My favourite things about Marrakesh
2017 wasn't a great year for me. Weird way to start a blog post on Marrakech, I know but please bear with me.
So 2017 wasn't a great year. I've recounted it back to my therapist as probably THE worst year of my current decade. It's been one shit show after the other and going from one setback to the next. I ended 2017 / started 2018 curled up on the floor sobbing and crying my eyes out covered in snot and hyperventilating. 2017 had exhausted me beyond anything I had ever felt in my life before. Faced with the miserable ball of sobs that couldn't get off the floor, Bae decided to do one of the only things that tend to cheer me up and that was whisking me away from cold grey and sad London to a sunny cheery destination. And this is how I ended up kicking off 2018 in wonderful Marrakesh and surroundings.
Now if you're looking for a place that will soothe your soul and simultaneously set it on fire, Morrocco is a sure bet. Over the course of 7 (mostly) blissful days, I was able to put all my troubles, worries and anxieties aside and bathe in the gloriousness that Marrakesh had to offer. One of the many ways in which this trip was so significant for me is that this was the first time in 17 years that I was stepping foot on the African continent again. I haven't been on my beloved motherland since I left it at the tender age of 10. Even though it wasn't quite technically home, walking on the continent again brought a much-needed peace to my troubled soul, however much temporary.
So follow me while I show you some of my favourite spots around Marrakesh and the Middle Atlas.
1. Jmaa el Fnaa, the Medina and the Souks
I don't know how it would be possible to visit Marrakech without passing through Jmaa el Fnaa. It's the most convenient entrance way to the Medina and the souks that lie beyond as well as a hotbed of activity at any hour of the day or night. It's called the liveliest square in the world by many and I can understand that title. A mix of acrobats, performers, slapstick comedy acts, fortune tellers, snake charmers and monkey tamers amongst many others converge in one place, all with the single aim of extracting as much cash as possible from confused and overwhelmed tourists.
Personally, this square did not have much appeal to me as I have a deep-rooted phobia of snakes, and every square inch of the square seemed littered with snake charmers. After the first day, I managed to listen out for the chants of their flutes and made sure to avoid them as much as possible by going the opposite way of their melodies.
As much as I hate snakes though, what I despise even more is the mistreatment of animals for the sake of human entertainment.
The conditions in which those snakes, horses and monkeys are kept and treated just for the sake of making quick cash out of tourist is one of the traits I find most disgusting about human beings. I'll reserve my disgust for a separate post on the treatment of animals for touristic purposes.
Beyond Jmaa el Fnaa, lies the Medina and it's labyrinth of souks, where I have enjoyed getting lost. They may seem vast and impossible to navigate at first, but after a couple of tours around I found that I was able to orientate myself for the most part without a map. The souks also tend to be arranged by trade, so you'll have the tanner's souk, the jewellers souk, the textile souks, the spice souks and so on. There are also hammams, restaurants and many sights spread out all over them.
Also Google Maps works great in the souks, so you can always download an offline map of Marrakesh on your phone before your trip.
My advice for anyone visiting for the first time would be not to buy anything on your initial venture into the souks. Walk around, get lost, take pictures and use google maps to pin the places you find interesting items you'd want to come back for. This is not an easy thing to do especially if you're a shopaholic like me.
One of the most characteristic types of building in the Medina is the 'fondouk' or 'caravanserai'. Originally inns used by visiting merchants when they were in Marrakesh to trade in the its souks, fondouks have a courtyard in the middle surrounded by what were originally stables, while the upper level contained rooms for the merchants.
2. Le Jardin Majorelle
This oasis in the middle of the Ville Nouvelle is a creation of French painter Jacques Majorelle created in the 1920 and 30's. It was subsequently owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and donated upon his death to the city of Marrakesh. His ashes are also scattered there FYI. The gardens are part of the estate and the characteristic blue hue is named 'Bleu Majorelle' after this unique place. Despite the crowds, the place retains a certain tranquillity and peace, maybe everyone is paying respect to the resting place of the fashion genius that was YSL.
The striking cobalt blue painted walls form a perfect background for the dense collection of exotic trees and flowers growing all around the garden. The amateur herbologist can spot various species of cacti and palm trees. There are tranquil lily-covered pools and verdant groves of bamboo to get 'not quiet lost in' but close enough.
3. Bahia Palace & The Saadian Tombs
Bahia Palace was by far my favourite sight in all of Marrakesh. The palace is comprised of a set of courts, or Riads as they are called in Morocco one more spectacular than the previous. You enter the palace through an arcade courtyard that leads to the small Riad which is an enclosed garden with stupendous tiling all around. Entering this space feels like stepping through a Narnia like door where you leave the chaos of Marrakech behind and join a realm of pure beauty, symmetry and mastery of the arts of tiling. I overheard, while visiting the Taj Mahal actually, that according to the Muslim faith only Allah (God) is capable of perfection and that tiling artists would purposefully misplace one tile in their work so as not to equal themselves to the Almighty. I found this fascinating and I spent quite a lot of my time trying to find a flaw in the tiling of the Bahia palace which despite all my efforts I didn't find. But I'm not mad about it at all.
After the small Riad, you cross through a large vestibule and head towards the great courtyard. It's definitely worth pausing in the vestibule and the rooms around the Riad to admire their painted cedarwood ceilings.
South of the great courtyard is the large Riad which was the heart of the palace. Personally, I much preferred the quaintness of the small Riad as well as the painted ceilings of the vestibules to the entirety of the large Riad.
About 10-15min walk from the Bahia Palace are the Saadians Tombs. The tombs are accessible through a small passage in the Kasbah Mosque. The whole complex was originally built for a Saadian Sultan and his family but a few decades later it was walled by another Sultan from the rivalling Alawite dynasty to keep his predecessor out of sight and out of mind. The tombs weren't rediscovered until 1917 when they were found on aerial photos of the city.
The whole site is very well preserved and you can see some of the best muqarnas (decorative plasterwork) in Morocco apparently. You have to queue to see the masterpiece of the tombs through a very narrow viewing hole. It's called the Chamber of the 12 pillars and gosh it is worth the wait.
It's a glorious, and glorious is truly the appropriate word here, mausoleum for the Sultan himself, who spared no expense to import the best marble, gold and other precious materials the world had to offer at that time.
Msemen is a rich pancake-like bread that we were served at breakfast in our hotel which I Loooovvveeddddd!!!! 🤤
According to Google, it's made with a mix of flour, durum wheat semolina, dry yeast, melted butter, salt sugar and a bit of water. I loved it so much, I would ask for 5 or 6 of them every morning at the breakfast buffet, but by the third day the lady making them refused to give me more than 3. I had no choice but to enlist Bae in my scheme to get more than the portion I was arbitrarily allowed.
While exploring Marrakech, I had to venture far outside of the tourist areas of the medina into the grittier part of town to find street food merchants selling these to the locals. This is the face of someone saying F*CK U to depression and tearing into a warm buttery and fluffy msemen.
There are of course many more interesting things to see around Marrakech. We didn't get to see all the places we wanted to visit as some were closed for a reason or another during our stay. Marrakech is also a hot destination at the moment so there a plethora of blog entries out there giving you intricate details on all that is worth checking out. I'm going to leave you with the following tips that I have picked out while there:
°Haggle, haggle, haggle and then haggle some more
°If you decide to take Taxi's in Marrakech, keep in mind that there are two types, the Grand Taxi and the Petit Taxi. The Grand Taxis are licensed to travel around all Morocco, but the Petit Taxis are confined to stay inside the city limits of Marrakech. We learned this the hard way when we hailed a taxi to take us back to our hotel, which was outside of Marrakech's city limits and were stopped at a police checkpoint. We had to wait for a Grand Taxi to pass by and take us to our final destination. You'd think the driver would have told us he wasn't licensed to go all the way to our destination, but alas.
°When walking through the souks don't listen to random directions that are being given to you. It happened to us so many times that while walking a random group of youngster would shout at us saying the direction we're going in is closed and to follow them through a "shortcut". Don't listen to them. I had Google maps and it was quite useful in the souks and I followed that instead, and even if you feel you're getting lost, better ignore those guys and ask one of the older chop merchants that are minding their own business.
This collection of posts by Andrew & Emily from Along Dusty Roads were very useful reading for me and really helped me navigate around my first time there. Definitely give them a read if you are planning a Moroccan trip soon.
That's it for my favourite spots in Marrakech. I'll be sharing all about my day trip to the Middle Atlas and Ouarzazate (The Hollywood of Africa) in my Instagram stories soon, so make sure to follow me on the gram as well.