We certainly ate well during our stay in Marrakech.

Chez Chegrouni (inexpensive) is one of the grand dames of the Place Jemaa El Fna and, in common with the others, has dining on the ground floor as well as on two terraces overlooking the square. Popular with locals and tourists alike so arrive early whether it’s for lunch or dinner. Since the Place is definitely worth keeping an eye on it’s worth waiting for one of the tables with a view. The menu (in both French and English) features the standard selections of soups, tagines, couscous dishes and grilled meats and does include some vegetarian options. Order by writing down what you want on a paper napkin – this is taken away to the kitchen but will be returned to you as your bill at the end of your meal. Main dishes are between 30 and 50 dirhams. That price gets you a reasonable portion of tagine (well-flavoured and the long, slow cooking renders the meats tender too) but the grilled meat dishes are a little on the small side.

Brasserie Orientale Le Tanjia (mid-priced) was recommended to us by our hotel receptionist when the restaurant we wanted to book was already full. Located on Derb J’did (near the Bahia Palace) Le Tanjia is much more special on the inside than it’s exterior might suggest and don’t let it’s name fool you – it’s Moroccan, not Oriental, cuisine that it serves. The décor is sumptious Moroccan with a modern twist, the tables are well spaced out and the staff are welcoming, attentive and helpful. All our dishes were very good from the pigeon pastilla starter to the fish pastilla my mum had for her main to the lamb tagine I had for mine. Pete was a real fan of his honey chicken tagine which was right up his alley and worked very well. Most special of all was the restaurant’s special mechoui lamb (available for a minimum of two people only so my dad and sister shared) which was moist, tender and beautifully flavoured. Red wine drinkers were also keen on the Domaine de Sahari special reserve (which they’d been introduced to in back at the riad). All in all a lovely meal in beautiful surroundings. I’d have loved to have found time to return for lunch one day as the manager mentioned that it was usually served on their roof terrace but it leaves me something to look forward to next time.

Café Arabe (mid-priced) is a funky and casual café and restaurant based to the North West corner of the souks which themselves are north of the Place Jemaa El Fna. My guide book recommended it as one of very few options for a break within the souk area and Pete, my dad and I stopped for coffee during our walk from the tanneries back to the main square. We returned the next day for lunch with my sister and mum too and enjoyed our meal at an outdoor table in the lovely ground floor courtyard. The Café is deceptively spacious as the courtyard is flanked by two internal dining areas plus terraces on higher floors too. What’s different here is that the menu offers a mix of Moroccan and Italian dishes which can make a nice change after one too many tagines! The complimentary nibbles served were delicious and were generously refilled a couple of times. My dad and I enjoyed lamb chops crusted with mustard and breadcrumbs, down as roast lamb in the menu. Very nice. My sister had some grilled chicken skewers. Mum had another vegetarian tagine and Pete had an unusual tagine with meatballs in a tomatoey sauce and an egg broken into the dish and baked in situ. We all enjoyed the meals and I’d definitely recommend the Café Arabe not just for a pitstop if passing but as worthy of a special visit in itself.

Le Tobsil (expensive) is one of the very top restaurants in Marrakech and has a reputation to match. I found recommendations not only in my guidebook but on several online guide books and travel sites too. Oddly enough given the islamic nature of the country, Christmas day is a very busy one in Marrakech, full as it is of so many European travellers escaping another same-old same-old Christmas at home so it’s lucky that I had prebooked a table at Le Tobsil for dinner on Christmas Day evening about a week before leaving home. Our taxis dropped us off at an anonymous looking archway where we were met by a gentleman from the restaurant who led us through a maze of narrow alleys to the restaurant door in Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien. A team of men wait in the archway to do just that and then return to the restaurant so they they can do the same on one’s departure! Greeted at the door by the owner Christine Rio we were shown to a table on the ground floor directly next to the gnawa musicians but were offered a choice between this one and another upstairs. We stuck with the ground floor and enjoyed being able to watch the musicians at close quarters – infact they even let my mum and I try one of their instruments. The décor of the restaurant was beautiful and luxurious and with rich fabrics, lovely lighting and rose petals strewn over the tables. A sprig of holly was added too. Our waiter explained that Le Tobsil offer a set menu only (which I already knew) and I confirmed the note I’d made on booking that one of our party was a partial vegetarian and ate fish or vegetables only. Not a problem. I hadn’t realised that aperitifs and wine were included, though we didn’t order any aperitifs, they did keep the wine flowing and wine drinkers said it was a pleasant one. First came a huge array of what I usually call meze dishes but which were introduced as a “salade marocaine”. These were all vegetarian and we were given some lovely bread to have with them. The first ones to come were all cold but soon after that a selection of hot options arrived, all but one also vegetarian. I sensibly limited myself to very little bread as the next course was a wonderfully flavoured chicken tagine. This was followed by a lamb tagine served with delicious vegetable couscous (and gravy). All very tasty. Next came dessert – wonderfully sweet and soft poached pears. Just when we thought we were all done we were given another dessert, a delicious orangey cake which none of us could manage more than a bite of two of. After tea (for those of us who had space) we gave them a number to call a taxi for us and one of their guides showed us back to the collection point where our taxi soon arrived. The set menu was priced at 600 dirhams per person but do note that this includes aperitif, wine, a true feast (where more of any course is offered to those who have the appetite) as well as tea and coffee. We felt it was good value.

Dar Moha (expensive) is another of the top restaurants in Marrakech, indeed many feel it’s Marrakech’s finest restaurant beating vaunted leaders such as Yacout. As such, it’s advisable to reserve a table in advance, especially on Fridays and Saturdays and during peak periods. In a city of beautifully restored riads, the setting too is more stunning than many others – once a royal palace and more lately the home of designer Pierre Balmain, dining tables are scattered throughout many interconnected rooms and those around the pool are most sought after during warmer months. The cuisine itself is innovative – traditional Moroccan dishes given a nouvelle twist by chef Mohamed who lived and worked for many years in Switzerland. As at Le Tobsil there is a set price for all diners but here diners are offered a choice for several of the courses and drinks are chosen from an a la carte wine and drinks list. The salade marocaine selection wowed me immediately. I couldn’t believe how much flavour the chef had packed into this array of tiny dishes such as sweet pumpkin puree, grilled aubergine slices wrapped around sticky dates, sweet shredded cucumber, red onion paste, a thick red pepper sauce and many more which I no longer recall. As well as all these cold dishes we were brought a selection of hot appetisers too such as little filo-pastry wrapped or breadcrumbed meat, fish, cheese and vegetables. After that fabulous start we moved on to the pastillas enjoying between us traditional pigeon, vegetarian (with a tomato sauce served alongside) and white fish versions between us. Having already enjoyed a couple of pastillas elsewhere we agreed that these were again a step above the competition. Most of us went for the beef fillet tagine, with one of us opting for the vegetarian one – they were served with two generous dishes of couscous and vegetables. All of us enjoyed our choices immensely. For dessert we enjoyed fancy apple and pastry concoctions called chakhchouka, subtle and refreshing fruit sorbets served in hand made biscuit boats and some freshly sliced and lightly marinated orange served with a mildly flavoured syrup. Service throughout was excellent and again we felt the experience was good value at around the same total price as Le Tobsil.

 

Influences & Ingredients

During Morocco’s long history many, many different visitors, invaders and settlers have influenced it’s cuisine which is, today, a mix of Berber, Moorish, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African cooking. The other major influence, of course, is the availability of produce which is dependent on the climate and the fertility of the land – Morocco is blessed in both departments.

Morocco produces a large range of food itself including sheep, poultry, cattle, seafood, a great many fruits and vegetables (including citrus) as well as saffron, mint, honey and olives. Other spices such as cinnamon, cumin, tumeric, ginger, pepper, paprika, sesame, coriander and many more have been imported for hundreds, and in some cases even thousands, of years.

Foodie travellers may want to pick up some harissa, a fiery paste of garlic, chiles, olive oil and salt and some ras al hanout spice mixture which combines anywhere between 10 to 100 spices – sellers are proud and secretive about their exact recipes.

Moroccan Dishes

With the exception of Ramadan, the main meal is traditionally taken at midday although this custom is changing due to the habits of visitors and more recent immigrants. The meal typically starts with a series of hot and cold salads or appetisers (often referred to as a salade marocaine or meze). The bread, eaten at virtually every meal, comes out at this stage. The tagine comes next in it’s signature cooking dish (though these days many restaurants serve up in individually sized serving versions) – it is essentially a slow-cooked stew and the combination of meat with fruit is quite common. This is followed by couscous (a ground semolina pasta shaped into miniscule grains) topped with either meats or vegetables and a delicate gravy is sometimes served with it. Desserts aren’t eaten regularly – instead most meals are ended with either sweet mint tea or strong coffee.

Tagine

Another dish you may come across is pastilla, a delicious sweet-savoury pastry made with pigeon, cinammon, sugar and filo pastry. Harira, a thick traditional Moroccan soup, usually eaten during Ramadan to break the day’s fast, is a hearty meal in itself. One of our favourite dishes was the Moroccan roast lamb or mechoui which was so tender that the meat truly did fall off the bone.

Sweet pastries tend to be served during breaks rather than after a meal and include sugary pastries stuffed with almond paste, moist honey cakes which are deep-fried, pretzel-shaped morcels of dough dipped into honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds, a sweet semolina paste known as halwa and a range of biscuits (cookies) and cakes.

Drinks

I’ve already mentioned the ubiquitous sweet mint tea served in tiny glass cups and often poured from a great height by seasoned servers. Visitors to Marrakech who are a little tea-ed out might enjoy freshly squeezed orange juice in the Jemaa El Fna Square at a government fixed price of only 3 dirhams a glass.

Street Food

Speaking of the Jemaa El Fna Square it transforms in the evening into a vast open-air array of street food vendors selling a huge range of food from soups, to skewered meat kebabs to items most Western visitors won’t even recognise (or want to)!

Sheepshead on a souk stall

Jan 022007
 

“A good holiday is one spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.”
John B. Priestly

For Christmas 2006 we decided on a change of scene. Together with my parents and my sister we spent 3 nights in Marrakech during which we did some gentle sightseeing, some great eating and enjoyed some good old-fashioned family time.

Guide book: I followed my usual method of purchasing a guide book before our recent trip to Marrakech – I went into a large bookstore with a half-decent travel section and made a direct comparison of the books they had in stock. I usually do this by picking one or two sights and reading the descriptions for the same sights in all books plus checking out the non-sight specific sections such as maps, political and historical sections and so on. The Time Out guide won hands down and was a packed a huge amount of useful and interesting information. I read a lot of the book beforehand and referred to it frequently during the trip itself.

Souks: Would strongly recommend getting your hands on a map that details which areas within the twisting alleyways sell which kinds of items – leather, ceramics, clothes, shoes, food, metalwork, spices and herbs, jewellery and so on. The one in Time Out was adequate for our needs even though it didn’t have every single teeny alley way marked. In my experience the stall holders in the souks were friendly, warm, not at all pushy or insistent and were happy for us to ask about items without buying. Many would invite us to examine their wares as we walked past but none were in the slightest rude if we declined, which we always did with a cheerful aknowledgement rather than the sullen, scared or indifferent ignoring tactic used by some tourists we encountered. As the only French-speaker I tended to be the mouth-piece for our little group of 5 and consequently had some wonderful conversations with people genuinely happy to tell us about their goods without pushing for sales, to talk about the souks generally, one told me a little of what the specific souk we were in used to be like many years ago and so on. Marrakech is not one of those places where you need to worry that any expression of interest in goods or friendliness on your part will tie you into a purchase or even make it difficult to avoid a purchase. By the way, do bargain hard. On two of the three purchases we made I got at least 50 per cent off the initial price.

Non-Souk Shopping: I love the hustle, bustle and bargaining of the souks but for those who hate that kind of shopping experience you might prefer the government controlled Ensemble Artisanal on Avenue Mohammed V, a few minutes walk from the Place Jemaa El Fna. Prices are higher than in the souks but you can watch several of the craftsmen at work and the quality seems pretty good. The stores are housed in a large building comprised of open courtyards and lots of little stores off them and is a relaxing place to browse. The guide book also had a number of other suggestions for non-souk shopping some of which we’d probably have visited if we’d had more time.

City Bus Tour: Since we knew we probably wouldn’t have time for any proper trips outside of the medina we decided to do a tour on the hop on hop off red tour buses. I think tickets were about 130 dirham per person and gave one day’s access to two routes. We just did the one route which covered the more central sites. Although we didn’t get off (it was quite a cold day and we decided against getting out to walk around a park as we’d originally intended) we did appreciate the opportunity to see a little more of the city and it also reinforced our decision to stay in the medina rather outside it. This fit in well during out stay but for a longer, more individual tour I’d suggest just taking local taxis between the sites and just focusing on those of real interest.

Hammam: Having experienced a traditional hammam in Jordan a few years back I was keen to try one in Marrakech and mum and sister thought it sounded fun too. Neither of the men were interested. We picked the Hammam Ziani (on Rue Riad Zitoune Jdid where the road opens out into a little car park behind the Bahia Palace) as it was just a minute’s walk from our riad. The minimum charge was about 50 dirham (for entry and use of the steam room and facilities) and you could either add individual treatments (gommage or scrubbing off of dead skin), massages, seaweed treatments and so on. We were encouraged to go for the package which included the steam rooms, gommage, a massage plus a pack including bathrobe, specialist soap for use during the steaming and some shampoo for afterwards. However, the bathrobes we were given were damp and, we realised later, recycled into bags at the reception without being washed, infact when we changed into ours and went into the steam rooms, the staff took our bathrobes but gave us any old ones when we left again. Given that these double up as your towels at the end this was the one aspect we were very disappointed in. The rest of it however was great even though far too factory line style. We were first shown into the steam room where we were sat down at low stone stools infront of our own stone basins and encouraged to wash ourselves with hot water. After a while ladies came and opened one of the packets containing a strange gelatinous black soap that we’d seen on sale in the souks and instructed us to wash ourselves down with it. We were then pointed to the steps to better heat up in the steam. One at a time we were called into a neighbouring room for the gommage – after climbing up onto huge flat marble tables we were scrubbed to within an inch of our lives by strong smiling women. After that we were pointed to the showers to rinse off before the main massage. Mine was absolutely excellent and I am sure I was given extra time, perhaps because I was friendly, made sure to let her know how good it was and also mentioned my back and hip pains. The body massage was done using liberal amounts of argan oil with a wonderfully scented rose oil used on the face. After another hot shower to remove all that oil, especially from one’s hair, we dried off (somewhat reluctantly) using other peoples’ bathrobes as towels and got back to our riad positively glowing, just in time for a quick drink before setting off for dinner.

Tanneries: I was dying to visit one of the traditional tanneries and three of us took a taxi to the relevant area of the medina – actually our taxi dropped us just outside the Bab Debbagh (Tanner’s Gate) in the medina wall. This was perfect as we just walked in through the arched gate and were right there in the heart of the tannery district. As most tourists head for the other end of the road on which all the tanneries lie we were able to see parts of this area we may not otherwise have seen. As expected a number of men approached us offering to guide us. We quickly realised that we would not be able to really walk around freely nor take photos unless we accepted one of these self-styled “guardians” as our guide. With his help we walked not only around the outside egdes of the vast tannery area but also along many of the narrow edges of the vats (terrifying for someone with no sense of balance and ridiculous vertigo – thank goodness he offered his hand to help) and right into the heart of the many vats. I took lots of photos and had a really good look. I didn’t find the smell half as strong or offputting as guidebooks and reports had lead me to believe I would. Having toured this one tannery we tipped our guide and continued on into the medina. All along the road were gates into many other tanneries, most of which looked smaller than the one we’d toured. We didn’t bother visting further ones as we’d spent quite a bit of time at the one we toured but we were clearly in a non-tourist area and enjoyed watching various craftsmen working outside or just inside their tiny workshops. We walked the full length of the road to where it ended at Place du Moukef. A nearby open square and adjoining streets were absolutely bustling with a very lively and very local fruit and vegetable market. I didn’t take many photos as there were many local women wearing traditional dress and I didn’t wish to offend but it was quite a change from walking around the more touristy areas of the medina nearer to the Place Jemaa El Fna. From here we took a circuituous route back to the Place Jemaa El Fna veering northwards to be able to pass through more of the souks just to it’s north.

Accommodation

Riad Si Said: I contacted several riads back in mid-November when we decided to do this trip (having had our previously booked trip cancelled due to some major flight rescheduling). The trip was (as I explained in my initial emails) a special family trip to celebrate some good health within the family and it was important to find somewhere beautiful, comfortable, inviting, in short a little magical, for the three night stay. Riad Si Said quickly stood out. Having agreed on a booking of three specific rooms the 30% deposit was paid by credit card on the 20th November. We received confirmation via email and also had some additional conversations following that to discuss airport pick up, meals and so on.

Less than 48 hours before our scheduled arrival in Marrakech I received an email from the Riad informing me that they had made a mistake and had only two of the three rooms available for our stay. Given that our stay was over Christmas – a very busy time in Marrakech – it was simply not possible for us to find an alternative, especially as we were looking for three rooms. We had little choice but to go ahead with our reduced booking at Si Said though I made my disappointment very clear.

Clearly, the staff had decided that since we were a family group it would be OK to shove my sister (the single traveller) in with one of the couples.

On arrival at the airport the promised transfer was not there and we waited for over 10 minutes before I made a call to the Riad (on my UK mobile so not terribly cheap) only to be told that they were on their way. Several minutes after that a man arrived and we followed him to the parking area. He tried to cram five of us and our luggage into a single taxi but when I insisted that the hotel had promised two for our group size he reluctantly roped in a nearby one and off we went.

On arrival at the hotel we were shown to our two rooms and given a tour of the hotel. We left it to my sister to decide who to share with and in which room. One of the rooms, the Mellah, has a tiny walk in cupboard/ luggage room off it with a proper door. It had just enough room for a single bed and the minibar fridge though it had no heating and suffered from noise during the night but at least gave her a door to close, providing a small measure of privacy. The other room, the Bahia Suite, was larger but had no such option.

The hotel offered my sister a complimentary massage during the stay but failed to appreciate that this reservation cock-up affected not only my sister’s stay but also that of my husband and I (whose room she shared). My sister was marginalised into a tiny storage room instead of luxuriating in her own room. My husband and I could not enjoy the romantic trip we’d envisioned either. I do not exaggerate when I tell you how hugely, hugely disappointing this was.

The rooms themselves, it must be said, are stunning. Comfortable, well decorated, spacious and peaceful. The public areas too are beautiful with more than enough nooks and crannies for every guest to find peace and quiet should they wish. As expected, the pool was too cold for use during winter though it’s a shame the “jacuzzi” on the gorgeous roof terrace is unheated as we would have loved to use that. We didn’t take any meals in the riad as the prices quoted for the Xmas period were an eye-watering 100 Euros per person. Even the very best restaurants in the city were not charging these prices. They offered to knock it down to 80 Euros a person without entertainment but we declined and ate very well elsewhere.

On our second night we had a couple of problematic incidents. Although guests are told on arrival that they can come and go as they please (even very late into the night) my sister was woken up in the early hours by guests who were unable to get back in to the riad. The night guardian slept through over half an hour of their banging and yelling at the door not to mention the reception phone ringing when they tried to get his attention that way. Somehow they got in eventually. That same night this same couple or another one hammered on my parents’ room door (situated up a different staircase to the rest of the rooms) at about 5 am. When my parents eventually opened up they kept screaming about being late for their transfer to the airport. My parents were eventually able to convince these people that they weren’t staff but the staff were nowhere to be seen although the transfer had been arranged in advance. Whilst I don’t blame the riad staff for the appalling behaviour of these guests a huge part of the problems we experienced were down to the fact that the night guardian was simply nowhere to be found and must have been sleeping the sleep of the dead. Indeed we reported the problems to the manager the next day and she later offered us a complimentary bottle of wine from the owner by way of apology.

Throughout our stay the service from the staff was warm and friendly (at breakfast, in the bar and at reception too where we were assisted in making some restaurant bookings). The location of the riad was great too.

Had it not been for the serious mess-up with our reservation, I’d give this riad top marks. However, staying on top of one’s reservations, especially when you have only 7 rooms to look after, has to be one of the fundamentals of running a business like this and it had such a major impact on our stay that it cannot be overlooked.

 

Overview

Marrakech (alternatively spelt Marrakesh) is one of the most popular destinations in Morocco, a country situated at the North Western most corner of the vast African continent. Popular with travellers searching for the exotic, the heart of Marrakech is in it’s ancient Medina, a walled city once organised around mediaevel craft guilds but now a mix of traditional craft workshops and tanneries, shopping opportunities ranging from tiny stalls in the souk to large and modern shops, mosques, museums, gardens and a huge number of dining and accommodation options. This ancient centre is complimented by more modern suburbs including Geuliz, Hivernage and Palmeraie which offer 20th and 21st century architecture, facilties and shopping. A tourist attraction since the early 20th century Marrakech has a very hip reputation and is well-known too for it’s range of luxury accommodation. Of course, it opens it’s arms to everyone and there are options for everyone from budget backpackers to the seriously wealthy.

Mirrors on souk stall (featuring my feet)
Mirrors for sale, featuring my feet!

History

Evidence of human settlement from before detailed records are available. Berbers certainly in the region as far back as 1200 BC. In the centuries before Christ the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans came for trade, established mainly coastal settlements. Three main Berber dynasties successively ruled for the first several centuries AD – the Almoravids, the Almohads and the Merenids. The Arabs successfully introduced Islam to the country and eventually the Saadians, who were of Arab descent, took power followed by the Alaouites, also of Arab descent. The 1800s saw the first European incursions and the French formally established colonial rule in 1912. During this time the Glaoua tribe gained dominance but when the French finally granted independence in 1956 it was the Alaouite Sultan who took the reigns and restyled himself as King. Over the next few decades democracy was slowly and somewhat patchily introduced. The current King, who succeeded his father in 1999, took the country in a new direction by throwing his support behind further democractic advances (including improved rights for women and a multiparty political system) and genuine respect for human rights. He also made foreign investment more straightforward and cracked down on aggressive touts and hustlers adding further to Marrakech’s considerable appeal.

It’s difficult to condense the long and varied history of Morocco (and Marrakech) down into the brief overview (above) without losing a great deal of the detail so I’ll be posting a longer historical summary (as a separate blog article) soon.

Main Sights (Medina)

To my mind the Medina itself is the primary tourist attraction of Marrakech, enclosing within it’s old walls a warren of narrow roads and narrower alleyways, exciting souks (see section below), beautiful mosques and secretive riads hiding behind their heavy doors and high walls.

Within the Medina be sure to visit the vast Jemaa El Fna square and the Koutoubia Mosque next to it – the square is one of the main hubs of the Medina and is great for people watching, dining, drinking and entertainment too (in the form of snake charmers, tooth sellers, heavily costumed tea vendors, orange juice sellers and all manner of other vendors. In the evening the square turns into a vast open air street food venue.

The tanneries and nearby traditional crafts workshops offer a fascinating glimpse into a way of life that’s persisted for many, many centuries. Fresh produce markets in this quarter are also geared mainly to natives and were thus of great interest to me after the fabulous, but strongly tourist-oriented central souks.

Other Medina sights to check out include the Musee de Marrakech,the Dar Si Said museum, the Koubba El Badiyin, the Ben Youssef Medersa (koranic school), the Dar Bellarj, the Bab Doukkala Mosque, the Kasbah Mosque and the Saadian Tombs as well as the various palaces within or just outside the city walls such as the Badii Palace, the Melleh and the Bahia Palace. Art lovers should investigate the various galleries and trendy boutiques of the Mouassine quarter.

Jemaa El Fna Square with Koutoubia Mosque in background
Jemaa El Fna Square with Koutoubia Mosque in background

Tannery
Tannery

Main Sights (Beyond the Medina)

Although I had little interest in the more modern suburbs outside the Medina those with more time in Marrakech or more of an interest in Art Deco architecture might enjoy a tour of Gueliz, designed and built by the colonial French in the 1930s. Situated North West of the Medina, broad, tree-lined avenues, parks, attractive modern architecture, easy road access and modern dining, shops and nightlife can all be found here. One sight I would have liked to visit in Gueliz is the Marjorelle Gardens. Designed in the 1930s and now owned privately byYves Saint Laurent I suspect that these gardens were the inspiration for many a trendy garden make-over in the last couple of decades!

Another modern suburb that might interest some is Hivernage which offers more high-end hotels and villas, a large railway station currently being modernised and the Royal Opera House.

To the North East of the Medina is an area known as the Palmerai for the palm groves first planted here centuries ago. Not particularly pretty but known for another selection of high end hotels as well as the homes of local and international rich/ famous.

Those interested in gardens should add (to Marjorelle, above) the Menara Gardens and the royal Agdal Gardens, both of which date back to the Almohad Dynasty of the 12th century as well as the Mamounia Gardens, a great favourite, along with the hotel of the same name, of Winston Churchill. More easily accessible from the Medina are the Koutoubia Gardens (next to the mosque), the Arset Abdelsalam and the Place de Foucault.

For those with more time relaxing retreats to the mountains surrounding the city are also popular and offer a great contrast to the buzz of Marrakech.

The Souks

This labrythine maze of alleyways is a wonderful place to wonder through for visitors interested either in shopping or simply browsing a wide array of colourful and intriguing goods. Each area of the souk, blending seamlessly into the next, traditionally housed craftsmen and vendors of a single type of product (such as leather, ceramics, metalwork, silver jewellery, meat, fruit and vegetables, clothing and shoes) and although some areas remain dominated by that product today others have turned into a free-for-all mix! A good map (such as the one I used in our Time Out Marrakech guide book) really helps narrow in on the areas of personal interest. Although many people seem to report being hassled by aggressive vendors in the souks this was not my experience during our December 2006 visit. It may be that they visited many years ago as I have read that the current King has introduced a number of intiatives to reduce touts, hustling and aggressive sales practices. Certainly, whilst the stall holders often called out to us as we walked past a simple no thanks, delivered with a smile, did not lead to any sour faces let alone the torrents of abuse that some holidaymakers have referred to. The souks are better suited to shoppers who are not only willing to haggle but enjoy it, as I do. My first counter offer was always a maximum of 25% of the vendor’s first price and I very seldom paid more than 50% of that original price.

Shoes on a souk stall
Shoes on a souk stall

Goods on a souk stall
Goods on a souk stall

Handicraft Cooperatives

For those who hate haggling over their shopping there are a couple of co-operatives that might be of interest. The government controlled Ensemble Artisanal on Avenue Mohammed V is a few minutes walk from the Place Jemaa El Fna. Consisting of many small shops arranged around two central courtyards, prices are higher than in the souks but you can watch several of the craftsmen at work and the quality seems pretty good. The Centre Artisinal is more like a large department store specialising in handicrafts and is located in the Medina on Derb Baissa Kasbah.

Ornate roof detail
Ornate roof detail at the Ensemble Artisinal

Accommodation

As my guide book so succinctly puts it, for many visitors to Marrakech “the accommodation [is] the destination”. The city has an abundance of boutique hotels, many of which are sympathetic, luxurious and romantic conversions of traditional riads within the Medina. Often referred to as “garden houses”, all the rooms are arranged around a central courtyard garden hidden away from the clamour outside by high walls and large solid doors. Grander riad hotels often involve two or more houses but the majority consist of just 6 or 7 guest rooms of varying sizes, style and luxury. Most also have lots of shared spaces for guests to relax outside of their bedrooms from the snug ground floor dens with lots of cushions and open fireplaces to the open roof terraces with sunbeds, awnings and even bar service.

Visitors should be aware that most riads are not readily accessible by car (though cars can get closer to some than to others) and those with a poor sense of direction may spend many happy hours trying to get back to their chosen base!

Larger luxury hotels are available in the modern suburbs of Marrakech and include the famous Mamounia in Palmerai, a favourite of Winston Churchill’s. Some of these have been converted from former palaces and are very grand indeed.

Also gaining in popularity are out of town retreats for those wishing to escape the buzz of the city for a night or two in the surrounding mountains.

Door
What’s behind those high walls and ornate doors?

Riad
Many riads or garden houses have been turned into boutique hotels

Dining

Whilst I wouldn’t rate Moroccan cuisine as one of the world’s best it certainly has it’s fanbase and eating out in Marrakech is a pleasure indeed. Popular dishes include pigeon pastilla, meat and vegetable tagines and couscous. Marrakech caters for absolutely all budgets and you can fill up on a hearty tagine for as little as 50 dirhams per person or enjoy an absolute feast for as much as 650! Reservations are definitely recommended for the most popular restaurants which get very busy during peak periods.

Traditional Hammams

Many of the luxury hotels have their own hammams but these are often little more than steam rooms. Visitors wanting the full steam, vigorous scrubbing and deft massage should visit one of the many traditional hammams in and around the Medina. (Men and women will be separated).

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