Sorry for the several month delay in posting. In my last post on our final days in Italy, I mentioned that we were off to Morocco and that we heard Marrakech could get hectic. Well, our experience staying in the Medina area of Marrakech was hectic to a degree I didn’t quite realize. I’m glad to have experienced it, but it’s surely not for everyone.
Getting to Marrakech
Our best option here was RyanAir, since they are interestingly the only non-stop flight available from either of Rome’s airports to Marrakech. Oddly, their fares don’t appear to be all that inflated even with their monopoly on the route. We paid $66/per person, thought the only flight on our departure day was at 7:20am. I sure do love waking up at 3:00am to get to the airport by 4:30am. Thankfully, we had no issues getting to the airport on our €6 shuttle bus from Roma Termini, and our flight took off and landed on-schedule, getting us to Marrakech right before 10am.
Since we had some time to kill before meeting our airport transfer, we checked out the arrival offshoot of the Pearl Lounge (Priority Pass-accessible). It wasn’t your normal lounge experience. The arrivals location is quite small – I’d imagine it could host maybe 20 people tops – and they don’t have any food or drink readily available. When I asked about refreshments, the lone staff member in the lounge explained that they see so little traffic that they don’t stock this lounge with anything, but that we could “order” whatever we wanted. There is no menu, so I asked for a couple cafe lattes and some water. 10 minutes later, someone brought in a tray with two coffees, a couple bottles of water, and a few pastry options. Odd way to do refreshments, but I’ll take it. We finished our coffee, headed out, and made our way through immigration in about 45 minutes. After waiting a bit for our $11 hotel transfer, and taking in the airport’s cool architecture, we finally made our way into the city.
Introduction to being “guilted”
Getting from the car to our riad was a mini-adventure. The riad isn’t directly accessible by car, so we knew that we’d be dropped off a short walk away. I got the driver in touch with the riad owner for a quick chat, so when we got out and someone grabbed our bags for us out of the trunk and started leading the way, we assumed it was someone that worked with the riad. Wrong. The upside was that he took us straight to the riad (which admittedly was not all that easy to find) and even pointed out some landmarks along the way.
The downside is that, when I tried to throw him a €2 tip, he essentially tried to shake me down for more. I felt a little bad, so I gave him a couple more US dollars, but when he kept acting like that still wasn’t enough and said something like “$10 will be okay”, I realized what was going on and closed the door in his face, which still had the “I can’t believe you’re only tipping me this much” look on it.
I’m normally good about learning the tips and tricks about our destinations in advance, but somehow I missed this one. The semi-scam here is that someone helps you out pretending to be an employee of wherever you’re going. That’s not the end of the world since they are giving you a decently valuable service, especially in a hectic area like the Medina, but then when you tip them, they act appalled at how “small” your tip is and guilt you into giving them more. I read that something similar often happens when you ask for directions – the person will physically walk you to where you want to go, then pretty much demand a tip for it. Maybe scam is too strong a word for these situations, but whatever you want to call it, I don’t find that they’re very honest things to do. The moral of the story here is: When in Morocco, tip what YOU want to tip, and don’t be guilted into giving more.
Riad Azzouna 13
Everything we’d read about Marrakech was that the most authentic experience would come from staying in a riad – a traditional Moroccan dwelling built around a central courtyard. Riads often have fountains or pools in their courtyard, and with their unique Moroccan architecture and design, they can make for a very romantic and enchanting place to stay. Never thought I’d ever seriously call anything “enchanting”, but here we are.
T browsed through dozens of riads online and we settled for one called Azzouna 13. which seemed to be a good mix of price and location. In hindsight, we wish we would’ve chosen one with a pool, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Though our riad had almost perfect reviews on TripAdvisor, so did almost every other riad in the city, so we took that with a grain of salt.
The post-tax, per-night cost was about $116, but we were able to use our Citi Prestige 4th Night Free benefit here, so we ended up paying $89 per night (taxes & fees not reimbursed for the 4th night).
We ended up enjoying this part of our stay a lot. The riad was clean and quiet with a nice fountain and comfortable sitting areas in the courtyard. The room was spacious, with cold AC and a comfortable bed.
Breakfast was served to us personally each morning with our choice of dining in the room, in the courtyard, or on the roof. It had a staple of bread, butter, and jam, and an entree that rotated between Moroccan pancakes, hard boiled eggs, and scrambled eggs served very thin, almost like a crepe.
We ate dinner there one night, as it was recommended several times in the TripAdvisor reviews. At €20 per person, it wasn’t cheap compared to what you could spend at a local restaurant, but it ended up being a LOT of pretty tasty food, plus T had a couple glasses of wine on the house. What really made it worth it was that it was a private dinner by candlelight in the courtyard. Quite romantic.
Another nice thing about staying in a riad is that you will likely have a direct contact – someone that will essentially act as a personal concierge. For us, this was the Riad’s owner and operator, Sadik, who was very helpful. He helped with things like directions and what we should pay for things such as bottled water, and was a great resource for all of our cultural questions.
Touring the City
We kept our visit pretty simple, all-in-all. We did a lot of walking around the Medina area, which is where the hectic-ness comes in. Navigating the tiny roads here, which are also the walking paths, can be nerve-wracking. To give you an idea of the space we’re working with here, I’d say the biggest roads/paths are about 3 American sidewalks in width. Now imagine walking on a path that size with motorbikes constantly weaving between people and sometimes even cars and trucks passing through. This is all while you’re getting solicited by shopkeepers, plus trying to take in the sights of the goods on display. Thankfully, there are a good chunk of open areas or alleyways where motorbikes aren’t as frequent, but most of the time your anxiety level is towards the top, and it can be a bit wearing.
A fun part of the markets is seeing the polyglot sales tactics. Aside from the obvious English and Arabic, I think I heard sales pitches happening in French, Spanish, German, Chinese, and probably more. Browsing the shops and getting a feel for the cost of items can also be a fun game to play if you actually want to buy something, but be good at saying “no”. Calling the standard sales techniques there “high pressure” is an understatement.
The markets had plenty of spices, vegetables, and bread, as well as the standard fakes on display – Gucci bags, Nike apparel, North Face backpacks, and more. As good as some of the deals are, these fakes are normally low-quality. I remember buying a North Face bag in the Philippines for maybe $15 just to have a zipper snap off the first time I used it.
We also took a stroll around the Gueliz or New Town area. This is where all the nice and fancy hotels are located, as well as a number of sightseeing spots, including gardens, palaces, and mosques. We visited what we determined to be the top 3 spots in New Town: Koutoubia Mosque, La Mamounia Hotel, and….KFC. Heck yeah.
The mosque’s main attraction is its 253ft. tall minaret, but it also has a couple gardens to sit and relax in, if that’s your thing. La Mamounia was pretty interesting to see. It’s a high-end hotel that is popular with the rich and famous, and with its 20-acre park, multiple courtyards, pools, tennis courts, gardens, etc., it’s definitely a hotel where you go to just stay at the hotel the whole time.
We had planned to devote a half-day to a tour of Berber villages in the Atlas Mountains outside of Marrakech, but it was scheduled to rain, and after reading a story about a recent tour group that got stuck overnight in the mountains because the rains blocked the exit roads, we decided to just stay in the city.
Like I said, I’m glad we visited, but I’m not dying to get back anytime soon. T liked it well enough, minus the hectic Medina part, and wouldn’t mind going back to splurge on a fancy hotel in the New Town area.
We swung by the main, departure area of the Pearl Lounge and it was much nicer. It had daybeds, plenty of seating, some fancy lounging areas, a grand piano, and a nice selection of food, snacks, and pastries.
Next stop was Madrid, Spain, where we planned to stay for 8 nights and do at least a few daytrips to nearby cities. We got the 8 nights down, no problem. The common cold had something to say about our daytrips, though.