A couple of people have remarked on how I always seem to be on holiday recently – well a girl’s gotta make the most of her annual leave hasn’t she (even if it means I’ll have nothing left to use for the rest of the year)?
My latest adventure took me to Morocco, where I spent a week in June with my boyfriend, Jonny. After striking a compromise between a lazy pool holiday and somewhere that had something to offer in the way of culture, we decided Morocco would be just the place. We could spend a day exploring the busy maze of souks and other vibrant sights of Marrakech, before retreating to the coast for some much-needed R&R…Bliss!
So here’s my verdict…
As expected, the hustling bustling city of Marrakech was brilliantly chaotic and took my mind straight back to my recent visit to India. The smell of spices was prominent, the air was thick from the heat and the roads were lined with an abundance of vendors selling all nature of knick-knacks and street food.
Upon our arrival in Morocco, we decided that a day trip would be the best way to see Marrakech, as our hotel was located a three hour drive away from the city in the seaside resort of Agadir. Though it limited our freedom somewhat, it allowed us to cover a lot of ground in a single day and with an experienced guide to hand, he knew exactly where to take us…and where not to, of course! Though brief, this short time in the city was enough to provide me with a glimpse of a truly unique metropolis, which is bursting with life and culture.
Marrakech is constantly growing in modernity, however, it is the ancient Medina that tourists flock to. Bordered by tall brick walls that stretch for 20km, nearly all the buildings within the enclosed area are painted an orangey-pink hue, gaining it the nickname ‘the Red City’.
Jemaa el-Fna Square
Jemaa el-Fna is Marrakech’s largest square, forming the heart of the old city. Filled with colourful fruit stands, open front shops and horse-drawn carriages, the square attracts huge crowds of locals and tourists alike. Evenings are most certainly the best time to visit, as the whole square comes to life with the sound of music and twinkling of lanterns. Here, you’ll also find a number of snake charmers and dancing monkeys performing for money – though they’re definitely an acquired taste – in fact some of the locals’ treatment towards animals alarmed me and it’s truly upsetting that more isn’t done to prevent cruelty towards animals in some countries.
As part of the tour we were provided with lunch and dinner, hosted by two restaurants located a short distance away from the square. Tucked away in a maze of lanes, we’d have been none the wiser that the eateries even existed, if it weren’t for our clued up guide leading the way! Off the beaten track and behind two rather unassuming doorways, we were pleasantly surprised to walk through into elaborately decorated restaurants, both furnished with ornate Moroccan decor. To eat, we were dished up a traditional Moroccan tagine to share as a group, topped off with sugar cookies and a pot of freshly brewed mint tea to finish. Delish!
Our stay in Morocco just so happened to coincide with the end of Ramadan and the Eid-al-fitr celebrations. Though our hotel and the two restaurants we dined at in Marrakech were not affected by the country’s month of fasting (I think they try to cater for tourists as much as possible), it was very much noticeable in the old city, with many of the shops closing in the evening for the owners to break their fast.
A highlight of the trip was exploring the huge crisscrossing network of souks, which spider off from the famous Jemaa el-Fna Square. Our first experience of the buzzing maze of markets came at the hands of our guide, as he led us through to check out the vast selection of spices, handmade crafts (and knock off designer wear) and fascinating metal-work being carried out in the depths of the souks. You’d be amazed at the beautiful sculptures and furniture being crafted in the most basic of workshops – they truly are uncelebrated artists!
We were later left to freely venture through the souks at our own accord, but out of fear that we’d never find our way back out again (without resorting to dropping breadcrumbs), we played it safe and only visited the outer streets (another young couple in our tour group found themselves lost in the depths and had to pay a local man to show them the way back out!). With new haggling skills gained from my trip to India, I bagged myself a beautiful Moroccan necklace and it took some serious self-restraint to stop at just that!
The Bahia Palace is a gorgeous palace and set of gardens situated in the Medina. Constructed in the late 19th century, the palace was built for Ahmed Ibn Moussa, as a home for his four wives and many concubines. It took a whopping 15 years to complete! Vast in size, the palace homes 160 rooms, as well as large reception halls and tiled courts. The lavish decor and intricate detailing of the building is really quite spectacular and it’s easy to see why it took so long to create!
The elaborately painted ceilings were probably my favourite bit – I spent so long walking along glancing upwards, that I’m amazed I didn’t fall flat on my face!
Ben Youssef Madrasa Quranic School
The Ben Youssef Madras Quaranic School is a real hidden treasure of Marrakech. Constructed in the 14th Century, the college was where students came from all over the world to learn the Quran, in addition to Islamic law and the sciences. Though it closed as a school in the 1960s, it’s still open for the public to explore today.
Offering a beautiful example of Islamic architecture, the walls and ceilings of the building are filled with magnificent mosaics, wood carvings, holy inscriptions and intricate paintings. The building houses 132 dormitory cells which were occupied by 900 students – Upon noticing that the rooms varied in size quite drastically (and some didn’t even have windows), our guide informed us that they were allocated based on the behaviour and performance of each student – now that’s some serious motivation to knuckle down at school!
One part of the tour that I found a little perplexing was a visit to a local pharmacy. Herded into a benched room at the rear of the shop, we were all greeted by three men kitted out in lab coats and their best sales spiel. At first I was intrigued by their talks about natural remedies and herbal products used in Morocco….one hour and approximately 60 sales pitches later, the intrigue had very much dissipated! I was later told by someone in the group that the tour guide was most likely receiving some sort of commission for taking us there and suddenly it all made a bit more sense. To think some poor sods bought into it, spending up to one hundred quid on Argan oil and diet tea…
I’ve got to admit, we didn’t venture out of the hotel much during our time in Agadir. Having spoken to a couple of people back home and at the beginning of the trip, I’d got the idea that the true magic lies in Marrakech. One evening we decided to walk down the promenade into the resort centre for dinner and we were faced with a slightly grotty Benidorm-esque cluster of restaurants with white lighting and plastic table cloths. A large white ferris wheel stood in the centre. We stayed clear for the rest of the week…
Riu Tikida Dunas Hotel
Our hotel, on the other hand, was absolutely beautiful. As part of the Riu group, Riu Tikida Dunas is one of three Riu owned hotels located along the Agadir promenade. Situated directly on the seafront, it offers easy access to the large sandy beach (camels and all), as well as three large lagoon-like outdoor pools and a tranquil indoor pool. Being a complete water-baby, this is exactly what I want from a hotel, so I was very pleased with the gorgeous pool area. This being said, I did have to get up at 6am to reserve sun loungers, as it soon became apparent that many of the guests were paying off the pool staff…*sigh*
This trip was the first time I’ve gone all-inclusive and though it took a bit of getting used to (it was a total scrabble to get food and drink before it ran out, because some people comprehend ‘all inclusive’ as ‘must eat ALL the food’), it was definitely brilliant value for money!
And the cats…Though I firmly retain my position as a dog person (love ya Cody), I definitely developed a soft spot for cats over the week. The hotel was home to dozens of gorgeous affectionate felines, including three litters of kittens and it didn’t take long before I got into the habit of sneaking food from the buffet to feed them! It even became a temptation to sneak one home…though I sense this may be frowned upon by customs.
All in all, we both had a really lovely week away and I’m glad that I’ve been able to experience Marrakech, as it really is a special city.