I have a confession to make: on balance, I didn’t really like Marrakech.
You’re supposed to. It’s one of those cities that’s constantly appearing in bucket lists, one of those places that gets dubbed “an assault on the sense”, mysterious and even, rather meaninglessly, a “city of moments”. Such moments, it turns out, include constantly being hassled – hassled for money if you take a photo in the vicinity of someone who then sees an opportunity to claim you owe them a fee for photographing their stall, or (yes really) their goat; hassled for money by fake tour guides who promise to take you to places you don’t want to go; hassled by every hot meat seller in the Jmaa El Fna in an attempt to convince me that their meat on a stick is better than their neighbour’s meat on a stick; even hassled by sodding wasps wanting to share my breakfast.
Marrakech seemed to be full of two types of tourist: the loud, lobstered British tourists staying in the cloistered chain hotels, venturing occasionally into the souks to haggle shrilly with the stallholders, and the wannabe hippies in their floaty skirts and kaftans trailing babies in tie-dyed slings, convinced they are “finding themselves” rather than simply taking a holiday from their Highgate flat and lucrative job at PwC. the first leave with bags full of the type of souvenirs you can buy in Camden, convinced they somehow snapped up a bargain, the latter with another tick off the bucket list and an impression that they are somehow more well-rounded people now. My husband and I went home respectively with a leather bag that spectacularly leaked all its bright blue dye down my entire left hand side the first time it found itself in a rainshower, and campylobacter.
There are things to see in Marrakech – beautiful museums and gardens, a lot of shopping (especially if you like scarves) and even a reservoir that claims to be the most beautiful in the world (as reservoirs go it was quite nice.) There are also ample daytrips to be had – you can go up into the Atlas Mountains (well worth it), though doing so under your own steam could be difficult. We went on an organized tour that turned out to be a little cringe-inducing – the kind where you “drop in” on an “ordinary Berber family”, who just happen to have 20 cups of peppermint tea awaiting any possible guests, as ordinary Berber families are wont to do.
But you can also visit Essaouira, and this I could highly recommend. Essaouira is on the coast, with vast stretches of sandy beach, more authentic souks, a pretty harbor, an array of restaurants and considerably less hassle than Marrakech. We were approached just once by a man with an impressive take on business diversification: “You want camel?” he shouted to us as we passed him on the beach, pulling a reluctant and slightly petulant-looking camel by the rein. “You want camel?” he repeated, starting to follow us along the beach. We confirmed emphatically that we did not want a camel. (Just imagine the baggage excess charge on Easyjet!) Undeterred, he tried. “OK, no camel. You want hash cake?”