Yesterday I got back from a 5 day trip to Morocco with my boyfriend. Always having loved Moroccan cuisine and décor, saying we were pumped for the trip would have been an understatement.
However, the whole experience ended up being way more than we had expected or had bargained for…
Landing in Marrakech the first impression is an easy one: HOT! Coming from an almost non existent British summer of about 15-20 degrees, being thrown into 40 degree temperatures was, although initially welcomed, intense! Stepping out of the airport was like stepping into an open-aired furnace of heat and noise and smell! The air was different, the colours were different and, of course, the language was different. Our first mission… get a taxi to our Ryad!
This proved a little harder than we thought, for starters, no one knew the street our ryad was on, and secondly, to get a somewhat reasonable price meant serious haggling… getting them down from 400Dirham to 200 seemed like an alright deal-we were on our way! Looking for our seatbelts the cab driver laughed at us and told us we wouldn’t find any. From our perspective, if we were ever to want a seatbelt, now would be it. Lanes are almost non existent and constant swerving and honking is apparently the only effective way of driving through the mass of cars going every which way. Reaching the Medina and dropping us at our “street” we felt totally and utterly lost. Imagine a hedge maze… now imagine instead of hedges you have tall stone or clay walls… that is a pretty accurate depiction of the Marrakech medina. We had no clue where we had to be or how to get there and were left at the mercy of a local who directed us down dark, dusty, narrow “streets” where, thankfully, we found the door to our Ryad.
It’s a very strange sensation stepping from a dirty, dusty and narrow pathway through a door in the wall and being confronted with a beautiful courtyard with an azure blue pool with tall palm trees and beautiful red and black decor surrounding it. The contrast from the hustle and bustle and insecurity of the medina into the haven of the ryad is indescribable. Hard to believe where we’d come from to reach this place we sat with Moroccan mint tea and biscuits whilst our host gave us the low down.
A map through the maze, recommendations of paths to take and places to visit and eat and some tips on prices to pay, very helpful in a country where the price told or written down means very very little. Finishing our tea and biscuits we set out on our first proper Marrakech adventure! Navigating the souks to reach the main Square, Jemaa El-Fnaa.
The first day was the toughest one. We left the ryad only to be met by the same man who had helped us find it. Appreciative as we were we were still on edge and had been warned few people will help you for nothing. Politely trying to steer him away was not working and he consistently kept hassling us, telling us where we should go, that he’d show us and that we were going the completely wrong way. Finding a recommended lunch spot we managed to shake him and escape to the terrace to enjoy a much welcomed lunch, panoramic view of the city, and some peace and quiet.
Continuing our journey on fully stocked bellies was much easier, walking through the souks where people try and sell you anything and everything from scarves to teapots to spices to shoes to headphones. Your senses go haywire, the noise and the smells and the constant dodging of motorbikes keeps you properly on edge. After about 15 minutes though, we successfully reached the square.
The square properly comes alive at night time when hundreds of food vendors set up open air stalls and all the locals make there way to eat, sing and dance and socialise together, so during the day it’s a lot quieter in comparison. Still, we scoped the snake charmers and the men with monkeys, along with the women doing henna along with lots of other stalls and tourists and horses and carts-for the quietest time of the day the place was still pretty hectic! We made our way back to the ryad successfully and indulged in a dip in the pool and relaxing before treating ourselves to an amazing 4 course dinner that night at Dar Zellij. Very attentive service, no shortage of food, a bottle of red and some live music and belly dancing for entertainment brought to an end an eye-opening first day.
Getting our bearings:
Day two was a lot more enjoyable. Having worked our way to the square already, we decided to take a more intricate route which led us through souks almost devoid of tourists and instead thriving with locals. We saw incredibly skilled craftsmen, some beautiful scarves and lanterns and artwork all at much more reasonable costs and without the same harassment from the shop keepers.
Taking our time we wandered through the maze, making purchases and ending up back in Jemaa El-Fnaa where we found ourselves with monkeys plonked on our head. A trip to Marrakech wouldn’t be complete without that experience!
Deciding on giving the local street food a go we found a shop selling tagines full of locals, always a good sign. I actually think it was the best vegetable tagine we had over the whole trip!
And the cheapest! Another tick in the box of must-do’s in Morocco.
To finish off our explorations we visited Jardin de Marjorelle, a stunning garden arrangement not far out from the city walls. At the hottest point in the day the garden provided a welcome sanctuary of shade and peace.
The Atlas Mountains:
Something which I have to explain is that with an Arabic name like Aisha, you get a lot of mispronunciation and confusion in Western countries. In Morocco, however, for the first time in my life I experienced the opposite! People who found out my name exclaimed in delight! Was I aware it was Arabic, why did I have it, did I understand how special it was?! I never got tired of the novelty! We went on a camel ride and hike through the Atlas Mountains on our third day and can you imagine my delight when I find out that my camel was also called Aisha! A pretty amazing camel she was too!
We spent about 3 hours bouncing around on top of the gangly animals, going through traditional Berber villages and loving every minute. At the end of the camel journey a steep climb further up hill led us to a waterfall where we enjoyed lunch before continuing the hike with our guide Hassan. We walked through about 6 different villages. Being greeted by locals and even being treated to a new song a group of girls had been learning at school.
The simplicity of these people’s lives, and their contentedness and happiness put a lot into perspective for me. We take so much for granted living in the countries and societies we do, sometimes it’s important to take a step back and think about not only what we have, but how we see it, and how we could benefit from a change in the way we look at the world and the people in it. These kids were so happy and the excitement they got simply by singing a song and shaking the hands of two young tourists visiting their village really moved me, we could learn so much about life from the people of these cultures, especially, I think, the children.
A seaside escape:
After returning from the day trip and visiting Jamaa El-Fnaa in the evening for some food we got our tickets for a trip to the sea-side city of Essaouira the next morning. Holding tickets written in Arabic and being hustled onto a bus by people who hardly spoke English was pretty nerve-racking, but we made it to our destination in one piece. Walking to our ryad in Essaouira we noticed a complete change in the mentality of this city compared to Marrakech. It was cooler, (a pleasant 25 degrees) and it was a lot more relaxed. The ryad itself was stunning and romantic.
Filled with roses and looked after by the most friendly and helpful staff, we fell in love with Essaouira right away. After a much needed “welcome beer” we wandered to the local fish market where we picked our freshly caught fish from the stalls and they cleaned it, gutted it and grilled it for us to eat right there and then.
Choosing a snapper and rubbing salt and cumin into it’s perfectly cooked flesh it was a delicious lunch! We made friends with a local sitting near us who also shared some of his sardines with us. Essaouira is known for its sardines and they didn’t let us down! Fishy fingers licked up we walked down to the port and back again, buying a traditional Moroccan kaftan to wear for dinner that night and spending the next couple of hours completely relaxed and reading in the Ryad.
Dinner that night also did not disappoint, with friendly young staff, an al-a-carte menu and some very funky live music which was hard not to get up and dance to. Needless to say it was very difficult for us to leave Essaouira to head back to the hot and busy Marrakech the next day.
Our last day was very low key, after a bit of unwelcome hassle and getting completely lost while looking for our accommodation we went out for one last delicious, but relaxed, dinner and an early night for the flight back to England the next morning. Although absolutely knackered and ready to leave, I would definitely go back as I believe we only scraped the surface of the magic of Morocco.
What I learnt:
I believe it’s always important to learn from your travels and experiences. Morocco was a very big learning curve for me. It took me well out of my comfort zone and threw me in the deep end. Being the first Islamic country I have visited there was a lot of culture differences we found really interesting. The prayers 5 times a day being broadcast throughout the city which itself riddled with Mosques. Most importantly though, the trip taught me a lot about myself. I’ve learnt that I feel very uncomfortable when I don’t feel in control, or know what is going on around me. I’ve learnt that I love people, but feel on edge if I can’t understand them or don’t understand their motives. I’ve learnt how much I appreciate my space and my dignity as a woman, I have learnt how lucky I am, to be able to explore and travel the world where most of these people never leave their country and sometimes even their villages. And, I’ve seen how some of the people who compared to you have very little, can seem so happy and fulfilled with life. Despite being exhausted and a few mishaps along the road, it was an incredible holiday, and an even more incredible journey. Because after all, exploring new places, new cultures and completely different ways of living and thinking is what travelling is all about.