How to survive Marrakech
As the sun goes down, the tempo rises in Jemaa el Fna, traders pour into this vast square in the heart of the medina with carts laden with brass lamps and ceramic pots, steam rises over the rapidly erected food stalls boiling pungent sheeps’ heads, camel tongues and cow udders, and crowds crouch on the ground around storytellers, their laughter drowned out by the drumming of several bands.
A woman grabs my hand and tries to dab it with henna, I pull away and nearly step on a coiled snake rising to the tune of a flute; I dodge a man who wants to put his monkey on my shoulder, swerve out of the way of a horse –drawn carriage and narrowly avoid being hit by a moped.
Welcome to colourful, chaotic, crazy Marrakech.
That morning, I’d sat on the terrace of the historic Café de France on one side of the square, sipping nus-nus (half milk, half coffee), watching as tourists piled into minibuses to take them on excursions into the desert and passers by bought fruit from stalls. At that time, the square seemed almost quiet compared to the evening, when it really comes alive.
“This city taught me colour” – Yves Saint-Laurent
Now I walk between two long rows of food stalls where locals and tourists sit crammed side by side on benches, devouring steaming plates of boiled meat and veg. Large green squares display the number of each stall. A guy tries to coax me to sit at Number 29, and when I shake my head he says in near- perfect English: “Come on, we have the same shit as everyone else but ours is better!” I laugh and he goes on: “Lifetime guarantee, no diarrhea. Come on, we have air con,” he adds, wafting his menu card in front of my face.
A couple of seated tourists give me the thumbs up. “It’s good,” one woman shouts, but I’m not convinced the street vendor’s guarantee will be honoured, so instead I retreat from the onslaught of sounds and smells to the peaceful roof terrace of my nearby riad, from where I watch the storks nesting on the crumbling walls of the Badii palace.
So different, so exotic is Marrakech that it’s hard to believe it’s only a 3.5-hour flight from London and I’d definitely recommend it for a spring or autumn break, but it’s also pretty full on, so here’s my 8-point survival guide:
1: I loved my riad in the heart of the medina and it was fantastic to stay within a few minutes’ walk of all the main attractions, but for a week-long trip I’d recommend a two-centre, possibly combining a stay in a resort hotel iwith a pool in the Palmeraie area on the edge of the town with few nights in a riad.
It costs about £10 in a ‘Petite Taxi’ to travel between the medina and Palmeraie. You can hail a Petite Taxi on the street.
2: Best time to visit is from September/October or from March to June, when it’s warm but not roasting and less crowded than in the peak seasons, which are Easter and Christmas. Note that although it is unusual, it can be cold in Marrakech from November to February.
3: Even in the cooler months, do your sightseeing first thing in the morning, before the heat and the smells intensify.
4: If you’re there for more than a couple of days, you’ll need a break from the souks and sights, so plan to have at least one pool day. Many of the small hotels in the medina have pools which you can pay to access for the day, some have lunch-inclusive packages. I spent a day at Nikki Beach in Palmeraie, which was pricey at £40 a head, but it was worth it for the views of the desert.
5: The Yves Saint-Laurent museum and the Majorelle Gardens also provide welcome respite from the onslaught of sounds and smells in the medina, but they do get crowded so aim to be there early. Also, if there’s a queue for the Gardens, it’s sometimes quicker to get a combined ticket at the museum, which also allows access to the gardens. Alternatively, a drink on the terrace of Winston Churchill’s favoured Marrakech hotel, La Mamounia, which is not far from the YSL Museum in the modern part of the town, followed by a wander around the hotel’s tranquil gardens provides a lovely respite from the frenzied streets of the old town.
6: Getting around by taxi is easy and cheap – as long as you agree a price with the driver before you get in. Be prepared to bargain hard, and walk away if they’re asking too much because chances are they’ll back down and if they don’t, never mind, another taxi will come along in a minute.
7: You need to keep your wits about you at all time; Marrakech is very busy with mopeds, taxis, donkeys and carts and horses zooming jostling for space – often on the pavements – and even though they’re skilled at avoiding tourists and I never saw any road rage, it’s best to watch where you’re walking!
8: Dirham is the local currency but you can’t take any in or out of the country so your best option is to buy some from one of the foreign exchange bureaux in the airport baggage hall then use your debit card to withdraw dirhams from the many ATMs in the city. Credit cards are also widely accepted (although you’ll need cash for smaller purchases from market stalls).
If your bank or credit card charge fees for overseas usage, I recommend getting a pre-paid currency card instead. I use Revolut, which offers a great exchange rate, although it was refused in one or two places, which I think was due to the lack of an internet connection. This also happened one or twice in Israel.
If you have any left over dirhams at the end of your trip, you can exchange them at the airport before you go through security. After security you can only use them to pay for food and drink, not duty-free.
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