The Magic of Morocco
In February, my best friend Laura and I set off for the bustling North African hub of Marrakech. We were both optimistic about the experience, but we were also two young Irish girls alone in a culturally divergent city with only a few basic sentences of French and Arabic between us. As we had hoped, it turned out to be an amazing adventure and one I would recommend to anyone – leave yourself open to every experience, have common sense about things and I promise you will leave Morocco feeling the magic and wanting more!
First things first: Getting there
What did we ever do without Ryanair? HOW DID WE LIVE? Ryanair fly direct from Dublin to Marrakech twice weekly, Thursday afternoons and Sundays. A return ticket costs anywhere from €110 upwards (we paid about €140), which is a steal considering you’re reaching Africa! Easyjet also run flights.
Where to stay
I’d done a fair bit of research before we left, and one decision we were both extremely glad to have made was booking a taxi to collect us from the airport to bring us to our accommodation. We stayed at Riad Nasreen (a “riad” is a traditional Moroccan building with a courtyard in the middle) which is just inside the Medina (Old City) walls, about a fifteen minute drive from the airport. The streets of Medina are winding and can be intimidating if you arrive in the dark like we did, so having someone waiting to collect you takes the stress out of things – our driver Abdul walked us to the door of our Riad, and later the incredibly friendly waiter Habib escorted us half-way to the main square (without a word of English except “cat”. Don’t ask).
Three nights at Riad Nasreen with (an amazing) breakfast included cost €70 each, and a return taxi to the airport comes out around €30. Riad Farhan is also highly rated, and I found two or three decent looking hostels, also in Medina, which were bargain basement value (about €8 a night). For the authentic Marrakech experience, I would recommend paying a bit extra to stay in a Riad. If the hustle and bustle of the Medina might be too much for you, you could also opt for a resort-type holiday and stay in one of the more upmarket hotel chains in Hivernage or Gueliz.
What to do (and most importantly, where to eat)
During our time in Marrakech, we visited Ben Youssef Medrasa, the ancient Quranic University with a hand carved interior façade and ornate tiling across the walls of the courtyard (v Instagram-able). We saw the two former palaces of the King, Palais Bahia and the Palais el Badi – Kosy Bar just inside the old city wall beside Badi does good pizza and local wine if you want a break from Moroccan cuisine. Take a table on the rooftop for some down time after sightseeing. These three attractions cost less than €6 combined and you could easily get the trifecta done and ticked off the bucket list in half a day.
We got lost in the maze-like alleyways of the Medina Souk, where you could spend a whole day just admiring the Aladdin-esque trinkets on display. Haggling is a part of social etiquette in Morocco, so push for a bargain and don’t be afraid to have the craic with the sellers (I wasn’t. Laura is still recovering from the embarrassment). The street vendors are a law unto themselves; one made us an offer of 3,000 camels in return for marriage, although we couldn’t work out whether he meant 3,000 for the two of us or per person…
If you’re looking for lunch on your adventure through the Souk, look no further than the Henna Art Café. It was opened by a charming American lady from Connecticut who was kind enough to take a polaroid of us when we ate there, and a percentage of the profits go to local charities in Marrakech. The falafel sandwich and avocado boats come highly recommended, and if you like you can get henna done by the local women who work in the café – it’s really beautiful and great value for the artistry.
No trip to Marrakech is complete without a stroll through Jemaa el Fna, the main square in the Medina. It’s loud, it’s in your face and it’s mesmerising – I’d recommend going at night when the thoroughfare really comes alive with snake charmers, belly dancers and street food stalls. The best kind of assault on the senses! Try an orange juice from any of the fruit stalls, it’ll set you back €1. Careful not to take henna from any women working on the square; it’s not real henna and if it seems too cheap to be true, there’s definitely a reason.
In Gueliz, the newer “European” district of Marrakech, lies le Jardin Majorelle, a magical jungle oasis designed by Yves Saint Laurent, who fell in love with Marrakech and had his ashes scattered there after he passed away. Here we spent some time in the attached Berber museum, which showcases a collection of unbelievably beautiful jewellery and fashion designed and worn by the native Berber people of Morocco and the surrounding Sahara. You can visit both the garden and the museum for the equivalent of just €10.
Fifteen minutes from le Jardin Majorelle you will find Grande Café de la Poste, a beautiful French-Moroccan themed restaurant with antique décor and great atmosphere. Prices are about on par with Dublin, I think our sit down lunch for two came in around €30.
You can call me dramatic, but I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to describe the Moroccan Hammam as one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Disclaimer: prepare to be naked for a prolonged period of time in close proximity to strangers that don’t speak your language.
Water is a sacred commodity in Islam, and the hammam is a tradition which honours the divine position it holds in Muslim culture. Step into a large sauna-like room with a fountain in the middle, cast off your robe and take in the incredible experience of a local woman (or man, if you yourself are a man I assume) washing every part of your body and hair with black olive soap and sand from the Sahara desert. This goes on for about 45 minutes, followed by the greatest hour long Argan oil massage you will ever have the pleasure of enjoying (still naked). Laura and I did the whole thing together side by side, so bring a friend and create a memory you most certainly will never forget!
We had our hammam at Rosa Bonheur, recommended by my lovely friend Sarah. It’s also rated #1 Spa and Hammam in Marrakech on Trip Advisor, and in general I find this to be the most reliable online measure for restaurants, activities etc. We spent the entire evening at Rosa Bonheur, roughly three hours, which cost us €60 each – imagine what you’d fork out for three hours at Dublin’s top spa!
A word of advice before you hammam: if you decide to lose your hammam virginity at Rosa Bonheur, one of the lovely ladies from the spa will meet you at the front of the Bahia Palace (you won’t find your way otherwise, believe me). There will be quite a few moments along the walk to the spa where scenes from Taken will flash before your eyes, but relax – nothing is as it seems in Marrakech and down the tiniest, windiest lane you will find a little slice of heaven!
Morocco is roughly 99% Islamic, so be prepared to be woken each morning by the muezzin announcing the first of the five daily calls to prayer. With this in mind, you can probably imagine that Marrkech may not be the ideal destination for a boozed up abroad type trip, but alcohol is available, most readily in the up and coming neighbourhood of Hivernage just outside the Old City wall. We splashed out for one night and ate at Le Comptoir Darna, a French-Moroccan restaurant, bar and belly-dancing club.
Once inside, you could be anywhere from Berlin to New York – the conservative dress code is figuratively and literally thrown out the window, smoking is allowed in the front section of the restaurant and the dancers graciously accept dirham notes being stuffed into their bras. The food was excellent, with a wide variety of Moroccan dishes as well as more familiar curries, steaks, creme brulee and the like. We had a bottle of Moroccan house wine with dinner and the bill came to about €90. Upstairs people from all backgrounds mix and mingle at the bar; like everywhere in Marrakech alcohol is expensive, but you’re on your holidays, forget about it. A cocktail at Comptoir Darna costs between €13 and €17.
Advice before you travel
I would recommend carrying some small dirham notes or coins with you at all times. Around Jemaa el Fna at night there are street musicians and performers and if you want to stop and enjoy the entertainment it’s sort of social etiquette to throw a few dirhams in the pot. Making sure to have small denominations of dirhams will also come in handy when shopping in the Souk. Euro is accepted practically everywhere, but we found it best to pay in dirham. We found that dirhams were unavailable in most banks in Dublin, so your best bet is to go to FexCo on Westmoreland Street if you want to change money before your trip.
There is a wide variety of style in Marrakech – everything from glamourous Hijab wearing ladies toting Gucci bags to women covered in Abayas from head to toe with sheets over their faces and eyes. The general consensus is just dress conservatively, that’s essentially covering your shoulders and knees. Avoid anything too low cut, and basically just have a bit of common sense; if you stroll around the Souk in a pair of denim Levi’s and an American Apparel leotard you’re going to attract unwanted attention. During the day we made sure to carry pashminas with us at all times, just in case we had any issue with admittance into attractions. This happened to me at a temple in Bangkok (too much leg out oops) so stick a scarf in your bag to cover all eventualities. At dinner in Le Comptoir, Laura and I adhered to the conservative code but we saw girls in tiny bandage dresses and stilettos too. My advice would be to have a bit of cop on and don’t wear anything that you feel might be deemed inappropriate!
If you find yourself being heckled or hassled aggressively in any way, just keep walking and try to ignore it. 99% of the time the people will want to have banter back and forth with you, particularly if they hear that you’re Irish, but on the off chance that you feel something more sinister might be at play, don’t engage and keep going. We didn’t have any major issues at all – we were called the Spice Girls a few times.
Go for it
Leave your anxiety at the airport, keep your common sense firmly intact and immerse yourself in the fascinating world of Moroccan culture.