I have mixed feelings about Marrakech. On the one hand, it treats you to magical moments like watching the sun set over Jemaa El-Fna square from a cafe’s terrace. On the other hand, the effort you have to make to detect and avoid scams and animal cruelty as a tourist attraction wears you out. In the middle, the contrast between the beautiful constructions and the horrible mopeds passing people in the narrow streets of the medina.
Marrakech is known for the colourful tiles, the merchandise on display in the souks and its pink walls, the birdsong you hear from the terraces, the daily calls to prayer and the constant beeping from the mopeds.
Did I like Marrakech? Yes and no. We may have stayed too long, enough for the negative aspects to overshadow the positive things about this ancient and contradictory city.
Marrakech: what you need to know before you go
Accommodation: Riad Atlas Acacia
For a completely unique experience, we decided to stay in a riad inside the medina instead of a Western-style hotel. What is a riad? It’s a typical Moroccan house or even palace with the rooms laid out around a central patio with a water fountain.
There is a riad for every budget, from affordable to luxurious. We chose to stay at Riad Atlas Acacia for its location and price. We communicated in English, although Mr. Aziz also speaks Arabic and French, like most locals. They sent us lots of information about tours and the riad and answered all our questions about Marrakech.
Bring euros, as US dollars are not commonly used. Also make sure you have a stash of dirhams, the local currency, for it is a cash-based society -at least inside the medina.
We decided to eat in the first night because we were tired. We also arranged for the riad to send a taxi to pick us up from the airport to save us the trouble of trying to guess how to get there. The taxi drove us to a small square right outside the gate to the medina. Aziz was waiting for us there to guide us to the riad. A porter brought our luggage in a hand-drawn cat (2 euro tip).
Our room was spacious, with a shower room and a separate toilet, and a sitting room with a TV. Rose petals strewn on the bed welcomed us. It was a nice gesture. Service was great, they were very helpful and attentive.
Dinner at the riad is optional and is charged separately. Breakfast was included in the price, though. Tea or coffee, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, cake squares and different kinds of Moroccan bread with honey, butter and jam was the basic breakfast. They added something extra every day, like yogurt, or an egg. Some of the traditional baked goods included harcha (a semolina flat roll served warm), a square and rather crunchy crepe called msamene (watch how it’s made) and beghrir, a type of pancake with “eyes” (recipe here).
Remember to bring euro plugs (the ones with two round pins), although adapters are easy to find.
The medina (an Arabic word for town) is typical of North Africa and Malta. It’s a walled citadel with labyrinthine streets inside. Marrakech is said to have been founded in 1062.
Let’s face it, you are going to get lost at some point. Beware of those who offer to help. They take you to wherever you need to go, or to their uncle’s shop. Halfway, they’ll tell you that their friend will guide you the rest of the way. They will demand money for their “help”. They are very insistent, annoyingly so. Others will tell you that the street is blocked. It may or may not be true, it’s impossible to know. We had both situations happen to us. If you must ask for directions, go into a shop or ask an elderly person.
The medina is divided into souks, or markets, each one with a distinct purpose: spices, leather goods, poultry (that was a fun one to visit). My husband wandered into the tanneries and, as soon as he whipped out his phone to take a picture, a random guy demanded money for the privilege. He even followed my husband when he told the guy to go away. The medina truly is a photographer’s dream, although beware of taking photos of people.
Its streets, or rather, passageways, form an organised chaos. Or do they? Wares for sale cascade onto the floor, tourists amble along, locals go about their business, donkey carts (the only means of transport together with mopeds) and hundreds of mopeds dodge people without slowing down. In the beginning, I was scared of them, but as time went on, these mopeds annoyed me no end. The fumes are as annoying as the noise.
I wouldn’t wear flipflops in the summer, the streets were filthy in some areas.
The sellers are very persistent. As soon as you show the slightest degree of interest in, say, a pashmina or point at a pair of slippers, they will zoom in on you and pester you. It’s customary to haggle. They say that the ideal price is somewhere between what they ask for and what you are prepared to pay. I don’t like haggling, so I didn’t buy anything in the medina.
We found a great place to shop called Ensemble Artisanal, on Mohammed V Avenue and across the Cyber Park.
The Ensemble Artisanal is an open-air shopping mall where artisans can sell their products and, in some cases, make them in situ. The place where we bought a couple of blankets had a working loom and a spinning wheel. It was interesting to see the whole process.
The quality of the merchandise is higher than in the medina and the best thing is that it’s fixed prices for everything. No haggling! When you walk into a shop, they say bonjour and that’s it. The let you browse for as long as you want.
What to buy in Marrakech
Beautiful pottery bowls and plates.
Leather slippers, but consider whether you’ll wear them at home.
Berber jewellery with semiprecious stones.
Pashminas, wool blankets, rugs.
Argan oil does wonders to your skin and hair. Beware of the argan oil sold in the medina, as it can be an inferior grade or mixed with neutral oils. Buy it from a reputable seller (ask at your riad). I bought mine from a women’s cooperative. They showed us the artisanal process from beginning to end, it was very interesting. It’s great on my skin. We also bought the edible oil. It’s nutty and delicious drizzled over vegetables.