Food and I have a somewhat biannual tradition of not being in the United States for Thanksgiving. We never miss Christmas—because no one quite does festive cheer like our family—but Thanksgiving is a bit more flexible; twelve pound turkeys be damned. Thanksgiving can be had most anywhere, after all it’s largely a celebration of gratitude, so this past year Food and I opted for Marrakech, Morocco. I’d heard and researched a little about the food, colors, and history of Morocco as a whole prior to visiting and did my due diligence before landing in Marrakech. I went prepared—timeline in hand—but there was absolutely nothing that could prepare me for the real deal.
I landed half a day before Food and opted to save a bit of cash and take the bus in. It was an experience and a half. Even with a mini suitcase and a pre-planned route, navigating the back streets of Marrakech was close to impossible. It took me close to an hour and a half from the moment I left the airport to find my riad, essentially the Moroccan version of a bed & breakfast, and only then thanks to the help of a wonderful woman who solely spoke French. She patiently listened to my query in both English and Spanish before taking me to her husband, the owner of another riad. He spoke to me, called a friend, and had located my riad in less than ten minutes. The power of teamwork. Lo and behold, my riad didn’t have any external sign or indication of existence, so my confusion was understandable. I was astonished by how gorgeous it was and decided getting lost may have been worthwhile. I’d still recommend some signage though.
After settling in, I wandered for a while, taking in everything I knew Food wouldn’t want to do, until she joined me. Due to how late she arrived, our Thanksgiving meal ended up being naan and yogurt. Definitely not turkey, mash, and dressings but still not bad.
I’m going to have to do a mad dash through everything we did over the next several days so you can get to the juicy part, so bear with me.
See: It sounds so stereotypical to say “start with Jemaa el-Fnaa”, but I’m saying it. The main square is alive with all sorts of things—food booths, fruit booths, snake charmers (not my fave), souk stands, and much much more. It’s a critical part of the old city and nearly impossible to miss. The Koutoubia Mosque overlooks the square, but don’t try and walk in unless you’re a practicing Muslim. Food accidentally started walking into a mosque because she thought it was another pretty storefront. Fortunately, I think I yanked her out before anyone noticed, but gracious… talk about religious invasion. If you’re looking for ornate and beautiful stop by the Bahia and Badi Palaces. They’re empty of furniture, but the rooms are so gorgeous that the lack of seating or historical information is forgiven. Speaking of history, the Mellah quarter, or old Jewish area, has a solid backstory as does the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an old academy. For some nature, go to the Jardin Majorelle or the Aset Moulay Abdeslam Cyber Gardens. Majorelle is more popular and costs €9, while Cyber is free. Choose wisely.
Do: You can schedule a rub down at a hammam for between 50-100 dirhams. We were going to do it, but we heard that the traditional nude scrubbing basically rips you a new layer of skin and instead opted to get henna at the Marrakesh Henna Art Cafe. Other great experiences are koutchi rides through the palm trees, traditional Moroccan cooking classes, and tours of the tanneries, but be prepared for the smell. Food and I took a cooking class through a local hostel and loved it—we shopped in the bazaar and assisted the instructors in making a great veggie tajine and couscous. I’m all about some animal-based protein, but the vegetable one had just as much flavor and was surprisingly easy to make once you had all the ingredients.
Eat: Amal, Bazar Cafe, La Cantine des Gazelles, and more. Literally just go anywhere. Nothing is bad and you’ll likely be happy with any of the dishes. I include food in way too many other parts of this blog, likely because it was so dang good and so critical to my experience of Marrakech, so just read the rest for specifics.
The Great: Everything is gorgeous, the shopping was cheap, and the food was amazing. Around every corner was a new color, carving, stonework, tiling, or scene that was delightful and surprising. I could have easily walked around photographing Marrakech for a week and not run out of beauty. In the souks you could find gorgeous products, such as pottery, scarves, Moroccan oil, and, likely most importantly, rugs for pretty good prices if you shopped around and bartered well. I learned to always start with at least half the quoted price for best results.
Food wanted to buy a rug while we were there, and, had I had a home or apartment to decorate in the following months, I definitely would have. As far as food goes, I enjoyed literally everything I put into my mouth, which is rare. You have to have at least one bum restaurant per country. Those are the rules. I wanted to bring back most of the pastries we had each morning and have actually googled the recipe for chicken tajine a few times since. I was able to bring back some spices (actually a mixture of 13 different ones), but tragically left them in Spain when I moved home. I hope my old flatmates enjoy them.
The Irritating: Sweet sweet sweet baby Jesus. I know it’s not all men, but, by God, in Marrakech it truly felt like ALL men. Within an hour of landing in Marrakech, a souk owner grabbed me, kissed my hand, and told me I looked like an American movie star. Not far down that same road I had a man beckon me into his shop by calling me “sexy Lady Gaga.” Ten minutes later, I had a middle-aged man ask me how many camels my dad wanted for me; my answer was “Too many.” I thought maybe that’d deter him, but he followed down the road and responded that I’d be worth it. Given how sassy I was feeling at the time, probably not. Later that night, a man asked my sister why I was fat and she wasn’t and stated I was mad at him because men don’t give me enough attention in my own country like he was. Ha.
Appallingly, I quickly learned that pretending to speak languages other than English and French does NOT help. They speak every language I’m vaguely familiar with and then some—Spanish, English, Portuguese. No relief. The right type of attention can be flattering, but too much attention is always annoying. By the time we left, I was swearing I’d never get married because I was so done and I know Food felt the same way. As young, unattached women, merely walking through Marrakech was like an invitation for unwarranted attention. I don’t dress immodestly; neither does Food. The wildest thing I wore in Marrakech was red lipstick, on which day I had men offering me money to kiss them—and honestly, I should’ve capitalized.
The Life-Threatening: While there was never a time I felt threatened by the ostentatious flirting and borderline aggressive catcalling, both Food and I found the way that the old streets were structured to be a bit of a life-threatening condition. Cars and motorbikes don’t slow down and with how crowded we were between the tight walls, souk stands, and crowded people, sometime this caused near death experiences. One motorbike was less than inches from hitting both Food and a small local boy as it rapidly turned out from a side street, which caused Food to panic, breaking into tears from relief at not becoming roadkill, and the boy to yell and throw a rock at the guy—two very different coping mechanisms. Needless to say, I would not feel comfortable traveling to Marrakech with children or really anyone who isn’t on high-alert.
Stay in a riad in the Medina. Not only did staying in the old city put us closer to most of the things we wanted to see, allowing us to walk most everywhere and saving money on transport, but the riads are pricelessly charming. Waking up and walking outside to a breakfast of homemade Moroccan pastries, such as biscuits, corne de gazelle, sfinge and crepes, was luxurious. Their jams and preserves were tasty and don’t even get me started on the mint tea and fresh orange juice. I would happily drink both a few times a day forever.
Organize transport in advance. While I actually liked getting lost in the end, as it allowed me to see some parts of the old Medina that I otherwise wouldn’t have, it made for a confusing twenty minutes. Organizing your initial arrival into Marrakech in advance and then—after you know how to get back to your riad, hotel, or hostel—getting lost may be a better bet. Don’t rely on the locals to get you to places and definitely don’t take the assistance of any number of men who so kindly offer to carry your bags. They generally expect payment at the final destination.
Don’t expect great wi-fi connectivity… it’s Morocco. While I came with very limited things to do for my holiday weekend, and had planned out most our activities and meals, frustration was had from even trying to send the most minimal text. Internet does not exist. Accept it and move on.
Eat everything. I highly recommend the tajines, couscous, fish, lamb chops, apricot-roasted chicken, and all the breakfast foods I listed in #1 (sfinge is a donut and their style of crepes is a bit different than Paris, but still scrumptious). Pop into local cafes for a quick mint tea in the afternoons, take a cooking class, and eat in the main square for cheap eats surrounded by all the smells, sounds, and sights that make Marrakech special.
And last, but decidedly not least, don’t get flustered. I’ll return to Marrakech someday… maybe not particularly soon, but when I do I’ll be armed with at least twelve awful comebacks to unnecessary catcalling (Such as “Marrakech me if you can!” as I speedwalk away.) and a guide to dealing with runaway motorbikes. Go to Marrakech when in your twenties or thirties with no kids or later on in life when the kids have left and you’re flying free. It’s an enjoyable place—seriously, I loved parts of it so much that I’d pay to have them shipped to me—but, having experienced it once, I won’t be going back for a good long while. If I go back to Morocco I’m thinking somewhere a bit smaller. Maybe Essaouira, Fes, or Sidi Ifni… but, given that Food’s sworn off Morocco, I’ll need a new travel partner. Any takers?
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