Marrakech - Morocco
Visas and logistics
As the kids get a break from school for the winter, we take the opportunity to mark our first trip to Africa by going to Morocco.
Somehow we managed to convince ourselves that we don’t need a visa for Morocco, and when we visited the travel requirements website, we found out that only few countries need visa for Morocco and our country is one of them. So before going we had a long online conversation with the embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. A lot of documents were asked, including birth certificates, employment proves, marriage certificate, school documents for the kids, bank statements, flight tickets etc. After getting the online approval, we then had to go to the embassy in person, provide the documents in hard copy. Our visa was stamped with the exact dates from the flight, from date to date. This was the first time that we had an embassy provide a visa to the exact flight dates, even the immigration office at the airport was confused by this. Luckily we didn’t have any delays entering or exiting the country so everything went smoothly.
When you arrive at the airport in Marrakesh you need to fill a document with your personal information and the location where you intend to stay. The same document is filled when exiting the country. So take some extra forms and fill it when you have free time so you can save time when at the airport leaving the country. The lines at immigration are not long but the officials are doing many check ups which takes time.
Where we stayed
We choose Marrakesh as our first city to stay.
We stayed near the Majorelle gardens, outside the Medina, but close enough to discover the city by foot. The weather in January in Marrakesh was very pleasant, warm during the day, cold at night. The sun was rising around 8am, and setting around 7pm, leaving plenty of daylight for exploring and adventuring.
The best attractions in Marrakesh are inside the Medina.
Regardless of the path you take, you somehow manage to start your tour by walking through the souks filled with food, spices, scarves, clothing etc. There seems to be no logical order the shops, as a meat vendor is next to a store selling Alladin lamps, followed by a bakery or barbecue. One thing is certain, all of the vendors will reach out to you telling you why their goods are the best, how cheap they are, and how good of a deal you will be getting if you buy from them. My favorite one was when people were trying to sell me the traditional male clothing – djellaba. Culturally it’s too different to wear back home, and price wise it was too expensive to buy as something that will sit in a closet somewhere, there was never a moment when someone did not try to sell it because theirs was better, of higher quality, or cheaper.
The souks are not easy to walk through either, as what should be a pedestrian zone is filled with motorcycles, bicycles and other types of cycles amongst the crowds of people which were barely trying to make their way amongst the other pedestrians.
In the heart of the Medina you will find the beautiful mosque Koutoubia, the landmark of the city. As a non muslim you can admire the mosque only from the outside. Many tourists try to enter the mosque pretending to be muslim but the guy standing in front of the mosque has a great muslim radar. The mosque has very beautiful gardens and fountains to compensate for not being allowed to see the insides and they are also free to explore.
Jemma el Fna
Across Koutoubia through the long street of horse carriages we discovered the Jemma el Fna square. The first time we crossed the square it was around noon and there was nothing there but open space and a few fruit sellers. You wouldn’t think twice that this location transforms completely when night falls. So we intentionally went back there before sunset and we were stunned! The empty space was filled with mobile restaurants, snake charmers, monkey handlers, henna artists, belly dancers, storytellers, acrobats, pigeon trainers, dentists, water sellers, local bands, monkey trainers and so much more. One cannot find the right words to describe the chaos from all the noise, smells and overall assault on the senses coming from all directions.
Jemma el Fna is like a circus where you feel all of Marrakech has come out to perform. The artists claim their services are free or “for a small donation of your choosing”, but make no mistake, they have a minimum amount, and it’s usually more than you had in mind. I managed to escape the snake handlers for 200 dirhams, and they were quite insulted by my offering.
We suggest keeping in the sidelines and viewing the chaos from a distance, with as little eye contact as possible. The performs go in to promote their offering as soon as they see you looking, so don’t let them catch you gazing in their direction.
People here doesn’t like to be photographed (at least not without a fee, which is sometimes ridiculously high!). Don’t even try to do it without permission because they can be very rude and actually run after you.
Pro tip: If you do want to shoot the activities here at night, turn off your auto focus and switch to manual as the focus light is a dead give away of you taking a photo.
I managed to save my hand few times from the ladies insisting to draw them with henna, while the kids had to keep their hands inside the pockets so no one can put them anything that we need to buy afterwards. We found a safe place at one of the bar terraces where you can enter by buying a drink. It offers a great spot for taking photos that are priceless and from a safe distance. We suggest you get there just before the sun sets to witness the transformation that happens from day into night.
Jemaa El Fna during day
Rather empty with just a few sellers
They sell water, like in the old days
Or play with a snake
Go to Morocco they said, it would be fun they said...
As the sun goes down, the crowds gather
Popular game where you catch a fizzy drink
Or have your teeth fixed from the local dentist
All the barbecues light up
And has a great choice of venues for food
With a wide variety of performers
There are are two attractions worth seeing near Jemma el Fna. The first one is the old Royal Palace El Badi, the second one is Bahia Palace. Both accessible for a fee.
The ruins at El Badi were interesting for the kids as they were discovering the basement cells where once the slaves were kept. Luka was running all over the big open space and playing with the shadows at the rooftop (awesome artsy photo opportunity!). There is also a new view from the top of both the palace and the surrounding area.
Unlike El Badi which was not very crowded, Bahia Palace actually had a lot of tourists. When we arrived so did a elementary school field trip, so it was quite crowded. The place is good representation of the Moroccan architecture with a lot of details. Lots of rooms to explore, indoor gardens and you get to learn about the history of this place.
Bab Agnaou gate
Towards the new royal palace you will find the Bab Agnaou gate that acts as the official entrance to the Kasbah. This gate from the 12th century is perhaps the most unique of Marrakech’s nineteen gates with it’s original function, as a royal entrance. Across the gate is the new royal palace but all of the royal palaces used by the king are not open to the public.
Near the gate stands the mosque El Mansouria (the kasbah mosque) originally dated from the same time as the gate but with lot of repairs afterwards. There is a nice restaurant with a roof terrace right across the mosque, which is an amazingly tranquil place for a coffee/meal break with a view of the mosque. We had coffee here, and it felt as is the time stood still.
The coffee across the street is so relaxing and offers a great view
From all of Marrakech, our favorite has to be the Majorelle gardens. As we approached the entrance we started to realize that it’s quite a popular destination, judging by the people in line waiting to buy a ticket. They have an amazing cactus garden which we liked very much. We’ve never seen so many species of cactus in one place, in such a setting, decorated like that. There’s always some tiny path you discover you did not take, containing some new amazing plant you did not see. Photos and selfies are a bit challenging with the overwhelming number of tourists, but if you’re not in a hurry, just enjoy the greenery and you will get your time to take the perfect photo you need.
The gardens are not very big but yet nicely decorated in such a way that you may even notice how small they are.
The gardens also house the Berber and Yves Saint Laurent museums inside (additional fee applied) but we didn’t enter them.
Moroccan food and drinks
Nice thing when walking around the busy streets of Marrakesh are the refreshments. For 1-2€ ($1.1 – $2.25) you can buy freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice.
The mint tea which is their national pride and trademark, is served everywhere although the Berber variation was too strong for us and not as tasty.
The first day we tried tajine, both the chicken and the vegetarian one, and although this was a tasty dish we had had enough of it by the end of our trip. It seemed like everywhere you go you get this dish for lunch or dinner, which is basically a piece of meet with different kind of vegetables inside, cooked in this special pot called tajine.
When we started to ask for something different we discovered much better meal options, such as the Berber meat pie, beans in a pot.
One confusing element were the different types of salads which they serve. You have roasted red peppers with garlic and lemon. Then there’s the cucumber and tomato with onions and lemons salad. There’s a cabbage one, and something that looked like russian salad. You would expect all of these salads to have different names, but no, all of them are called Moroccan salad. How do you know which one you get? You don’t. Just order and the lottery sistem will decide which one of these you will get.
The meat skewers were also delicious when they were nicely done.
Outside the Medina
Outside the Medina, Marrakesh is very modern city. Long avenues, orange trees lined up by the roads, big fountains at the crossroads, little squares with nice restaurants, shopping malls and parks. The Cyber park is very nice and quiet place for walk and rest.
Getting “special” goods
We did our groceries shopping at Carrefour store inside the Carré Eden shopping mall. They have a lot of choice but prices are a bit higher due to the imported goods. Inside the store there is a liquor store called “The cave” where you can buy any alcohol you want. There are limited stores where you can buy alcohol in Marrakesh and they are all underground.
All around Morocco we were approached by strangers offering us pot or hash, and it was obvious a lot of people there consume and enjoy it. When sellers would run out of things to sell you, the last item on their agenda would be hashish.
Local logistics and surviving in Marrakesh
Every place we stayed had a wi-fi internet but the quality was changeable. That’s why we both a local phone card and 10GB internet card for very decent price (100 dirhams – 10 €) at Orange store. It was more than enough for our two weeks stay. Morocco is a cash country, the only place where our card was accepted were the big supermarkets. You can exchange money at the airport, at the banks and the exchange offices. The exchange rate was not very different from place to place. At some places they accepted euros too. Have your passport with you at all times, you may need it for money exchange or during booking.
Friday is the religious day in Morocco. That day all of the men wear jalaba and the mosques are filled with people praying. On Friday they go to the graves to pay respect to the deceased. Some of the stores are closed on Friday and most of them are closed on Sunday.
We spoke with local people there and they confirmed what we read on the internet, most of the goods selling at the souks are fake. This goes for spices, argan oil, fossils..So don’t get easily fooled. The food they were selling outdoors is not recommended due to sanitary conditions. Nothing is covered and when something falls down they just put it back. The sweet cookies are almost always covered with bees.
Always agree the price before doing or buying something and stick to it. This is more for the horse carriage service, the cabs, guides, snake charmers etc. Buying at the souks is a basic haggling. Women should know that even some hennas are fake, mixed with other ingredients. I met three ladies that did henna drawings on their hands and they didn’t look very good. The drawings were amateur and the color was pale.
Most of the service givers expect tip regardless of the price paid, and although we were not pressured to pay the tip, the unspoken silence and the cold attitude afterwards were not very pleasant.
If you hire a guide you have to be certain he has an official badge, yet be prepared to be dragged into various shops where you will learn about the process that went into producing the item you were dragged in to see followed by an offered to the product. It’s not an easy job to get away these places, and we met some very distressed tourists that were already suffering from the “I don’t want to buy anything any more” disorder.
The trick to navigating Marrakesh with these situations is to take a lot of breaks. When you feel like losing your patience just seat somewhere, relax and get something to drink, like their national mint tea. Recharge your batteries.
Touring Morocco as a woman
I didn’t know how am I going to feel as a woman in a muslim world, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable during our stay. The people were polite and respectful. We just didn’t enter any cafe that are males only. But I would recommend dressing more moderate when walking the Medina. And take it easy with the camera, take shoots from a distance, put your camera down when someone reacts in negative way and never ever take picture of the royal guards or other persons in uniform.
Animal lovers, beware
Also if you are an animal lover avoid the meat souks. Lots of hanging meats and animal heads around. We had hard job hiding these scenes from Luka, especially the camel heads. He was so excited for the camel ride and that sweet animal that can survive in the desert, we didn’t want these scary pictures in his head.
Moroccans love cats. They treasure them as a good luck. Everywhere you go you will see a lot of stray cats. People feed and pet them. They are allowed to go anywhere they want. Be aware if you are allergic to cats.
If you speak French you will have no problems communicating in Morocco as they all know it. Spanish is spoken especially at the northern part of the country, but English is also widely spread. However the Arabic language is number one language in Morocco. The Berber people have their own language with Tifinagh alphabet, that is entirely strange for us.