A Quick Stopover in Northwest Africa
Moroccan food is one of my all-time favorites on this planet, so when I saw a flight pop up for $24 from Lisbon (Lisbon is my European hub for a current trip I’m doing to São Tomé), I booked it. There’s lots of low fares in Europe and nothing is really that far away.
I’ve been to Morocco a few times, but it’s a big country with a lot to see. This time I decided to stop in Marrakesh and do every touristy thing I could squeeze into a day. Morocco is full of amazing places, but my flight schedule was too tight to spend more time than two nights.
To capture the true Moroccan experience, I stayed in a riad. Riads are traditional hotels with a courtyard or garden in the middle and are usually located in the Medina area. They’re often reached by navigating a labyrinth of alleyways that requires a good online map or guide. I stayed at the Riad Jardin des Reves, a centrally located suite for only $35/night. It was a spacious room with Moorish arched doorways and a beautiful courtyard with hanging plants and a pool.
I got an early start to visit the Jardin Majorelle, a beautiful oasis in the heart of Marrakesh. The century old gardens were revamped by world-famous fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent when he bought them in 1980. The Algerian-born clothier fell in love with Marrakesh on his first visit and later designed a home in the gardens where he spent a lot of his time. After his death in 2008, his ashes were sprinkled in the garden and a memorial statue erected. His home remains, but visiting its interior is complicated and expensive. A $20 combination ticket allows one into the gardens, the Berber museum the artist lovingly created, and entrance to the YSL museum. The collection includes the history of Yves from his beginnings with House of Dior to his revolutionary designs incorporating Moroccan style, pop art, animal print and ground-breaking fashion. The complex is incredibly interesting.
My next stop was the Bahia palace. This enormous complex is a stunning display of the opulence of former rulers. There’s fabulous tile work and a seemingly infinite collection of courtyards, fountains and gardens. The nearby Bahia restaurant is a great stop. It’s obviously designed for tourists, but the place is an Instagram paradise and exactly what you’d expect a Moroccan palace to look like. The tagine and Casablanca beer are a welcome break after visiting the 100+ rooms of the palace.
The most popular gathering spot in the city is Jemaa . There’s nothing more touristy and Moroccan than this giant square filled with vendors, hawkers, hustlers and sights you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Cobras dance menacingly in front of snake charmers. Monkeys on leashes do flips and pose with tourists. Men wearing traditional costumes solicit selfies. Dozens of numbered stalls dispense freshly squeezed juices and serve up Moghreb dishes. It’s a good time for sure, but being prepared before you arrive is critical. You can go through your cash faster than a losing streak at a Las Vegas casino. Don’t wear anything of value that can be stolen or flash money. Be prepared to tip anyone that you take a picture with and the recipient to ask for more no matter how much you give him. Having small denominations in separate pockets makes it appear that after you’ve completed the transaction, you have nothing left to give.
The square can be a little intense, but if you’re prepared for the madness, you’ll a good time.
The nearby Medina markets are also full of African wonders. The spice vendors are endlessly entertaining as they show you the pigments used to create paint and dangle spices in front of your nose. Theres seemingly a presentation for everything and the merchants will start filling bags as soon as you look mildly interested in one of their products. There’s cages of chameleons, turtles and other things that have me wondering who their target audience might be. Stingray eggs? Yeah, that’s a thing apparently.
Next to the square is the Taj restaurant, a beautiful little oasis where servers pour tea from impossible heights and serve delicious Moroccan food. We loved the pigeon pastilla (we were sure that’s why we didn’t see any birds in the square) and the Royal couscous with lamb chops, chicken and Maghreb sausage. The dishes are beautiful and the service fantastic
The mosque is off limits to non- Muslims but it’s the most iconic Marrakesh-esque building in the city, so it’s worth walking over from the square to snap a few photos.
If time permits, there’s lots of day trips to visit Berber villages, desert towns and the beautiful Atlas Mountains. There’s even a ski resort if you want to one-up your ski-club friends on a unique location.