It may not be top of the foodie destination list but that’s because it keeps its best dishes well hidden. Cara Houchen explores the beautiful Moroccan city.
In Marrakesh, allow yourself to get lost. Lost in the mountains, the medina, the souks and the marvellous flavours of Moroccan cuisine. This breathtaking place has so many hidden treasures it’s hard to know where to begin but the best place to start is by throwing away your guidebook! I’m the sort of person who likes a plan. I hate to wander without purpose, but I didn’t stop wandering here. Why? On every corner, there was a new experience to be had. From traditional harira soup and egg and potato sandwiches to snake charmers – I was constantly amazed.
Our trip started in the Atlas Mountains, home of Morocco’s Berber, or Amazigh community. As the indigenous people of western North Africa, their history goes back to at least 10,000BCE. They have fought against Roman, Arab and French invaders and despite waves of colonisation and Arabisation, have managed to preserve their language and culture. If you can hold your nerve on the frightening road which takes you through these mountains, there are some astonishing sights waiting for you.
We opted for luxury to start our trip, staying in Richard Branson’s Moroccan retreat, Kasbah Tamadot. Perched on a mountainside, you can’t get more relaxed and indulgent than this place. There are a number of rooms on offer but the luxury Berber tent we stayed in with its own private balcony and jacuzzi was a real treat. Food here is a mix of traditional Moroccan dishes and international cuisine – the sea bream tagine is full of flavour and was garnished with preserved lemons, a staple ingredient. We were so inspired we preserved our own once we came home, using the instructions from a local street vendor.
We were told before we arrived to make sure we stayed in a riad, a large traditional Moroccan house built around a central courtyard. If you take anything from this piece, it should be that. Until you walk through the door (there is so much door porn in Marrakesh) you have no idea how beautiful they are inside. Ours (Riad Goloboy) was bright blue throughout and our suite (which was less than £100 a night) was crisp white and very Instagrammable.
The medina (which literally means ‘old town or quarter’, usually walled) where we stayed is in old Marrakesh. New Marrakesh is nothing like the city’s tourist image and you’d be better off going to Marbella than staying here – if you really want to immerse yourself in this fascinating city, stay central.
At first, it’s a very intimidating place. The streets all look the same and everyone wants to sell you something, but you get used to it. Restaurants here are for tourists, it’s part of Moroccan culture to eat in, not out, so finding an authentic, traditional place to dine is not easy. Your best bet is to head to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa. Be warned, it’s an attack on the senses and you’ll need to visit several times before you feel like you can relax. Personal space just isn’t an option here and you will be hounded from every angle by someone from each food stall
hoping to get you to spend your money.
As it was so eloquently put to us: ‘we all sell the same shit, but my shit is better’. The truth is the same dishes are on offer everywhere, so we chose those which were the busiest or had the least intrusive staff as we walked by. Food here needs to be approached with an open mind: just try it! Dishes include snail soup – you pick the snails from the shells and then drink the soup. Sheep’s head, which may not sound or look appetising, tastes just like lamb and melts in your mouth. An amazing dripping bread, using the fat that they cook the sheep head in, is served alongside it – and it is so tasty. Lamb tanjia, with preserved lemons, was my favourite but the choice here is endless – kebabs, calamari and grilled sardines. You will not go hungry.
Marrakesh is a hypnotising place either day or night. If you are open to trying new things, I definitely recommend it.
- DO eat the street food! The stalls at Jemaa el-Fnaa are intense and they all serve the same dishes so just choose one which is busy and get stuck in. Alternatively, keep an eye out for stalls on the roadside. Harira is popular with locals and costs about £1.50.
- DON’T hold any of the animals or take pictures or videos of street entertainment without agreeing on a price first. Everything in Marrakesh has a price, including directions or a helping hand with your luggage, so don’t get caught out.
- DO stay in a riad. This traditional accommodation hides all of its glory inside – some will take your breath away and they will make your wallet happy too, as they are very reasonable.
- DO take a cooking class, it’s a great way to try authentic Moroccan dishes. They are available in most riads, so ask the staff for more information.
- DON’T feel like you need a guide. You can explore Marrakesh at your own pace and often you will find a few hidden gems when you get lost in the medina.
- DO haggle when you are buying from stalls or shops. It’s expected and owners will not go lower than what they can afford, so don’t pay more than what you think an item is worth.
- DON’T have valuables or money in an easily accessible place, especially on an evening out – beware pickpockets.
- DO buy alcohol from duty-free if you want to have a drink at your riad. As a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available unless you go to specific bars or restaurants which serve it.