28 July 2015

10 Things You Have To Do In Marrakech

I understand that not everyone gets the chance to go to Morocco in their lifetime, let alone Marrakech so this could be a bit of a niche post. But I had such a great time and I've such had great feedback on my Instagram pictures (thanks guys!) that I decided to go ahead with this anyway. Hopefully I can paint a good enough picture with words and images that you feel like you're really there.. hopefully.

I went to Marrakech at the beginning of July with one of my closest friends from university called Leonie . I can't even believe it was only a couple of weeks ago because it feels like much longer. We found a great last minute deal which we booked in June so it only ended up costing £211 each which included flights, hotel and breakfast. July and August are some of the hottest months in Morocco and although everyone in the UK was experiencing a heat wave that month, it was still even hotter there, averaging 40°C each day. It was also Ramadan whilst we were there. We thought this might cause us some issues with getting served food etc. but apart from one embarrassing faux pas when we tried to order room service at 7:45pm when they were all sitting down to their first meal of the day, we had no problems at all. In fact it was really inspiring to see a nation so dedicated to their faith. We weren't aware that during Ramadan you can't drink anything at all, not even water, so there we were downing bottles right in front of them. It really shocked us; it was amazing really.

If you ever do make it to Marrakech, then here are 10 things you absolutely have to do:

Leonie checking out lanterns & tea pots

1. Visit the souks

 Every travel guide will tell you that you must go to the souks. Souk is just the Arabic for market but these are not like markets you will find anywhere in London. There are certain sections which sell certain goods such as spices, leather, carpets, materials, slippers and the list goes on. If you want to know more about the specific streets then here is a post I read before we went (I think this is the right link). There aren't really any maps for the souks because it's such a maze but people there are pretty helpful. They will always direct you back to the big square (Jemaa el Fna) so don't worry about getting lost. In fact it's the best bit, after haggling. There is ALWAYS a deal to be done in the souks. None of the shops sell unique items so if the price isn't right for you, move along. You won't lose face or anything like that because there are hundreds on shops there and they're unlikely to remember you the next day. I'd advice going for 1/3 of their starting price. Leonie was really good at haggling, her main tactic was to refuse to change her price, and it seemed to work, so it you have the nerve, give it a try.

2. Eat at a roof top restaurant

Surrounding the main square, called the Jemaa el Fna, are lots of rooftop restaurants. At night the square comes alive with loads of pop up stalls and caf├ęs but it's actually quite nice to sit above the choas and watch. We did this on our first night and apart from the stray cats, which are everywhere anyway, it was really nice. It's such a relaxing atmosphere and it will be your first opportunity of the day to enjoy the heat without sweating unbearably.

3. Stroll around the Jardin Majorelle

This garden was owned by Yves Saint Laurent before he died. It was the most interesting city garden I've ever seen (not that I have many to compare it to). The plants are a mix of cacti, ferns, palm trees and more from hundreds of different locations around the world. It's really well looked after (you'd expect it to be as the entrance is 50dh - about £3 - which is quite a lot for Marrakech) and the contrast of blue, yellow and orange against the green foliage was really strong - especially when all buildings inside the city wall have to be painted a terracotta colour. This was one of the best parts of the holiday for me.

4. Eat in the square

Eating in the square is a must-have experience. Although be careful not to let them pick the food for you, otherwise you will end up with one expensive bill like we did. It's a chance to taste some authentic Moroccan food while soaking up the atmosphere and local culture. If you're in a group or feeling brave, the best time to go is late, around 10pm, however we weren't feeling that brave.

5. Try the fresh orange juice

Oranges are abundant in Marrakech, I assume it's to do with the climate. In the big square there are loads of orange juice stalls, probably about 30+, and each squeezes the orange juice for you there and then for the amazingly affordable price of 4dh (30p). So when you've found your way out of the souk maze with more bags than you can carry, definitely stop off at the orange juice stalls to refresh.

6. Walk around the wall

 The city centre of Marrakech is called the medina and is surrounded by ramparts (a huge wall). Wikipedia says.. "[The ramparts] were built by the Almoravids in the 12th century as protective fortifications. The walls are made of a distinct orange-red clay and chalk, giving the city its nickname as the "red city"; they stand up to 19 feet (5.8 m) high and have 20 gates and 200 towers along them" (read more here). But basically it's an interesting place to walk around and something cultural to do that's free! However, after I initially suggested walking the full circumference, I changed my mind when I realised the distance was 19km! If I had had the right clothes and shoes maybe I would have done it but considering how hot it was we decided against this. So instead we found the most picturesque gate we could, called 'Bab Agnaou' which was built by the Almoravids in the 12th century. It's in a bit of a random location but if you're going to the Palace (which we didn't go to because it was Friday which is their holy day) then it's really close by and definitely worth a visit.

Although I initially thought these holes were made for the birds I later found out they were made by the scaffolding when the walls were first built.

7. See the evening prayers

I'm not sure if these are outside everyday but on our first night they were and it was so interesting. There was an electricity in the air as muslims rushed along the streets with their prayer mats. To see such a large group of people all kneel and bow down as one will definitely stay with me for a while. Their devotion was like nothing I've ever seen before and there must have been thousands at this one mosque. So if you get a chance, you absolutely have to see this.

These are used for lipstick, apparently!

8. Have the spices explained

 Think of the scene in Aladdin (the Disney movie) where Jasmine first enters the marketing place and every street vendor is trying to sell her things (or watch it here). Well this is sort of what the souks are like, except a lot more crowded! Normally it's polite to walk on unless you intend to actually buy. But if you find yourself in the spice area of the market then it is well worth taking time to have all the spices explained to you. It's quite common for them to try to show you every single product they have to offer - we spent about 30 minutes having about 15 different spices shown to us, smelling each a number of times and having small amounts poured into our hands. Then we had Moroccan and Arab make up explained to us which I found really interesting, especially the lipstick we were shown which looked like a terracotta pot or dish of sorts.

9. Try Berber tea

All the spice vendors sell the local green/mint tea (they call it Berber tea) and you can also by it in the main square in the evenings. It's traditionally served with loads of sugar but it's quite nice and an inexpensive souvenir to take back with you.

10. Watch the sunset from a rooftop terrace

We were really fortunate with our hotel. It was really nice but very quiet. There were probably only about 15-20 groups staying there whilst we were. Most buildings in Marrakech seem to have rooftop terraces rather than gardens and we are lucky enough to get the rooftop to ourselves most days. Either it was too hot for everyone else or too quiet but it was ideal for us. On our penultimate afternoon we decided to sit out on the roof top and watch the sunset - sounds romantic but it wasn't!
I'm no bird expert, far from it in fact, but all these small sparrow-like birds seem to come out when the sun starts to set and it was like nothing I've seen before. They were all rushing around us, moving in big groups, it was really pretty and interesting to watch while we waited. If you get a chance, and you have access to a rooftop, then you should definitely do this. The orange/tan colour of all the buildings really added to the view.

Marrakech was a truly outstanding place to visit and I'd strongly recommend it to anyone! If you have any questions at all, please ask me in the comments box below or tweet me @_Sam_Blundell