10 Things I Hate (and Love) About You: Marrakech
Marrakech seems to be a city that divides opinion, so is perhaps a natural choice for this first ’10 Things… ‘ post. I absolutely adored Marrakech – it is one of the few cities that I would genuinely be happy to go back to in lieu of visiting somewhere new – but I know many feel the exact opposite. Despite my pro-Marrakech leanings I do have a few pet hates however, so here follows a list of everything that tickled me pink, and turned me blue in the face, in the Red City.
I’d plotted locations of the best local restaurants, charted a straightforward course to Djemaa El-Fna and scoped out the nearest tourist attractions – but I was still utterly unprepared for how hard it would be to simply walk down a street in the medina. Taxis, scooters piled high with families, and the odd donkey and cart often swerved perilously close to us pedestrians, with a complete lack of pavement or path often exacerbating the danger. I also never realised how much I took pedestrian crossings for granted (I’m sorry traffic lights. I’m sorry). Making any kind of progress essentially involved taking your life into your own hands; the best advice we received from a local was pretty much just to step out into a gap in the traffic and hope for the best. And, to make the game even more fun, the lack of street names often meant you had no idea where your haphazard dashing had delivered you to, and heaven forbid you get out a map for fear of…
Hassle, hassle, hassle
I’m not too bad at reading the odd map, so normally have one handy in a new city to help me get my bearings. I quickly learnt that this is one of the fastest ways to attract attention in Marrakech; you can’t really scream “tourist” much louder. Don’t, whatever you do, get a map out if you want to avoid overly earnest offers of help, which may or may not go via your helpful guide’s brother’s spice shop. Unfortunately this is only the tip of the hassle iceberg however, and just generally being a foreigner in the city means you will be a target. Traders in the souks seemed to think that shouting odd phrases in English at us (ranging from “fish and chips” to “Lady Gaga”, as well as some less publishable greetings) would attract our attention. Beggars hoping for spare dirhams seemed to think that clutching at our clothes and hands would ensure generosity. And the aforementioned “guides” would pounce, even if we strutted around trying to look like we knew the alleys of the medina like the backs of our hands. The best (and possibly only) way to deal with it is a polite “non, merci” and a friendly smile, as this stuff just comes with the territory.
Some of these we avoided, some we fell for hook, line and sinker. We’d heard the stories about the snake/monkey/henna people in the square who will quickly force said snake/monkey/henna on to you and then charge you for the pleasure, and gave them a wide berth. We then stupidly (STUPIDLY!) took a couple of photos with the water sellers. I mean, they looked like cheery guys, right? With their colourful costumes? And big grins? Funnily enough, after we’d taken a few snaps the mood quickly changed, and they demanded somewhere in the region of £10 for a few pictures. I can’t remember the exact amount in dirhams, but the fact that it equated to £10 is seared into my memory. Ten. Whole. Pounds. They are still the most expensive photos I have ever taken. I should frame the bloody things but, to rub salt into the wound, they didn’t even come out that well.
The… Gastrointestinal Experience
I wasn’t sure how to phrase this section, but I think you probably know what I mean. Fortunately I can’t claim to have had first-hand experience of this particular ‘hate’ – I even discovered my stomach of steel in Marrakech, after I accidentally drank the local water for several days in a row with no unpleasant side effects, but that’s another tale. Unfortunately my travelling companion couldn’t say the same. She was a little worse for wear after just one dinner, and I’m not even sure she ate that much of it. The usual precautions and treatments apply here, as with anywhere, and let’s just say the French word “malade” can go a long way.
Being a (female) Tourist
This encompasses a couple of the above (see ‘Scams’ and ‘Hassle…’), and I did in fact start to wonder whether a male tourist would have received the same level of unwanted attention, or indeed whether I would have done if I had been here with a man, rather than with another girl. The bottom line is that simply being a tourist in Marrakech pretty much guarantees you will experience some of the above – unless you hole yourself up in your hotel or riad and refuse to come out. (Someone that I went with actually did this). This is one rather extreme way round it, but in trying to avoid a few unpleasant confrontations you miss so very much more. Yes, the heckling and harassment gets old pretty quickly, but these are not the overriding memories that Marrakech left me with. The following left a much stronger impression…
Call me weird, but there’s nothing like having a stranger sluice you with water, lather you with soap and scrub you until your skin squeaks. Visiting a hammam is a must-do Morrocan experience, although prepare to let go of all your inhibitions. (Trust me, you won’t be given a choice). Visiting a hammam is a way of life here, and options range from public hammams to high-end spas offering a more upmarket scrub-a-dub-dubbing. Essentially the procedure is the same, involving a blast in a steam room to let your pores open, washing with hot water and black soap (a Moroccan specialty), and then the most brutal exfoliation of skin cells you will ever experience. Oh, and you might be butt naked, just to add to the fun. We visited Les Bains de Marrakech and took advantage of their spa treatments and beautiful poolside lounging area, alongside the hammam experience, although for a more authentic experience try a public hammam.
The Call to Prayer
The first night I spent in Marrakech was a rather sleepless one. My room was as hot as hell, the air con didn’t work, and after a short but disorientating transfer from airport to medina the previous night I was, quite frankly, wondering what I’d let myself in for. So when the call to prayer (adhan) started ramping up around dawn, it didn’t take long to (a) wake me and (b) confirm to me that yes, Marrakech was very, very different to anywhere I had been to before. Once my initial sleep-addled shock faded – and I realised that this wasn’t some kind of bizarre fire alarm – I became increasingly accustomed to hearing the call to prayer over the following days. It is usually made from the top of a mosque’s minaret by the muezzin and often projected via loudspeaker, and sounds at specific times throughout the day as a summons to partake in prayers. The beauty of the call to prayer, however, is in its slow build up: you often hear the adhan start off somewhere in the distance, before others join and the sound gradually seems to surround you, with calls ranging from a droning chant to more musical, sing-song intonation. The way the sound moves around the city and builds to a crescendo is unlike anything else: beautiful, powerful and beguiling.
What can I say. I loved the souks! These are an acquired taste, and as mentioned above a fair amount of hassling goes on, but you can always simply walk away. (And sometimes walking away can do wonders for lowering the price). Many of the stalls sell similar items (think spices, argan oil, lanterns) so have a good browse and ask for rough prices at several places before committing to buying anything. It should go without saying that by ‘buying’ I mean ‘haggling’, and this is where the real fun begins. Think of haggling as something akin to a bad GCSE Drama role play and you’ll be in the right frame of mind. Start with a pronounced look of shock when told the initial price, with some emphatic shaking of the head and perhaps some bemused smiles, and then try suggesting half of the suggested price (or whatever you think the item is worth, if you are feeling more confident). Prepare to be greeted in turn with pronounced looks of shock, head shaking etc. Repeat with variations in price and levels of friendly derision and banter, and start to walk away if you aren’t making any gains. (If the shopkeeper lets you walk that’s fine – there will be an identical stall round the corner). If all goes well, you’ll strike a bargain and everyone’s happy. For added haggle ammunition, visit a Complexe D’Artisanat beforehand – these are shops which sell similar items to the souks, but the prices are clearly labelled and government-controlled. Make a memo of the price of any items you like, and aim for lower than that in the souks. Or, if you like an easy life, just buy it here and then browse the souks for the experience.
The Beautiful, Beautiful Buildings
At first, walking through the medina can be such a culture shock and all-round assault on the senses that it is hard to really look at and appreciate the buildings around you, especially if you are trying to perfect the head-down power-walk that tends to fend off unwanted attention. However, it is definitely worth stopping and looking where possible to admire the beauty of Moroccan architecture and design. I was particularly struck by the sumptuous interiors of many of the places we visited: generally speaking, even the most budget-friendly riads have striking decor, unusual furnishings and interesting architectural features. The most jaw-dropping place we visited had to be the exquisite La Sultana – a luxury hotel consisting of multiple riads combined into one stunning property. (Tip: if you can’t afford a night here, book for dinner instead and remember to look particularly amazed by the interiors, which won’t be difficult. The fact that we were clearly staggered by the beauty of the place encouraged the member of staff who was escorting us to the restaurant’s roof-terrace to give us an extra long tour en route, which was worth the price of the dinner alone).
Obviously there are a great many cities in the world where abject poverty rubs up against unimaginable riches, but there is something about Marrakech and its myriad contrasts, clashes and inconsistencies that is particularly striking. Walking from dusty streets filled with beggars, donkeys and snake charmers into the opulent and decadent coolness of a riad, or the lush tranquility of a Moroccan spa, is an experience like no other – and the exit back out into the harsh light and heat of the medina’s alleyways is no less striking. There is also a sense, perhaps unsurprisingly, that a visit to Marrakech offers a glimpse back in time: what a luxury to fly several hours from the UK and be met with a setting that seems almost Biblical in parts. It is a remarkable place – not without its flaws – but I urge you to go.
Has this ’10 Things…’ sparked any fond (or not so fond) memories? Or are you planning a trip to Marrakech of your own? Feel free to share thoughts, plans and recollections below.