Why I Was Scared In Marrakech, Plus My Travel Tips So You Don't Have To Be
Ignorance truly is bliss.
Last August, when I booked a photo/styling workshop with Annette Joseph in Marrakech, Morocco, I had no idea what I was getting into. Despite the fact that I did not know Annette personally (of course, she does enjoy a deservedly stellar reputation as an amazing stylist), or any other person going on the journey, I even booked an extra day beyond the workshop for solo exploration. I often roam independently on family trips as my design and art centric interests don't always align with my husband and three boys' idea of fun.
Why would Marrakech be any different, I reasoned.
Boy was I wrong.
Yes my trip to Morocco was absolutely fabulous. I will never forget the colors, the tastes, the smells... Well, everything.
BUT, fate was in my favor. Two very essential things were in play that I had nothing to do with that ensured my trip's huge success.
First, Annette curated our experience with her perfectly (I explain more below). Second, I was extraordinarily lucky that the only person who also booked an extra day was coincidentally an extremely seasoned world traveler with the most incredible sense of direction.
There would be no independent roaming for me. In fact, in my opinion, no American woman visiting Marrakech should wander alone.
Now you might disagree, especially if you speak French or Arabic, but having lived in the New York City metro area my entire adult life, I have a strong "street sense." What did that "street sense" tell me in Marrakech?
There were many times when we were in the city center where I felt animosity towards Americans. Nothing blatant happened, just a feeling.
When I got home to NYC, I wasn't at all surprised to read in Time Magazine (March 7, 2016 issue) that Morocco was one of the countries in Northern Africa where ISIS has gained a solid foothold.
Should you still make the trip? Yes, but you need to be smart about it.
Let's take a closer look at what was really happening behind all of those photos many of you loved on Instagram. Armchair travelers, settle in. Plus, I will give you some travel tips if you want to go yourself.
These intriguing pictures of people? Well don't take any yourself.
Annette and her team paid each person we photographed in advance, plus she arranged for Marrakech natives who spoke Arabic to accompany us during the photo-ops to smooth over any rough edges.
The guides were needed. Despite all of the advance preparation, several bystanders harassed us as we snapped our pre-arranged subjects. A colleague of this woman grinding spices was particularly disturbed by her posing.
Honestly, the photograph above that I took of the beautiful mother and child was an absolute no no. You should never ever take a picture of a bearded man or a woman whose hair is covered. Annette arranged for us to photograph the man next to the mother, and as I was looking for a good shot of him, the woman simply walked into my frame.
I couldn't resist, but you should. This is not the place to antagonize anyone, even if your actions might seem harmless here in the US.
Perhaps THE reason to visit Marrakech!! Such wonderful wonderful things--some of my fellow travelers literally had ten large bags to ship home. I needed to buy an extra duffle bag to hold my stuff.
Here is what you need to know to get the best things at the best price:
The Medina is a maze. It doesn't help that many, many people are selling different versions of the same thing. The stalls all begin to look the same. It is very easy to get lost and hard to know who has the best wares. At least for the first couple of trips there, I suggest you hire a guide. My guide knew great vendors that were trustworthy. Drop me a comment if you want more info.
Use local currency for the best deal. Some of the rug dealers will take Visa (not Amex), but cash money talks. An easy tip for mentally converting the local Dirhams (MAD) to dollars is that you drop a zero, so 2000 MAD is roughly $200.
There is a limit to what you can exchange each day. It's supposed to be 2000 MAD, but I found that on some days, for no clear reason, I was limited to 1400 MAD. Plan accordingly. Exchange as much cash as you can at the airport before you go.
Negotiate, and by that I mean, never ever let on when you fall in love with something. I was terrible at this. Anyone who has met me IRL knows that I do not have a poker face. When I saw the perfect rugs for my NYC apartment, I beamed. And I paid more than I had to. The seller will always go down from his first offer, and you can even negotiate shipping rates.
Where To Stay
If you don't speak French or Arabic, you must stay at a hotel that has English speaking staff who are willing to help with booking transportation, restaurants, and other, fun activities like a local spa called a Hammam or a trip to Yves St. Laurent's Majorelle Gardens (I will be writing about the Majorelle Gardens for DXV- I will let you know when it's live.)
Annette's Marrakech Workshop was held at the glorious Peacock Pavilions designed, built and owned by expatriates Maryam Montague and her husband. It is located outside of town in a lovely olive grove. They have a very helpful staff, but I didn't sleep there. (Peacock Pavilions deserves its own post--come back here for a close look at its marvelously personal interior design.)
Peacock Pavilions is a small boutique hotel and couldn't accommodate all of the workshop attendees. I stayed nearby with some others at a guest house called Dar Cherif. Dar Cherif was comfortable and had an authentic Moroccan feel. While the owner spoke English, none of the staff did. The problem with Dar Cherif, however, is that, as a small guest house, the owner was not amenable to handling bookings. This lack of service can be a big problem. Here's why.
On our first "free night" for dinner. I discovered that I couldn't make calls from my iPhone despite the fact that I arranged for an international plan prior to departure. Even if I could place a call, many people did not speak English and I had no idea who to call or how to get there. The owner of Dar Cherif was not helpful, begrudgingly scribbling down the name of a sushi place on her way out to her own evening. I hate sushi and even if I liked it, how would I reserve or travel there?
You need concierge style help here. Marrakech is not the place to skimp on accommodations.
Happily, one of the workshop leaders staying at Dar Cherif had a Moroccan cell phone and was able to reach the staff at Peacock Pavilions who then graciously booked us a nice French restaurant and provided transportation to and from.
Brass tacks. Should you stay at Peacock Pavilions? It's beautiful and the staff is terrific. The only downside is that it is on the outskirts of town, perhaps a 10-15 minute ride away from the city center. They are happy to arrange transportation however.
If you want to stay in town, I wholeheartedly endorse the riad where I stayed on my last night, La Villa des Orangers. It was stunning, well located and the services were topnotch.
Which brings me to my final topic...
It's tricky. Everything looks the same. Even outside of the medina it is very easy to get lost. Marrakech is known as the "rose" city--all of the buildings are constructed of a rose stucco. Plus, often times establishments had no sign or only a very small one. (Sometimes you had to look up :-) )
It's mysterious and romantic--everything in Marrakech is behind a secret door.
When the van dropped us off at that French restaurant I mentioned, it looked like a closed down garage. There was no sign at all and the surroundings were deserted. We told the van driver to wait until we got inside just to make certain it was a real place and that we were not stranded!!
Sure enough behind a little door and some curtains was a lovely restaurant filled with locals and many French speaking visitors. You would never know by the outward appearance.
Since we were told to be cautious about taking a local cab (maybe this is different if you speak French or Arabic), make sure you have a map if you go out walking (always with at least one companion), plus someone with a very good sense of direction.
Otherwise, have your hotel book your transportation to and from restaurants, the medina, spas and other venues. Both Peacock Pavilions and La Villa des Orangers had private drivers on call.
I hope you enjoyed my journey as much as I did, and that it encourages you to jump on the Marrakech express.
It really was the adventure of a lifetime.
All photos by Lynn Byrne.