View of Marrakech from our riad's rooftop
Our week started in Marrakech, after a quick layover in Paris. For our time, we wanted to divide our stay between a traditional riad (kind of like a Moroccan bed-and-breakfast) and a larger resort. So, for our first night, we stayed at Riad Kniza, which blew us away.
Main courtyard of Riad Kniza
Upon our arrival at Marrakech airport (which is architecturally really cool, but otherwise rather difficult to navigate if you don't speak Arabic or French), a driver from Riad Kniza was waiting for us with a sign. He drove us into the walls of the Marrakech medina (the ancient city), about a 10 minute drive, as close as we could get in a car to the riad. A representative from the riad was waiting for our car, and he took our bags and led us through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the medina to the riad. Like most things in the medina, the riad did not look like much more than a large, elaborately carved wood door — but it was stunning.
Another riad courtyard
The riad is set up around several separate courtyards. We were immediately seated in a room off of the main courtyard and offered mint tea and Moroccan pastries. The manager of the riad then introduced himself to us, offered advice and directions on a map, and showed us to our room. The room was enormous, with more gorgeous carved wood and a view of one of the courtyards. We ate dinner that night on the rooftop of the riad, which was very quiet and private.
Our stay (and every stay) at Riad Kniza included airport transfers, breakfast, and a half-day guided tour of Marrakech. The next morning, a bit jet-lagged, we overslept and barely made it downstairs in time for our scheduled tour. The riad, however, had already informed the guide on our behalf that we were a bit late, and had breakfast waiting for us. The breakfast was large and delicious, with fresh eggs, yogurt, cereal, Moroccan pastries (so delicious!), dried fruit, tea, coffee, and a million other things.
Yet another riad courtyard
Once we had finished breakfast, we were met by our guide, Mohammed, who gave us a choice of tours (you can generally cover about 1/2 of the major Marrakech sites in one day, if you are quick). Mohammed was amazing, he spoke perfect English (and German and Arabic), and he took us not only to some major tourist sites but also to some more local highlights, including a great local photography museum and a tiny cafe where Jacob and I were the only locals.
Our guide, Mohammed
Mohammed also taught us how to negotiate in the souks, and what to buy in which Moroccan city. If you are only going to Marrakech, basically everything can be found here, but each city has its specialties. Marrakech has the best iron and metal work. Essaouira has the best wood work, and the best argan oil cooperatives can be found outside of Essaouira. Fes is known for its embroidery and its leather. With this in mind, we bought almost nothing in Marrakech, instead waiting for other cities.
Musée de Marrakech
On our tour with Mohammed, we managed to see the souks, the Musee de Marrakech, the ancient Koran school (the Ben Youssef Madrasa), a small local photography museum, a carpet cooperative and the Djemma el-Fnaa square. We also stopped for lunch at one of his favorite local restaurants, where a large and delicious lunch cost about $10 USD for all three of us. While we were only supposed to get a 1/2 day tour for free, Mohammed happily spent the entire day with us, without charging any extra.
Ben Youssef Madrasa Koran School
View from second story of Koran school
Throughout the tour, Mohammed also explained many local things that we would not have understood otherwise. For example, political advertising in Marrakech is limited to the boards seen on the left below. Each political party gets a small space on a wall, and they are free to fill that space as they wish. These political ads were found throughout the medina in Marrakech, and we saw them in Fes as well.
Political party ads
While I don't have any photos (no cameras allowed), we went to Les Bains de Marrakech after our tour, a traditional hammam. The hammam was beautiful, with the same intricate and spacious architecture of the riad. After changing into bathing suits, we were brought into a small stone room with 2 benches, where a much older Moroccan woman (who spoke no English) scrubbed our available skin with Moroccan black soap. She really scrubbed — I was quite pink after. After the scrubbing, we each were led to showers and then taken to a separate area for massages. The entire experience was very relaxing and cool, and remarkably inexpensive. (There are many less expensive hammams in Marrakech, but I chose this one because of the ability to book appointments online and the general cleanliness.)
That night, we transitioned from the riad to La Mamounia, a larger, historic resort just inside of the medina walls. The riad graciously provided us a free transfer to the hotel, and we were very sad that we only stayed at the riad for one night.
On our second day in Marrakech, Jacob and I scheduled a cooking lesson at La Maison Arabe, another riad. While we only booked a group lesson, it ended up just being the two of us, which was great. Unfortunately I was feeling under the weather (food poisoning), so Jacob had to do all of the work. But the two instructors were wonderful, bringing me all sorts of Moroccan remedies to try and make me feel better (anything from cumin to carrot juice). Of course, nothing worked, and I spent the rest of the day trying not to die, but the cooking lesson was great and Jacob had a lot of fun. After the lesson, the riad has a lovely courtyard where you can eat the finished product. They sent us home with some small tagines, a recipe book, and all of my food (which had been kindly prepared by the instructors) to go.
That night I was still in no position to go out in public, but Jacob went out to explore the main square at night (and see the mosque in the evening, which is quite pretty).
The square was apparently quite busy and large, but full of beautiful stalls full of different foods. I am pretty bummed that I missed it.
Night market in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square
Night market in Djemaa el-Fnaa Square
For our last day in Marrakech, we visited the few sites that we had left, including the Saadian Tombs (cool but only takes about 10 minutes) and the Jardin Majorelle, the gardens owned by Yves Saint Laurent until his death (which were also cool, and quite beautiful, but smaller than I had expected).
Jardin Majorelle, aka Yves Saint Laurent gardens
As I mentioned, our last two nights were spent at La Mamounia, a beautiful, historic hotel where Winston Churchill used to spend a lot of time. Recently renovated, Mamounia was beautiful and very elegant. Most of the other guests were wealthy Europeans who came to Marrakech as more of a resort vacation than anything else (aka they never left the grounds of La Mamounia). The resort's restaurants and gardens were quite delicious and impressive, and our room (with a Fine Hotels & Resorts upgrade) was nice and rather large. However, everything at the resort was extremely overpriced, especially for Marrakech. A small, glass bottle of Sprite was 8 Euros (this was particularly painful when all I could ingest was Sprite for about 12 hours). Meanwhile, outside of the resort a liter of Sprite was about 10 dirhams, or less than 1 Euro. While the resort was lovely, we would probably choose to spend more time at the riad on our next trip, where the service was much more personalized and the pricing much more reasonable.
I would still recommend visiting Mamounia, if only to see the elaborately costumed guards at the entrance, but be aware that they frequently turn away would-be visitors for improper attire (open toed shoes, shorts, sleeveless tops), which makes for many confused and angry tourists. (Guests are, of course, allowed to wear whatever they want, within reason.)
Overall, Marrakech was a bit overwhelming but really great. However, our next stop, Essaouria, would prove to be my favorite part of the trip (and maybe one of my favorite places in the world).