‘Marrakech taught me colour’ Yves Saint Laurent once said, and if it could teach one the greatest legends of design that, let’s start with what a few days could begin to teach us.
Firstly, it is the perfect escape , it stay’s warm all year long, and what’s more, with great exchange rates between the euro and dirham (Moroccan’s currency) it also makes it an extremely affordable destination.
Marrakech, a city whose name conjures the sensual and exotic, is always a captivating place to visit. After gaining independence from France in 1956, countless directors, musicians, designers, artists and Hollywood stars have been flocking there; seduced by the sexy fusion of Berber, Oriental, Mediterranean and French influences.
Andy Warhol? Check. Winston Churchill? Check. Where Alfred Hitchcock penned The Birds and the Beckham’s renewed their vows? Check, Check. The Rolling Stones? The Beatles? Madonna? Check, check, check (and let’s not even begin with George Clooney’s honeymoon).
On the other hand, it also home to a little boy whose name will possibly never go down in Hollywood, MTV or Vanity Fair. A little boy who came up to me on my first night “un dirham pour favour, mademoiselle”. Even though I was prepared for this, the first encounter left a mark in me.
This boy, no more than six years of age with big blue eyes, was waiting for tourists – every day – just to ask them for some change. Morocco is a country of contrasts, where luxurious hotels are juxtaposed with littered streets, and part of the unique cultural experience was fusing both
Hit the Streets
After a short taxi from the airport (it’s just a ten-minute ride), we were instantly plunged into the fascinating and feral atmosphere of Marrakech’s main square Jemaa el Fna. It’s a chaotic frenzy by night, and chaotic means chaotic here – bustling with locals, birds, snake charmers, caged- monkeys, belly dancers, donkeys and brightly decorated stalls, many of them all arguing with one another.
Rowdy rings of bystanders formed around a human pyramid of acrobats, vaulting and somersaulting to the sound of traditional Moroccan drums, there were storytellers, hungry tourists buying kebabs from the food carts, and a slithering snake thrust right onto my arm!
“Take a picture! Take a picture” the snake-charmer was trying his hardest to force me, but it really wasn’t the right time, as another woman grabbed me tight by my arm trying to persuade me to get a henna tattoo.
Vendors can be pushy. Not just the average level of pushy, but they will actually grab you by the arm and start on a henna, so do not be afraid to give a firm no-( ‘la shokran’ or ‘no merci ‘ works best). Another thing that really concerned me, were how animals were treated. I saw monkeys on a leash, unhappy looking horses and the mouth of the snakes are stitched to stop the poison.
The juice stalls all over the market are not to be missed – I got seriously addicted to the orange juice, grapefruit juice and lime combo, and just for 10 DAM (90cent). After our long day of travelling, we were looking forward to winding down with a glass of wine, but remember as a Muslim country thereis absolutely no alcohol to be got or to be served in the square.
The next morning we left our Riad to explore the Medina – it was busy and bustling, loud and dusty with constant chaos. After turning off our narrow lane, a local baker was rotating bread in and out of his huge oven. The market fruit vendors were vocal, and every winding lane and corner lead us somewhere new and unexpected – a magical Aladdin’s cave filled with leathers, lamps, pottery, tapestries, jewellery, mirrors, herbs and spices.
I loved the mystery, the magic and the excitement of these ancient streets, watching the craftsmen work on their metal, wood and leather. One man led us down to his carpet warehouse, where we were kept for over an hour where he promised us ‘good price’ for the stunning carpets, we vowed to return, but over in Essaouria we found the exact same ones, for much lower price.
For Designer Junkies
It’s impossible to imagine an ‘oasis of calm’ anywhere near the Medina, but a trip up to the Majorelle Gardens was exactly that when we arrived one late afternoon. It’s synonymous with the designer, Yves Saint Laurent, who bought the electric-blue villa and its garden the first time we visited Marrakech. It was a pure labour of love; he desired to preserve the beauty and vision of its original owner and save it from being made into a hotel.
Some way outside the city, we got there on a moped (easy to rent all over town) but it’s not far in a taxi journey either. The entrance fee is about 100Dr (tenner each), but it well worth every penny. As the afternoon sun went down, we wandered past exotic plants, serene fountains, through the tallest bamboo sticks I’ve ever seen, pink bougainvillaea, water lilies and cacti.
I more or less Instagrammed by way around the vibrant cobalt walls, named ‘Majorelle Blue’ after the founder of the garden – with the ‘love corner’ being a personal favourite, with the ethereal river running behind.
Marrakesh, Majorelle Garden
Best for Traditional: Riad Granvillier
We stayed in Riad Granvillier for the initial few nights and ended up returning. This is perfect for those who want an authentic Riad experience, at an affordable price. Based on a narrow street in the Medina, five minutes from the main square, it was the ideal base for us exploring central Marrakech.
I honestly don’t think we have felt so much at home anywhere on our travels, it was so relaxing and comfortable, and many of the nights we were the only guests there. Samir went out of his way to assist us, and even helped us with booking the car hire.
Breakfast was in the picturesque courtyard (a mosaic table filled with freshly baked breads and pastries, homemade yoghurt and pancakes) and the friendly staff even arranged it for us late in the day after we slept in.
We had the Oriental Suite which was spacious, nicely lit and incredibly dreamy – the bathroom had Morrocan mosaic details, and the wooden carved doors overlooked the courtyard, and the rooftop was ideal for chilling out and thinking over your day. On our final night, a bouquet of roses was left in my room, alongside a bottle of wine.
Best for Luxury: Red House
This family home turned boutique hotel is just outside the old city walls of Marrakech, it is not only was it the most elegant hotel I had ever set foot in, we’re talking chandelier’s and a piano at the reception, there was also complimentary cakes and fruit bowl in our room on arrival.
On the subject of the room- it was luxurious: a huge bed, two stories (bathroom and wardrobes are up a few stairs), a heated Jacuzzi bath, and a dainty balcony overlooking the garden. Breakfast was by the pretty pool area- we feasted on the most incredible pancakes, eggs and freshly squeezed orange juices surrounded by the gardens. It boasts all the five-star facilities of a modern hotel – but with an old-school elegance and charm feel that you won’t get in the city’s flashy nouveau hotels.
Best for Rooftop: Café Nomad
We stumbled upon this trendy rooftop restaurant from the spice market in the Souks one evening, after I had spotted all these glowing lights up above from a different restaurant we were initially going to (*true story). It’s got the most magical rooftop ambiance, open air and candle lit tables surrounded by row after row of glowing lanterns, yet it still remains a fairly laid back and casual vibe.
We tucked into the Nomad Burger, easily one of tastiest burgers I’ve ever tasted (and I have tasted a lot) with caramelised onions and soft brioche, as well as the mezze platter.It was my boyfriend’s birthday, and the whole staff came out and sang happy birthday in three different languages, much to his mortification!
The friendly staff also gave out warm blankets to keep us from the cold which was a nice touch; however, the absolute highlight is their homemade ginger ice-cream and date cake with caramel sauce. The combination is to die for. I’m still having daydreams about it.
Best for 1940s Glamour: La Maison Arabe
Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and Jackie Kennedy all have dined here, and the restaurant certainly lived up to its glamorous reputation that it’s been renowned for since the 1940s. Dimly-lit, delicious food and enchanting: this is for a special night out, and if you’re lucky, sit around the candle- lit pool.
Walking through the hotel, we had to wait in a courtyard bar with marvellous metal shaded Moroccan lamps in the alcoves and lush ivy leaves falling from an overhead balcony. We were welcomed with olives, dried snacks, and a concoction of cocktails from Rashid- a very chatty and welcoming barman who mistook me for some American movie star.
Whether it was for this reason or not, he went out of his way to whip us up two individual cocktails. A fresh minty mojito for him, and something pink and fruity and creamy for me- I honestly couldn’t say what it was. The atmosphere was intimate but lively by the rose petal pool before we were escorted into the enchanting and elegant poolside table where live traditional Arabic musicians played.
The menu was a fusion between Moroccan and Oriental, while my boyfriend had his seafood dumplings to great reports; I went for the chicken almond bastilla: a local dish that I hadn’t tried before!
After spending four nights in Marrakech, I started to feel a bit like I was cheating staying in the city, and a road trip is a perfect way to get under the skin of a country, exploring roads and rivers, donkeys and goats, it gave us a real sense of the Moroccan rural culture.
Car hires aren’t particularly cheap here, and it does require a €500 deposit which put’s a dent in the budget, the Hertz dealer also didn’t come in until three o clock- so it’s all very hit or miss. For those who don’t want to brave the roads, there are hundreds of bus trips that are available.
Must See: Essaouira
We headed off towards Essaouira first, a straight and well-built road, through loads of little villages and road-side markets. It was a real eye opener; passing marts, massive watermelon stalls, serious poverty evident with run down shacks and endless barren land.
From Essaouira we went towards Sidi Kaouki, and up to the Atlas Mountains and the Ouzoard waterfalls, via Marrakech. Arriving back at rush hour was an experience in itself and, among the gridlocked traffic; we had to contend with donkeys, horse and carts, mopeds, cars and pedestrians.
Essaouira felt like a breath of fresh air after the mayhem of Marrakech — a hippie town full of rumours of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Bob Marley in the 70’s. We wandered through the incredibly photogenic and UNESCO- protected medina, tasting the local nougat, eyeing up the silver jewellery, and wandering by little stalls filled with local Argan oils, leatherwork, plus of course carpets and more carpets.
Strolling along the port, the fishermen were busy unloading their catch of the day, with brightly-painted boats. Although it was a great place to people watch, on our second day we returned to pick out fresh fish grilled up –haggling a good price to share a lobster, prawns and squid. A rebellious waiter even sneaked us a glass of wine in an old cup.
Sitting out in the square, we people-watched crowds flocking to the mosque in their white prayer clothes. I had never really experienced predominantly Muslim countries before, and there was something beautiful about the melodic nature of the call.
On our second morning, we made the short walk over to the Citadel which proudly guards the port below. Exploring the fortified walls lined with cannons, the views are incredible; for those who are Game Of Throne fanatics, this is where they filmed Season 3.
Explorers and Nature Lovers
A good three hours from Marrakech on a windy and mountainous road, the road trip to the Ouzoard waterfalls took us an entire day, but the stunning scenery is well worth it for nature lovers. Surrounded by thousands of olive trees, the majestic falls plunge 360 feet to the ground below .
The Berber village in itself was a welcome, with the first little shops and cafes that you come across for miles (it’s still difficult to get a toilet with an actual toilet though; it’s mostly holes in the ground around here).
The winding narrow pathway down to the waterfalls is filled with pockets of pottery sheds, wooden carvings and local crafts. It’s not for the faint hearted, we spotted some wild monkeys on our way, and with a Magnum, in our hands, we walked all the way down the stone steps to the lowest point – where we got soaked from the waterfall! Not a good look in my white linen sundress, but it was well worth the views.
Ride a Camel
After we departed Essaouira, we headed towards the seaside village Sidi Kaouki, it took roughly an hour to reach, passing roadside donkeys and remote shepherds guarding their goats along the way. At one stage, we passed a row of goats up on trees, and I truly thought I must be in another planet!No crop, no grass, just the odd bushes, and lots of sand and low stone walls.
On a narrow mountain road, we met an old man thumbing, no teeth but a broad smile, easily in his seventies. Sitting down in the back seat, he pulled out his instrument and played us some tribal North African song until we reached the town – on arrival, there was two surfer-cafes to get a bite to eat, a windy beach, and three young men arguing bellicosely over customers for the camel rides.
After we gave two of them business, the third ran out to get a big rock throw at the other man- it was all getting a bit out of hand so we resolved it by giving all three a tenner. After they calmed down, we began on our sandy Camel trek across the beach.
It’s actually much easier than riding a horse, despite my initial concerns, and as a touristy and post-cardish it seems, it’s an incredible experience and was one of the highlights of my holiday. I then wondered how the camels were treated; it mustn’t be fun posing for Instagram, and walking tourists up and down the dunes every day.
Forget all the sunny selfies and bikini bodies – Morocco leaves you with truly unique and eye-opening experiences. How did you find yourself sipping mint tea with carpet makers in a run-down shed? Where did you find fresh oranges from a tree? Since when could you ride a camel? Was that a donkey carts pulling fake iPhones?
There was the haunting sound to prayer that vibrated throughout the city, a little boy who helped me find my way out of the medina, a donkey cart we dodged on a motorbike – a beautiful silk scarf that I found in some little place I stumbled upon, and yet that still doesn’t entirely explain my new lantern, the sandalwood smell in my bag, or the little bracelet on my wrist.
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Marrakesh in around 3 hours 45 minutes. The airport is just 10km from the city. Fares from €59.99 one-way.
For more info on things to do and see in the city, checkvisitmorocco.com.
Prepare to dress in layers: linen, cotton and scarfs- you might be hot during your day in the Medinas or the desert and freezing as you walk to dinner at night. Unless you want to constantly be that girl who has to go back to the hotel and change, layering is your friend.
Flickr: Anna & Michal
Marrakesh, Majorelle Garden