As you fly into Marrakesh the low, sand-coloured houses are framed by the enormous Atlas Mountains, a uniquely stunning sight. Burningly hot in the summer and like a dreamed-for British summer day in winter, Marrakech has the perfect climate. I visited in January with friends, and it was an amazing winter escape to the land of sunshine.
For breakfast head straight to Patisserie de Princes bakery and choose some pastries. Often dripped with honey and sugar they are a delicious start to the day. Wander through the souks until you reach the main square. The orange juice carts were one of our most frequent stops as the refreshing and cheap (30p) drinks were made right in front of you. Once or twice we bought several glasses worth and filled up a bottle to take for the day’s activities.
Then take a taxi to the tanneries. Definitely prepare yourself for the trip by looking up the French word for tanneries before you get in the taxi. It took us some charades to convey where we intended to go. Get one of the guides near the entrance to take you round. They will provide a small amount of mint to hold to your nose – a necessity, as it smells to high heaven. Your tour will surely provide an interesting glimpse into how leather products are made. Afterwards, the guide will direct you to an affiliated shop, which will sell the tannery’s goods. However, you are under no obligation to buy anything, and everything is negotiable.
Ben-Youssef Madrasa was home to an Islamic religious school that stands today as an important cultural monument and site of remarkable craftsmanship. The plasterwork and woodwork on display are amazing, and the place is a hidden gem within Marrakesh. The entrance fee is really worth it, especially when combined with entrance to the Marrakesh Museum. The museum building is a 19th century palace and a must-see in and of itself because it serves as a fantastic example of Islamic architecture.
Stop back by the square for a sweet glass of sugar cane juice. They crush the sugar cane in front of you, just like at the orange juice, and it’s a very Moorish drink. I have no doubt that you’ll want it more than once.
For the rest of the afternoon you should get lost. By this I mean wander around the tiny alleyways and souk until you don’t know which way is north. This is a wonderful way to escape the touristy areas of Marrakech and experience something unusual. When we got lost we ended up shelling peas for a guy who made his own leather products by hand.
As the day closes, head to Jemaa el Fna a buzzing square filled with incense, music, snake charmers and motorbikes whizzing past. There you’ll find souks that are glowing with a vibrancy that will entrance you. Shops are piled high with traditional shoes, scarves, dresses and lamps. Head round the corner from the main square and you’ll see a lamp shop crammed full, every single one lit up in a riot of colour.
When it’s time for dinner, wind your way past those waiters who are stationed in the market trying to solicit customers. Don’t be ashamed to say that you’ve already eaten to dismiss those who are too pushy. When you settle on a place to eat, head into the centre of the dinner tables. You’ll soon find yourself surrounded. We chose a restaurant that was not at all pushy and settled down to find our table was soon laden with olives, bread and a delicious tomato sauce, followed by barbequed skewers. Ask for a mint tea, which will be insanely sweet but definitely a refreshing end to your meal (This is the result of local etiquette: the sweetness of the tea directly correlated with the generosity of the host.) Afterwards, head to one of the market’s pastry stands and enjoy a small, tightly coiled cookie called a Chebakia. Although it may garner some strange looks, put a little bit of salt on top to create a sort of salted caramel flavour that is absolutely delicious.
Wake up early to get to the beautiful Saadian tombs before the crowds do. Each tomb has elaborately hand-carved stone pillars and ceilings and beautiful hand-laid mosaics on the floor. There is always the chance of visiting later in the day; however there can be a half-an-hour to an hour queue to get into the most popular tombs. These tombs are particularly fascinating, and tricky to find, because of how obscure their location is. Every entrance bar one was blocked up, and that entrance was disregarded as anything special because it was so small. The tombs weren’t even uncovered until an aerial flight noticed the compound in which they are housed, but they soon became one of the most important discoveries in North African history. It is worth joining a guided tour or reviewing a guidebook – we made the mistake of going without any help, and I’m sure that we missed out on some interesting information.
From here take a taxi to the new town, where you’ll find the Amal Women’s Training Centre and Moroccan Restaurant. This amazing charity helps homeless women develop skills and draft a CV in order to find them jobs. It has only opened recently but is clearly a worthwhile cause to support. The programme is staffed by a psychologist, a team of chefs and teachers, and various connections in the local business community. And the food is great, too! The restaurant is so successful that it is rated in the top three in the city on TripAdvisor. If you have time, I highly recommend taking a cooking course offered by the Centre, which runs from approximately 10am to 2pm. When I was there, we made beef tagine with prune sauce, and it was delicious. Our whole experience at the Centre was one of the best things we did whilst we were there.
If you visit on a burningly hot day, the nearby Jardins Majorelle will be a welcome and beautiful respite from the sun. Surrounded by plants from all around the world, a statue of the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent can be found in the centre of the gardens; he designed the space. The gardens are quite small, so it won’t take very long to walk through them, but it is definitely worth a visit. The volume and variety of cacti are simply mind blowing.
Head to the Henna Café for your second-to-last meal and treat yourself to some beautiful henna after you eat. While very popular, the café is also very small, so prepare to wait. This café also operates as a charity. Good food, good cause, striking henna: what more could you want?
While at Amal, we asked from some restaurant recommendations, and we were directed to a place the locals called McOmar’s. Thankfully, we were given directions as it’s quite hidden. Even though we did not speak Arabic and no one at the restaurant spoke English, we managed to order via an impromptu game of charades. While we weren’t always served what we were expecting, the food was delicious and the surprise was part of the fun.
The taxi to the airport should cost around 75-150dh(£5-10) depending on your haggling skills and the time of day. It’ll take perhaps half an hour to get back to the airport from the city centre. Before you leave, though, you should spend any leftover Moroccan dirhams on pastries to see you through the journey.
Notes on travel:
Taxis or walking is by far the easiest and cheapest way to get around. However, with taxis be prepared to bring your haggling A-game. The first thing to know is that all fares are negotiable; the second is that fares depend on the time of day, rising in the evening. Be willing to walk away from a taxi if the driver quotes too high a price. There are literally hundreds of other taxis available for the same job. In order to get the fairest price, ask the driver to calculate the fare by meter (compteur in French). Always be sure to agree on price before you start your ride, too.
Notes on haggling:
It is a way of life in Morocco. Before I went I got highly embarrassed whenever I had to negotiate the cost of something. I have learnt now that rules are 1) don’t be afraid to walk away and 2) be able to walk away. If you have fallen in love with something, then it’s a lot harder to haggle as you’re more likely to accept a higher price. Listen to the vendor’s first price offer, offer around a third or quarter of what they ask, and go from there. Bartering is a game everyone plays so enjoy it!
In the case of tour guides or other group activities, always agree on a price as a group from the outset so that you know exactly how much you’re expected to pay before it’s too late to negotiate.