You can now fly direct to Marrakech from Dublin with Ryanair. This has made Morocco a very affordable holiday destination for Irish people. Earlier this year, a friend and I booked flights with Ryanair and set about organising ourselves for a week in Marrakech.
It quickly became apparent that in deciding where to stay, you have to make a choice between the old and the new Marrakech. The old is the Medina, the area that includes the Square (Jamaa El Fna) and the Souks. The most popular “new” destination is Gueliz. I had some idea of what the Medina would be like from watching various travel programmes on TV and did some further research. Although it would be clearly be a more authentic experience to stay in a traditional Riad within the Medina, we decided to stay in a modern hotel in the new town of Gueliz. This choice may not be for everyone. There are many very lovely Riads in Marrakech offering superb accommodation, food and facilities but there were a number of reasons we chose to skip the more traditional side of Marrakech.
– We knew it was going to be very hot and whilst Riad’s are generally built behind large thick walls to keep them cool, there is unlikely to be either air conditioning or space for any meaningful size swimming pool.
– Although your Riad will be an oasis of calm, life immediately outside the front door is likely to be chaotic (lots of traffic – people, motorbikes and animals, and also locals looking to find a way to “help” you (usually for money, and not always fairly).
If you are not prepared to deal with this every time you put your foot out the door, then perhaps a stay in the Medina is not for you. If you do want to experience the traditional, then maybe consider breaking up your trip and combining a Medina stay with a few days in the new town.
We booked into the Hotel Almas in Gueliz as we were on a budget and it was very reasonable for a 7-night stay. We booked an airport transfer with www.ziptransfers.com for the airport trips to and from Gueliz and this worked out very well, was very reasonable and we had no transport worries on landing.
The Moroccan Dirham is a closed currency meaning you can’t source it before you arrive, so use the ATM in the airport before you leave it. Make sure you inform your bank that you will be in Morocco as more often for security reasons you may find your card suspended after one use if you haven’t informed them of your trip in advance.
Overall, we were satisfied with our choice of Hotel Almas. It has a rooftop pool of a decent size which was really necessary given the temperatures. Breakfast was included each morning. It was a humble affair; generally bread rolls, small pastries and orange juice is what we had. If you got up early, you got the coffee, it was as simple as that. The only real gripe we had was how hard the pillows were. Seems minor, but it couldn’t be fixed and they really affected the quality of our sleep.
Hotel Almas is located very centrally in Gueliz within an easy walk of many nice restaurants. We also were able to walk to the Square and Medina from there. However, don’t under estimate the effect of the heat. It is a fair walk to the Medina so consider getting a taxi back if you walk in. Make sure you agree the price in advance with the driver as we didn’t succeed all week long in getting them to put the trip on the meter!
I would say that over the course of the 7 days we spent about 6 hours around the Medina area. It was plenty for me. That included visiting the palaces of La Bahia and El Badi, numerous drink/refreshment stops and visiting the Souks. We visited the Square both by day and evening/night. It is quiet enough during the day but there are still many snake charmers and other entertainers there and plenty of “stalls”. At nighttime, the food vendors set up and the place comes alive. Many tourists eat at these food stalls but we didn’t try them. What I noticed was the carts of pastries being wheeled around completely covered in flies – this certainly put me off eating in the Square.
There is a distinct price difference when eating/drinking in the Medina and in the Gueliz area. The prices in the Medina are very much inflated and you would be wise to check the price of everything before ordering – particularly soft drinks. More often than not, it will cost c. €5 for a glass of Coke in the Medina area in the same bar as you can get two cocktails for the price of one!
We generally ate at night in the Gueliz area which was definitely cheaper. We really enjoyed the italian restaurant Mamma Mia and ate there more than once www.mammamia-marrakech.com. We also loved our Lebanese Mezze meal at Azar where you are also entertained by local belly dancers www.azarmarrakech.co.uk. We found that imported wines are very expensive so we stuck to the local wines. After some trial and error (and generally being white or rose wine drinkers) we realised we liked their Gris wines and generally stuck to those (Domaine de Sahari Gris is an example of one we enjoyed).
A must visit for seafood is Al Bahriya which is located next door to the Hotel Almas in Gueliz. This place is always full and generally with locals. The fish is super fresh. You go to the counter, pick out the raw fish you would like to eat, they weigh it and cook it for you. They give you bread, rice and sauces and you find a table and wait for the fish to be ready. No alcohol is served in this restaurant and you eat with your fingers!
For pre-dinner drinks, we absolutely loved the top room at Grand Cafe de la Poste. It is a gorgeous room with a lovely ambience and the drinks are reasonably priced.
There is also a sky bar at La Renaissance Hotel in Gueliz with views over the city. There are many bars in the Medina area also with views over the Square and souks. You can get some value in these during happy hour promotions but always check the cost of drinks when ordering.
If you are staying in Marrakech for a full week, you will need to plan some daytime activities. We booked a trip to the Ourika Valley to see the waterfall there (the trek – or climb- to the waterfall was not for the faint hearted though! Make sure you wear footwear with a grip!). The trip also included a visit to a traditional Moroccan Berber family home. Whilst there, we were served some Moroccan Mint Tea which is absolutely gorgeous. I am not normally a fan of herbal teas, but was so pleasantly surprised with this tea. It is so sweet, yet there is nothing added to it to sweeten it. It is so refreshing even on the hottest of days. A must try!
We also visited the Jardin Majorelle which is a small but very beautiful garden and there is a lovely cafe there for lunch. This garden was bought by Yves St Laurent in 1980 and there are many tributes to him contained within the gardens www.jardinmajorelle.com/ang.
There are many gardens and parks dotted around Marrakech and we tended to pop into one of these seeking shade fairly often.
We also went on a Quad Biking trip which was great fun. This was just a short drive from the city and they collected us from our Hotel. This was well worth doing – wear your oldest/dirtiest clothes and enjoy it. You will end up filthy but exhilarated.
My main tips for spending a week in Marrakech are:
– A trip to Marrakech is a good one for those on a budget. To keep your costs down, travel with Ryanair and make do with cabin luggage only – it’s easier than you think.
– If you are not sure about spending a week staying in the Medina, then consider either splitting your time between the Medina and the new town or staying in the new town altogether. Prices in Gueliz are considerably cheaper.
– Inform your Bank before you leave that you will be withdrawing cash in Morocco.
– Don’t underestimate how hot it may get. Drink plenty of water, use plenty of suncream and get a taxi if you are tired.
– Agree taxi fares in advance, don’t be afraid to say no – they will generally agree to a fair price when pushed – but are unlikely to agree to put the meter on.
– Try and get a hotel with an outdoor pool, you’ll need this.
– Book a few trips to fill up your days and see the countryside (and get out of the stiffling city heat).
– Don’t ignore the Medina/Square/Souks area altogether. Browse the stalls, barter with the owners, buy your souvenirs and spices.
– Be careful taking photographs in the Square, it is not appreciated by locals and many of the traders will try and charge you for the privilege.
– Try the local wines, they are much cheaper than those imported and many are good.
– If you are female, don’t walk around with skimpy clothes on, no matter how hot. You will realise fairly quickly that you are one of the few dressed like this, and you will attract unwanted attention.
– Don’t forget to try a Tagine – not that you will miss them, they’re everywhere and mostly delicious.
– Enjoy yourselves, it is a very friendly city and great fun!