The date or even the century when nomadic Berber tribes first breezed into the North African outpost of Marrakech has been lost to the shifting sands of time. For almost as long as it has had a name this Moroccan oasis, wedged between the Atlantic Ocean and Atlas Mountains, has captivated every traveller who has ventured here. These explorers range from Arab tribesmen through to hippies in the 1960s, and on to today’s Hollywood celebrities.
Sometimes travel destinations don’t live up to their much-hyped image. Marrakech is not one of them as this thrilling desert city is as intoxicating and exciting as it is filled with romance and intrigue. Just like all the photos, movies and books conjure up. For Europeans Marrakech offers a taste of something truly exotic without having to fly long haul, all within tantalising touching distance.
Jemaa El Fna
There is no doubt where any visit to Marrakech must begin. Jemaa El Fna is the gloriously eccentric main public square. The gathering is utterly unique. It’s an oasis/living hell/paradise crammed to bursting point and beyond with slithering snake charmers, skull splitting acrobats and shambling donkeys. Swirled in are zooming mopeds, screaming children, smiling shoe shiners, happy and perhaps scheming fortune tellers, fresh juice bars, suitably charmed or dazzled tourists and just about anything else you can think of.
There are numerous options for taking it all in. If you want to literally get above the mayhem sip a mint tea on the terrace at Café Glacial. Like most places in the medina they don’t serve alcohol. It’s a sublime experience reclining here savouring the fresh mint leaves as you take in the movie-like scene.
If you want a neat little guidebook to the traditional souks and exactly how to shop then you have come to the wrong city. Just head off from Jemaa El Fna and delve in with the intense spicy aromas and colourful characters as compelling as anything you’ll find on sale. Everything imaginable is on sale for that matter. If you get ‘lost’ persevere and you will eventually bundle back out to somewhere that you recognise. Alternatively ask a local, who will either gladly help you out for the price of a smile or try to charge you a small fortune for the privilege. Having a guide really is worthwhile.
Marrakech can be a tricky city to navigate and getting between venues can be a hair-raising experience by night, given the local driving. As with most aspects of Marrakech life, the epicentre of nightlife is undoubtedly found in Jemaa El Fna. Head to the terrace of the shambolic old school Café de France for a bird’s eye view of the square switching to night mode as the sun melts over the ochre coloured medina. They do food on the first terrace, but the upper level which is lesser-known and drinks-only will give you the best views.
After watching the stalls spring up across the square the wafting grill smoke will soon give you an appetite. Slip down and check out the options before plonking yourself down on one of the communal benches and enjoy a tasty budget feast in an experience that is simultaneously totally touristy and completely local.
Jemaa El Fna is the place to head for cheap eats. Also around the city look out for little tagine joints and try pastilla, in its purest form a tasty pigeon pie ideal for filling up budget conscious travellers. When shopping in the souks bargain hard starting at least 50% lower than what you have been quoted and using the old ‘walking away’ technique to get the price you had in mind all along.
If you fancy an alcoholic drink with your meal slip up to Le Marrakchi, a relaxed restaurant that enjoys sweeping views of Jemaa El Fna. Both their lamb and chicken tagines are excellent and unusually for an upper end Moroccan restaurant you can order a la carte.
The most alluring building in Marrakech is also its highest point. Just a short stroll from Jemaa El Fna is the Koutoubia Mosque. The centrepiece is the 77m tall minaret, which reaches for the heavens in a flowering of graceful Islamic architecture. Take time to stroll around the leafy orange grove gardens on the other side, opening up more unusual views of the tower as you go. Sunset is a lovely time to be here as orange and red hues dapple across the sky.
Majorelle Garden (Yves Saint Laurent)
The glorious Majorelle Garden is a real oasis compared to much of the rest of the medina. Swinging palms, exotic flora and artistic flourishes adorn the botanical garden, which were a favourite of fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent. He restored the garden and the grand house here. The house is now open as a museum dedicated to him and his work. Another oasis are is the Bahia Palace, a lavish palace built in the 19th century that is surrounded by an expanse of spacious garden and grounds. It was built to the city's finest palace and it certainly boasts an intoxicating grandeur.
Tour The City
If you want to explore beyond the medina an enjoyable way to do it is to take one of the sightseeing buses that scoot around the fringes of the medina and explore the wider city. A good place to hop on and see Marrakesh's sites is Charles de Foucauld Square. A more atmospheric tour is on offer on one of the old horse and carts that trundle around and remind you why suspension was such a great invention. Be sure to agree a price in advance before setting off.
Although trendy upscale clubs, cocktail bars and casinos can be found in Hivernage, Marrakech is not a city filled with buzzing nightclubs. Usually the only music you will hear is on the streets and in the bars of international chain hotels. A great place that brings both food and entertainment together is Jad Mahal. An la carte tagine and couscous should hit the spot.
Then belly dancers and a live band later on add further spice to one of the Marrakech’s least pretentious fun nights as the band serve up cover versions, Arabic sounds and just about anything else you can think of. They offer live music at weekends and occasionally during the week too. It’s a fitting venue for a city whose main appeal is its breathtakingly diverse range of influences, history and intoxicating collage of cultures.
Written by Robin Mckelvie
Photography by André Graver