Mandy Caplan tells us how Marrakech is fast becoming one of North Africa’s most thriving holiday hotspots.
Fancy joining the 9.34 million other tourists who visited Morocco last year? Boasting an intriguingly different culture to its European neighbours, Marrakech is becoming the new, fashionable place to go. Follow these ‘do’s and ‘don’t’s, and you’ll be sure to appreciate this fascinating city to its fullest potential, whoever you’re with.
DO stay in a Riad
Riads, which translate as guest-houses, are scattered all over the city. On researching where to stay, 478 Riads popped up on my search: a mind-boggling number of very similar looking B&Bs. They all seemed to feature tiled central atriums, courtyards with mini-fountains, beautifully decorated quaint rooms, and rooftop terraces with views overlooking the city. Ultimately, it comes down to personal preference – whether you choose to sacrifice a ‘plunge pool’ for a more central location, or an English speaking owner for a five-star review. I doubt, however, you could go wrong with whichever Riad you end up choosing.
Those in the Medina of Marrakech; a phrase used in many North African cities to mean, as it were, the city, centre are a tranquil paradise in amongst the bustling and chaotic streets. It is remarkable how, as soon as you step inside your Riad, you are met with a peaceful silence; a stark contrast to the noisy scenes outside.
If staying in the Medina is not for you, the Riads on the outskirts of the city are just as special. With the luxury of space, they can accommodate large pools and beautiful gardens, creating a mini-resort. Paired with the impeccable Riad-style service, this certainly is not a second-best alternative.
DO enrol in a cooking course
Nowadays, there are endless cook-books which claim to introduce you to the world of Moroccan cuisine. There is nothing better, however, than experiencing the real thing, and learning from the natives themselves. Moroccan culture is so passionate about eating and cooking that it is almost infectious. From their intricate three hour process of making couscous (yes, they don’t share the same vision as us that couscous should be the simple five minute alternative to rice) to their constant drinking of sugar-loaded mint tea, it really is a fascinating cuisine. With tagines being the staple of both lunch and dinner – which have evolved very little through the generations – they really have mastered the art by now. We treated ourselves to the infamous ‘La Maison Arabe’ half-day cooking course, complete with a spice lesson, a crazy ‘dada’ (chef) and a delicious self-cooked meal in the luxurious hotel surroundings. It was definitely up there with the best meals of the holiday – just saying…
DON’T eat cold meat
On the topic of food, Morocco has the reputation for providing their tourists with a little unexpected something extra: the North-African version of ‘Delhi Belly’. Unfortunately, I have yet to meet someone who survived a trip to Marrakech without at least one of their party succumbing to a dodgy stomach. If you are travelling on a student budget and thus cannot eat in your Riad/hotel each night, it is almost inevitable. Not because the establishments deliberately serve you dodgy food, but purely because hygiene standards are lower than what we generally are used to.
Things to avoid:
– tap water
– orange juice from the stalls in Djemma El Fna square
– uncooked fruits and vegetables (those you cannot peel)
– meat that is not thoroughly cooked through
Meat is large part of Moroccan cuisine, so it would be a shame to avoid it completely, and on the whole it is cooked perfectly in tagines or couscous. Just beware of the grilled meat like kebab meat. The grills are not the most effective cooking appliance, producing often only half-cooked meat, and kebabs may have been lying around for a while before being served.
DON’T leave your haggling skills at home
You cannot visit Marrakech without visiting the souks: the intertwining, never-ending markets that can only be described as a labyrinth, where overly enthusiastic traders try to lure you into their colourful and full-to-the-brim stalls. With endless leather goods, spices, lanterns and shawls on offer, you are inclined to buy everything you can get your hands on. But beware: these traders love a tourist. You can see the cogs in their minds going into overdrive when you near their stall: a Westerner = inflated price. Haggling is a must. Bargain until you cannot bargain any more – half, even a third of their original offer and then walk away. Nine out of ten times this trick will work and they will lower the price.
DO visit the High Atlas Mountains
The beauty of Marrakech is its proximity to the High Atlas Mountains. Travelling to the Ourika Valley or one of the mountain villages (Ouirgane, Asni or Imlil), allows you to truly experience what this area of Morocco has to offer. The landscape is stunning: impressive mountains oversee a verdant valley dotted with thriving little villages and cascading waterfalls. Toubkhal, the highest mountain in North Africa, provided the backdrop to our stunning hotel, the Kasbah du Toubkhal. Treks up to the top of this summit take two to three days from the bustling village of Imlil, but with a huge variety of trek lengths and levels on offer, there is a suitable hike available to all those who are willing.
DON’T expect a booze-fest
Being a Muslim country, Morocco tends to be alcohol-free. If you’re lucky, your Riad may provide a small selection of locally produced beer or wine, but on the whole, alcohol is hard to come by. In the Medina it is almost impossible to find a bar or restaurant that serves a cheeky pint or G&T, with mint tea being the preferred drink. So if you’re looking for a booze-up, turn your thoughts to neighbouring Spain, where the vino flows left, right and centre.
Marrakech is undoubtedly one of the most intriguing places I have visited recently. Following this advice, I’m sure you will soon share in my enthusiasm for Moroccan culture.
Images by Mandy Caplan