We arrived in a flurry. Due to thunderstorms we were delayed coming into Menara airport but thankfully not diverted to Casablanca. As the crew opened the landing doors on the plane you could smell wet tarmac from the rain, it was wonderful – earthy and warm.
Our driver, Norton, met us and shortly we were on our way to the Medina. Not much longer than ten minutes we arrived at a dead end for cars, the next part was on foot. We met Yesim, the brother of the guy who ran Dar Zaman and followed him through a labryinth of alleys; boys grouped together in small shops watching the football – others in the street playing together, harassing each other or making noise on tambourine drums. It wasn’t a particularly inviting walk but as we followed Yesim he explained ‘you walk, then first left, left – past the building that fell down and then right to the end.’ Arriving at Dar Zaman’s front door all was well. The riad had been beautifully done up with lanterns lighting the courtyard and traditional furniture throughout the rooms. We were greeted with a mint tea, and before heading out for dinner Yesim explained to us as we were handed a map not to appear lost. ‘Take a photograph on your phone or the kids will take the map.’ We strolled into the darkness taking care to mind vendors and young boys hassling us to buy from their shops. Keeping to the right hand side of the street we had to keep an eye out for motorbikes which zoom around everywhere. Even women in full burkha ride the bikes, veil over their face and sunglasses on in the middle of the night.
We ate at a small restaurant, Souk Kafe, enjoying Tanjia – meat and cous cous. It was reasonably priced and as it was late and last thing on a Friday – not to busy.
‘It will take about 25 minutes to get to the main square,’ Yesim said. We wondered out, sure in our path and ready to explore the souk, stopping at stalls and galleries to admire the pots, vases, shoes, metal work, paintings and carpets. An hour and a half later we had done a full circle back to the two arches landmark, only 5 minutes from Dar Zaman, and had not come across the main square. Change of tactics. We passed the library and one of the many museums plotting them as landmarks before being seduced by a a carpet shop with the promise of a free tour and explanation of how the carpets were made; the differences between Berber and Arabic style, knotting and loom. One of the rooms was set up for tourists, a huge thing with the beginnings of one woman’s efforts. ‘ The carpets are all hand made by woman of over 100 tribes.’ One, he pointed out, hung over the height of two storeys. I asked him how long it had taken to make and he replied about seven months. True to his word, when we showed no interest in buying, despite the half price discount for coming without a guide, he let us leave without parting with a single dirham.
We spotted a ‘Literacy cafe,’ with a roof terrace and decided it was a good spot for a mint tea and a loo break, hopefully high up enough to get our bearings. Three storeys up we enjoyed a half hour of peace and plotted a new route to the large mosque tower.We came out into an open square filled with taxis, donkey and carts, snake charmers and various stalls selling fruits and vegetables. Walking towards the tower required skilled maneuvering not to get run over. On the other side of the tower was a large and manicured garden of trees and rose bushes, incredibly luscious and beautiful – standing out from the pinks and browns of the surrounding buildings, which were in various states of dilapidation but solid and charming. The presence of being surrounded with so many horse and carts trafficking tourists around made us feel that we had encountered another time.
We finished the evening with our bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, courtesy of duty free and a much better bargain than any of the restaurants selling local wine. On the roof of our riad we enjoy various board games and met Peter, the owner of Dar Zaman, English and wearing chinos and a shirt. We asked him how long he had been here and he told us that he’d moved to Marrakech with friends with the aim of buying and doing up a riad before selling it, it soon became a guest house and ten years later was still going strong.
On our third day we had planned to escape the city and spend the afternoon at the Selman Marrakech, about ten minutes outside of the medina. Yesim had informed us not to pay any more than 50 dirhams and so we haggled our cabby down from 150dhs which was apparently an excellent price. The Selman Marrakech is a wonderful Berber style building with sprawling grounds and an 80 meter pool. It was a welcome retreat from the hussle of getting lost in the souks for four hours. Each Sunday the Selman does a fantastic brunch at The Pavilion Restaurant with barbecued shellfish, traditional Moroccan food, salad and sangria followed by the most magnificent horse show.
Essaouira – best for shopping and coastal frolicking
By Monday we were ready to explore again. We caught the 08.30am bus from the station, organised through our riad, to Essaouira – the seaside town, which also means ‘picture’ in Moroccan Arabic. The bus was much nicer than we expected, air conditioned, spacious and not smelly – most importantly it was only 80 dhs each way and three hours long. Leaving Marrakech we drove through the smarter side of the city housing large villas with bougounveilla spilling over the tops of their walls. Snaking through the suburbs we came out into the pink desert, vineyards and olive groves lined the outskirts, the Atlas mountains a soft shadow in the distance eventually leading way to open road and golden yellow and stoney coloured sand.
Essaouira has that seaside town feel to it. It’s much smaller than Marrakech and picturesque, a walled city on the coast of the Mediterranean.We pulled into the bus station next to the Ministry of Culture, a circular and pink building with canons seated on the roof and no photographs allowed. Yesim had offered Jess and I a map and informed us that we could walk the circumference of the town easily in a day. We earnestly headed towards the beach until we came to an arched entrance in the grand stone wall. The first thing we noticed was how much quieter the town was. It was orderly with markets reminiscent to the South of France and weathered hotels littered the beach front. Of course we cam eacross callings from the local young men, particularly taken with my friend’s blonde hair and calling her ‘Honey,’ but we were not hassled in the same way. We stopped at a small cafe for a mint tea and then followed the roads round not once needing to refer to our map because for once in Morocco, we were not lost.
At the restaurant, Taraa we stopped for lunch – grilled fresh fish, Dorade which was delicious before enjoying another mint tea in the Chaabi Chic cafe, basking in the sun three storeys up. Morocco has plenty of roof terraces. After purchasing some wonderful bowls in the Fez style, we leisurely walked along the beach taking in the fresh air.
Essaouira is certainly a place you can do in a day, if you’re looking to shop – safe it for here, the quality is more consistent and half the price.
Our last two days were perhaps some of the more memorable. We decided, much to the surprise of Yesim and his brother Hassan, to brave the local hammam. Having done it in Jordan I thought myself prepared – but we were not in Jordan, and this was not the sophisticated experience I had then. Following instructions ‘ it’s somewhere on the right,’ after trying to enter one or two homes we eventually found the women’s entrance for the hammam. Speaking our best French we explained that we wanted to buy our own black soap and mitt – as Yesim had explained, you don’t want to get disease. What followed was not exactly planned. Firstly we ended up paying for a very large and saggy-bossomed local lady to scrub us. We asked what we should do about clothes and she immediately stripped down to her knickers – right – follow suit. We undressed to our bikini bottoms and followed her into the hammam, sitting down on mats on the floor in the wet room as instructed whilst other women were bathing next to us. After washing in buckets of hot water, we were ordered to lie down before the scrub began. It turns out that we had not succeeded in buying our own soap – borrowed from the lady next to us, or our own mitts – we used the ones she had. Trying to stifle giggles as she ordered us to lie back or turn around and not understanding what it was we were meant to be doing, we eventually left 40 minutes later with wonderful skin but bemused by what had just happened.
Our afternoon continued in a rather different fashion. We had organised to spend the afternoon at the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech. The fabulous rose garden and pools are a great setting and we got to meet Zitouna the donkey before supper in Mes’Lalla and drinks in Ling Ling. It was a wonderful evening, everything divine – we even tried local Moroccan wine choosing a Cab Sav named after the region of Marrakech we had been staying in – Sidi Ben Slimane – which was surprisingly good. It is certainly worth paying a visit to if you want to escape the hustle of the city, there is nothing else quite like it.
On our final day, we headed to the Marjorelle Gardens, a 20 minute walk from our riad. Located on rue Yves Saint Laurent, the gardens are very well done, bamboo and cacti throughout and that beautiful ‘Marjorelle blue’ can be seen everywhere. If you have time to visit the Berber museum it is worth a look, the shop and collection of Yves Saint Laurent’s Love collages is also included in the 70dhs entrance fee. We headed back to the souks and decided to pop into a place close by to Dar Zaman for lunch. Now on the whole we had found that Morocco is not big on vegetables and this place very much missed the mark.After buying some last minute purchases in the souk we got back to Dar Zaman with no further incident.
- On our first Saturday, we got lost in the souk for 4 hours. Everyone was trying to offer us directions to the big square, which we were not heading to. Hassling can become hand-sy so keep vigilant
- At every turn we had to haggle down a price, except on our last journey to the airport. Advised by Hassan not to pay more than 100 dhs, we hailed a cab and quoted our price only to be told that he wouldn’t except more than 70 dhs. A pleasant surprise.
- There are tons of galleries everywhere – you can buy the most beautiful paintings, carpets, woven bags and mats, crockery and tagine pots
- Supratours offers bus trips to Essaouira for 160 dhs return
- Average meal cost us 250 – 300 dhs together, sharing meals.
Restaurants: We generally found the portions very large and we were able to have the local bread for lunch and then share a tanjia for supper. If there was one thing we learnt on this holiday, if you have a good local in your riad as we had – take his advice.
- Souk Cafe – great for supper
- Literacy Cafe – mint tea and views
- Taraa – Essaouira, fresh grilled fish
- Chaabi Chic – chocolate crepes