Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Beginners' Guide to Marrakech ~ Guest Post

Jackie Lee is a freelance food writer and photographer, based in London. She writes and runs the blog I Am A Feeder, is an insatiable traveller and foodie (often travelling just to eat), and the granddaughter of Hong Kong's equivalent of Delia Smith. She would ideally like to be paid in white truffles.

I love to explore new places. As a child when asked at a school entrance interview what I wanted to do with my life, I responded without hesitation, "be a missionary so that I can see the world." Upon hearing this my mother wryly remarked that I should've just said I wanted to be an air hostess. Now that I'm "grown up" I no longer want to be a missionary (or air hostess either, for that matter) but my love for travel has not waned.

One continent I had never visited until recently was Africa but, to my utmost joy, my most recent trip took me to Marrakech for a mini 3-day holiday and yes, as our plane touched down in the dusty evening heat I did start humming Toto under my breath…

The trip was fantastic, if a little short, but there was plenty I was in the dark about that would've helped me out a lot before I went; so when the lovely folks at The View from Fez asked me to create a little guest post for them on the subject I of course said yes - I hope you find it just as useful!

Casa Lalla

1. ...stay in a riad near the medina.
Marrakech is small but getting around is not easy and, I'm sad to say, cabs do and will rip you off. Stay in the heart of the city and really experience Moroccan life! Don't be alarmed by drivers who drive around with their doors open, either - just make sure your seatbelt is on good and tight!

2. ...change your money initially in the medina but back again in the airport.
Because Moroccan dirhams are a closed currency, that means you can only change it within the country. Though you may be tempted to change your money at the airport immediately, you should only change enough for a taxi to your riad/hotel, then change the rest in the medina at one of the many bureau de change booths - you'll get a much better rate! Make sure to change it back again at the airport, though - if you go home with dirhams you're stuck with them!

3. ...barter, barter, barter, then barter some more.
Morocco is a very money-driven country and bartering is a part of life - they actually expect you to turn down their first price (unless they specifically say that they have fixed prices only). So do barter - barter with the taxi drivers and the vendors and if you still don't like the price, walk away - there are plenty more taxis and plenty more vendors who will give you a better one. If you'd rather avoid bartering but want to find the same souvenirs as in the souks, hit up the Centre Artisinal. You'll pay a little more than you would in the souks but the men who work here are extremely kind and friendly and, if you allow them to help you, they may give you a discount!

4. ...brush up on your French and be polite and friendly.
Though English is spoken by most people, if you speak a little French you will be amazed at how much more friendly and accommodating people are. At least brush up on your greetings - a 'salut' or 'bonjour' over 'hello' will be much better received (and if you're strolling through the souks looking for souvenirs, probably a better price!).

5. ...bring a compass.
This proved invaluable. It is so easy to get lost in the maze of the souks and, even if you allow lots of time to be lost, you may find yourself completely and hopelessly lost, not another tourist around you and being yelled at on all sides by souk vendors who don't speak a word of English. Bring a compass - you won't regret it.

1. ...bother haggling over 5 or 10DH.
By the end of our trip we were much better at bartering but had one bad experience where the vendor got very upset with us because we'd pushed it a little too far over a mere 5DH. The lesson here is that though it's fine to haggle over 100DH or more, around the 15 to 25 mark don't bother - if you think about it that's just under £2, nothing for us tourists with our flashy clothes and oodles of money, but for the locals that's enough for a whole meal.

2. ...wear stupid clothing.
Morocco is an Islamic country. Whilst that doesn't mean that you need to wear a djellaba or hijab, it does mean that if you want to attract as little attention as possible and avoid dirty looks from the locals, you should cover up. More than anything, it's a matter of respect - you wouldn't believe how many Westerners we saw wandering around Marrakech wearing tiny little shorts or low-cut tops and vests - even I felt a little offended for the locals.

For women I suggest bringing and wearing long, loose cotton skirts or trousers and loose, long-sleeved tops and shirts. If you don't have any appropriate tops, cover up with a loose cardigan. Long scarves and pashminas are so useful - I ended up wearing my scarf as cover up for my chest when my tops were a little low - not low enough to be falling out, mind, just enough to make me feel uncomfortable and worried about cat-calls or dirty looks.

Bring good, comfortable shoes for walking and leave the heels at home - you'll walk a lot and in the souks the ground can be uneven and cobbled. Just don't bother with the heels, your feet will thank me later.

Ladies: be prepared to be approached by men a lot. The Moroccan government apparently do not issue a lot of passports which has probably added to the fascination with Western women - marriage is a way to leave the country. I would definitely not travel by myself or with another girl in Morocco again but if you do find yourself being solicited unnecessarily or feel uncomfortable, a simple, "non merci," and smile will often suffice. Again, covering up properly will help you out a lot here!

3. ...take photos of people without asking.
There were signs all over the place declaring, 'no photos' and every time I raised my camera somebody would hold their hand up and shoot me a dirty look. I found one crudely scrawled cardboard sign in the medina which read, "to take photos of somebody without even asking is so very rude". This is a huge issue for the locals so please, ask before you snap!

4. ...worry about crossing the road.
When you get to Marrakech the first thing you'll notice is the insane traffic. There seem to be no rules as mopeds, motorbikes, cars and push bikes weave in and out, horns blaring and drivers yelling at each other in Arabic. How, you may wonder, does one cross the road in such disorder? The answer is, apparently, to just be confident and go - traffic will stop for you. It took a little getting used to, and for the first couple of days I would simply run, muttering, "please-don't-let-me-die-please-don't-let-me-die" under my breath, but actually drivers will stop, even if they do shoot you a bit of a weary look first.

5. ...waste your money on tourist trap eateries.
There is so much good food to be had in Marrakech but it's very easy to fall into that trap of finding the nearest tourist joint and just deciding that you're too tired to find anywhere else. Do a little research and plan where you want to eat - we only really planned one meal and stumbled upon the rest and I wish we'd spent a little more time seeking out the best of the best.

On that note I recommend:
Cafe Snack Rahba Kedima (no. 168), Kedima Square
This little cafe is set across three floors and boasts a rooftop terrace with a beautiful view of the Atlas Mountains and Kedima Square, right in the heart of the souks - perfect for a leisurely lunch. Their couscous aux sept legumes (7 vegetable couscous) was delicious and totally hit the spot for two hungry travellers!

La Table at Casa Lalla
This restaurant was recommended to me by a friend and it ended up being simply perfect. If I ever return to Marrakech I would definitely stay at this riad - it's a stunning, intimate location, tucked away down the back streets of the souks, right in the heart of the medina, and the food was fantastic. Run by a French previously Michelin starred chef who decided to pack it all in and move out to Marrakech, service is impeccable and friendly - our waiter even walked us back out to the main part of the souks, worried that we'd get lost and not know where we were going! We had our last meal of the trip here and it was the ideal end to our time in Marrakech. A bit of a hidden gem, you must book ahead.

La Place Jemaa el Fna
The main square in the medina, I wish we'd eaten here one night when it was buzzing and full of delicious sights and smells from the many food stalls. Snails are a great speciality and you'll see many vendors stirring huge vats of them - make sure you get a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice (2DH max) but avoid the monkeys and snake charmers who will make you pay to take photos (and if the monkeys jump onto your clothes you may catch fleas!).

I've heard that a day trip by camel into the Atlas Mountains is a great way to spend your time - unfortunately our trip was too short but the next time I find myself in North Africa it's on my list!

The final word really is that when visiting Marrakech, keep an open mind and open heart (with a touch of sensibility) and you'll have a great time. A very common phrase we heard several times a day was, "welcome to Morocco" or "10,000 welcomes to Marrakech" (and my favourite: "I wish you 10,000 camels" - still waiting on those camels…) which is so indicative of the culture; most Moroccans are open, welcoming and kind, treat them the same way and you can't go wrong.

Happy travels!

Story and photos: Jackie Lee
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1 comment:

elizabeth said...

I lived in the medina of Marrakesh for two years and your advice is spot on!
I still miss it terribly
and yes I know Casa Lalla very well.

We left in 2008 though often go back to visit.
My blog was called

I will come back to visit you!