the square, and shop keepers are less intimidating than at the souks. Do note that the items are generally more expensive because of their quality though.
Stop off at the open air tagine restaurant on one side of the square. We had a lamb tajine for less than 50 dirhams (around $5 USD), probably the best tajine I’ve ever tried!
Venture outside the Medina and find a place to smoke shisha like a local…
As it isn’t permitted to smoke shisha within the Medina walls, you will have to venture outside the old city. The walk is a surprising reminder that outside of these walls, a modern city of McDonald’s,Starbucks and shopping centres prevails! Head towards the train station and Grand Theatre – the train station itself is a beautiful piece of modern architecture with touches of Islamic design.
‘Soukara’ (a shisha bar opposite the train station) seemed to be very popular with tourists and locals alike but please be advised that since our visit, many shisha bars have been shut down due to new regulations. Do some research beforehand and check with your hotel before you venture out.
If you’re feeling adventurous, charter a driver and head to the Atlas Mountains for a trek to complete your weekend…
The next morning we filled our stomachs with a hearty breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon rashers, ready for our trek in to the Atlas Mountains, reachable within two hours.
The driver (organised by our host at the Riad) dropped us off at the foot of the mountains, a never ending red landscape that dominated the skyline, and from there we picked up our own guide, a young lithe Moroccan boy who never seemed to tire.
We trundled after him, up and along the rocky terrain, climbing further and further up the mountain. Probably not advisable if you’re not particularly fit but our guide gave us a look up and down and decided we looked fit enough to take the short cuts. Every now and again our guide allowed us to pause, to enjoy the scenery and wonderfully cool pools. It was a wonderful contrast to the Medina where only chaos seemed to prevail.
So back to my first question… Is Marrakech worthy of a weekend away? Well, it’s certainly not your bucket-and-spade-kind-of-mini-break if you’re looking to relax… The charm of Marrakech is in its colour and vibrancy – this city will certainly awaken all your senses starting with the call to prayer first thing in the morning. The dusty alleys swell with people throughout the day, the traffic seems permanently chaotic and occasionally you’ll feel unsafe, but the ambience of this red city is like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.
At less than a four hour flight away from London, it is the perfect weekend getaway for those seeking escapism from the ‘norm’. I know I have succumbed to the spell of snake charmers and will someday return once more to this Arabian mystery.