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Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 7 [Friday]

Yesterday was our last day in Morocco, and we spent the majority of it sightseeing in the city itself. We started at the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college and one of the only Islamic buildings in the country that non-Muslims are allowed to enter. Morocco is well-known for its colourful mosaic tiling, and according to the guides this is because Muslims disapprove of idolatry, so the depiction of Allah or Muhammed as man or beast never appears in Islamic art or design, even in mosques. While a lot of the city is in a state of disrepair and unfortunately lacking a lot of the ornate decoration it once had, the Ben Youssef has been well-preserved. It was also updated by the Saadians in the 16th century, whose architecture is characterised by their tendency to cover every available surface with gemoetric and floral patterns, meaning that everywhere you looked you saw beautifully detailed tiling and intricately-cut woodwork, from floor to ceiling. We spent a long time exploring the central courtyard and the honeycomb of student bedrooms, which weren’t as impressive but still contained the original woodwork and ironwork around the windows and doors.

From there we went out for lunch – chicken tagine, bread, olives, mint tea and Morrocan pastries for just under £10 – then headed to the Marrakesh Museum. The building was really the star here; while the jewellery and weaponry were interesting to look it, we both felt there was a better collection in the far smaller museum at the Jardin Marjorelle. We did, however, find a small courtyard with an art gallery, which was so empty and quiet that for about five minutes we just stood there and enjoyed the silence.

Back out in the street, we navigated the traffic and headed down to the Koutoubia mosque, where we had sat on our first night in the city. We stayed in the gardens for a little while, then made our way to Café des Epices via the main square. I have to say, I still really don’t like it there in the day. Between dodging scooters, donkeys and horse-drawn carts, you’re also trying to avoid the men walking around with trained monkeys and the women grabbing at you as you walk past to apply henna – and charge you for it – before you have a chance to say no. We got there though, and had pancakes and honey in the sun looking out over the square.

Our dinner on our last night was some of the best food we’ve had so far. We went to Terrasse des Epices, a real hidden gem owned by the same people as the café we’d been in. We sat in sofas on a private booth on the terrace overlooking the rooftops of the souks, and had the most delicious selection of food: bread and olive tapenade; crab and avocado millefuille; a Moroccan salad trio of potato, carrot and roasted aubergine; lamb tagine with prunes and almonds; monkfish tagine with bell peppers and lemon; crème brulee; and double chocolate pudding. It really was the best goodbye meal we could have asked for, and the chilled-out atmosphere there was fantastic.

This blog has been a great way of documenting our trip, and it’s been both surprising and encouraging to know that so many other people have been reading it! I know holiday snaps are more traditional, but for me writing is a far more natural way to remember our adventures. I’ll upload some photos in the next day or so though, and post our favourites from each day. Over the next few days Robert and I will be de-briefing, and working out what we’ve learned – we are, after all, beginner travellers, although Morocco was a definite jump into the deep end!

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 6 [Thursday] – “Robert hates the sea.”

Today we had another excursion, this time out to Essaouira, a fishing port about three hours west of Marrakesh. We left our riad at about 8, and got to Essaouira at midday, after a couple of quick stops to take photographs of the landscape and of a herd of goats standing in the trees along the road (no, really – I’ll upload my own photos when I get home!).

Essaouira is beautiful. So peaceful, and quite European in style, but with the same tall, narrow streets and enclosed Islamic architecture designed to keep the sun and noise out. We started with a walk through the medina and did some shopping – Essaouira is often pegged as the woodwork capital of Morocco, so we picked up some souvenirs. The difference between shopping in Essaouira compared to the souks of Marrakech would make you think they were two different countries; there are no scooters allowed within the town walls, and we weren’t approached or hustled, just greeted warmly by shopkeepers sitting out on the street and allowed to amble around in our own time.

After stopping for a quick mint tea, I persuaded Robert that, as we were in Essaouira, we should have fish for lunch. I’d already read about the best way to eat fish here, but it was even more fun than I expected. Dozens of stalls along the harbour wall presented the day’s selection of seafood, and all you had to do was point to what you wanted and make up your own platter, which would then be grilled in front of you. I couldn’t help thinking of my dad and my brother and how much they’d love picking their own fish out! For £12 we had a platter for two, with prawns, red snapper, sole, squid, lobster and a couple of others that I didn’t even recognise, together with bread, salad and a drink. We ate while looking out over the harbour and the market square, me teaching Robert (who isn’t much of a fish person) how to peel prawns, and even he said later that he was glad we’d gone for that rather than a standard tourist cafe.

Afterwards, we explored the ramparts and fortifications of the harbour, which were quite medieval in style; I think this area has been quite heavily influenced by the French over the years. Apparently it’s a bit of a haven for travelling hippies, and I can easily see why; the fresh sea air and the laid-back atmosphere really showed us a completely different side of Morocco.

Okay, so since I wrote all of that Robert and I finally braved the night market in the main square – the big, famous, noisy, smoky mess of stalls serving street food. We are no longer relaxed, hahaha. We’re both feeling a bit buzzy and excitable really; the night market is so much fun, and I think walking through all of the seafood stalls in Essaouira this afternoon really prepared us for it. Waiters will quite literally grab you as you walk past, crack jokes in a dozen different languages (“Come and have a butcher’s, yeah? Butcher’s hook is look, come and look at what we have here!”) and point at the chefs on their stand, who in turn will shout and wave until you allow yourself to be led around the food display. We sat down in a couple of different places and had lamb skewers, cumin-spiced spinach with preserved lemons, roasted aubergine, chicken couscous, and a spicy almond cake with ginger and cinnamon tea. Oh, and lots of free mint tea!

While it’s a shame we only discovered the night market on our second-to-last night, I feel like the past six days have made both of us a lot more confident about saying no to people without feeling guilty. As a result, we had a really fun time with everybody who approached us, whether we ate with them or not. We really have seen a new side of Morocco today, from the gentle salespeople in Essaouira to the friendly and hilarious waiters in the night market. Today was the first time we felt completely comfortable in Morocco, and hopefully tomorrow, our last full day here, will be just as successful!

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 5 [Wednesday]

After our excursion yesterday, we decided to take it really easy today, so we made a plan to walk into the new part of Marrakesh and spend the day hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop. First though, we headed to Jardin Marjorelle, a highly-recommended botanical garden that lies alongside the busiest main road in the city, yet is somehow completely quiet and tranquil inside. Much of the garden is comprised of cacti from around the world, with colourful Moroccan ceramics in oranges and blues off-setting the greenery and a number of ponds containing fat red goldfish and tiny tortoises. Jardin Marjorelle also contains a memorial to the designer Yves Saint-Laurent, who owned the house and gardens. We walked through and enjoyed the peacefulness, then headed into the bright blue and yellow building which houses a museum of Islamic and Berber crafts, and an art gallery of Yves Saint-Laurent’s “Love” collection.

Once we’d left the gardens and made it into the main plaza for what was intended to be our first coffee of the day, we discovered that it was already gone 3pm, and that time had pretty much got away from us in the gardens! Instead, we had lunch in a superb cafe offering great decaf lattes, delicious baguettes and smooth jazz, and then took a look around the modern city – brand new plazas, water fountains, international stores and real traffic crossings! – before negotiating a taxi back to the centre of the old city. We had pizza overlooking the Koutoubia mosque, watched people come and go from the roof terrace, then wandered back towards the riad.

All in all, not the most eventful day, but definitely the most relaxing! I can’t recommend the Jardin Marjorelle enough. We spent a good portion of our day in there without really realising it, and for 25 dirham (about £2) it’d be the perfect place to visit with a book and just relax under the palm trees. Bliss.

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 4 [Tuesday] – Mountains and deserts and castles, oh my!

We did so much yesterday that it’s hard to describe it all without writing an essay, so I’ll try to keep this short and sweet. It was my birthday, and we decided to mark the occasion with a trip out to the nearby city of Ouarzazate, on a tour which took us through the Atlas mountains and via the ancient desert fortification of Ait Benhaddou. The drive itself was about four hours each way, but we stopped several times along the way to take pictures.

The journey through the mountains was amazing; the landscape changed so much as we climbed towards the top, and it was fascinating to see the Berber villages cut into the mountainsides. The lower valleys were really lush and fertile, with farmland and almond blossom covering most of the area, while the top was all red rocks and icy peaks. Words and photographs can’t adequately describe how beautiful it is.

At Ait Benhaddou we were given a guided tour through the town, climbing up and up through streets and tunnels until we reached the peak, where we could see for miles across the desert. The whole place was made from red clay and dry grass, apparently built over 1,000 years ago. We stopped for lunch with the rest of our tour group – a German couple and a lovely woman from New Zealand – before heading on to Ouarzazate, a big city with a huge kasbah. The whole city was far more peaceful than Marrakesh, and although it’s a long drive it’s definitely worth visiting; we both wish we’d had a little longer there to explore properly.

The drive back seemed to take forever – it was dark, so there were no views to enjoy – but we were dropped off at our riad just in time for dinner, a three-course meal of Moroccan specialties. We had a pumpkin harissa soup, followed by the most gorgeous slow-cooked lamb I’ve ever had: a tangier with prunes, peanuts and sesame seeds, with meat that just fell off the bone and melted in the mouth. For dessert, we had crepes with lemon curd and honey. It was by far the best food we’ve had since we got here!

All in all this might just be my favourite day so far – and definitely the best birthday I’ve ever had. Today we’re exploring the new part of Marrakesh, then tomorrow we’ve booked another trip to Essaouria. Excursions are so cheap here – our trip to Ait Benhaddou and Ouarzazate was 300 dirham each (£24), and tomorrow’s is only 250 dirham (£20) – so it’s definitely worth it just to escape the chaos of the city centre!

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakech: Day 3 [Monday] – Shopping and Souks

Today was shopping day, so our first stop after breakfast was to the Ensemble Artisanal, a small government-owned market with fixed prices and a distinct lack of pushy salesmen. It’s widely been recommended to go here before heading to the souks, as you can get a good idea of how much things are worth before trying out your haggling skills in the main square. Primarily a spot for tourists, it was blissfully peaceful and cool, and probably the highlight of the day for me.

From there we headed to the main square, the Djemma El Fna, which unfortunately I wasn’t hugely fond of. It’s an experience I guess, but I wouldn’t say the hype around it is justified. It’s just a big square with lots of people sitting around, a few monkey trainers to avoid, and plenty of overpriced tourist shops – for a small souvenir the salesman wanted 150 dirhams, (around £12) until I turned him down enough that he eventually offered it to me for 50 (£4).

We skirted around the edge of the souks in search of a hat. I think Robert enjoyed this a lot more than I did – I’m a little wary of over-friendly strange men at the best of times, and almost every stall owner will shout at you and follow you – but we were shown around a couple of lovely shops and one stall owner insisted on me trying on a scarf “so that you are ready for the desert!” We also found that we could get a nice tea set for about £20, probably less if I leave Robert in charge of bargaining, so that’s something to remember!

We had lunch in Cafe Baganziz, a small place with reggae music and ridiculously cheap food (chicken and olive tagine for £2.80!) then walked through the main souks back to the hotel. This area was actually a lot nicer, and I started to feel a lot more comfortable about looking at things. My confidence faltered a bit in a shoe shop though, and I didn’t haggle for a pair of shoes at all, so I probably paid too much for them.

We’re back at the hotel now, and will probably stay in this evening. Exploring the square and souks is quite overwhelming, and we have to be up at 6am tomorrow for a trip around the High Atlas mountains. We might try shopping again later in the week, but I think I’m done with central Marrakesh for the next few days!

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 2 [Sunday]

We woke up this morning at five o’clock. We’d forgotten that the first call to prayer is just before dawn, and from our riad we can hear maybe three or four mosques, each with rooftop megaphones projecting prayers out across the city. It’s hard to describe what it sounds like – it’s quite amazing to hear, and the sound of so many at once reminds me of an English air raid siren. I’m sure that visitors to the UK find our church bells just as noticeable, while for us it’s just background noise. The call to prayer happens six times a day, and I’m still not sure we’ll get used to it, but it’s a strangely pleasant sound.

We got up properly in the end and had breakfast – crepes and bread with jams, and coffee served in ceramic bowls. We’d decided to spend the day exploring, so we really just wandered around for most of the afternoon. There are no marked crossings on the main road – at least, none that the drivers pay any attention to – so learning how to dodge scooters, taxis, horses and donkeys was a fun first challenge. We went to the Koutoubia mosque, the largest in the city, where we sat in the gardens and looked at the outside of the tombs and buildings; then through another set of gardens and along towards the Kasbah, a busy, smoky area lined with shops and food stands, behind the Bab Aganou gate. We got lost, but found our way back (hooray!) and had a chat with a nice Berber lady who had some genuinely beautiful headscarves for sale – unfortunately, I’m not sure I could pull one off, so I left it. I also got a Berber leather bag from a different shop, and Robert managed to haggle the shopkeeper down a few dirhams – we probably still paid too much, but the successful transaction in French was reward enough!

Yesterday, we were worried that nobody in the city could be trusted. Today, I think we feel the same way, but accept that it’s  more our own flaw as stuffy English folk than that of the people here – the salespeople we’ve spoken to have been pushy, but genuinely nice. They know when you’re not interested, and they’ll still smile and wish you a good afternoon. One man offered us “free” doughnuts, only to chase us down and ask for payment a little later down the road. We’re definitely learning how to say no to people!

We had lunch in a little tourist café (which, by the way, was playing K-pop when we sat down) and headed back to the riad for a little nap, as it was around 25C and our delicate English constitutions were failing us. On the way back we met some adorable tri-lingual children, who sadly disappeared after being told we didn’t have any dirham for them.

Back at our riad we met a Dutch couple who kindly gave us one of their incredibly detailed maps, and showed us some of the shortcuts. They had just been on a two-day desert excursion, and were incredibly sweet and friendly. It seems like tourists in Marrakesh cling to each other to a certain degree, and we’ve found everybody really willing to help.

We headed out to dinner – last night we sat overlooking the main square, and this evening we were seated on a terrace across the road from the Koutoubia mosque. You can get a great meal here for so little money, especially if you order Italian – we went for steak skewers and a tagine, but they had freshly cooked pizzas right out of a stone oven for 65 dirham, which is around £5. As we were in sight of the mosque there was no alcohol served, but we’re big fans of the local favourite hot drink, green tea with mint and sugar.

Our second day has been more relaxing and a lot of fun. Tomorrow, we’re tackling the souks, but first we’re going to go to the government-owned market to get an idea of how much things should cost. Expect souvenirs!

Siobhan and Robert do Marrakesh: Day 1 [Saturday]

It’s been a long day! We left Luton around late morning time, and after the initial jitters of air travel had left me (thanks, gin and tonic, for always being a friend) we got chatting to a nice man called Ross on the flight, who gave us some great tips and recommendations. Before we knew it we were touching down in Marrakech, almost an hour earlier than scheduled. As we were descending we could see over the High Atlas mountains, and then the deserts and fruit groves, and finally the pink and grey rooftops of the city itself – a pretty impressive welcome!

The taxi driver from the hotel picked us up from the airport, and we got to experience the Marrakesh roads first-hand. Scooters everywhere, camels and donkeys on the side of the road, stunning old buildings and fountains on palm tree-lined avenues leading into the old city. Absolute chaos.

We parked up and were led through passageways and tunnels to our hotel, a traditional Moroccan riad which has a courtyard in the middle of it. Mohammed, our host, brought us mint tea and biscuits and took us through some of the essentials. He emphasised what we had already read online – that Marrakesh is very busy, and that everyone will offer to help you as long as you tip in return – and marked a few routes on the map for us.

We sat on the roof terrace and decided that we would brave the Djemma El Fna (the main square) for dinner, despite it being our first night and having not really become attuned to the atmosphere of Morocco. We plotted a route on the map, and made our way down towards the square. Predictably though, we were soon greeted by a very friendly chap who just so happened to notice that we looked lost, and he’d be ever so happy to show us the right way – with a quick detour to his dad’s shop, a whirlwind trip through the souks and a couple of quid thrown his way afterwards. It was frustrating, and then funny; being treated like the gormless tourist that you are seems like an essential part of the Marrakesh experience, and he was at least able to take us to a cash machine and the night markets.

The common phrase used to describe the night market is “an assault on all senses”. This is completely accurate. After being spun about by groups of scooter drivers and accosted by a man wielding a snake, we decided we were feeling a little overwhelmed, so we ducked into an Italian restaurant overlooking the square. From here we could see over the market stalls and across to the main Mosque, which made for a far better place to get our bearings and ease into the bustle of the central area.

We worked out a way to get back to the riad without needing to navigate the souks, by using the Koutoubia mosque as a kind of landmark. Surprisingly, we made our way back with no problems! We therefore deem our first night in Morocco a success – although it is 9pm, and we are in our pyjamas.

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