For some reason, be it popular culture or words of mouth or gushing travel pieces, Marrakesh has held an esteemed spot in my imagination for years. A name that never came dressed without adjectives like “beguiling” or “captivating”, the Moroccan city has long been a byword for exotic adventure in my head, which is probably why it was such a crushing disappointment when I finally made it out there.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why Marrakesh and I didn’t get along, but if I had to take a stab at it I’d place the blame somewhere between the noise, the dust and the heat, the insistent hassle and hustle from everyone I went near and the herds of DSLR camera-toting tourists capturing every vignette of packaged authenticity in full-frame and HD glory.
Cobra charmed at Jemaa el-Fnaa square, Marrakesh © Alberto Loyo/Shutterstock
In fact, Marrakesh felt about as authentic as the belly dancing at Epcot’s Morocco pavilion. Lacking the seaside charm of Essaouira or the literary heritage of Algiers it seemed, in the handful of days I was there, like one big Faustian pact at the tourism frontline: a hectic hub of mutual exploitation with very little going for it. Of course this is to be expected. The Marrakesh Express was replaced by the 5.45am QueasyJet from Gatwick years ago - my fellow travellers were more Paul Calf than Paul Bowles – and we’re as much to blame as the locals. It doesn’t make it any less depressing though.
The biggest attraction in Marrakesh seems to be escaping Marrakesh; it’s the city’s big paradox. Visitors are constantly sold ways to hide away from reality: escape the hustle and bustle in a cloistered riad; dive into a hammam after a hard day’s haggling; dine in an intimate palace restaurant away from the maddening crowd. Get away from it all while getting away from it all.
Of course the city isn’t totally bereft of attractions. The Koutoubia Minaret is a magnificent sight if you can bat the laminated menus away long enough to spot it and the red ochre pigment present in the city’s walls adds a rich allure to the most humble homestead. But the big hitters are particularly overrated.
Metalworks for sale in Marrakesh souq, Morocco © Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock
The souks, those labyrinth alleyways so mythologised from a distance, are one long, repetitive and aggressive sales pitch, essentially just alternating branches of Shoe Zone and Allied Carpets without the air con, interspersed with a selection of other merchants selling tat I could have picked up in Lewisham. In between dodging kamikaze mopeds and bum-pinching stalkers, my wife managed to pick up two shabby cushion covers, a badly-constructed lantern and a wonky backgammon set, all of which are sitting in a cupboard back home, for about a week’s wages.
And as for the famous Jemaa el Fna marketplace, the less said the better. I’ve seen Yoda statues in Covent Garden with more showmanship than the snake charmers here. And don't even get me started on the monkeys. One popular thing to do is to grab a drink on the balcony of a nearby café and soak up the atmosphere from above. If you squint hard enough the scene below looks relatively evocative, but the army of zoom lenses and Instagrammers around me seemed to be capturing nothing more than the tops of tents shrouded in smoke.
Camel at Maroccan desert © Mikhail Priakhin/Shutterstock
On our third day, as our taxi dropped us at a pharmacy some distance from our restaurant for even more impromptu browsing (“just take a look, please”), we decided to escape the city. A drive through the Atlas Mountains followed by a camel ride deep into the Sahara to sleep under the stars among the Bedouin – it sounded so thrilling and alluring.
What followed was a ten hour drive stopping at every merchant between Marrakesh and Zagora, offering us the chance to pick up fake crystals, carpets, lamps, argan oil, a nice carpet, slippers, lamps and perhaps a carpet to take home, before one final stop to buy some scarves we didn’t need. Then we took a clapped-out dromedary that looked as enthusiastic as our guide about 500 feet behind the nearest hill to a camp for six hours kip before trudging back the way we came.
Our sleepy-eyed companion stumbled and farted his way back to the 4x4 (the camel seemed pretty dopey too), before demanding a present from us. We gave him the equivalent of £3.50 (all we had left after the marathon shopping of the day before) and left on perhaps not the best of terms.
A lot of people love the city – you can read about numerous Rough Guides exploits on the site – but I think I’ll explore the coast next time. Marrakesh felt to me like one giant mass of tourists and enterprising locals congregating to haggle their way towards a compromise no one feels good about, in a country aiming to double the number of visitors to 20 million by 2020. My advice: don’t be one of them.
Disagree? Share your experiences of the city below. And see if our destination page for Marrakesh persuades you to visit.
Top image: Jamaa el Fna market square, Marrakesh, Morocco © Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock