Hustle and bustle of Marrakech

Bustling. Chaotic. Sensory overload. This is how I would describe Marrakech.

Sights

We had roughly 1.5 days in Marrakech so out of the all the famous sights, we only visited Palais BahiaBen Youssef Madrasa, and Jardin Majorelle – all of which were worthwhile purely from an aesthetics point of view.  Palais Bahia has very intricate wooden ceilings and Ben Youssef Madrasa has beautiful coloured tiles all around the courtyard.

Top left and right: It’s a rare moment to capture Ben Youssef Madrasa without many tourists.
Bottom left and right: If you saw an amateur photographer spending forever pointing her camera at the floor or ceiling of Palais Bahia, that was probably me.

We especially loved the Jardin Majorelle – its eye popping colours like cobalt blue and sunshine yellow, and the unique flowers and cacti, make postcard worthy photos.

Jardin Majorelle is also known as the YSL gardens because:

“In 1980, Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent acquired the Jardin Majorelle, saving it from real estate developers. Since then, the garden has been restored, and many new plants have been added… After the death of Yves Saint Laurent in 2008, Pierre Bergé donated the Jardin Majorelle to the Fondation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent… A memorial to the French fashion designer was built in the garden.”

We spent the rest of the time simply walking around the souks and absorbing the atmosphere. From the various blogs we read and friends we spoke with, we expected to be hassled quite a lot but it was less than I expected. It reminded me slightly of cities in Southeast Asia where market places and city centres also have a flurry of unrelated activities all vying for the attention and money of tourists. One thing which struck me was the variety of activities going on in Jemaa el Fna – among the snake charmers, monkey trainers and food stalls, we came upon a woman who was offering henna tattoo services while her baby slept in the pram next to her stool in the middle of arguably one of the noisiest squares in the world.

Shopping

Haggling in Marrakech is an unavoidable experience. We generally start at 50% of the price they offered and slowly settled on a price somewhere in the middle. We are probably not the best at bargaining but to give you an idea of how much we paid:

  • Scarf: 80 dirham
  • Leather belt: 90 dirham
  • Taxi ride from Jardin Majorelle to Palais Bahia: 45 dirham
  • Taxi ride from Jemma el Fna to Supratours bus station: 25  dirham

The key is not to feel like you’re offending the seller by starting at what seems like a ridiculously low price. Be prepared to walk away.

For a more pleasant shopping experience, we recommend Ensemble Artisanal where things are sold at fixed prices (supposedly). We still unintentionally managed to buy a wooden bowl at 100 dirham instead of 300 dirham – it helps that the person covering the shop owner didn’t seem to know the products very well.

We also enjoyed walking along Rue Riad Zitoun Jdid which connects with Jemaa el Fna. This street is not as busy compared to the souks and you will find some shops selling things more unique, e.g. tailor made tops and dresses which were very tempting.

Food and drinks

There were a lot of mint tea, tagine and couscous, and more tagine. Because we frequently eat vegetarian, we were tagine-d out pretty quickly as it was mostly the same vegetables.

We ate at a few restaurants which were priced above average for Marrakech (100+ dirham for mains). Dinner on the terrace at Nomad gave us a view over one of the squares. Dinner at Pepe Nero was quite romantic as the tables were set in the most beautiful courtyard.

You have to walk down dark alleyways for several minutes to reach Pepe Nero. Don’t feel deterred! Our verdict: romantic restaurant with decent food but not as authentic as the ones you would find in Italy.

There are loads of stalls in Jemma el-Fnaa selling fresh juice – you could get a glass of orange juice for 4 dirham (£0.32) and a mixed juice for 10 dirham (£0.80).

One thing that I did miss was good quality dark chocolate which was virtually non-existent.

Accommodation

We enjoyed staying at some beautiful, cosy and colour coordinated riads in Marrakech. As you walk into the rooms, you will see floors covered with Moroccan style carpets and walls decorated with things like carved wooden doors and mirrors made of camel bone and silver. All riads included massive and delicious breakfasts with items such as Moroccan pancakes which we thoroughly enjoyed on the terrace each sunny morning.

Top left: Riad Helen
Top right: Riad el Marah
Bottom: One of our many delicious breakfasts which were included within the room booking fee.

Money

Moroccan dirham is not a currency that is legally available outside the country so it’s useful to have some cash in Euro. We also recommend the Monzo card which doesn’t charge extra for taking dirham out of the ATM. It takes the time and stress out of budgeting, having too much cash, and exchanging any leftover cash.

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Split in September

Although this post is long overdue, Split was by far our favourite city in Croatia. It was bustling but not as crowded and touristy as Dubrovnik. It has a beautiful Old Town centred around the Diocletian’s Palace, a spacious promenade, lots of places for swimming, and equally tasty restaurants which provided more value for money compared to Dubrovnik and Hvar.

Split Old Town Croatia

We stayed in a studio which was a stone’s throw from the Old Town – it was nice to be able to walk everywhere. Our host recommended a wonderful cafe called Luka Ice Cream & Cakes which we went to everyday during the three days we were there. It was, hands down, the best place for ice cream on a hot summer day. There were many options for vegans as well.

To burn all the calories consumed, we would recommend the walk up the steep streets in Veli Varoš quarter to a hilltop cafe called Vidilica, where you can have a drink while watching the sun set over the entire city of Split. It looks just like in the movies, except we weren’t fortunate enough to get a table at that hour.

Vantage point Split

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Hilltop cafe Vidilica

Nevertheless, we did eat at many other great places such as Uje Oil Bar (where you can dine next to the Old City walls and feel like you’re living in the medieval ages) and Galija for Mediterranean/Italian food.

From Split, we joined a local tour for a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s an impressive park with many terraced lakes, waterfalls and emerald green waters. We debated between renting a car and joining a tour but we were glad we joined the tour because the tour guide gave us an interesting lesson on the history of Croatia. Sights wise, we personally enjoyed the Vintgar Gorge in Slovenia more, possibly because it was less crowded and touristy. At several points along the route in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, tourists were walking so close together such that if you wanted to stop and take photos, you felt you were holding up others. Perhaps this was because early September was peak season?

plitvice-lakes-national-park

Price per person with Portal Travel Agency: €80

If you’re on a budget, time-strapped or want to get away from heavily touristic areas, we think you’ll enjoy Split more.

Day trip to Bath – a bustling city full of character

Looking for a weekend break away, we looked no further than Bath – a mere 1.5 hrs away by train from London. While the city has plenty of luxury and pampering-as-a-service on offer, we were lured by the countless fresh, homely cafes, tea houses.

royal-crescent-bath

pulteney-bridge-bath

Bath looked visually stunning with its beautiful Georgian townhouses and we particularly loved the creamy orange bath stone – much of it from mines in the 1700’s. The city was easily walk-able from one end to the other and full of life. Here’s what we got up to in one day.

8:30 – Train from Paddington (armed with croissant and something a little more substantial for Sharon)

10:05 – Thermae Bath Spa

A visit to to the baths fueled by area’s natural geothermal springs was highly relaxing and surprisingly very warm! (Who knew that temperatures of 31 degrees were possible in UK!). We found the baths modern and in general very clean and organised. On the roof, there is a pool with excellent views of the city and its undulating hills. Be warned though – the Baths get very busy. A queue had started to form when we arrived and by the time we left, they had stretched long across the street.
Price: Two hours access to baths and steam room £38 pp (includes towels, slippers and use of showers)

1:30 – Wild cafe

A lovely cafe serving homely and freshly cooked food right in front of your eyes. We had a very tasty roasted garlic soup and falafel burger.
This was especially welcome as wading in warm baths for 2 hours is exceptionally tiring!.

2:30 – 6:00 – Exploring the city

There are many independent shops here each selling their own crafts.  The main farmer’s market in Green Park stn was closed, but the other stalls were open. There was an extensive selection of antique cutlery and crockery which tempted us hugely. Cast iron pans, while used, looked very sturdy, in great condition and were offered from £12. I think we would have bought one if we didn’t have to lug it back home.

Bath streets and shop fronts

6:00 – Dinner at Bistrot Pierre
A classic french bistrot selling decent value for money fare. The pre-theatre menu was two courses for £14.95 and was more food than we could eat – portions were big.

7:40 – Train home and a thoroughly enjoyable day. We will be back!

Sun, beach, and pizza in Hvar

There are many small islands that one could visit in Croatia. We chose Hvar initially because of its famed lavender fields, except it was not in season by the time we arrived at end of August (apparently June is the season). Nonetheless, the streets were dotted with stalls selling lavender scented goods of all kinds such as essential oils and dried lavender. Hvar is a small island with a population of just over 4,000 but many luxury boats dock the piers, reminding me of scenes from ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. The streets are very pretty and we enjoyed practising our long forgotten photography skills.

Hvar collage

The journey from Dubrovnik to Hvar takes 4 hours and 10 minutes. We bought the tickets on the day but it is probably best to purchase them online beforehand as the ticket office did not open until 30 minutes before our 7am departure.

We started our day at Hvar walking around the beautiful St Stephen’s Square but quickly abandoned our plans as it became too obviously hot to do anything other than swimming. But not without consuming the most gigantic slice of pizza first.

Hvar St Stephen's Cathedral

Our Airbnb host pointed us to Mustaco beach (“the beach where all the locals go to”) which was a convenient 10 minutes’ walk away from our accommodation. The beach was surprisingly clean and water was very clear. Swimming was much needed to cool down. After physically exhausting ourselves, we rewarded ourselves with a massage at Massage Studio Pharos. We were lucky enough to walk up without a reservation.

Hvar Mustaco beach

We had dinner at a family run restaurant called Lungo Mare and then cocktails by the pier. The cocktail was surprisingly strong as after one glass, I felt rather dizzy and heavy. Because Hvar was so relaxing, we opted to cook our own pesto pasta dinner the next day, completed with a glass of wine produced by our host himself. Not without receiving an electric shock from the hob though.

Hvar food collage

To top off our stay at Hvar, we were greeted with a beautiful sunset on our walk back from the Old Town to our accommodation. It was a perfect end to a perfect stay in Hvar.

Hvar sunset

Summer in Dubrovnik

We chose Croatia for our summer holiday because we’ve only heard great things about it – the romantic Old Town, the fresh seafood, the marble floors, the sun and beaches. We spent three full days in Dubrovnik, a city known for its distinctive Old Town. We stayed at an Airbnb studio located about 15 minutes walk from the Old Town, which was a big mistake when we decided to tow our luggage to the studio at 11pm at night. Who knew the city was very hilly with numerous steps? But we loved the lemon trees and grape vines on our studio’s terrace. The lemons made for the freshest lemonades we’ve ever tasted.

Dubrovnik Old Town

Hanging out by the port

Although we aren’t much of a sun and beach holiday type of couple, we ended up swimming a couple times in Dubrovnik simply because the heat was very intense. We trespassed Hotel Bellevue to go to a nearby beach. Initially I had some reservations about rocky beaches but Croatia changed my mind. The water among rocky beaches were so clear that we could see our own hands and feet when they were submerged into the water. My ugly plastic water shoes which cost 50 kuna turned out to be one of the most useful purchases of the trip, along with a straw hat.

Hands down, the best part of Dubrovnik was the sunset sea kayaking tour. It was a 7.5km trip and even though we run every weekend, our fitness level was horrendous when it came to kayaking – out of the entire group, we were struggling at the back and occasionally had the oars the wrong way round. However, that did not destroyed the trip; we kayaked along the calm water, sometimes asynchronously, passing by scenic caves, Lokrum Island, and even a nudist island. The yellow yolk of the sun dipping into the ocean as we kayaked back to the old city walls was one of the best sunsets we’ve seen in a very long time.

Sea kayaking tour Dubrovnik

Some excellent restaurants we tried include:

  • Moskar Konoba – Cuttlefish ink risotto
  • Shizuku – Amazing Japanese food at a fraction of the prices compared to London
  • Azur Dubrovnik – Asian Mediterranean fusion food within the Old City walls
  • Barba street food – Fried fish, great place for a casual lunch
  • Magellan – We came here on the recommendation of our host, excellent Mediterranean food and outdoor dining atmosphere.
  • Cafe Buza – This is a bar wedged into the cliff walls. Good for an alcoholic drink but terrible for coffee or tea because it was not fresh. We came here more for the view – excellent view of the sea.
  • Lady Pi-Pi – You have to climb many staircases to get here but it was well worth it as the restaurant has lots of great seafood at economical prices. In case you were intrigued about the name Lady Pi-Pi – the owners took inspiration from a statue of a woman peeing proudly at the front of the restaurant.

Dubrovnik food collage

Other than the casual lunch or drink places, most of the restaurants above required reservation as the tables were filled on the nights we went.

In hindsight, two full days in Dubrovnik would’ve been sufficient. We would suggest fellow travellers to opt for a day trip to Mostar or Kotor instead of spending three days in Dubrovnik. Also, we found prices in Dubrovnik comparatively more expensive than other cities such as Hvar and Split. The city really does thrive on tourism!