Forget Disney, waterslides and all-inclusive buffets – leave the kids at home and dip into a different culture in a way that will challenge you.
My husband and I fancy ourselves ‘well-travelled’ but since we’ve had children, the true spirit of travelling has been obscured by a never-ending search for kids clubs and thrill-a-minute theme parks.
So, this half term we (guiltily) left our children with their grandparents and skulked to Gatwick – heading for Marrakech. By the time we arrived, we’d (nearly) forgotten that we’d ever had a child, never mind three. From the plane, the ochre-hued city set against the parched backdrop of the sub-Saharan desert hinted at the culture shock ahead.
Don’t bother with a map
The airport bus deposited us in the madness of every day life and we quickly realised the futility of a map. We would still be looking for our riad (hotel) if I hadn’t accepted some local ‘guide’s’ ‘generous’ offer to lead the way, to my husband’s dismay. The locals are friendly, but be prepared: the eager ‘guides’ do expect a few Dirham for their efforts.
Take to the streets – on foot
We snaked our way past locals in kaftans and headscarves crowding in doorways and around street shops and trolleys, selling anything from toiletries, sweets, spare parts for motorbikes, raw meat, jewellery and spices to flatbreads, that accompany every Moroccan meal.
The smell of burning meat skewered over open fires, the stench of overflowing drains and bins and the incessant honking of motorbikes, the standard form of transport for everyone, including women in headscarves and burqas, are an almost violent assault on timid Western senses.
Walking is the best way of getting up close and personal to locals, but plan to withdraw to the oasis of your riad, from the scorching African sun and sensory overload in-between adventures. With beautiful finishes, including mosaic tiles; lounge areas with cushions, flowing curtains and beautiful lampshades; a courtyard and dipping pool and inviting rooftop terrace, our riad was a peaceful place to process our chaotic experiences.
Confront the madness of the Jemaa el Fna
The throbbing pulse of the old town (medina), separated from the modern European part of the city by salmon-coloured walls, is the Jemaa el Fna.
This huge square, maddening at every hour, really comes alive after sunset when locals and tourists flood the area like swarms of locusts on their way in and out of surrounding souks (markets) and restaurants.
Roads are meaningless as speeding mopeds, cars, cyclists, donkey carts and horse carriages swerve through crowds of people, narrowly averting a fatal accident every few seconds. The thought of negotiating your way across this square with three children in tow will make the most easygoing of mums reach for a G&T.
Traditional Arabic storytellers hold their audiences spellbound – even if you don’t understand a word. Chained monkeys hop from shoulder to shoulder, flute players entice dancing snakes to rise from baskets and acrobats thrill the crowds. Beware the tourist who tries to take a photograph – as nothing is free in Marrakech!
We learned this the hard way as a street hawker offered us ‘free’ ginger tea and sticky spice cake before insisting on a small fortune.
The call to prayer from mosques and booming pop music create a background track to the madness. The traditional Arabic culture and Western ways appears to co-exist in some sort of chaotic harmony.
Drive a hard bargain in the souks
Entering the labyrinth of souks spilling over with lampshades, jewellery, carpets, shoes, handbags, belts, and colourful spice mountains – is an overwhelming experience. The never-ending Aladdin’s cave is every woman’s shopping dream come true, but the aggressive hawking and necessary haggling take some getting used to.
Get scrubbed down together in a hammam
I was surprised when my husband agreed to experience a hammam as he’d never had a massage in his life. A bit of sunstroke probably.
We boiled together like puddings in a dark, steamy room, before two women splashed us down with numerous buckets of water, covered us in a gooey plant extract and then scrubbed us head-to-toe with something akin to sandpaper, before giving each of us a full-body four hand massage.
As we lay sipping mint tea, covered in white robes and glowing from head to toe afterwards, my husband could not stop grinning.
Enjoy a Moroccan feast in a rooftop terrace
We joined tourists and locals on rooftop terraces, the only place to be during the unbearable midday heat, for delicious meals. Despite slightly unsettled tummies, we tried spicy vegetarian soup (harira), chicken and stewed fruit tagines, skewered meat, kofta sandwiches and couscous, followed by homemade yoghurt and orange slices splashed with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon. All of this washed down with litres of Fanta, orange juice or mint tea – you can’t get alcohol in restaurants, which made for a sobering experience as Chardonnay usually features strongly on our holidays. (We did have a glass or two on the hotel’s terrace under the stars, though.)
Although the children were always on our minds, we really enjoyed getting away and out of our comfort zone. I returned to the school run routine revitalised and inspired, vowing to book at least one childfree weekend away a year.
Chené is a stroppy older mum who reflects on life and parenting – after 11 years of hit-and-miss motherhood, gut-wrenching guilt, endless frustration. She likes to add a shot of feminism.
At 43, in the midst of raising an 11-, 8- and 4-year old, she’s finally found her voice (sort of), decided to enjoy her frantic life (most of the time) and to stick two fingers up to anyone, who tries to tell her what to think, say or do… (always!)
She’s a journalist, communications consultant, wannabe author, Chardonnay quaffer and novice tri-athlete recovering from runner’s knee by doing yoga and drinking more Chardonnay.