A kaleidoscope of colours filtered through my receptors as light streamed in through the stained-glass windows. The warm air whipped an array of spices around that tickled my nose on this first fine morning in Marrakesh. Staying in the centre of the old town, in an effort to really soak up the Moroccan atmosphere and hype, we were a little taken aback when we hit the streets mid morning to find them rather empty. But why? What didn’t we know?
Marrakesh really is a vibrant city, but one that we found only comes alive after about 3pm. It is around this time that you begin to rub shoulders with locals and tourists alike. However, with this being said, as Morocco is 99% Islamic you will hear the adhãn (call to prayer) throughout the day (and night/5 times in 24 hours). Being religious myself, I can appreciate the priority and importance placed on prayer and stopping life momentarily for it. As the adhãn bellows out from the tower, men will either go to a mosque or put a mat out in a quiet space and remove their shoes to begin to pray – which almost seems like a mild routine or meditation.
Once the sun has removed its sting the street vendors are out in full force with their smoking food, snake charmers lure the best of us and glass coloured lanterns sparkle as they line the pavement of Jemaa el-Fna, the main square in Marrakesh’s medina quarter.
Food is in abundance here, with a variety of vendors to choose from – both stalls and restaurants. Trying a mixture of everything I found the stall food to be the most entertaining and tantalising. As our server told us as he was trying to get our business: “Lady, everyone here is serving the same shit so eat with me!”. By his own words, he was right!
Every vendor really did have pretty much the same thing and boy was it fresh and flavoursome. Sitting along allocated tables in front of your chosen vendor, the meal was an intimate one with the people either side! Luckily we were on the end so only had to battle with one other conversation…that is, until the cookie boys came by! You see, as you sit and allow your tastebuds to be kicked sideways, teenage boys with carts rock by with a selection of cookies and biscuits to be bought (I think they passed us about 6 times and every time we said “next round” or “a bit later” and let me tell you…they did not forget!). The biscuits were more flakey than what we expected but each were yummy and a great way to end off the evenings food venture.
Of course there is a vast selection of local food to be tried but also your typical western meals can be sought from various restaurants. After a few tagines and unknown spices, the occasional pizza or KFC was welcomed!
You could happily explore Marrakesh for a couple of days (as we did) and feel you had done it justice. The souks are an experience in and of themselves – remember tourist = hiked up prices! I would suggest (and wish I had done) hiring a guide for a souk or food tour so you can fully understand and appreicate all that is Morocco!
If I had the luggage room I would have bought loads of hand made items for my home…if I had a home! I’d also suggest spending some time in the Jewish quarter and trying different teas from the tea souks around the area. I bought some Moroccan mint tea, which is unlike any other mint tea I have experienced. A definite sniff or taste test of eucalyptus crystals in your tea is something you just have to do! If you need a sinus cleans, this will do it! There are apparently a number of quality hammams (baths) but I didn’t have time to get to one, which I regret.
Marrakesh is a great place to use as a base in order to do a number of day trips. We decided to spend a day in Essaouira, a windswept coastal town that is only 2.5 hours southwest of Marrakesh. Not only was this seaside town once controlled by the Portuguese (who named it Mogador) but also where Season 3 of Game of Thrones was filmed – where Daenerys meets the Unsullied. Prior to the Portuguese, Essaouira also passed through Phoenician, Carthaginian and Roman control.
You could easily mistake Essaouira to be a backdrop for an up and coming Hollywood blockbuster, however this seaside town has been studied by historians and there is evidence of prehistoric settlements and, in the 5th century BC, the first known settlement was established.
Sitting on the Atlantic Coast, Essaouira is protected by the 18th century seafront ramparts (built by the Portuguese) that still have the original brass cannons firmly atop. The medina is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site and a stroll through the streets is definitely a must; alleys and souks take one on a colourful journey as bright wooden doors line the cobbled streets. Windsurfers also head to Essaouira for adventure filled days on the water.
Funnily enough, it was a population of indigenous sea snails, found off the coast of Essaouira on Purple Island, that really brought much focus to Essaouira. Juba II, a tribal king, found the murex and began extracting the purple dye they produced and began selling the dye to merchants. The dye was prized for its richness in colour.
The heat was defintiely getting to us, so we decided to go and relax on the beach, where you can rent deck chairs for hours at a time. Being here, you feel like you’re in a constant shade of orange with the sand being the same colour as the surrounding town! Touching the Atlantic Ocean was a highlight for me! There is just something about water lapping up over your feet that has traveled miles to be with you…in that one moment.
Liking the day trip idea, we headed to Ouzoud Waterfalls, located 150km from the city in the Grand Atlas region.
Considered one of Morocco’s natural wonders, Ouzoud falls have taken to being known as the most beautiful in Northern Africa even though they fall 7m short of being the highest on the continent!
The cascading falls take their name from ‘grinding grain’ and fall into pools as they descend into the valley below with its lush surrounds. The area of the falls remains relatively untouched by tourism, even though the falls are considered one of the top places to visit while in Morocco.
You can easily find tour operators in Marrakesh who offer various packages to get to the Tanaghmeilt village, where the falls are located. Morocco is rather affordable if you are on a budget, with our trip to Ouzoud costing no more that AUD30 each (USD25). The hike to the base of the falls is easy, with smooth paths and the occasional need to move a branch or two out of your way. As you venture down, you are met by locals who use the dusty soil for small crops. Once at the base of the falls there are a number of things that can be done from taking a boat ride closer to the splashing water, having a swim, feeding monkeys and enjoying a warm tagine.
There is a section where you can jump into the water from a small height – a challenge I took over 5 minutes to attempt – continually walking to look over the edge and then psyching myself out! Finally, due to one guy refusing to go unless I did, I jumped – scream free! Bless you, random guy! Poor Kieran – he videoed the whole time!
Marrakesh, our first taste of spicy Morocco, did not disappoint. Of course there is much more to do and see and I would indeed venture back again – but for the time being, my body can do without the 25 spice cleanse! Don’t let that deter you, however, for it truly is a magical place and one that I feel would be best enjoyed with a guide from time to time.
Leaving the hot and charming former imperial city in western Morocco, it was now the Sahara Desert that began calling our names!