2nd-7th May, 2015
I have always wanted to go to Morocco. Photos of beautiful, earthy coloured buildings, enormous mounds of spices and, of course, the luscious, slow cooked tagines, hand rolled couscous and heavily spiced vegetables have always appealed to me.
It took a little time to convince Kristian who focused on the few stories we had heard regarding food poisoning and the like (he has a bit of a sensitive stomach so he tends to get a little paranoid!) But finally, cheap Marrakech flights came up, well timed with a long weekend and that was that. Off we went, armed with our hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes, and headed south, to Africa!
Even though it is clearly in North Africa, for some reason, in my brain I have always considered Morocco as being part of Europe. I suppose it has to do with its proximity to Spain (I mean you could pretty much swim there from Gibraltar!) But upon our arrival, we knew we had crossed a continental border.
Driving into the Medina, the oldest part of Marrakech was the most incredible experience. Cars, motorbikes, scooters, push bikes, pedestrians and even animals EVERYWHERE. The one thing that always amazes me about travel, particularly on this trip, is that no amount of research, photos or stories will ever come close to preparing you for being in the midst of it all! Nothing will ever come close to actually being present.
The sheer number of people is tremendous. Watching families of four or five drive passed on their scooters is crazy! The sound of snake charmers, drums, singing and haggling coming from the main square is insane, like something out of a movie. What we didn’t expect was the overwhelming smells that we would experience. That’s the real kicker. You have the pleasant smell of cumin and cinnamon in one breath followed by the stench of live chickens and horse poo in the next. And don’t forget to throw 38 humid degrees in amongst all that.
As I read the previous paragraph back to myself, my description is somewhat cringe worthy, but you know what? Arriving in Marrakech that first night and taking it all in would have to be up there as one of the best travel moments we’ve had. It’s all in the thrill of experiencing something that you’ve never experienced in your life. And the five days we were in Marrakech allowed us to do just that.
On the first evening after making our way through the crowds on the main streets, through the winding alleyways and passed the eyes of curious locals we eventually made it to ‘Riad l’heure D’ete’, where we would be staying. Other than our first impression of the city, the next best thing about our arrival was meeting Khalid. He worked at the Riad and as soon as we met him, we immediately sensed his genuine and generous nature. By the third day we were drinking mint tea, eating pastries and listening to his Moroccan music together on the roof of the Riad. The many sights we have seen throughout our travels, yet it is always these special encounters with people that have the greatest impact.
On day two, we met Abdul. Part of the compromise I made with Kristian was to organise a guided tour of the city so that we could explore in depth whilst finding our bearings. I will admit that this was one of the best decisions we made. A full day, private tour will not set you back very much financially and the benefits are priceless. We followed Abdul through the Medina, taking in all the information he was throwing at us, and there sure was a lot! He has lived in Marrakech all his life and is very passionate about his city. As we followed him like two little babies through the rabbit warren that is the Souk, I was very grateful that we had sought out Abdul.
Lunch was spectacular. A hole in the wall churning out the most delicious vegetables and grilled meat. Don’t even get me started on the flat bread! Of course, we never would have found it without Abdul and my tastebuds were very appreciative indeed.
A full day in the Medina is pretty intense, even with a guide. After five hours of walking in the heat and inhaling goodness know what throughout the day (there are cats everywhere and I actually developed hay fever from being out in it all day) we headed back to the Riad and headed to the roof for a break.
I had mentioned to Abdul during the day that I was keen to head out to the Atlas Mountains. With limited time in the country, and considering the spectacular day we had spent exploring the city, a day trip to the village of Imlil in the High Atlas with our trusty guide sounded perfect. So the next morning off we went, making our way through the stunning Moroccan countryside. The towns were just incredible with houses built into the mountainside. It really was surreal.
We had the most delicious traditional lunch with a Berber family that consisted of various courses made by the Mum, and everyone knows that Mums are the best cooks so you can imagine how good it was. I will go into more detail below. Our day in the mountains was exactly what we needed after navigating the city the previous day.
The next few days we were on our own and after having explored much of the red city, that meant it was time to hunt down some more amazing food. Admittedly, you do need to be cautious about where you choose to eat, but as long as you do the appropriate research and have a few places up your sleeve, Marrakech will certainly deliver the goods! The goods come in the form of date and lamb tagine and chicken tagine, hand rolled couscous, date milkshakes (the dates in Morocco are heavenly!), perfectly spiced vegetables and even camel burgers, if you’re feeling adventurous!
The stand out for me was the cooking class we did at ‘Amal’. It was so very special, not only because the food they churned out was incredible, but because of their mission. Amal is a non-profit restaurant and cooking school that aims to empower disadvantaged women by training them in hospitality and providing them with jobs at the restaurant/cooking school and beyond.
The whole experience was really was amazing. Watching these beautiful, happy women doing their thing was wonderful. The whole place gave off a really great vibe and was truly inspirational. We left with full bellies and happy hearts.
Our experiences in Marrakech were certainly distinctive from most of the trips we have done in the past. To say it wasn’t a little overwhelming at times would be a lie. But it’s those moments, the times when you are 100% out of your comfort zone, when you really do appreciate diversity. You understand the importance of walking in someone else’s shoes, experiencing someone else’s ‘normal’. We are so grateful to have had the chance to immerse ourselves in a culture so totally and utterly diverse to our own. The World is so darn big and even after all these years flitting around it, we are reminded that there is plenty more to see.
Roti D’or- Rue Kennaria, Marrakesh, Morocco
A very quaint, little cafe just off the main square in the Medina. We had the most amazing falafel wrap. Although not traditionally Moroccan food, I would highly recommend it if/when you are a bit tired of tagines! The cafe is family run and they are extremely friendly and accommodating. Although very simple, the food is served up with thought and care. Very fresh and tasty. So affordable, it's ridiculous! Definitely worth a visit.
Amal- Rue Allal Ben Ahmed, Marrakesh, Morocco
As I described above, Amal is a charity organisation where we were lucky to take part in cooking class. The ladies are just wonderful and so lovely. There were about eight to ten of us in the group. We were able to choose beforehand what recipe we would like to cook. Kristian and I opted for the lamb and date tagine. It proved to be an AMAZING choice. We slow cooked it in a beautiful ceramic tagine on an open fire. It is definitely something we will try and replicate at home. The ladies were well organised and thorough and we left with a recipe card to take home. It was made all the more special because you know the money spent is going towards a great cause.
If you don’t feel up to cooking yourself, Amal is also a restaurant so you can head on down for some traditional Moroccan fare. It is served in a stunning, rustic courtyard with vines cascading down red walls. It was definitely one of the food highlights of our trip.
Chez Abdelhay- Place El Baroudiyine 43 46, Marrakech
We never would have found this place without our guide, Abdul. A hole in the wall in the middle of the Souk churning out some delectable items. For less than $10 a person we were treated to an array of edible delights. Lentils slow cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, tomato and cucumber salad with chopped parsley and fragrant olive oil, grilled lamb and beef skewers and the best bread ever, cooked underground in one of the many traditional wood ovens around the city.
This place was very authentic and popular with the locals. Moreover, the guy who owns it is a real character and so friendly. He let us into his little 'kitchen' and was more than happy to pose for some photos!
Café Clock- Derb Chtouka, Marrakesh, Morocco
We headed down to this café to sample two things in particular: the camel burger and the date milkshake.
The set up of Café Clock is really lovely with an indoor seating level on the bottom where the kitchen is, and a shaded outdoor seating area above where it was very relaxing being able to sit and observe the happenings below. They run various community centred events such as traditional music and storytelling nights, yoga, cooking classes as well as other workshops. The original restaurant opened in Fez and was so sucessful that they opened one in Marrkech also. Lucky for us. Anyway, back to the food.
The camel burger was reasonably good. A little bit dry I would say but the flavour was great, spiced with those ever so fragrant Moroccan spices. The highlight for me was the date milkshake! My goodness was it good! The dates in Morocco are pretty amazing. Just a little more fresh and plump than the ones we find in the UK or Australia. The quality of the dates certainly contributed to the flavour of my shake! I have tried to replicate it at home and while it’s still delicious, it’s just not quite as flavoursome as the one we enjoyed at Café Clock. It’s all about those dates.
Imlil Authentic Toubkal Lodge-Imlil, Morocco
We dined at this Berber family home with our guide Abdul. Such an amazing experience. We sat on the terrace and partook in a traditional tea ceremony whilst gazing out over the incredible mountains. Our three course lunch was yet again amazing. We started with delicious mezze platter that included a variety of vibrant salads, hummus, olives and the freshest olive oil amongst other things, all of which was scooped up with flat bread and then sprinkled at will with the most amazing cumin I have ever sampled.
A chicken tagine and lamb tagine came next, served with hand rolled couscous and even more flat bread. The lamb was the clear winner. When slow cooked in the tagine it becomes deliciously caramelised. It was then topped with plump dates and fried almonds. I wish I could be digging into it now as I write this. So amazing.
We had an amazing two days with local guide, Abdul. I would recommend him without hesitation. We were able to fully enjoy the Souks and the Medina without being hassled or too overwhelmed by our surroundings. A full day private tour (9am-4.30pm) only costs 90 euro per group. Such an amazing experience at such an affordable price.
Where to stay:
Riad l'heure d'eté- 96, sidi Bouloukat, Marrakech
If you’re heading over to Marrakech, I would highly recommend a stay in a Riad. They are large, traditional houses built around a central courtyard. Many of them have now been converted into hotels.
L'heure d'eté was very charming and the staff were very accommodating, particularly the lovely Khalid (who we have kept in touch with). They serve a delicious breakfast in the morning on the roof top terrace. There is also a restaurant on site. Although you are right in the heart of the action, the riad is tranquil and relaxing. It was the perfect little oasis in the heart of the bustling city!