Monday, September 14, 2015

Marrakech, Morocco - My first African HugeParty!

Is Marrakech a HugeParty? For tourists, this Muslim city has manufactured an awesome HugeParty experience!

My first time in Africa. Not sure what to expect, except I had many friends and co-workers regale me with amazing stories of Morocco. 

Countless movies, travel TV shows and various blogs had covered Morocco, exposing a completely different world than Chicago's concrete jungle. Needless to say, Marrakech was going to be a trip that took me out of my natural environment. As you'll learn, not much was different as I explored the city, and the HugeParty.


In the Heart of the Medina

In June 2015 I traveled to Marrakech with three good friends. It was a travel experience that was different than most of my past travels, but we also found plenty of mischief to designate Marrakech as a HugeParty!


Our Crew, Bottle Service at The Club


Read more after the jump!!!


Dispelling Naive Perceptions

Truth be told, I didn't know much about Marrakech, or Morocco. For those of you who know little as well, here's a couple basic facts.

1) Yes, Morocco is in Africa, but it's not the Africa you're thinking about, or see in the movies. Perched at the tip of Northern Africa, Morocco is a desert, with a giant mountain range, and plenty of coast line. I had many friends tell me they were jealous I was going to Africa, but I'm fairly confident they meant Lion King Africa, not Northern Africa.

2) Morocco is a Muslim country. Religion is a part of everyday life, and Muslims do not practice the same HugeParty lifestyle as their tourist counterparts. The world of excess you read below has been crafted with the tourist in mind. 

3) Morocco is unsafe. This is false, unfortunately the violence and media coverage of ISIS and other terrorist organizations in completely different countries makes Morocco partly guilty by proximity. Our group felt nothing but safe and secure during our entire stay.


Traditional Moroccan Mint Tea Provided by our Airbnb Host

The Medina, Riads and Souks? An understanding of these ahead of my trip would've been helpful as well...

What is the Medina? Pretty commonplace in most North African cities, the Medina is a walled, fortified city. In Marrakech, the Medina is a World Heritage Site and houses 300,000 people, a giant open-air market and souks (more on these below). More modern neighborhoods, and all of the luxury hotels, clubs, casinos and restaurants reside just outside the walls of the Medina. For the real cultural experience, spend as much time as you can meandering through tiny streets and engaging with the locals inside the Medina.

In Marrakech, the Medina is a bustling city, with thousands of shops, stalls and restaurants. It's easy to get lost, but you're never really lost, since you're inside a walled city. Plus, there is plenty of signage pointing you back to the main market.

What is a Riad? A Riad is a traditional house in Morocco with an open-air interior (think of it like a square house with a giant skylight in the middle). Riads are what you will stay in if you're looking for the true Moroccan experience. They are found within the walls of the Medina. It is where we stayed, and I thought it was a great experience. Note: Most Riads are shared spaces (unless you rent the whole Riad like we did).  

What are Souks? Within the Medina there is a giant open air market called Jemma el-Fnaa (thorough description below), and surrounding it are Souks. My understanding of the layout are that the souks (market or bazaar) are adjacent to Jemma el-Fnaa. We found it to be tightly packed, difficult to canvas, and pretty much every stall is hocking the same stuff. More on the hustle below.


What to Expect?

  • Food - While I wish I could report back an amazing culinary experience, the food scene felt a bit forced within the Medina. Tagine, lamb, couscous, etc. I wasn't very impressed, I guess I didn't think any of it was that special. We ran into plenty of peddlers, but the street food didn't seem sanitary. On our last day I tried a Camel Burger, but that too wasn't anything special, just more of an experience to say I did it. My biggest recommendation would be to avoid the restaurants with big tourist signs showing you pictures of all the food. But that's my recommendation at any destination. Also, avoid the food sold in the stalls at Jemma el-Fnaa, a hot day without refrigeration should be enough of a reason to avoid food that has been sitting out for a while.
  • The Hustle - If you're a foreigner, you're going to get heckled, hustled and cat-called every. single. minute of your stay in the Medina. The locals make their livelihood off of this. Be prepared to barter hard for big souvenir items (rugs, leather bags, antiques, etc.). Everyone I talked to seemed to agree, 66% of their first price was the real price. If you plan on taking a picture with a street performer, plan on paying, and plan on them yelling at you that it wasn't enough money.
  • Tanneries - One of the big "touristy" trips within the Medina walls is a lengthy walk to the Berber Tanneries where they process (by hand and foot) all of those lovely leather products. The odor is strong, the experience is fast, and you're expected to pay after walking through. I'm torn to say you should or shouldn't make this trip, because it was an eye opening experience, but also something that I could've easily watched on TV and learned more without being extremely pressured by my guide and all of this friends.
  • Cost - On one hand, the flight from Portugal was pretty cheap, our Riad and private driver were affordable, and the food was reasonable (but nothing special). On the other, nightclubs, casinos, alcohol and souvenirs are high priced. I guess they evened themselves out.
  • Avoid!!! - Allowing someone to give you directions and walk you somewhere. Seriously, it's one thing to ask for directions (and have them point you in the direction), but refuse all requests when a man (or boy) walks you somewhere. They will certainly expect a tip, and will be rude/mean to you if you decline. On one such day we were tailed by a teenage boy who refused to take no as an answer, which led to him screaming at us in anger after he walked 15 minutes with us in the opposite direction. I suggest you download a map, or utilize restaurant WiFi in order to educate yourself on where exactly you are going.

People

Walk around the city enough and you're going to experience the full spectrum of wealth in Marrakech. Extreme poverty within the streets of the Medina, to wealthy businessman and travelers outside the walls indulging in their favorite vices. 

The hustlers are out in full force, but at the same time I felt a strong respect for order and religion among the locals.

People come from all over the world, but you can certainly expect a fair share of French people, and take that for what it's worth. I had some great experiences meeting French tourists and ex-pats, but also flew through CDG on my way home and ran into a few very interesting (rude) French people.


Jemma el-Fnaa

The open air market I talked about above is a crazy, high-energy experience. Street performers hustling, music playing, snakes charmers charming, food and souvenirs aplenty.

This is the biggest, most necessary, tourist trap I've ever seen. It partly feels like a true experience, because you're enjoying it all with so many locals, but it also feels like a big show put on for the foreigners. 

I suggest you go, keep a set dollar amount for what you're willing to spend on souvenirs, avoid the food, try the orange juice (30+ stalls just selling OJ), listen to the music (prepare to tip), and then go find your HugeParty for the evening.

Sunset over Jemaa el-Fnaa

Jemaa el-Fnaa at night, for a Better Picture, click Here


BUT WHAT ABOUT THE HUGEPARTY????

Outside of the Medina walls you can find your HugeParty refuge. While inside you'll find a conservative, Muslim world... Outside you'll find all of the tourist-catered items, a perfect menu for any HugeParty.


The Great Ketchup Debacle of 2015, at the Sofitel Pool Party 

I snuck into the pool at the Sofitel Marrakech. It was pure luxury, filled with wealthy travelers and French celebrities (French Comedy Festival was in town that weekend).

Everything was going great! Sipping vodka drinks, talking to French comedians, and working on my tan, until lunch arrived.


Sofitel Marrakech Pool Party. HugeParty.

As the waiter rushed my chicken sandwich to my table, he stumbled and lost his balance. The chicken sandwich was saved, the glass bottle of ketchup wasn’t so lucky. The bottle shattered on the ground, covering me with glass, ketchup and embarrassment.

The manager rushed over to apologize, and promised to get my clothes dry-cleaned and brought to my room that evening. I asked to have them brought to the pool, hoping he wouldn’t realize I wasn’t staying at the hotel.


Pre-Ketchup Explosion All over my Shirt

Luckily I didn’t get caught. It wasn’t until after I paid for my drinks that the manager asked me what room I was staying in. I replied “I’m not staying here, but thanks for the great afternoon!”, and walked out of the hotel.

Nightclubs and Casinos

Theatro - By all accounts, we should've avoided this nightclub. We'd heard it was seedy, filled with working girls, and the music was too loud. As I heard that negative review, all I heard was "music was too loud". I was sold. Theatro is a massive, multi-level nightclub attached to the Casino!


Whiskey Bottle Service at Theatro!!


And it's almost like they embrace their stigma. With claims of "Best Night Club in Marrakech", and "Our Haters Make us Famous", the DJs play loud and aggressive electronic and hip-hop, and they seem to bring in plenty of mid-tier DJs/Artists (Lil Jon, DJ Snake, etc.). Cover is about $20, and includes a free drink. The drinks are weak, I would advise you to get bottle service, we did. There's nothing like drinking Whiskey from the bottle in the middle of a nightclub in Morocco.


HugeParty


Stay for the show! Around 1am a large male/female dance troupe performs. They're dressed head to toe in costumes, and really make the place seem like it's from another planet. HugeParty.


video



Casino de Marrakech - Connected to Theatro and attached to the Es Saadi Resort is a serviceable casino. It's small, but they have all the standard casino vices, including a poker table or two. Be warned, you need to have a good amount of cash to play the live games. As such, I was denied entry to the live roulette table and poker tables, thus relegated to the video roulette... where I turned my measly $40 into $220!!!! The 5am walk home from the casino that morning was worth it, I'll say.

Jad Mahal - This restaurant features fire breathers, belly dancers, live music, Cuban cigars and bottle service. This is the "most touristy and overrated" bar/club/restaurant in Marrakech.... I don't care, we had a killer time. This place knows how to party, and it's free to get in. I highly recommend, despite what TripAdvisor told us. Plus, below the restaurant is Silver Club, which was pumping out plenty of loud, electronic music late at night.


It's 5am, the Medina is Quiet, the HugeParty is over.


Travel Quote

"There are certain places on the surface of the Earth that possess more magic than others, and one of those places is Marrakech." ~ Paul Bowles

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1 comment:

  1. I love the ketchup debacle. Hilarious that the episode almost got you busted. Morocco is a country that has always intrigued me ever since hearing about it in history classes and hearing the song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. It seems there are some good and bad things about Marrakech, but that is not a surprise.

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