Marrakesh, and as I found out by the persistent nagging of the iPhone auto correct, also known by the French spelling Marrakech, is a major city of the Kingdom of Morocco. It is the fourth largest city in the country, after Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. Located to the north of the foothills of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Why was I there?
It’s been a bucket list place for years. Also, I needed a holiday; I needed a break from beer and the internet. This was to be a challenge to sit down and read a book and walk, a lot, one or the other, and eat sensibly. Morocco being one of the great Muslim citadels, is limited in it’s beer selection, and wine. It’s there if you want it, but be prepared to pay for it.
And, being Africa, yes, Africa, it’s not got the greatest internet or mobile phone services. Perfect for the need to disconnect for a few days.
So, booze and internet satisfactorily avoided, superb sunshine late in the year and, lots of crazy out-of-Europe type things that I love, and lots of interesting things to eat and see, it ticked a lot of boxes! I wanted to take some pictures, get back to using a proper camera, with film, rather than the all too common snap with the iPhone.
Besides the wait, the echeloned no-pictures security, the dry heat was moderated by the cool marble terrazzo arrivals hall of the impressive new Menara airport. Traveling so much for my job, the qualities of the airport are a common discussion among the business lounge fraternity; not so much, “oh that’s a nice one“… more the ones to avoid. Menara, is a good one.
Then you confront the taxi hawkers. Thinking I wanted a low stress arrival, I pre-booked via the Riad I’d chosen to stay with. This was experiences of Fez, knowing how much the Medina is a human warren, I wanted to know exactly where I was going. And, I mean exactly. The €15 each way to the Riad was worth it. The short journey to the Medina, amusing in the craxy traffic and do as you dare approach to round about and junction navigation telling me quickly I was sensible to avoid the hire car thing. Arriving late, meant that I also pre-booked a dinner, avoiding the need to find something that no doubt would have meant a compromise. Thankfully, the pre-booked dinner option turned out to be a tasty Chicken and lemon tagine.
I think it’s worth explaining, recapping, what’s a Riad? A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard. Whilst I wasn’t staying in a Palace, it was a well furnished and super accommodating European owned, guest house. Riad Alwane, became a place of respite from the noise, smell and craziness of the Medina, albeit I had to afford myself 45mins to find the place every night! These treasures are often hidden behind heavy wooden doors, belying the place you’ll be staying in. Tactical route decisions became a game to avoid the “my Friend, remember me from the hotel, let me show you back..“.
I had said to myself that this week I had to walk. The previous week I’d spent 1,200miles on my ass in a car, long walks few and far between. I know this as my watch was nagging me, Siri I am sure calling me a lazy fat bastard. I’d promised myself, no wheels, Taxi, buses and only on foot.
Annoyingly and unusually, I’d not researched, no googling, just relying on google maps for what direction and what’s interesting or caught my eye. The only thing I had on my Must Do, was the YSL Museum and Garden “Jardin Majorelle“, just a couple of things that caught my eye from those inflight travel mags a while back.
The First Morning.
The early morning calls from the local Mosque, the call to prayer, by it’s proper name, Adhan at 5am were a jolt to awake.
I judge a hotel by the linen, the bed and the shower. Clean, cotton, flat with good pillows and hot. Fancy smelly things, kettles and bonkers art are all superfluous. The shower at the Riad was perfect, a stone plaster finished with a mixer and rain shower. The unfortunately positioned mirror, reminded me that I need to walk, lots and more.
Getting my march on was my up and at’em. The time zone difference and the long week prior had prompted an early out of the Riad. Fueled by weak coffee, flat bread and honey, I made my way in to the human warren that this the Medina. The photocopied map, the downloaded section of Google Maps were my route into town.
The week prior I’d been in the clean clear rolling lands of north Germany, fresh northerly winds blowing the cobwebs. That first day in Marrakesh was an assault to the senses. Donkey shit, the blue smoke hues and aroma of two stroke engines and questionable sanitation infrastructure made for a belt to the senses that espresso, red bull and pro-plus cocktails would never achieve.
The blue skies, the intense dusty warmth reminding me that I wasn’t at home kept me curious. I’d seen this climate before, from north of here, Casablanca, Tangier and Fez, and strangely Mauritania on a weird excursion some years ago from the Canaries. So weird, I’ll leave that part of the story there.
Eating and Drinking
Something that I try to enjoy anywhere I go is the food and food culture of the locality. I am not one for McDonalds or KFC when abroad, or ever, albeit you can enjoy such modern delights in Marrakesh. (My only caveat is that those golden arches appearing on the horizon on a long drive, when you need a flushing loo, hot coffee and wifi, are something else!).
Morocco is all about Cous Cous, Tagine and Kofte over coals. The eating of those with flat bread, with your right hand in a grab and scoop fashion that takes some easy getting used to. It’s the same technique that you’d see across the southern Mediterranean as well as the middle east, so like chop sticks and riding a bike, once learned you’re good to go for a while.
I was here for charcoal cooking too. I love cooking over wood/charcoal. Watching experts, those that do the job day in day out, and eating it.
After years in kitchens, I am always cautious of where and what I eat. Not that I am a germophobe, I just am judicious. I’ve never been ill from street food. Fancy western hotels, another subject. Busy with the locals is a good clue. Slightly outside of the tourist traps is also a good start. Trip Advisor works to a point, but can lead to the same same as every other internet junky.
I love good beer, it’s my life, my job and pretty much the one thing I am good at. I love great wine, modern wine today is emerging to something super interesting and a delight to enjoy and watch the culture develop. Neither of which are available in any quality in Maroc. Moroccan wine, as noted in an Instagram of mine, is best kept for enemies and exes. Beer, locally, is Casablanca, or Flag Special. These are both firmly in the international/tropical lager category and worth the scoop, neither will be the mind blowing experience, but ice cold they will do the job, expect to pay €3/24cl. I am lead to believe there is one English bar called the Chesterfield that offers the beer on draught, the only draught tap of Flag Special in town. Caveat Emptor! There are some import, like San Miguel and Heineken, however the Heineken may be locally brewed.
What is to be savored is a quality pot of Moroccan mint tea. Blend of tea, with infusion of rich aromatic fresh Mint. Mint that has a distinct marijuana aroma it’s so oily. Served pour-dropping from a height, makes for a hot refreshing beverage that clears the dust from the throat, with it’s energy drink level of sugar additions.
I didn’t go to Marrakesh to wander around the same old same old with all the European and few American tourists, but I did leave my self most of a day to do the Jardin Majorelle and the YSL Museum.
Discussing ones tastes and interests, is always fun. Yes, I love beer, love the world around it. That’s not my only interest in life. I love things that I am not supposed to like; walking around a museum of jewellery and couture was an exciting experience. It’s a completely different walk of life; easy on the eye, of course gone through many social challenges and interestingly to me; how someone has made things of outstanding beauty that show movement, have a sense of time and place and are made from fabrics of others creations. I felt that was closer to brewing than many other skills that I have come across.
If you’re into the Daily Mail or godforbid the Daily Express, I suggest you scratch this place from your holiday wish list. To be frank, you’d probably not go anyway. Quite frankly you’re more than likely not do, eat or see things I have in my bucket list, so stick to wishing your duty free allowance will be back. If you’re completely comfortable, or getting your “out of Europe” training wheels off, then go for it. Done the Balkans? Done Ukraine? Fancy a bit of heat… go for it.
Value for Money. It’s as cheap as you’d want it to be, or expensive. Getting over the heat, dust and smells, is easy – the smells are really only in the Medina. You’d expect that for 2,300 years of dwellings in one spot. Want more metropolitan comforts? the modern town of Geuliz, which suggests an alternative vibe to the traditional, there may be a hotel there that offers what you need. Want to bounce around, one night here, one night there, then do it. Essaouria and the Atlas mountains, and the various valleys and gorges all looked amazing; places I’ll be revisiting with 4×4 on a different occasion. I can see coming here as a regular winter bolt hole and change of scenery. I hear the carp fishing at Bin el Ouidane is amazing, so I wonder if there is any fly fishing in the mountain streams.
Buying stuff? I didn’t go the pouf, slippers or leather goods thing. If you’re an amateur wheeler dealer, go for it. The artisan market near the central market square is a much more sedate European style shopping experience where all prices are marked. If you need more commercial type goods, the Menara mall is there for that, inc a handy GoSports store. There are plenty of pharmacy. Drink plenty of water, it’s hot and dry, a big bottle will cost between 6 and 10dh. There is plenty of fruit available, either with bravery from the markets, or the Carefour in the Menara mall.
It’s not a change of pace, but a change of climate.
Practical Stuff for Marrakesh
How to get there?
Traveling, especially if you do it infrequently can be daunting. I flew with British Airways, from London Gatwick to Marrakech. 3.5hrs with no time zone changes. Please allow plenty of time for arriving at, and exiting Marrakech Menara (RAK), because, yes, you’re not in Europe. You’ll need to complete arrivals papers. Don’t worry, it’s just your Passport number, where you’re staying and DOB etc. You’ll also get one of those treasured stamps in your passport, that those that travel in Europe never get anymore. On my arrival they seemed very keen on making sure people hadn’t bought drones, for what reason I still don’t know!
Give your self a couple of hours to clear customs/immigration on the way out, and those that expect lounge services, there is one for British Airways, but, it’s not like the rest around the world. You’ll have to complete the same documentation on the way out as you did on the way in. Your bags will be inspected thoroughly.
Where to Stay?
I am a fan of the Hotels.com service, I use regularly for my day to day travel. There was a huge amount of choice, in riad and hotel. This trip I benefited from the night points saved over the past few years. Would I stay in a Riad again? maybe. That’s not to say the one I stayed in wasn’t excellent, just that I think, the mix of the want to walk and read and the riad was a good mix, but I may do it differently next time, perhaps easier to get home at night. If I’d gone more along the contemporary hotel I couldn’t have seen myself stopping by the pool, but an afternoon swim after getting the walking in. If I went back for another chill trip, I’d take a few days in a contemporary hotel then head off into the hills with a 4×4 and figure it out from there. My wanderlust kicked in toward the end of the stay; walking to the southern edge of town, gazing at the foothills of the Atlas, but I wasn’t here for that this time.
There are native providers like INWI who for 50dh (about a fiver £/€ at time of writing) you can get a couple of giga and get online, if you really need to. Your European provider may offer services or top-ups, but for a £5’er/2Gb that’s plenty for a few messages and Instagram posts!