Difference between revisions of "Marrakech"
Revision as of 18:23, 9 July 2009
Marrakech (مراكش) (also known as Marrakesh) is a city in Morocco.
The name Marrakech originates from the Amazigh (Berber) words mur (n) akush, which means "Land of God". It is the third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat and lies near the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains.
The city is divided into two distinct parts: the Medina, the historical city, and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle. The Medina is full of intertwining narrow passageways and local shops full of character. In contrast, Gueliz, plays host to modern restaurants, fast food chains and big brand stores.
The Moroccan dirham (abbreviated as DH or MAD) is the local currency. A dirham consists of 100 centimes (c). Coins come in 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, DH 1, DH 2, DH 5 and DH 10, but coins smaller than 20c are pretty rarely used. Paper notes come in values of DH 10, DH 20, DH 50, DH 100, and DH 200.
While the dirham is the only currency officially accepted in Morocco, some hotels may accept your EUR/USD unofficially.
It's illegal to bring local currency out of the country, so you can't get dirhams outside Morocco. You'll be able to exchange cash or withdraw some from an ATM when you arrive at the airport. As of July 2009, £1 is worth around DH 13.13, $1 is worth around DH 8.03 and 1€ is worth around DH 11.24. By law, exchange rates should be the same at all banks and official exchanges. Make a note of the exact rates before you go to make sure you're getting a fair deal.
The voltage in Morocco is generally 220 V, and outlets will fit the two-pin plug known as the Europlug. It's probably the most commonly used international plug, found throughout continental Europe and parts of the Middle East, as well as much of Africa, South America, Central Asia and the former Soviet republics. Europlugs are included in most international plug adapter kits.
Watch out for American and Canadian appliances, which are made to use with 110 V. That means that even with an adapter, plugging them into a 220 V socket may damage them. If your appliance is "dual-voltage", it should be fine (it's designed for both 110 and 220 V). If not, you'll need a power converter as well as an adapter.
Marrakech-Menara Airport (IATA: RAK), Tel: +212 44 44.79.10, +212 44 .44.78.65, +212 44. 44.85.06 . Marrakech has an international airport with direct scheduled flights coming in from London and Paris and many charter flights arriving from all over Europe. If you are flying from the US, Canada, Asia or elsewhere, you'll have to change planes in Casablanca.
Plenty of low cost companies now fly to Marrakech. Some companies fly to Casablanca additionally where a plane change for the 45 minute flight to Marrakech can be made.
From the UK, Easyjet  flies to Marrakech from Gatwick airport (and also from Madrid). Ryanair has direct flights from London Luton and Bristol to Marrakech. They also fly from from Frankfurt-Hahn (Germany)and Girona (Barcelona) to Marrakech. Thomsonfly travels from Manchester and Gatwick . British Airways  and TUIfly no longer fly to Marrakech.
If going from airport by petit taxi, make sure to have the driver use his meter or, better yet, agree on the price beforehand. As you exit the airport terminal, there is a sign which actually gives you an idea of how much the taxi ride should cost. However whether you can convince or bargain with the driver to use these prices is another matter as it depends on the number of taxis and potential passengers around. Essentially, you should pay no more than DH 60 from the airport to the center of the city during the day and DH 90 at night for a petit taxi. The petit taxi's are hatchbacks and generally they take a lower price than the larger grand taxi's. As a guide for using taxi services in Morocco, you should approach the taxi, tell the driver where you want to go, and how much you will pay. If the driver doesn't accept, just move on to the next driver.
If you are travelling from the airport to somewhere further afield (e.g. Essaouria), your hotel or guest house may be able to arrange a grand taxi to pick you up at the airport and charge a fixed price for the journey. Grands taxis are generally more expensive than petits taxis, but more comfortable especially when you have luggage. It also avoids hassle, as it's not always easy to haggle with a taxi driver after staggering off a long plane ride half-asleep.
Several international rental car companies are based at the airport as well.
Money exchange in the airport
The Arrivals hall at Terminal 2 has a money changing outlet and an ATM. Terminal 1 has two money changing outlets in the Arrivals hall and one in Departures. If you find the money changing outlet closed when you arrive, it's worth taking the short walk across the car park to the other terminal. On ATMs, check for the Maestro, Cirrus or Plus logos to be sure that the machine accepts foreign credit cards. Beware as some of the ATMs work only in French and may ask unusual questions (such as your "account type"). If your card is taken at the ATM, tell airport security and they can help you get it back.
The train station is in the recently developed Guéliz district at Avenue Hassan II, Tel: +212 44 77 68 . Trains run between Marrakech, Fes, Casablanca (including the International Airport), Rabat, Oujda, and Meknes. If you want to head to the desert, Atlas Mountains, Agadir or Essaouira on the coast, you'll have to get a bus, rental car or grand taxi to your destination. For train times and schedules you can find information on the Moroccan Railway website 
Train connections are available from the train station and trains from Casablanca and Rabat and Tangier connect with most domestic rail destinations in the country. Trains run regularly between Marrakech and Casablanca. They arrive around every two hours and regularly from other destinations like Rabat. Every day there are 16 direct trains to Fez via Casablanca Voyageurs station and another two direct connections to Tangier.
For those wishing to travel by train from Tangier it's about a 10 hour journey. You can travel either by day train or night train. During the daytime, you will need to change trains for a connection halfway through the journey creating a welcome break for about 30 minutes. The night trains which leaves for Marrakech from Tangier travels straight through to Marrakech without the need for a connection. The night trains do have sleeper cars on board, though you will need to pay extra for these if you want a bed (around DH 350).
There is currently no train line further south than Marrakech in Morocco.
Some advice for the train journey would be to stock up on some bread, eggs, and cheese in advance and remember to bring plenty to offer to share with locals in your carriage - this is received well and will result in a return offer and lots of conversation.
Additionally, there is a snack trolley which does the rounds on the train about once per hour serving coffee, cappucino, tea, sandwiches, and chocolate snacks. Be aware you will pay tourist prices, though in the end the difference is not much.
There are many long distance bus companies operating within Morocco which serve Marrakech and other cities.
The recommended bus companies for tourists are CTM and Supratours. Other companies do exist, though these two companies are usually your safest options.
Most ALSA (local destination bus company) and private bus lines arrive at the long distance bus station near Bab Doukkala, a 20 minute walk (DH 15 - 20 by petit taxi) from Jema el-Fna. Supratours and Eurolines buses operate from here. It's the place to take the buses from the small companies, that go directly to small destinations.
The long distance bus station, CTM and private bus companies travel to destinations such as Agadir, Safi, Casablanca, El Jadida, Essaouira, Fez, Meknes, Ouarzazate, Rabat, and Taroudant. Taxi touts will often gather in the bus station to convince you that a bus to your destination is 'full' and to steer you into a grand taxi, and will attempt to sell you goods as your taxi is prepared. This can be difficult if there is nobody manning the ticket desks, and the best option is to walk out of the station to the coaches - a ticket can usually be purchased from a conductor on board.
CTM operates a brand new bus station "Gare Voyageurs" one block south from the Supratour station next to the train station. It's better to take the buses there, because you can buy the tickets in advance. Besides, the CTM's offices there are better and there's no people trying to push you to their bus company. The office and station on Zerktouni street does not exist anymore.
The best option if you want to save time or if you want to go in private. The best way is the big bus. You will find them throughout the city and the airport, they make you discover the city. The taxis are very good and regular, be careful walking through the main square though, its full of them drving about, beeping you out of the way.
Once in the medina, everything can be seen on foot, though you'll be doing a lot of walking. For exploring more of the city, buses and petits taxis are plentiful. Almost all buses stop at Djemaa El-Fna and Place Youssef Ben Tachfine and fares range from DH 2 - 5 depending on the distance. Important municipal bus lines are:
An alternative and romantic way to travel is by caleche - pronounced kalesh - a small horse-drawn carriage. They can be hired at Square de Foucauld (the small park at the bottom of Djemaa El-Fna). It's wise to agree on a price before setting off. As a guide price, you should pay around DH 80 per hour, per carriage.
There is an open-topped City Sightseeing bus that will take you around the outskirts of the city, with commentary provided via headphones (supplied with your ticket) in any of 8 different languages. The best place to catch it is from the coach stops by Square de Foucauld. Tickets cost DH 130 each and are valid for 24 hours from the time of issue, no matter how many times you get on or off. However, check the timetable carefully, as the buses can stop running earlier than you might think.
The No 19 Airport express bus is 20Dh for a single trip or 30Dh for round trip (if the return trip is within 2 weeks of initial purchase). It services all the major hotels and is a great way to go from the Airport to the hotels. You can easily find it's departure stop to the left of the road immediately outside Marrakech Airport's Arrivals Hall, after the taxis.
There is much to see and do in Marrakech. An entire day can be dedicated to wandering around all the different souks, seeking out the best bargains. The city also offers several historical and architectural sites as well as some interesting museums.
Marrakech can make a good base for exploring the High Atlas or for organizing one to four day Sahara treks.
There are two types of Hammam across Morocco.
The first is the tourist hammam, where you can go and be pampered and scrubbed by an experienced staff member. As these are promoted only to tourists they are the more expensive option with pricing usually around DH 150 for a hammam. They can not be technically referred to as a proper hammam, but they are nonetheless enjoyable, especially for the timid. Your hotel can recommend a good one.
The second option is to visit a "popular" Hammam. Popular hammams are the places where the locals go. Ask the staff at your hotel where they would go.
At the popular hammams, you do it all yourself. To make the most of a popular hammam, you need to take a scrubbing mitten (available cheap in the Souks), a towel, and some extra underwear (otherwise, you will be going home without any, as it will be sopping wet). Popular hammams are often only identified by tiles around a door and entrance way. If you do not speak French or Arabic, it could be a daunting, or at least a very memorable, experience. Men & women have either separate session times or separate hammams.
Nudity in a popular hammam is strictly forbidden for men, so be prepared to wear your underwear or a bathing suit. For women, you'll see some wearing underwear and some going naked.
Whilst in a popular hammam, you may be offered help and a massage from another person. It is essential to remember that this massage is nothing but a massage, with no other intentions. Sexual contact or presumption of sexual contact does not occur in these places. If you accept a massage, be prepared to return the favor.
Normal entrance prices for a popular hammam are DH 7-15, a scrub will cost around DH 30, and a massage another DH 30.
The old, historic district of the city.
The main square in the Medina is Djemaa El-Fna. It is surrounded by endless labyrinths of souks (bazaars) and alley ways covering all of the Medina. Djemma El-Fna is a must as there is always something to see there day and night whether it be snake charmers, acrobats, sooth-sayers,or the musicians and food stalls. At night the square really comes to life as people navigate toward the exotic aromas and the entertaining sights. As the evening darkens, the hustle bustle of activity rages on. The exotic music appears louder and more hypnotic.
The Medina is also the place to stay in a Riad, a Moroccan house with an internal courtyard. Most windows are inward facing towards the central atrium. This design of property suits Islamic tradition as there is no obvious wealth statement being made externally, no windows to peer through. Entering a Riad is like discovering an Aladdin’s Cave in comparison to it’s non-descript exterior. They are great places to stay and offer an intimate and relaxing retreat.
Directly south of the Djemaa El-Fna is Rue Bab Agnaou. A five-minute walk takes you straight to the famous Bab Agnaou entrance to the Kasbah district of the Medina. The Bab Agnaou entrance, through the ramparts, is by far the most impressive entrance of all medina rampart entrances.
The Kasbha, in comparison to Djemaa El-Fna portrays a calmer, less abrasive atmosphere. It is home to the Royal Palace, also the former El - Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs. This naturally creates better security, cleaner streets and a hint of being a special place within the medina. The Kasbah has it’s own little bazaars (Souikas), food stalls, restaurants, hotels and riads for travellers to enjoy.
Along with the major souk adjacent to the Djemaa El Fna, there are a plethora of smaller souks throughout the city where any number of products can be bargained for. Keep an eye out for a wide array of hand-crafted candle-holding lanterns, as well as spectacular displays of local spices.
Marrakech is home to a large tanning industry, and leather goods of high quality can be bought here cheaply. Check out camel leather items especially - jackets, round poufs, and handbags.
Also of interest would be items made of the local cactus silk, which is really rayon, a natural fiber made of plant cellelose and produced in Morocco. Rayon holds the chemical dyes well which accounts for the vibrant range of true colors (natural dyes cannot produce a "true"color). On offer are scarves, handbags, tablecloths, bedspreads and throws in stunning colors. Some merchants try to charge a premium price for this "cactus silk".
Be sure to wander round the potters' souk, and look for brightly colored platters and bowls, as well as tagines in all sizes
Lovely cashmere shawls can also be had for less than a fiver with a little bargaining.
If you cannot stand the bargaining, there's two government run shops where you can buy handicrafts at fixed prices. Look for boutique d'artisans. One is located near Djemaa el Fna while the other one is in the ville nouvelle.
An option to explore the souks in a more tranquil way is to go during the Friday prayer. Although some shops will be closed, most stay open and are significantly less crowded than at other times.
Remember that bargaining in the souks is expected. It is not really possible to give an accurate indication of how much to start the bargaining at in relation to the initial asking price, but a general idea would be to aim for approximately 50% off. Prices are set on a daily, even, hourly basis, depending on how much has been sold on a given day (or period of hours), while also reflecting the vendor's personal estimation of the potential client. The souks are often a good reflection of the basic economic principles of supply and demand, particularly with regard to the demand side. If a lot of products have been sold by a particular merchant he/she will raise the price, and may refuse to sell any more products for the rest of that day (or for days) unless the price is much higher than usual. If there are many tourists around prices go higher and bargaining even small amounts off the asking price becomes quite difficult. In addition, the seller will generally inspect the client, whose dress and possessions (particularly if the potential client sports an expensive Swiss watch, camera, etc) are usually the main indication of how high the price may be set above the usual. However, the potential client's attitude is also taken into consideration.
Taking all this and other factors into account (such as the time of day, day of the week, season, etc.), initial prices may be up to 50 times or more in excess of normal prices, especially for more expensive items, such as carpets. Carpets, however, are a very specialized item and it is necessary to have at least a cursory understanding of production techniques and qualities. If possible an ability to distinguish between hand-made and machine-made carpets, hand-dyes, and the like is helpful to avoid being utterly duped.
Bargaining is an enjoyable experience for most vendors and they prefer clients that don't appear hurried and are willing to take the time to negotiate. It is most often actually necessary to give reasons why you believe the price should be lower. The reasons you might give are limited only by your imagination and often lead to some very entertaining discussions. Common reasons may include: the price of the item elsewhere, the item not being exactly what you are after, the fact that you have purchased other items from the stall/store, that you have built a rapport with the vendor after discussing football and so forth. On the other hand, if there is little movement in the price after some time, the best advice is to begin leaving, this often has the result of kick-starting the bidding anew, and if not, it is likely that the merchant is actually unwilling to go further below a given price, however absurd.
It is also important to show a genuine interest for the workmanship of the product for sale, no matter how disinterested you may actually be in what you are buying. This does not, however, mean that you should appear over-enthusiastic, as this will encourage the vendor to hold his or her price. Rather, it is important to project a critical appreciation for each article/object. Any defects are either unacceptable or a further opportunity to bargain the price down.
You should take caution to never begin bidding for unwanted items or to give the vendor a price you are unwilling or unable (with cash on hand) to pay. Try to avoid paying by credit card at all costs. In the event you do pay by credit card, never let it out of your sight and demand as many receipts as possible. There is typically a credit card carbon copy and an official shop receipt.
Never tell a vendor where you are staying and 'never tell a vendor how much you paid for any other purchases. Just say you got a good price and you want a good price from him or her too. And, above all, never be afraid to say 'No'.
It must also be said that, as for us buyers, not all sellers are actually very good at what they do. A vendor that is completely disinterested or even aggressive is unlikely to give a good price. Move on.
The main Carlie at Djemaa El-Fna is definitely worth a visit and the food is priced on menus. In little back streets the ambiance is more quiet, although the price is higher and the quality may vary a lot. Touts for Djemaa huts can be among the most persistent in Marrakech. Don't make them any promises you don't intend on keeping or they'll get mean and call you a liar. The line 'we already ate' seems to work well to get them to stop.
In the square itself there are some locals such as:
Take care eating the offered food on the main market place Djemaa El Fna and the other cheap restaurants. Many of the dishes, including goat heads and bowls of local snails (hot and tasty) may seem too adventurous for the Western palate, but the main problems are salads, which can cause diarrhea.
Vegetarians will find that there are few options outside the ubiquitous Tagine avec Legumes.
For more upscale eateries (and especially for non-Moroccan cuisine) you generally must go outside the Medina to Ville Nouvelle. However, Diaffa (Rue Jbel El Akhdar just off Av. Mohammed V, across from Club Med), is an upscale restaurant in one of the oldest buildings in the Medina, and offers excellent Moroccan cuisine in an ambiance that recalls the Orient at the height of its magic and glory. The food, building (whether the tables around the central courtyard and fountain or the second-level balcony), and tactful and tasteful entertainment are all not to be missed.
How to eat (well) in the Djemaa El Fna
If you want to eat well in Marrakech, do what the locals do and eat at the food stalls in the square. It is a common misconception that these stalls are here for the tourists. Actually, they have been in existence long before Marrakech became a tourist destination. All of the stalls can be regarded as perfectly safe to eat at. They are strictly licensed and controlled by the government, especially now as it is a popular destination for tourists.
Street vendors offer fresh orange juice (jus d'Orange) by the glass for DH 3. Try it with a dash of salt like the locals, but be wary of vendors who try and water the juice down with tap water. Also, pay attention when you buy as they offer 2 types of orange...the blood orange juice costs DH 10 per glass and a misunderstanding on what you want to drink could occur.
There is a very limited selection of places selling alcohol in the medina.
Cafe Arabe, make great fresh fruit coktails and have a bar serving alcohol with a good list of wines (italian and moroccan).
Hotel Tazi, has a public bar, serving beer and wine and is not overly expensive.
For a slightly unusual experience, you could visit the Chesterfield Pub in Hotel Nassil, 115 Avenue Mohammed V. Apparently an 'English pub' it serves Moroccan lager and has an outside pool in a courtyard with palm trees (not an entirely English experience!) Much less touristy than it sounds (with a mainly local clientele) it serves a decent pint.
There are three main zones to sleep: Medina, Guéliz (also known as Ville Nouvelle), and the surroundings of the city. The Medina has the highest concentration of very cheap hotels and riads (small palaces).
Guéliz is much more quiet and most of the hotels are mid price (including showers in the room, breakfast service).
Going to the medina from the Guéliz by taxi costs about DH 10-15 and can take a long time at busy periods (evenings and weekends).
The surroundings have all the huge tourist hotels, the ones that usually come with what the travel agencies offer. They can be farther away from the medina and the rest of the city, but have big swimming pools, restaurants, and many services.
The Medina is packed with Riads (old grand houses converted into hotels and inns). These are wonderful places to stay to get a feel for life in Marrakech.
The budget conscious will have more luck in the streets and alleyways south of Djemaa El Fna, which are packed with discount hotels offering singles from DH 50. Derb Sidi Bouloukat is a good place to look, it's entrance is easy to find a few steps away from Djemaa el-Fna. Take Riad Zatoune (unmarked) which starts right of the Moroccan Red Crescent (with your back towards the Koutoubia) and it's the first alley on the right (marked in Arabic only). On your way in Riad Zitoune you will also come across the public hammam (10 Dh, left entrance for women, right entrance for men, the soap, glove and small bucket can be bought at many shops across the street) and an small restaurant serving bissara and mint tea for less than 5 Dh.
Popular options with backpackers include:
Guéliz (also known as Ville Nouvelle)
If you are obviously lost in the Medina, then it is common for people to offer to help with directions or even lead you to what you are looking for. Although not apparent at first, these people expect to be paid and will often lead you round in circles to increase the amount. Also, people may say that the place you are looking for is closed, but they will take you somewhere else that's better. This is almost always a lie. The best people to ask for directions are people behind a counter, as they cannot lead you because they don't want to leave their stall. If you are seriously lost, getting someone to lead you back is an option, but you should not give them more than DH 10-20, no matter how much they complain.
There are often people in Djemaa El Fna offering henna tattoos, which are popular with locals and tourists alike. But among the many genuine traders are one or two scam artists. They appear very charming and trustworthy while you choose a design, but will then cleverly divert your attention. Before you know it, you have the beginnings of a rather poor henna tattoo. Even if you do not want a design, be sure to keep your hands away from them as they will grab your hand and begin a design anyway. The scam artist later demands massive payments, in whatever currency you have (Dirhams or not). After emptying your pockets, if they consider you can afford more, they will demand that you visit a nearby ATM. Always agree on a firm price before work starts. If you can't do this, insist that the operator stops immediately - then go to another (hopefully more reliable) operator to get your design completed. If they say it is free before they start or while they are doing it, they will always ask for a price later on. If this happens to you, you can walk away without paying; however, they will harass you for a little before giving up and moving on to another tourist.
Most Moroccans are tourist-friendly and are not aggressive, so sometimes making a fuss in public can generate unwanted attention for a scam artist and shame them into backing off.
However, be especially careful about being drugged, especially as a solo traveller. The common and easy-to-make drug GHB only lasts three hours and is undetectable in the body after seven hours, so if you are attacked take action immediately. Do not trust room service if you are a solo traveller -- even older women are targets for robbery.
The tap water in Marrakech is perfect for brushing your teeth and bathing. While locals drink it with no problems, visitors often find it hard to digest. To be safe, opt for bottled mineral water, available at the numerous marketplace kiosks and food stalls. Make sure that the cap seal has not been broken, since Moroccan vendors have been known to save money by refilling plastic bottles from the faucet. At restaurants, ask for your drinks without ice cubes, which are usually made with tap water.
In addition to all that the city itself offers, Marrakech can also be used as a base station for various day trips.