Marrakech is buzzing. It’s a heaving, bustling, disorderly metropolis and the minute you arrive here, you feel like you’ve lost all sense of direction. It’s every man for himself, survival of the fittest, and… well frankly, the not so fit too. Here, you really do get all sorts.
It’s a mind-boggling labyrinth and as you wind your way through the old Medina, you’ll encounter a myriad of distractions – sights, smells and sounds along the way. This was my first taste of Morocco and instantly, I knew I wanted more.
It’s the gritty, chaotic personality that I found drew me to this city – that, and the fact that it was seemingly worlds apart from the London I had left behind a mere 3.5 hours earlier. Coming here felt like I’d properly got away. In fact, I couldn’t have felt further removed from the quiet, leafy streets of Putney suburbia.
The feeling of turning a corner and really not knowing what will greet you on the other side is both exciting and daunting all in one. It’s all the energy and all the unknown that creates a sense of addiction to the place for even the slightly adventurous traveller, leading me to warn that if you prefer to play it wholesome and safe, stay away from dirt and grime and avoid prying eyes and pushy salesmen, then this is likely not the spot for independent travel for you.
It’s not just linear logic that goes out the door in Marrakech, so too does your sense of time. Almost as though you’ve been thrust into the medieval streets of 13th Century Europe, a day in Marrakech could easily compete with a day in real-life Aladdin – with all the carpets, colours and winding souks your imagination could possibly conjure. On a micro-level, you really couldn’t tell if it’s 12pm or 7pm, the point is you stop counting the minutes and the hours, you just don’t care.
At the heart of it all is the bouncing Djemaa el-Fna, the central square where your encounters will include ogling men, insistent snake charmers, tagines and lamp shades a-plenty, freshly-squeezed orange juice and smelly, weathered, poorly donkeys towing carts. This is a central meeting point for many, the plaza that people transect to get from one point to the next, it is also the place where in April 2011, a café bombing killed 17 people, most of them tourists, reminding you that although it may all be novel, you’re dealing with the very real, and not just a place of fairy tales.
If you go to Marrakech, do take with you an inherent ability to say, ‘no’. And I mean right from the get-go. Not everyone’s out to get you but most are there to earn a dime. Despite having been to Morocco multiple times before, my ever-enthusiastic and all-too-friendly boyfriend learnt this lesson the hard way when he greeted a salesman in the square, only to have a snake thrust round his neck and was forced to pay for the experience of his nightmares. Or the time we asked for directions and were led 3kms astray before being demanded 100 dirhams of for the “directions”. I’m not normally one to encourage a lack of manners but please, don’t engage. Just say no. I promise you, it’s much easier.
Accommodation, among most things in Marrakech is affordable – another of the many great perks. So if you can, I recommend you stay in a riad, or traditional guesthouse. You get varying qualities of riads, from the more simple B&B types to the more palatial, luxury apartments but basically all are centred around a tranquil courtyard and similar to those in South Spain, the best of which have a focal point of flowing water – be this a pool or a fountain. Like a mini-oasis and a complete and welcome escape from the searing heat of the North African sun, who wouldn’t enjoy it?
Going out I hear can be expensive in Marrakech. Because Morocco is an Arabic country, alcohol is generally not consumed and although you can buy it, you’ll certainly have to pay for it. Mont Gueliz is the district where apparently it’s all happening. However, after spending our first night in a basic hotel in this area and realising how far away it was from the humdrum and excitement of the Medina, we left it behind and didn’t return.
My final recommendation before I sign off is to ensure you take a trip to the hammam. We were lucky enough to be accepted into a private hammam usually only open to guests of an elusive riad (this time, the advantage of my boyfriend’s sweet-talking ways) for two hours of pure bliss. You are scrubbed and washed from head to toe in a beautiful, marble, domed washroom before being whisked away for a full body massage in one of the most beautiful rooms I have ever seen. Quite possibly the most relaxing experience I’ve ever had. And like everything in Marrakech, it finished with a cup of sweet mint tea.