The Halloween episode on The Simpsons, where Homer buys the shitty wish granting monkey hand, is how I first learnt about Marrakech, and watching Almost Famous is how I learnt that Morocco is a country in North Africa (with some confirmation from my older sister) – as you can tell, watching the moving image ironically gets me off of my arse, but these images directed me to a city where I proved to myself that I could be a more independent backpacker.
I’ve spent four full 2016 days in Marrakech, but I speak confidently when I say that I got so much out of them. I arrived via the overnight train from Tangier because my preconceived idea was that, if I’d flown in, I’d get a dose of culture shock that would set my anxiety off. Unfortunately Tangier made that a reality, so, upon my arrival at Marrakech Railway Station, I found my ideas to be completely wrong. Yay!
I was passing (I was picked up) gardens and theatres and horse drawn carriages and I wasn’t once getting a dose of the anxieties, and this was very similar with the traffic leading to the airport, so I’m definitely considering a flight to the city when I return. To me, Marrakech is singular and for the time being, the most interesting city I’ve visited.
Now I’d originally intended to stay very close to the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa, but my first hostel manager proved himself to be a dick. So, upon my return from the Sahara (I did the Sahara – they’ll be a post) I set myself up at the Dream Kasbah hostel off of Rue de La Kasbah. I feel that if you have the right kind of accommodation, where you’re comfortable and at ease, the rest of the world becomes so much easier to reach – I just didn’t have that with the first hostel.
This neighbourhood is a little further from the square but it is so much nicer, quiet and something to look at – one of its most distinguishing features is the Mosquée Moulay El Yazid. I found no great fault with the hostel or the area, except for a guy who wouldn’t work the horn on his motorbike and some teenagers who insisted I pay them for a handshake – yes, they will go far.
Back to this oh so interesting city, where secluded back alleys and hanging flowers by taxi ranks prove most picturesque, you will find a blend of artists, randoms willing to help out (one guy offered me a stool to sit on whilst my companions haggled for a handbag – all true) and all the rest, most of which will kindly inform you that the royal palace is closed, even if you’re not looking for it.
Despite the few who will want to take advantage of you (more mellow here than in Tangier, I swear it), there are genuine people out there in the world, so it’s important not to lose faith in that fact.
On the ‘what to do’ side of things, there are a couple of staples I’d happily recommend. Again, some things are best done with a friend but if you’re travelling solo, like I did, buddy up with whomever you’ve had breakfast with. Speaking as an anxiety ridden introvert now, Marrakech, as well as Tangier, did wonders for my ability to socialise with other travellers.
Firstly, hit the souks! Next to Jemaa el-Fnaa, this market is huge, mental and the guaranteed epicentre of getting lost (you haven’t visited a souk right if you haven’t gotten lost) so that’s where having a buddy proves beneficial – things should be a little less Blair Witch also.
You will find just about anything you could need, from handmade woodworks, leather products, spices and even socks. Now, haggling is a big part of the souks and low and behold, I’m a terrible haggler (this is where befriending a Finnish-Swedish type artist pays off) but I learnt enough to get a wooden cobra for ten dirham cheaper on my last day – hashtag winning.
Additionally, if you wish to find your way back to the square, simply ask to be pointed towards Koutubia Mosque (having a fixed point to go back to can be a blessing) – my suggestion is to ask a security guard or a vegetable seller because I found little chance of them wanting to rip me off. Also, when it comes to communication I was doing just fine with English, as well as my limited French, Darija, Berber and my very polite hand gestures.
On the topic of local sites, I found myself drawn to two of them – one intentionally and the other completely by accident… but some accidents can be a happy thing.
The first is the Jardine Menara, an olive grove with its own man-made pond where you might find a turtle looking back at you. This was a picturesque morning experience and I’m glad to have found it – the walk from Kasbah was a big ask (crossing a Marrakech street can amount to being a blood sport – THERE, IT’S SAID!) but the locals I crossed were happy to help (thank you limited French).
Menara, also describe as a garden, was quite peaceful and inviting – the only downside is that you might get pestered by a random to buy a t-shirt.
Palais Bahia is the second stop worthy of mention – whilst I may not have seen the royal palace, I’m happy to have had a stroll through Bahia. It wasn’t too far from my first hostel (which will remain hated) and like I mentioned earlier I found it completely by accident (I was supposed to be on a day trip but I missed the bus because I wasn’t given specific details).
Palais Bahia was a visual experience – there was art on display but I was more drawn to the architecture, especially the outdoor areas, where I was taking in the colours (it should be noted that I don’t really travel for architecture so this place certainly left an impression). It won’t cost much to enter either.
Now before Morocco I wasn’t the biggest foodie – I was one of those who didn’t like eating alone in a restaurant – but after Marrakech I feel more comfortable taking a seat and looking over a menu because food kinda does keep us alive, right?
Whilst I had my share of tagines, I have to mention the plate of schwarma, ordered on Rue Bab Agnaou, that I downed on my final day. THIS WAS A FEAST! That’s right, I ate like an Avenger and my inner fan boy couldn’t be more proud.
When it comes to drinking Marrakech is good for alcohol… but I don’t give a shit about that – I’m not a big drinker… of booze, but I love orange juice.
After mint tea, which I’m happy I converted to (I absolutely hated mint before I hit up North Africa), I’m fairly certain that orange juice is Morocco’s second national beverage of choice. However, whilst the taste is beautiful, it’s the juice vendors in Jemaa el-Fnaa who deserve a special mention. Whilst competing for business, they were lively, funny, inviting and happy to have a conversation.
Still on the topic of consuming nice things, if you have a sweet tooth, go. to. Marrakech! I tried a few sweet things and one I’ll highlight is the m’hanncha I brought from the Patisserie des Princes on Rue Bab Agnaou.
For those unaware, m’hanncha is a pastry wrapped log filled with a mix of citrus, pistachios and rosewater – I’ve made my own but it was very different (and I’ll say inferior) to what I tasted on Bab Agnaou. Another element I found interesting about the Patisserie des Princes is that they kept live bees in the display cases. I don’t understand why but a woman sucking said bees up with a vacuum cleaner can become a lasting image in one’s memory.
And lastly, and this is a favourite for many, I suggest you sit back and take up a spot of people watching. This is a good addition to when you’re sitting at a café, eating nice things, and the rest of the world just proves way too interesting to ignore.
And that’s what can happen if you give the big tour the flick and go your own way. I feel far more capable of taking my own steps now, and without someone keeping an eye on me, and that can be the ultimate reward when you go travelling. Anyway, these are the things that will come to mind when I think about Marrakech.