“The people here drive crazy.”
The words, delivered by the man entrusted to get us from the airport to the hotel, were punctuated by horn beeps, people swerves, and a decent amount of hand gesturing. The taxi van had just bounced through the medina’s pinkish walls and passed between the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa and the large Koutoubia Mosque complex.
As the roads got smaller and therefore more crowded, our speed continued on at a steady pace until the van could go no further. This was the reason we were jumping out of the taxi and watching our suitcases bump along the pavement in a metal cart driven by a short man we didn’t know.
“Hello, my name is Bashir.” A tall man with a striped, long sleeve jumper said. “I am the manager of the riad. Please follow me.”
Bashir led us further into the rabbit maze that is Marrakech’s medina. Through the covered alleys we shuffled along, listening to the lamp makers pounding holes into metal with hammers and trying not to look interested in the colourful scarves that were receiving a beating from the stall owner in an attempt to remove the sandy dust.
We’d been in the city less than an hour and already our senses were running on overdrive. Arriving in Marrakech is an adventure in itself. Getting around is an exercise in redefining the meaning of being lost. And eating? Well that’s two parts excitement and three parts terrifying.
Being brave and adventurous can, at times, be hard in Marrakech but eating shouldn’t be. If visiting was already a big step or the city just really isn’t doing it for you, here are some options for eating in a less adventurous way.
You’ve seen the photos of stands full of fresh fruit and nuts in the souks and read about the feast at the night market but do take advantage of the dinner options at your hotel. Many times this can be one of the best meals you will have, especially if you are staying somewhere smaller. You’re likely to be served more food than you could eat over your entire holiday and since the dishes are based on traditional recipes and made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients you can be assured that there will be plenty of flavour.
Surrounding the square are a number of restaurants where you can enjoy a meal without being in the thick of it. Because most of these venues are well frequented, you are less likely to be encouraged inside. You will be approached by sellers and acrobats if you sit downstairs but their persistence level is low and non-intimidating. Don’t expect top class dining, however, as most of the dishes have been dumbed down for tourists. You’ll wait for a table with a mediocre view at Chez Chegrouni, one of the guidebook favourites. Instead, try heading over to Les Premices. Located in the southeast corner, this restaurant has one of the better views and tends to be less crowded. No matter which restaurant you pick though, keep in mind that you are there for the atmosphere rather than the food.
The Food Stalls at Night
As the sun starts to make its way on a downward path in the sky, Jemaa el-Fnaa also changes. The chained monkeys go back in their green boxes and dancing snakes are bundled up and taken home. As the daytime entertainers leave the square, a new group of people arrive pushing carts piled high with poles, grills, chairs, and tables. These are the food stalls for the night market. In less time than it takes to find your way back out of the souks, these food stalls are assembled, fired up, and change the atmosphere of the square into a busy hive of activity.
Eating at the food stalls is a must. Not necessarily for the food but for the fast paced, noisy experience. Take your time to walk around the square before sitting down but be warned, the staff are some of the most persistent in Marrakech.
“No thank you, I’m just looking.”
“But you look starving, you must eat before you faint.”
“I’ve already eaten tonight.”
“Well it doesn’t show. Quick, you must eat some more.”
“Here, take my card. Remember the stall number. I see you tomorrow.”
Many of the stalls have menus with the prices written on them, or the person taking your order will explain the prices to you. This is usually done at such a fast pace that the chance of you remembering all the details is about as slim as you visiting Marrakech and not being asked to buy something. While most “miscalculations” are harmless and you won’t go into debt from a meal at the wooden tables you might want to clarify how much that bowl of olives you didn’t ask for is going to cost, confirm the numbers that arrive scribbled on a small piece of paper, and prepare yourself for being encouraged to partake in after dinner drinks. Try to get a spot away from the outside of the stall if possible. You’ll duck as dishes are passed over your head but you also won’t be as bothered by the touts who pass by regularly.
The Fail Safes
If you really can’t take it anymore and need something a little more familiar, head out of the medina and down to Place du 16 Novembre. This part of the city has a McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut all within walking distance of each other.
You’ll need to get to grips with the local currency of Morocco, the Moroccan dirham (MAD), if you plan to spend some time shopping. Marrakech’s time zone is GMT +1 standard time and GMT +2 daylight savings time. Do be aware that from 2012 Morroco began with suspending daylight savings time during Ramadan. This is designed to shorten evenings, making it easier for Muslims to observe the Ramadan fast during hours of daylight. The best times to visit Marrakech are spring and autumn, when temperatures are warm by day but cooler at night, and November to February.
The international airport of Marrakech is the Marrakech-Menara Airport, which is located about 5 kilometers from the city. Trains from Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier connect with most domestic rail destinations in the country, with Marrakech as the southernmost stop. The train station is located in the Guéliz district on Avenue Hassan II. There are also many long distance bus companies operating within Morocco which serve Marrakech.
Harira Soup: A tomato based spiced chickpea soup.
M’semmen: A bit of a cross between a pancake and a doughy bread. Eaten plain or with toppings or fillings.
Pastilla: A layered sweet pastry stuffed with pigeon or chicken and then covered in icing sugar.
Moroccan Pastries: Rich and dense, these come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.
For more information on Marrakech, head on over to the Marrakech Tourism website.