When a friend offered me a press trip to Morocco in return for writing a travel review, I was not likely to refuse, but I have to admit to some trepidation at two young (or relatively, in my case!), blonde women travelling unaccompanied to North Africa.
After an easy flight (yes – on EasyJet) from Bristol in the early hours of the morning, we were ushered like cattle through passport control at Marrakech Airport (below left with an example of it's beautiful metal work), which wasn't a particularly pleasant experience. We eventually came through arrivals to meet our transfer to the Riad Star, in the heart of the old town. Walking off with a stranger who led us out to his car was slightly nerve-wracking – after all, he had no identification other than a laminated piece of blue cardboard saying 'Riad Star' but we told ourselves it was no different from an airport collection anywhere else, and off we went.
When the people carrier stopped and removed our luggage in a crowded street with no Riad in sight we became more anxious – particularly when our suitcases were loaded into a hand-cart and we were instructed to follow a stranger into the winding streets. I believe my friend Emma's words were something to the effect of "You've got to be *** kidding me!". We had no choice but to comply, however, and on high alert walked behind the young man who spoke good – highly accented – English. I decided to chat with him as we walked – taking back some of the control I felt we had lost – but every now and then Emma and I made jokey, freaked out faces at each other as we hurried along behind him. We were led this way and that, amid the dust and fumes, through quieter and poorer streets with crumbling buildings; beggars at our feet; donkeys and horses drawing carts of leather and wood; and mopeds and bicycles flying everywhere. One tip – keep to the right!. Each step brought new scents of spices, untreated leather, soot, and once or twice sewers – although none of them lingered with us as we hurried along. I had been warned that the smells of Marrakech assaulted ones senses but I found the more common smells were cooking and spices, so not at all unpleasant. With each turn the streets became more run down and less populated, until finally we were led down a completely deserted back alley (above centre). Yes. Really. The young man who was leading the way put a key into a shiny lock and disappeared inside asking us to follow him. I turned to Emma and said 'This is the moment we are sold into slavery!". I was only half joking. We looked warily at each other but what choice did we have at that point? Needless to say every nerve was taught and we was ready for fight or flight!
Just at that moment two beaming women appeared from the room opposite the front door and said 'Welcome to the Riad Star!". Needless to say, Emma and I grinned inanely at them - and then with relief at each other before pulling ourselves together and being ushered into the inner courtyard. And what a lovely sight greeted us! The Riad Star is a haven of peace and tranquility set deep in the heart of the old town. Situated less than 5 minutes walk from the famous Souks which are somewhat of a sensory overload – albeit an enjoyable one - when we needed a break from the constant action outside the walls of the Riad, it was an absolute pleasure to rest by the dipping pool with a mint tea, or on the roof terrace with a glass of wine. Though the Riad itself is not licensed, we were directed to a supermarket on our first day there, to pick up anything we might require during our stay. In our case – wine!
Throughout the five days we remained in Marrakech, nothing was too much trouble for the staff at the Riad Star. Greeting us every morning with a cheerful smile and enquiry as to how we slept, we were brought delicious strong, fresh coffee while I sat in my makeshift 'office' by the pool and caught up on emails. When we were quite ready breakfast was prepared and brought to us in the small but light and airy dining room. We were never rushed, and each morning began in this leisurely – and convenient, as it was a working trip for me – fashion.
Before travelling, I had received some invaluable advice from my sister, for which I will be forever grateful. A travel editor and fellow blonde, she had also journeyed to Marrakech with a young female friend a number of years before me. She told me that if I was friendly, confident and spoke primarily French, it would help with how I was treated. She also advised covering our hair – though it's not nearly as common a practise these days with young women in Marrakech, and not at all with tourists, she advised that the locals would respect us for it. Her advice was spot on and I felt comfortable and able to have a wonderful time communicating with the locals. None were verbally abusive as we had feared – merely friendly and flirty - and we had a great laugh with many of them, bartering in the Souks, throwing jokey comments back and forth. They were clearly enjoying the exchanges as much as we were. We did meet one or two tourists who hadn't been lucky enough to have the invaluable advice I had to smile and be confident. They had an entirely different experience to us and acknowledged that they had been acting defensive and even hostile, which led to similar behaviour from the locals.
The people of Marrakech are all simply trying to make a living, and in particular in the Souks they are aware that once you leave their stall, you are unlikely to find your way back again as it's such a rabbit warren! Hence they can appear pushy and sometimes aggressive, but if you are straight, friendly and firm with them, there can be no misunderstanding and the exchanges become great fun.
Escape from the bustling streets to the Riad was an absolute joy. The crumbling buildings, poverty and full-on nature of the town can be exhausting and to disappear into the Riad for an hour or two to relax, shower, catch up on work and read quietly in the sunshine was a total blessing. Free wi-fi meant I could work in comfort and also chat with my husband on Skype back in the UK.
Emma and I both booked in for a traditional Hammam on our second day. If you travel to Marrakech it's something that I would highly recommend. It's not for the faint-hearted as you will be scrubbed to within an inch of your tolerance, but afterwards I felt both rested and invigorated at once, with the softest skin I've had in a long time!
We also took advantage of a horse-drawn carriage ride for a couple of hours on day three. It was a great way to do the tourist trail in comfort, stopping off at various key spots such as the Kasbah, Yves St Laurent's memorial garden, a rather faded but still beautiful former royal palace and the famous tombs.
We found a great restaurant called Cafe Arabe on our second night and returned twice more during the trip. The staff were really friendly and we had particular attention from the maitre d' who told us on how much of a pleasure it had been to serve people who were having so much fun and trying so hard with the language. Emma and I joked about reserving a table under 'deux blondes' and on arrival for our final meal there we were proudly shown our reservation notice (below) which made us laugh even more! Our drinks were anticipated as we had ordered exactly the same on both previous visits – and the first round was on the house. The food was a tasty mix between traditional Moroccan and Mediterranean and the atmosphere touristy enough for us to really let our hair down without feeling disrespectful to the local culture.
November is a great time to travel to Marrakech. We took full advantage of the Riad's comfortable, private roof terrace to catch some rays each day, coming back with some much envied winter colour, but the evenings were cool and sleeping was never a problem. If you're a light sleeper I would recommend travelling with ear plugs as the enigmatic 'call to prayer' begins at 5.30am (or so I'm told – I was completely unaware of this early call as I ALWAYS travel with earplugs!). This amazing sound calling worshippers to the Mosques around the town echoes off the walls five times each day, getting louder as nearby places of worship pick up the call. Some people find it irritating – but personally I found it utterly enthralling. There was no mistaking where we were when the call echoed around us, and as far as I'm concerned – why travel if you don't want to experience different cultures?