Splash…a silver bowl filled with water is thrown straight onto my face by a large woman dressed in black cotton. Splash, she grabs my hair and tilts my head back to make sure it’s fully wet and saturated. Splash, more water is thrown onto my body as the final step.
I’m sitting in a dark round room, my body completely bare aside from a disposable thong, ass slightly burning on the warm multi-coloured tiles heated from the steam. My friends and I anxiously laugh as if it’s not awkward at all to be in this situation in the same room together.
Penny gets called out first. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and a few giggles is all I hear in return from the neighbouring alcove as Sophie and I exchange glances and sceptically await our turns. When I enter for the exfoliating full body scrub down, I lay face first on the already soap-slathered plastic mat reminiscent of a slip and slide. First the scrub, then lather of clay mud, another splash of water to rinse out the hair wash and then finally, my head and body were covered in argan oil. Despite all of the awkwardness, my first hammam experience was actually bliss, smooth skin and shiny hair to prove it.
We’re in the thick of the red city, the charismatic and tantalising medina of Marrakech, surrounded by mud brick walls, buzzing souks, cat calls from street vendors and frankincense oil wafting from all corners. I absolutely loved every second of it!
My first experience of Morocco was in the overwhelming port city of Tangier, busy and dirty, with lots of hawkers and children begging to the point of exhaustion and irritability, but I at least still have the handpainted clay ashtray to prove it. But Tangier is not Marrakesh.
It was the perfect girls’ long weekend away taken straight from Sex & the City (naturally since it was the location of the second film we learned). We dined at magnificent restaurants (full list below), sipped mint tea, received daily massages, and shopped until our bags were overflowing, giving Penny the opportunity to perfect haggling in French.
The heart of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the big market square where it all happens. Street performers come out to play, while potion makers and storytellers gather crowds, snake charmers tease half-drugged cobra’s and belly dancers perform their art, albeit cross-dressed they rumour. Locals and tourists watch the spectacle, refreshed on fresh-squeezed orange juice from the many vendors, buzzing on the aroma’s wafting from the food stalls before getting lost in the over 3,000 derbs (winding alleys) of the souks just like Aladdin.
One of the favourite pastimes is to simply grab a tea or tagine in the many restaurants overlooking the square and watch life go by to the sounds of music ringing, horse hooves clanking, locals bargaining, taxis beeping and prayer blasting from the speakers of the local mosques while women in headdress haggle for juice, clothes and fresh veg; a weaver handcrafts towels, while old men slump over in robes like Yoda. Life is simple you could say.
Even better, it’s dirt cheap. We did the whole trip, including flights, accommodation in a stunning riad (traditional palace), plentiful food and shopping for about 500 pounds in total. With the exchange rate, it was an inside joke that if you divide by 10 you’re good, but it’s still even less. “It’s like $7 but less” was a common phrase, depending on the number, that helped us justify our bargain while haggling, a Moroccan tradition it would be rude not to.
It also wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I initially thought it would be. I had a getaway strategy in case a panic attack came soaring in after our first afternoon exploring in the colourful labyrinth in the souks, but we were absolutely fine in the shopper’s paradise. Once I mastered my haggling, my bags were full of tassels, pom poms, embroidery, crockery and more. A simple “no thank you” after being greeted with a heartwarming “Welcome!” was all I needed to say.
On our last day I watched a local man dye cotton in a massive vat, mixing steaming water with dry pigments from plants as part of the tradition. His neighbouring street vendor showed me his freshly dyed cotton shawls, draped one around my head and face like a local woman would and said, “See, you’re now Fatima Cous Cous” or maybe he said I’m fat because I ate too much cous cous. I’ll never know.
Le Foundouk: One of my favourite meals, I still can taste the chicken tagine with lemon and olives, but also the lamb tagine with prunes and almonds was the sweetest, most rich and moreish we found anywhere. In the summer, ask for a table on the roof terrace and enjoy the extensive wine list.
Chez Chegrouni: The food is simple and cheap but you come here for the view. Simply write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to the waiter and watch the world go by in the buzzing Jemaa el-Fnaa market square below. No reservations or liquor license.
Le Salema: Just off of Jemaa el-Fnaa, this colonial style restaurant has rooftop views, although the service was average, made up by the best pigeon pastilla and offering of mini salads (13!). Plus the waiter serves your food and wine whilst wearing a fez hat so you can’t argue with that picture perfect opportunity.
Le Jardin: Known as the secret garden of the medina, it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds. One of our best meals in the whole city, note no alcohol, try the vegetarian tagine for a flavorful veg option and the monkfish tagine was out of this world.
Nomad: Book in advance as it’s one of the hottest places in town, traditional Morrocan with a modern twist, but the best part is the views overlooking the souk and the Atlas Mountains.
Cafe Arabe: Albeit a mix of Italian and traditional Morrocan, the reason to come here is to sip cocktails in the sun on the rooftop terrace whilst escaping the narrow streets below. The food is worth it too, especially as any cous cous dish comes with a side au jus to pour over the top until your heart is content.
Kosybar: A great place for a rooftop cocktail, Japanese and Moroccan decor come together in ‘cosy’ environment to just relax, a popular place for expats. Use this stop off as an excuse to spot the stork’s nest in the distance.
Palais Calipau: Nestled in the backstreets of the Old Jewish quarter, we settled into a magnificent suite in this old family run mansion. Free breakfast, wifi, swimming pool and rooftop terrace included.
Where we relaxed:
Hammam de-la Rose: A modern hammam and spa with excellent facilities. We opted for the Tour of Morocco (2h)……………………800DHS (that’s like 80 pounds but less; realistically 65 pounds). Royal Hammam 60 minutes plus massage of your choice 60 minutes (Sublime Moroccan massage, Herbal massage, Relaxing Oriental massage).
Le Bain Bleu: Finding this place down a rabbit hole of alleyways is half the fun. Less posh than the above but the tonic massage was the way to go, a firm, deep massage to properly de-stress before leaving town.