There is no “easing in” to this city. Upon arrival, your senses are overwhelmed by the colors, the smells of food stalls, the sounds of motorbikes, and the heat. Dan and I arrived close to midnight and were guided down winding, unnamed streets to our riad. We had to hunker through a low tunnel to reach the main door and once it closed behind us, the chaos outside dissipated.
The hotel staff had kindly prepared a late meal for us which we got to enjoy on the edge of the courtyard pool. Chicken tajine and couscous was the best way to end a long day of travel (read about our layovers in London). We went to bed soon after, excited to see Marrakech in the light.
In the morning, we had breakfast by the same pool and had a traditional spread of msemen (similar to a fried pancake) with jam, coffee, and orange juice. There weren’t a lot of other guests, so it felt like our own private villa.
While still in the riad, we discussed where to explore that day. We had loose ideas and mostly just wanted to wander. This was a rookie mistake. We had been walking towards what we thought was the direction of the big square (Jemaa el-Fnaa square, the big one that everyone visits) when we took out the map to check our location.
A few seconds later, a guy approaches and asks if he can help us find the square. We said ok and off we went, not entirely sure if this was the smartest plan, but intrigued enough in case it turned out to be awesome!
He explained he was a Berber trader down from the mountains and would take us to a different square where there was a festival of colors (?) At least I think that’s what I heard, it was a whirlwind. Along the way to the promised destination, we made some pretty incredible stops. He marched us through a sliver of a doorway where a woman and boy were baking bread in a stone oven. The heat was incredible in such a small space. He reached over to a rack where other breads were cooling and ripped us off a piece. We were chewing on that when we passed an open window and heard music and women singing. He explained that it was part of a wedding celebration and as it was only women and children inside, I was allowed to enter while Dan waited outside with our “guide”. I thought I could just peer into the room, but I was practically pulled inside and plopped down next to some older ladies. They were all singing and dancing and had me join in. Then, they brought in this huge pan of something oatmeal-like. On top, they drizzled honey and cut slabs of butter. I was handed a spoon and instructed to dig in. After what I thought was a polite enough time, I motioned to get up. It was a little awkward leaving because I thought I heard the word “l’argent” which is “money” in French and suddenly I panicked that this was a pay-to-play kind of thing. Back on the street, the guide, who was now unofficially our fearless leader on this definitely off-the-books tour, explained we could give something to the women at the end. Dan and I agreed that we would see this adventure through a little longer. Another rookie mistake.
The next stop was one of the famous tanneries. Here, animal hides are soaked in basins of pigeon poop to be made into leather. We walked through with sprigs of mint at our noses. The visit ended with a stop into a leather goods store. There was a fee paid out to the tannery guide, which I can’t stress enough to discuss beforehand. We were a little shocked at the price, but we had already ended the visit and didn’t want to start trouble.
At this point, we were worried about money. Already, we were down more than expected and knew we still had to give our guide something at the end. He took us to one more place, a spice store, where the clerks wear white lab coats to look legit and it was here we decided we had to part ways or end up broke. We thanked the guide for his services and haggled our way from a huge fee to just an ok one. It was fair, but we had just blown through almost a full day’s budget and it wasn’t quite 1pm.
Ok hold up. We had to have a team meeting at this point. That was Marrakech 101, the crash course. As friendly of a tourist city as Marrakech is, the hustle game here is strong. You’re not in any danger, but your wallet is. Looking back, we definitely shouldn’t have whipped out a map. We definitely should have discussed prices. We were naive and it showed. On the flip side, we never would have seen the cave bakery or the wedding women without that guy. So, we went back to the riad, pulled up Google Maps on my phone so it would cache when we left, and put on our game faces.
With our newly discovered knowledge, we breezed through a little easier. We knew now to say, “no thanks” to young guys offering to help or pointing in opposite directions.
Walking through the souks was incredible. It’s like the part in The Hobbit when they travel through Mirkwood. It’s a canopied collection of stalls and tents with every kind of trinket and food item. It’s dark, cool, and mysteriously damp.
You pop out of the souks into one of the main attractions, the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. This is where even more of the action is! Snake charmers, henna artists, fortune tellers, orange juice stands, and countless rooftop cafes lining the edges.
This trip was all about finding the spots of temporary reprieve amongst the chaos. A great place to do that was on the rooftop terrace of Le Grand Balcon. Here, we ordered some mint tea (a must!) and couscous.
After lunch, we crossed the square to the Koutoubia Mosque. Of the many in Marrakech, it’s the largest. Five times a day, the call to prayer is announced over the speakers from the top of the minaret.
Dinner that night was at a restaurant around the corner from the riad. The menu was a little expensive, but it was one of the only places that served alcohol in the medina. The ironic thing about Marrakech is that because of the religious rules, alcohol is almost non-existent, but a strong drink would really help take the edge off of the hectic days.
Eating at Dar Zellij was wonderful. First, were were lead to the rooftop tent for aperitifs. It was intimate and had speakeasy vibes. After drinks, we went downstairs for dinner, where we chose from an array of traditional Moroccan dishes. One of my favorite parts had to have been dessert – crispy pastilla with a scoop of ice cream. The night was capped off with a belly dance performance and we walked home in a wine-drowsy haze.
The next day, we visited the Saadian Tombs (€1) and before walking in, I expected something somber and subterranean. To my surprise, they were colorful, almost cheery, and exposed to the sun. Sultan Ahmed al-Mansour lies here as well as almost 170 chancellors, princes, and wives.
A ten minute walk away from the tombs found us on the doorstep of Palais Bahia (€1). The name translates to “brilliant” and every ornate detail was.
After sightseeing, we walked through the souks again to find a restaurant I had heard about. The rumor was the restaurant courtyard was home to little roaming tortoises.
Lo and behold, we found it. And the rumor was true! Our tortoise was shy though.
Le Jardin was like a secret garden – tucked away from all the bustle of the souks. And bonus: they served alcohol.
After lunch, I really wanted to try to visit Jardin Majorelle, the garden maintained by Yves Saint Laurent. It’s known for its cobalt blue and yellow structures within the garden. However, its outside of the medina. So, we walked and walked in the hot sun and then realized we didn’t have enough money to enter (€17 a pop!). It was now that we held another team meeting because spirits were running low. Dan came up with the great idea to call a cab and take it to the nearest Carrefour. We did exactly that and left with a big bottle of gin and sandwich supplies. We realized we weren’t taking proper advantage of the amazing riad we had, that (hello!) had a rooftop terrace of its own.
This was a game changer.
We ate, drank, and watched the sun set all from our own roof. Now that we were feeling right again, we decided to check out the square at night. Dan even got a hair cut on the way there!
The square is even crazier at night time! The food stalls come alive and every host you walk past is trying to persuade you to try their specialty. We saw monkeys on leashes, street performers, and the most amount of people yet.
That was our last night and the end to a truly once in a lifetime experience. As crazy as it was, I would do it again. With more street smarts 😉