Thursday, 24 May 2018

MARRAKESH - A GUIDE


FIRST THINGS FIRST:

I read a lot of things prior to my trip to Morocco that said the same thing - Marrakesh was a feast for the senses both in a positive and negative way. I didn’t quite know what make of that statement but after spending 4 days there I can now very much reaffirm this. There are many utterly wonderful and stunning things about Marrakesh- the colours, the architecture, the hidden riads, the food and the fact that you can escape to what feels like a far-flung destination in a mere 3 hours on a return flight that will set you back under £150 if you are clever about it.

However, there were also some negatives that I found hard to ignore. I went on this trip with another blonde female friend in her twenties which in effect meant we couldn’t wander down the streets of the medina (the most touristy part of Marrakesh filled with market stalls) without being hassled and followed by men. To clarify, with being hassled I don’t mean some nice hellos but instead some very borderline sexist comments (“small boobs” and “sexy lips” are some examples) that made us feel very uncomfortable. We were also followed down narrow and unlit roads by groups of men that tried to persuade us to follow them because major sights were supposedly “shut” – all rubbish of course to get our attention. I do not want to insinuate that this applies to every man in Marrakesh, let alone Morocco, but after countless times of this happening we began to dread walking around and either took taxis to sights and restaurants or stayed in our riad altogether. Perhaps the experience would have been different had we gone with a man but it being 2018 I, maybe naively, assumed that it was save to travel as single female without feeling intimidated and harassed, a realisation that left a slight sour taste.

I still adored Marrakesh overall but did wish I had known a few useful pointers beforehand which I will now share with you alongside some dining, drinking and sightseeing tips that should make your experience there a little less unpredictable than mine. Would I go back? Definitely – it’s a stunning place that I still want to explore further, I just hope perhaps that I will receive a little more respect next time.

TOP 5 MARRAKESH TIPS

· Drop pins of your planned Marrakesh destinations (restaurants, sights etc.) on googlemaps before you venture out to explore. Data roaming is ridiculously expensive in Morocco which means you won’t have internet access for most of the trip so make the most of your GPRS which will continue working, because the minute you look a little lost you will be pounced on by market traders and others that can spot a vulnerable tourist a mile away. On our first evening we left sunset drinks without a dinner place marked up and were taken by a “friendly” hotel worker to a horrendous restaurant and had him demand a tip after for taking us there. On our second day we did a little planning, dropped pins of everything on my to do list and stuck to them, no longer at the risk of walking right into a tourist trap!

· Buy booze in duty free at your departure airport (especially during Ramadan). We failed to realise this and ended up spending a lot of money on wine whilst there. No supermarkets within the medina, where most riads and hotels are located, sell alcohol. There are a few bigger supermarkets such as Cachefour outside the old city walls that do usually but also shut shop during the month of Ramadan. Most hotels really do not mind you bringing your own and we shared some G&Ts with some fellow English travellers, who had been clever enough to stock up, on our rooftop. You can get alcohol in some restaurants and bars (I would say at about 70% of the ones frequented by tourists) but be prepared to pay London or even slightly higher prices.

· On that as a whole Marrakesh isn’t as cheap as one would think. In fact at the very good restaurants we ate at we ended up spending nearly as much as in London. Even at market stalls it was very clear we were being charged “tourist” rates, something you really cannot do that much about if you don’t speak at least a little French.

· Don’t go on any camel riding trips if you care about animal rights in the slightest. We went on one as my fellow traveller had a romantic notion of riding happy camels into the Sahara Desert but what we faced in reality was very far removed from that. Paying around 30 euros each we got to ride terribly kept camels, chained to each other in some field, with rubbish piling up on the sides, for an hour, camels wiped and hit when they were required to pose for an Instagram selfie. I do understand that the people involved make their living out of this strand of tourism but that doesn’t mean that one should support it and for me it was a symbol of everything that is wrong with ignorant Instagram tourism.

· Try a hammam but know what is involved. Everyone told me getting a traditional Moroccan bath was an absolute must on the trip but I was not quite prepared to be basically naked during the whole thing, scrubbed all over by a local lady in quite some vigour to get rid of dead skin. I felt like a new born baby after but was left rather red faced during the whole experience so be prepared for that, I was not when I was handed a tiny paper thong as my only item of clothing to wear during it.

WHERE TO STAY:


Riad Dar Saad was recommended to my by a friend who had stayed there previously as there are simply too many riads to choose from and it was super nice. It has a lovely and secluded rooftop and only a few rooms so that you really feel like the whole place is to yourself. Our room was massive (though we didn’t get wifi in it) and the courtyard swimming pool was an oasis of calm. Breakfast was pretty basic for 4 euros (breads and marmalade, juice and coffee) so we just stuck to the very nice coffee (1 euro) for most of the mornings. The alcohol offering was also pretty limited but suited us perfectly (serving only rather amazing Moroccan rose at an ok 17 euros a bottle) which we enjoyed several times on the rooftop. The location is very good on a quiet street, far enough away from the main market square and in walking distance from all the main sights, as well as eating and drinking hot spots.

WHERE TO EAT & DRINK:

Al Fassia
Al Fassia, refreshingly solely run and staffed by women, kept on cropping up as the best and most authentic restaurant in Marrakesh and I have to say it was pretty darn amazing. I went for the vegetarian set menu and was served an outstanding vegetable tagine, a selection of starters, a dessert and sweet tea for around £25 which was more than ok for the quality of food served here. Wine was also priced reasonably and my friend couldn’t stop talking about her lamb tagine, in her eyes probably one of the best dishes of her life. We loved it so much that we nearly went back (in retrospect we should have after the disappointing experience at Nomad we had instead). Not cheap but an absolute must visit on a trip to Marrakesh. Reserving ahead is highly recommended via their website as it is booked up most evenings and they turned away everyone that hadn’t when we were there.

Terrasse Des Epices
This place was literally 4 minutes walk from our riad and again featured on most top lists of where to eat in Marrakesh. It has a beautiful roof terrace and a seriously good vibe with a DJ there most nights but to me surprisingly also served amazing food. Don’t get me wrong the cocktails and atmosphere were winners to me already but those kind of places, at least from my experience, would generally tend to not serve the best food because it just isn’t their priority. Well here I was wrong as both the tagines we sampled ( I went for monkfish and my friend once again for lamb) were absolutely great and were followed by an outstanding meringue and balsamic strawberry dessert that showcased the French culinary influence in Morocco. Prices are more than reasonable, both for food and cocktails, with the fantastic vibe making it more than worth it and a place you can spent a whole evening at. Make sure you reserve online as this place also gets super busy.

El Fenn
El Fenn came highly recommended by my friend Henry who sang its praises as THE place to enjoy a sundowner drink in Marrakesh. He wasn’t wrong. El Fenn is a luxury haven, a hotel owned by Richard Branson’s daughter that has elevated your standard riad into something quite special and boy if I had the money (rooms will set you back from 230 euros) I would definitely have stayed here. The rooftop is simply stunning with amazing views across the city and the perfect spot to enjoy a bottle of (not so cheap) wine or a cocktail (again not so cheap at £10 a pop) as golden hour sets in. It may be pricy but heck you are on holiday and being here for a Marrakesh sunset is an unforgettable experience every visitor to the city should experience. They don’t take bookings so make sure you get there relatively early (around 6ish) to get a prime spot for sunset!



Now this was the only slight disappointment when it came to the places I had researched and had been recommended prior to my trip. Many of my friends had loved Nomad’s but for us the dinner there was tainted by terribly slow service (we waited an hour and a half for our dinner) and small portions. That is not to say that the modern take on Moroccan food served here was bad, on the contrary I adored my vegetable couscous and the ice cream was rather outstanding (especially the almond, argain oil & honey gelato) but I think that my expectations may have been set slightly too high and that dinner isn’t the best time to come here. They do not serve alcohol and we felt a little crammed in the indoor space so if you go pop by for a lunch on their rooftop terrace and make sure to get dessert!

THINGS TO DO & SEE

Majorelle Gardens


Yes, you would have seen this place on Instagram (it’s THAT blue building) but this stunning garden and former summer residence of Yves Saint Laurent is fully worth the hype and utterly beautiful. Filled with exotic plants from all over the world, amazing tiles and a serene atmosphere, it is not only one of the most photogenic places I have ever been to but one of the most unforgettable. We only paid for entrance to the gardens which was under a tenner so didn’t check out the museums but be prepared to queue a little in any case. A must visit in my eyes and one place that for once IS worth the hype.

Beldi Country Club



This was another friend’s recommendation and a real highlight of the trip. Located 6km outside Marrakesh (a 15 minute taxi ride) this country club is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the medina and has real French colonial charm about it. You pay around £20 for a sun lounger, towels and a three course lunch for the day and I promise you will not regret it. There are three serene swimming pools within the impeccably kept grounds that also include a hotel, a rose garden, amazing greenhouse pavilions with stunning interiors, ponds to marvel at and super attentive waiters that will serve you your cocktails straight to the lounger. The three course meal was super fresh and a welcome change to just eating tagine- I went for monkfish skewers as a main and a poached egg salad from hens kept on the estate, followed by delightful ice cream, all washed down by the best value for money wine of the trip, another great local rose at £12 a bottle. We spent basically the entire day here, well fed, chilling in the sunshine, away from the crowds. Beldi is a stylish and understated gem and one I would highly recommend including in your Marrakesh itinerary. Make sure you call ahead to book your spot; this little piece of heaven is worth the effort.

Bahia Palace

A stunning and beautifully preserved palace that captures the essence of Islamic and Moroccan style with its vibrant colours and intricate tiling. Entrance was super cheap and although quite busy when we went, a definite must see as not too far from the main square and markets.

Le Jardin Secret


This “secret” garden was right by our riad and, although not quite as impressive as the Majorelle gardens, still won me over with its beautiful and drool worthy overall design. There is also a great little café amongst the flowers and architecture, not overrun by tourists, perfect for an afternoon break.

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