Marrakech really needs to be experienced to be believed. One of the four imperial cities of Morocco, along with Meknes, Fez and Rabat, Marrakech has another name – Marrakucsh Al Hamra – Marrakech the Red – a name originating from it’s incredible red earth walls.
Courtyard of the Saadian Tombs.
We’d not been to Africa before and my heart was racing in a strange culture kind of way. As our tired Mercedes taxi with windows stuck firmly down, lumbered toward a gate in those tall red walls, my bones were whispering that Marrakech could be the adventure of a lifetime. In case you need convincing here are sixteen reasons to visit.
The Red Walls
16 km of walls encase the Marrakech Medina. There are nearly as many explanations for the holes in the wall as there are holes. Two most likely are – they are there to provide drainage to prevent the walls crumbling, or they hold the scaffolding used when repairing the walls. What do you think?
- Access: Free
12th century gate Bab Agnaou.
Colourful, exotic and crammed with coloured glass, sheesha pipes, spices, leather slippers, pots and lanterns, the alleys that form the souks are an unmissable Marrakech experience. The stall holders have a reputation for being insistent and hard to shake but we didn’t have a problem. We did have an Urban Adventures Guide with us (we won a tour) which could have made a difference. Food for thought! Even if you don’t purchase anything the souk experience is what Marrakech is about.
- Entrance: Free
The French Influence & Majorelle Gardens
Just as the Moors from north Africa once controlled Spain, France and Spain jointly annexed Morocco in 1912 via the Treaty of Fez. Marrakech fell into the French section, leaving a population of French speakers. The most obvious influence is in the food, in particular Patisseries. Cafe France has a great view of Jemaa El Fnaa but we found it expensive with inattentive staff. Patisserie des Princes off the square has great reasonably priced cakes or try Grande Cafe de la Poste in the French Suburb of Gueliz in the new town.
Another lasting French influence is Majorelle Gardens, created by the french artist Jacques Majorelle and subsequently owned by Yves St. Laurent. When Yves died in 2008 his ashes were scattered here. Jacques’ bold colour creation named Majorelle Blue dominates the garden in a startling way. He incorporated the African love of water via ponds, fountains and channels. Open to the public since 1947.
- Entrance Fee 30 MAD.
Jemaa El Fnaa Square
Jemaa El Fnaa is a dominant square in the Medina – a meeting place extraordinaire. In the morning and afternoon it’s a meeting point for tour groups. The hawkers and juice vendors are there all day but when buildings glow orange in the setting sun, the pace picks up. Monkeys arrive tethered to their owners, Snake Charmers settle in and nighttime food stalls start setting up. My heart breaks for the monkeys (pay for a photo opp) but the practice only survives because tourists keep on paying. I kept well away from the snake charmers lest they mistake my interest for a desire to join in.
- Entrance: Free
By night the square is a blaze of food stalls with smoke billowing from braziers and touts strutting their stuff.
Photo taken from Cafe Terrasse Bab Ftouh.
- Coffee and Softdrinks 15>20 MAD.
Away from the bright glow of the food stalls, individual pools of light draw people to games and story tellers. It is mysterious, exotic and great fun, but as always be conscious of your belongings.
The nightly food stall offerings range from tasty calamari and sausages to Tangia at a stall displaying severed sheep heads. Tangia are tall open topped pots as opposed to the saucer and lid arrangement of a Tagine. Before cooking a lid of parchment paper tied with string is added to the Tangia. Traditionally, it is cooked for up to 16 hours in the ashes of a wood-fired oven (like the one in the souk’s hammam). Originally the male only cooks used camel meat, spiced with saffron, cumin and lemon, but today lamb is often substituted.
Patisseries are laden with treats and Arab inspired pastries oozing honey. Bread is entrenched in the cuisine and the olives – from wizened black to bright green – fill souk bottles and cafe bowls.
With temperatures over 40 degrees, freshly squeezed orange juice is more of a necessity than a luxury. It is my favourite drink and deliciously affordable in Marrakech.
- 4 MAD (0.55 AUD) per glass.
The Atlas Mountains are a fascinating side trip from Marrakech. You’ll drive through them on the way to the desert, or they can be visited separately as a day trip. The slight green tinge is grass from winter rains. Temperatures are significantly cooler in the Atlas.
Cost: A day tour including lunch, water, camel ride, hike and argan oil establishment costs around 100 Euro – or barter for a seat in a taxi or mini-bus if you’re feeling adventurous. Renting a car for the day would be cost effective especially with two or more passengers.
A trip into the Sahara is mandatory in Morocco and Merzouga is one desert destination achievable from Marrakech. Cameltrekking.com offer a two night/3 day tour over the 560km in A/C Prado 4WD’s. We shared with the passenger from hell, but hey – the trip was still amazing and the camel ride into the desert doubly so. In mid-May the desert is hot and the sun obscured by a sandy haze. Ours was the last tour before tours ceased till cooler weather. The two berber desert guides, managed the whole camel expedition from pick up at the Prados at the desert edge until drop off the next morning. They look after the camels, prepare some of the best tagines and drum after dinner for entertainment. If you want they’ll drag mattresses out of the tents and arrange them on rugs within the compound to sleep under the stars. I was impressed by their calm friendly attitude and professionalism. There is no electricity in the desert camp.
The drive direct to Merzouga takes 9 hours, but outbound the tour is dotted with sight-seeing stops, so an overnight stop is added at a Dades Gorge hotel. On the third day it’s an early morning camel ride back to the waiting Prado’s (1.5 hours) and a race back to Marrakech stopping only for lunch and toilet breaks.
- Cost only 150 Euro per person.
If you have the time this is far better value than an Atlas Mountain Tour and you drive through the Atlas on route.
Just a couple of hours outside of the walls of Marrakech is the laid back fishing port and tourist destination of Essaouira. Air conditioned Supra buses, owned by Marrakech Rail, ply the route. It’s delightful to stay in the old town, walk the battlements and stroll along the beaches favoured by kite surfers. The perfect Ying to Marrakech’s Yang.
- Supra Bus. One Way. 80 MAD (11AUD).
Stay in a Riad
Riads, are large traditional homes with an internal courtyard and water features. Luckily today many have been turned into hotels and as accommodation goes they really add to the Marrakech experience. Riad Maizie was purchased by the current owners (Miranda Innes and partner Dan) in 2001 as a wreck and rebuilt by men from the local mosque. You can read about it in Miranda’s book Cinnamon City.
Riad Maizie is located at the end of a steadily narrowing Derb al Cadi where just as my overactive imagination was leading us to a grizzly end, the door opened to a peaceful welcoming courtyard. Read more about that arrival here.
The fountains were not working during our stay and are possibly still not! Breakfast can be eaten in the courtyard or on the romantic rooftop. Dan was at the Riad during our visit and walked us into Jemaa El Fna square introducing us to some traders along the route. This made us feel at ease in the souk and at the same time ensured the traders knew who we were. Miranda’s son Will is the manager of the Riad and I believe he still offers the same. I suggest taking photos on your mobile to ensure you can find your way back again. Marrakech is a full-on experience and we were grateful for a calm relaxing place to return to each night – a home cooked Moroccan meal can even be arranged.
- Riad Maizie 95 Derb al Cadi, Azbezt, Marrakech Medina
- Basic double rooms range 39 > 89 Euro depending on Season. Available on booking sites including Airbnb.
The Bahia Palace
This Palace has a history of intrigue. It was built in 1866 for Si Moussa the grand vizier of Sultan Moulay Houssan. Si’s son Bou Ahmed kept the Sultan’s death a secret so he could manipulate Moulay’s 14 year old son into Sultanship and install himself as Grand Vizier. Then he set about acquiring more land and houses to extend the Palace. When he died his servants trashed the place, but it was later restored during the French period. The Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs is located here and you might well see visiting dignitaries arrive.
8 Rue de la Bahia. Opening Hours 8 am to 5 pm.
- Cost: 1 Euro.
The final resting place of Sultan Ahmed el Mansour and his family. There are 66 family tombs in the two mausoleums and more than 100 servants and soldiers buried in the courtyard. Mansour himself was buried here in 1603 and in 1672 his successor, Sultan Moulay Ismail, set about destroying everything from his reign. He stopped short of destroying the tombs, instead sealing off all of the entrances apart from one hidden in the Kasbah Mosque. The French rediscovered them when doing an aerial survey in 1917 and set about restoring them. A story worthy of One Thousand and One Nights!
The Saadian Dynasty was a prosperous time for Marrakech but sadly, thanks to Sultan Moulay Ismail, the tombs are the only reminder today.
The tombs are in a narrow derb behind the southern side of the Kasbah Mosque. Arrive early or late to beat line-ups.
- Cost 10 MAD.
Bert Flint or Tiskiwin Museum
Bert Flint is a Dutch Anthropologist who has lived in Marrakech since 1957. The artefacts on display are the favourites of his Amzigh Berber collection and now form part of the Marrakech University. This fully set up berber tent with implements, carpets and fabrics is inside the riad/museum. The riad itself is exquisite and the exhibits lead you through the Saharan trade routes from Marrakech to Timbuktu. Keep a look out for Bert who still hangs out in his office even though well into his 80’s.
- Entrance Fee: 15MAD
Tiskiwin – The best Marrakech Museum for African Artifacts.
Katoubia is a derivative of the Arab word koutoubiyyin meaning book seller– at one time more than 100 book vendors lined the streets at it’s base. Completed between 1184 to 1199 the interior of the mosque can only be visited by the faithful, but it has a public garden which is floodlit at night. The Minaret is a city landmark and it is forbidden to build anything higher than palm tree height around it. The Giralda tower in Seville was modelled on Katoubia which was in turn modelled on the Tinmel Mosque located 100km from Morrocco in the High Atlas Mountains. Tinmel is one of only two mosques in Morocco open to non-muslims. If you really want to see inside, this would be the perfect reason to visit the High Atlas!
Katoubia Mosque cut’s a romantic silhouette on the night sky from 200 metres away in Jemaa El Fnaa Square.
- Entrance: Free to Muslims. Forbidden to non-muslims.
Natural Remedies at a Herboristerie near Bab Agnaou.
Investigate the colourful world of natural remedies in Marrakech. It’ s quite interesting and they’re set up to sell to westerners with lists of ailments and cures. Amongst other things they sell cream for Eczema. There are several Herboristeries in Marrakech, this one at:
Passage Prince My Rachid N°53 Rue la recette، Marrakesh 40000, Morocco
Easy and Cheap access from Europe.
- Ryan Air fly Seville>Marrakech one way for 26 Euro!
- Jetstar fly London>Essaouria one way for £58!
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