- Written by Elizabeth Kerr, 1 April 2016
Casablanca may have been immortalised in the movies, but Marrakech could be North Africa’s most underrated destination. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
“Waste of time!” is the huffy retort from a cranky, likely hungry, silver vendor in Marrakech’s main souk, when a shopper mentions he’s just browsing. But it is the 26th day of Ramadan – and the sun hasn’t set yet. The guy deserves a break.
Marrakech during the most crucial Muslim holiday of the year is a study in contrasts. Early on the locals, explains a veteran, native tour guide, are in the opening stretch of a marathon – it’s all optimistic sprinting. By day 26, the strain is starting to show. People are feeling drained, even with the finish line in sight. Tempers are worst if Ramadan lands during August, when a ‘breeze’ feels akin to standing in front of a giant hairdryer – on high.
Founded in the 11th century, Marrakech’s fortunes have waxed and waned during its long history, but it has always been a major citadel of the Muslim world. Unlike the capital at Rabat and the more commercial Casablanca, the former Berber capital has a decidedly French feel. Regardless of which European influence lingers, Marrakech is a great window into both the Middle East and Africa in one trip.
An excursion outside the city limits – a camel ride on the rolling sand dunes of the Western Sahara, a trek through the Atlas Mountains, or a getaway to Essaouira and its Jewish settlement on the Atlantic coast – all complement Marrakech’s urban mania and, like Jordan, reflect its overarching progressive tolerance. Don’t miss these experiences if time permits, but if it’s a city break you’re looking for, Marrakech ticks plenty of boxes.
In and around the Medina
Start an urban exploration of Marrakech in what is effectively the beating heart of the city – Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. Surrounded on all sides by souks and cafés and anchored by the 12th century Koutoubia Mosque, Jemaa el-Fnaa sits smack dab in the middle of the Medina – the old city.
The Medina’s ancient walls are still standing, and the ramparts that once stood sentry still light up at night to cast their distinct orange glow onto the rabbit warren of streets within. Koutoubia, the city’s biggest mosque, is a site to see, even from the outside. During Ramadan, worshipers spill out into its courtyard, and the reverent hush that falls during prayer is an indelible experience. Forget about taking pictures (security guards will very politely indicate you should drop your camera) and just absorb the view from across the street.
It’s easy to orientate yourself by looking for Koutoubia’s minaret, restored in the 1990s and a prototype for La Giralda (now the cathedral bell tower) in Seville and Tour Hassan in Rabat. The tower is a showcase of Moorish architectural ornamentation, with its keystone arches, jagged crenellations and signature pink plaster. Koutoubia is often referred to as the booksellers’ mosque, as upon completion dozens of vendors set up shop on its doorstep.
The Medina is also where you’ll find the Museum of Marrakech (a must for history buffs), Museum of Moroccan Arts and Islamic Art Museum. The latter is situated in the glorious Majorelle Garden, which was bequeathed to the city by designer Yves Saint Laurent. In Bahia Palace and the Royal Palace, Morocco’s unique crosshatch, Berber-influenced design is emblazoned on nearly every surface, from lampshades, to jewellery to teapots, and there is plenty to be found in the souks, where the Medina really comes to life.
The main souk runs off Jemaa el-Fnaa – in what feels like all directions – and if it’s for sale somewhere in Morocco, it’s for sale here. Beyond housewares, accessories and clothing, are dazzling carpets and crafts (in glass, silver and leather as a start). Gastronomes will not leave empty-handed, particularly given the fact that Moroccans are serious about their food and have the spice vendors to prove it. Your bargaining skills will be put to the test. Moroccan hagglers make Hongkongers look like rank amateurs.
Where to stay, eat and socialise
Marrakech has all levels of accommodation. For a memorable Medina riad stay, try Hotel La Maison Arabe, one of the city’s oldest, or Dar Vedra. For new-city luxury, splash out at the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech, or the Sofitel Marrakech Palais Impérial.
Whatever your budget, the food is sure to delight. While tajine – a Berber stew cooked in a clay pot – is not to be missed, Moroccan cuisine is more than just that and couscous. The bean-based b’ssara for breakfast, harira, a spicy soup, which usually breaks the fast during Ramadan and maakouda batata (potato fritters) served on the street are must-tries. Watch the square erupt with activity from the terrace of Café des Epices at sunset to get the lay of the land – if you can get a table. The boisterous Le Salama, serving Marrakchi food in a comfy atmosphere with cheap shisha, is a good sampler.
There is life outside the Medina of course, and for anyone feeling homesick for Lan Kwai Fong, the swank bars, clubs and hotels in the modern Hivernage and Gueliz districts will do the trick. The young, cosmopolitan and beautiful gather at Le Comptoir Darna for evening drinks (and belly dancing). It’s a spot that wouldn’t be out of place in the SAR were it not for the velvet upholstery, smoky lamp light and North African wood carving. Before hitting the nightspots, dinner at the popular Al-Fassia (literally meaning ‘the lady from Fez’) will kick the night off right.