A young country that’s indescribably ancient, Morocco is fascinating and exotic and inescapably lovely. Not too much of surprise to find so many influences and cultures clustered across its landscape, Morocco has always been much coveted. Before Independence in the mid 1970’s the country had variously been home to the Ancient Romans, the French, the Portuguese and – in a less proprietorial fashion – some of the world’s most glamorous and famous writers, artists, designers and bon viveur.
The challenge for UNESCO in Morocco has always been to balance their commitment to protect and preserve with respect for the fact that most of the country’s ancient and historic sites are still living and working environments for many Moroccans. The magnificent Medinas, mosques and monuments don’t exist in aspic; they’re at the heart of the country’s culture and commerce. Continue reading
While I know you’re all feverishly checking out the new listings that get added to HouseTrip every week, I’m also aware that you’re just as eager to know about new routes on offer from Europe’s low-cost airlines. After all, if you can grab a bargain flight and affordable accommodation this will leave you the maximum amount of spending money for your holiday. So, I did a little research and here are some of the best new low-cost airline routes you may want to consider for your next city break or summer holiday. Continue reading
In countries that worship at the altar of jingling bells, holly wreaths, and mobs of aging, scarlet gentlemen with cornucopian facial hair; there are, unsurprisingly, many who do not feel the urge to partake in the lamentably common commercialism and faux.
Yes, absolutely, me too. I think deep down under our novelty Christmas jumpers we can all sympathise with those who feel the need to escape Christmas, especially now we are stuck in the middle of the long festive run up surrounded by too many adverts, too many mince pies and too much Slade.
So, what are your options should you choose to escape Christmas this year? Where can you go and say “Bah! Humbug!” without being labelled a Scrooge? Well, here are my suggestions.
The red city is traditionally Muslim so Christmas is not the everything-grinds-to-a-halt occasion that it is in other parts of the world. But perhaps this isn’t the best reason to visit Marrakech at this time of year; it’s the weather. With temperatures often staying in the low 20s (Celsius) and more sunny days than not, you can say “Humbug!” in your cool cotton T-shirt while getting lost in a maze-like Medina or haggling your way through the famous Jemaa El-Fna market. Alternatively, to escape Christmas, the city and almost everything else, I recommend a trip to the nearby Atlas Mountains for stunning, floral landscapes and star-filled skies that will make you feel far from everything.
While many parts of Bangkok and Thailand will be adorned with Christmas decorations and fairy lights – it’s peak tourist season after all, and they know us “Farangs” love a bit of festal bobbledness – the Buddhist majority of Thai residents of course don’t approach the festive holidays with the same gusto they do their own spiritual festivals and celebrations. Moreover, I can absolutely guarantee a 0% chance of snow. Therefore, it’s easy to avoid Christmas in the Thai capital while also topping up your tan and satisfying your Tom Yum cravings. Immerse yourself in culture by visiting one of the city’s elaborate temples or rummage for vintage bargains at Rod Fai market. Alternatively do little more than relax by the pool of your luxurious high-rise apartment before heading out at night for arguably the best street food in the world.
St. Petersburg, Russia
If you’re keen to avoid Christmas but not the pretty winter scenes that a snowy landscape brings, then head to Saint Petersburg. With the Russian Orthodox Church celebrating Christmas on 7th January you can time your visit to escape the chaos at home, while also soaking up a little seasonal spirit if you’re not 100% Scrooge. Often hailed as the Russian Federation’s most “European” city, St Petersburg’s picturesque canals, architecture and growing “foodie” scene are reason enough to visit. Unsurprisingly the beautifully intricate WinterPalace is at its most impressive when surrounded by pure white snow and you can seek warmth and culture in the city’s many museums including the world-famous Hermitage art gallery.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
You may think this an unusual choice because it’s in the thick of Christmas-celebrating Western Europe, but hear me out. By the time Christmas Eve arrives in Amsterdam, children have already had their presents and they’re a little bit over Christmas. This is because the more commercial celebration of Sinterklaas comes much earlier on the evening of the 5th December and Christmas Day itself is a celebration mostly reserved for religious Christian families, though everyone enjoys a day or two off work. With the Dutch state and church being long separated, this means that Christmas in Amsterdam is festive, but it’s far from an overwhelming seasonal assault on your good will, so head to Amsterdam to admire a beautiful city lit up at night (Amsterdam Light Festival runs from 6th December until 19th January) and enjoy all the usual heart-warming Dutch treats like stroopwaffel, poffertjes and piping hot bitterballen washed down with a local beer in one of the city’s many “gezellig” brown bars.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
While Kuala Lumpur won’t be outdone when it comes to Christmas shopping and January sales opportunities – head to the upmarket area of Bukit Bintang for this – the traditional and older areas of Malaysia’s capital will offer you little clue that Christmas is upon us. That’s not to say the city is without sparkle, but it’s a sparkle that you can find there every day of the year. In the heart of Chinatown, along Petaling Street, lanterns and lights glow above the famous market stalls and in Brickfields, also known as Little India, lights left over from Diwali lead you to delicious street stalls where you can eat curry off a banana leaf for less than $4.00. And if you’d like to leave the city behind for a day or two head up to the tropical rainforest of FRIM – close to the famous BatuCaves or to the CameronHighlands, famous for its rolling hills of tea leaf fields.
So are you planning on escaping Christmas this year? If so, I’d love to know about any other tinsel-free towns you think are worth visiting for your ‘anti-Christmas’.
Featured image by Stu-bear
This post, video and photos courtesy of The Planet D, exclusively for HouseTrip as part of our #housetripping series.
Marrakech, Morocco is an exotic city that has strong traditions tied to an ancient culture. Located in Northern Africa, it is bordered by the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert. Visiting Marrakech will make you feel as if you are in an Indiana Jones movie. At least that’s how we felt. The souks (markets) in the old city haven’t changed for centuries and one can easily imagine what life was like during the height of the silk and spice trade. It’s a place where old meets new and where one can spend days getting lost in the maze of the old city known as the Medina.
When traveling to Marrakech, it’s important to know a few customs before you go. It will make your trip more enjoyable, and help you feel more comfortable as you meet the friendly locals and explore one of the busiest cities in all of Africa.
Staying in a traditional Riad is the ultimate in exotic accommodation. A riad is a large house that surrounds an inner courtyard. Many courtyards have a swimming pool and the four wall surrounding the pool are usually three stories high with a rooftop patio for dining and relaxing. Most riads were large homes and even palaces owned by rich families. Many have now been converted to apartments and accommodation and it is the best way to be immersed in the culture of Marrakech. HouseTrip offers plenty of choices in the city and we stayed in a beautiful riad in the heart of the Medina.
If you are lucky, you may be invited to a local family’s home for tea or dinner. When invited, it’s important to follow a few rules. Be sure to bring a gift of figs, dates or pastries with you, and when you enter anyone’s house, make sure to take off your shoes. Many Moroccans carry a pair of slippers with them to change in to, or your host will offer you a pair of their house slippers to wear while inside.
Much of Moroccan food is eaten with your hands and before your meal, it is important to thoroughly wash with soap and water. Normally a washbasin is brought out for you to use. When you do eat, only eat with your right hand. That is a hard and fast rule.
Greeting people in Marrakech is much like anywhere else in the world. A handshake is customary between men. However, a man must never shake a woman’s hand until she extends her hand first. Once you know someone well, you will most likely greet them with a kiss on both cheeks.
Alcohol is not widely consumed in Marrakech and when visiting anyone’s home, do not bring it along unless you are sure that it is accepted in your hosts’ house. Instead, be prepared to drink a lot of tea. In Marrakech tea is a tradition and you will be greeted regularly with a cup of sweet mint tea to enjoy. It’s delicious and not to be passed up. Take the time to get to know the locals; they are some of the most hospitable people in the world. Drinking tea together is a wonderful way to get to know each other.
And finally, learn a bit of the language before you go. French is widely spoken in Marrakech, but Arabic and Berber are the Mother tongue. Learning a bit of both is a great way to break the ice when meeting new people.
Visiting Marrakech will be one of the best vacations you’ll ever have. It’s an exciting destination that is not to be missed, and if you follow a few of these customs and traditions, you’ll find that your trip will be more comfortable and relaxing. The more prepared you are, the better your trip will be. So check out the HouseTrip website for a riad of your choice and start planning your trip to Marrakech today.
Marrakech just shouldn’t be as accessible as it is. How can it be possible for such a spectacularly exotic and strange Berber city at the foot of the Atlas Mountains to exist in the same time zone as Aberdeen? Getting there should involve a hot air balloon, five days on a train with a personal valet or at least some robes and camels surely? But Marrakech just makes it all so easy. If we were in the business of creating clichéd straplines for (seemingly) far-flung destinations we’d definitely be serving up a, ‘Marrakech – closer than you imagine’ option.
Unfortunately, accessible exoticism tends to get you noticed. For longer than most of us have been alive, Marrakech has been a playground of the rich and famous (particularly the French rich and famous: Yves St. Laurent had a museum quality house here and Jean Paul Gaultier has a home in the city). Nowadays it’s ideal for short-breaks. Families holiday here because Marrakech is child friendly without being dull to death (think ‘snake charmers and monkey wranglers’ not ‘homogenous theme parks and surly teens pretending to be cartoon characters’). And, because it’s possibly one of the most effortlessly romantic cities on earth, Marrakech is also a complete natural for couples.
In short, Marrakech is always busy – some would even say hectic – especially during the summer months when the weather is hot and sunny and flights plentiful. But it’s also a Muslim city so it observes Ramadan during July and August and surprisingly this is one of the best times to visit in summer: the daily business of Marrakech slows down and there’s considerably less commercial activity so everything’s a little calmer than usual but still very visitor friendly.
Ramadan is wholly spiritual and observed throughout the Muslim world as a time of fasting, reflection, devotion, generosity and sacrifice. This is the most special of all Muslim observances and bears no resemblance to the more commercialised celebrations of holidays like Easter or Christmas. It appears ‘business as usual’ in the souks and squares with their weird, wonderful and sometimes just plain disconcerting trades. The city’s restaurants are as hospitable as ever. And museums, palaces, mosques and gardens continue to welcome visitors. But you are a guest at a profoundly holy time in the Muslim year and there are rules you should be aware of so as not to offend your hosts.
Fasting is central to Ramadan starting at dawn and going on until sunset. Although non-Muslim visitors are not expected to fast, you should not eat, drink, chew gum or smoke in public during the hours of the fast. Marrakech is a moderate city without legal penalties for breaking Ramadan observances but complete strangers will think nothing of giving you a strict ‘telling off’ if you do.
In Marrakech, many restaurants will serve food during the hours of fasting and some supermarkets will be open. But if you have special dietary-requirements or you’re travelling with young children, stocking up on essentials is a good idea, just in case.
Enjoying a drink isn’t usually an issue in Marrakech but for the month of Ramadan many shops selling alcohol close and some restaurants observe stricter rules than others.
‘Iftar’ is the time, following sunset, when friends and family traditionally get together to observe the end of the day’s fast with a meal. Ramadan is a time for Muslims to reflect on strengthening bonds within their own community and the wider world so you may be lucky enough (particularly if you’re renting local accommodation) to be invited to share ‘Iftar. If you’re unsure of any customs or rules ask your host.
Even if you don’t join in ‘Iftar’ as a local, take to the streets of Marrakech after 9pm for the festive atmosphere created by people who’ve finally eaten after fasting all day. Different parts of the city have different traditions and children are very much part of the celebrations.
Certain guides to Marrakech shamelessly advise you to ‘wear ear plugs if you don’t want to be disturbed by the early morning call to prayer’. We’re more of the opinion you should embrace the unearthly beauty of the ‘Adhan’. And if you’re at all likely to ‘be disturbed’ by any peaceful, ancient and fundamental aspect of another culture you should err on the side of caution, ditch the ear plugs and just stay home. The ‘Adhan’ is called five times a day but spiritual reflection is intrinsic to Ramadan and Muslims offer prayer more often during this time. Polite, respectful and aware are the only customs visitors need observe.
Marrakech has some of the largest, liveliest souks in North Africa and probably the only difference during Ramadan is a slightly more polite approach to haggling. And in vast city squares like D’Jemaa el-fnaa the (often slightly sinister) soothsayers are a little kinder than usual. But if you want to enter into the true spirit of reflection and quiet contemplation at the heart of Ramadan, Marrakesh is also famous for its breathtaking mosques, beautiful gardens and, of course, the Atlas Mountains.
The snow-capped Atlas Mountains are as symbolic of Marrakech as the vast minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque and the Majorelle Gardens’ intense cobalt blue buildings. The city’s just 20 miles from the foothills of the mountains and although they’re obviously adored by tough climbing types, if serene and peaceful wandering is more your thing, the Atlas Mountains are pretty perfect for that too.
This year Ramadan begins on July 9th and ends on August 7th. The traditional Festival of Eid acknowledges the end of Ramadan with three days of music, dancing, feasting and celebration. In Marrakech, most banks, shops, restaurants and the like will close for Eid and it’s not a great time for travel or sightseeing. So take our advice and just join in Eid itself, it is an unforgettably exciting experience.
One last little word of caution (and this isn’t exclusive to Marrakech): in the first week of Ramadan, before people get used to daytime fasting and abstinence from their beloved tea, they can be a bit irritable – breathe deep and remember tolerance is the mark of a good guest in any country.
May Allah accept our fasting, forgive our sins and guide us all to the straight path.
Featured image by shrapnel1.