Sunday, October 14, 2012

London to Marrakech - a wholly different world just three hours away

London to Marrakech

By all accounts, Marrakech is an unlikely holiday destination for someone who doesn't even know that it's in Morocco, which is just south of Gibraltar across the Mediterranean Sea, for those who are geographically challenged.

But G the Frenchman, who has been there three times before, won me over by his enthusiasm that I decided spend a week in the North African country. "The houses are nothing but mud buildings on the outside but the interiors are fabulous!" were his exact words.

Upon knowing that I'd be heading to Marrakech, people in the office began to offer suggestion for my itinerary. "Oh, you should go to Casablanca, it's only an hour's train ride from Marrakech." "What about Atlas Mountains? It's just over an hour's drive from there." Unsurprisingly, they are all without children and singles. Gone were the days where I can afford to get lost in Istanbul's Spice Market, camp in the deserts of Wadi Rum and half stumbling down the ski slopes of Meribel. These days, with a little one in tow whose favourite word is "nope", everything has to be planned and managed - even a car journey of over half an hour is an arduous and sometimes precarious process.

Getting to Marrakech

After much trial and error, I pretty much stick to just two online sites for my travels of late. With allocated seating available with a small additional fee, flying with Easyjet from London is a no brainer. Since I've pretty much mastered the art of travelling light, there's no need to check in any luggage that would have cost extra (Easyjet allows check-in of baby strollers for free). Online check-in is a breeze and with boarding passes ready printed, we were through the customs in no time. Quite frankly, its orangery theme just cheers me up.

Our accommodation in Marrakech was booked through Booking.com. Though the interface isn't much to look at, their accommodation coverage in the popular destination (even within London itself) is definitely one of the most extensive that I've come across. More importantly to me, the reviews and scorings on accommodations are divided up into separate categories with even one that is families with young children. That's how we landed up with Riad Asseoul and Les Deux Tours. More on these two later.

Where to go in Marrakech

The Medina of Marrakech is essentially the walled up area that comprises of the old city. Right at the heart of the Medina is the Souk (or market) that sells knick knacks from huge Berber and Arabic handwoven carpets to tagines of various sizes, from metallic trinkets to nuts, perfumes and spices.

Marrakech Souk Market

Being a former protectorate of France, it's way easier to get around Marrakech if you are a French speaker. For us, whose extent of the French language consists wholly of "Bonjour", "Merci" and "Au revoir", we are at the mercy of our guide, whose command of English is marginally better than our French. The next thing we knew, we were led to side streets of the souk where carpet shops and "pharmacies" full of local spices and "Viagra" await. There we were subjected to scripted presentations by the shop staff while the owners chatted with the guide.

Marrakech Jardin Majorelle garden

Marrakech Jardin Majorelle garden Cafe Bousafsaf

Marrakech Jardin Majorelle garden Cafe Bousafsaf beef tagine

Beside the souk, the other must visit places would have to be the Jardin Majorelle and Madersa Ben Youssef. Jardin Majorelle was created in the 1920s by a French painter Jacques Majorelle. Located at the northwest outside the Medina, this private collection of greenery is prettily arranged within a walled compound - the garden itself costs the equivalent of €5 per entry, and the museum within another €2.50. It provides a respite from the otherwise arid landscape. The Cafe Bousafsaf within serves a mean beef tagine.

Marrakech Madersa Ben Youssef

Madersa Ben Youssef, a former Islamic college, the largest in the whole of Morocco, lies north of the Souk within the Medina of Marrakech. The 130 student dormitories that were once packed with students hunched over scripts are now eerily empty.

Marrakech Madersa Ben Youssef room

Each looks so similar and yet feels different as you step into each of them. The central square that they surround though filled with camera tooting tourists has an air of melancholy hanging over it. Check out the Berber and Arabic carvings found throughout building - the former are symmetrical and the latter are floral.

Marrakech La Menara

Despite what your guide may say, avoid La Menara. This patch of greenery if you can call it that, lies southwest outside the walls of the Medina and north of the Marrakech Airport is the public park frequented by the locals. The guide did mention in passing that it wasn't as well kept as Jardin Majorelle. He was not kidding.

La Palmeraie, a sea of palms lies northeast of the Medina, was to be our final destination to see the sunset. Unfortunately for us, we didn't get to see the sunset. Instead, our guide brought us to his buddies tending to some bored looking camels on which we were offered a fifteen minute ride for a 'discounted' price of €25 that we politely declined. Understandably, we weren't even allowed to take photographs of the camels after that.

Marrakech Palais Badi

If time permits, I suggest heading to Palais Badi just north of Palais Royal within the Medina. Though nothing much remains of the "Incomparable Palace" built by Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in the 16th century after being ripped apart by Alaouite Sultan Moulay Ismail less than century later, you can still feel the immensity of the palace at its peak. These days, its only permanent residents are a handful of stokes.

Marrakech Palais Badi stokes

Some tips when visiting Marrakech

All in all, though Marrakech is a long way from the coast, it is undoubtedly a refuge from London during the latter's chilly months. Avoid visiting during August and September when temperatures can soar above 40C. Some words of advice if you are heading there for the first time - pick up some basic French (or Arabic for that matter) and your experience would be so much the better.

If you have a couple of days to spare, consider staying initially in a riad within the Medina and then move out to a spacious resort in La Palmeraie to chill out (check out Booking.com for the list of Marrakech accommodation). Guides can be easily hired with the riad that you are staying in. At the time of writing, they cost around the equivalent of €30 for half a day without a vehicle and €10 extra if you need to be driven around.

Also, the exchange Moroccan currency (dirham) is restricted and is only available within Morocco. Make sure you convert all your dirham to your pounds/euros before you head out of Marrakech unless you plan to visit again quite soon.

Just over three hours direct flight from London's Gatwick Airport, Marrakech itself is perfectly doable over a long weekend. As G pointed out, it's a good idea to drop by before Marrakech becomes more commercialised and loses its charm.

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