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10 November 2011

Some Methods in the Madness of Marrakesh

I returned home from Marrakesh this evening and was amazed that on my walk back from Paddington, not a single motorbike tried to run me over; nor did anyone try to sell me something! I don't think it will be too hard to adjust back to London life but here are some of my tips for making the most of a stay in the red city.

The souks

1. Try to pick a riad that shows up in Google Maps. Or, if it isn't, when you reach your riad, save your location in the map app of your smart phone as this will at least give you some idea of where you are in relation to where you would like to be. It still took us a couple of days to get the hang of navigating (and I personally cannot take any credit) but much as we like our riad, it was in one of the trickiest parts of the medina to find. Despite map issues, I would still recommend staying in the medina rather than the new city for a much more interesting Marrakesh experience

2. If you are lost--and even if you are not--try not to let anyone "show you the way" unless you're willing to pay upwards of 50 dirhams and, most likely, be taken off route. When local kids shout "C'est fermé" or "it's closed" after you, this can mean a) the road is (temporarily) closed, b) you are about to hit a dead end or c) we would like you to pay us to take you somewhere.

3. Watch your back and don't listen to your MP3 player! Motorbikes race through the narrow, windy streets and souks every 30 seconds or so, usually at high speeds and without much attention paid to the road.

4. In the main square, the Djemaa El-Fna, about 100 food stalls are set up each night. The menus and prices are almost identical so you might as well go with the funniest or most memorable salesman. When we went back last night, the guy from # 100 (the one who said "come and have a butcher's") remembered not only that we had been in the square two nights earlier but that we ate at #55. We did end up eating at # 100. When it comes to choosing other food places, try to choose somewhere with more locals than tourists.

5. In my guidebook, pastilla is translated both as a flaky pie filled with pigeon or chicken, and as a sweet, flaky pastry. I ordered chicken pastilla from the Djemaa El-Fna and was surprised to find a peanut-marinated chicken surrounded by sweet pastry and dusted with icing sugar. It was quite tasty but not entirely what I was expecting.

6. If you want to buy things from the souks, you'll definitely get a better deal if you buy multiples. Of course, often, you will only want one of the item and without any easy way to ensure the quality of what you are buying, it can be hard to tell whether or not you're getting a bargain.

7. In terms of sight-seeing, I would definitely recommend the Saadian Tombs and the Badi Palace; the Majorelle Gardens are lovely too and a welcome respite from the craziness of the medina. The Mouassine Fountain is not a fountain in the sense of the Versailles Fountain.

8. Hammams are all about cleansing, not relaxing. I felt super-clean after mine but it was hardly the chill-out experience I had imagined.

I can haz dirhams?

9. We were there for Eid al-Adha, the festival of sacrifice. It started on Monday morning, with many sheep heads roasting on street-corner spits, and the city was much quieter until Wednesday night, only really returning to the usual level of chaos this morning. A lot of restaurants and the Djeema El-Fna stalls were open throughout but some of the stalls in the souks and various shops and restaurants in the new city were shut for some of the holiday period.

10. Most importantly, bring plenty of kitty treats: Marrakesh is full of cats, many of whom are pretty straggly but some of whom are quite cute. [I'm only joking about the treats, of course, although I do feel guilty about not having anything to offer to the hungry-looking cats.]

Bonus tip for the confused tourists we saw in the souks: a tagine is used for cooking and does not make a very suitable hat.

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