It had been a few years since I’d taken an end-of-summer trip, but I’m really glad I took one this year! Like I mentioned, this summer was particularly crazy, and it felt great to really get a break from all that nuttiness.
I flew to London to meet my best friend, Shirin, who lives there. We spent two days walking and eating around the city (a little more about that in a coming post), and then took off to Morocco.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. This was my first time traveling to Africa and my first time in a Muslim country. I knew that the temperature would rise to 100 degrees every day, but that we’d be pretty covered up whenever we were outside the hotels. I’d heard that the shopping is wonderful in the boutiques. And it seemed that Marrakech and Essaouira, the two cities we were visiting, were pretty touristy and that safety wasn’t a concern.
But I wasn’t prepared for just how hectic the medina would be.
Hotels in Marrakech seemed to fall into three categories. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses that have multiple rooms built around a courtyard. Most riad hotels are in the medina, which is the walled, maze-like, old part of town. Then, there are the luxury hotel compounds, insulated from the outside world, with their gardens and large pools. And finally, there are some standard, western-style hotels in the “new” part of the city.
We opted to stay in the medina, at Riad Al Ksar. We thought we’d have a more authentic experience by going traditional and staying within the medina walls.
Riad Al Ksar was located down this alley, in the southeast section of the medina.
Luckily, the hotel, itself, was a bit nicer than the alley!
There was a tiny pool in the courtyard and also a rooftop terrace.
Rooms were comfortable but without any frills.
We spent our first day getting acquainted with the area. We walked to Jemaa el-Fnaa, the large public square filled with street performers, juice vendors and souvenir hawkers.
We had a tagine lunch at one of the restaurants on the square, then walked to the Koutoubia minaret…
…and nearby gardens.
By that point, the high afternoon sun and heat were getting to us. We had to take frequent shade breaks whenever we could.
On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at the Bahia Palace, which was a beautiful sanctuary with orange trees and ornate tile work.
Unfortunately, I was so exhausted from walking in the heat, that I barely took any photos! From the looks of the other palace visitors, they were feeling the same way. People were sprawled out in every shady corner of the courtyard.
Later that evening, we went to dinner at Dar Essalam, a restaurant in the medina that our hotel proprietor recommended. (He actually had a very strong opinion about everything we wanted to do—and nothing was positive! On the first day, we took all of his suggestions, even canceling the dinner reservations we’d made in advance. By the second and third days, we decided that we’d see what we wanted to see and eat what we wanted to eat, whether or not he deemed the places “rubbish.” I love getting recommendations from locals, but there’s also something to be said about the places you discover on your own.)
Dar Essalam didn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, it was like a palace! Room after room was decked out with carved wood and tile mosaics.
It was clearly a touristy place, with musicians, belly dancers and a woman who danced with a platter of candles on her head. But the food wasn’t bad! The couscous and egg/meatball tagine were simple and straightforward.
Afterwards, we went to Jemaa El-Fna again. At night, food vendors set up shop and cook elaborate meals.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to enjoy the experience. The men working the stalls were so aggressive that we couldn’t even glance at their food before they would start harassing us to come over.
This proved to be a huge problem for us, everywhere in the medina.
Walking through it was not fun. In fact, it was pretty horrible. The streets were narrow, dusty and uneven. Motorcycles, cars and bikes sped around corners and flew through alleys, just barely missing people. (Shirin actually got nicked by a motorcyclist one time.) Because of our riad’s location, we had to walk about 20-25 minutes to get anywhere. And the ENTIRE time, men from the stalls we passed harassed us. Not just once or twice—it was relentless. (Because I’m Asian, I got a constant stream of: “Helllllllllllllllllloooooooooo, Japan.” “Konichiwa.” “Arigato.” “Where are you from?”)
Did I mention that it was also 100 degrees…and we were wearing long sleeves and pants…and I was in a full boot?
I don’t think we would’ve had the same experience if we were two dudes, of if there were a man with us. Needless to say, we weren’t able to do any shopping in the medina.
The next day, we already needed a break from it.
We headed to Yves Saint Laurent’s Jardin Majorelle in the “new” part of town. (i.e. outside the medina.)
The gardens were beautiful!
And, more importantly, peaceful.
We enjoyed every second of being there, taking in the gorgeous plant life and snapping pictures. Every turn was a photo op!
(I couldn’t resist taking one attitude photo, even in the boot and my semi-ridiculous outfit.)
Once we’d walked through the entire garden, we checked out the nearby boutiques.
My favorite: 33 Rue Majorelle, with its sophisticated clothing and house wares.
We still weren’t ready to go back to the medina, so we looked at our offline map and saw that Starbucks, Zara and H&M were nearby. We figured that western stores meant a more modern part of town, and we wanted to see what that side of Marrakech was like.
Honestly? It was so refreshing. The streets were wide, clean and tree-lined. No one harassed us.
We had lunch at Le Grand Cafe de la Poste. It didn’t look like much from the outside. But from the inside, it was all old school glamour. We ate on the terrace and savored having a quiet, relaxing meal away from all the craziness.
Notice how happy we are!
Later that evening, we had dinner at Nomad, a restaurant that offers modern takes on Moroccan cuisine.
We had to brave another long walk through the medina to get there—something I was dreading. Luckily, our dinner was worth the walk.
Nomad has a rooftop terrace with a chill, classy vibe.
This was one of my favorite meals. We ordered a chicken tagine and the Nomad couscous, which included beef and veggies. For dessert, I had the ginger and yogurt ice creams.
The next day, I got a spa treatment at Les Bains de Marrakech. The menu had various combinations of hammams, scrubs and massages. I opted for a 45 minute hammam and a deep tissue massage.
The spa, itself, was beautiful. Relaxing by the outdoor pool, sipping Moroccan tea and waiting for my treatment to begin, was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
As for the actual treatments: I’d never had a hammam before, but I figured I’d have to get one. (When in Morocco, right?) In the hammam room, I wore my bathing suit bottoms and laid down on a waterproof bed while the spa attendant poured water all over me. Then she left for a while as the room got hotter. I laid there sweating until she returned, dumped some more water on me, and then scrubbed me down with what smelled like a grapefruit scrub. Then more time sweating. Then more water dumping. Afterwards my skin felt great, and I drank two bottles of water to rehydrate.
Then came the massage. It was relaxing but not wonderful. The deep tissue massages I usually receive really get in there and work out the kinks in my back. My masseuse didn’t use much pressure or try to work out the knots.
During both treatments, I found a downside to the spa—the walls were very thin, so while in the hammam I could hear other people having treatments, and while getting the massage, I heard people walking and talking outside my room.
For lunch, Shirin and I decided to have lunch overlooking Jemaa El-Fna. And the only reason both of us were willing to brave the walk there was because we knew it would be our last time doing so.
We ate on Cafe de France‘s terrace. We ordered an onion and raision couscous and a kefta and egg tagine. They were both much tastier than we’d been expecting from a place that clearly caters to tourists. In fact, it was one of our favorite meals of the trip.
On the way back, we made it through the medina in record time—mostly because I was so over the harassment and wanted to leave it behind as soon as possible.
That night, we went all out and headed to La Mamounia, the famed luxury hotel.
Upon arrival, we could feel the magic of the place.
Everything about it was beautiful and peaceful.
Its manicured grounds were breathtakingly gorgeous. Shirin and I kept saying how it even topped YSL’s garden—which, until that point, was the most beautiful place we’d seen there.
We were so enamored that we took our time walking around…
…and just savoring the tranquil environment.
We had drinks on the outdoor terrace and then dined al fresco at the Italian restaurant. (Hey, sometimes you need a break from the local cuisine!)
And we made a pact that the next time we returned to Marrakech, we’d stay at La Mamounia.
I’ll be honest. Before this trip, I didn’t get why people would travel halfway around the world to stay at western-style hotel compounds that were cut off from all the local surroundings. But this trip totally changed my opinion.
It was difficult and exhausting to be harassed so much in the medina. I think we would’ve been better able to enjoy walking around if we didn’t have to deal with so much harassment every time we left the hotel. The people who stay at the compound hotels probably take cabs to the square, walk around a bit, go to dinner at one of the restaurants a little off the square, then go home. And I imagine that since they only have to deal with a few minutes (as opposed to nearly two hours a day) of harassment, it wouldn’t bother them as much.
That said, I still, overall, enjoyed our time in Marrakech. Though I’ll admit, I was pretty happy to depart to Essaouira, the seaside town, for a few days afterwards, in hopes that it would be a bit more chill.