Marrakech is like Fez but stretched to the extreme: dirtier, smellier, more packed with tourists, more "Moroccan" (in the main plaza in the medina there are snake charmers and monkeys on leashes). The people are more aggressive too - not only the shopkeepers and the fake guides who follow you around and then ask for money, but also the locals. Men holler louder and more freely at passing women than in previous cities, and in the first 48 hours of being here I witnessed three street fights - one of which climaxed with one guy pulling a knife and hopping on a motorbike to pursue the other guy into the medina. The hostel staff said that fights were common during Ramadan, when everyone is already near the tipping point due to hunger, thirst, and the perpetual heat. (Not to mention they can't smoke or have sex).
The city is best enjoyed in small doses with liberal breaks in between. Saturday afternoon I went with a couple girls from my hostel to a nearby hotel where we swam in the pool, read, sipped milkshakes and forgot about all the things outside that drove us crazy but were so inherently Marrakech. On Sunday I took a day trip to the Ourika Valley, driving along the river and stopping to take a hike up to the Fatima Waterfall. The locals treat the river like their beach, damming parts of it to form pools, and even setting picnic tables and chairs in the shallow parts. During the hike I thought it was strange that there were so many shops along the path, but once we reached the pool where the falls gracefully fell into a pool that fed the river, I realized that not only was it a popular destination for van loads of tourists, but there were also tons of locals.
I had worn my bathing suit but, as with everything in Morocco, the falls were a major sausage fest. Feeling too uncomfortable to strip down, I contented myself with dipping my feet into the freezing water.
Marrakech has plenty of other things to do and see, of course, but they're all best enjoyed in the morning before the sun and the crowds reach peak intensity. Below, a few of my favorites.
1. The Fatima Waterfall.
2. Soapstone carver we passed during the hike.
3. Medersa Ben Youssef. 50 dirhams to get in, but worth it because you get to explore the upper floor that used to be student rooms. Oh, and the central pavilion is breathtaking.
4. Musée de Marrakech. Honestly I couldn't have cared less what was inside this converted 19th century palace, since anything that keeps me out of direct sunlight and away from people vying for my money makes me happy. I speak French in the loosest sense of the word, so I didn't understand a lot of the accompanying text, but sometimes art and architecture need no explanation.
5. Jardin Majorelle. What put Marrakech on my mental bucket list of places to visit was actually a documentary about Yves Saint Laurent that I reviewed a couple years ago. In it, they briefly explore the love affair the late designer had with the Moroccan city, to the point where Laurent and his partner Bergé purchased and lovingly restored a piece of land originally belonging to the French painter Jacques Majorelle. Today the garden exists as a succulent (there are lots of cacti, get it?) oasis not far from the medina, where terra cotta pathways lined with bamboo fences and brightly painted pots wind between tall palm trees and wisteria-covered lattices. You completely forget where you are; that is until you step outside and - news flash - have to haggle over cab fare with the taxi driver because the meter is "broken."
Welcome to Marrakech, indeed. See the rest of the photoset here.