Marrakech ~ land full of surprise
Thanks to everyone who posted in this forum and to the ones who answered our questions. Glad we took notes from this forum before we fly to Marrakech. Now, it's our turn to contribute & hope this report will give first timers like us some confidence in preparing their trip.
3days in Marrakech - Mom & Dad (30's) with 8yrs daughter & 3yrs son.
Flight landed at noon. Nice weather, sunny day with cool breeze. Palm trees & cactuses. Everything is in reddish brown colour. We smiled when we saw the arrival forms. Glad we had pen with us. Took quite some time for Dad to fill in the details for the family whilst Mom had to chase son who was running wildly and strapped him on his stroller. Then we all waited in the Q for passport control. Collected our baggage. Saw the driver arranged via riad waiting for us.
Driver was friendly and welcoming.
Acted as an impromptu tourist guide showing us the monuments that we came across.Then he told us that he will leave us at the roadside and a man will help to carry our baggage & show our riad.
Starting from here, it was an eye opener. Our bags were carried using a cart and we then ventured into the medina which my daughter described as Alladin's maze. Felt like superstars when we passed the souk - people welcoming & guessing our nationality. After a few turns in the alley we arrived at the riad (Riad et Palais des Princesses - see my review separately) The feeling was amazing & hard to describe unless you experience it yourself. Perhaps it is like getting a grand prize after completing the maze of the souk.
Riad was exceptionally beautiful and very much in contrast with the alleys. Had our lunch at the riad's terrace. Whole family felt like royalties by then.
With the map given by the riad, we then ventured into the souks, our aim was to visit Ben Youssef Medrasa before it's closing time. Passing the souk, shopkeepers trying to convince us to enter their shops, we just smiled and declined.
For the persistent shopkeepers, my husband just shook their hands and said maybe next time. The map proved to be just a rough guide to start with, after that, it was all about following your intuition & asking around. Do 'choose' the right person for direction though. From our experience, honest looking shopkeepers are best ~ even when they don't speak the same language, their hand gestures are helpful). We managed to avoid some of the overtly friendly teenagers who came to 'help' us " Medresa is closed, tannery sale is last day today, I can show you" & "Do you need help for directions? I am happy to show".
We are also lucky because there was once, a local trying to show my husband the wrong way (path to their shop), a local lady selling vegetables tried to communicate with me in Arabic which I don't understand, she called another local to whisper to me: "Tell your husband not to believe him, the right way is first right & next two lefts".
Even in our early stage, we felt like living in a movie with good guys & bad guys characters. In the end, we did found the medresa & enjoyed the 'journey' to find it. The tip is to relax & immersed in the atmosphere although you are uncertain where you are going. Treat the 'journey' as part of the adventure. We loved it, even with the unexpected mopeds & donkeys carts. Just be cautious & it's better to let them avoid you instead of vice versa.
Ben youssef medresa was empty with very little information written in Arabic/French. Same goes with the other monuments/landmarks like the Palais Bahia, Koutobia mosque etc, I would suggest for travellers like us who want to go without guides, to read a bit of the history beforehand to get better experience.
Unlike the European museums, kids are free to run, laugh, play & hide in these historical buildings. We often left our strollers at the entry and let our son roam freely inside. The kids had so much fun that we didn't hear the usual complains of not wanting to go to museums.
Afterwards, we visited the souk again. We were interested in a tea set but the man was refusing to reduce the price. We decided to walk off. The man 'complimented' me being a Berber lady. So far we did not experience the 'hassling' that we were worried about.
We visited Djemma el Fna at night. We were not hungry and did not plan to eat, just people watching. But the persuasive art of the Morrocan businessman is another story. We didn't feel hassled at all, we politely declined a few but listened to what they wanted to say anyway. But in the end, we were 'defeated' by them. Immersed in the lively atmosphere, as if we were under a spell, we followed one of them and sat down at one of the stall and ordered food. "Morrocan whisky" & grilled mix. Food was good but it was the atmosphere that made our day. Everything was interesting to us, the sights, sounds and smell...
The local treats children like royalties- presents, compliments everywhere. My son who was normally reserved & hate being photographed was giving a big smile and laughing when the locals posed with him at the stall we ate. Each of them took turn to carry him and he had a great time.
We bought a lamp on our way back to the riad. We tried bargaining and convert the price into Euros. Happy with our deal. Saw few more shops with similar lamps, did not dare to ask for price as we didn't want to spoil our experience just in case they sell it for a lower price.
The henna lady approached us with a price of 20Dh for our daughter.
We declined but she was persistent & showing henna tattoo pictures. We forewarned our daughter about the henna lady before the trip. I'm glad she remembered so instead of looking interested, she was literally hiding behind me when the henna lady came to her. She left us in the end untouched. My daughter was smiling when the lady left. She whispers to me excitedly: Mom, we have victory over the bad guys!
On that moment, I knew that Marrakech has found a place in my daughter's heart. For her, this is a place when she can be a princess in a land full of adventures meeting the heroes, 'defeating' the villains and then returning to her beautiful palace (riad).
The next day was Trip to Atlas Mountain. We booked Adil from 4x4 Camel. I have separate review for him & the cooking lesson with Habiba. Suffice to say we had an experience of a lifetime. Great views, excellent food and we experience the generosity of the Berber people who had so little but give so much. We learned how to make tangine & Zaalok from Habiba. They even arranged for my daughter to have a small table for her to cook her own small chicken tangine. We had fun. I do not speak her language & vice versa but I can feel Habiba's warmth and kindness towards her guests. I am humbled with her, there was an incident worth mentioning, As I saw Habiba's basic kitchen, lacking of modern utensils but full of labour & love, I was wondering if I can give her something. How I wished I have brought some token for her from home. So, I thought to myself and then discussed with my husband, what if we offer to buy from her the tangine set that we used in the cooking lesson at a good price. In our mind we were thinking, with that, we can have the memories and she can have a new one. I have also checked beforehand that she did have many tangine sets in her kitchen so it is not a trouble for her if we buy one of them.
Little did I know that she refused my money and gave me the tangine set as a gift. Humbled, I tried to find a valuable thing to give from my purse apart from money, I did not have any. So I gave her my brooch which I am embarrassed to confess that was of little value for her to keep as memories. As we were leaving her house, again I was humbled by her gift to my son, a clay turtle which my son fondly played whilst we were cooking. Forever, the experience with Habiba & Khatija her daughter will be a life changing experience for our family.
After that, we went camel riding with the background of Atlas mountain. It was raining slightly but that did not dampen our mood. My children were sleepy but I woke them up anyway because they were looking forward to the ride. The camel man was very kind. Helped with my daughter's shoes which was untied. Singing along whilst we were riding the camel. Actually, he was only chanting: very good.. Very good.. Marhaba.. Marhaba.. Engaging my kids to participate in his chant. End of the ride, we paid them and happily gave him tips as we really thought he deserved it for all his effort.
It was raining when we arrived back in Marrakech. Adil, our guide left us near Avenue Mohamed V. We went from there to Koutobia Mosque. Being a Muslim, we had the opportunity to enter. The mosque was beautiful outside & inside. It had an orange garden inside and there is a small pool outdoor that people can do ablutions (clean) before praying.
A man offered to keep safe our stroller behind his bookstall and later asks us for heavy tips. We gave him the small change we have.
Our minds were tuned again, it's Marrakech not the Berber village anymore. Have to keep our guards and be streetwise :)
Rain didn't stop and became heavier.So we decided to go back to our riad and booked hammam. We passed the souk near our riad. A man we recognize from yesterday approached us, saying we promised to visit his shop yesterday. We were tired by then, no more energy to refuse so we decided to enter and plan to walk off quickly. We were hoping to buy djellaba for my husband anyway and his shop sells clothes. Once we stepped into his shop, we saw only female clothes. So, we politely tell him we are not interested because we wanted clothing for man. He randomly chose a cream djellaba and told us the djellaba is for man. Then his 'brother' entered the shop. The man was taking out the 'male-djellaba' from its mannequin. The funny part was the djellaba's mannequin had breasts :) They then became more aggressive in their persuasion. Trying to put the djellaba at my husband. My husband refused and told them he wouldn't try it on before knowing the price. We bargained at a really ridiculous low price and say that is all the money we have. My husband shook his hand, say sorry we could not afford their djellaba and walk off. They followed us. We kept on walking fast. We were rescued by other locals who were sitting at the alley, they told them off and reassured us that the aggressive salesmen will not bother us anymore. Relieved. We walked straight back to Riad quickly.
That night, we stayed in our Riad and tried the hammam. We were contemplating about the hammam choices (public or private), you can see my previous questions. In the end, because of the rain, the riad's hammam was our only choice. We tried to find a babysitter for our kids but we were surprised when they accepted our kids for the hammam for free. I have read about the hammam quite a lot before the trip. I am also a regular for spa & massage and have experience massage in Europe & south east Asia. But non of these, fully prepared me for the hammam. I have never brought my kids to spa. I always thought that spa & massage are for adult only, but It was not the case for hammam. Hammam is a cultural experience for the whole family. Even for the kids. We were giggling through out the experience. Squealing when being splashed with hot water, put on the savon noir and eucalyptus masque, scrubbed, comparing whose dirt was the most, being soaped, rinsed and finally cooled off in the cool chamber.
Everyone felt cleaner than ever. We were so relaxed that we just laze in our rooms and went to sleep.
The next day was our last day in Marrakech. Went to Palais Bahia and then off to souk once again.
This time to buy souvenirs ~djellaba, Berber lipsticks etc. Wanted a more authentic souvenirs, by now we already saw quite few djellaba shops so we kind of aware which are mass produced. We walked into the deep souk, saw something we like, it was not a ready-made shop but a tailor. Opposite the tailor shop were workers sewing the djellaba's button & decorations by hand.
At first, the tailor showed us how to get to souk semarine. He didn't really offered us anything to buy. He told us, his goods are tailor made and nothing ready made. The ones we saw were for his previous customers. Then we saw some djellabas (without hoods, don't know what it is called) which looks original and also hand sewn (good tip is to check the stitches from inside) We asked him if those were for sale. He told is those are but it is not a djellaba because there is no hood. We didnt mind so he was happy to sell us those. He even made alteration for my husband. We were happy with our purchase from him. We then ask him for scarves & female djellaba. He brought us to the next door shop which from outside sells handicrafts. No djellabas sighted within the shop. Suddenly the lady showed us some djellaba from her storage. Apparently she only sells a few for local customer. She could not speak English, so the tailor translated for her. We felt lucky to find them and their goods were better quality than the ones close to Djemma and the asking price was reasonable. A tip for those who wanted 'authentic stuff' don't be afraid to go deeper into the souk away from Djemma. There are honest, hard working shopkeepers and artisan within the medina. Sorry I couldn't describe exactly where the shop is but opposite the tailor, there were two men sewing buttons and embroidery for djellabas. I asked the tailor if I can watch them work a bit closer rather than watching from the tailors shop, he replied in negative so we respected that. We didn't come closer or take any pictures.
The real artisan in the souks are very creative. They made something out of nothing. We saw cleverly made stuff out of tyres, tins, clays and woods. Wished we had more time to explore.
Had lunch arranged in the riad before we leave. For people traveling for the first time, do not underrate the tasty food that riads can offer. They really employ a good cook but you have to ask in advance. On the day of our arrival, we ordered too much. So a lot of food was wasted. So this time, we ordered less. However, walking in the souk made everyone very hungry. We realised the food was not enough. So we asked the manager if we can order some more. He look quite perplexed and told me they could not offer us any because it took time to prepare. He suggested marrocain salad but he saw our disappointed face. Suddenly, he told us, not to worry. Just relax in the terrace. He will settle everything. We waited and continued eating. Then, they came and served us a portion of lamb with olive oil and also the salad. The lamb was on a plate instead of their normal tangine pot. We guessed that they actually bought food from outside for us. I must admit, for the price we paid this riad, their service exceed our expectation. We expected a fortune for the lunch because of their service but it only amounted to 28euros. The first lunch was 21euros. These are for family of four. They even gave my daughter a stalk of rose as a farewell memento.
Again we arranged transport from our Riad. Yes, we can have a cheaper option but why ruin the beauty of our holiday so far. It is an affordable luxury. This time my son sat inside the cart instead of his stroller. He wanted that so badly. We felt bad for the man carrying extra weight but he certainly didn't mind. He made our son so happy.
The driver this time is not the same guy. He was friendly and he did pointed to us something extra-ordinary : 'telephone company signals' which looked like a tall palm tree.
We left Marrakech feeling 3days was not enough but satisfied with our memories and purchases.
No luxury goods but memento of something money can't buy.
There is something I have to mention, when I was researching, I found a lot of post with regards to hassles, which made me worry, especially when I plan to bring the kids along. Now that I have experience the magical Marrakech, my advice to 1st timers, like in everywhere in the world, there are good people & bad. There are also 'red' and green areas. I myself had experienced being pick-pocketed in Paris and also London. Respect the culture and in return you will find an enjoyable experience hard to forget.
The other point worth mentioning, don't worry if you don't have a guide to show you around (we originally planned to have a guide but didn't in the end because the price was expensive). People are friendly and in retrospect, the experience will be more authentic and enjoyable.