Curious to see more of the world, I decided to book my first ever holiday outside of Europe, bringing my 16-year-old daughter along for the ride too. Fortunately she is better travelled than me – having already visited Swaziland last year with her school. After much research and reading of the Trip Advisor forums I opted for Morocco as my destination of choice. My friends told me I was ‘brave’, ‘mad’ and that I should cover up (head to toe). ‘Stay safe’ were their parting words! Clearly these are people who have not truly experienced Morocco.
[THE FLIGHT – ARRIVAL]
Our early morning journey to Morocco began with us having the pleasure (!) of being seated next to a gentleman on the plane who was afflicted with verbal diarrhoea! He deemed it appropriate to tell me his life story, and then continued the one-way conversation by delighting in talking me through mobile phone photos of his dog, Porsche engine, family and 12 beheaded men (as you do)! He also relentlessly tried to get me to join him in drinking his recent purchase of duty free whisky (an absolute bargain apparently)…why am I such a ‘nutter magnet’?! He explained how his last trip to Marrakech had involved 8 men, a villa, 32 litres of spirits and the nightclubs. This time he was bringing his wife back for a similar experience! Lucky lady (?!) Needless to say, his itinerary was clearly very different to ours!
From the minute we stepped off the plane, we were experiencing the sensory layer cake that is the hustle and bustle of daily life in Marrakech. The heat enveloped itself around us. Despite it being mid February, it was pleasantly warm – comparable to a good English summers day. All around the airport, Moroccans were busying themselves (in a way only Moroccans can…often this seems to involve not much, apart from sitting/standing around and chatting)! We could hear the distant throng of a busy city – mopeds, cars, horses hooves, braying donkeys and the general buzz of animated chatter.
On a practical note, when you first arrive at the airport you are required to complete an embarkation card before passing through the passport control, so it definitely pays to have a pen in your hand luggage. Like a good boy scout, my daughter and I were prepared for this. You will need your passport number and hotel/Riad details to complete the form, so make sure these are to hand too.
We made arrangements with the Riad to provide a hotel transfer at a cost of 15 Euros. This meant a smiling Moroccan gentleman, holding a sign with our Riad’s name on it, greeted us in the arrivals lounge. For a fleeting moment we felt important! He whisked our cases from us and guided us towards his taxi, exchanging conversation in broken English and we had our first opportunity to practice our scant French linguistic skills! We trekked across the car park through lines of tired looking beige colour Mercedes (I bet they have many a tale to tell) – but fortunately 15 Euros buys you a little more luxury and our journey would be in a clean, modern people carrier. This was our first taste of Moroccan travel and roads…and suffices to say – anything goes! There seems no limit to how many people you can cram on a moped, or any regulation regarding wearing helmets. Mum on the front wears a flimsy plastic one, small child clinging on behind – no need (hold tight and hope for the best)! Cars, cyclists, motorcyclists, donkeys and pedestrians all seem to have a knack of weaving around each other without causing a collision! With my inexperience and lack of confidence as a driver, I was definitely best placed in the passenger seat! After a hair raising and eye-opening, 10 minute journey we arrived at an arched gateway in the ‘orange-red clay and chalk walls of the ‘red city’ (medina). Here a young Moroccan ‘Ali’ who was our host at the Riad Inaka, met us and guided us down the cobbled streets to the tucked away building.
[ACCOMMODATION – RIAD]
Riad Inaka is nestled amongst several buildings within the narrow passageways and Derb (streets) of the Medina (old town). We’re glad our host, Ali, came to meet us from the taxi, as the black, fortified, door only sported a small, shiny, discreet, brass plaque with the Riad’s name. The red clay, non-descript and unassuming exterior of the building gave no clue as to what lay inside. Once through the door we entered into a traditionally decorated courtyard.
The floor was tiled with soft blue and red patterned tiles that extended up and around the base of a central fountain.
The space was furnished with a mixture of traditional and modern furniture and had many plants dotted in between. Above us was a sliding roof, which was half open, allowing the midday sunshine to warm the space.
We were invited by Ali to take a seat, where we were then presented with our first exposure to the infamous mint tea – A small decorated silver teapot and two mini patterned glasses, neatly seated on a silver tray. Being a newbie to this territory, I was not yet familiar with the etiquette to tea pouring and I clumsily went to pour the tea – as Ali arrived back with a selection of Moroccan pastries (cookies). He chuckled, and rescued me from my uncouth moment! It would seem there’s definitely a knack to this tea pouring business – none of this ‘instant cuppa’ we are accustomed to in the UK! The teapot is poured from high, and the first poured glass is returned to the pot. I had read that the tea is very sweet, often with copious amounts of sugar added. This one wasn’t! I guess they were trying to cater for the western palette! It turns out I do prefer it sweeter!
After 10 or 15 minutes to enjoy our beverage we were shown to our room. It was situated on the upper floor, which overlooked the courtyard below. The bijou size of the room allowed for two single beds, with just enough space to get between them. There was a compact curtained wardrobe and to the right an ensuite with sink, toilet and shower. Ali showed us how to operate the air conditioning – setting it at 30 degrees for us (!), then left us to unpack. The room was simple, well presented and met our needs. For the price we paid (about £25 a night) I was delighted with the standard.
Like many of the buildings in the Medina, the Riad has a roof terrace. We took the opportunity to take in the panorama of the distant snow-capped Atlas Mountains, looming above the tightly packed rooftops of the cramped Medina.
Breakfast was substantial (compared to what I would usually eat)! Every meal in Morocco seems to be accompanied by bread – breakfast was no exception, although rather than the customary round Moroccan bread, we were treated to French baguette. We had a choice of tea or Coffee. We chose coffee for our early morning caffeine jumpstart, plus we were also given freshly squeezed orange juice. The main breakfast was pancakes or potato scones.
Jumping ahead a little here, but it seems appropriate to include this now as I am describing our Riad experience… Having read the Riad reviews, and then met Ali, we wrongly assumed that he was someone who’s word was reliable. We discovered this was naively misplaced, after we returned to the Riad from our four-day desert trip. Whilst we sat and enjoyed a welcoming mint tea he enquired as to the cost of our desert trip. I told him the price (350 EUROS each) and he looked shocked and told us that it was too expensive. I had done extensive online research, and the price was the cheapest of all the quote requests I’d made for our itinerary (about seven quotes altogether). I know that you can go on group trips for significantly less, but we made a conscious choice to pay the extra, and have a private tour. I thought nothing of this conversation, and just assumed Ali was not fully aware of the full package we had benefited from (and also the fact that to Moroccans, this is a lot of money). The next morning we decided we wanted to visit the Ensemble Artisanal. According to our Trip advisor app it was 2 miles away. Having only spent a brief amount of time in Marrakech on our first day, we thought we’d take a taxi there and then walk back (via Djemaa El-Fna). After breakfast we asked Ali if he could arrange a taxi for us. He quickly replied with “I can do private taxi for 300 Dirham”. I knew straightaway that this was extortionately high. My daughter quickly tapped it in her currency converter app and it was £20! Ali, still hoping for a sale, explained, “Taxi will wait for you and bring you back”. I let him know that it was too expensive and that we wanted to walk back. He replied (with what I have now concluded is a facetious response), “I know. It’s too expensive”. He was clearly having a sly dig at our discussion from last night regarding the cost of our desert trip. He then walked us out towards the main street to get a taxi. On the way we met a local man who seemed to ask Ali if we wanted a taxi. After a stream of exchanges between them in Arabic – it was offered to us at 70 MAD (just under £5). We opted for this just to get where we wanted! With hindsight (and discovering it was NOT 2 miles away) I also believe this was too expensive! I’ll write more about this part of our trip, later!
[TIME TO EXPLORE]
After settling into our room, we decided we would make the most of our half-day in Marrakech, as in the morning we would head off on our four-day tour. We were beginning to feel hungry so we decided to find somewhere to eat, therefore Jemaa El Fna seemed like the obvious port of call.
We asked Ali for directions, but by the time we had followed the first two instructions we had forgotten the rest, so we employed the use of the Trip Advisor City Guides app. Thanks to the app (which you can use offline) we effortlessly navigated the streets… when I say effortlessly, I am simply referring to the sense of direction. There is nothing ‘effortless’ about walking along or across these lively streets! You will find yourself zig-zagging around food stalls, parked vehicles, ambling pedestrians, stray cats, rubbish, parked donkeys – whilst also dodging the approaching mopeds, cars, donkeys, men pulling carts and cyclists. Crossing the road is a rousing experience, which I can only liken to playing ‘chicken’ as a child! Very rarely will a car stop to let you cross the road (even at marked crossing points). We quickly learned to shadow the locals as they crossed the road – closely following their path between the moving vehicles. By the end of our stay we were able to cross like a local too!
As we strolled down Rue Bani Marine, approaching Jemaa El Fna, all of our senses were being invaded and tantalised. The exotic aromas filled the air, and the sounds of drums and snake charmer flutes become louder and more hypnotic. Brightly coloured Caleches (horse drawn carriages) were lined up ready to whisk tourists off around the city.
I had read about the atmosphere (and the pit falls) of the square so we tentatively circumvented the perimeter. We saw leashed, performing monkeys wearing nappies, not something that interests us, Henna ladies perched on plastic stools – accosting anyone that walked within arms reach. Men in fringed hats and multicolour costumes, clang brass cups together, asking “Take photo?”. Teeth sellers sit with their best gnashers, dentures and braces proudly for sale on their table. We quickly bypassed charmed snakes (no thank you) and wide stepped the rows of orange juice sellers who relentlessly called out “Ay, Ay, Ay”. Crowds gathered around acrobats, story tellers and musicians as they performed in whatever space they could find.
Behind the sellers on the central square we discovered the labyrinths of souks (markets). Whilst browsing the vibrant, enthralling and colourful souks we were called ‘skinny girls’, ‘fish and chips’, ‘sexy ladies’, ‘Asda Price’, ‘nice eyes’ as well as being asked to buy some unknown item which included 10,000 free camels and a Ferrari! “Everything is free to today ladies”. “It’s free to look”. I quickly developed a quite tuneful ‘Non! Merci’, accompanied by a cheeky smile – much to the amusement of the traders!
We’d only arrived in this vibrant city about 2 hours ago, but already we felt we had experienced more than our brains could accommodate. We decided it was time to do what Moroccans do so well, and stop for a sit down, a tea, something to eat and recharge! We chose a quiet, shaded restaurant on the far edge of the square. We thought this would allow us chance to digest the experience and avoid the sellers. However no place is free from traders (even high in the mountains as I will detail later)- cigarette and souvenir sellers were free to meander around the outside seating areas of the restaurant! My daughter opted for the safe option and chose pizza, whilst I was feeling braver and chose beef & vegetable tagine, accompanied by mint tea (this time with sugar).
With hindsight, the food was average, but as newcomers to the culinary delights of Morocco, it seemed like a taste sensation!
Now feeling recharged and primed to put my haggling to the test, we revisited the stalls in the souks. I proudly carried out my first barter purchase…for some shampoo (we forgot to pack ours). Afterwards, I calculated I had probably paid way too much! But it was genuine quality shampoo you see! “Handmade in the mountains by Berber women with their bare hand…Not factory shampoo”!!
We returned to the Riad taking an alternative route back to amble around the Minaret de la Koutoubia and the park behind it.
We had a couple hours breather, sat on the Riad roof terrace, drinking mint tea, and made use of the free WiFi.
That evening we ate on the third floor of the Café De France. We hadn’t chosen this restaurant for its food…but simply so that we could enjoy the panoramic view across Jemaa El Fna. The food was a limited choice, from a set menu (100 MAD – approx. £7). Salad for starter (which we didn’t eat as we read it can cause a dicky tummy). Chicken Cous Cous for main, followed by seasonal fruit (mandarins) for dessert. Drinks were approx 15 MAD (£1) each.
The sun slowly set on the horizon, creating a beautiful silhouette skyline. The lights of the stalls illuminated the hustle and bustle that raged on below us. A perfect end, to an exhilarating first day.