6 Hours in… Marrakesh

When it comes to travelling, I can’t help but try to cram as much stuff in as possible. I’ve never been able to lie about the beach or pool for more than a few hours, for fear I die of boredom, or worse – sunburn. So even though the city of Marrakesh was 3 hours’ drive from Agadir, it was hard to resist.

Up we got from our cosy beds at 6AM in order to hit the road at 7AM, me with a terrible cold I knew was going to make me feel like death for the rest of the trip. Damn you, crap immune system! Still, I covered myself with just enough makeup to look presentable, and we met our pals from admiremorocco.com, Hassan and Mustapha, at the villa gates. “Wow Alice, is that you?” said a tired-looking Hassan. Should have thought of a cool comeback to that, but I didn’t. Never mind.

As the sun rose over the highway, we excitedly chattered about the day ahead. I’d given Hassan a list of about 7 sites we wanted to see, and though after doing a bit of research it quickly became apparent it’d be impossible to do all of them, our guide ambitiously said we’d try. We mainly wished to see the Majorelle Gardens (where designer Yves Saint Laurent lived in the latter part of his life), the historic Bahia Palace, the ornate Koutoubia Mosque, and have some time at the end for grockle shopping in Marrakesh’s famous souk.

And that’s exactly what we did, but we also saw some cool things on the way. As we cruised past the Crocopark (which I’ve heard is really shit, a couple of Tripadvisor reviews say there are only 3 crocodiles in there or something), we spotted something weird in the argan trees on the other side of the road. It wasn’t shoes, or a fun new type of squirrel. Nope, a group of rather agile goats had decided to ascend the spiny branches in search of grub.

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Goats. In a tree. WTF?

Apparently they do this because they want to eat the nuts. Then they go off and poo the seeds back out again somewhere, helping to grow more argan trees, a boon to the Moroccan economy. Cool, huh? Other tourists visiting from Agadir pay good money to come here, but we got a cheeky glimpse for free, as Hassan simply pulled into the side of the motorway. Now I’m feeling really smug.

Climbing back into the minivan, the drive would take us through a short portion of the Atlas Mountains, before hitting the Marrakesh plateau. But as we began our climb into the hills, the van’s revs dropped down to nearly nothing, and we slowed. As someone with a car that’s permanently on the brink of dying, I know this feeling all too well. It was breakdown time, so the hard shoulder became our rest stop for the next hour, while a replacement car sped over to our location. The coach trips whizzed past us, so I guess they were the ones laughing now.

We entertained ourselves by taking turns to be DJ. I gave it a go, but I live by the rule of ‘my car, my music’, which isn’t exactly conducive to creating a party atmosphere at 9AM on the side of a Moroccan highway. The gauntlet was swiftly passed to my friends and to Hassan, both of whom helped me discover some new bangers to add to my ‘music I listen to when I’m sad because it reminds me of holidays and that I have a life and also friends’ playlist.

Some questionable dance moves and a new van later, we were back on the road to Marrakesh. Passing by mountains, lakes and steep ravines made it worth coming by itself. But as we neared the city’s outskirts, the skies darkened, and something unprecedented happened – rain. In the desert. In Morocco. RAIN. Looks like we’d brought it with us from the UK. And none of us had brought any sort of waterproofing, except a crappy Primark umbrella that breaks at the slightest gust of wind.

Our hearts sank as we arrived at the Majorelle Gardens and saw the queue of people waiting to buy tickets. We’d get soaked, and all our pretty clothes and makeup would get ruined, so kiss goodbye to those cute Instagram shots. Or so we thought. Hassan convinced one of the guards to let us jump the queue by being his usual friendly self, and the bloke even gave us a brief history of the gardens, which was a nice unexpected bonus. However, it was pissing it down, and we were keen to find some cover somewhere to wait for the rain to pass.

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Like under this beautifully tiled walkway, for instance.

But the rain had other ideas, and it looked as if it was there to stay, so we ventured into it. In a sense, it was quite refreshing, as it meant we could see the gardens without the usual swarms of tourists. Plus, there’s nothing as fresh as the smell of clean rain hitting the soil. Except maybe cut grass, but there’s none of that here.

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Moroccan gardens are full of beautiful water features. And no, I don’t mean the rain.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the gardens. I’d heard mixed reviews, with some people saying it was disappointing. But the photos of them were undeniably beautiful, and I just adore that deep blue colour that you find on every fountain, wall, and veranda. So touristy or not, I found it worth visiting. You follow a terracotta-coloured pathway around the gardens. It’s quite a strict route, and you’re not really allowed to deviate from it, so it’s not a place for ramblers. But you can see all sorts of interesting plants and flowers, including banana trees weighed down with ripening fruit, oleanders with vibrant blooms, and more typical Moroccan foliage, like cacti and palm trees.

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This was the view from Yves Saint Laurent’s pavilion. He certainly did have a good eye for design… not that that was his job, or anything.

Since Morocco is basically #1 on the list of top Instagram destinations, you might have to stand around for a couple of minutes to get that perfect new profile pic, but it’s worth it. While you wait, you can stop to admire the array of animals that live in the garden. There’s a fish pond with big ass goldfish, a number of exotic birds, and if you’re lucky you’ll see one of the cats hiding in a cosy little cubby hole.

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The cats had all gone to shelter from the rain, but crazy cat lady that I am, I found them.

It took half an hour to go round the gardens in the downpour, but it took us nearly the same amount of time to drive a couple of blocks to get to a restaurant for lunch. Marrakesh traffic really is something else, so by the time we got there, we were rather peckish. Hassan took us to a diner, and we took ages deciding, because it’s unusual for my pals to be able to eat everything on the menu. There was a bit of an awkward mix up where we thought they were claiming to serve ‘halal ham’, but that wasn’t the case – my French menu-reading skills just aren’t as good as I thought they were. Undeterred, I was pretentious and ordered my pizza in French anyway. Because I could, and now I felt I had something to prove.

The good thing about travelling is you get to leave your home country for a time. The bad thing is, when that country is Britain, it follows you – and I’m not just referring to the weather. The TV in the diner was on, and from it loomed Theresa May, spouting whatever pointless Brexit update she gave that day. Sadly it wasn’t “this is too hard, let’s give up and go home lads, sorry everyone”. I glared at the TV while I tucked into my food. This wasn’t what I wanted to hear about, sat in a Marrakesh diner with a stinking cold.

But onto better things. Next on the list was the Koutoubia Mosque, the largest in all Morocco, and one of the oldest.

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The rain held off long enough to get this shot, but we didn’t see a pretty rainbow, like the one in these cleverly arranged paving stones.

The mosque was built in the 12th century, and you can clearly see some of the oldest parts when you walk around it. Sadly we couldn’t go inside as part of it was closed, which was annoying as it was time to pray, but I did get a peek of the inside as we walked past. It looked beautifully lit, with incredible vaulted ceilings, but you’ll have to Google it to get a better idea.

Next up was the Bahia Palace. Having seen the stunning Islamic palaces in Seville and Granada, I couldn’t wait. If Moroccan palaces were anything like their counterparts across the Strait of Gibraltar, they’d be incredible. And the Bahia Palace didn’t disappoint, but I did get my history completely wrong. I went round the palace telling my friends it was definitely medieval – no need to read the info boards! Wrong. It’s a 19th century creation, meant to reflect the glory of classical Moroccan architecture.

Let’s just say that it did it so well, it had me believing it was much older. Cue slideshow, because I’m embarrassed.

 

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I could have stayed here for hours, wowed by the painstakingly decorated ceilings, archways, floors, and even window grills. The stained glass was some of the brightest I have ever seen, and I fell in love with the huge variety of mosaics. My eyes feasted upon the palace and its grounds. Plus, the rain stopped, leaving a fresher, cleaner atmosphere behind – it became a haven of serenity in the heart of the city’s bustling Medina district. Boring history thing or not, I’d absolutely recommend coming to see the palace if you’re in Marrakesh.

It wasn’t just the magnificence of it, either – the little things made it special. Whether that was the fresh flower petals sprinkled in the fountain water, the carefully conducted restoration work, or the friendly guard who volunteered to take our picture for us without us asking, I felt this palace showcased Morocco at its very finest. You can tell Moroccans are very proud of their beautiful country and long history. Quite right, too.

Oh, and the palace is also good for Instagram, my friends tell me.

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Anaab looks as beautiful as ever. I’m smiling through the sickness. And some wasteman is trying to ruin the shot by creepily standing behind the window.

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Squad photobombing Anaab.

I almost got lost because I stopped too long to stare at everything and take pictures. Anaab practically had to drag me out of there by my ear, otherwise we’d have no time for anything else. Reluctantly, I took one final, lasting look at the palace, before heading off to the souk.

By the time we got there, the sun had decided to make an appearance. It illuminated the busy Jemaa el-Fnaa square, a busy marketplace in itself, which marks the entrance to the maze that is the souk. In the square, you’ll find a variety of street performers, magicians, and musicians, some of whom come from as far away as sub-Saharan Africa to perform.

Time to try out my new phone and its fancy camera features.

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Panorama! Woohoo! Not a complete fail!

We meandered around here for a bit before heading into the souk to buy our souvenirs. I’m a sucker for tourist tat, and also for a bargain, so I tried my hand at haggling. Unfortunately, I’m shit at it, British, and also very white, so I’m easy to rip off. That said, stuff is fairly cheap here anyway, so I don’t mind too much. If it pumps more money into the pockets of local people, hopefully it isn’t a bad thing.

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Here are my friends, enjoying considerably better luck. Just look at all the shiny things you can buy!

The souk is a real labyrinth, and it’s very easy to get lost in. Everything is packed in so tightly, and if you spend too long there the shops start to look the same, so don’t be surprised if you stumble out of the souk somewhere completely different to where you came in. But there’s tonnes of cool stuff you can get your hands on, including some quite traditional Moroccan products, so I think that distinguishes it from other touristy markets I’ve visited round the world.

I picked up a coin purse, tiny tagine pot, a beautiful scarf and a purple kaftan. The latter was the most interesting purchase by far – it was just me and the owner in the shop, so it was a bit more intense than the other shops we browsed. Before I came to Marrakesh, I’d been told the sellers could be really pushy, but they weren’t really. This guy was a bit on the touchy-feely side, but I think that’s because Moroccans are generally quite tactile, rather than him having any sinister motive. He also made it clear from the start we’d aim for a ‘democratic price’, so I didn’t get that British thing where you feel guilty for haggling. He probably knew I’d be shit, and I only bagged myself a discount of 50 dirhams (that’s about £4 off a £25 product, which it definitely wasn’t worth, oh well), but it was still a fun experience. Good practice for the future, too, I hope.

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A beautiful photo… definitely not one of mine. Creds to whoever took it!

Our arms laden with purchases, and our wallets considerably lighter, we emerged into the bright lights of Jemaa el-Fnaa square and made our way back to Hassan. It was time to hit the road again now, so we waved goodbye to Marrakesh. Hassan started talking to us about the attitude of many young Moroccans nowadays. Despite the fact the country seems to be on the up, many are keen to leave and make lives elsewhere, in Spain and France particularly. They feel there are no prospects for them in Morocco, but sadly it’s often the case that they arrive in Europe and it’s just as hopeless there – because of racism, discrimination, and an economic and political system that’s stacked against them. It’s always interesting to hear how the locals think, as it helps you to understand what life is really like in a country. Beyond the tourist sites and city centres.

Sundas took on DJ duties as the sun set over the desert, and we worked our way back to the shores of Agadir. My friends saw I was, by now, completely dead, so they kindly bought me a Moroccan mint tea from a service station to perk me up. I couldn’t have been more grateful. Oddly, I think this service station tea was the best one I’d had in Morocco, as it wasn’t too sweet – the perfect balance of minty flavour and sweetness. Like toothpaste, but more edible.

Revived enough to survive the three hour journey home, the hunger pangs set in, so we asked Hassan to take us somewhere in the Agadir area, where we could pick up a takeaway and take it to the villa. We turned off a roundabout in a town called Inezgane, and found a car park which came alive at night, doubling up as a sort of outdoor food court. Even though it was 10pm, the eateries were thriving and busy with customers, which created a really nice atmosphere. Not to sound too snobby, but I think we may have found the ‘real’ Morocco.

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My camera definitely doesn’t do so well at night. But it was basically a load of places, filled with plastic tables and chairs, set up around BBQs/cooking pits/ovens etc.

In spite of the fact it was dark and we didn’t really know where we were, and the car park food court looked a bit dodgy, we all remarked that we didn’t feel unsafe. That was a pleasant feeling, as I would expect to feel uneasy in a dark car park at 10pm at home… but then again, Morocco was full of good surprises. Sure, we got a few stares, but nothing malicious. All I’m saying is, take the scare stories about Morocco with a pinch of salt. I didn’t and I feel like a bloody idiot now.

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Shoutout to our boy Hassan for taking us to the most random (but delightful) food places.

We finally got home with some Moroccan flatbreads, some chips, and a load of chicken (which apparently was bland and dry, but the chips were nice so I didn’t care). Exhausted from the day, it was time for bed. I didn’t get out of it for 18 hours, the trip to Marrakesh had really taken it out of my sick body. Sadly it meant I missed the next day’s trip to Paradise Valley. But it did look beautiful, so my friends got some seriously good shots.

If you’re interested to see what else we got up to in Morocco, check out my previous entry. You’ll find some serious quadbike action, terrifying hikes and lots more food-related adventures. I exaggerate – we aren’t complete adrenaline junkies – but it was a super fun trip all round. I can’t wait to go back to Morocco and see what other jewels I can uncover.

 

 


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