Majestic Marrakesh Part 1: Where to stay and what to eat

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to begin writing about this, but way back in January I embarked on one of the most eagerly awaited trips of my life so far, and in the following weeks I was too awestruck to write about it. Only now am I able to look back in hindsight and coherently explain how genuinely wonderful it was.

I’ve always been inexplicably fascinated by the Arab world, the Middle East and North Africa. The language, the music, the religion, the food, the architecture, the history, the struggle, the conflicts… Every single part of it captivates and intrigues me like no other region of the world; it is truly unique. Along with other countries in this region such as Egypt and Turkey, from a young age Morocco has been at the forefront of my desire and need to travel. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Turkey twice in my life so far but sadly not on my own terms. I hit the beaches and southern tourist resorts with my family, and while they are beautiful (the lagoon at Ölüdeniz is out of this world), I want to see Istanbul and Ankara. Egypt, the county of my dreams since infancy, adorned with history, culture and beauty, sadly still hasn’t physically become a part of my life. Back in October two friends and I booked flights to go to Cairo. I was finally going to be able to release my inner geek and marvel at the Pyramids and scurry around the Egyptian Museum like some loser child. The excitement built and built and the impatience of the preceding 20 years had just about reached it’s peak when images like this began to reappear in the media:

Stories of rape and other violent attacks against Westerners became all too prominent and the risks associated with the trip began to outweigh all of our wonderful plans and excitement was soon replaced by concern on the part of my friends. A decision was made. Two against one crazy fool who was still willing travel no matter what…except I didn’t feel safe going alone. Thus the trip was cancelled and hundreds of euros were lost. A speculated trip to Israel also wasn’t to be due to a significant increase in violence and tension at the time we’d hoped to go. Things just didn’t seem to be going my way.

As you can see this long weekend away to Morocco couldn’t have come at a better time. I needed a travel fix fast and my faith in the Arab world desperately needed restoring. Marrakesh did not disappoint. My friend and I opted to stay in a traditional riad – a house with a central courtyard so designed to provide protection from the Moroccan weather and to uphold the need for female privacy in Islam. A riad is an excellent way to ensure that you make the most out of your stay and will definitely provide insight into the customs and culture you’ve opted to temporarily adopt for those few days.

Central courtyard at Riad Layla Rouge, Marrakech.

Central courtyard at Riad Layla Rouge, Marrakech.

Riad Layla Rouge is located approximately three minutes away from the famous Djemaa el-Fna square and just one minute away from those irresistible souks (more on those later). The rooms are spacious and colourful, if not a little dark, but all is in keeping with traditional design of a Moroccan riad. The staff are extremely friendly and most speak decent French and the managers speak good English too. They will always go out of their way to help you, finding and providing any and all information you may need, booking excursions and taxis, and even giving you a henna tattoo.

A word of warning if you opt to stay in a private room over a shared one. While completely wonderful and other worldy, the bathroom areas of such rooms offer absolutely zero privacy. If sharing with your girlfriend/boyfriend/husband/wife/life partner, GREAT; go right ahead and enjoy the steaming shower show. If you’re sharing with a friend you may well get to know them a little better than you’d expected or wanted… But seriously, who can truly resist a hostel that has a tortoise family freely roaming the roof terrace?

Henna

My henna tattoo before drying.

Being an enormous foodie, my ultimate Moroccan highlight is the cuisine. The breakfast served at the hostel is mind-blowingly fantastic and consists of a mini feast of fried eggs with coriander, Moroccan flatbread, dough balls, jam, butter, crêpes, cake, orange juice and coffee, and free mint tea was served abundantly all day. As for the rest of the meals, you’ll never be left to feel even the tiniest hunger pang when visiting Marrakesh…

Breakfast at Riad Layla Rouge

Breakfast at Riad Layla Rouge

If you visit Djemaa el-Fna square (and you definitely should), by day you’ll find it brimming with orange juice stalls and come nightfall you’ll be spoilt by the choice of many many food stalls and open-air restaurants offering traditional Moroccan dishes, ‘street eats’ and various desserts and snacks all at competitively low prices. The centre Djemaa el-fna is perfect for both those on a budget and also those who want to dine in the more traditional manner, however the square is also lined with restaurants and cafés offering something for everyone from Moroccan cuisine to French dining and there is even an Italian restaurant with a rooftop terrace that overlooks the square! If you venture a little further out around the city you will find plenty of typical restaurants serving up steaming ceramic tagines; lift the lid and you’ll find them overflowing with ingredients such lamb, beetroot and pine nuts – strange to the ears, but glorious to the tongue. This was one dish I sampled at a restaurant close to the Jewish quarter whose name escapes my memory, however if you’re visiting the Bahia Palace you’ll see it on the corner directly in front of you as you exit the gate. The restaurant, although not much upon first glance, was one of the best places I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat at and is an absolute must when in Marrakesh!

Morocco offers a little something for everyone regardless of diet and eaters of the Vegetarian, Jewish and Muslim persuasions will find that they are more than adequately catered for. There are cafés, restaurants and stalls down each and every street and alleyway so you’ll never be hard-pushed to find something to munch in Marrakesh.

Also see My Top 5 Holiday Destinations for Foodies which features Morocco in second place.

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