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Marrakech: a place like no other.

The first time I visited Marrakech was in 2013, on a 2 weeks trip to Morocco and that was my second time in Northern Africa (the first one being Egypt in 2009). I have visited the city again a few days ago and I had the same exact feelings of 3 years ago: Marrakech is a place like no other and Morocco has been – up to now – the country that has surpassed by far any of my expectations: extremely diverse from North to South (at least the part I visited), you will definitely be captivated by the colourful local markets (including of course the Marrakech souks!), the beautiful imperial cities (Fez, above all), some of the most stunning landscapes I have ever seen (desert, gorges, mountains etc), delicious food, impressive riads or dar to sleep in and a buzzing atmosphere in all the medinas.

Whilst in order to properly visit Morocco you will definitely need at least a couple of weeks (and that would allow you to visit some of the major sites), Marrakech makes the perfect city break for a long weekend.

If you are planning a short trip there, worth considering a few things:

SLEEPING

Though offer is extremely vast and you will never be short of accomodation in Marrakech, if you have got something specific on your mind (and particularly in high season – October to March I would say) make sure you book well ahead since the best addresses fill up quickly. Where to sleep is totally down to you, even though a couple of nights in a restored riad (a typical Moroccan house with a courtyard or a garden in the centre) is definitely a great experience to switch off from the madness of the city and soak yourself in a oasis of relax.  

There are options for all budgets but just keep in mind that:

1) Unless you book a room with a terrace or at an upper floor, riad or dar rooms are generally quite dark since none of the windows (except the top floors – if there is any) opens on the outside (they generally overlook the internal courtyard). On the positive side, riads generally have a roof top terrace to enjoy breakfasts/meals or simply chill out, if the weather allows it. That itself is magical, particularly during sunrise and sunset.

Want a room with a balcony? I struggled to find one not overpriced but in the end I was truly satisfied with the one I booked at Riad Le Berbere: they offer a stunning and sun kissed room with a private little balcony overlooking the gorgeous internal garden. This time of the year (November) the room is blessed with sunshine from the early morning hours.

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Balcony room at Riad Le Berbere

They have a great roof top terrace too, where they serve breakfast and dinner – upon reservation.

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Rooftop terrace at Riad Le Berbere

2) Location in Marrakech is everything and which riad/hotel you choose depends a lot on what you plan to do during your stay. If you are on a girls weekend away and you plan to spend a long time wandering around the souks, I would definitely stay as close as possible to the Jemaa el-Fnna (the main square) and the souks to allow you to get in and out easily. Riad Le Berbere is a 10 min walk from the square but is very well located in respect with the Ben Youssef Madrasa (the Islamic college) and the Photography Museum.

I found Marrakech to be a safe city, both in 2013 when I visited with a girl friend of mine and on this last occasion with my boyfriend: no hassle (except from the sellers!) or problem at all. Despite this, keep in mind that some of the side alleys are very poorly lit, even just off the main square and the souks at night (after 10 PM, when they close) are deserted. Getting lost in the Medina is definitely part of the game but better doing it during daytime!

EATING AND DRINKING (mainly tea!)

The first time I visited Marrakech in 2013 I was truly impressed by the amount of cool and modern cafes and restaurants owned and managed by Europeans (mainly French). That has definitely increased in recent years and has resulted in a huge offer of mid to high level European-Moroccan product (both food and style), definitely interesting and delicious but sometimes overpriced, at least for Moroccan standards (sometimes even for European standards!). No wander why these cafes and restaurants are packed with Europeans only. Though they sometimes offer a good alternative to the local cuisine, eating in one of these cool and chic places (just to name a few: Cafe’ des Epices and Nomad etc), takes away a lot of the charme of Marrakech since you could be anywhere else in the world. Usually, next door there is always a Moroccan restaurant or cafe’ and generally with a great terrace offering the same stunning view of their overpriced neighbours.

That is the case of a couple of cafes/restaurant in Rue de la Kasbah, close to the Mosque Moulay El Yazid and the Saadian Tombs. Kasbah Cafe’ is definitely a cool and chill out restaurant with a great terrace but its prices can be compared to European ones. Try a few metres down on the same side of the road and you will find Casa Saada, a local restaurant with very good tagines, sandwiches, freshly squeezed juices and exactly the same views over the mosque. For a fraction of the price! 🙂

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View from the terrace of Casa Saada, in Rue de la Kasbah.

On Jemaa el-Fnna, Cafe’ de France is loved by locals and tourists alike and it’s definitely one of the best spot to catch the sunset over the main square, enjoying people watching and a mint tea! If you want to get a good spot with a good view over the square just make sure to arrive well before the sunset.

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View of Jemaa el-Fnna from the 2nd floor of Cafe’ de France.

Alcohol is widely served in restaurants and bars that cater mainly for tourists (at European prices) but generally not in Moroccan ones (and definitely not if there is a mosque nearby). I have to say that it makes a good change to sit down for a late afternoon mint tea, enjoying the buzz of Marrakech from either a terrace or escaping it by choosing a secluded riad.

If you need a break, try Dar Cherifa, one of the oldest mansions in Marrakech, wonderfully restored and converted into a literary cafe’, restaurant and guest rooms. Service is excellent and friendly and the amazing architecture is worth a visit by itself (just a few minutes walk from Jemaa el-Fnna).

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Aromatic tea ritual in Dar Cherifa, a stunning literary cafe’ and restaurant with rooms.

SHOPPING

First rule: if you are planning on doing some serious shopping and you are flying to Marrakech with a low cost airlines, it’s definitely worth putting a foldable bag in your hand luggage and pay for hold luggage for your inbound flight only. Trying to squeeze a massive straw bag (or carpet!) in your hand luggage can be a mission impossible!

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Straw bags in Place des Epices.
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Poufs, pillows and rugs for sale in Place des Epices.
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Spices and dried flowers in Place des Ferblantiers, near the Mellah.

Shopping in Marrakech is easier said than done and – even for me that I do love shopping – it can be a quite exhausting experience. Not only the offer in the souks and the outdoor markets is vast (I would say ENDLESS) but let’s face it: Moroccan selling techniques can be quite overwhelming for us Europeans 😉 For men shopping in Marrakech can be a daunting and definitely nerve-wracking experience so keep that in mind and make sure your other half is prepared. In this sense a girls-only weekend can be a great option! 🙂

If you are looking to buy some specific items and carpets in particular, I would definitely recommend reading the post of Maroc Mama (an American-Moroccan family living in Marrakech), with the 7 tips for buying a rug in Marrakech. Very useful, especially for first buyers.

What to buy is totally down to you but there is definitely a bit for everyone: Argan oil, spices, rugs, fabrics, throws, pillow cases, blankets, clothing, straw bags etc.

I only bought what I really wanted to get, that being:

  1. A couple of 250 ml bottles of Argan Oil, from Mishkat-Arom, a pharmacy next to Place des Epices: no bartering in here but if you buy a couple of bottles they give you a free small bottle of 100 ml Argan Oil. They have natural Argan Oil or mixed with natural essence (Orange Flower, Verveine, Jasmine, Grapefruit).
  2. A plain straw bag from a sweet Moroccan old man, working in an little alley behind Place des Epices; he didn’t speak a single word of English nor French and the 60 MAD for a handmade straw bag (just less than Eur 6) felt like the best money spent on the whole trip.

 

Coming next…..

What to do and visit in Marrakech in 3 days

 

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Planning your next trip to Cambodia? Here is what you shouldn’t miss…

I planned my trip to Cambodia sitting in an hammock overlooking the Mekong river in the Four Thousand Islands in Laos and the planning – which by itself is an amazing part of any travel – was utterly special. Even though I had a month to spend in Cambodia, throughout the planning I got a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to see everything that I wanted to see but at the end of the day, as in any other trip, the key is to make absolutely the most of every location you choose to stop, keeping in mind that a couple of places might need a bit more pre-planning.

All I have seen in Cambodia was unforgettable but here are my absolute highlights – in no particular order – that could even fit a well organized 2 weeks trip.

TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Angkor Wat

The site is simply superb and in my view it fully justifies the fact that it’s always on top of the list of things to visit in Cambodia. It’s the largest religious monument in the world and since it covers 162.6 hectares, it needs pretty good planning before tackling it, if you want to get the most of it without going back to your guesthouse absolutely knackered to do anything else. How long to spend visiting Angkor is down to you; we took a 3-day pass and, even though a lot more could have been seen, 3 days for us worked just perfect: start early to beat both the crowds and the heat, rest and have a quick lunch somewhere during the hottest hours and leave the site after sunset. Before starting visiting Angkor, we planned the temples we wanted to see on each day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver with a bit of English and we agreed with him both the price and the daily route to save time each day.

PHNOM PENH

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As a part of any trip to Cambodia, a visit to its capital should be paid, particularly since it is there where you will mostly confront yourself with Cambodia’s past: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I have dedicated a full post to my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located right downtown. My strongest advice is – before visiting – to document yourself as much as you can (I’ve given a few suggestions of interesting readings in my post). It is true that Phnom Penh is not only Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (located about 17 km from Phnom Penh) but it is definitely a fundamental part of the city. Take your time and be prepared for one of the toughest visit you could possibly do. There is plenty more to visit in Phnom Penh, including the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (go just before closing time at lunch time and you will have it almost by yourself) and the National Museum. I would say that you will need a few days to do the most interesting sites and get a feel for the city. Many people we met during our travels disliked Phnom Pehn; I liked it, busy, noisy and thriving at anytime of the day (particularly early morning, as any city/town in Asia) and found it extremely interesting to walk around and discover the different areas.

KRATIE

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Dolphin-watching in Kampi, near Kratie

I have always appreciated how beautiful it is when a city sits on a river. If the river is the Mekong then it’s an absolute delight. Kratie is a thriving town right on the Mekong, a few hours south from the Laos-Cambodia border; plenty of guesthouses and small restaurants make it a good place to stop. The town itself is not the main reason why you should visit but it’s a great base to explore the surrounding area, knowing that once back from your day exploring you can grab a beer and sit with the locals on the Mekong banks enjoying the sunset (don’t look down though, cause that’s where Cambodians throw all their garbage, unfortunately :-(. Hire a moped, leave the town and be prepared to be gobsmacked: lush green vegetation, almost abandoned temples with freely roaming cows, friendly and enthusiast kids keen to play and talk in English and one of the most stunning activities you can possibly enjoy in the gloaming sunset light: dolphin-watching in Kampi, around 16 km from Kratie town. The Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species throughout Asia and seeing it swimming in the Mekong is magical. We absolutely loved it.

SEN MONOROM

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Elephants at the Elephant Valley project in Sen Monorom

The town itself (exceptionally dusty, at least when we visited in February) is not particularly attractive and it is definitely quite a detour from any other part in Cambodia (we got there from Kratie) and you will need a couple of days on your side if you want to visit this part of the country but it is totally worth it. What really made the difference was our experience at the Elephant Valley Project. We spent a full day there and we learnt so much from the guys that manage and run that we came back to Europe wanting to learn a lot more about Cambodia and about some of the specific issues in the region of Mondulkiri (land expropriation, rubber plantations etc), all topics addressed in depth by the staff at the EVP. It’s not cheap and you will need to plan and book in advance but it’s one of those things totally worth it.

KEP

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Kep restaurants overlooking the sea

Personally, I would only need one reason to go to Kep: amazing crab. That to me would be enough reason to visit. On top of that, Kep area offers some of the most amazing natural scenery and wildlife, just a moped ride from town. The fact that we chose to stay at The Boat House made the difference. The French owner was extremely helpful and keen to show us the best spots around town by handing us out a hand-drawn map with the most interesting things not to miss: buffalo herds, hidden beaches, salt mines, temples etc all via countryside unpaved roads that made the moped ride far more exciting. And the best thing of all? During your exploration you will rarely cross your path with any other tourist. I can’t recommend it enough but make sure to leave a full day in Kep, enough to explore the outdoor. If you can pay a visit to the daily market, do it. If not, in the evening head to the restaurants at the Crab Market to get some of the most delicious crab fried with Kampot pepper. We tried a few and Kimly was by far our favourite (in terms of portions and taste!).

BATTAMBANG

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Phnom Banan Temple

A town with a thriving market (that is worth a visit itself) set in an amazing natural setting with plenty of history to soak into. We spent 2 nights in Battambang and it was enough to explore the town and spend one full day exploring the area. In all our stops we usually rented a moped and explore the countryside but on this occasion we decided to get an English speaking tuk tuk driver to make sure we were not missing anything out since there are plenty of things to see and quite away from one another: beautiful hill-top temples with gorgeous views (Phnom Sampeau and Phnom Banan), amazing caves with thousands of bats flying out every evening creating one of the most stunning natural “show” I have ever seen (you will not be the only one enjoying the phenomenon), trees completely covered in giant fruit bats etc. A day spent in the countryside outside Battambang is the best way to get to know this corner of Cambodia.

If you still have a couple of days on your side and fancy a bit of seaside, you may want to check out Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off Sihanoukville and definitely my favourite island/beach so far! Plenty of info in my post, how to get there and where to sleep!

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Not a bad spot to spend a few days…