Someone once wrote “expectations are like pottery. Hold them too tight and they crack easily”. I had packed my expectations quite tightly in my suitcase on the way to Morocco, bracing myself for aggressive men and a chaotic and dirty city.
I could not have been more wrong. While the pink city can be quite chaotic at times (see square Jamaa el Fna at night…) what I found was a clean, modern and buzzing city, with wonderful and welcoming people, and men intensely committed to sell me carpets rather than staring at my cleavage.
Known by locals as the Pink city, the city of Palms or the city of the 7 Saints, Marrakech is split between the Medina and the Nouvelle Ville by the ancient city walls covering a radius of 19 km. The Medina, the ancient part of the city, is formed by narrow roads packed with traditional souks (markets) stretching like arteries from the heart of the old town, the crazy square of Jamaa el Fna. The Nouvelle Ville, as the name implies, is the more modern part of Marrakech, where you will find high street brands alternating with up and coming Moroccan designers giving a modern spin to traditional artisanal art and clothing.
Accommodation is in no shortage in Marrakech. We made the choice to stay in a traditional Rihad in the Medina, rather than in one of the very expensive 5 star hotels in the new part of the city. Despite obvious compromises in terms of luxury and comfort, most Rihad are hidden gems where you will get to experience life in a traditional Moroccan home. The word hidden was not chosen casually. Traditional Moroccan architecture commands that houses have no external balconies, but rather develop on the inside, with internal courtyards and open roofs, to enjoy the sunshine afforded by this city. Even though this architectural feature originates from the will to hide away Moroccan women from preying eyes, the result is almost a metaphorical feeling that beauty often lies on the inside. This is true for most of the palaces and garden that can be visited in Marrakech. While looking very modest from the outside, they contain amazing details on the inside, with masterfully carved wood, beautiful orange trees and colorful mosaics. There are thousands of Rihad in Marrakech, but I can suggest Rihad dar Amanza and Rihad de cigognes.
Because Marrakech and the surrounding area have plenty of things to offer whether you are looking for a city break or a more adventurous trip, I would have needed much more than just a few days to do it all. This clearly gives me an excuse to go back, but for now all I can do is share with you the top experiences I recommend you do when visiting Marrakech:
1. Hire a guide and explore the Medina: navigating this maze of narrow streets on your own can be nearly impossible. Many Moroccan street have no names, especially in the old city, and the vendors that crowd these streets can end up looking identical after a while. We chose to hire a guide, and it was a very funny experience. Any guide you hire (and trust me there is no shortage of them) would alternate sightseeing and interesting facts about the city, to introducing you to all his friends and family which coincidentally have something amazing to sell you. Bargaining is the norm, so if that is not your strongest point, you can opt to buy traditional souvenirs like leather, silver teapots and traditional Moroccan shoes in one of the Government’s artisanal centers where prices are fixed. Other than dried fruit, natural oils and tobacco in fact, everything else is negotiable. I love myself a little haggle, and I would encourage you to try it out and have some fun with it, and maybe bring home a beautiful carpet in the process. If you do want to buy a carpet, leather goods or traditional ceramics, make sure that you are buying hand crafted original pieces, rather than the mechanically made one. An honest guide will be able to help you with the choice, and you’ll be sure to have a unique piece to remind you of your trip.
2. Visit a traditional pharmacy and learn about the amazing properties of Argan Oil. In fact, apparently, there is nothing this oil can’t do ☺. Argan oil is one of the most traditional Moroccan products, and I am no stranger to its beneficial effects when used for skin and hair care. The Medina of Marrakech hosts a great range of traditional “pharmacies” where argan oil and other natural products are sold to cure a number of conditions, but also for culinary and esthetic purposes. We visited “Epices Avenzohar”, where we had a chance to understand the origins and use of argan oil and where we bought a life supply of it and other remedies. Most epiceries also offer massages and have an hammam, a traditional Arab bath. As mentioned before, the price of oils and traditional spices is not negotiable, but the interesting demonstration alone is worth the price.
3. Visit the Couranic school of Ben Youssef and the Bahia Palace. Traditional Moroccan architecture and art can be admired in many other places around the city, but these two are those that captured my attention the most and left me open mouthed in many of their rooms. Islam does not allow the physical representation of Allah and the prophet Muhammad, so unlike Christian churches, in Muslim countries, God is celebrated through the use of geometry and calligraphy. Carved wood and traditional horseshoe archways dominate the scene here, and coupled with colorful mosaics and beautiful courtyards they give a breath taking final results. The museum Ben Youssef is particularly interesting because it opens a window into traditional Moroccan life, from pottery, to the ceremony of Tea to calligraphy and the intricate designs of traditional Moroccan broderie. The adjacent Couranic School also gives an idea of the life of students in Morocco, and the traditional journey to become a devout Muslim.
4. Stroll around Marrakech’s wonderful gardens. One thing that truly surprised me about Marrakech was the number and beauty of its gardens. The city can truly be defined as an oasis in the desert, with wonderful green spaces scattered around the city, both in the Medina, with the Kotubia Gardens, and in the Ville nouvelle, where you can visit the Majorelle gardens, brought to life by the French artist Majorelle and “adopted” by Ives Saint Laurent. There is not much you can do there but walk around, take in the beautiful colors of the trees and the flowers and be peaceful. The Majorelle gardens are particularly great if you like cactuses, there is an entire section of the garden dedicated to them, and it is pretty cool!
5. Visit Square Jamaa el Fna at night. This Square at night is like the beating hearth of a majestic animal. It is truly alive. You have people – a sea of them – you have smells – from spieces, to dried food to lamb meat – you have music, dancers, henna tattoos, snake enchanters and the lot. When you are walking in it, it might feel slightly overwhelming, and I advise you to keep your possession to the minimum and beware of pick-pockets. Criminality is very low in Morocco, but this place tends to be an exception at night. However, do bring your camera with you, and snap shots of monkey trainers, story tellers or traditional male dancers dressed as woman. It is a very unique mix of things, but be prepared to give a small tips to the subject of your photo. Between 10 to 30 dirams is perfectly OK (1 to 3 euros). Many rooftop bars and restaurants surround the square and I suggest you take the time to visit one of them if only to take in the full scope of the square from above. Most guides recommend “Café Glacier”, but I found it extremely disappointing. The view is great, but don’t expect great service or tasty food.
6. Leave the city and have tea in a traditional Berber home. We took a day trip to visit the Valley of Ourika, 60 km outside Marrakech. The Valley is usually visited by Moroccans during the summer because of is cool climate afforded by the river and waterfalls. The place is interesting and offers beautiful scenery with the snowy atlas mountain in the background, but what I loved about this day was the chance to stop in a traditional Berber house to drink mint tea and eat homemade bread. Berber communities often open their houses to tourist for a small tip, and most guides take their tours there on the way to the Ourika Valley. Berber communities live very modestly, working the land and producing butter, bread, honey, as well as carpets and traditional potteries, that they sell in Marrakech. It was a wonderful opportunity to see a different way of life, understand the history and art of tea and taste first hand homemade traditional products.
Like for many other countries, Marrakech is not Morocco. True, it is becoming more and more popular with Westeners, and it offers wonderful sights and a relaxing and welcoming environment. However, Morocco has also much more to offer. The other imperial cities, as well as Desert towns and mountain resorts are all elements of a multi-faceted country which I am looking forward to visit again.
As true for his architecture as much as for its people, the beauty and richness of Morocco is hidden from the outside. It lay within, and discovering it is a pleasure I would recommend to everyone.