Marrakech had always been on my to-visit list but, as a tall blonde woman, I thought it best to visit with a man. As such, I didn’t arrive until 2013, when I visited with my boyfriend.
My strongly feminist leanings rage at such a situation but nonetheless it seemed sensible, and in retrospect I don’t regret holding off as long as I did. Still, in practice, I’d say that Marrakech is a reasonably safe environment for a woman, solo traveller or otherwise, and (unlike India), I haven’t advised any other female travellers against going.
Marrakech was, nonetheless, something of a starting-off point for our travels. We had ten days in total and I was keen to explore the souks and soak up the atmosphere of this ancient city. Still, we only hung around for two nights at the start before heading off to pastures new.
Whilst there, I wanted to stay in a riad, with all the colours and intricate details apparent in so many stereotypical images, but had no desire to cough up the money usually associated with such accommodation. My friend had stayed in a very affordable one some years previously, but it was on the outskirts of the city, so that wasn’t much use when we our time was so limited. I took to AirBNB.
Here we found a small riad just off the spice market; perhaps not a renovated palace and certainly cheaper than the luxurious offerings slightly further out of town, but nonetheless beautiful and steeped in atmosphere. At £27 per night, it was bargainous.
Our host met us in Djema El Fnar, the main square, and led us into the maze of the main souk. We had one chance to learn the convoluted route back to the hotel; and with so many offshoots, and stalls selling identical merchandise, this wasn’t easy. Helpfully, all roads lead to the spice market (or at least, there was always someone around who’d point us in the right direction), and once there, the final twists and turns were easy to navigate.
This riad was, for me, a classic example of flashpacking. To reach it, we had to duck down a nondescript alleyway near the spice market, at which point suddenly the hubbub subsided and we were caught between high, ochre-coloured walls. Our path followed up the narrow road, around several corners, and required us to cautiously manoeuvre around piles of rubbish, mewling kittens and heavily-pregnant cats, potholes, broken tiles, little boys playing football, and the occasional rag-and-bone man. The nearest water-seller was a small stall which we only ever saw patronised by Moroccan men; in all of our trips to and from our riad, we never once saw another westerner, despite being mere minutes from the souks. It felt like another world, separated by the narrowest of curtains.
Our room was beautiful and carefully decorated, filled with knick-knacks, gossamer curtains, and a bathroom with russet-coloured walls. It was comfortable and lovely, even if the door had neither a handle nor a lock that was operable from the inside. Thankfully our belongings didn’t go walkabout, nor (perhaps more importantly) were we interrupted whilst in residence!
Breakfast was an enormous and delicious spread laid out on the shaded roof terrace.
At night, we climbed back up to hear the calls to prayer; we were close enough to hear the famous Koutoubia Mosque, and counted seven others too. It was something we’d never have heard if we’d gone for the cheapest accommodation on the outskirts of the city. And none of the more upmarket riads were nearly so central as this, in the heart of the city and teeming with local life.
The posh Moroccan hotels offer sparkling plunge pools and staff in traditional dress. But Riad Essaadaqa was intoxicating in its detail, and the memory of standing on its roof, drinking in the sounds and the smells, is one that will remain with me forever.