Regular visitor and travel book author Derek Workman reveals his highlights of Marrakech, the ancient city in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains.
It’s a perfect destination for an affordable, exotic city break and should not be missed on a stopover while visiting Morocco’s Atlantic coastline for a package holiday.
Millions of words have been written about Jmaa el Fna – The Place of the Dead – North Africa’s most vibrant and exotic square, the ancient heart of Marrakech, where snake charmers, storytellers and acrobats entertain the passing crowds. As lyrical as the writers might be, nothing prepares you for the reality.
By day the bustle of henna artists, potion sellers, fresh orange juice vendors and red-robed water sellers, by night the curling smoke of a hundred barbecues spirals over the largest open-air restaurant in the world.
Walk across la place, as it’s known locally, and the changing music from CD stalls, snake charmer’s pipes, ancient cassette players, gnawa musicians and the jangling castanets of the transvestite dancers is like tuning a radio deep in the heart of Africa, when stations were found by turning a knob and not by pushing a button.
Take a café-crème on the terrace of Café de France and watch the bustle of life in the square before the razzle-dazzle of the souks and their arms-width alleyways entice you, in search of brightly coloured babouche (soft leather slippers), intricately pierced lamps and sumptuous carpets.
Shop owners will invite you in to see their wares, but the days are long gone when you would be hustled, grabbed or coerced by supposed guides or traders. When Mohammed VI ascended the Moroccan throne in July, 1999, he was fully aware of the importance of tourism to his country, and one of the first laws he passed was the prohibition of anyone making any form of physical contact or over-forceful selling to visitors. He established a plain-clothes Tourism Police department who patrol the main tourist areas, with rights of arrest and hefty fines. The initiative has been such a success that even locals themselves and other shopkeepers will come to your aid if they see you being hassled in any way.
The souks are a delight, but keep walking away from Jmaa el Fna and you will come into the Medina, the work-a-day neighbourhoods where you will see a totally different way of life. Lined along the streets and in tucked-away little back alleys, a barber with one chair patched with electrician’s tape and a cracked mirror will work next to a tinsmith slowly turning a piece of metal as he punches ornate designs into it to make the beautiful lamps that cast starbursts of light when illuminated; alongside him woodcarvers and masonry workers etch intricate designs into their chosen materials.
Dark caverns lit by a single fluorescent tube sell olives, olive oil and vats of preserved lemons for that emblematic Moroccan dish, poulet au citron; a shop with a collection of beautiful antique tea pots on display shows, on further inspection, shelves of second-hand kettles for sale at the back.
Marrakech is full of superb restaurants, but if you fancy lunch like a local, try one of the tiny cupboard-size cafes where single-portion tagines are cooked on a hot-plate while the cook flips battered fish, deep-fried in a blackened old frying pan.
For a totally contrary view of the Medina, and a change from the skinny medieval alleyways inside the walls, a ride in a caliche. These are the elegant green horse-drawn carriages that you see clip-clopping all around Marrakech, and will take you on a romantic ride around the rose-pink, ancient walls of the city and onwards onto the Palmeraie, the largest palm oasis in Morocco, where the upper-crust hide themselves away in stunning homes.
If you feel a bit Lawrence of Arabia-ish you can take a camel ride while in the Palmeraie. (Although don’t make your caliche wait, get a taxi instead.) On your way back you could ask the driver to drop you off at the Jardin Marjorelle, but even if you get there by some other means, you really must visit these glorious gardens.
French artist Jacques Majorelle moved to Marrakech in 1919, not just to improve his tuberculosis but to continue his career as an artist. He bought a large piece of land in the then outskirts of the city and began to create what became his greatest masterpiece – the Majorelle Gardens. An inspired and obsessive plant hunter, Majorelle filled his gardens with plants from around the world – impossible to do these days – and set them against his trademark ‘Majorelle blue’, an extraordinarily vivid colour, said to be based on the robes of the Taureg.
When Jacques Majorelle died in 1962, the garden fell into neglect, until it was bought in 1980, by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, to save it from property developers and to bring it back to life. The layout of the gardens has remained much the same for almost ninety-five years and is total delight, a corner of tranquility in this hectic city.
A ten-minute meander from the gardens takes you to the heart of Gueliz, the modern side of Marrakech, with all the fancy shops, ice-cream parlours, cafes and restaurants your heart desires.
Wherever you are staying, and even if you have planned a romantic dinner in some highfalutin’ restaurant, you absolutely must take a wander through the Jmaa el Fna at night to experience the seismic thrill of this incredible open-air restaurant.
When dusk falls, handcarts are wheeled into the square and unfolded to reveal portable grills, tables, benches, pots and pans. While the mounds of food are prepared young men in long white coats work the crowds trying to convince you that the succulent dishes served at their stall are the absolutely top-notch best; “Deliah Smith created our menu”, “All our fish comes fresh from Sainsbury’s”.
There are stalls to fit every taste and pocket, and aromas of the east flood your nostrils as the smoke rises from the enormous selection of food being prepared. Dive in and delight your taste buds, although you may want to leave the tagine of sheep’s or calf’s feet and the sliced camel’s head to the locals to enjoy, and it would take a certain amount of culinary courage to sample a cooked sheep’s head or bowl of sheep’s testicles.
If you have ever thought of belly dancing as being a bit old hat, you’ve never been to Le Comptoir Darna in Marrakech. Just on midnight the lights lower, vibrant music fills the air. Four tall men in white robes and turbans descend the stairs with a palanquin shouldered between them. On the small platform a curved figure is sheeted in white. Behind the palanquin sway two women in shimmering floor-length dresses; on their heads are balanced silver trays, glistening with lighted candles. As they shimmy and sway down the stairs the candle flames perform their own iridescent sparkling dance.
A burst of music, and a flurry of red and white butterflies in slit-sided silk pantaloons clasped at the ankle, twirl and swirl diaphanous shawls; broad sparklingly embroidered waistbands paired with lustrously beaded and shimmering bra tops – the belly dancers, the luscious ladies of the raqs sharqi, enter the room with a fanfare and sensual exuberance. They weave between the tables, their hips gyrating and flicking in a staccato rhythm. A thing of beauty and a joy to behold.
Where to eat
Dar Yacout combines fine traditional dining with a stunningly stylish décor, which is said to have influenced Moroccan interiors since it was first designed in the 1990s. In the summer months, the aperitif is served on the roof terrace, which has the most splendid view of the Medina at night. In the winter months it is served on the first floor where blazing fires are lit every evening and you can relax to the hypnotic beat of Gnaoua music.
The main meal is served on the ground floor, either by the pool in the summer months or the cosy side rooms in the winter. The set menu offers a selection of Moroccan salads, followed by a wonderful poulet au citron, followed by lamb couscous, followed by… it goes on and on. Don’t eat lunch because the dinner servings are enormous. Reservation essential. Fixed price menu 700MAD includes all drinks plus large G&T to begin and digestif after the meal.
79 Derb Sidi Ahmed Soussi
Marrakesh, 40000, Morocco
Tel: +212 (0)524 382929
Chic fusion eating
Le Comptoir Darna
A restaurant better known for its ambience than its food, it’s the perfect place for people watching, full of svelte young staff, half of whom seem to saunter around for no other reason than to make the place look delightful – something they do very well. The menu is mainly good tapas and Moroccan and fusion dishes, but your mind will probably be more on the décor than the dishes, although you can also just go for a drink. Be ready for the change of music tempo, when the belly dancers shimmy down the great sweep of stairway every evening. Meal including wine around 500MAD.
Avenue Echouhada, Guéliz/Hivernage
Tel: +212 (0)524 437702
Le Chat qui Rit
If you are feeling a bit tajined-out, Le Chat qui Rit is just the place to be. Excellent French/Italian cuisine with a Corsican tone, from the homemade rabbit terrine to the tarte tatin. Friendly atmosphere for lunch or dinner, charming waitresses and very reasonable prices. But you really must book, and you would be best to take a taxi as it is a bit out of the city centre. Around 200MAD excluding drinks.
92, Rue Yougoslavia, Nouvelle Ville.
Tel: +212 (0)525 434311
In the souk
Cafe des Epices
Pleasant café for sandwiches and light lunches in the spice souk. Perfect for taking a tea and watching the world go by before you go and buy your magic potions and spices in the souk. Approx. 70MAD for sandwich and drink.
Place Rahba Lakdima/Place des épices
Tel: +212 (0)524 391770
What to see and do
There is an enormous amount of information on-line, in guide books, and in leaflets about the main visitor venues in Marrakech; the Saadian Toombs, Ali ben Youssef Medersa and Mosque, Marrakech Museum, and the tanneries amongst others. Below are some you may not find so easily but are worth seeing or doing.
An oasis of calm with marble pools, raised pathways, banana trees, groves of bamboo, coconut palms, bougainvillea and a unique collection of cacti. Recently opened Museum of Berber life. Open daily 08.00-17.30 (18.00 1May to 30 Sept)
Rue Yves Saint Laurent. Entrance: Garden 50MAD, Museum 25MAD.
Tel: +212 (0)524 313047
Take a hammam
Bathrooms in private homes were a luxury until relatively recently, and most people would make regular use of the public hammam, or steam room, especially before going to the mosque to pray, (which is why traditional hammam are almost always very close to a mosque). Visiting times are carefully segregated, usually men from 6-10am and 8-11pm, with women getting the daytime shift. Swimming shorts or bikini bottoms are de rigueur.
These days hammams and spas are big business in riads and luxury hotels, where the simple ‘scrub and sloosh’ of a neighbourhood hammam gives way to fancy pampering. Hammam Ziani is tourist-oriented, and the manager speaks excellent English. A bit pricey at 350MAD, but that includes steam, scrub, massage and mud mask. Be brave and try a local hammam for about one-fifth of that price.
14,Rue Riad Zitoune jdid
Tel: +212 (0)62 715 571
Life in the Medina is lived behind closed doors, and the nearest you will get to see the often beautiful private gardens is if you stay at a riad. Some of the most lovely, though, are privately owned homes where the general public never get access. Our Man in Morocco can arrange private visits to a select number of these gardens where you take tea with the owners who tell the story of their home and garden.
Our Man in Morocco, Tel: +212 661 203 117, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Maison de la Photographie
This is a relatively new museum in Marrakech, which opened in May 2009, and has been getting rave reviews ever since. A private collection of more than 3,500 photos, it offers an intriguing insight into Morocco’s history, the beautiful black and white portraits in particular. Open every day from 9.30am to 7pm, entrance is 40MAD.
Maison de la Photographie
46, Rue Ahal Fès (near the Medersa Ben Youssef)
Tel: + 212 (0)524 385 721
A bike may seem an unlikely way for the visitor to get around Marrakech, given the raucous reputation of its traffic, but Argan Xtreme Sports offer a couple of tours to enjoy the view from the saddle.
One takes you through the centre of the city (but avoiding the cramped souks), and a second is an hour-long off-road adventure through the Palmeraie, the palm forest that lies on the outskirts of Marrakech. Both are suitable for beginners, but for advanced riders the Palmeraie is a mountain biking playground if you veer slightly off the beaten path. Watch the video on their website to see how fantastic mountain biking in Morocco can be.
Tel: +212 (0) 6 22 27 86 10
Bab el Khemis
Bab el Khemis is one of the twelve ancient gateways into the medieval city and takes its name from the Thursday market where once camels, horses, mules and asses were sold. These days it is a gigantic antiques and flea market, and a definite visit if you happen to be in Marrakech on a Thursday. It’s where the Marrakshis themselves go for a bargain, and you will be able to count the number of foreigners you see on the fingers of one hand. A fascinating place, even if you have no intention of buying anything.
Every Thursday, 8am until mid-afternoon, depending on time of year. Best to take a taxi than try to find it yourself.
A few points to ponder
You barter for everything in the souks, whether it’s a single candle or a luxurious carpet. There is a Moroccan phrase that translates as ‘You eat, I eat, we all eat,’ which basically means don’t try to cut someone’s throat just to save a few dirhams and feel as if you have got one over on the salesman. You most certainly won’t have because he won’t sell it if he can’t make a profit. Set the price you are prepared to pay, offer about one-third and work your way to a compromise – and do it with a smile.
Bartering also applies with taxis, but if you are prepared to share – and everyone is – you will get a reduced price. But make sure you have agreed it before you set off.
Moroccan people are extremely open and friendly, but bear in mind that there is high unemployment and many people have to get by the best they can. If someone offers to guide you or offer you some service you don’t want just say no, smile and walk on. They may persist for a while but will soon turn their attention elsewhere. As mentioned above, it is against the law for anyone to try to accost you in any way. Surprisingly, you will be safer in Morocco than in almost any European country.
If you are a woman travelling on her own and would prefer a female guide there are a number of licensed women guides in Marrakech. Only ever use a registered, licensed guide, of whatever sex, which you can book through your hotel, online, or through Our Man in Morocco (see above), who can supply fluent English-speaking guides with many years’ experience.
But most importantly of all…smile, be open to the experience, and leave any preconceptions carefully locked away in a box under the bed at home.