Marrakesh and Essaouira: From the Desert to the Sea in Morocco
“Back to insanity again!” I joked as we wove our way through the crowd.
“I know,” Mike laughed. “This reminds me of Kathmandu. Or Hanoi.”
Marrakesh is a feast for the senses. During our first walk down the winding lanes of its medina, we passed scores of vendors peddling a colorful variety of handmade items. We spotted intricately woven carpets, soft leather bags, and delicate scarves, all spilling out of closet-sized storefronts. We saw butchers carving giant cuts of fresh lamb and beef on their counters while hopeful stray cats lingered on the ground below, waiting for their moment to pounce. As we carefully picked our way down the narrow streets, pack donkeys laden with goods stomped by, dodging exhaust-spewing motorbikes and children kicking soccer balls. The dusty air smelled like mint leaves and grilled meat, with a touch of diesel fuel mixed in.
Marrakesh, nicknamed Morocco’s “Red City” for the crimson shade of its buildings, is one of the most vibrant destinations we’ve visited. The old section of town is a medina, a term used to describe North African cities surrounded by fortressed walls. The most distinctive feature of medinas is their maze-like collection of cramped streets, which are almost impossible to navigate even with the modern advantage of Google Maps. Getting lost is a rite of passage!
However, since we didn’t want to spend our first few hours in Morocco aimlessly wandering in search of our accommodation (especially not after rising at 3:00 in the morning to catch a 6am flight out of Frankfurt), we hired a driver to deliver us straight to the front door of our riad. Riads are traditional Moroccan homes that have been converted into guesthouses. Amazingly, as soon as we stepped over our riad’s threshold, the noise of the bustling medina faded away behind us. The inner courtyard was a calm, cool oasis from the chaotic city, a perfect retreat from aggressive street vendors and oppressive summer temperatures, which were hovering in the low 100s.
We instantly fell in love with our riad, a three story hotel with just six rooms, all with windows facing the interior courtyard. Vivid colors, intricate tilework, and curved ceilings dominated the space, which was decorated in traditional Moroccan style. The riad even had a top floor terrace with views over the rooftops of the medina, including the landmark that dominates Marrakesh’s skyline, the minaret tower of Koutoubia mosque.
We steeled ourselves for the blazing temperatures and stepped out to go exploring. As we made our way through the medina, I was glad we already had several months of travel in Asia under our belts. In certain parts of Asia (particularly Southeast Asia), western tourists are constantly approached by locals who want to sell them something, get them to eat in a particular restaurant, or visit a certain shop. It can sometimes get overwhelming or downright annoying. Marrakesh was just like Southeast Asia, but cranked up about ten notches. Mike and I were approached almost all the time by pushy vendors, and found that we had to firmly decline their offer of selling us the best carpet, taking us to the best restaurant, or helping guide us through the medina multiple times before they would leave us alone. We quickly learned that walking with confidence (even if we had no clue where we were going) helped deter at least some of the hassle. A couple of times, when we found our patience wearing thin, we’d duck into a cafe to sip some tea and take a break from the onslaught. We’d also try to remind ourselves that as obnoxious as the behavior seemed to us, people were only trying to make a living, and that for many, tourists represent an easy route to earning cash.
This seems like a good moment to mention street harassment in Morocco. Do women get harassed in Morocco? Yes, without a doubt, it does happen. Is it constant and unrelenting? Definitely not. I didn’t have any issues, but I was also with Mike 90% of the time, so I’ll be the first to admit my experience was probably skewed. However, we met a lot of women traveling in female-only groups, and nearly all of them reported having no problems. What you wear in a conservative country like Morocco, as well as how you carry yourself on the street, will probably significantly affect your experience. The women we met all agreed that if you dress modestly (i.e., cover your shoulders and knees) and project a confident attitude, chances are you’ll have no trouble, even if you’re a female who’s traveling solo.
Hassle aside, Marrakesh is an awesome destination, and a perfect place to learn about Morocco’s wonderfully diverse cultures and storied history. Moroccan culture has been shaped by countless civilizations over the course of its long history, including the Berbers, an ethnic group who are the descendants of pre-Arab North Africa’s indigenous people. Islam became prevalent across the region as early as the sixth century, when North Africa was invaded by Arabs. Much later, Spain and France each staked claims in the country. France held Morocco as a protectorate from 1912 until 1956, when the country finally gained independence. The result is a cultural mash-up of diverse people and languages; it’s common for Moroccans to speak Modern Standard Arabic (the literary standard of Arabic used across the Middle East and North Africa), Moroccan Arabic (a dialect that’s different from Modern Standard Arabic), Berber, French, and increasingly, English. A lot of citizens speak Spanish as well, particularly in the parts of the country geographically closest to Spain.
We spent three days exploring as much of Marrakesh as we could, visiting famous sites in the old medina like Jardin Secret, a beautifully restored nineteenth century palace and garden hidden away on an unassuming street. We also spent a morning roaming Bahia Palace, a vast, courtyard-filled complex built by the grand vizier of the sultan, who served as head of Morocco’s government in the 1800s. The palace has gorgeous sculpted wood ceilings, stucco decorations, and brightly colored stained glass windows. The architecture inside both palaces reminded me of Islamic sites I’ve visited in Spain, like the magnificent Alhambra in Granada.
We also toured Jardin Majorelle, a botanical garden and villa once home to the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, who adored Marrakesh. The garden has an astounding variety of plants, but for me, the highlight was admiring the contrasting bold colors of the structures within the complex, all painted in shades of cobalt blue and bright yellow.
We even steeled ourselves and braved the nighttime insanity of Djemaa el-Fna Square, Marrakesh’s huge central meeting place, where a relatively tame daytime scene morphs into utter craziness at night. As dusk falls, hordes of locals and tourists descend on the massive square, making the place feel like one big party. Snake charmers and monkey entertainers (whose practices are definitely ethically questionable–we tried our best to steer clear) hang out alongside traditional storytellers and musicians, all while scores of food vendors whip up barbecued meats and fresh fruit juices. Women offering henna tattoos sit in booths waiting for customers while men walk around selling everything from authentic Moroccan spices and almonds to cheesy t-shirts. The cacophony of the square is overwhelming yet oddly exhilarating; travelers tend to either hate it or love it. I found myself in the latter camp. It’s really funny how much I’ve come to enjoy and embrace loud, busy destinations.
After three days in Marrakesh, we boarded a bus for our second destination, the seaside port town of Essaouira. Inter-city travel in Morocco is affordable and comfortable, with extensive bus and rail networks. After a smooth three hour drive on a modern, air-conditioned coach, we were dropped off just outside Essaouira’s old medina walls.
Essaouira, famous for its windy beach and world-class kitesurfing, is absolutely gorgeous. The eighteenth century port and medina, with their white-washed walls and bright blue shutters, look like part of a movie set (the city’s wave-battered ramparts actually served as the backdrop for the 1952 film Othello.) Essaouira is especially beautiful when the sun sets over the Atlantic, dusting the medina in golden layers of light. It isn’t a destination for working on your tan–the wind blows so hard most of the year that it’s impossible to lay on the beach–but it has plenty of other charms. For one, the temperatures are pleasant. The wind keeps things cool, so it’s an ideal destination to hit when Marrakesh and other cities in the interior of the country start to feel stifling. In fact, many locals across Morocco told us Essaouira was their favorite place in the country–it’s even more popular with Moroccans than with foreigners.
Also, Essaouira has a relaxed vibe compared to the frenzy of Marrakesh. It’s smaller and less crowded, and the vendors use fewer hard-sell tactics. In big cities popular with tourists, like Marrakesh and Fez, showing the slightest whiff of interest in an item will have the vendor on you like a bee sticking to honey. Shopping in Essaouira was almost comically the opposite, with vendors not even speaking until you asked the price of something. I thought it was interesting to observe how different the haggling process was in each part of the country. The city also has an energetic live music scene, and is alleged to have been a favorite place of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly!) the food in Essaouira was to die for. Out of all six cities we visited in Morocco, we thought it had the best restaurants. There were choices aplenty, from little family-run establishments to fancier places that served dishes with European twists on traditional cuisine. Although Moroccan food is delicious, it isn’t hugely varied, so we always got excited when we found quality restaurants. The most common dish in Morocco is the tajine, a slow-cooked meat or vegetarian stew served in an earthenware pot. Spices like paprika and cumin are added to increase the flavor. Our favorite tajine was the kefta, made with lamb or beef meatballs simmered in tomato sauce, then topped with an egg added in the last few minutes of cooking. Essaouira also had excellent mint tea, which is practically the country’s national drink. Made with green tea and spearmint leaves, it’s the perfect hot beverage to drink with a meal or on its own. Alcohol is hard to come by in Muslim-majority Morocco, but after all the beer we drank across Eastern Europe and Germany, we figured a detox wasn’t a bad thing! Strong mint tea made an ideal alternative.
We capped off a relaxing three days in Essaouira with a horseback ride on the beach in the nearby town of Diabat. Although I rode horses for years as a child, neither Mike nor I had been on a horse since our 2015 vacation in Montana. Our ride in Morocco will probably go down as one of our favorite experiences from our whole round the world adventure.
We rode for two hours with a guide on spirited, strong Arabian stallions (another fun fact about Morocco: the practice of castrating male animals is highly frowned upon.) We trotted past Bordj El Berod, the ruins of a castle watchtower that are crumbling into the sea, occasionally passing camels plodding along the wet sand. Eventually our guide gave us the green light to gallop, and we took off at lightning speed along the beach while ocean waves crashed next to us. Galloping on a horse feels like you’re on board an airplane that’s careening down a runway, about to lift up in the air. It’s terrifying and exhilarating, but above all, it’s freeing. I laughed out loud as we slowed down, my heart pounding.
“Let’s do it again!” I shouted.
Until next time, ma al-salamah from Morocco.