Monkeys, snake charmers, henna painters, and fresh orange juice: it should be on the Welcome to Marrakech sign. Marrakech is overwhelming, chaotic, nerve-wracking, and fabulous.
Admiring the tile and painted woodwork of the Palace Al Bahar
Morocco is unlike any place I could have imagined…and, oh, if Madame Groban from Walter Johnson High School in Maryland could have seen my French in action! Knowing some French or Arabic is imperative as just about no one speaks English (apart from a few hotel clerks in big cities or at train stations). As the trip progressed, my Arabic came along nicely… by day two I could say hello, goodbye, thank you, and door….door being more useful than I could have imagined as the term “baab” was the term for the portal into and out of the medina. The medina or old section is literally a labyrinth so difficult to decode I often felt like a mouse looking for the fromage. Every night in Marrakesh (till I wisened up and sprung for a taxi) I’d spend about 2 hours trying to find my way back to my riad, or hotel. Once there, however, I was totally relaxed and treated like royal. A riad is a converted Moroccan home into a bed and breakfast. Some of them are very lavish and opulent. The one I stayed in, Riad Al Ghaliya, was somewhere in the medium range of luxury. There was A/C (a must in Morocco), and a small dipping pool. They brought me breakfast on the rooftop terrace, which was lovely, though actually just bread and jam. Apparently, Morocco got the memo from the Food Network that it’s “all about presentation”, as no matter what the Moroccans serve (or where) the food is always served very nicely.
In the Djeema Al Fna Square
If you large menus initimidate you, Morocco is the ideal vacation for you. There are about three meals you can get at any restaurant in Morocco: tagine (the national stew featuring either chicken or lamb usually), couscous with chicken, or kebabs (chicken or lamb), all served with french fries. Another pleasant reminder of the French occupation, is the coffee and proliferation of cafes in every city, though if you’re a woman you’ll probably take your cafe au lait at a restaurant or in your hotel. The cafes are for men, who dwell for hours at the cafes each day during the siesta (1-4 p.m.) or at night.
I don’t recommend women travel solo in Morocco. If possible, it’s a good idea to swallow your feminist pride and try to take a male with you…preferably one you can stomach calling your “husband”, as you will invariably be treated better in markets, hotels, etc. When in trouble with haggling, I often had to resort to the pathetic claim, “My husband says it’s too expensive,” which immediately brought the price down. And by the end of the trip we had a well-oiled Good Wife/Cheap Husband routine worked out.
Another recommendation for women is to wear clothing that does not draw attention to yourself: i.e. cover up, girl! Wearing long skirts and shirts that come to your elbows gets you more respect, less leering, and basically a better trip. The only place I felt comfortable wearing a tank top (without something over it to cover my shoulders) was in Casablanca, which is like the South Beach, Miami of Morocco. Men, too, should note that nowhere in Morocco did I see men wearing shorts. Mid-calf pants are fine for the dudes, as are t-shirts.
Even with all the hassles of being hot with lots of clothing, getting lost, constant panhandling, and children (and others) following me at night despite my elementary French “Ne suivez pas!”, Marrakesh is a truly incredible experience. The markets present some of the best shopping and haggling opportunities anywhere in the world. The medersa, museums and palaces offer sightseeing that doesn’t feel like the normal fare, which, frankly puts me to sleep. I even got to witness a bridal procession in the north medina, wherein the groom’s family presented the bridal family with gifts, music, and dancing in the street…it was all part of a typical day in Marrakesh shared by donkey carts, motorscooters, artisans, monkey wranglers, women lining up for the hammam, the loud and ever present call to prayer, and, now, me….and my husband.