"Journal: Donna & Sandy in Marrakesh" Marrakesh Travelogue by Donna_in_India
Marrakesh Travel Guide: 2,159 reviews and 5,867 photos
PREVIOUS STOP: PARIS
Our flight from Paris to Marrakesh via Madrid finally left Madrid several hours late. The flight time was 2 hours long and there was a time difference of 2 hours. By the time we landed and made our way out of the airport in Marrakesh, it was past 11 p.m. Our first encounter was with a taxi driver who promptly ripped us off by charging about 3 times the normal airport-city fare. In addition to that, he didn’t really know where we were going, so he dropped us off near the main square (Jemaa el Fna), pointed us in a direction and told us our hotel was about 600 meters away. So we started to walk – wheeling our suitcases along the narrow, dark alleyways, looking just like “fresh” tourists waiting to be scammed or worse.
By now it was close to midnight, there was no (telephone) answer at the Riad we were staying at and none of the “creatures of the night” we encountered along the way knew where it was. It was really scary as hell. Many days later, I can look back and say it wasn’t so awful, but it absolutely was. Men were following us; at one point four or five of them tried to get Sandy to come down another alleyway telling him they knew where our Riad was. By then, I had had it. We had been walking for over 30 minutes and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. We walked a little further and encountered a drunk who wouldn’t leave us alone. Finally we came to a parking lot with a lone taxi and put our luggage in. The drunk was still bothering us and the taxi driver was trying to push him off. I was trying to close my door and the drunk was trying to pull it open. After getting it closed, another guy tried to get in the front seat to go for the ride with us. I freaked out and tried to get out of the taxi only my door wouldn’t open. There was no one else around and if the taxi driver hadn’t been legit, we would have been screwed. He told the other guy he couldn’t come along and we finally left. Since we couldn’t find our Riad we told the driver to head to the only hotel we saw on the way in from the airport, The Sofitel. We unloaded our stuff and went in thinking we could get a room. No such luck – they were completely booked. But they told us to go across the street to Hivernage Hotel and Spa, where we did get a room. By the time we were settled in our room, we were both shaken. I was ready to get on a plane out of there, but we decided to see how things looked in the day.
It turns out that the Hivernage is one of the “leading hotels of the world”, but the sliding door to the balcony didn’t lock, the air conditioning didn’t work, and the bathtub didn’t drain. The room was just okay, not spectacular, but I was to find out the next day that it was a bargain. We finally feel asleep, knowing that we needed to get up the next day to find another room. The Hivernage was booked for the next few days; we didn’t realize this was the busy season in Marrakesh.
The next day I checked online for a hotel. To my surprise the following was actually listed on hotel booking websites:
• Moroccan citizens (either male or female) are not permitted to share a room with a foreign citizen if not married.
• Unmarried Moroccan couples are not permitted to share a room.
• Homosexuality is prohibited, although same-sex travellers can share a room with twin beds (this should be specified at the time of booking to avoid confusion).
Marrakesh is a strict Muslim city and we would be surprised at the reactions “we” (as a couple) would encounter. Sandy was even stopped by a cop who thought he was Morrocan because he was with me. He really got some dirty looks from people when they saw us. Most people thought he was Arab (they didn’t like that) or Moroccan. A few people did guess that he was Indian and immediately associated that with Shah Rukh Khan, which was pretty funny. Most people thought I was Spanish, even speaking to me in Spanish. No one guessed I was American – which I guess was a good thing there!
Anyway back to the hotels…. the rooms were unbelievably expensive – pretty standard looking (and poorly reviewed) rooms at Le Meridien were $555 for weekend nights, Sofitel was almost as expensive and fully booked! There really was very little choice but I managed to find a Riad that had just opened in December. The only room available was a suite, and we really had little choice but to take it. At least it was less then Le Meridien! We headed over to Las Borjs De La Kasbah to check in and found a very nice place behind the front door – as is the case with most of the Riads in Marrakech. You don’t know what treasures lay behind the scruffy front door. A Riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden and our place was very nice and in a great location in the old city. When we arrived for check in we were served mint tea (a specialty of Marrakesh and delicious!) and shown to our room, which was really nice.
Marrakech is split into the old city and the new city. The old city is surrounded by a 9km wall and is where all most of the sights are – Jamaa el Fna, the souks, Mosques, Riads, bathhouses, etc. The new city has the higher end hotels, a few casinos and nightclubs, etc. It is also considerably far from the old city and there is little transportation available.
After unpacking we walked through “our neighborhood” to the Jemaa el Fna. The Jemaa el Fna is the geographical, social and cultural center of the Medina full of the odd and unusual – but unfortunately all geared to the tourist. There are musicians, snake charmers, monkey handlers, etc. all trying to persuade you to give them money for taking a picture. Most of the activity is at night when food stalls also open, but there are still plenty of people around in the day. We walked through the square and before we knew it, a man approached Sandy, wrapped a couple of snakes around his neck, stuck a fez on his head, and waited for me to take a picture. Once we realized the game, we were able to avoid the scams. It’s really a shame because you can easily imagine what the square was like a hundred years ago. People gathered, there was food, and storytellers, and it was a true experience. Now it is nothing more then a staged circus.
After walking around for a while we picked a nice restaurant and settled in at a table in a pretty courtyard surrounded by green trees. Sandy ordered lamb and I ordered chicken tagine. The tagine is a thick sauce made with olives (one of my favorites and one of the main products of Morocco). It was really delicious.
After lunch we boarded a hop on/hop off bus to get a feel for the city. The entire route took about 90 minutes and we went around both the old city and the new city, passing mosques and gardens along the way. One of the things that I was so disappointed about in Marrakesh was the architecture of the mosques. I love the big domed mosques a la Istanbul, but these were all straight towers – nothing very notable. While on the bus we passed Pizza Hut and a McDonald’s, where the McArabia was the specialty burger.
By the time we arrived back at the JEF it was dusk, the square was a flurry of activity as the food stalls set up their cooking facilities and tables and chairs, something they did nightly. There were a few cafes with rooftop terraces surrounding the square and we tried unsuccessfully to get a table. We finally had our cappuccinos outside on the street level where we were still able to get a good view of the goings on.
After it got dark we started walking down the alleyways to our room. We passed through a local area where there were little shops, launderers, vegetable/fruit stalls, etc. There was also a butcher and I was shocked to see what he had hanging off the counter!! I took a picture and I think you’ll be able to figure out what it is – but I have no idea what animal it came from.
We ate dinner at our hotel, which unfortunately wasn’t very good. I tired the beef and it was awful. The meat smelled so that I couldn’t even get the fork past my nose and into my mouth! I’m not even sure if it was cow beef! We settled in to our gigantic bed and watched….French TV! Oh God – it has been so long since I’ve read an English paper or seen an English TV program!
The next day we headed walked back to the JEF. Across the way is La Koutoubia – a mosque. We walked around it and to the gardens behind, but not being able to go in, there wasn’t much to see. At the JEF we headed down one of the alleys to the Hammam Ziani. Hammams are public bathhouses dating back to when most homes didn’t have a bath so people gathered at a Hammam for their baths – a very social experience. In Muslim tradition, the men’s and women’s sections are separate so Sandy and I parted ways at the door. Inside our experiences would be the same. First you change out of your clothes – women may either wear a bikini, underwear, or nothing at all. Then you go into a circular steam room that has marble stools and stool-level sinks. You wash yourself – while one of the women washes your back – with this brown, gooey, soft soap – think molasses. After that you sit in the steam for several minutes until someone comes for you. You lay down on a table and your skin is scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed – the idea being to take off all the dead skin. Then you are washed again before heading to the massage table where you have a wonderful massage. The table is plastic coated and when combined with the massage oil you are kind of sliding all over. It was wonderful! Next it’s time for another wash, and at another table you are smeared with seaweed before being wrapped in plastic (sort of mummy like). For the next 30 minutes or so you are just so relaxed you are almost sleeping. Too soon, it’s time to get up and get in the shower.
After our Hammam experience we decided to tackle shopping at the Souks at the JEF. But first we stopped in at the Musee Dar Si Said, housing just a few paintings, musical instruments, etc. Then it was on to the Souks. The term souk is used to designate the market in any Arabized city. There are so many stalls – it’s just a huge maze and it’s really quite easy to get lost. We bought a few things. They have some really nice and some really funky kinds of shoes – like Ali Baba so we bought some of those for gifts. I bought some olives (black oil cured) – and the guy thought I was crazy because I just wanted a little amount. He didn’t understand at first until Sandy used the scooper to show him what I wanted. He was shaking his head and muttering and in the end I had a good amount of olives for less then 50 cents – and they were delicious!! We found a mirror that we really liked and compared the prices between a few stalls. It was really amazing that the difference in price ran up to 3 times the lowest amount. They really do screw the tourists! I hate to bargain so I’ll walk away – and just as you start to do that, most of the sellers will start shouting lower prices at you. Rarely do I go back.
For lunch we headed to McDonald’s. I had a Big Mac – and to tell you the truth – I’m sure the beef was pretty gross but there was so much “special sauce” on the thing, that I could at least eat it. But that would be the end of my beef in Marrakesh.
Back at the JEF, we planned to stop at a café for a cappuccino. Along the way I spotted an elderly man at a table. The table was full of loose teeth (human) and what looked like a bunch of false teeth in “gums”. I’m not sure if he was a dentist or what??? but I snapped a photo and started to walk away. He jumped up and grabbed me trying to get money for the photo. I didn’t give him any and managed to get away. That kind of thing happens all over and unfortunately I became uncomfortable trying to take photos.
We hadn’t really been having much luck with the food in Marrakesh. So we decided to get some street food from our neighborhood. I knew there was a lot of lamb (which I don’t like) and wasn’t really sure that I would find something I’d like so I went to the bakery and bought some crepes – just in case. While Sandy was waiting for some kebab thing to grill, I found a stall that had a sandwich - some kind of egg, potato, cheese, and a whole lot of other stuff I didn’t recognize! I figured I’d try it. It ended up being really good and the crepes (which were filled with fruit and fresh cream) were yummmmmmy!
The next day we headed for the Tombeaux Saadiens located next to the Mosque of the Kasbah. The tombs hold the remains of rulers from the 15 & 1600’s. It was an interesting place with mosaic tiled tombs – just the top (umarked) was above the ground. We walked through the Souks to the Musee de Marrakech, a former palace. I loved the mosaic tile work, the intricate carvings, and the arches. We went to the Medersa Ben Youssef, a 16th century school and the Kpubba Almoravide, a tower adjacent to the Ben Youssef Mosque (which of course, we couldn’t enter). Done with sightseeing for the day, we had our cappuccino at the JEF and picked up dinner to bring back to the hotel.
We had an early evening flight out of Marrakesh the next day. Our first stop that morning was the Palais De La Bahia. It really had some beautiful rooms, even some with tiled fireplaces. I thought it was the prettiest place we saw in Marrakech. We had already made an appointment for another Hammam experience. This time it was at Les Bains de Marrakech. It was supposed to be the best in Marrakesh. This one was different then our other one – geared more for foreigners I guess since we both stayed together throughout this one. Same set up only side by side – wash, scrub, very short massage, steam. We showered together, then had some mint tea before dressing. We didn’t enjoy this one as much as our other one – kind of felt “assembly line” and rushed.
We decided to skip seeing two other palaces since we figured they would be similar to what we’d already seen and instead headed back to JEF one last time. We made our way up to a roof top terrace for a late lunch of really good pizza, cappuccino and crème brulee (which was delicious!).
We started walking back to our Riad and stopped at a stall in our neighborhood that had soaps and spices. We had passed by previously and there was a cute boy in there (about 10) trying to get us to buy something. Sandy had told him we’d come back but he was surprised when we did. So he told us he was going to give us a “good deal”. That really should have been our clue. We bought some mint tea and wonderful amber soap. Somehow we miscalculated grams and well….don’t ask!! Let’s just say we now have some very expensive tea and soaps!
Our afternoon/evening would get worse. There was a huge check in line at the airport. Our bags were overweight and they had the nerve to charge 12 Euros a KG. Our flight was delayed a couple of hours and there were no announcements, no flight screens showing departure info, and the employees at the airport were unbelievably dumb. By that time we couldn’t wait to get out of there!!
Soon after we were in the air leaving Marrakesh behind for good!
I loved the mint tea and tangine sauce, the Hammam experience and some of the beautiful architecture. So glad I went - and survived - Marrakesh, but I won't be back!
NEXT STOP: MADRID...
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