Arriving at a new country always demand certain adjustments… learning the greetings and the way to thank, adjust to the local “dress code”, learn the name of the dishes, identify ingredients and adjust to new flavours and smells… adjust to local schedules and routines… learn that medina means old town, usually surrounded by walls and accessible by gates, called bab, that works also as a landmark in this urban labyrinth… that the kasbah are castles or fortress dating from the fights between Arabs and Berbers… learn that riads are the traditional Moroccan houses which center is a courtyard, many of them saved from ruins by the tourism business… and learn that a souk is a market, no matter if it’s for selling food or objects… and also learn the cost of things and how the currency looks like, trying to look confident not to be cheated!!! Anyway, all these challenges are part of the attraction of travel, no?!?!
Despite cultural, historical and religious differences, Morocco was quite easy to adjust, revealing a laid-back and friendly people. Marrakesh was a good start for a short 20 days Morocco trip, where the packed medieval city, dating to the Berber Empire, with its narrow and maze alleys coexist with a modern and cosmopolitan area with long boulevards and tidy parks, where the French influence is still present.
Marrakesh, one of the four cities of the imperial cities (the others are Fes, Meknes and Rabat) is famous for its crafts, with the main streets packed with shops selling jewellery, clothes, metal works, leather products, spices, teas and herbal medicines, nuts and dry fruits, and the famous carpets, where the Berber geometric designs pop up. Not so easy to find but probably more appealing if you are not in a shopping mood, are the workshops where artisans do their work using traditional techniques and local materials.
Moving away from the most crowded medina alleys we can appreciate the traditional architecture, with two or three storage buildings covered with the traditional mud plaster (tadelakt) that gives the typical dark red color to the city. The streets are narrow, many times without exit, which can make orientation difficult.
It’s the arriving of the winter and the sky is cover by a dense layer of clouds that filter the sunrays and bring the promise of rain. Located in the foothills of the Atlas, Marrakesh is framed by high mountains with the top covered by snow.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa, can be considered the heart of the social life of the medina (old city), where Moroccan visitors, and foreigners tourists mix with the local population that come here mainly in the end of the afternoon to socialize, eat a snail snack, listen traditional Berber music play life, shop some traditional natural medicines, get a henna design or simply for a lazy stroll away from the narrow and fully packed alleys of the medina.
Despite being considered as an Arab country, Morocco population is believed to be mainly Berber or Berber descendants, an ethnic group indigenous from what is now Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, that inhabited these areas even before the arrival of the Arabs. The strongest mark of the Berber culture is the language, the Tamazight, that is spoken by the majority of the population but that only in 2011 was considered as an official language in Morocco.
Where to sleep:
As Marrakesh is one of the most popular tourist places in Morocco, it offers a wide range of accommodation choices, for all budgets, and it’s not difficult to find a dorm for 6 euros (around 60 Dirham).
The Kasbah Red Castle Hostel was a good choice, as its located in a walking distance from the medina in a quiet neighbourhood away from the more touristic areas, where the local lifestyle is still present. The place is very clean and quiet during the evening. The breakfast is a mix of traditional Moroccan bread and beans stew with the western standards of eggs and jam, which makes a good start to Moroccan gastronomy.
The staff is friendly and very willing to provide information if you want to travel by yourself, never pushing for the tours that they also offer.
Where to eat:
Marrakesh has a lot of choices of food, from the sophisticated restaurants serving the traditional dishes, mainly tagines and couscous, with a twist… until the budget options that are small eateries or sometimes street stalls that serve soups (harira), traditional bread (msemen, hacha, Meloui, and many more) that can be plain, with olive oil, honey or cheese (always the over-processed-triangle-cheese, as proper cheese is rare in Morocco).
The traditional Moroccan sandwiches are also a good option, suiting also vegetarian, that basically consist in a flat bread stuffed with egg, potato, meat or grill vegetables, seasoned with olive oil and a lot of cumin.
Amal is a non-profit association, empowering women through culinary skills that serve delicious food at lunchtime in a quiet terrace. The place is located in the modern part of the city; it’s a long but easy walk along wide avenues, and it really worth the effort. Here you can find Moroccan traditional food, with a French touch, cooked with love and served with a smile!
How to move around:
The medina is easy to walk on foot, in fact, is the only option as the streets are narrow and full of people.
The medinas are not easy to navigate and its easy to get lost as the streets are very similar and without much reference points, but the best approach is just walking random and follow the intuition… maybe you’ll not find a certain mosque or palace, but you’ll probably find the traditional lifestyle, the street markets and the local shops.
Anyway… don’t expect to find again the same shop that you saw a “while ago” or on the day before. Marrakesh medina is not so big or confuse as Fes medina, but you need a couple of days to get familiar with place.
Notice that in Morocco the foreigners cannot enter the mosques but can visit the madrasa (Islamic schools).
Where to change money in Marrakesh:
The ATM machines are widely available in all towns and cities but if you prefer to bring money with you, euros and dollars are very well come in Morocco. You can find moneychangers at the most touristic places (easy to locate in Marrakesh and Fes medinas, not so easy in Meknes).
It’s also possible to change money at the banks, but for that, it’s necessary to show the passport.
In Marrakesh the best rate that I found (in fact it was the best rate of all Morocco trip) was at Hotel Ali Currency Exchange very close to the Jemaa el-Fnaa square; you can locate it by maps.me or google.maps (Chez Ali Bureau de Change).
How to go from the Marrakesh Menara Airport to the city center:
There’s an express bus that drops you in the center of Marrakesh, the Jemaa el-Fnaa. From there you can probably your accommodation on foot with the help of a map app.
The isn’t a bus stand or anything that identify the place where the express bus stop, but coming out from the arrivals you should walk straight, crossing the car; the bus stops not far from the car park entrance. If you reach the taxi park you already walk too far.
The bus is modern and comfortable. The trip takes around 20 minutes.
The ticket costs 30 Dirham.