Through the snaking maze of the Marrakesh medina, it’s impossible not to get lost the first time. Everything looks the same, and there’s very little to navigate around. Tucked behind a large heavy wooden door, unassuming and no different from the rest aside from the Riad Romance sign above the entrance way, laid our treasure.
A kind faced Moroccan man opens the door and welcomes us into a whole new paradise. I’m not the luxury traveller type, but when planning our trip to Marrakesh I had splashed out a little. This riad was a relaxing haven amidst the bustling medina.
The interior courtyard borders a central swimming pool with rounded edges, wrapped in glazed blue tiles. The walls a traditional moroccan style of chalky-painting in caramel colour with intricately laid brick facade stretching up a third of the way up. The doors are enormous, carved and wooden. Around the pool is a forest of gigantic pots, coloured in red, yellow, and blue filled with towering palms, banana palms, olives and oranges. Despite the hectic market life outside, the only noises penetrating the oasis walls are those of birdsong from above.
In the corner, a triangle couch clad in deep purple velour and brocade cushions all over. I drape myself over and admire the poolside around me as I sip sweet tea from a bottomless silver pot. Mosaic topped tables filled up the other corners of the space, and around the edges dangle multitudes of coloured lamps.
A small ginger kitten with a flowing tail is pouncing about the place, catching flies and chasing the shadows of birds that flit high above.
Frankensense burns near the pool, leaving a subtle fragrance that intermingles perfectly with the wafts of charring peppers and baking bread snaking out of the kitchen.
After a welcoming mint tea, the first of many, we are taken to our room. Heavy wooden doors open up to a slender, luxurious chamber. In the far left is a huge open fireplace flanked by two decorative, hanging lamps. The curtains are thick, soft gold with shiny golden stripes. The bed is soft, white cotton with velour golden pillows to accent. We have two large, maroon velvet chairs opposite the entrance way, and the floors are tiled in white brick with a large, soft, red rug over top. To the right side is the bathroom – a deep ochre with a large bath tub and small bottles of fragrant soap, shampoo, and lotion.
I feel like a princess with the softest sheets and warm stone tiled floors. The room around me softly lit with elaborate lamps.
The call to prayer echos across the rooftops of Marrakesh five times a day from all directions. A normal part of daily life for most, yet a surreal melody floating in the heavy air to those not yet accustomed to it.
I awake in the morning, rested and full of exploratory energy to a full breakfast beside the pool. Hot coffee gently spiced with cinnamon and served with steaming milk, devine homemade vanilla yoghourt, wedges of fresh mahrash bread, small pancakes with butter and jam, a plate of fried eggs dusted in bright red spices and a silver pot of mint tea.
The medina is a spiraling maze of golden, pink and red. Motorcycles and donkey-drawn carts whip by, and many locals still prefer a more typical dress code of light linen kaftans and pointy toed babushka shoes.
I eat myself into a stupor, frequently. The food is too good, and my self control too little.
Small rooftop terraces overlooking the jumble patchwork of souk rooftops serve up tagines, still bubbling and sizzling. Saffron chicken with olives and preserved lemon, spicy little marquez sausages in rich tomato sauce, couscous piled high with root vegetables, meats and chickpeas. All served with baskets of flat, semolina topped bread and dishes of local olives.
On the final night, a special in-house dinner was prepared. A specialty offering of the Riad. Glittering placemats were set upon the terrace as the large sun set over the rooftops. A feast of salads was laid out under the dusky sky – velvety eggplants, garlic courgettes, fresh moroccan salad, and herbed carrots with bread and olives. The main arrived – a sizzling tagine of lamb with plums, dried apricots and walnuts, followed by thin crispy pancakes layered with orange blossom water infused cream.
But, there are some dark sides to this mystical red city, and a stroll over to the main square of Jemaa el-Fnaa brings those to light. A lively hub of street foods and storytellers, henna painters and musicians. It’s a part of the city that really comes to life in the night, and feels like a tip-toe into ancient Arabic lands, far flung from modern day Africa.
With each step through the medina a new voice comes, ‘you’re going the wrong way!’, ‘It’s closed!’, ‘You can’t go there, it’s forbidden’. None of this true, of course. But a popular Marrakesh scam involving helpful people, tour guides, and extortionate fees.
After another quick whip through the souk, filled with a lifetime of treasures, lanterns, and spices; the space opens up to the large square of Marrakesh’s famed Jemaa el-Fnaa. The unmistakable whining of pungi fills the air – snake charmers are all around. An ancient trade I once considered mysterious and exotic, turns out to be a horrendous exploration of creatures and tourists alike.
The snakes, mostly cobras, are hunted from their holes further out in more remote parts of the country. Many have their teeth pulled, or other methods to make the creature less dangerous. Once captured, the craft of charming them is less and art form, and more a practice in maintaining the perfect distance to keep the snake permanently on-edge, yet not quite close enough to strike. The snakes don’t last long – the stress means they die quickly, and within weeks the charmer will need to head back out to the desert to find a replacement.
Many of the snake charmers in Jemaa el-Fnaa will act in accordance to the tourist – if they spy fear, they will drape the cobra over the unsuspecting victim, demanding a fee to remove it. If instead they catch even a hint of curiosity, they will swarm around offering photo opportunities – for a charge, of course.
Weaving our way through the busy square, paying extra-careful attention to avoid making eye contact with any snake charmers and leash brandishing monkey handlers (if you worry for the snakes, I won’t even start on the monkeys) we made our way back into the relative calm of the medina, and on to our delightful riad.
In the end I fell asleep in our little palace, full and contented, somewhat haunted, and ready for further explorations from Marrakesh out into the South of Morocco.
Some countries are interesting to visit, a nice place to spend a little time. Others, a very select few, are more than that. They feel like another home, somewhere you were always meant to wander. Unexpectedly, this is how Morocco has taken me by surprise. From the fragrance of the spices, wafts of smouldering frankincense, the sounds of the adham, and the bustling souks full of Aladdin’s caves full of flickering lamps and donkey carts.