10 Ways to Navigate Marrakech if You’re Flying Solo.

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Marrakech is a major city in Morocco on the edge of the Sahara beneath the snow capped Atlas mountains. Picture that if you will. Not that it needs any introduction. It is surely Morocco’s most memorable experience. Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, is a UNESCO heritage site. It’s densely populated and the locals are multi lingual – speaking a mixture of Arabic and French. The moment you touch down on this baked red city your senses will go into overdrive. So here are a few tips to help you get the best out of your time in Marrakech:

  1. Be respectful of local culture.

    Morocco is a Muslim country which follows Islamic traditions. I visited Marrakech during the holy month of Ramadan. Almost everyone I met was fasting. So, during my stay I did not eat and drink in public. When I had lunch, I sat inside a hotel or restaurant away from windows as a mark of respect for those who were fasting. Ramadan falls on the 9th month of the Islamic calendar (not the same as the lunar calendar). So, check your travel dates and be mindful if you are travelling during Ramadan or any other times of cultural significance.

  2. Carry a scarf.

    I found Marrakech to be liberal in terms of dress. However, if you’re a female traveller, carrying a scarf is a failsafe for many places in the world. It comes in handy when you least expect it. You do not need to cover your hair. I mostly use my scarf to protect my skin from the sun. In Marrakech I used it for covering my shoulders whilst out and about during the day. It’s a great way to communicate that you are aware of local culture which is always appreciated by locals. It also makes you look like less of a novice – useful for avoiding unwanted attention if you’re travelling alone.

  3. Download Citymapper.

    This is a brilliant app that works well inside the Medina (where you are most likely to get lost). Citymapper allows you to navigate walking routes via your smart phone. It also offers alternative routes to get to your destination. So if you like exploring on foot then this is a must and you will not be at the mercy of the locals to find your around.

  4. Remember landmarks.

    If you have no access to wifi or are unable to use apps for any other reason you can still navigate the city. It’s dotted with various distinctive landmarks. However, each narrow lane looks remarkably similar to the next. Try to remember names of particular hotels, a distinctive stall or a coffee shop and use them as landmarks to navigate your way through the medina and find your way back. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for directions – shop keepers are your best bet. Avoid faux guides who will offer to direct you as they will always expect to be paid for their trouble.

  5. Be Assertive – not rude.

    Some touts in Marrakech can be aggressive and aggressive begging is common. While 95% of locals are mild mannered and friendly a handful of touts were an annoyance. The three best ways to deal with aggressive touts are: a) Ignore them as you keep walking by. b) Don’t stop to talk as this will be taken as a show of interest. c) Always be polite but firm and avoid confrontation.

  6. Trust your instincts.

    Never follow anyone to a ”friend’s shop”, “best restaurant”, “cheap carpets/silver/leather”. Rule of thumb in travel is that if you follow someone to a place you don’t know, you will at best, have to buy something don’t need/want. At worst, this is too big a risk to your safety. No bargain in the world is worth this risk. If it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t – just don’t do it.

  7. Make friends with other travellers.

    I made friends with two solo female travellers whilst dining al fresco in Jemaa el-Fnaa. It meant that after dinner, instead of heading back to my hotel, I was able to stay out a little later than planned, soaking in the atmosphere. It’s a great way to get more out of a trip if you’re flying solo. You may also be able to go on join excursions making it safer and cheaper to travel.

  8. Let your hotel staff know your daily itinerary.

    Excursions should only be booked through an operator who has an agreement with the local authorities. They must be able to display an official badge. Leave the name and contact details of your guide AND details of the company with hotel staff / concierge. If you are braving the trip on your own be vigilant and keep your valuables safe. Also inform hotel staff of your itinerary and let them know that you are travelling alone and get their advice. However, trekking alone is not advisable and you should consider joining a group.

    Guides can be hired through most hotels and riads. A basic guideline of costs is approximately £12 for half a day and £30 for a full day. However, private operator and riad charges may range from £50 – £90.

  9. Write down your hotel’s telephone number, address and location in Arabic.

    English is widely spoken in Marrakech. As you venture a little further outside the city, it will definitely be useful to have the name and address of your hotel AND directions written down in Arabic in case of an emergency. Always carry this with you to make yourself understood in an unexpected situation. It is unlikely that people outside the medina will have heard of your hotel no matter how reputable a chain it may be.

  10. Relax and enjoy!

    Marrakech is a breathtakingly beautiful place. It has a magnetism and allure that is hard to describe. It will charm the most ardent traveller into a spell. So be prepared to soak in all this wonderful city has to offer. Over 600,000 Brits visit Morocco each year and most visits are trouble free. So be safe, relax and enjoy!

     

5 things you definitely CANNOT do in Dubai.

There is no denying that Dubai has successfully transitioned from oil rich emirate to metropolitan tourist hotspot. Tourism is now it’s no. 1 source of income. While it may not be for everyone, shopping, restaurants, unparalleled luxury and opportunities for economic betterment attracts tourists and a workforce from all over the world. As the saying goes, “If you want to meet the world, come to London”. Well, as a Londoner who recently visited Dubai, I can tell you the same felt true of Dubai. It’s workforce in particular – hotel staff, shop staff, restaurant staff, drivers add sparkle to what might otherwise feel like a super shiny, playground.

It’s global workforce is one of the most interesting aspect of this desert turned (man-made) oasis. Conversations and interactions were enriched by each person I met who added an interesting perspective to my experience. And they came from all over the world – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Laos, Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal and South America bringing an old world quaintness to a city so determined to appear modern.

Whenever I refer to visiting the Gulf states, I am asked the same questions by eager travellers who would like to get the most out of their trip without breaking the rules. So, here are 5 common travel questions about Dubai answered:

  1. WHAT do you wear?

    Well, if you’re within the confines of your hotel or resort wear ANYTHING – bikinis, strappy tops, shorts, mini skirts, long skirts, sheer tops, ball gown and tiara if you so wish. However, you will need to be more conservative and mindful in public spaces such as malls, souks and public transport. Opt for short sleeved tops instead of strappy tops and keep your skirts and shorts knee length or below. You maybe walking around in a desert but avoid wearing anything too sheer in public spaces. When in doubt my secret weapon is a scarf. Carry one in your handbag and pull it out to cover your shoulders if you feel your attire maybe causing mild offence. It shows respect for local customs and will be received well.

  2. PDA

    This is short and simple – NO. A peck on the cheek is as far as you should go and only with people you know well. Goes without saying – please don’t do this with strangers, especially if they are female! Save your amorous displays of affection for when you’re within the privacy of your hotel room.

  3. Getting Around

    If like me, you love to explore a new place on foot then Dubai is simply not the place. It is far too hot to do so during the day and people seem to love driving. Everything is ostentatious so luxury cars are everywhere. However, I have it on good authority that the Metro system is fantastic – clean, safe and gives breathtaking views of the city. So, don’t forget to hop on a train.

  4. Consumption of Alcohol

    All hotels serve alcohol and are fairly relaxed about this. In fact, Dubai is known for its boozy work brunches. However, outside of the hotels alcohol is not readily available and you should avoid trying to buy it. If you decide to eat at a restaurant that is not attached to a hotel it is very unlikely that they will have a licence to serve alcohol.

  5. Visiting during Ramadan

    During the holy month of Ramadan everyone you meet will be fasting. It is not mentioned or discussed but you can safely assume that they are. Be especially mindful if you happen to visit during this time. It is forbidden to eat and drink in public during the day. Hotels and restaurants have designated areas for visitors offering dining facilities (usually hidden from the public with curtains or blinds). Small places such as coffee shops are all closed until sunset. However, when it’s time to break fast (Iftar) you can feast like a sheikh. Most hotels offer traditional Arabian buffets which break the fast. Be sure to join in!

 

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Marrakech, Marrakech.

What can be said of Marrakech that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? Plenty. A city so alluring that Yves Saint Laurent’s  ashes are scattered here in Jardin Majorelle. Marrakech’s magnetism is very real. It charms your soul out of your body like a snake…teasing it, caressing it and hypnotising with colours, noise, smells and an unforgiving heat. You will watch your soul dance a slow dance in a hazy mirage in front of your very eyes. And it will mesmerise you. I experienced serious deja vu here. The unmistakable feeling that somehow, I had been here before, in another time. That I had yearned to be back for all eternity.

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The pink city – Marrakech

A Perfect Arrival

From the moment my feet touched the red earth, all my senses went in to over-drive. The pre-arranged airport transfer seemed perfectly normal until the driver stopped in the middle of traffic and declared that we had arrived. I could see nothing but a chaos of vehicles, animals and people. Cars and trucks moved around with no clear direction and motorcycles weaved in and out of the way of the cars. Donkey carts, monkeys on chains and carts stacked with watermelon weaved themselves between the cars and motorcycles. The heat burned in to my skin. In utter confusion I climbed out of the car, to the middle of traffic, as my driver pointed to a hand cart and said,

“You have to take this rest of the way. The car cannot go to your hotel.”

My first thought was that this was a prank. It wasn’t. Another man to whom the driver referred to as Ibrahim simply took my bags out of the car, without a word, and loaded the cart. I had little choice but to trust and follow Ibrahim across the road, dodging cars and donkeys.

As we walked off, the driver yelled, “Don’t worry. He works for your hotel.”

“Perfect”, I thought. I had arrived in Marrakech.

As it turned out, Ibrahim did work for my hotel and he and I became friends along the way. As we walked, I realised that the lanes inside the medina, where I had chosen to stay, were too narrow for cars and all of this was perfectly normal. Ibrahim pointed things out to me as we walked. He showed me the local school, where he prayed and where to go for food. Our walk together only lasted 5 minutes and I was sorry when it ended. I was having a great time. I couldn’t have planned a better arrival than this.

I was staying at a small, traditional Morroccan riad, a stone’s throw from Jemaa el-Fnaa, which inspired the UNESCO Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. So, needless to say that there was plenty to see, hear and touch but more on that later. We walked through narrow winding lanes past beautiful doors and arrived at the riad. It was all that I could have hoped for and more. They had prepared for my arrival and I had the best room in the house according to the staff – a 3 level room that opened out to the indoor courtyard and fountain. There was an orange tree heavy with fruit outside my window. To the right, Bougainvillea climbed up a pillar and covered the balconies above. I had arrived at a Garden of Eden without the sin.

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Fountain pool.

Jemaa el-Fnaa

I could hardly wait to get outside and feel the full Marrakech effect. I showered, changed and headed straight to Jemaa el-Fnaa. The narrow passages of the medina, which surround this main square, were packed with colourful objects of every kind; spices, shoes, jewel stones, soap and glass everywhere. Hawkers shout across to each other as well as to passers by. There are deals to be made and bargains to be had.

I walked around this market for so long that I got lost and couldn’t find my way back. (A word of advice to anyone wishing to do the same…download the City Mapper app. It works well inside the medina and you will not be at the mercy of the locals to find your way out as I was). Eventually, I did find my way back to Jemaa el-Fnaa and was lucky enough to watch the sun go down over the square. Horse drawn carriages, bicycles and people made shadows against the backdrop of Koutoubia mosque as people moved around in an invisible maze.

Tourists and travellers flocked to nearby roof top restaurants, cameras in hand, to watch the evening unfold. Locals simply went about their day. For those of us on the roof tops Jemaa el-Fnaa became a theatre where the lights dimmed and the actors were on stage. It was Ramadan and the call to prayer melodic and gentle echoed through the square. The sun began to set on cue. Everything became still, frozen for a moment. I couldn’t capture it because by now I was immersed in it. I did not want to break the spell.

Once  the call to prayer was heeded the square became louder and louder with the clattering of plates, the sound of a million voices and the preparation of food for breaking fast. I walked down and sat at a long table occupied by a mixture of locals and tourists. The mood was light. It felt like a million different aromas were rising out of the medina. Mint tea flowed like water, open fires grilled meat, fish and seafood and colourful tagines and crockery click clacked against the chattering of people sitting down to their evening meal. I stayed, ate, talked with total strangers, laughed and ate some more and it was almost midnight before I left the table.

Madrasa Ben Youssef

The next day, I ventured to Madrasa Ben Yousef.  I walked in the opposite direction to the main square and entered what felt like a burrow of even narrower passages. Ornamental doors added colourful breaks along what seemed like unending lines of arches and terracotta walls. I walked through market stalls, kitchens and was almost ready to give up when the tiny lane I was on abruptly ended. I could see a narrow muddy alley way through a low arch with a handwritten lopsided sign above it that said Madrasa. I had expected a grander entrance, a guard or two perhaps or golden gates even. It was a humble little entrance to what lay inside.

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Madrasa Ben Youssef

I walked through the alley and arrived at the Madrasa – a 14th century Islamic school. Intricate geometric patterns were carved into walls, ceilings and the roof. The floors felt cool against the heat in the air. They were covered in jewel coloured tiles of green, blue, yellow and red. I moved around and made my way upstairs to the classrooms and living quarters which are carved in cedar wood and marble. Tiny rooms no bigger than a few feet. I needed to bend in half to walk through their doors to look out to the courtyard below. The school is truly beautiful and it feels natural to spend hours here admiring it. However, it also attracts big crowds so you’re ushered out from it before you’ve really taken it all in. So if you’re visiting be sure to have all your cameras at the ready.

I planned little else after this and returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa. It is a great place for people watching. Spending an afternoon here is effortless. There are snake charmers, medicine men, tooth pullers, acrobats and even fortune tellers…an endless list of intriguing humans. Stalls piled high with fruit sell orange, mango, avocado or banana juice in any combination you like. The evening drew in and the square once again began to fill with people until it was the heaving carnival of wonder of the previous night. I sat in the square for the repeat performance.

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I spent just two days in Marrakech and it certainly wasn’t enough time. I was not here to fit things in a schedule. I really just wanted to BE here. There was liberation from being lost amongst the immense sea of faces. There was also a familiarity that I still cannot explain. I found it difficult to say good bye to Marrakech so I didn’t. I said, ”Until next time”.

Kandy, rediscovered.

“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot

Kandy is one of Sri Lanka’s heritage cities located in the Central Province. The city lies on an elevated plateau which is surrounded by hills and tea plantations. The air here is cooler than the rest of the island. Kandy was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 and is home to one of the most important places of worship in the Buddhist world – The Temple of the Tooth relic. Kandy lake and the decorative wall which surround it are as famous as the temple itself.

A childhood spent in Sri Lanka means I have visited Kandy on numerous occasions. We mainly visited the Temple of the Tooth. For the most part it was a quick stop on our way elsewhere. As such, I had never really explored or experienced Kandy outside of the Temple. All I knew of this city I had learned through my grandmother and her fantastic bed time tales of legendary kings and kingdoms past.

Kandy Railway

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Podi Menike chugging up the misty hills of “up country”.

So, with high hopes and nostalgia I arrived in Kandy. The 5.55am train Podi Menike from Colombo brought me to Kandy through sleepy villages and winding hillsides. We stopped briefly in the small towns of Gampaha, Peradeniya and Kadugannawa. As we ascended to higher ground Podi Menike chugged along slower and slower up the hills. This is a wonderfully scenic journey not to be missed. Each time the train stopped I was treated to quaint colonial train stations where time had changed nothing, not even the chairs.

Kandy Railway Station was no different. It’s a hive of activity; platforms are abuzz with people going about their daily lives alongside travellers on their way out or arriving with excitement. Outside, rows of local tuk tuk drivers wait eagerly to take you to your destination. My journey from the station to my hotel Ozo, Kandy was a mere 5 minutes and cost just Rs.300 (£1.65 approximately).

Ozo, Kandy

I arrived at Ozo to a warm Kandyan welcome. My room was ready and the check in was quick even though I had arrived almost three hours earlier than scheduled. They staff at Ozo are mostly Kandyans which means you have access to great local knowledge. They were all eager to help when I explained that I had visited the Temple of the Tooth several times and did not plan on visiting again. I had several alternative places suggested before I finished my welcome drink.

Freshened up and changed I walked up to Bommu Bar and Lounge on the rooftop. When you get here, order yourself a cold lemon juice while you take in the spectacular views of the hillside which include the Knuckles mountain range. I felt the weariness of my early start fall away as I exhaled and synchronised with the nature surrounding me. Similarly, the attached pool was an oasis of tranquility. The deep blue tiles against the lush greenery of the hills offered a harmonious mix of nature and luxury – a fine balance perfectly achieved. A graffiti mural by Parisian street artist, Marko 93, sets a dramatic backdrop against the pool bringing this ancient city to a whole new generation of modern day travellers.

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Beautifully presented Hummus starters.
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Colourful chicken mains.

I finished every day of my stay back at Ozo to nap, refresh and sample it’s famed  dinner. I was spoilt for choice between traditional Sri Lankan cuisine. Miniature starters were beautifully presented. Mains were a range of vegetarian and meat dishes. Vegetables and salads were seasonal and colourful.  Deserts were either mini sweet delights or an array of bright and juicy tropical fruit. Nothing had been spared and the attention to detail was not lost on me. Needless to say all of it was simply delicious.

Bommu Bar

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Bommu Bar & Lounge by night.

After dinner each evening I headed back up to Bommu which transforms into a pulsating venue after dark. Each night I stayed up far later than I intended to enjoying the cool mountain air and smoking shisha under the stars.

The Room

My bed was cosy because Kandyan air is pretty crisp at night. I had soft down pillows and crips white sheets – essentials for a restful night. Sri Lankans are early risers in general and each morning I woke up earlier than usual, refreshed and rested to stunning views of the hillside.

The Eat2Go restaurant here turned out the most incredible breakfasts. A buffet style offering ranged from traditional Sri Lankan favourites such as hoppers and lunu miris to continental breakfasts of croissants and waffles were a feast to behold. My heart skipped a beat as I watched the chef whip up the most welcoming breakfast of all – A perfect English breakfast in the Kandyan hills. Now that’s luxury!

I spent two nights here and planned to explore the path less travelled. If you visit Kandy for first time Temple of the Tooth is a must see. The Royal Botanical Gardens in Peradeniya 5km west of Kandy is another. Visit both – you have not seen Kandy if you haven’t experienced these two places.

Udawatta Kele Sanctuary

My first stop was Udawatta Kele Sanctuary which is a protected forest. At 257 Acres it covers a larger area than the gardens at Peradeniya. I gave myself 3 hours, wore hiking boots and carried water. Snacks are not a great idea as littering is not encouraged and also because the forest is home to Torque Macaque (monkeys) – notorious snatchers!

There are nocturnal mammals here including the slender loris. Flying squirrels, Vampire bats, mongoose and many species of birds and snakes inhabit the forest but don’t expect to see them all. It is said that Udawatta Kele was used as a pleasure garden by Kandyan kings and the pond at the entrance was used for bathing. There is also religious importance here – three Buddhist meditation hermitages and rock shelter dwellings for monks are also in the forest. As such this protected area is an amazing hike encompassing all that this heritage city has to offer.

The map I was given at the entrance with my ticket was vague and basic. I found it difficult to follow and used my instincts and sense of direction to find my way around. It’s also humid inside the forest so plan your time before you enter it.

Disclaimer: This is a forest and animals, though accustomed to people, are still wild. There is no emergency call system. Please exercise good judgement and common sense when visiting. Animals should not be approached and flash photography may alarm them. (There is a fee of Rs. 660 (Approximately £3.70) to enter). 

Kandy Garrison Cemetery

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Sign leading to Kandy Garrison Cemetery.

My second stop of the day was a more pensive visit to the Kandy Garrison Cemetery also known as the British Garrison Cemetery. Established when the British captured Kandy in 1817 it contains graves of 195 British nationals who lived and died in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known prior to Independence). The most notable aspect here is that almost all died young of tropical diseases such as cholera and malaria. On most of my previous trips I have stopped here to visit these graves. Although this is not a tourist attraction it still forms a part of Kandy’s heritage. This cemetery exists on the grounds of the Temple of the Tooth and is still maintained by the British but the land maintained by the “Diyawadana Nilame” (chief custodian of the Temple of the Tooth) – a historical balance of power dating back to colonial times.

Kandy Town Centre

My second day plan was to really get to the heart of this town. So I headed to the city center by tuk tuk for a day of walking, sampling street food and general rummaging around. It’s a safe but busy place to walk around but I did find the touts here irritating and dealt with them firmly. There are markets selling vegetables, clothes, lottery tickets and every local product imaginable. For the foodie in me there were bakeries and street food stalls selling a variety of sweet and savoury treats – all of which I tried. (Do exercise caution if you’re unsure of something).

Kandy Lake

The best part of my walk around town was getting close to the lake. Walking is a national pastime in Sri Lanka. Walking around lakes in the shade are even more popular. Kandy lake is a good place to get close to Kandyans. You will find families feeding ducks after visiting the Temple. Street food vendors here cater to all your culinary needs. The last Sinhalese king created the lake in 1807 beside the Temple of the Tooth and decorated the lake with the walakulu (clouds) wall. He couldn’t have known that it’s simple charm would stand as a focal and meeting point centuries later.

All in all this time round, I felt that I had rediscovered the Kandy of my childhood. It certainly has a great deal to offer the most ardent traveller. I found everything I wanted to experience in one place – history, culture, cuisine and nature. Kandy has restored itself to the bustling melting pot of it’s heritage. My grandmother would have been proud.

 

 

In collaboration with OZO Kandy Sri Lanka. www.ozohotels.com/kandy-srilanka

Prices start from GBP 64 per night for a Sleep King room, based on two sharing a room (exclusive of VAT and service charge and subject to availability). For stays until 30 June 2017, stay a minimum of 3 consecutive nights at OZO Kandy Sri Lanka and receive 15% off your booking.

Fact check: Wikipedia, Lonely Planet, Wikitravel.