Thursday, March 27, 2014

I've been to... with Matthew - Morocco

When I have something difficult to say, I often turn to Matt for guidance.
He's great at helping me turn my thoughts into words.
So, when it was time to write about Marrakesh I asked Matthew.
"How do I say this?"  "How do I say that I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would?"

Everyone raves about Marrakesh.  It was the last stop of our tour and the one I was most excited about.
I'm not sure if it's because it was last, or maybe how and where we spent our time,
but it was my least favorite.  I'm going to let Matt help me out a bit.

I've been to... Morocco.

I went in 2013 as part of an Explore Worldwide trip with Selena.  I'm sure you've been reading about our travels here on Oh, the places we will go!  We started in Malaga in Spain, travelling through Moorish hill towns to Algeciras where we boarded a ferry to Morocco.

I’ve always loved borders.  I’ve often been perplexed by how much significance is placed on a line on a map.  A line that was drawn many years ago in a place many miles away by someone who may never have even visited the region they were bifurcating.  When I lived in San Diego I used to enjoy visiting Border Field State park, which sat right at the South-Westernmost corner of the USA.  Through a slender chain link fence was Tijuana in Mexico, physically only feet away, but economically another planet.

In Europe these days, it’s often difficult to even see its borders.  We recently travelled from Austria into Slovakia, and as it was a new country for Selena we wanted to celebrate the achievement, especially as we were crossing the “Iron curtain”.  I think we noticed a crease in the landscape that might have been the border, and there were some abandoned buildings that might have formerly been a customs point, but Europe’s economic integration is now so advanced that we couldn’t be sure.

So as we boarded the ferry in Algeciras, I was really excited to be crossing a border, especially as I was crossing a new one (I’d not been to Morocco before), was crossing by an unusual means (a ferry) and we were also crossing a continental border, which is quite tricky to do.  Unless you live in Istanbul of course, where some people do it every day.

Whilst I love borders, I don’t usually care much for border towns.  Tijuana was a bit of a dump, not to mention being a very dangerous place to visit these days.  When I lived in Singapore, the excitement of crossing the border to Malaysia marginally outweighed the disappointment of then having to spend time in Johor Bahru.  Tangier in Morocco has some charming corners, but can’t be described as Morocco at its best.

Fez however, was a revelation.  Founded in 789, if you dive into the Medina and tune out the TVs and Coca Cola refrigerators, you could easily be in the middle ages.  Traditional crafts are still pursued using medieval technologies.  Mules remain the primary form of transport through the narrow, winding alleys.  Butchers ply their trade (and offer their wares) in an authentic, but disconcertingly public way. 

The sights, sounds and smells are truly alien, but are fascinating to experience.  I can think of very few places where such an authentic and ancient experience can be found.  Damascus is close, but it’s not as ancient and it’s not a particularly attractive tourist destination right now.

Explore tours are usually structured to give you a big finish.  Our tour ended in Marrakech, so we were excited to reach the desert city to see what Explore had saved for the finale.  Gwyneth Paltrow, Sienna Miller and the Beckhams love it there.  Yves-Saint Laurent and Jean-Paul Gaultier own property there.  EasyJet and Ryanair fly there.  It must be great, right?  Oh, dear.

It’s rare for me to actively dislike a place.  I disliked Caracas, but visited in 1995 during widespread rioting during Venezuela’s economic crisis, so was too scared to leave the hotel.  Central Ghana was picturesque, but my time there turned into a tour of every available toilet as I got very, very ill.  But I’d rush back to either of these places before going back to Marrakech.

Marrakech was founded in 1062, and has a medieval souk and the same blend of mosque and mystery as Fez.  But Marrakech feels fake in comparison.  First of all, everyone speaks English.  In Fez, you need Arabic, French or a range of enthusiastic hand signals to communicate (in that order).  When you find a dense concentration of English speakers in a non-English speaking country, it tells me that their primary purpose in life is not to pursue ancient crafts and traditions, but to extract money from American tourists.

The central medina is a large, open space at the centre of the city, which fills up with tourist tat during the day.  Stalls will sell you low-quality, high-priced souvenirs.  Berber women will overcharge you for “traditional” henna tattoos.  Snake charmers and monkey wranglers will pose with you, then extort cash from you for the “pleasure”.

Let me linger on this for a moment.  Don't give money to a snake charmer or a monkey wrangler, in Marrakech or elsewhere.  The snakes and monkeys are taken from the wild, kept in appalling conditions and are tortured for your entertainment.  There is nothing authentic  about the experience and as long as people continue to pay for photos, the practise will continue.  I saw a monkey attack his handler with teeth and claws bared.  I was cheering for the monkey.

At night, the Medina turns into what must be the world’s largest street-food market. Whilst this is quite an experience, and some of the food is excellent, it’s a rather intimidating experience with every pickpocket in North Africa putting in a long and lucrative shift.

There are good, ethical operators in Marrakech, such as an independent hotel and hammam that we visited a few alleys down from the central Medina (post to come).  Some of the city’s accommodation is excellent and we enjoyed some great food while we were there.  But overall, Marrakech was a disappointment.

If Marrakech was your only experience of Morocco, I can see how the exoticism and mystery of the place (not to mention the climate) would make it an attractive destination.  If your only opportunity to visit Morocco was to go to Marrakech, then go, as the country has so much to offer . 

But let me say that Fez is so much more authentic and would make for a much more enjoyable experience.  As would Rabat.  Even Casablanca felt like it would be more interesting to explore.  Easyjet and Ryanair do fly to Fez, too.  

To be honest, when I first read Matt's draft I told him I wouldn't post it.  Way too blunt.
Even though I agree with most of it, I want to talk about the positives of the places that we visit.
I want to fall in love with every place we visit.  It's easy to write the good stuff.

But, what do you say when a place disappoints.  It's not an amusement park designed for our pleasure.
It's someone's Home, Sweet Home.  How do I say that I didn't enjoy it without being offensive?  

I guess honestly.   And with the disclaimer that this is simply our experience.
We were there for a very short amount of time and saw a limited part of the city.

We had a tourist experience that left us feeling disappointed rather than the
authentic experience that we were craving.

We did have some really great moments there that I'll definitely share with you.
But, I'll steer future travelers to Fes or Rabat over Marrakesh every time.

Tomorrow, I'll tell you a bit more about my experience and why I came away with a negative perception. 

Where were you excited to visit that left you feeling a bit deflated?


  1. Many moons ago, my first trip abroad to see Johannes- I visited London. It was covered in fog the entire trip, I couldn't even get a picture of the Big Ben to show back home. I left so disappointed and hated London for years... until I lived in England. Now, of course, I love it.
    I think so many different things can go into a first impression. Maybe your visit would have been better if you knew a local who took you to the 'real' places? You'll never know I guess. I have definitely felt like this after visiting places before, but you can't expect to love every single place on Earth. Although it is a nice thought.

  2. Ok, you liked Fez more. Alright, I'm happy we go there too haha. I'm curious what you'll write about your own perceptions and I'll let you know what I thought about Marrakecch after my trip.

  3. Guy can write! I loved reading his words. We're heading to the country soon and trying to figure out where we should spend our time. We're flying into Marrakesh and out of Fez. I fully believe that so many factors weigh into opinions on trips, I try to stay on the lighter side too, mostly because I'm easily excitable and it's easy for me to dwell on the sparkly parts. It's hard to base a culture or a lifestyle on a week long trip, that said, I love reading the different opinions/experiences that bloggers have..we're not all taking the same Big Ben shot and cookie cutter commentary.

  4. I agree, Jessica! We went to a couple places in India that felt a bit like this, too, but then we had a local take us around and it changed the experience entirely!

    Great writing, Matthew! I really appreciate your honesty!

  5. My first visit to Sweden was a little bit disappointing, at least on the first day. I've always wanted to go there and then it turns out that Stockholm in reality is just really grey and depressing. Luckily it seemed so only because of the weather and with sunshine on the next day, I found Sweden great again ;)
    But talking of tourist traps: My visit to the North Cape wasn't exactly what I had imagined either. First of all it isn't even the real northernmost point of Europe (the real one is the neighbouring rock that you don't have access to). And then this famous globe that you always see on pictures seemed so small to me....but I guess this happens all the time with must-see sights ;)

  6. It is OK not to like somewhere, don't feel bad about it. We can't like every place we visit, the more places you visit it is inevitable that one or two may disappoint.
    I personally didn't enjoy Istanbul, and a colleague of mine hated it, but I am sure there are plenty of people who do enjoy it.
    You loved most of your Morrocan experience, so hold onto those memories and try to forget your unhappy ones. If I ever visit, I will take your recommendation of Fez and Rabat.

  7. Thanks for telling it like it is. I appreciate your honesty, and don't find it offensive at all. This is how we'll learn from each other and plan the best travels possible. Hope you are having a good first week on the job. :)

  8. To each their own! I feel this way about London.

  9. I completely understand! The "playing-to-tourists" aspect often does me in as well, and if it weren't for an Arabic-speaking guide (good friend), I would have felt the same way about most of the places we visited in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon some years ago, especially Damascus and the Dead Sea.It would be hard to get offended at this post unless you are a snake charmer who also happens to be an animal rights activist :)

  10. You know, I think it perhaps has to do with the time of year you went as when we were there in early March a couple years ago, hardly any tourists were out and about, the hagglers were far and few between and we could wander without being yelled at (except in the souks). I really admire though being honest about your experience, I think that's really important to talk about the negative things as well as the positives when traveling. Often this is how I feel about Italy, but that is so hard for people to understand how I don't love the country. I on the other hand loved Marrakech, though as I said, perhaps it's time of year, perhaps it's that I grew up in the Middle East and was accustomed to many of those items mentioned. But at the end of the day, don't feel bad about not loving a place, it's an important part of traveling to figure out where you love and where you don't. :)

  11. I think being honest about an experience is really key. People interested in visiting tend to read reviews about a destination, and I would much rather see that there are different experiences as you can better plan your visit - like Casey said, it may influence when you go. I like to have a rounded view of a place, and I think your post gives that.

  12. Though I am completely attracted to your blog because of your happy travel and your complete and total opptimism, I truly appreciate the bluntness as well. I'm a blunt person, and though I don't always mean to be, I come across that way, and seeing it in other people, I guess it doesn't bother me. I am curious to see what you say tomorrow!
    Great post Matt!

  13. totally understandable and good of you to be honest, because then we know we get your honest opinions & experiences...good or bad! :) xo

  14. Thanks Jessica - Selena disliked London when she first came here too and loves it now. Well, most of it. She's not keen on the tube in rush hour

  15. Thanks Sarah. I wasn't that much harsher in the original draft (before Selena edited it). Honest!

  16. I look forward to hearing about it! A bad day in Marrakech still beats a good day in the office, as the saying goes.

  17. Thanks Annie. I'm inspired to write some more!

  18. Ever been to Land's End? Natural beauty wrapped in a tourist trap.

  19. Thanks Tammy

  20. No not yet....and I guess I never will be now ;) But I heard that Stonehenge must be really awful with fences and stuff?!! I mean I get that you need certain facilities like a restroom and a place to eat in remote places but must you always build a tourist wonderland there?

  21. Selena, I think he did a fantastic job. I, too, want the more untainted experiences. There are plenty of places in the world that fall under the economic windfall that being a popular tourist spot will do to you, but the places I love the most are the out of the way, grungier places. Loved this post. Thanks Matt!

  22. I completely agree with Matthew that sometimes when you're shuffled from tourist spot to tourist spot, it can definitely taint your experience in a country. I definitely felt like some things were totally fake while I was in Europe but there were other times when I really felt like I was experiencing the real side of the country;

  23. haha I believe so :)

  24. I love his honesty!! We're not always going to fall in love with a place, but we can share our experience and explain why. It sounds to me you two have some valid points! Especially having been to some other areas of Morocco to compare it to! Now off to read your take! :)

  25. I've seen so many wonderful reviews of Marrakesh lately. I really do think it was just how we spent our time. It was such an overwhelming place. Thank you so much for reading & commenting, Tina! You are so good.

  26. When we only have such a short time to visit a place, it's just disappointing when we get it wrong. It was just how we spent our time. We could have had a completely different experience. Maybe we will try again with Marrakesh someday.

  27. Thanks for commenting, Corinne. I know that you are familiar with this type of thing. I think the thing that distressed me the most were the interactions where we felt so unwelcome. But, then I tried to imagine how I would feel about tourist traipsing through my everyday life and I can see where the negative response comes from.

  28. I've read so many really wonderful blog posts about Marrakesh. I think we just got it wrong, but it was our experience and we want to share. Thanks so much for reading & commenting, Emi! Love your blog!!!

  29. I hope that our review will help others to better plan their time there. I've heard so may wonderful things about Marrakesh. I do like to have honest reviews to know what to avoid to make my time better.

  30. Our tour was actually a year ago in April. (I'm just now getting around to writing about it. Bad blogger!) There are always going to be negative experiences. I guess it's just important to be open minded and take responsibility for our poor planning choices. Obviously a completely different experience is the usual in Marrakesh.

  31. :D I hope we didn't offend. We try to take into consideration our poor planning choices. We had some very positive interactions, but the negative ones definitely left us with a bad impression.

  32. You're right, to each their own. Oh, I hated London when I visited the first time! lol Now I love it. It takes time to really get a feel for a place and we just didn't spend our time in the best way. Maybe we need to give Marrakesh another try.

  33. I would never want to discourage anyone from visiting there, but if they read about our experiences, they can probably plan their visit better than we did, and not be so shocked with some of the negative aspects.

  34. Thanks for the kind words, I hate blogging about negative stuff. But it's just the reality of it.


Thanks for commenting. I love to hear from you!