Marrakesh, Morocco

“When I got to my gate at JFK, it was chaos — it was like we were already in Morocco.”

This was the response we got when we greeted my friend Lauren and asked how her flight was. To be completely honest, I had a similar experience on my flight from Brussels to Marrakesh.

I had a middle seat, which I don’t usually mind — short legs! There was an older, very glamorous Moroccan woman in the window seat, and she repeatedly tried to speak Moroccan Arabic and French to me. My modern standard Arabic was rusty at best, and French words just sound like Arabic words I simply do not know… so we quickly gave up on communicating.

But when my aisle seat companion arrived, she was a tiny young woman with a toddler — and before I knew it, she just handed me her baby while she got situated. And right before landing, the woman in the window seat made a phone call in Spanish (yes, mid-flight), and we realized we had a common language after all. She invited me and my two girlfriends to stay at her oceanfront home in Tangier.

This is Morocco.

Marrakesh is a loud, bustling cultural capital awash with pink clay — meant to keep the buildings cool and the light unblinding. The streets are really just alleys with names, and it’s a city of juxtapositions that feel comfortable and unnatural at the same time: Porsche SUVs  and donkey carts loaded with oranges share the roads, and in Djemma al-Fna, a cobra handler will put a snake on your neck no matter how hard you protest (in Arabic, French, and English, because that’s how we roll).

The Lonely Planet describes Fes as an assault on the senses, but Marrakesh has its own aggressive personality, too. Wherever you go, the fumes from motorbikes will invade your lungs — but then you’ll pass by a French bakery, or a fresh orange juice cart, and you forget about the fumes for a few minutes.

In the souks, the shopkeepers will pull you in and pour argan oil into your hands, and then open up tall glass jars of blocks that look like soap, inviting you to smell every apothecary glass in their shop. Tagines bubble over open flames, and butchers shoo kittens away from their windows. Someone almost always yells “NO PHOTOS”  at me as I capture moments in the souk — the lantern shops are the most mesmerizing.

I turned 30 in Marrakesh, with two of my closest friends, who not surprisingly, have more in common with each other than either of them has with me. We arrived in Marrakesh to a torrential downpour, and ran through the streets of the old medina in search of our riad.

Riad, in Arabic, refers to a large building with no exterior windows, but an interior courtyard — something that keeps the noise of the city out of the home. Some riads are restaurants, some are mini hotels, and most are both. All of them are simply beautiful.

Marrakesh is the perfect introduction to Morocco: aggressive peddling to tourists, souks that connect reality to what Disney portrayed in Aladdin, and plenty of rooftop restaurants and cafes to pique your interest with Moroccan food. But beware visiting only Marrakesh — because there is so much more to Morocco, and Marrakesh is simply the epicenter of all Moroccan tourism. It claims to be the center of all culture in Morocco, but if there’s anything we learned on our two week road trip throughout central and northern Maroc, it’s that Marrakesh was merely an introduction to what was a deluge of Moroccan history, scents, politics, and culture.

In all, go to Marrakesh — but don’t let it be your only stop.

Have multiple meals atI Limoni. We did.

Sleep and relax at: Riad Lena. I would stay there a million times again.

Buy a pool pass for: Palais Namaskar, or go with the classic, La Mamounia. Pro tip: reserve your day pass in advance, because they were sold out the whole time we were in Marrakesh.

Escape the city life for: Essouiara. Take a luxury bus from the Marrakesh train station, and spend the day wandering the seaside souks.

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