Morocco: an other-worldly experience

This July saw me venture outside my usual bounds of European cities and hop on a plane heading to North Africa – Marrakech, Morocco to be exact. 
This was the first trip I planned which received a lot of criticism from friends and family, with the words ‘hot’ and ‘dangerous’ being thrown around in excess. 
I have to admit that I was definitely overcome with fear for about a week before I went, something which I haven’t experienced prior to travelling before. 
However, despite my own doubts and my parents’ pleas to not leave the country, I did. I’ve never gained so much from ignoring my parents’ requests before. Morocco, I discovered, is simply other-worldly.
The Medina  
The city of Marrakech, as with many North African cities, comprises of an old city known as ‘The Medina’ and a new city which, in this case, is called Gueliz. 
We made the decision to stay in the old city and this is something I couldn’t advise enough as you get the real feel of Morocco in the old city. The Medina is outlined by high, pink walls. 
It contains more of a series of alleys than roads and these alleys are constantly covered in people walking, on scooters and driving donkey-drawn carts. 
I read that Marrakech is the most foreign place accessible on a short haul flight. This statement definitely rang true when in the Medina. 
The stone-paved alleys eventually open out into the main square Jemaa El Fna. The square really is a hive of activity. Carts selling orange juice line the squares with their vendors pleading for your business. Snake charmers sit with cobras while men try to hoist sad, nappy-bearing monkeys onto unsuspecting tourists.  
Henna ladies insist that every passing woman needs the temporary body art for their own health. Indeed, I made the mistake of letting a henna lady grab my hand and begin a mediocre henna despite my protests. Of course I had to throw 50 dirhams to her in order to continue on my way.  
This quickly taught me a lesson about the Jemaa El Fna.  It was often best to ignore the calls of the street vendors completely and if you do happen to make eye contact, a strong ‘non’ and a shake of your head should do the trick. 
We also made sure to give the snake charmers and monkeys a wide breath so to avoid unwanted creatures on our necks.
At sunset, hundreds of people throng to Jemaa El Fna and a carnival atmosphere fills the large square.  Hot food stalls are set up in the very centre, although we weren’t brave enough to eat from them. 
Traditional Moroccan music was now played much louder than during the day and was accompanied by drums and other percussion.
Street entertainment ranging from gymnastics to fights pop up all over the place and just a few dirham will secure you a first class viewing spot.
The atmosphere is always exciting in Jemaa El Fna, but it is especially electric at night and it’s beautiful to watch the excitement from the terraces of the surrounding restaurants if you don’t feel like getting into the centre of the action.
The Souks
The Marrakech souks are a maze of alleys off Jemaa El Fna. Here stalls line your left and right, selling everything imaginable. Most reviews I read of the Souks before I went to Morocco were quite negative and so my expectations weren’t high. 
To my surprise, the souks turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We spent endless hours strolling these alleys in search of bargains and we found them in their plenty. 
I found the whole process of the souks really fun. All the sellers battling for your attention is very entertaining and a good ability to haggle means you leave the souks with quality goods for next to nothing.  
Brands like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Ray Ban were everywhere, and although they most definitely are fake, their appearance and quality don’t reflect this. 
I am now the proud owner of three pairs of Nike runners, four pairs of Ray Bans and a Michael Kors bag for under €50. The Marrakech Souks are a shopper’s paradise!
The Riad 
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house, usually with an internal courtyard or garden.  Riads are one of the most common forms of accommodation in Marrakech and are a very authentic way to experience the city. 
We stayed in Riad Vert which was overall, very impressive. Like most riads it was small, with only 7 rooms. The white walls contrasted beautifully with the greenery in the courtyard where we were served a traditional Moroccan (and delicious) breakfast each morning. 
Our colourful twin room was basic, but comfortable and the en-suite bathroom was impeccably furnished in marble stone and was spotless every evening after we returned home.
The woman of the riad was very personable and approachable during the week. This was something myself and my travel companion expressed different opinions on. I found her to be most helpful, and overall, just concerned for our welfare during the week. 
She explained the outline of the city to us, where best to visit on each day and advised us on what time we should arrive home at. My travel companion, on the other hand, founding her over-bearing and didn’t take kindly to being told when to return home. Obviously having a very personal house owner is not a feature of every riad, but it is something you should be aware of.
The riad was a brilliant experience, in general, helped along by the fact that it cost only €240 for the two of us for seven nights. It was only 15 minutes from La Jardin Majorelle, one of the most popular tourist gardens. It was a 25 minute walk from Jemaa El Fna, although in the searing heat it seemed much longer and I found myself envying the people who entered the riads on the edge of the square.
Overall, Riad Verte was a solid 3 out of 5 stars. It was clean, comfortable and had top class air conditioning. Its only downfalls were the walk to Jemaa El Fna, which was the main attraction of the old city, and, depending on your point of view, an over bearing land-lady.
Morocco has easily been the most interesting place I’ve gone to. The culture shock is huge when you arrive, but remains exciting throughout. I would definitely return to this walled city, but next time I’ll aim for October when there’s a slight ease in temperatures!
Photo: mhobl/ Flickr