Our final stop in Africa was the storied city of Marrakesh Morocco, long known as the inspiration for Crosby, Stills and Nash’s 1969 hit song, “Marrakesh Express.” The tune chronicles Graham Nash’s last-ditch attempt to save his flagging relationship by buying his girlfriend’s love with an all-expenses-paid vacation in Morocco. “Whoopa, hey mesa, hooba huffa, hey meshy goosh goosh,” indeed.
Everyone has heard of the “Marrakesh Express,” but few have ridden it.
When we told people we were going to Marrakesh Morocco, they all said the same thing, “Oh, hey…like the song!” Yes, yes…like that horrible song, “Marrakesh Express,” by that awful ’60s folk band, Crosby, Stills and Nash (aka, CSN). When people first learn my surname they immediately assume that I must love CSN, but they could not be more wrong.
Personally, I rank CSN’s music right up there (right down there?) with the Grateful Dead’s, a band that’s only popular with hippies who are tripping so hard they can’t hear properly. Quick question: What’s the first thing a Grateful Dead fan says when the drugs wear off? “This music sucks!” No further questions, your honor.
Note to self: drug users are not great travel agents.
Turns out, there is no “Marrakesh Express” train line running to, or from, the city of Marrakesh—nor has there ever been. I guess, that shouldn’t have been too surprising as the song was written during the 1960s when musicians did more than their fair share of illicit narcotics. CSN, in particular, was almost single-handedly responsible for supporting Columbia’s illicit drug trade.
So historical accuracy might be more than you could hope to get from a bunch of hallucinating hacks like CSN. While Graham may have thought he was on a magical train headed to Marrakesh, he was more likely traveling in a donkey-cart with a bunch of Barbary macaques, all sky-high on Rif Mountain hashish.
We arrived in Marrakesh Morocco by car and stone-cold sober.
While the “Marrakesh Express” was most certainly a figment of Nash’s
drug-addled creative mind, the city of Marrakesh certainly does exist, because we saw highway signs for the place as we emerged from the Atlas Mountain foothills.
In a lot of ways, Marrakesh is similar to other large Moroccan cities in that it’s a walled city containing a medina, kasbah, and gardens. On the other hand, Marrakesh differs from most other Moroccan cities and towns in that its walls and many structures are not beige, tan, cream, khaki, camel, ecru, buff, fawn, oatmeal, or tan.
The city of Marrakesh is Morocco’s sandstone-iest.
Marrakesh isn’t called the “Red City” just because the “Blue City” was already taken. Or, as I had feared, because some appalling Game Of Thrones-style massacre had happened there in the past. No, Marrakesh got the nickname because the entire place is actually red (or, at least, reddish).
Almost every structure within Marrakesh—including the defensive wall around the city—is constructed using red sandstone. The building contractors of Marrakesh use this versatile sedimentary rock because it resists weathering, is comparatively easy to work, and can be obtained by walking outside the city in any direction.
The cumulative effect of all this red sandstone is an impressive and cohesive design motif that brings the look of the entire city together, though it does get a little monotonous after a while. The red color scheme also makes getting directions a lot more difficult: “Turn left at the red building…no, the other one…no, the other other one…” You get the picture.
Everything I can remember learning about Marrakesh Morocco.
The name Marrakesh (or Marrakech if you’re annoying and/or French) is thought to be derived from the indigenous people’s word, Murakush. The name Morocco itself even comes from the same word. In fact, Marrakesh was once simply known as Morocco City—apparently, the people in charge of naming things around here are pretty lazy.
Located northwest of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakesh has been inhabited by Berber farmers since Neolithic times. The term “Berber” comes from a Greek slur meaning “barbarian,” though at no point in our trip did any locals strip down to a loincloth and pull out a broad sword. To the contrary, our interactions with Berbers were nothing but extremely pleasant and entirely bloodless.
Marrakesh is the country’s fourth-largest city, though we wouldn’t have known it judging from the number of people out and about.
Thankfully, the lack of locals was most likely attributable to the Moroccan government enacting a stay-at-home order to stanch the spread of coronavirus, and not due to our horrible body odor after spending hours in a hot SUV.
Though there was a dearth of denizens on the streets, there was a plethora of palm trees. I was delighted to learn that palm trees grow like weeds in Marrakesh, and very large weeds at that. Not surprisingly, every street, avenue, and boulevard in the city was lined with this arecaceae, even the parking lots. In fact, palm trees are ubiquitous throughout Marrakesh Morocco with one notable exception: Jemma el Fnaa Square.
Jemaa el-Fnaa plaza in Marrakesh is one of the world’s busiest…usually.
The busiest public square in all of Africa, Jemma el Fnaa, is a huge marketplace in Marrakesh that’s normally buzzing with chaotic commercial activity, but thanks to the global pandemic, it now resembled the after-photo of a zombie apocalypse movie.
Incredibly, we managed to wander around one of the planet’s famously frenetic and populated plazas without ever being bumped into, jostled, knocked over, or having to say, “Sorry,” every five seconds in Tamazight (fwiw, it’s saam’i). Heck, no one even offered to sell us drugs. #lame
France’s influence is everywhere in Marrakesh, unfortunately.
Marrakesh is the most French of the cities we visited in Morocco. Everyone spoke it to us even after I thought we made it abundantly clear that we didn’t speak the language by mangling “bon jour” so badly people visibly cringed. Still, these Moroccans handled it with far more grace and tolerance than most Parisians would.
A full fifty years after winning their independence, Moroccans still don’t seem to bear much of a grudge against the imperialist French for taking over their country in 1912 under the guise of “protecting Morocco” from the even more imperialist British. (Gee, thanks..?) But that may only be due to extenuating circumstances.
The French language, which is taught at most schools alongside Arabic and Tamazight, has become so entrenched in Moroccan governmental affairs that the chore of extricating it would be nigh insurmountable. It would be easier to kill all of Marrakesh’s palm trees with RoundUp.® And, like I said, there are a lot of damn palm trees around this town.
Seeing the city of Marrakesh Morocco with your eyes.
Getting around Marrakesh pretty much requires a car, as everything you’d want to see is fairly spread out. That’s not ideal because traffic in Marrakesh is reportedly bad, though we didn’t experience much of it. (Thanks, Covid!) We did, however, see a lot of bicycles, motorbikes, and scooters (though not the ride-sharing Lime/Jump variety).
Motorbikes are popular here because they’re faster than a bicycle, they don’t cost as much as a car, and there are no laws governing how to ride them, apparently.
Motorbike riders play pretty fast and loose on the roads, so it’s always safest to just assume they’re all either very late for work, day-drunk, or actively having a heart attack.
The cosmopolitan city camels of Marrakesh Morocco.
Another transportation option in Marrakesh is riding a dromedary. These humped behemoths hang out by the side of the road in small groups, often smoking cigarettes and discussing weighty matters such as the decline of French cinema.
But like country camels, city camels don’t belong in the city either. Their hooves are made for walking in soft sand, not on hard asphalt. These noble beasts are kept around primarily to give tourists a ride, but you should do the camels—and your groin—a big favor by getting a taxi instead. Riding a camel is only fun for about five minutes, then the novelty wears off, and all your pelvis bones slowly dislocate. You won’t walk right for weeks afterward.
Riads are like big houses that got turned outside-in.
While traveling through Morocco, we stayed almost exclusively in “riads,” a traditional Muslim style of architecture that would never fly in the United States. Why? Because the fancy part of the accommodation is on the inside where none of the neighbors can see it. What’s the point of that, amiright?!? Showing off with your house is basically the reason d’etre of HGTV’s entire programming schedule.
Unlike rich people in the West, wealthy Moroccans/Muslims aren’t as showy or ostentatious. They don’t cruelly flaunt their wealth in the face of others who are less fortunate. Instead, they considerately hide their wealth behind imposing walls where the less fortunate can’t see it (and try to rob them).
By Western standards, these homes are boring and unadorned to the point of being entirely invisible. And this aesthetic decision has a huge downside for tourists staying in them.
Most riads are so discrete and unassuming that you’ll frequently have trouble finding the place. Often, we were in the right vicinity—sometimes even within feet of the front door—and still unable to find our way in. So the lesson is, leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind you whenever you go out.
We stayed at Riad Alhama in Marrakesh.
Riad Alhama was almost unsettlingly peaceful. The feeling was due in part to the design of the place—it was set up much like the set of the TV series, Melrose Place—but mostly it was because nobody else was there.
Beyond our riad’s unremarkable check-in station, there was a very large, very remarkable central room with a sparkling and saturated green tile floor, surrounded on all sides by high, white, architectural arches. Above the arches, there were windows to the suites and rooms located around the riads’ center (see the aforementioned, Melrose Place).
Above those windows, there was a roofless view of the Morocco’s omnipresent blue sky. Not having a roof meant that the riad was cool during the heat of the day, but in the mornings and evenings, the place was downright chilly—we often wore our coats to breakfast and dinner on the ground level. We ate almost all of our meals in the riad because every restaurant outside was either shut down or in the process of shutting down.
The staff at Riad Alhama couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful, especially considering we might have been COVID-19 carriers for all they knew (luckily, we weren’t). Our room was a very well-appointed and comfortable suite with a private rooftop area where we could get some sun while viewing satellite TV dishes for miles in every direction.
While we stayed there, progressively more guests left until there was just us and a British couple who were, to put it nicely, extremely high maintenance. For example, when the lighting wasn’t sufficient for the husband to read his book—at the dinner table (wtf?)—he went into another room and brought back a floor lamp to use! The staff took his abhorrent behavior in stride and did their best to accommodate us both right up until we actually closed down the place.
The staff remained until we left, then they left, too, locking the door behind them. (To learn what happened next, read my post “Last flight out of Marrakech: Our mostly true tale of survival during a global pandemic.”)
So should you go to Marrakesh?
I’m not really sure what I expected when we arrived in Marrakesh—the name sounds so exotic—but the place seemed very much like the other Moroccan cities we’d visited. There were enough similarities between Tangier, Fez, Chefchaouen, and Marrakesh that, unless there’s something specific you wanted to see like Casablanca’s “SuperDome” Mosque, you can probably get by seeing any of them and not really miss much.
My advice? Don’t go during Pandemic Season—sure, everything is more affordable, and the crowds are smaller, but you don’t really get the full “Marrakesh Morocco experience” while hiding from superspreaders in a riad.