Marrakech can be exotic, chaotic, challenging and welcoming in turn. You want belt? You want slippers? Where are you from? How much you want to pay? A woman grabs my arm and offers to to cover it with intricate henna patterns. When I decline she starts to make a ‘present’ of a design on my hand and I have to tug myself away. I point the camera in the direction of a distant group of snake charmers and instantly a man is there with a cap asking for payment.
There are sights to see in Marrakech; palaces, gardens, mosques, but that’s not really the point. You go for the colour, the street-life, the banter, the people. All of this can be rather exhausting of course, so thank goodness we were staying at Riad Star, a haven of calm within the Medina or walled city. Riad Star is the latest addition to a small family of boutique Riads, owned by English couple, Mike and Lucie Wood, and is beautifully designed on a Jazz Age theme in honour of Josephine Baker, cabaret star of the 1920s and 30s, who lived there for a time.
To help you make the most of your stay in Marrakech, the couple have designed the Marrakech-Riad i-phone app that you can download free from iTunes, giving you tips on haggling, information on restaurants, recommended shops and things to see around the Medina. Best of all the app has a map that is stored on your phone (no need for wifi or roaming) with all the points of interest marked on it and a GPS feature which means you can navigate your way through the narrow passageways of the souk by following the moving dot, without falling prey to those helpful young men who point you in the wrong direction and then offer to show you the way (for a small fee).
We flew to Marrakech with easyJet for a weekend on their new direct route from Bristol and spent our time sightseeing, haggling for things we didn’t really need and trying not to get too lost – although that is half the fun. The Saadian tombs were one of the things we discovered, entering in single file through a narrow walled passage, that opened into a large courtyard. Pavilions with columns and carved plasterwork housed the tombs marked on the floor in tiles, with a raised section to prevent anyone walking on the dead. These tombs are the resting place of the rulers of the 16th century Saadi dynasty, but were dusty and forgotten until 1917 when they were rediscovered and restored.
Even more impressive was the Medersa Ben Youssef, an Islamic religious school founded in the 14th century with over a hundred tiny rooms for the pupils, overlooking the courtyard with central shallow pool. The Medersa is well known in the Islamic world and every surface is covered with patterned tiles in blues, green and browns as well as intricate plasterwork and Arabic inscriptions. The richly decorated surroundings make it the ideal place to bring visiting royalty and celebrities to be photographed framed in one of the windows or against a tiled backdrop that says “Here I am in Marrakech”. The Medersa even starred as an Algerian Sufi retreat with Kate Winslet, in the film Hideous Kinky.
Even more recognisable for those “Here I am in Marrakech” photos, are the Majorelle Gardens which have become known for that particular shade of blue named after them, “Majorelle Blue”. The gardens were developed in the 1920s and 1930s by the French artist, Jacques Majorelle and were later bought and renovated in the 1980s by the French fashion designer, Yves Saint-Laurent. The gardens feel a bit like walking into an art installation, clothed with tropical bamboo stems, shady palms, spiky cactus and water lilies drifting in shallow pools. Rich teracotta painted paths lead the eye towards electric blue pavillions, while acid yellow and tangerine painted and planted pots punctuate the garden paths. There’s an interesting museum of Berber clothing and jewellery within the gardens, but don’t make the mistake of taking a sneaky photo inside or you’ll get a severe telling off like I did!
We used the Marrakech-Riad app to locate interesting places to eat as we wandered through the Medina, mainly European style cafes such as Earth Cafe that specialises in fresh juices and vegetarian and vegan dishes. I enjoyed my beetroot, ginger and orange juice with a lunch of roasted tagine vegetables topped with goat’s cheese. We were equally at home at some of the street kiosks that we came across in the souk where we tried a mini tagine of lamb and vegetables served with bread and a Moroccan salad of chopped cucumber and tomatoes. We discovered that the same fresh orange juice, tagines, flat bread, and Moroccan salad dishes appeared in most of the restaurants, so the choice of where to eat was less about the originality of the food and more about the setting and ambiance.
Haggling in the souk can be a daunting prospect, since you know that all the traders have been perfecting their bargaining skills since childhood and are relying on that fact to extract the maximum amount of money possible from you, while persuading you they are your best friend. Of course it’s all a friendly game of charades where each side understands the part they are playing. Luckily I was able to use the tips on the app to brush up on my haggling patter which works something like this;
First you decide what you want to buy and what is a fair price to pay, perhaps by checking out some of the fixed price shops such as Ensemble Artisanal or by asking the price of the same item in a few stalls while making it clear that you are ‘not buying today’. Next you find a stall that has a good selection of the slippers, bowls or lamps you want to buy and wander up without expressing any particular interest. The conversation develops like this;
“Please come and look, looking is free! Where are you from? Bristol? – I was working near there a few years ago. Do you like this bowl (thrusts it into your hand).
“Oh I’m not sure, I have no space to take this back to England but how much is it?
For you I’ll make a special price of £10, how many do you want to buy?
“Oh it’s very nice, but I can’t afford that and I’m not sure my husband would like it, but how about if I gave you £3 and I might take two?
Shopkeeper looks horrified; “Madame, you’re trying to rob me, I have a family to feed and can’t you see the beautiful craftsmanship – this is hand painted. But for you I can do it for £8”
You look doubtful, “No I really don’t think I need it, but perhaps I could go as high as £4 for it”
And so it goes on until you agree at £5 and before you can change your mind your purchase is being wrapped up for you and the cash (preferrably the exact amount or you might not see your change) is handed over.
I think after a month or two of haggling I might have got the hang of it, but we did go out looking for a lamp and came back with six painted bowls and a mirror after making the mistake of expressing interest in a pepper pot. But the nice shop-keeper did then take us up to the top floor of his shop and give us a great view over the roofs of the souk and we just about managed to squeeze it all into our easyJet hand luggage!
And so to the square of Jemaa El Fna, the beating heart and soul of Marrakech, where you can be entertained, robbed if you don’t take care, buy a glass of orange juice, or get into conversation with an ‘official’ guide who will feed you misinformation and try to take you to his friend’s shop. Watch the snake charmers and monkey men from a safe distance or they’ll be onto you, draping a snake around your neck and demanding money for the photos, or take a horse and carriage ride around the Medina. Around the edge of the square are cafe terraces where you can get a view over the square which is especially useful as dusk falls and the food stalls are put up to feed the throngs of visitors.
We didn’t eat at the stalls in the night market, although we fully meant to go back there, but somehow once we got back to the calm of Riad Star, we couldn’t face going back out again to face the pressing crowds and the succession of people trying to extract their share of your cash. We were recommended by the staff at Riad Star to try stall number 117 and by the Marrakech-Riad app to try the fish stall at No 14 serving fish from the ports of Essaouria and Casablance with French fries and salads – a Moroccan Fish & Chips. If you try either of these stalls, do let me know how they were!
Another benefit of using the Marrakech-Riad app is that it gives you a 10% discount at many of the cafes, restaurants and boutiques that are popular with Europeans, such as the Henna Cafe, a co-operative that is supported by the Marrakesh-Riad and provides an art space, small rooftop cafe and a community project where language classes are provided for locals who want to learn English, German and French to work in tourism. If you want to avoid being grabbed by a persistent lady in Jemaa El Fna, this is the place to get your henna design in a more relaxed atmosphere, but try not to step on the tortoise who roams under the tables in the terrace cafe!
It took me a couple of days before I could really relax in Marrakech and enjoy the atmosphere without worrying about being ripped off or scammed. By then it was time to fly home, but next time I’ll be ready to bargain like a local and bring home another suitcase full of slippers, painted tangines and Aladdin lamps.
Heather and Guy flew to Marrakech courtesy of easyJet who fly from Bristol to Marrakech on Tuesdays and Saturdays – perfect for a long weekend break. EasyJet also fly to Marrakech from Gatwick, Stanstead and Manchester so you really have no excuse!
Thanks to Riad Star who hosted our stay in Marrakech. We loved the beautifully designed home-from-home in the Medina, filled with Moroccan craftsmanship combined with Jazz Age objets, paying homage to cabaret star, Josephine Baker who stayed there in the 1940s. Rooms at the Riad start at £140 per night bed and breakfast and delicious Moroccan meals are available on request.
The Riad is one of four in the Marrakech-Riad family, owned by English couple Mike and Lucie Wood, which are all well located close to all the major sights of the Medina, with English-speaking Moroccan staff who will offer advice, airport transfers, book restaurants, and lend you a local mobile so they can rescue you if you get lost in the Souk! Each Riad has between 4 and 7 bedrooms, making them ideal to book as a group if you are planning a gathering of family or friends, or for couples planning a romantic getaway.
About the Marrakech Riad App
We found the Marrakech-Riad app was indispensable for finding our way around the Medina and full of useful tips and information about sightseeing, restaurants and shopping. The app is free to download from iTunes and features;
- A comprehensive GPS responsive map of the old town medina to save you getting lost in the maze of bustling streets. In the latest version the map has been extended to cover the new town area of Marrakech.
- Background profiles on popular tourist attractions and up to the minute guides to restaurants and bars, written by Marrakech Riad owner and local expert, Mike Wood
- Discounts at many of the shops and restaurants recommended by the app
- Information on day excursions from Marrakech
- Useful tips on haggling in the souks and other advice to make your stay in Marrakech more enjoyable.
More things to see in Morocco
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