The Morocco in my mind built from various travel sites and brochures was alluring, spiritual, and exotic. An enchanting medley of sweeping dusty landscapes, rich spices and smells, earthy tones, exquisite Moorish architecture. The reality was quite different. Whilst it is impossible to deny the country’s obvious beauty it certainly lacked the charm I had expected, more so as a honeymoon destination. With only a week in the country it was difficult to get underneath the surface of Morocco, our short sojourn did however leave quite an impression.
First stop Marrakesh – sticky, smoggy, busy, noisy Marrakesh. Attractions and activities are fairly limited so I would not suggest more than a few days in the city. There are the souks, local wares are far past the tourist tat on the outskirts and if like me you are shopping averse then a couple of hours wandering should suffice. Be careful not to get lost, it’s easy to do and there are myriad people ready to “help” you. My other half engaged in the banter of haggling (even taking it in good humour when a man jumped out and tried to wrap a berber scarf over his face), if that’s your thing then Marrakesh is perfect. For me it was a little overwhelming.
I preferred the architecturally rich Ben Youssef Madarasa, a peaceful ancient Islamic college which was as close to a mosque as we were going to get. You cannot enter a mosque unless you are Muslim in Morocco. It was frustrating but something I should have checked prior, it did seem symptomatic of the generally hostile attitude to tourists we experienced in the city, even culturally respectful ones. No matter as the Madarasa was beautifully ornate, and I guess a trip to Istanbul’s Blue Mosque is now on my bucket list.
The jewel of Marrakesh however, was the Jardin Majorelle, a heavenly oasis outside the old city reachable via a short taxi ride. The garden was saved from developers in 1980 by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierge Berge, subsequently donated to the city in 2008 after Yves’ death. Touches of Moorish and Art Deco styles amongst the 300 species of plants and various exotic birds, it is calm, impeccably kept and a must visit attraction. Stepping back in to the madness of the city afterwards was a shock to the system.
Only a couple of hours away by coach, our second destination Essaouira was a breath of fresh air. Being a fishing town on the coast it was literally breezy (up to 25 km/h wind speed), pretty, had fantastic seafood, a laid back arts scene; more moderate than Marrakesh in every way. There was the time a man followed us through the souk shouting “You want hash? You want opium? I can get you anything!” but on the whole we experienced far less harassment. There are also fixed prices on the stalls so no haggling is necessary.
Essaouira, being a port town has hosted many settlers over the years each leaving their mark, previously it was named Mogador from the era of Portugese domination. In fact Game of Thrones was filmed at the fantastic Portugese-built fortress and ramparts (see below). During the 1960s, French children of the revolution settled in the town and up until now it has retained the hippy vibe with plenty of surfing, shisha cafes, readily available hashish and Beatles themed cafes. We enjoyed wandering aimlessly through the blue and white washed time warp.
Cuisine was good and reasonably priced, the main positive being that neither of us contracted food poisoning, which I had been warned of constantly! There is the aforementioned sea food in Essaouira and we ate a couple of tasty tagines but frankly I’ve had better Moroccan dishes in Marseille and Paris. I adored the nus-nus coffee, literally translated as “half and half”, made of espresso and foamed milk. Due to it being a dry country the late night coffee culture is thriving.
We were ripped off in both cities (taxis, restaurants, the airport, dodgy argan oil, shops and even our second hotel) and perhaps that’s just something to be accepted as par for the course whilst travelling, but it left a slightly sour taste in my mouth because of the frequency. There was something about Marrakesh in particular which didn’t sit right. At no point did it seem unsafe, but my mere presence was an annoyance to many locals no matter how properly I behaved. Perhaps the unbearable 43 degree heat or maybe part of the culture, I am certainly none the wiser.
My husband questioned Morocco as a honeymoon destination, knowing me as he does those concerns were legitimate – particularly irksome was that Moroccan society does not treat women as equal to men. Yet I’m glad we went to experience it for ourselves. I felt less pressure to see and do everything as is my usual modus operandi abroad, so it ended up being a very relaxed holiday. Quite happy to chill at our stunning riad in Marrakesh, or hotel swimming pool in Essaouira.
There were some uniquely special moments on our honeymoon; I will never forget standing on the roof of our Riad during an evening thunderstorm as the call to prayer rung out from all corners of the city with the backdrop of the Atlas mountains, it was magical. However whilst I have so much of the world still to experience, there will be no rushing back to Morocco.