Morocco had been on our radar for years and this time we finally decided to take the plunge and booked a Norwegian flight to Marrakech. It was time to leave the grey skies of Finland behind and get ourselves a good dose of vitamin D. A ton of research went into this trip. Naturally we decided to stay in a riad in the heart of the Medina and we also knew we wanted to explore a bit outside the city. From there we planned a wonderful 5 days in the city which we would love to tell you all about in this post. This is a personal narrative, but if you have any practical questions on the destination, feel free to contact us 🙂
We arrived in the late afternoon on a Saturday. The concrete runway was burning under the sweltering heat of the sun. And so were we as soon as we left the air conditioned confines of Marrakech airport. Fortunately our riad had arranged a pick up for which we were grateful. We were fatigued by the journey and didn’t want to waste time and energy negotiating with taxi drivers and maneuvering the small alleys of the Medina searching for the riad.
After we had settled in our room and enjoyed complimentary Moroccan mint tea, we decided to make good use of our first evening and grab a quick dinner at the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa square. This place is the veritable heart of Marrakech and it really comes into full swing in the evening and morphs into a spectrum of Moroccan life. Taking in all the sounds, scents and visuals was absolutely exhilarating. Chained monkeys in diapers doing backflips, kids selling tissues, shoe shine boys, snake charmers, goat heads, hawkers, raconteurs, henna artists, musicians, a bevy of orange juice stalls and dry fruit vendors were all among the mix there. Admittedly it wasn’t pleasing to witness the harsh treatment of animals and kids begging but we had done our research well and knew what to expect so we weren’t too unsettled.
A tase of local delicacies
Our final target was the bustling food stalls in the centre of the square. As you pass their stalls, the attendants will say literally anything to entice you. This is both vexing and entertaining at the same time. It’s just vital to keep your wits about you or you might end up getting swindled. There was a wide variety of stalls offering kebabs, meat, offal and seafood. We decided on one specialising in seafood.
We were briskly seated opposite some locals with our backs facing the cooks. As we had no idea what was on the menu we impulsively ordered the “fish mix” and got served almost immediately. Small dishes of fried fish, diced tomatoes and roasted aubergine flew over our heads onto our table. Along with it we received a Moroccan flatbread. We dipped away happily, although the locals seemed not to like the soft part of the bread as they discarded it unceremoniously. Our fingers covered in grease we finally asked for the bill. 45 Dhs each, not too bad. The food was nothing fancy but we were too ravenous to care and rubbing shoulders with some locals was a vital experience. We signalled the attendant to give us a sheet of paper dangling from the ceiling of the tent so we could wipe our hands. We paid and made space for the next set of hungry mouths.
Later we took some time to get a good view of the Koutoubia mosque. The minaret towers over Marrakech and makes a good orientation point. Unfortunately non Muslims aren’t allowed to enter the mosque. As we still had room in our stomachs, we decided to grab something sweet. On a hunch we decided to enter one of the many cafes surrounding the square and made our way to the upstairs terrace. These terraces probably offer the best vista of the square and one can easily pass the evening admiring the bedlam below.
Cafe Argana was the joint we chose. Once there we gulped down another cup of mint tea before sharing a gigantic cup of ice cream. Whereas both were delicious, what really made the night was watching the hustle and bustle from above. Only reluctantly we decided to leave and make our way back to the riad. Feeling satiated we rested our travel-heavy heads on the soft pillows of our bed.
Exploring the Medina
Our second day commenced with us having a hearty breakfast at our riad. Our mission that day was to wander around the souks and see the major sights withing the medina. All the sights that we wanted to see in Marrakech were within the confines of the Medina with the exception of the Majorelle Gardens and we decided to see them in one day. This was quite easy as all of them were within comfortable walking distance of each other.
We first explored several souks surrounding the Jemaa el-Fnaa and couldn’t help but be mesmerised by the seemingly endless narrow warren of alleyways which are flowing with a motley of aromas, colours and sounds. It was a bright sunny day and being in the souks sheltered us from the blazing heat. We constantly had to dodge the ubiquitous mopeds driven by the locals as they were driving with little regard for pedestrians. There are souks with every possible them from clothes, to food, handicrafts, leather goods, perfumes, spices, and so forth.
Haggling is a must while purchasing from any of these vendors as they try to sell you the goods for skyrocket prices. Knowing that Marrakech was renowned for its leather, we bought a purse and satchel bag from one of the leather stores. We got the seller to come down by 1/3rd of his price which wasn’t too shabby considering this was our first real experience in haggling.
Heading North in the Medina
We then made our way to Madrassa Ben Youssef which was the largest theological college in Morocco. The labyrinth of rooms are clustered around small internal courtyards. We were enchanted by the fine zellige tiling, stalactite ceilings and Kufic inscriptions which adorn much of the building interior. Just a stone’s throw away from the Madrassa is the Almoravid Koubba which is Marrakech’s oldest monument – dating from the 12th century. We just briefly saw it from a distance and noted that its interior dome ceiling covered in Almoravid motifs contradicts its simplistic exterior design.
The Photography Museum was next on our list. It’s located in a relatively peaceful part of the Medina. We both felt the museum was an interesting and pleasurable experience. The museum exhibits some rare photos presenting a great snapshot in time of old Marrakech. It’s a small museum and takes about 30-45 min to see.
By this time the heat had taken its toll on us and our throats were parched rendering us thirsty. It was a good time to drink orange juice at one of the stalls in Jemaa el-Fnaa. For just 40 Cents you get a big glass of freshly squeezed juice and it’s a true lifesaver!
The two palaces, El Badi palace and the Bahia palace were next on our itinerary. The El Badi palace was really massive and had vast grounds to stroll around but there was a dearth of guides and descriptions. The palace which was commissioned in the late 16th century is now mostly in ruins, however, it’s an impressive feat of architecture. Storks have now made the ramparts of the the palace their home which was a rather cool sight.
The Bahia palace on the other hand was bulit in the 19th century and is a wonderful example of Moorish architecture. It comprises of halls, rooms, sumptuous courtyards and tree-filled gardens and is in quite pristine condition. This was definitely one of our favourite places in Marrakech. The tranquility and the palatial beauty provided much needed relief after the bustling streets and marketplaces. The trees in the the courtyards are so heavy with oranges, you just want to pick them off the branches. The only downside for us was that there was no information in English but that didn’t really matter. We were only in the palace for a short while but could have easily spent more time there.
Upon exiting the Bahia palace we realised that the heat had left us enervated yet again and we needed to take a short break to galvanise ourselves. Two glasses of juice at a nearby cafe boosted our energy levels and we were off again to our final sight of the day, the Saadian tombs. The tombs are basically a 16th century burial ground and home to 66 members of the Saadian dynasty. The tomb complex is very small and unfortunately once again there is no information about what you are looking at. The intricate carvings and mosaics are lovely and are a testament to the artisans that designed them.
Having completed seeing all what we had set out to see for the day we felt that the time was appropriate to quench our hunger and head off to eat a camel burger! Cafe Clock came highly recommended to us by friends and didn’t disappoint. As the sun was setting over the horizon, we enjoyed our dinner. We had harira soup (lentil soup with a tomato base) and chebakia (a sweet pastry) for starters and date milkshakes fit for a king for desert which complimented well with the camel burger. We were so stuffed that we welcomed the long walk back to the riad.
Later that evening we stepped out for a brief stroll around the Jemaa el-Fnaa and picked up an assortment of local pastries on the way back. They were a bit pricy but well worth purchasing to sample.
Heading into the desert
The third day of our trip to Morocco we needed a break from the big city. We had booked a tour with Dunes & Desert well in advance and were dying to explore the Agafay desert on quad bikes. We spent the whole day on the trip, which you can read more about here. So make sure to click on for pictures of the snowcapped Atlas mountains and alien desert hills!
After we returned we took a well needed shower to wash off the dust and soothe our skin. Still rushing with adrenaline we decided to crown the day with a couple of cocktails. One of the few places which serves alcohol in the Medina is Cafe Arabe, which we had already passed on our second day. We found it easily and enjoyed cold drinks on their rooftop terrace. You can read our full review of the restaurant here. After the drinks we grabbed a quick snack before we retired to the riad looking forward to a fresh ocean breeze which would be expecting us the next day.
We had been eagerly awating our chance to see the coastal town of Essaouira after seeing it in Game of Thrones. It’s a 3 hour drive to the the west of Marrakech and we had booked a transfer through our riad. Along the way we also stopped at an Argan Oil production facility. If you want to read more about our adventures in Essaouira read on here.
Last Day in Marrakech
The Majorelle Gardens were our primary destination on our last full day in Marrakech. We had initially contemplated walking to the gardens as they are located just outside the medina in the northern part of the city. But as soon as we stepped outside it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to vanquish the heat. Instead we decided to take a taxi.
We knew a ride should not cost more than 25-30 Dhs , so when the taxi drivers suggested 50 or even 100 Dhs we walked away laughing. After a good 10 minutes of haggling and half-serious attempts to read the bus schedule,we finally negotiated our way down to 30 Dhs. Only a short ride through the new town of Gueliz later we reached the gardens.
The gardens were designed by French expatriate Jacques Majorelle in the late 1920’s and 30’s. They were purchased by Yves St. Laurent in 1980 and now serve as a memorial to him as his ashes were scattered there. We had to stand in a queue for about 15 minutes before we got in. The adult ticket was 70 Dhs which we felt was a little overpriced. The gardens aren’t very big and aren’t an authentic representation of Marrakech but more like a French interpretation of an Arabic garden. The bright cobalt blue colour of the visually attractive art deco villa isn’t typically found in the region, but very beautiful.
The gardens are full of bamboo, cactii, palms, ferns and other tropical plants from all over the world. We had a slow day ahead so we took our time relaxing in the gardens. We had hoped to see native species but were let down in that regard. Nonetheless the visit provided a welcome change from the dusty and noisy Medina. And the Majorelle Blue is just out of this world!
Afterwards we returned to our riad in order to escape the overbearing heat. A few pages in a crime novel and a power nap later, we decided to head out into the souks one more time in order to take a few photos. Left, right, up down, left again, back, and right.. we found streets and alleys we had never even noticed before. It left us thinking that one could probably spend an entire lifetime here and not get bored. We took photos of pickled lemons, fresh olives, leather bags, tin lanterns, heaps of spices, mountains of dry fruits, and so much more.
We decided to stroll around the Jemaa el-Fnaa one final time and seized the opportunity to challenge our tastebuds by feasting on some snail broth which is a street staple. It’s pretty cheap at 10 Dhs a bowl. The snails are cooked while still alive and the broth is highly desired due to its purported therapeutic properties. The smell wasn’t too strong and the texture was very chewy. We finished the snails along with the flavourful broth but we’re not going to be eating snails again. It’s one of those things you either love or hate.
Finally one of the sellers in the souks managed to lure us into his shop. He was only too keen to introduce every single product to us which he had on sale and we were only too keen to learn. In fact, if you want to know about some of the more unusual things which are on sale there, we suggest you come back for our upcoming posts!
In the end we donated all Dhs the vendor had left us with to the trusting cookie lady in exchange for another box of sweet treats. We ended our last day in the city with a traditional Moroccan dinner on the rooftop terrace of our riad. As we dug into our traditional tagine we laughed about all our adventures and mishaps on the trip. We then said our farewell to the community cat which had faithfully greeted us every morning of our stay. Heavy heartedly we settled our bill and packed our suitcases. The next morning we departed knowing that we’ll surely be back sometime.
Now, what do you think? Did you love or hate Marrakech? What was your favourite sight, your favourite dish? Share your thoughts and pictures with us! Let’s stay in touch!