A short trip to Marrakech, Morocco

With the rest of the family on trips of their own, I was craving a few days away myself. Wherever I ended up had to be warm, there had to be things to see and do, the food had to be good and value for money was important too. What I didn’t want was a few days in some ghastly Spanish ‘Costa del..’ resort, surrounded by beer drinking and burger eating louts from home.

Top of the list for me was Istanbul in Turkey, recently voted the Trip Advisor destination of the year, and Athens in Greece and I spent some time shopping around for flights but either the times were awful – I mean, who wants to reach their destination at 4.00am? Flights at a more sociable hour cost an awful lot more or airlines wanted to charge me to check-in a suitcase – even the likes of British Airways, which really surprised me. British Airways, and, in the case of Athens as a destination, Aegean Airlines, wanted me to pay a huge amount on top of their already extortionate fares to take a suitcase with me. Cramming holiday essentials into hand luggage was a hassle that I couldn’t be bothered with.

I chose to travel with TAP Portugal from London to Marrakech, with a long stopover on the flight down and a short stop on the return.

I chose to travel with TAP Portugal from London to Marrakech, with a long stopover on the flight down and a short stop on the return.

Realising that neither destination was a possibility, I opted for Marrakech in Morocco with a 24 hour stop in Lisbon, choosing to fly Portugal’s flag carrier, TAP Portugal. Unlike the above-mentioned airlines, TAP Portugal’s pricing was honest. The fare included flights from London Heathrow to Lisbon, Lisbon to Marrakech and then returning to London (via Lisbon again), a generous baggage allowance, free seat selection and complimentary snacks and bar service on all flights. It wasn’t to be my first flight with the airline, having previously travelled with them from London Gatwick to Funchal back in February 2011.

Parking up at the Purple Parking Business car park was easy, and again, it wasn’t the first time I had used it. Although considered an ‘off airport’ car park, it ‘s right at the end of the northern runway so the transfer to terminals 1, 2 and 3 took not more than five minutes. At around £27 to leave the car, it was good value for money – by Heathrow’s standards anyway.

Terminal 1 was in a sorry state and the information screens showed only a handful of flights departing from it. With the new Queen’s Terminal opening recently (terminal 2), lots of airlines have shuffled around, and the vast majority of Star Alliance carriers have already made the move. TAP Portugal, a Star Alliance member airline, was one of few that was still to make the move. Many of the shops in the terminal had closed down already – probably not a bad idea given the dwindling passenger numbers and with the terminal closing next year.

The flight time down to Lisbon was around 2 hours 20 minutes. During the flight, TAP Portugal served something to eat and drink and showed episodes of Mr Bean. It was an uneventful but enjoyable flight.

The Radisson Blu, Lisbon offers comfortable accommodation at a good price but it's probably better suited to those transiting through Lisbon airport and not those visiting the city itself.

The Radisson Blu, Lisbon offers comfortable accommodation at a good price but it’s probably better suited to those transiting through Lisbon airport and not those visiting the city itself.

On arrival in Lisbon, I waited for my Resort Hoppa shuttle, which I had booked online for around £6.00. As a shared taxi, it saves money on getting from A to B. For the price paid, it can mean sitting around in the airport waiting for other passengers, but it didn’t bother me. I shared the small minibus with just two others, and, within 10 minutes, I had arrived at my hotel – the 4* Radisson Blu, Lisbon.

The hotel wasn’t bad and I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again. Even though there are good transport links to the city centre, it should be noted that this hotel isn’t a central one. It’s perfectly situated for the airport, so great for anybody with a short stopover (like me), but probably not the best choice of hotel for those seeing the sights of Lisbon. I know that it had a gym – although I didn’t see it – but there wasn’t a swimming pool.

The bathroom at the Radisson Blu, Lisbon was quite stylish.

The bathroom at the Radisson Blu, Lisbon was quite stylish.

The room was bigger than expected with an enormous bed, a table and chairs, a television, a Corby trouser press and a well-equipped bathroom too. It was very comfortable and more than adequate for my very short stay.

With so little time in Portugal, I didn’t see very much of Lisbon. I decided not to venture into the city so made the most of the local area, which wasn’t particularly exciting. Right outside was a busy motorway flyover and every now and again, departing aircraft would noisily pass over.

A nice view of Lisbon as we leave for Marrakech. The flight time was around 1 hour 20 minutes.

A nice view of Lisbon as we leave for Marrakech. The flight time was around 1 hour 20 minutes.

The following morning, I set off on the hotel’s complimentary airport shuttle (from the hotel to the airport only) at 7.30am in order to catch my 8.45am flight. I was checked in already so didn’t need to arrive hours before the flight – the thought of which so early in the morning wasn’t in the slightest appealing! I declined the hotel’s offer of an overpriced breakfast, instead opting for an airport breakfast if time were to allow.

After another enjoyable flight with TAP Portugal, our 1 hour 20 minute flight came to an end at Menara airport in Marrakech. With a load of not more than 25-30%, the handful of passengers disembarked and joined a very slow moving immigration queue. Although there weren’t many of us, a plane-load of Slovenians had arrived minutes before. It took at least 30 minutes to get to the front of the queue and I was greeted (if you can call it a greeting) by the most miserable Moroccan immigration officer. He stamped my passport and I was on my way.

Tucked away down a narrow Medina street was the MonRiad, Marrakech. It isn't much to look at from the outside but this accommodation is very highly recommended.

Tucked away down a narrow Medina street was the MonRiad, Marrakech. It isn’t much to look at from the outside but this accommodation is very highly recommended.

With another Resort Hoppa shuttle booked – this time costing around £8.00 return – I waited patiently in the arrivals hall for other passengers to arrive, presumably to join me in the shared taxi. After some waiting, it was clear that nobody was joining me and I was loaded into a car by myself and sent on my way. In very broken English, the taxi driver told me that he had never heard of my hotel, nor did he know where it was. He made some calls before setting off; getting more information about the hotel’s whereabouts and ensuring that somebody was there to meet me.

My accommodation in Marrakech was the MonRiad located in the historic but lively town of Medina. It was located away from the road so a drop-off in a small car park a few minutes walk away was necessary. Sure enough, the hotel’s owner was there to meet me and she wheeled my case down the narrow streets, passing some very traditional shops on the way. We eventually turned down a side street and away from the hustle and bustle, arriving at the a large wooden door – the door of the MonRiad.

The bedrooms at the MonRiad are cosy but there was ample room for just me.

The bedrooms at the MonRiad are cosy but there was ample room for just me.

A riad is defined as a large traditional house built around a central courtyard, often converted into a hotel, and this eleven bedroom accommodation was exactly that. It was built across three floors with a small courtyard area (also the dining area and with a small plunge pool) on the ground level. The accommodation was this year awarded a Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence.

I was sat down on arrival, offered complimentary tea and shown maps and brochures showing all that was on offer in Marrakech. With so little time here, I preferred just to find my own way around and not to go on organised tours. With a Marrakech city tour app on my phone, a map in my bag and a tour bus ticket, I had everything I needed to find my way around the maze of a city – or so I thought!

The plunge pool at the MonRiad, which would no doubt be handy during the hot summer months - when temperatures can reach 40 degrees!

The plunge pool at the MonRiad, which would no doubt be handy during the hot summer months – when temperatures can reach 40 degrees!

My room was basic but clean, with traditional furnishings and design. Forget these fancy chain hotels that don’t in any way reflect the city you are in, the MonRiad was very obviously Moroccan and I liked it a lot. There was no television in the room but there was complimentary wi-fi.

After an early start that morning, I had a lie down for half an hour and then decided to head out for a walk. It was very warm – around 36C – but with low humidity, it was bearable. It felt like every time I turned a corner, I reached crossroads and I could head in one of four directions, so I wandered aimlessly and soon enough, I was lost. Tracing the route back to the hotel started off well but I quickly found myself in what looked like a giant housing estate. There were definitely no sights to see here!

Many hours of walking later, I’d seen a lot of Marrakech and found myself back in familiar territory. It was a relief!

Jamaa el Fna is a great place to while away the hours - both day and night - with its endless shops, restaurants and entertainment.

Jamaa el Fna is a great place to while away the hours – both day and night – with its endless shops, restaurants and entertainment.

The heart of Marrakech is definitely Jamaa el Fna and it was located only 5-10 minutes walk from the hotel. This is a giant square, surrounded by shops, restaurants and souks (markets offering everything from Moroccan crafts to spices and souvenirs). By day, there’s plenty here to keep visitors busy and by night it really comes alive; street food, entertainment, snake charming and more. The snake charmers would challenge anybody who dared to take a picture without paying – even though their charming was far from impressive. The tuneless flute didn’t seem to get a reaction from the snakes. It was disappointing not to see a snake lifting out of a basket (just like I had imagined), but rather lots of very still snakes doing not very much – lying still mainly!

Eating out in Marrakech is very cheap and meals are very tasty too. This beef tagine was especially good!

Eating out in Marrakech is very cheap and meals are very tasty too. This beef tagine was especially good!

Morocco is known for growing olives and oranges. In fact, on just about every street, rows of trees are growing one or the other. Jamaa el Fna is home to a vast number of orange juice stands, all identical in appearance, all serving the same freshly squeezed orange juice and all with the same prices. At just 30p or so for a glass, I was able to drink three or four glasses one after the year. It was very refreshing in the heat!

Eating and drinking in Marrakech was very cheap and the food was very tasty too. I was a little apprehensive about asking for a table for one, but before I had to, a water touting for business offered a table, saving me the embarrassment! On the menu in

The Koutoubia Mosque can be seen all across Marrakech.

The Koutoubia Mosque can be seen all across Marrakech.

this restaurant and many others was Morocco’s signature dish – the tagine – a slow cooked stew like dish packed full of meat, vegetables, herbs and spices. My beef tagine with a basket of bread, a plate of of olives, a side plate of chips and a large bottle of water set me back a mere £3.50. With prices like these, it’s no wonder that I spent just £40.00 over the three days!

Getting around Marrakech using the city tour bus costs around £9.00 for 24 hours or a little over £13.00 for 48 hours. There are two routes to choose from – a city route and a desert route – and passengers can hop on and off as much as they please. I did both routes (accidentally). On my last day, I did the entire loop once more. At the end, I looked at my watch and decided that there was a little more time left to kill, so the plan was to stay on and travel the 40 or so minutes back to the stop closest to my hotel.

It was a little disconcerting to be 'out in the sticks' just an hour before being picked up from the hotel!

It was a little disconcerting to be ‘out in the sticks’ just an hour before being picked up from the hotel!

The bus followed a familiar route for the first few minutes but it wasn’t long before we went off the beaten track. Almost in an instant, we had gone from the city to the desert, surrounded by sand, palm trees and camels. Pretty though it was, I was getting a little panicky. I had no idea where I was, how long the bus tour would last and I was wondering if I would miss my transport to the airport – and ultimately my flight! At the end of the loop, I was returned to stop number 1 on the tour, putting me about 2 miles from my hotel. Deciding not to risk the bus again, I got off and ran in the heat all the way back to the hotel – allowing just 5 minutes to freshen up and change clothes before my pre-booked taxi arrived. I made it (just).

This building is not a mosque or place of worship but instead a railway station.

This building is not a mosque or place of worship but instead a railway station.

For a very cheap break with a chance to sample a little culture and some great food, Marrakech is a brilliant choice of destination. If travelling direct, it’s a little over three hours from London, and with both Easyjet and Ryanair flying there, it is possible to visit this city on a shoestring. Not a fan of low cost air travel, I opted for the more expensive TAP Portugal, which offered an all-inclusive fare (no additional charges for baggage, drinks and snacks, check-in etc – the way it should be) and flights from the very easily accessible London Heathrow.

The return trip was uneventful. Again a stop in Lisbon and change of aircraft was necessary but this time the stop was a mere 50 minutes. I left the first flight, went through security and ended up back at the gate, only to find out that there was a technical fault with the aircraft and a delay as a result. Our already very late 10.50pm arrival was pushed back to around 11.30pm.

This was a great break. The daunting prospect of holidaying alone was quickly overcome and I enjoyed it. In fact, I would do it again. Everything is on your own terms and there’s nobody else to please – you do what you want, when you want. Marrakech felt very safe, the people were very friendly and it was very cheap as well. Only coming across a handful of fellow Brits on my trip made it even more appealing as a holiday destination.

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