One Wedding, Two Camels and Forty-One Degrees in a Stone Desert

After two years, it was time to return to Marrakech, but if you have read my write-up on my last visit, I actually caught my flight and avoided all near-death experiences this time! Just a few weeks after a disappointing ending to Game of Thrones, I had to pick myself up and find joy in what was left of my soul to head back to the Red City and haggle for mint tea leaves in the Medina. This time, I spent a night in the desert, which was one of, if the not the most incredible thing I have ever done. Wait until the end.

I adore Marrakech and what better reason to return than to celebrate our friends’ love at their wedding. We stepped off our early Ryanair flight (can you believe it?) into the stunning Menara Airport, the morning sunlight pouring off the golden plated exterior, where I was greeted by the familiar question of my heritage. ‘You are Moroccan no?’ asked the border officer. I just laughed as I knew this would be the first of many comments on our nationalities. We stepped out onto the concourse and searched for our transfer in a sea of men holding different Riad signs. and eventually made our way through the Medina to our Riad Picolina… and it was exactly that! Petite and charming. We were welcomed with a pot of mint tea on the terrace, and all stays come with breakfast. Staying in riads puts money directly into the hands of locals, and they are so intricately decorated and charming.

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We weren’t tempted to stay in a hotel, especially as we had the opportunity to spend all weekend in the sublime Palais Mehdi for our friends’ wedding. After we settled into our riad, we made spent the rest of our weekend here, and though I rarely share any personal events on here, if you are looking at the luxury end of accommodation, then you have to see these pictures! I’ve even included the beautiful bride and groom.

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After we recovered from dancing the night away, we went around the Medina. When we booked the trip, it didn’t occur to us that it would be Ramadan! This meant two things. One; the city was more lively at night than you can imagine, and two; major sights and attractions shut at 3pm and there is nothing about it on the internet! However, the Koutoubia Mosque is always a good place to start, as it’s gardens are free, and also a good reference point for finding your way around the Medina. We got lost quite a few times…

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On my last trip I went to the Ben Youssef Medersa (which is closed until 2020), and Bahia Palace, so it was only right to visit somewhere new. We walked for about 25 minutes to El Badi Palace, built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi in the late 1500s. As you enter through passages, the walls are lined with images of how the palace would have looked in its original form, though, there is definitely still an air of majesty and romance in its ruins. After the wonderfully tiled entrance, the Palace then opens out into a grand concourse, with cavities that would have been filled with water, now awash with orange trees and leaves. Just like many great artists, poets, musicians an creatives, it seems that people appreciate them somewhat more after their death, but you wish you had seen them in their prime.

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As mentioned, it was Ramadan, so the main square, Jemaa El-Fnaa (the busiest square in Africa!), was bustling with families breaking their fast. If you read my last Marrakech write-up, I made a recommendation to go to stall 114 for the best food in Jemaa El-Fnaa. Of course, I wanted to take my boyfriend to experience the night food stalls, so we walked there and searched for stall 114 (see last Marrakech post). They aren’t in any numerical order by the way, so don’t expect 114 to be next to 113 or 115. When we got there, I couldn’t see my friend Abdul, who had made us so welcome just two years before. There was no way He would have remembered me anyway I thought to myself. I took out my phone and showed one of the men harassing us to come to his stall the picture of Abdul and I dancing behind the stall . ‘Ah!! You know him! He is at number 97 now’. So off we went to number 97 (which was of course no where near 114). As we got there, I still couldn’t see him and I did feel a bit disappointed. I showed my picture to another vendor , who turned me around and pointed just a few metres away, where I saw his big grin! Before I could even ask if he remembered me, he said ‘you come two years before? I remember!' Welcome!!’ He started singing Waka Waka which is what we sang before! This WARMED MY HEART to see how happy he was that I came back.

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And don’t forget that the food is the real reason I came! We paid 295 dirhams (about £24) for one portion each of these dishes. Think of it as Moroccan Tapas- roughly about £2-£3 a dish.

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Don’t expect a knife and fork. They lay out paper underneath your food and you will eat with your hands. Remember, stall 97!

Jemaa El-Fnaa is of course wonderful in the day-time too. I would urge you not to entertain 'snake-charmers’ or the men trying to get you to take pictures with monkeys. The monkeys are kept on chains and have no freedom. The snakes have often has their fangs removed, and are starved. They only leave the basket because they have learnt to associate the sound of the flute with food. Illegal trading of animals is also a big issue in Morocco. It may look ‘exotic’ coming from elsewhere, but it is a vile means of making money. Here are some nicer pictures of the square and the souks.

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Marrakech isn’t as cheap as it was. We can blame Brexit for the abysmal worth of the pound sterling, which means that we are really not seeing that much of a difference in prices abroad anymore. Salama is a stunning bar to stop for an overpriced cocktail, but with great views of the Atlas Mountains and the city. You are far above the hustle and bustle of the square, and quench your thirst whilst counting how many minarets you can see!

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Finally, we have reached the best part. For the non-geographers, Marrakech lies west of the Sahara, a natural wonder of the world, known for its vast stretches of golden sand. I had the privilege of flying over it for over an hour on my way back from Nigeria and I have never seen anything like it. But before you get to those sandy dunes, there are other lesser known deserts to explore, which a far less hostile. We ventured about 35km outside of Marrakech to Agafay, a stone desert. Here, there is a small amount of wildlife, and people actually live there in Berber villages.

We were picked up from our Riad by a driver who walked us through the markets to a Jeep, where we travelled back through the city into to rural land, and finally the desert. At first, I didn’t entirely process it. I wasn’t until our jeep drove up to a high point that we could see that there was nothing around us for miles except stone dunes, made gold by the light of the mid-afternoon sun. My jaw dropped.

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As we arrived and got out of the car, it was then that I realised it was forty-plus degrees and we’d be sleeping in a tent. But it was very breezy and the sun soon didn’t feel as hot as it did at first. We were welcomed by our house Isam, and of course, a pot of Moroccan mint tea and sweet treats. We sat in the main tent of Agafay Luxury Desert Camp, high above the landscape, where we relaxed and waited to be taken to out tent. The view was out of this world.

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We were then led to our tent and I have relieved this fifty times over in my head since. We approached a private terrace above the stone valley, and turned in to see this

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I decided at this point that I would not be sleeping, instead I would be watching any view that I can watch and taking mental pictures with my eyes.

We arranged our quad biking for 4.30 that afternoon, so after we had spent some time taking it all in, we slapped on our factor 30 (should have really been 50) and braved two hours in the sun. This was the first time we went quad biking and it was really nice that the two of us were on one bike. We drove through dramatic valleys and past incredible views. The Agafay Desert is a stone desert, but that didn’t stop dust getting into our eyes.

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Halfway through the biking, we stopped at a tent and drank mint tea (you guessed it) with Drez, a local man from a nearby Berber village. As you can see he gave me some protection from the dust by tying his scarf around my face.

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After we got back to the camp, we decided to watch the sunset from the highest point we could find. A rainbow coloured staircase led us up to the highest nearby point, where we watched a magical sunset turning the day into night.

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Don’t be surprised if you make some friends along the way! There are a lot of these huge beetles but they move very slowly and won’t bother you.

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As darkness came, we made our way under the slowly emerging stars up to the dining tent for our 3-course meal. They send you the menu prior to arrival so you can decide beforehand. Whilst we ate, we were entertained with music, dancing and singing. After a few hours of fun and a bottle of wine, we made our way out of the tent and looked up to see a starlit sky, more stars than I have ever seen or that I could even try to describe. It was like a blanket of glitter. We decided to pull out one of the three beds in our room onto the balcony and spend the night watching shooting stars and listening to the sound of uninterrupted silence.

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This was all my camera could capture, and doesn’t in any way show just how many stars there were.

At about 5am, the stars gradually disappeared and the rising-sun woke us. We fell in and out of sleep until the sun got too hot, only at about 8am!

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To cool off we headed to the pool, and it is safe to say this is the best view for a pool! The sun is extremely strong even at 8am, please apply suncream.

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After we had our breakfast, we went on a camel ride, and it was so special because it was just us! Usually people were going in big groups, but we were lucky to be alone. Mounting a camel should classify as a sport. Who knew that legs could even stretch that wide. Hold on for dear life when that camel gets up because you will definitely go hurtling forwards. Once you are up, camels really do go from side to side and they are really slow, which was great because I got to peacefully drink my Fanta lemon whilst riding.

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Meet Camille and Kamal. Yes, we gave them those names.

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When we got back, we had to say a sad goodbye to the desert and load the jeep to head back to Marrakech. It was a truly unforgettable experience and If we ever go back to Marrakech I would love to next time use it as a base and venture even further out to places like Ouarzazate, Ouzoud Falls, Ourika Valley and even the Sahara.

I did a few other things but as usual, this post is becoming far too long. I will be posting more details on my Instagram. As usual, reach out if you are planning on visiting any of the featured destinations!


Rose x

Top tips

-Change your money at Hotel Ali in the Medina

-Money does not stretch as far as you think, especially since Uber disappeared

-Stay in a Riad for a really nice and authentic experience

-Haggle on every single price. Do not accept anything more than 60% of the asking price unless you really are rushed for time

-Do not trust anyone who gives you directions. This is my most important tip. People will deliberately try to lead you to their shops to try and get you to buy things. If you see people leaving or entering mosques, ask them if you are lost, or older women/shopkeepers. Use Jemaa El-Fna as a reference point.

-Marrakech is safe and fun for tourists, but remember it is a city like everywhere else. Do not walk alone late at night, and keep your belongings close to you.

Prices

Main stay: Riad Dar Picolina, 5 nights, £180, breakfast included

Agafay Luxury Desert Camp: 1 night, £168, breakfast and hotel transfer included (excluding activities, dinner, drinks)

(All prices subject to seasonal change)