Where to go (and where to avoid) in Morocco

Reverse culture shock is real, guys. Colin and I have been back in the US for two weeks and in St. Louis for one, and things like SUVs and billboards and noisy restaurants and supermarkets completely overwhelm me. I mostly spend my days searching online for nearby wine and cheese markets and then crying, “Mon dieu! They charge $100 for a bottle of champagne?!” Mon dieu indeed. I guess my champagne drinking days are over.

As awful as the culture shock is, it was not unexpected. Colin and I fell so hard and so fast for Paris that we knew we would need some sort of transition from our life in the City of Light to our life in Saint Louis, this historically-French city that doesn’t resemble France at all. We decided on a mini-vacation. We decided on Morocco.

Why Morocco? (1) It’s warm in the winter. (2) It’s inexpensive. (3) It’s outside the EU, which was necessary since our visas had expired.

We opted to fly into Marrakech, spend two nights there, then travel to Essaouira, a small town on the Atlantic coast, for two more nights. In each place, we stayed in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house built around a central atrium, in the middle of the medina, or old city. The riads now function as B&Bs and are generally pretty small, with only a handful of guest rooms and a home-cooked traditional Moroccan breakfast in the morning. I can’t recommend the riads highly enough! They are truly oases of calm in the midst of the crazy—more on that later. (If you’re curious, we stayed at Riad Ecila in Marrakech and Riad Malaïka in Essaouira, and we loved both.)

Ornate lights and ceilings in Marrakech

Okay, so Marrakech first. The main thing we wanted to do while in Marrakech was explore the medina and its vibrant, colorful souqs (markets) filled with rugs and spices and wood inlay and lanterns. And we did, but you’d never know it because we have zero pictures to share. The medina in Marrakech is INSANE. It is crowded with market stalls and pedestrians, but also with motorcycles that rush past inches from your toes. We’d been warned about pickpockets and vendors who charge you for taking photos and “guides” who offer directions and charge you for the pleasure, so we tried desperately to avoid making eye contact with anyone. In one moment of weakness, while checking Google maps (it’s easy to get lost in the medina), we found ourselves at the mercy of a local “guide” who delivered us to his buddy at the leather tannery for an unofficial tour. Seventy dirham (~7€) later, the tannery tour guide let us go; then his buddy chased us down the street demanding that he be paid, too. All things considered, it was a small price to pay for a tour that was truthfully pretty interesting, but that interaction solidified the fact that Marrakech was not for us. The medina was beautiful, but I didn’t feel like I could take the time to look around and take it all in.

The rest of Marrakech was similarly tough. The main square in the medina – Jemaa el-Fnaa – was full of chained monkeys and snake charmers, which was painful to see. The Jardin Majorelle was pretty, but it was small and crowded and there was a long line to get in. We did enjoy walking by the Grand Mosque and hearing the calls to prayer each day. We also enjoyed the traditional architecture and tilework at Bahia Palace (we went shortly after it opened, before most of the tour groups descended). And we enjoyed Cyber Park, which is a huge, tranquil garden in the middle of the city that is managed by the Moroccan telecom industry. In any case, by the end of Day Two, we were tired of the hustle and bustle and constant vigilance required by Marrakech, and we hoped to find someplace a little calmer in Essaouira.

Bahia Palace in Marrakech

Luckily, we did. Essaouira is INCREDIBLE.

It is a much smaller town, but it still has a medina full of rugs and spices and all that. The vendors are much friendlier and much less aggressive. You can look all you want! You can browse! Plus, Essaouira has the ocean, including a sandy beach and a fortress buffeted by crashing waves, which proved to be a perfect spot to watch the sunset. Along with that, Essaouira has hundreds of fishing boats that unload their catch on the wharf daily, and as a tourist you can walk through to watch or buy freshly-shucked oysters to eat on the spot. (We did that, twice.) If raw fish isn’t your thing, you can wander back to the fish shacks selling poissons grillades. There, you point to the fresh seafood that you want – we had a handful of sardines, some shrimp, a sea bass, and a red snapper – and the vendor plops it all on a tray, weighs it, quotes you a starting price to haggle about, then once you’ve settled on the final price, hands it back to the cook manning the grill. Delicious!

The wharf in Essaouira
Crab traps in Essaouira

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention mint tea. Moroccan mint tea is an art form, always served in silver tea pots on silver tea trays. Since Morocco is a Muslim country, alcohol is uncommon (it’s occasionally served at touristy restaurants), but the mint tea was so good that we didn’t find it strange not to order a drink with dinner—and after a year in France, that’s saying something!

Moroccan cuisine

So without further ado, my recommendations:

  1. Go to Morocco! It’s beautiful.
  2. Skip Marrakech.
  3. Head straight for Essaouira. (We took a CTM bus from Marrakech for 80 dirham per person, then hired a private taxi for 800 dirham total on the way back, since we were headed to the airport.)
  4. Stay in a riad.
  5. Eat: seafood, tajine, pastilla (meat-stuffed pastry), mint tea.
  6. Enjoy 🙂

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