Thursday, 11 May 2017

A Guide to MARRAKECH, Morocco.

There are few places which polarise opinions quite like the Moroccan city of Marrakech.  People either love it or hate it; I’ve never heard anyone describe Marrakech as ‘just okay’.  I had an incredible experience in the city but found it a challenging place to visit.  As such, I’ll attempt to give a balanced report of my time in the city along with some budget guidelines.

To give a background, Marrakech is a historic city nestled at the northern foot of the Atlas Mountains.  It is the most-visited city in Morocco, and for good reason.  The entire medina (the city’s ancient fortified core) is listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site and remains one of the best preserved historic cities in north Africa.  It’s often called the ‘Pink City’ because its distinctive ochre-tinted buildings.

Morocco is an extremely exciting country to visit.  It’s hectic, lively and colourful; a real hair-raising roller-coaster for the senses.  From the fragrant aromas of incense and spices of the souks to the foul-smelling stench of the tanneries, there really is a surprise around every corner. 

A stroll through the medina really is a stroll back in time.  There’s so much history here and the city has done so well to cling on to its old-world character.  Walking through the city walls is like stepping into another world – the culture shock is very real and at first a little overwhelming.

Upon entering the medina, the first sight you’re likely to be met with is the spectacular Koutoubia mosque.  This impressive landmark is a very fine example of the style of Islamic architecture typical to Morocco.  Unfortunately, non-Muslim tourists aren’t allowed to enter the mosque, but it’s certainly worth seeing from the outside.  The richly-decorated minaret towers above the rooftops and can be seen over most of Marrakech – a useful tool for navigation in the maze-like streets of the medina!

Opposite the Koutoubia mosque is Jamaa el Fna.  This huge city square (one of the biggest in all of Africa) is the life and soul of Marrakech.  And it’s absolutely crazy. Traditional music echoes around all corners whilst hordes of street performers, story-tellers and snake charmers scuffle for space amongst street-food stalls and market traders.  The hustle and bustle is like nothing I’ve ever witnessed - the atmosphere is electric.  It’s so full of life - so vibrant.  Each time you visit this square you’ll see different things, but each time it’ll take your breath away

Keep walking through Jamaa el Fna and you’ll come to the souks.  These are the centuries-old markets which fill the narrow streets adjacent to square.  For me, the souks are the best thing about Marrakech.  This is typical Moroccan culture in full force.  You can buy anything you could ever want for in the souks; spices, belts, shoes, incense, fruit, lanterns, carpets, meat, teapots and traditional remedies just to name a few.  It’s hectic and chaotic, but it’s a wonderful experience.  The golden rule in the souks is to bargain for EVERYTHING!  As a Brit, haggling doesn’t come naturally but in Morocco it’s expected and embraced.  It can be a lot of fun for both the customer and the stall holder.  

The medina is a dense tangle of narrow, cobbled alleyways.  It’s huge – you could fill days wandering around the ancient streets and never become bored.  Some interesting landmarks include the El Badii Palace, the Bahia Palace, the Saadian tombs and the Medersa Ben Youssef Islamic college.

I had an incredible time in Marrakech and fell in love with the fantastic city and the rich Moroccan culture.  But I found it quite a challenging place to visit.  I came to develop somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the city.  It’s an extremely exciting place to visit and the atmosphere is so full of life, but the hassle from pushy and occasionally aggressive touts is relentless.  And it starts as soon as you leave the airport. Taxi drivers will try to rip you off, stall holders will try to rip you off, faux-guides will try to rip you off – you must have your wits about you all the time.  It can become exhausting after a while.  Have in mind an acceptable price and stay firm.  Always agree a price beforehand and don’t feel obligated to pay over the odds for anything or to buy anything you don’t want.  ‘No, merci’ is perhaps the most useful phrase you will use whilst in Morocco.

Morocco is a very budget-friendly place to visit.  Expect to pay around 60 Dh for a hostel dorm and 100-150 Dh for a main course in a mid-range restaurant.  Whilst taxi drivers will often try to push their luck, a taxi ride from the airport to the centre of town should cost no more than 100 Dh, or alternatively take the airport bus for just 30 Dh.  When I visited, 100 Dh was worth 7.81 GBP.

The rich and exciting culture, fascinating history and exotic landscape coupled with reliably sunny skies, good food and cheap cost of travel make Marrakech an ideal place for backpackers and budget travellers.  Although deeply rewarding, travel here can be tricky at times, particularly for solo travellers.  As a result, I’ve given Marrakech an overall ‘backpackability’ score of 4/5.

Have you been to Marrakech or thinking of going? Let me know your experiences of this fascinating city in the comments section below!  As always, thanks for reading.
Elis Griffiths. x

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