Marrakesh, the Red City
Marrakesh has a population of over 33.8 million, it is the fourth largest city in Morocco, after Casablanca, Fes and Tangier. The word “Marrakesh” in Arabic means “the land of God”.
Traditional and cosmopolitan at the same time, Marrakech is a chaotic city that bursts with colours and it’s considered as a religious, business, and cultural centre of the region. This city is renowned for its hospitality, its archeologic, cultural attractions and for the largest traditional markets. For this reason it stays busy almost the entire year.
Modern suburbs surround the ancient “Medina“, the old city, surrounded by impressive sandstone walls that give Marrakesh the nickname of “Ochre city” or “Red city“: get lost in the narrow streets, learn the art of negotiation at the “Souk” the local market, smell the spices and get impressed by the astonishing colours of textiles, leather, teas and all sorts of local handmade products in a hectic atmosphere.
It took me a few days to get used to the culture and rhythm of the city dictated by the chant of the “Muezzin” five times a day, the chaos and dust of the souks, the charriots running at full speed in the narrow paths, freshly cut animal heads hanging at the butcher’s stalls and so on and so forth! If this is your first time in this country you will certainly be astonished by the local culture and the high speed rhythm of life, but luckily Marrakesh also offers chances to get relaxed such us having a pampering traditional Moroccan treatment in one of the city’s many spas, have a traditional mint tea oroll around in some shady garden such as Majorelle Gardens and Menara Gardens.
The heart of the city and a cultural must-see: street perfomers, henna tattoist, snake charmers, food stalls, fortune tellers.
Back in 1050 this square was the site of public executions (the name means assembly of death) but today it is an open air theatre of all kind of performance: cobra charmers, flute musicians, chained Berber monkeys jumping on tourists for a few coins, henna tattooist, fire eaters, fortune tellers, horse drawn carriages, musicians, acrobats, tooth pullers, thieves and so on and so forth.
If your idea of Morocco was stepping straight into a Disney film, prepare to be surprised! The architecture and the atmosphere are charming and impressive, during the day you will see stalls selling fruits, spices, water, bracelets, tattoos, but you will have the chance to experience the dark side of the country too: beggars, mistreated animals, scam artists, pickpockets, drug sellers and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, Unesco declared Djemaa El Fna a ‘Masterpiece of World Heritage’ in 2001 as it used to be a place famous for storytelling, Gnaoua music performances and traditions.
One of the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world with a tall minaret
Marrakesh’s largest mosque is located near Djemaa el-Fna square; the mosque was named Koutoub which means “book” as a book market once stood near the mosque. Built in 1150 during the Hispano-Moresque period the architecture is particularly charming.
The mosque is best known for its minaret; the oldest of only three Almohad minarets in the world. Unfortunately non-Muslims are not allowed to enter the minaret which is almost 70 meters tall and stands out above the buildings of the city.
Inside there are six rooms on six levels and a ramp which curves around the structure so that the muezzin could ride his horse/donkey up to the balcony and call worshipers to prayer. Luckily, the Koutobia site is surrounded by nice gardens so even if you cannot enter the mosque you can still walk around the building.
The name means “brilliance” and it was built to represent the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style.
The Bahia Palace and gardens were built in two stages by two men – father and son with the goal of creating the finest Islamic and Moroccan style architecture and decoration making it one of the greatest palaces of its time.
The first phase of construction was 1859-1873 for Si Moussa, Grand Vizier of the Sultan Moulay Hassan as his home and was named after one of his wives. Si Moussa was a slave who had gained power and wealth. His son Ahmed Ibn Moussa took over the palace and continued building from 1894 to 1900. Ahmed became the Grand Vizier and Regent in 1894 while Hassan’s young son was Sultan. During his lifetime he renovated and expanded Bahia Palace adding a hammam, mosque and further gardens.
The palace has a harem with a large courtyard featuring a central basin, rooms around the courtyard, pavilions, walled gardens and buildings. The oldest part of the palace is Dar Si Moussa with a courtyard, central garden, fountains and many varieties of trees. There are decorative rooms with ceramic tiles covering the walls.
One of the greatest parts of the newer section of the palace is the marble courtyard measuring 30 meters by 50 meters. It is divided into quadrants by white marble pathways with colourful tiles in a checkerboard pattern and fountains where the paths meet. The palace is decorated with painted wooden ceilings, carved stucco, cedar wood, mosaic fireplaces and stained glass windows. The lush gardens are spread across 8,000m² and are impressive. The palace is still used by the royal family and therefore closed from time to time.
El Badi Palace
A ruined Saadian palace with a grand name
El Badi Palace meaning the “Palace of Wonder” is now one of the main tourist attractions in Marrakesh. The best craftsmen of the Saadian period were used in the decoration and the finest quality materials were used in the construction such as gold, onyx and Italian marble. The palace complex once had more than 350 rooms, courtyards, walled gardens, fountains and a pool.
Even if the palace was destroyed by Moulay Ismail, there is still plenty to see including the sunken gardens, dungeon prison cells, subterranean passages and the main hall with 50 columns. The palace ruins are now used for festivals and special events. The walls are
A refreshing oasis, a place to recover from the hustle and bustle of Marrakesh
Forty years was the time it took to the French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) to build these lush gardens. The park is rightly one of the top attractions of Marrakesh; shady paths, exotic plants and flowers, and the inevitable Instagrammers doing photo shootings. There are fountains, streams and pools of water lilies and lotus flowers.
In 1910 French artist Majorelle made a trip to Egypt and became enchanted with Islamic culture. He lived in Egypt for four years and in 1917 arrived in Morocco where he based himself and made trips across Africa. In 1923 Majorelle bought a plot adjacent to a palm grove and went on to buy adjoining parcels of land. He built his home and workshop on the land in the typical Moorish style and continued to occupy himself with a variety of art forms. As a passionate botanist, he kept collecting plants from across the globe and decided to create a luxurious garden around his house which is now the heart of Jardin Majorelle.
Today the artist’s former home is occupied by the Berber Museum which focuses on the Berber culture and history (Berbers are an ethnic group from North Africa). The exhibits are divided into three sections: artifacts for domestic life and traditional use; jewels and ornaments; weaving, weapons and decorative doors.
Ben Youssef Medersa
A stunning building once a college during 14th century
One of the hidden treasures of Marrakesh is this remarkable art jewel in the heart of Marrakesh; once the largest Quranic school in North Africa, the Medersa Ben Youssef is now one of the most peaceful areas of the city and therefore a great place to stop and sunk in the spiritual atmosphere on this place. In total, the medersa houses 132 dormitory cells which were occupied by 900 students at a time. Walls are entirely decorated with holy inscriptions and geometric figures presenting Moresque details: colourful mosaics, stucco archways, cedar windows with carved vines and Italian marble details.
“You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”
The entry welcomes the visitor with a mysterious and appealing sentence: “You who enter my door, may your highest hopes be exceeded”. Originally directed at the students, the inscription is now a mysterious siren’s call that draw visitors in.
Built in the 14th century, this Islamic learning center was where students came from all over the world to learn the Quran and study Islamic law and sciences. Most students would enrol here to become mullahs, judges or lawyers.
Over the centuries, the school slowly lost more and more students who preferred the rival Medersa in Fez, therefore it was closed in the 1960s, entirely refurbished and then reopened in 1982 as a historical site.
Marrakesh Market (Souk)
“Not all who wander are lost” J.R.R Tolkien
The most exciting part of visiting this city is simply taking the Souk’s alleys following your instinct and according to your preference: you will discover amazing and colourful handmade products and see craftsman working in the narrow streets at every turn. Getting lost in the Marrakesh souks is great fun and it’s one the most exciting (and sometimes scaring!) experiences you will have in this country.
The less pleasant part is that you will need to get ready to refuse a hundred sellers trying to negociate with you at the slightest glance. A scarf will appear around your neck whether you want it or not and you will be brainwashed until finally leave some money to the vendor to set you free! Fake guides will force their presence on you, taking you through the most interesting areas of the market for some coins or maybe just to another vendor who will give them a parcel in exchange for their services.
The markets are an attack on the senses with aromas, sounds, music and bright colours . Here you can see fresh local products in piles such as nuts, figs, dried fruit, spices, olives, carpets, clothing, baked goods and pastries, leather and brass items, accessories etc. The market is divided in the Carpet souk where you can buy Berber carpets, the Slipper souk where you can find the famous colourful leather slippers, the Metalware market, the Spice Market and so on and so forth.
This is the place to spend hours learning the art of trading and negociation wandering through the over 3000 stalls and find authentic traditional souvenirs. It goes without saying that there are pickpockets who take advantage of the chaos and the naive crowds. So don’t get too distracted by taking photos at the market, keep hold of your belongings, be patient, bargain hard and be very determined when saying no!
Morocco tips and recommandations
The best way to experience the city is to stay in the heart of the Medina in a Ryad, a typical Moroccan accommodation generally family ran, characterised by Arabic architecture and furnishing in the rooms, fountains and mosaics, offering traditional local dishes, exceptional hospitality and sometimes even a refreshing pool in the middle of courtyard.
We stayed at a B&B called Ryad Hamza at 70 metres from the Djeema- el-Fna square right in the city center which was good value for money and had lovely Moroccan style suites which were pretty clean. The hotel offers a typical breakfast on the terrace with amazing views over Marrakesh: every morning an omelette, typical almond or honey pastries, freshly squeezed fruit juice, jam and bread with mint tea or coffee would wait for you to give you an immediate morning energy boost.
As for restaurants we can recommend for the decoration and romantic atmosphere the Riad Jnane Mogador which was very close to our hotel: the restaurants has a fireplace, two panoramic terraces and a kaidale tent and offers traditional meals such as tajines, almond pastillas, and local pastries with mint tea. We particularly enjoyed our dinner and we surely won’t forget the evening breeze, the light of the lanterns, the silence around us and the magnificent views over Djaam-el-Fna square. Another place not to be missed is La Cantine des Gazelles, a nice and cosy restaurant offering both Moroccan and international dishes, huge portions and good value for money right in the Medina.
Last but not least this friendly family ran café Cafe Dabachi, offers Local specialties, but also vegetarian options and it is the perfect solution for lunch: food is delicious (we recommend the tajines or the meat skewers) and cheap with a lovely terrace overlooking Djaama-el-Fna, a great spot to observe the city bustle with life and stop all at once at the prayer hour.
The best period to travel to Morocco is either spring time or autumn to avoid burning temperatures. We travelled at the end of March which allowed us to do our ” days tour in the desert enjoying temperature (around 24 Celsius degrees) during the day and cooler temperatures early in the morning and during the night (around 10 Celsius degrees). Mid seasons months are mild and dry, you will have plenty of daylight and the perfect conditions for trekking or desert tours.
No vaccination is compulsory but you should ensure that you are up-to-date with all of your routine vaccinations before visiting Morocco such as hepatitis A, which can be carried in contaminated food, a tetanus booster to avoid wounds infection, hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid dependant on your travel length, accommodation and contact with animals. Please check the official government website of your country for all updated information.
In Morocco, currency is officially the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) which due to favourable exchange rate allow tourists coming from West countries to have relatively cheap holidays. We changed money at the ATM at the airport or in the city center to avoid being scammed by the commissions applied by the exchange bureau in your own country or on your arrival in Morocco.