After the peacefulness of the desert, coming back to the bustle of Marrakech was a shock. As we drove through the streets, motorbikes whizzed by carrying tiny children, shopping bags, and even a ceiling fan. Shopkeepers yelled out their wares, taxis honked their horns, and beasts of burden bleated under their loads. It was such a contrast to the immense quiet we had experienced over the last few days.
Youssef drove us as far as the narrow streets would allow, then we were met by a staff member of our riad. The employee was dressed impeccably, and as he spoke with us another man came up behind him. This second man was pushing a rickety cart lined with cardboard, and had missing teeth and a dirty djellaba. The second man began taking our luggage out of the car and placing it into the cart, causing Marisa to look concerned and me to ask the riad employee if he knew the man. The employee laughed and told us he did, and that the second man was supposed to be helping with our luggage.
Relieved, we said a tearful (on his end!) goodbye to Youssef and followed the rickety luggage cart through Marrakech’s winding streets.
Our riad, Riad Joya, was an oasis of calm in the heart of crazy Marrakech.
If you’ve never been to Morocco, a riad is a courtyard garden divided into four parts with a fountain in the middle. However, since so many riads have been converted into guesthouses, the word “riad” is now synonymous with “hotel.”
We were led up the stairs into what I thought was a lobby sitting area, until I realized it was part of our room!
Our room was beautiful and quite large, with tall ceilings and lots of light. It even had an entirely separate room for luggage storage! And the shower was the biggest shower I’ve ever seen, and I remarked to Marisa that it was so big I could lay like a starfish on the ground and still not touch any of the walls. When she gave me a weird look I assured her I didn’t actually do it, it was a figure of speech!
After putting our bags down we decided to visit Jardin Majorelle, the former home and quirky botanical garden of Yves Saint Laurent.
When we mentioned this to the riad employees, they told us we only had an hour until it closed and we would need a taxi to get there. Not knowing where the taxi stand was, the chef immediately jumped up to show us, hurriedly leading us through the narrow, winding streets. We rushed after him, constantly turning around in an effort to notice landmarks that would allow us to find our way back.
When we reached the main road he negotiated a fair price with a taxi driver, and we jumped in the back and were whisked away. After a speedy taxi ride we stumbled out of the car, bought our tickets, and walked into a serene, tranquil garden that was worlds away from the craziness outside.
The garden was small and not particularly pretty, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you need to escape from the madness of Marrakech. You can find more information on visiting here.
The taxi driver had promised to come back to get us at a given time, and when we left the garden he pulled up 10 minutes early, waving with a big smile on his face. We were relieved we didn’t have to figure out how to get back by ourselves!
He deposited us at Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s main square. When Aziiz had taken us there our first morning it had been relatively quiet. Now, in the late afternoon, it was much more chaotic. Marisa and I made a circle and then climbed up to Café du Grand Balcon to watch from above.
The café is absolutely touristy, no question. But it is the best place to have an overall view of the square.
It was the perfect place for people watching, and we looked on at street performers, tourists taking pictures with monkeys, and women drawing henna tattoos.
As the sun set the snake charmers’ music slowly faded, as they packed up their instruments (and snakes, thank goodness!) and headed home.
But even though the snake charmers were heading home, the market was just coming to life. We watched as more and more food stalls were set up, the owners cheering whenever a new person sat down to eat.
As calls to prayer echoed from the mosques in the city, Marisa and I headed down to experience Djemaa el-Fna from the ground.
And wished we hadn’t.
Every time we walked by a food stall, men would come up to us trying to get us to sit down. They wouldn’t touch us but they would still stand in front of us blocking our way, and kept stepping in front of us whenever we tried to go around them. And when we made it away from them, the men would call after us classy statements like “F*** you,” “F*** your mom” and “Go back to your f***ing country.” It was aggressive, and rude, and certainly didn’t make us want to sit down and eat. And this was repeated over and over again at each food stall.
Everything I had read about the Marrakech night market made it sound like an incredibly special experience. I had heard stories of musicians, clowns, bellydancers and storytellers all filling the square in a unique spectacle. But in reality there was none of that. The only things the Marrakech night market had were food stalls, which weren’t particularly interesting to look at, and certainly weren’t pleasant to pass by. I’m not sure if it’s because it was Ramadan, or because it wasn’t the busy tourist season (most people visit Morocco in either October or March/April), or if people had just exaggerated. But regardless, I was left feeling disappointed in the night market.
We somehow found our way back to the riad in the dark, and appreciated the calmness it offered after all of the shouting in the main square.
There Marisa and I sprawled out on the couches while snacking on dates the riad staff had left out for us, discussing the things we found most surprising about Morocco.
We had been curious what to expect while traveling during Ramadan, and weren’t sure if our experience would be limited due to the religious fasting. But we were still able to do everything we wanted, and had the added benefit of being able to observe more of the Islamic faith and customs than we would have if we had visited outside of Ramadan. We were constantly impressed with how the muslims we met were able to go the entire day without food or water, day after day, in the intense desert sun and heat! We were told the greater the suffering the greater the reward, and if that’s true they must have a pretty magnificent reward coming!
I was also pleasantly surprised by the Moroccans’ treatment of women. The only other predominately-muslim country I had visited was Egypt when I was a teenager, and I was shocked by how nearly all of the men looked at me when I walked down the street, leering in a way that made me feel like I was just a body, rather than a person. It was extremely unsettling, especially at that age, and made me feel dirty and gross. I had steeled myself to expect the same in Morocco, but it was nothing like that. I didn’t notice women being treated any differently than men (even at the night market men were yelled at too), and felt like the atmosphere towards women was as it would be in Europe or in the United States.
I had also heard how people in Marrakech’s market would come up and grab you, either to draw henna tattoos or to place some sort of unwanted animal on your shoulders. I had a mental image of being surrounded by 15 people at once, them all grabbing onto me trying to get me to give them money in one way or another. And it wasn’t like that at all. Yes the men in the food stalls made it very difficult to pass, but no one touched us. And, luckily, we were only approached by one or two people at once, so it was never an overwhelming crowd.
Despite this, I found I didn’t like Marrakech very much. Sure the Bahia Palace was gorgeous, but I wasn’t really interested in shopping the souqs and didn’t feel like Marrakech offered much else. The city isn’t particularly pretty, and we had unpleasant experiences in the night market that didn’t make me warm to it. I was definitely glad most of our nights in Marrakech were spent on hotel campuses which felt worlds away, and I recommend you stay at either La Mamounia or the Four Seasons as an escape.
However, if you do want to be in the heart of it all, Riad Joya is the best choice, and I’m glad we stayed there for one night. You have easy access to the main market and the souqs, and the staff is incredibly warm and generous. And, when they found out we wouldn’t be picked up for Scarabeo Camp until 3pm they next day, they graciously let us keep the room until then. So, while it’s definitely on the pricier side for riads, the location and the hospitality make it worth it. You can book your stay here.
Now it’s back to the desert… but this time it’s a little more fancy.