Oh Marrakech. I’m glad we visited, but I doubt we’ll return.

Another narrow marketplace alley Another narrow marketplace alley

This was our first trip to Africa, and our first encounter with a medina. I had proximate experience, having visited old Jerusalem plus some West Bank towns that have a similar feel.

There’s an attraction for us to this alien-to-western experience. Minarets, the call to prayer, strange garb, very foreign language. Julie was a wee bit nervous, though I had done my homework and ruled out Tangier and Casablanca that have developed a reputation of being not-so-friendly to tourists. Hustles in the markets, concerns about personal safety, and so on.

Lunch on a rooftop terrace Lunch on a rooftop terrace

In many ways we had a great visit to Marrakech. I’ve written about our two excursions. The food on average was better than Spain, and slightly less expensive. Alcohol was harder to come by, which we viewed as a net positive. Many of our dining experiences were on rooftop terraces with views across the medina, minarets always filling the horizon.

Some live music for dinner Some live music for dinner

We stayed in a riad, and dined in at least two other riads. The staff in our riad were incredibly friendly, and our breakfast varied each morning and was always tasty. One dinner riad had live music with an Oud.

Twelve Chambered Room in the tombs Twelve Chambered Room in the tombs

The historical and touristy sites were below average. A few museums are closed (earthquake damage, death of proprietor) and the mosques are generally not a visiting option for non-muslims. The Bahia Palace was decent, though very similar architecture to the Andalucían palaces we’d been seeing in Spain but not as well preserved.

Three exceptions were:

  • The House of Photography – I wanted to see old photos of Marrakech and the surrounding country, and this museum had it all. Well curated and in a pleasant riad.
  • The Saadian Tombs are are nice short stop to see an extremely well preserved necropolis, particularly the Chamber of the Twelve Columns.
  • In the new part of town there’s a complex focused on Yves Saint Laurent, with a botanical garden, fashion museum, and Berber cultural museum (which I adored).

The tanning operation The tanning operation

Our visit ended on a frustrating note as we ventured into the east and less touristed part of the medina to visit the tanneries. There we encountered a systematic tourist exploitation racket, whereby you are funneled by young friendly men as you approach the area to eventually be handed off to a “guide” that explains the tanning process, then walks you into a leather goods store where you will hopefully buy some goods. We did not, and folks were not happy with us. High pressure, high guilt scenario. We did tip the guide (after returning his mint sprigs). Even as we tried to leave the area back towards the central square, we were again corralled by an aggressive young man who insisted that we could not take the road back because it is closed because of a mosque. We redirected just to avoid an encounter with him, only to be followed and harassed for another few blocks.

I get it: everybody is looking to make a dirham, and they have good reasons for animosity towards Europeans and Americans. Still, I can’t imagine the store owners operating along the road were happy about this activity going on. Or the honest hoteliers and restauranteurs running legit businesses. It was scary, uncomfortable, and not a good finish to our visit. Fortunately we can reflect on all the good people we did encounter on this adventure. More self policing would be good business. Perhaps the hotels and riads should have signs in their lobby: thinking about going to the tanneries? Talk to us first!