Mayhem in Marrakech and Desert Dunes
Sunny weekend getaways are important to survive the dark and dreary London winters. Some of our friends visited Morocco last December and had a great time, so we decided to try it for our post-Thanksgiving dose of sunshine. While it certainly wasn't a relaxing trip, it's one of the most interesting places we've visited. Marrakech is the most in-your-face city we've been to, and the trip out to the desert is long and slow. That said, the sand dunes, desert stars and sunrise were well worth the journey.
Friday 25 November
We landed in Morocco around 6:30pm and had pre-arranged transportation from the airport through our hotel. We’re glad we did, because the streets of Morocco’s old city (called the Medina), are impossible to navigate and we never would have found the hotel on our own. The airport is about 10-20 minutes away from the Medina by car, depending on traffic.
Riad Palais des Princesses
41 Derb Jamaa riad zitoun el kadim Medina 40000 Marrakech
In Morocco, rather than hotels you mostly find riads, which are guest houses with open center courtyards. Our friends recommended this one to us, and their seal of approval made us much more comfortable going into the trip. We were very happy with our room, and the location was really convenient. Most importantly, it was clean and a peaceful oasis from the craziness of the Medina.
Dinner in Jemaa el-Fnaa
We asked our riad for dinner recommendations, and they just suggested we walk over to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the central square in the Medina, and pick one of the restaurants right on the left or right as we entered the square. They all seemed the same to us, so we picked one with a balcony overlooking the square so we could take in the atmosphere. We enjoyed the first of many tagines, a traditional Moroccan meat stew that’s cooked up in a clay dish, and cous cous with meat and vegetables.
After dinner we walked around the square and couldn’t believe how many people were out and about. There were drum circles, street performers, food vendors, and tons and tons of people everywhere. Some of the market stalls were still open so we walked around a bit, but didn’t want to venture too deep and get lost at night.
Saturday 26 November
Exploring the Medina
We couldn’t find many group tours available, so we considered hiring a guide to take us around and explain the history to us. In the end, we decided to explore on our own. We would recommend getting a guide if you want to learn something, since the information placards at the sites are only in French and Arabic. Everyone warned us that we’d get lost and would constantly be approached by locals trying to sell us stuff or get us to follow them. It was helpful that we were pre-warned, but we didn’t realize how aggressive people would be. We never felt unsafe, but there were a few times when we found ourselves with unwanted traveling companions that we couldn’t shake. The Medina is an intense environment, with people coming at you from all sides on their bikes, mopeds and donkey carts. It’s a lot to take in, and while we had a lot of fun exploring, we were also exhausted by it. If this description sounds too intense for you, then a guide might be the way to go.
We started our day at the Bahia Palace, which has beautiful mosaics and architecture and then made our way to the Ben Youssef Madrassa, an old koranic school. It was a bit confusing to find our way from one site to the next, but there are some signs up in the Medina which are helpful. We found the school to be more impressive and interesting, but both were worth the €2 entrance fee and we spent about 20 minutes at each.
The Medina is filled with souks, or markets, so we explored the various stalls, going deeper and deeper into the old city. This is definitely a place to bargain – Josh got a salesman to drop the price of a belt from 250 to 50 Dirham. At one point we got stuck following a guy who wanted to show us the leather tanneries. They gave us some fresh mint to use as an air freshener, which we definitely needed. Josh thought it was cool, and Becca thought it was disgusting. Afterwards they brought us to a leather shop and we were pleasantly surprised that they weren’t aggressive about making us buy anything.
Chez Soufi Fatah
Jemaa el-Fnaa is a totally different place during the day. There are no food stands, and the square is filled with snake charmers and monkey handlers. We were warned that they charge you if you take pictures, so sadly you’ll have to take our word for it, but it’s quite a site to see. We looked around the square for a quick schwarma for lunch but couldn’t find anything, so we ended up at Chez Soufi Fatah, a snack bar on the square. We waited close to an hour for our lunch and can safely say this was the worst meal we’ve ever had. To make things worse, we passed a million quick schwarma shops on our way to our next stop.
Patisserie des Princes
This bakery got rave reviews, and after our disappointing lunch we needed something sweet. Everything looked good, so we asked the woman working there what she recommended. She gave us a some cookies filled with almond paste, which are pretty typical for the region, and we got a selection of other cookies, which were all okay but not amazing. Throughout the trip, we tried a variety of sweets at different bakeries and shops, and generally weren’t wowed by Moroccan desserts.
20 Derb Zanka Dayka, Quartier Riad Zitoun Jdid, Médina, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
Similar to Turkey, Morocco has a hammam (hot bath) culture. We figured one hammam experience this year was enough (if you missed our Istanbul post, you can read about it here), so we didn’t book anything for Morocco. In doing some reading, it sounds like the hammams in Marrakech are a bit more private and individual than in Istanbul, which made us wish we had waited for this trip.
By mid-afternoon we had enough of the Medina and decided to see if we could find a place for a last minute massage. Hammam Rosa Bonheur was able to take us, and for a very reasonable price. As is typical in Morocco, we were greeted with tea and cookies before enjoying a 60 minute massage. They also gave us bonus gift of Moroccan argan oil to take home. It was a great way to unwind after an intense day of exploring.
This restaurant is in the oldest riad in Marrakech and has been beautifully restored and maintained. In the winter they cover the center courtyard and put in heat lamps, which makes for a cozy atmosphere. We were able to make a reservation that day, but it seemed to fill up so we wouldn’t recommend showing up without one. The starter of five Moroccan spreads was delicious, but we weren’t as impressed with our mains. We didn’t mind though, because the peaceful atmosphere was the perfect nightcap to our day.
Sunday 27 November
Our friends spoke so highly of their Moroccan desert experience, so we decided to book a three-day, two-night guided tour through Desert Majesty (our tour was called Camels in Mhamid, stars in Erg Chagaga). Our guide, Hamid, picked us up at our riad in Marrakech, and we started the drive across the High Atlas Mountains. It was so much colder in the mountains than we anticipated and that day was really foggy, so unfortunately we couldn’t enjoy the scenery as much (we did see two rainbows, which were pretty great!).
We were really glad to have a guide to finally be able to learn about some of Morocco’s history and culture. Our first stop was the Telouet Kasbah, an old palace that belonged to the last Pasha of Morocco. The Kasbah used to house the Pasha and several other high ranking families, but it’s now somewhat in ruins. Nonetheless, we could still appreciate the unique architecture and mosaics.
Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah
In the afternoon we visited Morocco’s most famous Kasbah, Ait Ben Haddou. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it’s well maintained and is constantly undergoing restoration. There are still a few families that live in it, and one of the residents was our guide. We were surprised to see ruins of an old synagogue, which was part of the Kasbah. Ait Ben Hadou is a popular movie and TV filming location— Gladiator, Babel and Game of Thrones were all filmed here, and our guide pointed out an arch that was constructed for Lawrence of Arabia.
We spent the night in a riad in Agdez, a dessert city at the start of the Dra’a Valley. All of our meals and accommodations were arranged by the tour company, so it was nice not to have to do any planning.
Monday 28 November
In the morning, we were so happy to see the sun and feel the warmer desert air. We drove through the Dra’a Valley, which is a huge oasis filled with palm trees. We stopped at a small village and toured a Kasbah where people still live, and it was pretty shocking to see the living conditions there. They also brought us to a pottery co-operative, and we learned how they make the clay dishes that are so ubiquitous across the region. We also got to try the manually operated wheel, which was a lot harder than it looked!
We had lunch in the town where our guide grew up, and his mom was sweet and baked us cake for the journey. From there, the road ended and we had two hours of off-road driving in the desert before we reached our camp site for the night. It was pretty amazing that our guide knew where to go, because to us, the landscape all looked the same.
Shortly after we arrived at our campsite we set off on camels to explore the dunes. The landscape was amazing and made the long journey feel worth it. We hiked to the top of the biggest dune and watched the sun set from there before riding back to camp. After dinner, we sat around the bonfire and then trekked out into the desert to watch the stars. Even though we’ve both spent nights out in the desert before, every time is still an amazing experience.
Tuesday 29 November
We woke up early to watch the sun rise, which was even more beautiful than the sunset. After breakfast we set off for a long day of driving back to Marrakech. The road was dotted with small Berber villages. There are still some nomadic Berber tribes, but many have settled in more permanent villages across the desert. We reached Marrakech around 6pm, which made for a really long day.
17، Derb Cherkaoui, Marrakech 40000, Morocco
We were pretty tired of eating tagines for every meal, so we decided to try a local Italian restaurant for dinner. It was inside another riad, and again felt like a peaceful oasis among the chaos. In addition to the lovely ambiance, they brought us a complementary welcome drink (it was the first restaurant we visited that served alcohol), and the food was delicious.
On every trip we share our rose (highlight), thorn (lowlight), and bud (what we're looking forward to).
Rose- Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah (Josh), dunes in the desert (Becca)
Thorn- endless amount of sand in my shoes (Josh), the drive back to Marrakech (Becca)
Bud- skiing (Josh), Christmas markets (Becca)
If you go… things to know
How much time? Everyone told us one day was enough in Marrakech, and we couldn’t agree more. It’s an exhausting and in-your-face city, and one day is plenty of time to see all the sites, shop in the souks and relax at a hammam.
When to go? We would recommend avoiding summer because of the heat, but any other time of year would be fine to visit. November-December is a heavy tourist time, since it’s sunnier and warmer than Europe. We didn’t find things to be too crowded when we were there.
Where else to go? We’ve heard Essaouira (a beach town), Fez and Casablanca are also great places to visit.
What to bring? If you're planning to go out to the mountains and/ or desert, pack lots of warm layers! We were not as prepared as we should have been.
What if I get lost in the Medina? You probably will and that’s okay! If you’re looking for something specific (hotel, restaurant, hammam) will meet you in the main square and walk you to their establishment, which is super helpful. Google maps actually worked pretty well for us, even though we didn’t have cell service.
Should I do a desert trek? If you’ve never been to the desert before, it’s an experience we would recommend either in Morocco or elsewhere. It’s important to be prepared that many of the roads aren’t great and the drive from Marrakesh is really long, so there’s a lot of travel involved for a short time in the desert. If you’ve done the Bedouin tent thing in Israel (or plan on doing it soon), skip the desert in Morocco—it’s a similar kind of experience and a lot more difficult to get to in Morocco.