MarrakechWords Holly O'Neill
Photography David Loftus
Marrakech has long been a haunt for artists, bohemians and intrepid travellers. Colonised by the French in the early 20th century, the late 60s saw the city become a favourite hangout for the Rolling Stones, Yves Saint Laurent and American writers. Now, accessible via daily flights from the UK, it’s gone from being part-hedonist retreat and another exotic city on backpacker tick-list to being an easy destination for the weekend traveller.
Most head straight to Djemaa el Fna, the heart of the city. In the day, the huge public space is occupied mainly by tourists drinking sweet orange juice from one of the many stalls. There are also date and nut stalls, henna artists keen for customers, and snake charmers and monkey-handlers encouraging tourists to pose for photographs with their wards. By the time night falls, the square has been transformed. The air is thick with smoke from all the food stalls that have been set up and calls ring out from the vendors, enticing the curious to try their wares. There are tagines, kebabs, stewed snails, fish, grilled meats, soups such as the traditional chickpea harira, pastries and drinks. The crowds are mainly locals, who’ll sit and eat in groups, then maybe venture off to watch one of the stories being told, or the dance troupes performing behind the food market.
If Djemaa el Fna is the heart of the city, then the labyrinthine alleys of the souks behind must be the arteries and veins. These are the famous markets, divided into areas such as clothes, ceramics, dyed goods, leather, and so on. It’s really worth taking at least two days to wander round, venturing down hidden alleys.
If you get overwhelmed by it all, head to Café des Epices, which is well sign-posted throughout the souks close to the main square. Here you can sit on the terrace, eavesdrop on where other people are planning to go next, and look down onto the market below, where magic men sell love potions and keep hawks in cages, and little tortoises try to escape giant plastic tubs before being sold as pets.
Colourful tagines are popular souvenirs, as are hand-dyed ‘silk’ items, made actually from a fibre taken from cactus plants. Helpful touts will show you back alleys where dyeing takes place – full of men with arms purple from the elbows down. Naturally they’ll want you to buy something but there’s no real pressure.
It’s easy to get lost in souks – even long-time residents say they can go in one day and see things they never knew were there – but that’s part of the fun. Just remember that, ultimately, all streets lead back to Djemaa el Fna, and most people are happy to direct a confused tourist back to more recognisable territory.
If your olfactory senses haven’t been assaulted enough by the spice sellers in the markets showing their wares, the soap shops and the grills of the food market in Djemaa el Fna, then you can treat them to a battering at a tannery. Outside the medina, to the north, this is where leather is still treated, in a honeycomb-like system of small pits. Men bash the animal skins, traditionally with a mixture of animal faeces, before they’re dyed and turned into leather goods, many sold around the tannery or in the souks. Enterprising guides will try to sell you a tour round the operations – there’s not enough to see to warrant the hassle, but you might want to buy their bunches of sweet mint, to bring some nasal relief.
The new part of Marrakech, Guéliz, is the old French quarter, complete with art deco buildings, European fashion boutiques and bistro-style restaurants. It’s a world away from the frantic pace and crowds of the medina. The wide streets are lined with patisseries, where locals quietly read the papers.
This area is where tourists can hop on a guide bus – the red, open double-deckers that are found in many European cities. It’s a great way to orientate yourself in a city that can often throw your internal compass. The hop-on, hop-off tour takes in the newer parts of town, goes across to the Menara Gardens, then drives past the Koutoubia Mosque – the highest building in the city and a useful landmark. From here, it’s easy to walk to the Mellah market, in the old Jewish part of town. It’s here that the locals shop for fresh (and live!) produce, and tourists can pick up cheap (and illegal) DVDs.
Further south is the spice market. Little stalls in the covered alleys have immaculately presented mountains of powders, and vendors pop out to wave things under the noses of passers-by and waft sticks, berries and leaves in a game of ‘Guess that spice’.
EAT & DRINK
Café des Epices 75 Rahba Lakdima, Medina; +212 24 39 17 70.
Terasse des Epices 15 souk Cherifia, Sidi Abdelaziz, Medina; +212 24 37 59 04. The grown-up sister of Café des Epices offers French-Moroccan food such as anchovy tart, harira (chickpea soup), pastillas and vegetable salads. The casual-chic and comfortable feel of the low roof terrace, charming staff and chilled lounge music make it a pleasant place to wind down after a hectic day in the souks.
Chez Tariq Omar 10 Rue Ben Aïcha, Guéliz; GSM 061 34 00 03. Rue Ben Aïcha is the street of grilled meat. It’s slow in the day but at night the grills get going and smoke and sizzles fill the air. Take a seat at one of the plastic tables on the footpath, select what you want from the cabinets – or leave the ordering up to the staff, who’ll send out dishes until you’ve had enough. What you’ll get is smoky, spiced meat (some offal, such as kidneys, or brains cooked in eggs), salads and breads – and an army of street kittens, mewling for your scraps.
Le Grand Café de la Poste Cnr Boulevard El Mansour Eddhabi & Avenue Imam Malik, Guéliz; +212 24 43 30 38. A bistro-oasis in the new part of town. Sit outdoors watching the street-scene or retreat to the quiet, colonial-style indoors: cane chairs, palms, white tablecloths, soft jazz. Classics on the menu include salad niçoise, grilled sardines and tart tatin.
Café du Livre 44 Rue Tarik Ibn Ziad, Guéliz; +212 24 43 21 49. Another quiet haven. Browse books – new and used; fiction and non; in English and other languages – then settle down to read over a coffee and cake. Wifi is available, as are books about Morocco for further research, and the café holds events such as author talks, too.
Al Fassia 55 Boulevard Zerktouni, Guéliz; 212 5 24 43 40 60. One of the city’s best dining experiences. This restaurant, staffed entirely by women, offers refined local cuisine – little salads to start, savoury pastries such as the classic cinnamon-sugar-dusted pigeon pastilla, and more surprising dishes such a whole fish stuffed with delicately spiced vermicelli and preserved lemons. Service is smiling and sweet.
Herboristerie Ben Ali Tidrarine Rue de Commerce 55, Mellah; GSM 067 34 69 89. Want some fragrant reminders of your holiday? This cheerful vendor in the spice market sells containers and sachets of bright harissa, delicate dried rose petals, ubiquitous ras el hanout and other spices (as well as soaps and incense).
Essence des Sens 52 Fhal Chidmi, Quartier Mouassine, Medina; GSM 076 96 31 07. One of the many shops selling soaps, washes and treatments. Don’t go home without some of the fabulous, zingy mint soap – sure to wash away post-holiday blues. Also popular are the local argan oil-based products.
Atelier Moro 114 Place de Mouassine; +212 24 39 16 78. You’ll have to keep an eye out for it, and may still walk by it twice, but ring the doorbell and be invited up the stairs to Colombian-born designer Viviana Gonzalez’s boutique. She sources fashion, accessories and interior items from local craftspeople – and abroad. Prices are fixed and more expensive than the souk, but the pieces are unique.
DO & SEE
Gallerie Rê Résidence Al Andalous, 111 Angle Rue de Mosquees et Ibn Tourmert, No 3 Guéliz; +212 61 14 55 95. One of the few, but growing, number of contemporary art galleries in Marrakech, showcasing the work of local and European artists.
Jardin Majorelle Avenue Yacoub el Mansour; +212 24 30 18 52. Created in the 1920s by French artist Jacques Majorelle, then owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, this beautifully tranquil botanical garden just west of the Medina is home to groves of bamboo, cactus and agave and a stunning cobalt-blue pavilion.
Light Gallery 2 Derb Chtouka, Kasbah; +212 24 38 45 65. Part exhibition space, part design shop, Light Gallery brings new art to the old city of Marrakech.
Riad El Fenn Derb Moullay Abdullah Ben Hezzian, Bab El Ksour, Medina; +212 524 44 1210. Vanessa Branson’s converted riad is the chicest place to stay in Marrakech, complete with works by leading artists such as Bridget Riley and Ron Mueck. Guests sleeping in the huge beds in the open suites are left a breakfast of tea, coffee and sweet pastries each morning, or can head up to the roof terrace for views of the Atlas Mountains and something more substantial. There’s a cinema, restaurant and bar, hammam, pools and three courtyards for afternoon tea. Make sure you test out the chef’s skills at least once – they use produce from organic gardens and offer snacks or more polished fare at dinner. Great if you want to be close to the action but shut it out at the end of the day.
Beldi Country Club Km6, Route du Barrage, Cherifia; +212 5 24 38 39 50. This development 10 minutes’ drive from the city is ideal for those who want a bit of respite from the hustle and often frantic bustle. The modern-rustic look of the rooms complements the low-lying buildings and gardens, and there’s a good spa and treatment facility, as well as a large pool that guests and visitors can use. Beldi also showcases local industries, with in-house craftspeople who weave and make ceramics on site (while cooking their lunch in the kiln). It’s worth a visit to see the artisans in action.
Flights Easy Jet flies to Marrakech daily from London Gatwick.
Log on to visitmorocco.com for tourist information about Morocco and Marrakech.