5 October 2015

The Hammam (Marrakech, Morocco)


Nourished from the inside by a gorgeous lunch, it was time to nourish myself on the outside - a hammam spa.

This was my first taste of a Moroccan hammam spa. This type of spa experience is infamous, and particularly signatured to Morocco, though similar styles of spa treatment exist elsewhere in the Arabic world, especially Turkey.

A Moroccan hammam consists of steaming, ruthless exfoliation, cleansing, moisturising and sometimes rounded off by an oiled massage. The hammam at La Mamounia was a good place to try all of that.

Situated in a dark basement underneath the hotel, the hammam had a lair-ish mood about it. The lights were incredibly dim, the air cool and damp and the walls clad with echo-jeering marble.

I was greeted and led to a bathroom to change, where I was given a white gown and a flimsy white cotton thong to wear.

There's no way in hell you're seeing the thong.

First step: STEAM

I was ushered to a dark steam room to rest for 30-minutes. The steam was thick and laced with eucalyptus oil. I felt the benefit of this mainly in my chest and sinuses. I felt like I'd had every nook and cranny of my airways bathed and sterilised. It's kinda like that minty freshness you have in the morning after you've gargled mouthwash, but pretend you near-drowned in it. Just a little bit.

Second step: EXFOLIATE

I was led to a dark room, disrobed and laid naked onto a marble platform. I was naked in front of a stranger. It didn't feel as awkward as I thought it'd be

A male masseur introduced me to his exfoliant, a gritty, home-made paste of crushed almonds, salt and honey. He started to rub this mixture into every imaginable crease of my body. He then slipped on a rough, woolen mit, and scrubbed around my entire body. It wasn't a pleasant experience at first, but after 5 minutes, it felt like my skin had woken up. I could feel my whole body buzz. I was extremely aware of my own pulse. I was then rinsed clean and felt smoother than an ovum's bottom.

Third Step: MARINATE

Once I was rinsed of all the dead and useless pieces (yes, PIECES!) of skin, it was time to give my newly-birthed epidermis a grand welcome to the world. After a brutal exfoliation, I was smothered in (pretty much) an olive jam. After being covered in this sticky, mulchy tar, I was left for about half an hour to marinate. The guy never actually told me it would be half an hour, so I lay there wondering if he'd left and forgotten about me. Was this somekind of social experiment: How long would a person lay naked on a marble slab, covered in olive jam, before they do anything about it? Hardly. But after about 30 minutes, he came back and rinsed me clean.

Final Step: MASSAGE

To finish the treatment, I was slicked in thin argan oil, a Moroccan product of pride, and given a gentle but thorough body massage. Nothing too barbaric - all the rough work was complete. I enjoyed this massage for about 10-15 minutes, before being blotted clean and guided to the showers to lather up.

The first thing I noticed after my hammam: you can really feel the air on your skin! It was like a whole new level of nudity. You feel like you've been reborn.

The interesting thing about the hammam, is that the ideology has followed me back home. I wish I had tried something like this sooner. It's widely reported that a regular, abrasive skin treatment encourages your skin to regenerate faster on the whole. As brutal as the hammam treatment may sound (and feel), most Moroccans visit their local hammam for a treatment every week - it's tradition.

 I don't know if I'll be indulging in a weekly deep-scrub mind, but I've certainly started being a little rougher on my skin, and I couldn't recommend it enough!

The results are something to be savoured.

After my hammam, I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing around Mamounia's swimming pools and gardens, getting to know my new skin.

Sunshine and WiFi - all I needed for the rest of the day.

Check out my next post, in which I'll give you a run-around of the pools and gardens - it's a beauty of a playground!

Until then...

Thanks for reading!


4 October 2015

Lunch at La Mamounia (Marrakech, Morocco)


I woke up in my cute little AirBnB tucked away in a Marrakech backstreet. I liked it here. It was cheap, colourful and cosy. I met a lot of amazing people here. I can't recommend the AirBnB experience more!

But today, for one day, I chose to try a luxurious side of Marrakech.

I'd heard of this fantastic hotel, about 10 minutes from Jemaa El Fnaa Square, which seemed to offer the kind of glitzy experience I was craving.

La Mamounia, a refurbished king's palace, has had a mark on the maps of Marrakech for a very long time. Adapted as a hotel, La Mamounia has charmed the likes of Princess Caroline of Monaco and Winston Churchill, who in particular described it as 'the best in the world to spend an afternoon.'

I had to see what the fuss was about. But as you might expect, this kind of experience would come at a fee.

Fortunately, I had just received my paycheck!

I packed my modest shoulder bag, wore something nice, and popped long to spend the day at La Mamounia.

Entering the hotel was a breath of fresh air - literally. The hotel is scented with its own gorgeous signature fragrance, a spicy, woody aroma. I can only think it's what Brad Pitt's underwear drawer would smell like.

I purchased my day's entry, which was around $150US - sounds very steep for just one day, but that includes lunch, spa and all the facilities - far from terrible.

The lobby was slicked with thick, plushy carpets and propped up by grand, mahogany wooden beams.

I wandered towards the garden, met a sharply-tailoured waiter and was shown to a little table on the patio.

I sat on the edge of the patio's shade, around quiet eaters and even quieter plants.

The staff were incredibly attentive from the get-go. I wasn't sure what to expect, I'd never experienced a high-end dining experience like this in my life before. It was a first. Every time I took a sip of my water, a waiter zipped by and topped up my glass. I'll admit, I felt quite uneasy having such dedicated table service. I couldn't help but feel guilt as I sat and watched the table being set around me by three pairs of gloved hands.

I just wanted to jump in and help them, make their life easier. Though I didn't want to seem like I was undermining their job. I also didn't want to sit there nonchalant and look like I didn't appreciate their effort. I had no idea how to be in this kind of situation. All I did was rapid-fire a load of thank yous, merci's and shukran's at them and show them my most thankful-looking smile. I think I did a good job of that.

The food was delicious, beautiful and very arty. Some of the portions looked small and clownish at first, but as the courses came out, they gradually became more substantial and even more delicious!

First up was an appetiser: foie gras. Incredibly controversial, I'm totally aware. I've never tried it before and I like to try anything once. I probably won't try it again. But at least I know what a force-fed duck's liver tastes like (damn good).

They brought over a selection of different breads, complete with a bottle of their own signature olive oil, pressed from the olives that grow in the palace's grounds. That was a pretty fab touch. A tasty one too!

Then there was the starter. A flaky pastry cushion stacked with roasted balsamic vegetables and aubergine puree. This tasted like a plate of spring - it tasted clean and fresh. Energising! Everything you want from a starter (beats a dumpy mac & cheese starter at least.)

Then along came the main. A darling Atlas lamb rack, encrusted with herbs and cress, and hiding an 'aubergine bomb' - grilled aubergines formed into a dome and stuffed with baba ghanoush. Marvellous.

I had trouble getting my knife and fork around the little lamb ribs, so a lot of meat went to waste. If I were at home I would have used my teeth, but I didn't think they'd tolerate that sort of thing here!

That main course was incredible. Herby, meaty and spicy - it stills haunts me while I'm writing this!

Dessert, however, was my favourite one.

The plate started out as a small, white mound, clustered with pink praline.

Pink praline is seen around a lot of markets in Marrakech, you can buy bags of it very cheaply from street vendors. I love how they incorporated it here!

The waiter poured over a milky custard and the mound magically grew into a pillowy vanilla mousse. There were churros on the side for dipping. There was no way I was going to humiliate myself by eating churros with a knife and fork - my hands did the work.

The staff literally couldn't have done enough for me. It may have felt unsettling, perhaps because I'm British, or maybe it's Moroccan hospitality, or because I've never really tried a luxury eating experience before - who knows? But it was a new experience for me nevertheless - how the other half live - and I don't regret trying it.

So, after being very much nourished on the inside, it was time to nourish myself on the outside.

Spa Time!

The 'hammam', a Moroccan spa, is absolutely a must-try if you visit Morocco. Stay with me for my next post, when I share the rough-and-ready of a Moroccan underground hammam. Bring a towel!

Thanks for reading!


2 October 2015

Palace Hopping (Marrakech, Morocco)


I explored Marrakech on a searing, hot afternoon. I had a few bamboozling maps, which still got me incredibly lost, but that was part of the adventure!

Exploring Marrakech has a particular challenge. You have to find where it is that you want to be and you absolutely cannot look like you have no idea whatsoever. A lot of the time, you're strutting down a road, eyes fixed forward, without a clue where the fuck it leads. You get to a dead end - no problem - pretend like you wanted to be at that dead end. Act like that dead end is where it's at. Own that fucking dead end.

So don't look lost. It's a skill. Really, it's almost an art.

The moment you stop, a local will smell you out instantly and harass you into being shown the way, for a small fee. Teenage kids are usually the most keen, because they want some pocket money, though grown adults will offer too. It's a nice gesture, it really is, but you cannot be too trusting. As I learnt...

I was 2 minutes away from finding the Ben Youssef Madrasa - an ancient Islamic school hidden in Marrakech, and a dwarfed man offered to show me the way for 10 Dirhams. I went with it. I knew it wasn't far. I thought I'd make life a little sweeter for the both of us. After walking and talking, next thing I knew, he led me to a leather tannery. 'Whatever', I thought. I guessed it was probably a friend's business, and he probably wants me to buy an ugly purse or two and make him a quick buck. The boss of the tannery showed me around the factory. After 5 minutes of nodding and making excuses to leave, they weren't letting me go. I lost patience, and simply went to leave. Three stacked workers darted to me, wearing chemical-stained rags and demanded that I hand over 2000 Dirhams to their boss (about £150) for their 'leather-making co-operative'. The sneaky, little dwarf that led me here had long fucked off.

So I was tricked. Either side of me were trenches filled with different chemicals and aqueous lime for treating the animal hides. All I could think about was being blinded with lime, or them dramatically murdering me and dissolving my body in acid never to be found. I gave them a 20 Dirham note - fortunately the only note I had - and they were incredibly pissed off. They wouldn't take it. I simply placed it on the floor, remained as hard-faced as I could, looked them in the eyes and left. Once I was out, I legged it. If I had more money, I probably would have given them it.

Now I write about it, it just seems like another silly experience, but really that was a dangerous situation to be in. All because I was too trusting from the start. Always maintain your guard. The best tricksters will be enormously polite and will have a particular way of distracting you from your instincts. These people are everywhere: Thailand, Kenya, Jordan, etc.

Indeed, some people do genuinely want to be your friend. You need to be careful though. You can be both cautious and respectful - it's tricky but it's certainly possible.

I eventually found the school. The ordeal at the leather tannery was quickly forgotten. It was beautiful.

Carved wooden ceilings. Chiselled walls. Dazzling mosaics. Ben Youssef Madrasa - beautiful work!

I sat here for a while. I watched tourists wander around. It's always interesting to see what other people like to take photos of in a place like this. Some people zoomed right into the stonework details while some people tried to take the perfect, symmetrical shot.

My next stop was the Dar Si Said Palace. An old palace restored as an open museum. It's slightly out of town, though absolutely within walking distance.

It was so quiet here. I don't think many people think to come here. Apart from cats, which roam the corridors and courtyards.

It was a sweet afternoon.

Despite getting into a sticky spot at the start, I really settled into a relaxed, holiday mood in just a few hours. Rummaging through leafy courtyards, breezing through airy corridors - the whole atmosphere was restoring on the body. You knew it was hot here, but you really noticed the breeze in these spaces. The cool, tiled floors drew all the unwelcome heat out of your body. It's almost like the place was nurturing you. That's what a holiday is about, and this particular palace was really doing the work.

Here, I felt like I could wander anywhere in the city. Nothing seemed too intimidating anymore. I felt comfortable in my own skin. This is the beauty solo travel: I could spend however long I wanted just sitting in a corridor, admiring the decor, with nowhere to be and nobody to please but myself. This whole experience was totally on my terms.

Thanks for reading!


1 October 2015

Stepping Outside (Marrakech, Morocco)


After a shaky start in Marrakech, I grasped the courage to step out into the chaos and explore.

I wedged the little wooden door shut and found myself in a tall, narrow, sun-bathed alleyway. The atmosphere was completely unrecogniseable from the damp, spooky one the night before.

It was so quiet. All I could hear was frail, old men in Islamic dress dragging their flip flops along the ground. Nobody was in a rush to be anywhere. Cats slipped through doorways and lazed in the sun. It was all simple. I felt at totally at ease.

I could hear some commotion a short while away. I followed it. It was a sensible start.

I took a few narrow corners and found myself on the main souk circuit - the main road of the market - which was channel of people shuffling around each other and inspecting the market's goods. Market traders tried to lead you into their stall to fondle their textiles or finger their pomegranates (oo-er). The atmosphere was intense but not threatening in the slightest. This is exactly how I imagined Marrakech, and I was very happy with it.

I wandered my way to the main square, Jemaa-El-Fnaa - a wide open, paved space which I expected to be a gasp of fresh air after worming through stuffy souks and alleyways. It was the total opposite. As soon as I wandered into the square I was ambushed by the sunlight and it instantly felt about 10C-degrees hotter! The atmosphere was lovely however: the air was spiced with citrus zest from fresh juice vendors and heady cigars from cafes around the square. Men danced around the square wearing tambourines on every limb. Music, aroma, heat - it was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the senses.

Not to mention snake charmers, one of which plucked me from the crowd and wrapped a grass snake around my neck.

Fortunately, I love snakes...

I ordered a coffee and sat here for an hour just watching groups of tourists being led around, fanning themselves with leaflets and maps.

I then spent the rest of the afternoon making use of my own map, finding palaces truffled away among the narrow backstreets around the city. You can read about that in a separate post, HERE. It was a real treasure hunt, and there were some beautiful finds.

Later that night, I returned to Jemaa-El-Fnaa Sq., which had completely erupted with life.

The wide open stretches of pavement were covered in market pitches of every kind. Grill stands, sweet stands, orange juice stands...

Let's talk about the orange juice stands for a moment...

There are orange juice stands everywhere on Jemaa-El-Fnaa, all assigned a number. Whenever I spoke to people about them, I'd hear things like '55 is the best', '23 and 47 are joint favourites', '39 is bae.' People had their favourites.

You pay 4 Dirhams (30p in Brit money) for a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, juiced right in front of your eyes. The oranges here are really something, as somehow it only takes 2 whole oranges to fill a tall glass! I never got into the whole juicing fad back home, after once juicing about 12 oranges and tempting a nervous breakdown just to fill a single glass of juice. I gave up juicing then and never looked back. I don't know if it's the oranges or the vendors' supreme juicing skills, but Morocco does juicing so much better than I ever could. So cheers to that.

I spent hours on the square that night. I drank tea, watched dolled-up foreigners have henna designs painted onto their arms and I picked out different foods to try. I tried spiced nuts, dates, mahmoul (like Arabic tea biscuits) and fried cous cous (mind-blowing!) Some treats I loved, some I loathed. Marrakech generally doesn't seem to do things by half-measures - it's either absolutely fantastic or the most disgusting thing you've experienced in your whole life. I love it.

I wandered back to my AirBnB with my scarf around my shoulders and a full stomach. I chatted to some of the other guests into the early morning, sharing recommendations, and making notes of places to visit.

One recommendation stood out - La Mamounia - an old king's palace, restored into a gorgeous, high-esteemed hotel. It peaked my interest. I decided then that this would be how I was spending my next day...

We'll be heading there in the next post, so wear something nice!

Thanks for reading!


28 September 2015

Fragile Beginnings (Marrakech, Morocco)


I chose to start my Morocco jaunt in the middle of it all - Marrakech.

Unfortunately, I came down with a cold the day before my flight. My first cold in two years - typical, right? When I touched down in Marrakesh, I could not make my ears 'unpop', and was effectively deaf!

I collected my baggage, cleared customs and had my first Moroccan haggling experience: getting a taxi into the city centre. It was midnight and it was pouring with rain. After arguing with a taxi driver, soaking wet, exhausting my naff high-school French and my 'posh' Arabic, I gave up and just settled for being ripped off. I paid 250 Dirhams for that taxi ride - a major rip-off (but still about £17, probably the same as an airport taxi in the UK I guess).

I was dropped off at Djema El-Fnaa, the main square. Normally at midnight the square would be alive - that's what I imagined - but the rain made everybody clear off. It was empty and wet, and caf├ęs were dragging tables and chairs indoors. Not a great welcome to Marrakech.

I had sketchy directions from my AirBnB host. I spent half an hour wandering side-streets and alleys in the rain, with sketchy locals trying to get my attention and throwing me off-course. They tried everything: selling me hashish, offering me hotels, offering to change my money. Usually a chirpy 'non, merci' was enough, but some of them turned nasty and shouted abuse along the alley as I walked away, such as 'fuck off home American!' and 'we don't want Germans here.'

Heh. I'm British, darling.

I backtracked through my directions and was getting nowhere. Every time I stopped to get my bearing, another stranger approached me. I had to be constantly moving. I could feel myself starting to panic. As much as I intended to appear cool and collected about the situation, it must have been obvious that I was struggling. A teenage guy got wind of this and insisted showing me where I was staying. Young kids are incredibly eager to give you directions - usually because there's a few dirhams in it for them at the end. I don't blame them really.

Five minutes later I was at my AirBnB. I was given a very warm welcome, a huge bottle of water and was shown to my room. My bags were thrown down, I peeled my wet clothes off and I was out for the count.

The next day I woke up in a hot, dark room. 

I could hear exotic birds and people talking outside. I listened for a minute, then it hit me:


'I'm in a foreign country. Alone.'

Even though I had been planning this trip for weeks, and was actively mindful of what I was getting myself into throughout the whole process, it somehow totally winded me. Straight away my mind was rinsed with crazy doubts:

'Maybe it's been too long since I've been abroad.'

'I should have done a smaller trip first to prepare myself.'

'Maybe I just cannot do this anymore.'

That last one in particular was the most echoing. I somehow felt like I had made a huge mistake.

If I had thought to collect the Wi-Fi password when I arrived, I would have been searching for flights home then and there.

I was so disappointed with myself for feeling like this. I thought I felt so ready for it. Where did this all of this doubt come from? Even though I had travelled solo before, I felt incredibly out of my depth here.

It took a few hours to build up the courage to leave my room. My window shutter was locked - I couldn't see onto the courtyard - I had no idea what I was going to be stepping into. I could hear voices: American accents, people speaking in French. Maybe I would have been coaxed out if I could see some faces - do they look friendly? If I go outside, should I introduce myself? Or would that be weird? Should I introduce myself in English? Or will I seem like one of those snotty English tourists who expects everybody to speak English? Should I just smile and say nothing - play it cool? Or would that look arrogant? Oh crap.

The later it got, the more I didn't want to leave. I grew so angry with myself, that I decided to punish this anxiety. No thinking, no psyching up, I threw myself out of my room.

It was beautiful. It was also quiet. There was one man sitting in the courtyard, by the pool, smoking a pipe. He looked like he was in his 60's. I introduced myself. He was American, with a strong Texas/Southern accent. I spent the next hour talking to him. We jumped straight into the deep stuff, talking about our backgrounds, about unrest in the Middle East and corruption in Mexico. He lived in Ecuador, and told me stories about how he travelled the world with the freighting industry.

Meanwhile, my AirBnB host brought out a pot of mint tea - effectively the Moroccan national drink - fresh mint, steeped in hot water and served in a silver teapot with LOTS of sugar. Instantly I felt relaxed and at home. Incredible.

In the space of a single hour, my attitude to this situation was completely different. I explored the complex (a 'riad' as they're apparently called in Morocco), made up of a courtyard with 4 or 5 rooms opening onto it. Suddenly I was very happy here. People were nice. I didn't feel awkward. I felt welcome.

Time after time, when you jump into a situation without much thinking time, it's never as you expect it to be. By jumping into a new situation, you force yourself to just deal with it completely in the present moment. You don't have time for nerves, or fine-tuning what to say or do, because you're too busy kicking ass.

I consider myself a shy person. I'm outgoing, but usually anxious at first. If I have time to anticipate something, I have time to imagine an abundance of ways in which I can fuck it up. I reckon if you don't allow yourself the time to 'think', you'll go out there and deal with a situation in your truest form - genuinely and honestly. You don't have time to make a mask, or decide which version of yourself you're going to be. 

Throwing yourself into a new situation is always a big step; the key is never think of it as anything more than that. Don't give it the time, don't give those little, anxious voices the time either. Identify the situation and just throw yourself in. Recklessly. 

There's probably already a fancy term for this approach, but let's just call it the 'waxing-strip approach'!

I guess that's my first piece of advice when it comes to doing anything by yourself. Jump in and handle it, and you will handle it true to the person you are.

So there I was, sitting in the sunshine, drinking tea and talking to a new, interesting person. This was a good base to proceed with my next step: getting out and exploring Marrakech!

Anthony :)