I had a cancer scare around July 2019. While I waited for the results, I realised that I was not scared of death or dying. Apart from the sadness at the thought of not seeing my children, husband and siblings again, the overwhelming feeling was a feeling of regret. Regret at not having done the things that I wanted to do and actually had the opportunity to do. One of those things was travelling. In particular, to India and Morocco. Marrakech especially. I promised myself that no matter what the result was, I would live my life to the fullest. And so, I booked a trip to Marrakech with my son, to celebrate my upcoming birthday. I wanted to stay in a riad, and my husband was not keen on that. So, off to Marrakech I went with my son as my travelling companion.
We took a direct flight of 3 hours, 45 minutes on British Airways to Marrakech Menara International Airport from London Heathrow Airport. On alighting from the plane to take the shuttle bus from the tarmac to immigration, the 42-degree centigrade heat hit us like a slap. Whoa! We quickly got into the bus, hoping to escape heat. No such luck. Alas, the bus was not air-conditioned. We would later find out that Marrakech people are so used to the heat that rarely do they have ACs in their cars. Shortly, we alighted and went into the airport building.
Menara Airport is small and clean and efficient. Without wasting time, our passports were checked by the friendly immigration staff and we were welcomed to Morocco. As the Moroccan Dirham is a ‘closed’ currency, you can’t buy it outside of Morocco, so you have to buy it when you get into the country. We changed our Pound Sterling at a bureau de change at the airport and went outside to our pre-booked taxi to our riad.
Staying in a Riad
A riad is a traditional Moroccan house. Most of them have now been turned to boutique hotels or B&B hotels. They will have a central courtyard with a fountain and the rooms will open to the courtyard. In Morocco, I learnt that Arab homes traditionally don’t have balconies to the outside, so the rooms all open to the courtyard in the middle. There is a Jewish centre in Marrakech and the houses there mostly have balconies to the outside. Incidentally, there are very few Jews left in Marrakech, probably even in the whole of Morocco. They have moved back to Israel. My driver told me that in the past, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony. Unfortunately, not so anymore. Back to my riad. It is very tranquil. What wakes you up in the morning is gentle and soft birdsong. There are lemon and orange trees in the courtyard and everywhere you looked at, you would find greenery.
A clean but smelly city
Moroccans are very serious about horticulture. Our first impression of Marrakech on the way from the airport was that it is a very beautiful city dotted all over by public gardens . Marrakech is divided into two halves. A modern half which you pass through on the way from the airport, before you get to the old part. The modern part is where you have the chain hotels while the riads are in the older part. The Jamaa el Fna Central Square separates the two halves and straddles them bang in the middle. Marrakech is a small city, about a fifth of the size of Lagos. Clean. Very clean. Even crowded areas that you would expect to be dirty, places like the Jamaa El Fna square, are very clean. But oh Marrakech is full of smells. If you are not smelling faeces from the horses, you are smelling fruits and spices from the various shops in the souks.
The people of Marrakech are very friendly. And also, very wily. To me, they combine the traits of two of Nigeria’s major ethnic groups. They are friendly and accommodating like the Yoruba of South West Nigeria and quite entrepreneurial like the Igbo of the East of Nigeria. When you go out to shop, haggle, haggle and haggle some more. The real price is often around 40 – 50% of the initial price you are quoted. They will take advantage of you if they know that you are a tourist. On our first day going back to the riad from Jamaa el Fna, we were charged 200 MAD for the trip. We later found out the trip was not more than 50 MAD. They will also tell you that a particular day is the last day of the week or even month to buy Argan oil from the women who make it or to buy leather direct from the artisans. They know that as a tourist, you are only there for a week and by saying this to you, they put pressure on you to buy immediately. Ignore them. You can buy anything, any day.
Places to Visit, Things to Do
The Souks – markets where you can get good bargains on leather goods, Moroccan carpets, spices antique furniture and so many other stuff.
The Tannery – where you can see how leather is made from scratch. Beware of the smell though. It stinks. To the high heavens.
Carmel Rides – you can either take a 9-hour drive to the Sahara Desert, or a 1-hour drive to ‘The Palms’, an expanse of land, designated for Camel rides. The Palms is also where the Nouveau Riche live. You will be amazed at the opulent buildings there.
Menara Shopping Centre where my son was quite excited to be able to eat Burger King !
Khoutubia Mosque – a 900-year-old mosque in the middle of Marrakech. It was a bit of a disappointment for us as it is only open at 3pm for praying Muslim men. If you are not a Muslim man coming in for prayers, you cannot go in but can take pictures from the door. We waited in the hot sun for more than 1 hour to be able to take the picture. The inside was not very impressive seen from the door.
I strongly recommend visiting here. It is pure bliss. The gardens were initially owned by a French man Jacques Majorelle. It fell into disrepair after his death and was going to be demolished before Yves Saint Laurent the legendary French designer bought it, renovated it and lived there till he died. His estate donated it to the city after his death.
Bahia Palace – This used to be a very opulent palace, but upon the death of the Vizier, all his possessions were stolen by his staff, slaves, wives and extended family. What is left there is just the shell of the wall and oh what a beautiful site it still is with the beautiful tiles. It also has the mandatory courtyard, fountain and trees.
Horse drawn carriage ride around modern Marrakech.
Jewish Quarter and Cemetery.
Berber Village in the Atlas Mountain. The Berbers were the original inhabitants of Morocco before the advent of the Arabs. They are lighter skinned than Arabs. They have mostly integrated with Arab culture but in this village, high up in the Atlas Mountains, there is a village that is untouched by Arab culture.
Don’t forget to get a hammam and spa treatment. If you stay in a riad, they should have it inhouse. The hammam masseuse scrubs your skin so clean that you skin will glow for the next few days. Even if you don’t have any baths or showers!
Marrakech is a great city to visit. Crime is relatively low in Marrakech. We were warned about pickpockets, but we did not have any issues with that. Would I go back to Marrakech? I am already planning my next trip! And one last thing, Marrakech is also known as the rose city. The colours of the buildings are a dusky pink on the outside. Marrakech, and probably the whole of Morocco is a place that cherishes and upholds its past and culture while at the same time working towards a great modern future.
From Murtala Muhammed International Airport (Lagos) to Marrakesh Menara Airpot, the least-expensive deal you can find is a 35-hour flight which costs N352,050 (One Adult, Economy Cabin) on Air France, with two layovers at Paris-Charles De Gaulle, France and Amsterdam-Schiphol Airport, Netherlands.
Top hotels in the city cost about N62,000 per night on average. Book here.