Last year, I hit the road after a long absence. I had been busy stuck at a job I hated and other excuses. Luckily, I was jolted from my robotic reverie.
My dear friend, GIS badass, and frequent travel partner, emailed me. She was working in West Asia and had a week of R & R coming to her in two weeks: can we meet up? Yes. Yes we can. We shot a few location ideas back and forth (Istanbul? Paris? Geneva? Morocco?) and after a quick survey of flight costs and scheduling, we decided on Morocco. More precisely, Marrakech.
Time & its unfeeling partner, Money, allowed us just six days in Morocco. At first thought, a week seemed achingly short, but second thought affirmed that one week is better than no week. No doubt.
This was not to be a grand exploration of everything Morocco. Six days is a good amount of time to become acquainted with one or two places—I did not want to run from kasbah to spire to mosque to square to market to train and repeat. My needs were simple: quality chill time with my friend, soak up the Moroccan atmosphere, eat tagine, visit a hammam, and be open to impromptu happenings.
What follows are travel tips, reviews, and suggestions based off of my one week in Marrakech, Morocco.
Where to Stay in Marrakech
There are two distinct areas to stay in Marrakech—inside the traditional, high-walled Medina or outside.
Medina means “old town” and is present in almost every large, North African city. The Medina of Marrakech is a red-tinted, entangled city section, mostly car-free and full of souks, riads, mosques, palaces, and the best-known square in North Africa (and UNESCO World Heritage Site), Jemaa el-Fnaa.
Alternatively, you can stay in Guéliz, the modern counterpart to the Medina, full of upmarket shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels.
We stayed in the Medina, and spent no time in Guéliz, save the hour it took to rent a car, a solidly modern transaction. If I were to do it again, I would still stay in the Medina. And I would still stay at the Riad Safa.
Any reading about where to stay in Morocco will most certainly include the word, Riads. What are they? The shit. Riads are traditional Moroccan guesthouses with an interior courtyard (usually with a fountain or citrus trees) and all of the rooms open into the central atrium space. Their design encourages privacy, quiet, and cool escapes from the heat.
There are hundreds of riads in the Medina and it can be difficult to choose. There are plenty of quality options, and we happened to stay at the Riad Safa, mostly because of its rhapsodic reviews and decent pricing. There are 5 guestrooms set around two patios, with a gorgeous roof terrace, and clean, white Arab-Andalusian architecture. The cost ($50-60 a night for a 2-person room) includes an amazing breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice from its courtyard trees, fruit, yogurt, toast, cheese, flatbread, jam, coffee and tea. You can eat on the rooftop terrace which is the only way to start one’s day.
The staff at Riad Safa were incredibly kind and readily available to answer questions and give advice. You can pay for airport pickup and drop-off, which I recommend as it can be hard to find the place in the maze-like medina, though if you are down to try, go for it. As mentioned, the staff were essential in helping us hash out our Atlas Mountain trip (clearly, I now join the ranks of its enthusiastic reviewers). It was quiet, picturesque, and just far enough away from the activity of Jemaa el-Fnaa, but close enough (15 minute walk) to access easily.
Getting around the Medina
You walk, you get lost, then you walk and get lost some more, but you won’t mind. There’s something interesting around every corner—snacks, mint tea, silver, leather, argon oil, spice, unasked for massages. The middle of the medina is the open space of the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and the main souks (shops selling everything you can imagine) are to the north. Everything is walkable; a map helps, but many people are kind enough to help you find your way if you’re lost.
We spent three days walking through Marrakech, perusing the souks, drinking tea with shopkeepers, eating everything possible at Jemaa el-Fnaa…and we spent an entire evening in a hammam.
Hammams in Marrakech
A hammam is a Turkish bath—the Middle Eastern rendering of my culture’s steam room. I am a water therapy enthusiast, I love steam rooms and saunas in all countries. I make it a point to try every culture’s variant—Mexico’s temazcals, Laos’ herbal saunas, and now, Morocco’s Hammams.
Like the riads, Marrakech offers a wide variety of hammams for every price point and taste. The super-traditional hammams cost around $5 and typically consist of shared spaces. The more expensive hammams offer massage, showers, and usually a large woman to come in and scrub you down. That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got.
We chose Les Bains de Marrakech, a cushy hammam located about 5 minutes south of Jemaa el-Fnaa. For the price of $50 each, we each had a session in the steam room, a rest period with tea and cookies(!), and an hour-long massage.
Upon arrival, they directed us to the changing room–comfy showers, toilets, bathrobes, lockers. After changing into robes we were led to a steam room, which consisted of a small room with two stone beds, some bowls of oil and clay, and shower. The woman wiped us down with oil and left us to steam for 10 minutes or so. Then, she re-entered and used a rough glove to scrub us down, and I mean scrub. The semi-violent sloughing felt amazing, and afterwards we were again covered with some clay and left to sweat. Note: Hammams are not for the shy. You are naked and the woman scrubs down every part of you…and I mean every part. You kind of feel like a giant baby, and it’s nice.
After the sweat session, you take a shower, put the bathrobe back on and are again led to a quiet, small room within a dimly lit lounge. Water, mint tea, and cookies(!) are brought to you as you cool down and wait for the next session, which for us, was massage.
If you want to pamper yourself, get rid of some layers of skin, or clean up after some dusty traveling, I cannot recommend a trip to a hammam enough…and did I mention, they give you cookies(!)?
The Atlas Mountains
I knew nothing about the Atlas Mountains before going to Morocco, and now I know a little bit more than nothing. Here it is: the Atlas Mountains span Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, providing a barrier between the Mediterranean coastline and the Sahara Desert. The range is 1,600 miles long, dug in by canyons and ravines, and peppered with Berber villages. Berbers are a badass ethnic group that’s been around North Africa for thousands of years. In the early days they were nomadic herdsman and traders, and now, the majority live in the Atlas Mountains workings as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. They have their own language, customs, style of dress, and they give me culture envy.
After talking it over with our host in Marrkech, my travel mate and I decided to rent a car and drive through the Atlas Mountains. The ksar (mud-brick-fortified village) of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous film spot, was only a three hour drive away, and we heard the drive was worth it.
The Atlas Mountains
We rented a car and took our time driving. We ate lunch, took photos, got pulled over…twice. By nightfall we arrived to the tiny village of Aït Benhaddou. Our hotel of choosing (out of two or three, I think), was the quietly fantastic Bagdad Cafe, run by a warm and welcoming Moroccan-French couple. They serve traditional Moroccan dinner and breakfast (which is GREAT because the rest of the place was a ghost town). Our plan for the next day was to explore the ksar and then drive 7 hours north to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following morning.
The ksar of Aït Benhaddou is exactly what I imagined when I imagined Moroccan forts: Dusty, labyrinthine, and magical.
We left around noon and drove on, enjoying the scenery along the way, commenting that the Atlas mountain landscape looked a little bit like Utah, but not exactly, because we wanted to affirm we were somewhere other than the United States. We drove on, and we drove on, and then we were hungry. Eventually we saw a restaurant sign and pulled over. A Berber man and a small cat came out to greet us and he let us choose where to sit on the empty plateau.
We split a classic Moroccan meal: bell pepper, onion, and tomato salad, chicken tagine, and mint tea. While we ate, our Berber host—Ali—chatted with us about history, politics, Mexico, Iraq, and how much he hates dogs. He had studied history at a French university and was now working as a trained guide in the Atlas Mountains.
We talked about the kasbah of Telouet, which was right across the road. It didn’t look like much, but the quiet walk was an intimate experience as Ali explained the history of the area, the Berber people, and the construction (and ruin and refurbishment) of the kasbah.
Parts of the exterior of the castle were either total rubble or close to it. Once inside, however, everything changed.
The interior and central rooms survived the decades of decay, and they are decorated with elaborate stucco pillars, resplendent mosaics, and Moorish doorways.
We left and continued onto to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following day. I left humbled and fascinated by the history, hospitality, and mores of Morocco.
So yes, I say one week is in Morocco is better than none.