We woke up really early on Saturday to get a jump start on things. The first thing we wanted to do was see the Saadian Tombs. Luckily these were located really close to our riad, so we were basically able to roll out of bed to get there in time for the opening. Although these are right next door to the enormous Kasbah Mosque, the crazy thing is that the mausoleum was not discovered until 1917! In the last 100 years they have been renovated and preserved, and for good reason. The sultan who created it paid no expense to give himself the most lavish tomb, importing marble from Italy and using pure gold to decorate the Chamber of 12 Pillars. The tombs are a blue-green tile work heaven. As usual I spent lots of time snapping pictures of all the intricate patterns and incredible architecture.
Our next mission was to find somewhere to have some breakfast. I really wanted to go to a place called La Famille, which I read had a reputation for excellent coffee. Joe had put it in his Google Maps and we were off. This brings me to one of my biggest issues with Marrakesh: the cell service is terrible. Normally excellent navigators, here we were making wrong turns and ending up lost time after time. This really made me mad because we were constantly losing time, ugh. The other thing that was so frustrating is that all of the locals are aware of this, and they use it as an opportunity. When they would see tourists staring at their phones and trying to configure a direction, they would casually come over and ask if you needed help. After telling them no and starting to walk away, they would follow you insisting on trying to help if you would just tell them where you needed to go. Eventually you would have to give in just to get them to stop and then they would have you follow them. At this point you’re stuck thinking “Are they really going to help me?” or “Are they trying to screw me?” – I would say most of the time they are leading you in the right direction BUT the kicker comes when you get there. When you have that sigh of relief as you finally arrive and think the anxiety is over, they start badgering you for money! A lot of the time it’s young boys so you almost feel bad not giving it to them, but it’s a pretty uncomfortable situation. Let me also mention that inside the souk is SOOO confusing with tiny streets coming from every direction and absolutely NO signage. So even if you look on Google Maps and you know the streets you need to turn on, it’s still hopeless. So apologies for the rant, but this is something everyone travelling to Marrakesh should be weary of. Definitely the one thing that let us down about the city.
Anyway! When we finally gave in and asked someone to help us find La Famille, we got there and it was closed. UGHHHH. Back to the drawing board. We kind of decided to just wander in the direction that the next place we wanted to go was. We wove in and out of tiny streets and took in all of the sights and sounds of the bustling medina. It’s such a vibrant and colourful city, a photographer’s perfect paradise. Eventually we make it through the souk alive (barely!) and land on a restaurant called Atay Cafe, which I had recognized from my list of good places to eat. The place was a super cute hippie-chic cafe with technicolour shag rugs and interesting art. We sat at the very top, under a covered terrace with 360 views over the city. Atay was the perfect answer to our prayers as we could finally have a salad and some eggs. It was not only delicious but super relaxing (we were the only people in the whole place!).
Next we were off to Ben Youssef Madrasa, a museum of an Islamic college and dormitory where students studied religion dating back to the 14th century. Eventually, during the 19th century, students started to leave for a neighboring university in Fez, and the complex fell into disuse. Now it is open to visitors to view the beautiful courtyard outdone in marble, wood lattice balconies, and impeccable arches. Just like most of the sights we visited in Marrakesh, there wasn’t a ton to see here, but going in just to see the amazing architecture is worth it. My pictures definitely do not do it justice!
We decided to dedicate our afternoon to shopping in the Souk. We knew this would be an undertaking, but wanted to bring back a few Moroccan treasures to remember our trip by. We even had friends warn us to bring an extra suitcase to bring stuff back in, that’s how good the shopping is. On our way there, we walked through the very famous Jemaa El Fna, a large open square in the middle of the city, filled with merchants and entertainers. This place is insanely busy; it’s a popular spot for tourists but also a place where locals come to get together during the weekends as well. When I say entertainment – I was most excited to see the snake charmers. I pictured it like the movies where the flutes play and the snakes start to swiggle around like they’re dancing. But, it’s not like that at all. They basically just pop their head up when they hear the music. While I was looking forward to snakes, Joe got carried away by the monkeys. When he tried snapping a picture of one, somehow he ended up with one on his shoulder and one in his arms. When he tried to get them off and walk away, the handlers told him he had to pay $20. He didn’t want to do it but they didn’t let up. And then they had the nerve to say $20 wasn’t enough, they meant $20 each! Luckily he put his hands up and walked away to get lost in the crowd and they didn’t follow. They really know how to work the tourists in Marrakesh….
When we made it inside the Souk, it basically felt like an endless maze of traders selling everything from lanterns, to slippers, to jewellery, to baskets, to skincare. A lot of it felt like the same thing, so we did our due diligence by walking around a few times to see which shop had the most we wanted. We had heard that it’s best to bargain with them, and the more you bought, the more negotiating power you had. We ended up with soo much stuff including a rug/blanket which I’ve wanted forever (yay!), a Moroccan pouf (hello more seating!), along with so many other small trinkets and gifts. I won’t bore you with details on how extremely stressful and tiresome the whole bartering process was for each. and. every. item…. but we were very happy with the outcome and came out basically unscathed! I’ve read that a lot of people hire a tour guide, who is actually a local, to help lead them through the Souk and the whole buying process which may be a better idea for people that don’t want to deal with the haggling madness. Next time for sure!
After this high-anxiety ordeal, we needed to do something calming. One other place I had been dying to go after seeing it on endless travel blogs over the years is La Mamounia, a 5 star luxury hotel with exquisite gardens, a lavish pool area, and multiple restaurants and bars. I would have been happy to just see the lobby and stroll through the gardens, but once Joe found out about the pool, there was no turning back. He called them earlier in the day to see if non-hotel guests were able to use the pool for a price, but unfortunately they told us no. But when did no ever stop Joe? He was using the gardens as his way in, as supposedly it was open to the public. I say supposedly because that is what they claim on their wesbsite, but then when you get there, they most likely will tell you that you can’t come in. But again, Joe didn’t let up and they eventually let us through. The place was aaaaamaaaazingggggggg. Literally the most pristine and gorgeous hotel in typical Arabesque fashion. The gardens were also to die for, tons of gorgeous flowers and spectacular landscaping. It was seriously the most serene oasis in the middle of the hysteria that is Marrakesh.
I think the worst (slash best) thing we could have done was walk by the pool. We were specifically told we could not use the pool facilities, but Joe had no problem taking a seat on a lounger. I was of course mortified so continued to walk around for 10 minutes taking pictures so I could easily pretend I didn’t know him when they kicked him out. But time passed and I watched him from afar, no one bothering him. Sooner or later I gave in and took a seat next to him. Fine, I would stay for a half hour but that is it. Joe then started yapping about wanting to some drinks and food. WHAT! There was no way I was risking talking to someone because as soon as they asked our room number I would start word vomiting that we aren’t staying there and they should kick us out. But Joe shocked me yet again and seamlessly ordered us a bottle of rose, a salad and some french fries. I really don’t know how he does it! Needless to say we enjoyed a super relaxing few hours poolside and got to revel in the luxurious lifestyle of those lucky enough to stay at La Mamounia. I’m pretty sure if the rain didn’t start we would have stayed for the rest of the night! But I’m kind of happy it did because we got to take a disco tuk-tuk back to our riad.
That wasn’t the last we would see of La Mamounia. I mentioned they had a few different bars and restaurants inside, so we decided that we would go back at night for some drinks before heading to dinner. We headed out pretty early to make sure we could snag a spot at Le Churchill, their low key jazz bar with a speakeasy feel. Warning to all men coming to La Mamounia – if you come during the evening for a drink or dinner, wear PANTS and DRESS SHOES. They will not let you in with one and not the other – poor Joe learned the hard way and had to run home and change before being let in. No bueno. Anyway, we shared some delicious cocktails here, but didn’t want to leave just yet, so decided to grab another drink at a different bar, Le Marocain. This was an open air restaurant with a laid back vibe, with cozy couches and giant lanterns adorning the courtyard. A couple of glasses of wine later and we were on our way.
We did stop at one more spot for drinks, Le Salma, a cheeky rooftop bar overlooking the Jemaa El Fna square. The rain was actually coming down at this point so their enclosed ‘sky bar’ was key. This is definitely a great little spot for happy hour before heading out to dinner – affordably priced and very hip. PS – we had no problem finding alcohol in Marrakesh, but apparently many people do. Tons of restaurants do not serve booze since it is illegal for Muslims to drink, so my advice would be to take note of where you can grab a drink if it’s something that may make or break your night.
We had late reservations at Le Foundouk, which is located in the very heart of the medina. It was sooooooo cute! A great restaurant with a romantic yet lively feel to it. I made this reservation strategically figuring that by this point in our trip, we may be a little tired of Moroccan food, so the Italian infused menu came at the perfect time. We shared burrata, pasta, beef tenderloin and multiple bottles of wine 🙂 Time flew while we chatted about our past year of marriage and how lucky we are to be on this awesome adventure together. By the time we were ready to leave it was just about midnight, which officially marked our 365 days as a married couple. We both agreed that our celebratory trip to Marrakesh had been pretty perfect so far, and agreed to get some rest before our real party the next day…
Ben Youssef Madrasa
Jemma El Fna & Souk