Morocco: Marrakesh

Is everyone sitting comfortably? Have you got a cup of tea? (Preferably mint with lots of sugar?) Settle in because this is going to be a long one but a good one. I’m onto the two days that I spent in Marrakesh, the most touristy of the cities I visited in Morocco but also potentially my favourite. There was so much to see and do, so many sides and personalities and it felt welcoming to tourists while at the same time having held onto space for its own people. It can be a hard balance to strike in a place as popular as Marrakesh.

Despite the fantastic time I had here, we didn’t get off to the best start. Hiba was joining me for a few days in Marrakesh as well as Rania, Hiba’s friend who had come to Rabat with us the day before. We were getting the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh, the reverse of the journey that I had made a few days earlier. Unfortunately our train was delayed by an hour which we only found out once we had arrived at the station. We did eventually make it to Marrakesh with no further problems and found our riad, tucked away in the pedestrianised streets of the medina near Place des Ferblantiers and Bahia Palace. Once again, I have nothing but good things to say about Riad Chennaoui. We were given a lovely room with a grand double bed and three single beds (one extra) plus a small ensuite bathroom. Our room was right off the main courtyard but we never had any problems with noise or disruption. It came with breakfast included which was a piece of m’semen, beghrir (a semolina pancake with a honeycomb pattern) and a little pastry or muffin with honey, jam and butter plus coffee and orange juice on the side. The staff were also lovely and really helpful!

After we got settled in and refreshed a little, we headed out to explore the city. Just a few minutes away, outside the walls of the pedestrianised medina, is the Bahia Palace. Construction started in 1866 by Si Musa, a grand vizier of sultan Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman, and it was added to the collection of royal palaces in 1900 after the death of his son, Ba Ahmed. Nowadays the palace is one of Morocco’s most popular tourist attractions but is also still occasionally used by the king to host foreign dignitaries and hold events. The palace covers 37100m² and has 5 hectares of green spaces. The palace is loosely a series of courtyards with a number of rooms off to the sides. The final one is the Grand Riad, a garden within the walls of the palace and the oldest part of the palace, accessed through the Grand Courtyard. There isn’t a clear path through the palace because of the way that it was added to over the years, which can be a but confusing but also means that there are rooms to discover tucked around each corner. The tile work, the ceilings, the stonework, the paintings, the building were just beautiful. We actually saw some of the intricate patterns on the doors being repainted. It was in the Bahia Palace that I decided that one day I’ll come back to Morocco with my mum because I think it’s the kind of place that she would love, for the people, the energy and the beautiful buildings.

Just outside of the Bahia Palace compound but before Place des Ferblantiers is the Mellah market. The Mellah was the Jewish neighbourhood of Marrakesh (as well as in other Moroccan cities) although there is not now a large Jewish population there. At the entrance of the Mellah market is the spice souk with great towers of spices. You can also find tea merchants, fabric shops and even see argan oil being made.

From the Mellah market we walked further into the streets of Marrakesh, passing through Jemaa el-Fnaa which is one of the main squares of Marrakesh that comes alive in the evening with food sellers and other things. It was only mid-afternoon so things were still being set up but we had plans to come back later. Instead we were heading to one of Hiba’s favourite spots, Café des Épices. The food there is a little less traditional although there are still some Moroccan dishes and influences on the menu. I tried harira, a soup with tomato broth, rice, fava beans, lentils and chickpeas but the stand-out was the fresh strawberry juice. If none of that appeals to you, Café des Épices has a stunning rooftop where you can sit enjoying your food or drinks. After we had eaten, we relaxed there for a while because our morning of travel had caught up with us a bit. We were there around sunset which was the perfect time, watching the golden light spread over the rooftops of Marrakesh.

Feeling recharged, we headed back to Jemaa el-Fnaa for the night market which was in full swing by this point. Having already eaten, we weren’t looking at the food stalls too much but Hiba did spot one dish that she wanted me to try – the Moroccan version of escargot, snail soup. Now, the only bit I really like in escargot is the fact that it’s slathered in garlic butter. Not the case for babbouche. There are spices such as thyme, aniseed and mint involved but they don’t overpower the snails in the same way. Suffice to say I wasn’t a massive fan. Hiba also told me that she had a couple of other surprises for me but wouldn’t tell me what they were while we were walking around. There is so much energy in that square, so much hustle and bustle with sellers, henna artists, musicians, dancers and storytellers. All of a sudden, out of the incredible chaos, what appeared at my shoulder but a little monkey! Technically it was actually a Barbary ape and it wasn’t alone. You’ll find them and their handlers dotted around the square as well as snake charmers.

While doing some research I found out that Jemaa el-Fnaa is the reason for the creation of the UNESCO project ‘Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’. The presence of the musicians and storytellers was being threatened by development encroaching on the square. The project was created to preserve their legacy and acknowledge the importance of this kind of cultural space. Just walking around, even without knowing this, you can feel the energy permeating throughout the square. The name of the square could have many translations ranging from ‘the gathering or congregation area’, ‘the assembly of death’ (possibly referring to the fact that executions used to take place there) or ‘the mosque at the end of the world’ (referring to a destroyed mosque nearby).

Jemaa el-Fnaa

At Hiba’s suggestion we decided to do one of the carriage rides that leave from next Jemaa el-Fnaa as a way to see more of the city in a short period of time considering we only had a few days there. It took us into the area of Gueliz, the old French district whose name comes from the French word for church, église. It has a lot of upscale restaurants and bars, including some where you can drink alcohol, as well as a large casino and some famous hotels including La Mamounia where a lot of celebrities and dignitaries stay when visiting Marrakesh.

After we finished our tour we ended our night by going back to Gueliz to a place called Sky Bar, next to the famous Cafe Atlas, one of the oldest cafes in Marrakesh which has been open since 1940. Sky Bar is one of the limited places in Marrakesh and Morocco in general where you can drink alcohol. Alcohol is only allowed in certain licensed bars and drinking in public is illegal. We enjoyed a couple of drinks there, looking out over the lights of Marrakesh with some good music playing in the background. It was a nice chilled end to a busy day. It was lovely to get to know Hiba’s friend Rania more during the day but especially while we were at Sky Bar. After one day together it already felt like I’d known her for much longer. I knew that I would get along with Rania just by virtue of her being best friends with Hiba. Hiba is someone who attracts good people and keeps the best around her. I’m honoured and flattered to be one of them.

Sky Bar

I was excited for day two in Morocco because we had the full day to explore the city and, as you’ll see, we made the most out of it. Our first stop was another of Marrakesh’s most popular attractions that also happened to be just a few minutes away from our riad – El Badi Palace. The name means the ‘Palace of Wonder or Brilliance’. The palace was where many celebrations and official events were held and was meant to show off the wealth of the sultan. It was built in the 16th century but fell into ruin just after the start of the 17th century after the death of sultan Ahmad al-Mansur, its creator. The palace is built around a large central courtyard containing four sunken pools that now contain orange orchards that you can smell while walking around which adds something a little special to the experience. The design of the palace was inspired by the Alambra in Granada, Spain. It was very different from the Bahia Palace that we visited the day before but really interesting. The space is often an exhibition space and notably has the Minbar of Kutubiyya Mosque, a piece of furniture similar to a pulpit, on display. It was very impressive! As you walk through various parts of the palace, you might notice that some of the walls have a system of square holes over them. Like many older buildings in Morocco, they are built with rammed earth, also known as pisé, which need scaffolding to support the building process. The holes are leftovers from the construction and used for renovation as well.

At this point I’m going to interrupt with a note about clothing. You might notice a bit of a difference between the outfits I wore in Casablanca and Rabat versus what I wore in Marrakesh. One thing in common is that all my clothes were light. Even though it was the start of November, temperatures were in the high 20s or low 30s. Saying that, it is better to go for bit more coverage even in the heat. Moroccans are genuinely more conservative in the way they dress, particularly in less touristy areas like Casablanca and Rabat. I wore long trousers both days and when I was wearing a sleeveless top, I also had a light linen shirt to put on top. In Marrakesh, it’s a bit of a different story. Because of the amount of tourists, it’s more common and accepted to see people, particularly women, in shorts, crop tops, lower necklines and with their arms and legs uncovered. Even Hiba and Rania, Moroccans themselves, dress differently when visiting Marrakesh than at home in Casablanca so it’s not just for tourists.

After the Bahia Palace we were going to go to the Saadian Tomb, a royal necropolis, but there was a fairly long line so we decided to skip it. I have to leave some things to come back for right? Instead we headed to the Menara gardens. It’s a big park on the edge of Marrakesh filled with olive trees and a pool with a small pavilion next to it that is considered an iconic image of the city. The Colombian singer Maluma and French rapper Gims actually filmed the video for their song ‘Hola Señorita’ here with a few jet skis in the pool!

We made a slightly unorthodox detour after the Menara Gardens to visit the Four Seasons hotel that is just a couple of hundred metres down the road. While we were in El Badi Palace, Hiba got a phone call from them inviting her for a job interview that afternoon. It just so happened that she was in Marrakesh and could do it in person! Rania and I were perfectly happy to relax in the shade on the cafe terrace, looking out on the most aesthetic pool I’ve ever seen. It was a great chance to get to know each other better while pretending to fit in at the fanciest hotel I’ve ever been to. Even better, the interview went well!

Four Seasons Marrakesh

It was finally time for lunch and we went to a place that Hiba knows to eat tangia, one of the last dishes I had to check off my Moroccan cuisine checklist. Tangia is a dish that is closely associated with Marrakesh. Like ‘tagine‘, the word refers to the terracotta cooking pot and the dish itself. It’s made of lamb shank, candied lemon, spices, garlic and water, left to cook for hours in the embers of a wood fire. They brought it out and poured it from the dish in front of us with a bit of a fanfare. It was some of the most tender meat I’ve ever eaten and really did melt in your mouth! We also had some wee salads and chips, bread of course and these amazing curried lentils. It was really good but a bit heavy, oily and greasy but in the best way. Having a smaller portion of the tangia with the sides to lighten things up is the way to go I think.

Last but not least, one of Marrakesh’s most well known attractions and one of the ones I was looking forward to the most. Even if you don’t recognise the name Jardin Majorelle, the Yves Saint-Laurent museum or some of the photos might ring a bell. The Jardin Majorelle is a small botanical garden created by Jacques Majorelle in 1923. It took 40 years to complete and also has the cubist villa in the iconic majorelle blue designed by Paul Sinoir. In the 1980’s the garden was bought by fashion designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. They lived in the villa for many years until Yves Saint-Laurent’s death in 2008. His ashes were scattered in the gardens and there is a memorial there as well. There are a couple of museums on site, one in the old painting studio and villa dedicated to the culture of the Berber ethnic group and then the actual Yves Saint Laurent museum. Unfortunately it is closed on Wednesdays (when we were there) so something else to come back for. I would definitely recommend getting the combined ticket to visit the garden and the Berber museum, it was so interesting to learn about a different side of Moroccan culture. In general, it was absolutely stunning, definitely a must see in Marrakesh and Morocco at large. It was so peaceful just walking around the garden, enjoying the peace and quiet that permeates despite the large number of people visiting. Watch out for some little turtles swimming about the pool and sometimes wandering down the paths!

At this point, the three of us were flagging a bit. We had evening plans so we decided to head back to our riad for a little pit stop. Hiba had booked us a table at a pretty fancy bar for the evening to watch a live band. It also just so happened that a friend of mine that I met while volunteering in a hostel in Tenerife during the summer was also in Morocco! Syahira had been doing the same thing in hostels around Morocco but was on her last few days there and decided to spend one of her last evenings with us.

Épicurean is a bar and restaurant in Marrakesh’s casino. To reserve a table you have to be eating but it’s also a bit expensive so our plan involved a pre-reservation burger at McDonalds and then to share some starters and sides while watching the band. However, when we got there at 10pm we found out that the band wouldn’t be on for another two hours! Hiba, Rania and I had to be up early the next morning for the next and final part of our trip so after enjoying a drink at Épicurean we decided to head back to Sky Bar, where we had been the night before. Even if it wasn’t what we had originally planned, I had a great night catching up with Syahira who also immediately got along with Hiba and Rania. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, one of the best feelings is when your friends get along with each other.

And with that, part three of the Morocco series comes to an end. I’ll keep saying but I had such an incredible time. As much as I enjoyed seeing Casablanca and Rabat, the less touristy sides of Morocco, I understand Marrakesh’s appeal and charm. It definitely is touristy, full of people visiting from all over the world, which can be a bit overwhelming, but maybe part of the reason I liked it was seeing the contrast with where I’d already been. Even better, the next stop on the trip is somewhere else completely different as well!

One thought on “Morocco: Marrakesh

  1. Thanks for the best post ever. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. The photographs make the lengthy paragraphs worth the read. No offense intended. I enjoy your posts but photos enhance your offerings.

    Be well.

    Like

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