Tips for Marrakech

“A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.”
John B. Priestly

For Christmas 2006 we decided on a change of scene. Together with my parents and my sister we spent 3 nights in Marrakech during which we did some gentle sightseeing, some great eating and enjoyed some good old-fashioned family time.

Guide book: I followed my usual method of purchasing a guide book before our recent trip to Marrakech – I went into a large bookstore with a half-decent travel section and made a direct comparison of the books they had in stock. I usually do this by picking one or two sights and reading the descriptions for the same sights in all books plus checking out the non-sight specific sections such as maps, political and historical sections and so on. The Time Out guide won hands down and was a packed a huge amount of useful and interesting information. I read a lot of the book beforehand and referred to it frequently during the trip itself.

Souks: Would strongly recommend getting your hands on a map that details which areas within the twisting alleyways sell which kinds of items – leather, ceramics, clothes, shoes, food, metalwork, spices and herbs, jewellery and so on. The one in Time Out was adequate for our needs even though it didn’t have every single teeny alley way marked. In my experience the stall holders in the souks were friendly, warm, not at all pushy or insistent and were happy for us to ask about items without buying. Many would invite us to examine their wares as we walked past but none were in the slightest rude if we declined, which we always did with a cheerful aknowledgement rather than the sullen, scared or indifferent ignoring tactic used by some tourists we encountered. As the only French-speaker I tended to be the mouth-piece for our little group of 5 and consequently had some wonderful conversations with people genuinely happy to tell us about their goods without pushing for sales, to talk about the souks generally, one told me a little of what the specific souk we were in used to be like many years ago and so on. Marrakech is not one of those places where you need to worry that any expression of interest in goods or friendliness on your part will tie you into a purchase or even make it difficult to avoid a purchase. By the way, do bargain hard. On two of the three purchases we made I got at least 50 per cent off the initial price.

Non-Souk Shopping: I love the hustle, bustle and bargaining of the souks but for those who hate that kind of shopping experience you might prefer the government controlled Ensemble Artisanal on Avenue Mohammed V, a few minutes walk from the Place Jemaa El Fna. Prices are higher than in the souks but you can watch several of the craftsmen at work and the quality seems pretty good. The stores are housed in a large building comprised of open courtyards and lots of little stores off them and is a relaxing place to browse. The guide book also had a number of other suggestions for non-souk shopping some of which we’d probably have visited if we’d had more time.

City Bus Tour: Since we knew we probably wouldn’t have time for any proper trips outside of the medina we decided to do a tour on the hop on hop off red tour buses. I think tickets were about 130 dirham per person and gave one day’s access to two routes. We just did the one route which covered the more central sites. Although we didn’t get off (it was quite a cold day and we decided against getting out to walk around a park as we’d originally intended) we did appreciate the opportunity to see a little more of the city and it also reinforced our decision to stay in the medina rather outside it. This fit in well during out stay but for a longer, more individual tour I’d suggest just taking local taxis between the sites and just focusing on those of real interest.

Hammam: Having experienced a traditional hammam in Jordan a few years back I was keen to try one in Marrakech and mum and sister thought it sounded fun too. Neither of the men were interested. We picked the Hammam Ziani (on Rue Riad Zitoune Jdid where the road opens out into a little car park behind the Bahia Palace) as it was just a minute’s walk from our riad. The minimum charge was about 50 dirham (for entry and use of the steam room and facilities) and you could either add individual treatments (gommage or scrubbing off of dead skin), massages, seaweed treatments and so on. We were encouraged to go for the package which included the steam rooms, gommage, a massage plus a pack including bathrobe, specialist soap for use during the steaming and some shampoo for afterwards. However, the bathrobes we were given were damp and, we realised later, recycled into bags at the reception without being washed, infact when we changed into ours and went into the steam rooms, the staff took our bathrobes but gave us any old ones when we left again. Given that these double up as your towels at the end this was the one aspect we were very disappointed in. The rest of it however was great even though far too factory line style. We were first shown into the steam room where we were sat down at low stone stools infront of our own stone basins and encouraged to wash ourselves with hot water. After a while ladies came and opened one of the packets containing a strange gelatinous black soap that we’d seen on sale in the souks and instructed us to wash ourselves down with it. We were then pointed to the steps to better heat up in the steam. One at a time we were called into a neighbouring room for the gommage – after climbing up onto huge flat marble tables we were scrubbed to within an inch of our lives by strong smiling women. After that we were pointed to the showers to rinse off before the main massage. Mine was absolutely excellent and I am sure I was given extra time, perhaps because I was friendly, made sure to let her know how good it was and also mentioned my back and hip pains. The body massage was done using liberal amounts of argan oil with a wonderfully scented rose oil used on the face. After another hot shower to remove all that oil, especially from one’s hair, we dried off (somewhat reluctantly) using other peoples’ bathrobes as towels and got back to our riad positively glowing, just in time for a quick drink before setting off for dinner.

Tanneries: I was dying to visit one of the traditional tanneries and three of us took a taxi to the relevant area of the medina – actually our taxi dropped us just outside the Bab Debbagh (Tanner’s Gate) in the medina wall. This was perfect as we just walked in through the arched gate and were right there in the heart of the tannery district. As most tourists head for the other end of the road on which all the tanneries lie we were able to see parts of this area we may not otherwise have seen. As expected a number of men approached us offering to guide us. We quickly realised that we would not be able to really walk around freely nor take photos unless we accepted one of these self-styled “guardians” as our guide. With his help we walked not only around the outside egdes of the vast tannery area but also along many of the narrow edges of the vats (terrifying for someone with no sense of balance and ridiculous vertigo – thank goodness he offered his hand to help) and right into the heart of the many vats. I took lots of photos and had a really good look. I didn’t find the smell half as strong or offputting as guidebooks and reports had lead me to believe I would. Having toured this one tannery we tipped our guide and continued on into the medina. All along the road were gates into many other tanneries, most of which looked smaller than the one we’d toured. We didn’t bother visting further ones as we’d spent quite a bit of time at the one we toured but we were clearly in a non-tourist area and enjoyed watching various craftsmen working outside or just inside their tiny workshops. We walked the full length of the road to where it ended at Place du Moukef. A nearby open square and adjoining streets were absolutely bustling with a very lively and very local fruit and vegetable market. I didn’t take many photos as there were many local women wearing traditional dress and I didn’t wish to offend but it was quite a change from walking around the more touristy areas of the medina nearer to the Place Jemaa El Fna. From here we took a circuituous route back to the Place Jemaa El Fna veering northwards to be able to pass through more of the souks just to it’s north.


Riad Si Said: I contacted several riads back in mid-November when we decided to do this trip (having had our previously booked trip cancelled due to some major flight rescheduling). The trip was (as I explained in my initial emails) a special family trip to celebrate some good health within the family and it was important to find somewhere beautiful, comfortable, inviting, in short a little magical, for the three night stay. Riad Si Said quickly stood out. Having agreed on a booking of three specific rooms the 30% deposit was paid by credit card on the 20th November. We received confirmation via email and also had some additional conversations following that to discuss airport pick up, meals and so on.

Less than 48 hours before our scheduled arrival in Marrakech I received an email from the Riad informing me that they had made a mistake and had only two of the three rooms available for our stay. Given that our stay was over Christmas – a very busy time in Marrakech – it was simply not possible for us to find an alternative, especially as we were looking for three rooms. We had little choice but to go ahead with our reduced booking at Si Said though I made my disappointment very clear.

Clearly, the staff had decided that since we were a family group it would be OK to shove my sister (the single traveller) in with one of the couples.

On arrival at the airport the promised transfer was not there and we waited for over 10 minutes before I made a call to the Riad (on my UK mobile so not terribly cheap) only to be told that they were on their way. Several minutes after that a man arrived and we followed him to the parking area. He tried to cram five of us and our luggage into a single taxi but when I insisted that the hotel had promised two for our group size he reluctantly roped in a nearby one and off we went.

On arrival at the hotel we were shown to our two rooms and given a tour of the hotel. We left it to my sister to decide who to share with and in which room. One of the rooms, the Mellah, has a tiny walk in cupboard/ luggage room off it with a proper door. It had just enough room for a single bed and the minibar fridge though it had no heating and suffered from noise during the night but at least gave her a door to close, providing a small measure of privacy. The other room, the Bahia Suite, was larger but had no such option.

The hotel offered my sister a complimentary massage during the stay but failed to appreciate that this reservation cock-up affected not only my sister’s stay but also that of my husband and I (whose room she shared). My sister was marginalised into a tiny storage room instead of luxuriating in her own room. My husband and I could not enjoy the romantic trip we’d envisioned either. I do not exaggerate when I tell you how hugely, hugely disappointing this was.

The rooms themselves, it must be said, are stunning. Comfortable, well decorated, spacious and peaceful. The public areas too are beautiful with more than enough nooks and crannies for every guest to find peace and quiet should they wish. As expected, the pool was too cold for use during winter though it’s a shame the “jacuzzi” on the gorgeous roof terrace is unheated as we would have loved to use that. We didn’t take any meals in the riad as the prices quoted for the Xmas period were an eye-watering 100 Euros per person. Even the very best restaurants in the city were not charging these prices. They offered to knock it down to 80 Euros a person without entertainment but we declined and ate very well elsewhere.

On our second night we had a couple of problematic incidents. Although guests are told on arrival that they can come and go as they please (even very late into the night) my sister was woken up in the early hours by guests who were unable to get back in to the riad. The night guardian slept through over half an hour of their banging and yelling at the door not to mention the reception phone ringing when they tried to get his attention that way. Somehow they got in eventually. That same night this same couple or another one hammered on my parents’ room door (situated up a different staircase to the rest of the rooms) at about 5 am. When my parents eventually opened up they kept screaming about being late for their transfer to the airport. My parents were eventually able to convince these people that they weren’t staff but the staff were nowhere to be seen although the transfer had been arranged in advance. Whilst I don’t blame the riad staff for the appalling behaviour of these guests a huge part of the problems we experienced were down to the fact that the night guardian was simply nowhere to be found and must have been sleeping the sleep of the dead. Indeed we reported the problems to the manager the next day and she later offered us a complimentary bottle of wine from the owner by way of apology.

Throughout our stay the service from the staff was warm and friendly (at breakfast, in the bar and at reception too where we were assisted in making some restaurant bookings). The location of the riad was great too.

Had it not been for the serious mess-up with our reservation, I’d give this riad top marks. However, staying on top of one’s reservations, especially when you have only 7 rooms to look after, has to be one of the fundamentals of running a business like this and it had such a major impact on our stay that it cannot be overlooked.

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