Bon Weekend in Marrakech
When looking for a mini break on the back of a cold, wet winter, I long for sun, culture, and somewhere a little exotic. Marrakech had always seemed so alluring, therefore it was pretty high up on my list of destinations to go to. When dreaming of Morocco I could practically feel the sun's glow radiating onto my pale skin. I envisioned walking down the tiny alleys, scarf placed elegantly around my head, and an abundance of noise, smells, and colours around every corner. And man, did I want to transport myself there! So my girlfriends and I booked our long weekend away, packed our bags, and off we went.
As soon as we arrived in the Medina, which is the old walled city centre, I felt a vibrancy within. There was so much energy all around us, it was intoxicating, overwhelming, yet exhilarating. What I quickly came to realize and love about Marrakech was the juxtaposition between this 'assault on the senses' that completely captures you when wandering about, to the serenity and peace you find when stepping into your Riad (traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard- i.e. our hotel). It is like you have been transported to an entirely new location and the calm you feel will quite simply, take your breath away.
Tayah's Tip, choose a Riad and make sure it is where all the life is: the Medina. Hip Marrakech is a helpful site for choosing a chic place to stay. It was hard for us to choose just one as all looked lush, but we ultimately went with Riad Hikaya. Hikaya means "story" in Arabic and I will be telling stories about how unbelievably breathtaking this place was, for a long time. When the taxi driver said we had arrived, all I saw was a brown door with a tiny plaque, if walking down the street one would not even have noticed it. But as soon as the door opened, we entered an oasis in the centre of the hustle and bustle. I could hear the trickle of a water fountain and there were intricate carvings on every piece of furniture, every wall, and every item. I was blown away by the sheer beauty, the attention to details on every surface, and the sudden stillness I felt inside. Roof top terrace, courtyard pool, luxury room, lovely, attentive staff, and mint tea on tap, what more could you want? Raid Hikaya was pretty special, but from talking to others who have stayed in Raids, the feelings that these spaces create are universal, however unique to Morocco.
The Restaurant: Comptoir. We knew we wanted one really great night on the town and this place popped up on both the top restaurants and top places to go out lists, plus it promised belly dancers, so we were there! The ambiance was set as soon as we entered the lantern lite hallway. Now don’t let the 10 female hosts put you off, I am not sure what jobs they all were doing but hey ho, just get one's attention! You must book this restaurant beforehand as it is very popular and making a reservation is the safest option. But it you do need to wait for your table, they have a couple of bars stocked with exotic cocktails, and outside seating with Shisha (Hooka, as the Americans call it). An undertone of Moroccan music and the bouncing light shapes from the lanterns add to the chic surroundings. A selection of savory pastries followed by traditional Tagines all while being entertained by women dancing with candle filled chandeliers on their heads, adds to a exciting and sensory filled evening. Towards the end of our meal, the music changed to familiar, upbeat anthems, so we headed upstairs to join in. The space had completed transformed: packed and smokey, we danced the night away with whimsically weird creatures such as rabbits and giant hearts on stilts. From the traditional food and Moroccan culture to the crazy night of dancing, Comptoir will give you a night you wont forget. (comptoirmarrakech.com/en)
The Dish: You must eat Tagines while in Morocco, fact. Whether you fancy lamb, chicken, veggies, or fish, its the flavor combinations that make this dish the Moroccan classic, such as lamb and dates or chicken and preserved lemons. Also Moroccans tend to have a selection of veggie salads almost as an appetizer before meals. This became my go to lunch dish as well, as the the mixture of all these individual salads is just so yummy, just try and guess what you are eating before you find out what vegetable it is!
Jemma El Fna, the main square is the heartbeat of the city and it is truly teaming with life. This is where everyone, tourist and local alike go to hang out! And you must experience the square by day and night as it reinvents itself when the sun goes down. By night, it turns into one big restaurant, as connecting stands are built transforming the space. Each separate restaurant will try and get you sitting down in their section by throwing menus in your face. My advice, sit where it feels right, as we decided most of the food on offer was similar: huge barbecues cooking fish and meats with a selection of delicious Moroccan salads to start. We got serenaded to our bench and the sing-a-long we joined was fun! Nighttime in Jemma El Fna is a great place to get a little bit of local performing arts as storytellers and musicians attract crowds of locals with a scattering of tourists. And the constant undertone of drumming makes you realize your are in a far away land and the real escape you were looking for. If you would prefer not to be right in the 'thick of it', roof top restaurants and cafés circle the square, so you can still look down on the action. (Note: no alcohol or Shisha will be served in the square, but you'll find your Riad and many restaurants will).
By day, it's snake charmers and monkey owners attempting to 'style you' with their animals. Be firm with your decline, and they'll stop bothering you, unless of course, you want those photo ops, then be my guest. Enter into the spirit of the place adapted for your entertainment, and start capturing the memories! And don't forget, your entertainment is not for free! You will be expected to make a donation. There will be fruit juice and nut stands galore, and I recommend getting something to nibble and sip as the square is also the main gateway into the Souks and you are going to need some subsistence for all the shopping! The Souks are basically little alleyways full of items to buy, and trust me, you can get sucked in there for hours. The Souks are so big that in the main part items are broken off into sections: lanterns, pillows, clothing, ointments, leather goods (you might come home smelling of cow as I did). From time to time do remember to look up, as there are some great examples of Marrakechian architecture: beautifully ornate archways and doors, are to be found at every glance. Be warned, there will be someone calling, enticing you to stop and see their wares. It is inevitable that you will attract attention, just embrace this, it is part of Marrakech's charm. And remember, you don’t have to buy that massive rug, it is your choice! Although we went to shop, and my god, did we do it until we dropped! Five girls on parade did attract attention and we got called an abundance of names including the Spice Girls on every corner! My personal favorite was 'skinny girls', they knew how to get me into their stall! The key to the Souks is to haggle, haggle, haggle. Split their initial offer in half, or once you have gained confidence, offer around 30%. Bargaining is daunting at first but once you complete your first successful transaction, you will become quite addicted to it! And hey, maybe you can get that amazing rug down to a great price, just don’t forget the size of your suitcase!
The Experience: now for some indulgence, relaxation, and some very energetic exfoliation- the Hammam, Morocco's answer to a spa, with the traditional room being a mix between a sauna and a steam room. It is a place to cleanse and revitalize the mind, body, and soul. As you walk into the darkened wet room (mostly naked), buckets of warm water are thrown over you, then you are lead to a marble sit (all the surfaces are hot stone) and you are washed, shampooed, oiled, and scrubbed with a sand paper like exfoliator!! I erupted into uncontrollable giggles when this occurred as I didn’t know if it felt good or painful but oh, did I feel wonderful afterwards. The Hammams are dotted throughout the city with most hotels having a private one. We opted for a Hammam Spa as we wanted to share our experience together. They are very accommodating and will create the package that the client wants, a full body massage followed our Hammam. The treatments are incredibly reasonable, our 2 hour treatment cost just under £30. Whether you are by yourself, with your partner, or friends, this is a traditionally Moroccan experience that will leave you feeling refreshed, revitalized, and oddly at peace.
The Culture and History: there are plenty of ruins and attractions to experience in and around the Medina. It is possible to visit the main sites over a long weekend, but if you are planning on doing as much shopping as us, I suggest reading about the different attractions beforehand, choosing the places that seem most appealing to you- prioritize and be realistic with your time. We chose El Badi Palace for history and boundless views, La Mamounia Hotel for cultural importance, stunning architecture and sheer grandeur, and the Majorelle Gardens for beauty and fashion, hello Yves Saint Laurent. Badi palace was built in the late 1500's and was once a magnificent palace which later was stripped of every valuable material, leaving just the skeleton of this once opulent space. It is now home to huge storks who build giant nests along the ancient walls. You'll also see orange trees still growing in the sunken gardens in the central courtyard. The space is vast and the terrace provides for some spectacular views. Walking into La Mamounia Hotel is like stepping back in time to when Sir Winston Churchill and Audrey Hepburn walked the halls of this beautifully designed hotel. Built in the 1920's the architecture is the perfect combination of the French Art Deco style and Moorish opulence. My mum taught me a long time ago that you can go into any hotel, you just have to 'walk the walk' and look like you are suppose to be there, and voilà, no one will dare question you. Have a walk in the serene gardens or a drink on the elegant patio and dream of the age of decadence. The enchanting Majorelle Garden is full of exotic plants from all over the world with splashes of primary colours all precisely painted to make the whole space one masterpiece of colour. It is only fitting that it was designed by the French painter Jacques Majorelle and then later lovingly restored by the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. The trickling water sounds and birds tweeting adds to this tranquil setting.
The Mode of Transport: horse and carriage. If you were to tell me before my trip that this was something I would be doing, I probably would have laughed. Not because the idea of being taken about in a colourful carriage by a driver and his horses doesn't sound appealing, but way to make a tourist stand out even more than the sore thumb she already is! But oh, how fun! Recommended by the owner of our Riad, we said some attractions we wanted to go to, and our driver came up with the route and gave us some informative facts along the way. Not only did he talk to his friend, the ticket guy at the Majorelle Gardens so we didn't have to wait in the line, but he then waited for us to explore before moving onto our next destination of choice. It was incredibly reasonable and we saw a different perspective of Marrakech that we wouldn't have experienced had we just taken a taxi.
The Sound: call to prayer. I have been lucky enough to hear this sound before, but each time it stirs something within my soul. To me the calling is enthralling and almost magical. Perhaps it is the fact that this sound is so important to so many people on this planet. I implore you to be still and just listen at least once while the sound occurs (the calling occurs 5 times a day, so you have plenty of opportunities). Unless you are Muslim, you cannot go into any of the Mosques but the minarets are the tallest towers in the skyline and are truly beautiful, so look up. You can walk around the outside of the Koutoubia Mosque which is the main landmark and point of reference in Marrakech, and no doubt your eyes will search for this beacon when the call to prayer occurs.
The idea of going somewhere new is always an exciting endeavor. And the anticipation of a trip to a new country or city can help one get through the most stressful of days. Marrakech was everything I envisioned it to be. And what's more, I know as I left that it was not goodbye forever. This will definitely be a place to revisit over and over again. Now isn't that an exciting thought?