Advantages "Colored cottons hang in the air…"
Disadvantages "…Charming cobras in the square." (Crosby, Stills and Nash)
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
It’s your first morning in Marrakech. You’re sitting at a café in the Jemaa el Fna, soaking up the sunshine and the atmosphere while you plan your sight-seeing. I’d like to think you’d decided to start at the Jemaa el Fna by reason of having read my recent review*, but probably you would have found your way there anyway. Most visitors do. It’s well known as the central square and hub of activity in the Medina, Marrakech’s old town, and a sight worth seeing in itself.By no means the only sight worth seeing, though; Marrakech is full of them. It needs to be. These days, tourism is Marrakech’s main industry. For a city set in flat countryside a hundred miles from the sea, this means that it lives on its past – the architecture, art and ambience accumulated over a thousand years of history.
Rather fortuitously, Morocco as a whole derives its name from Marrakech, which in turn derives its name from a Berber expression meaning ‘Land of God’. Fortuitously because for only short periods in its history has Morocco been ruled from the Berber south rather than the Arab north. To be strictly geographical, Marrakech is located in the middle of Morocco, but not much happens inland further south or east. Fifty miles away in either direction one reaches the daunting High Atlas mountains, beyond which lies the desert. So in effect it is the main city of the south.
Location and history
Marrakech had its heyday in the 11th-13th centuries as the intermittent capital of a domain that stretched from northern Spain to Senegal in the south and as far to the east as Libya. In those days it was also the nexus of trade routes along which were carried slaves, gold, ivory and precious stones. The walls and general layout of the Medina date from this period, as do many of the buildings, though the most noteworthy are later additions.
Despite having taken a few knocks over the centuries, the city walls survive almost in their entirety today. Their total length of 10 kilometres (over 6 miles) completely encircles the Medina, and in places they are as much as 10 metres high, but as fortifications go they seem somehow less impressive than they might be.This is partly, I think, because of the material in which they are built, a sun-dried mixture of mud, lime and straw known as pisé. Makeshift though this sounds, it actually sets extremely hard – the walls wouldn’t otherwise have lasted all those centuries – but its powder-puff-pink colour and uneven surface somehow suggest impermanence. Approaching as a besieger, one would feel less daunted by it than by solid stone.
The other reason that the walls make less impact on the visitor than they might is that they do not lend themselves to circumambulation. Ideally, one walks around a fortified town atop the ramparts – impossible in Marrakech – or failing that by following their course closely all the way. But the meandering of the lanes prevents you hugging the perimeter of Marrakech’s walls from within, whilst outside busy boulevards filled with traffic tend to run alongside them, which does not make for a contemplative circuit on foot.The walls are pierced by no fewer than twenty gates. Many are strictly functional openings, often topped by turrets, but otherwise unremarkable. Two stand out for their decoration: the Bab Agnaou in the west, above which is a magnificent semi-circular surround in carved stone set into the pisé; and the Bab el Khemis in the north, which is also topped by some fine decorative work, in this case in sculpted stucco. I understand that several of the turrets on the way round admit the public to their interiors; personally, I didn’t visit them, having decided against attempting the full circuit with so many other things to see.
Nearly all the main sights – palaces, souks, mosques and museums – lie in old Marrakech within the walls. The Medina is alluringly atmospheric with its narrow, bustling alleys, overwhelming the visitor’s senses with sounds and scents, not all of them savoury. In complete contrast, the new city – ‘ville nouvelle’ – built by the French to the west of the old town early in the last century, is spacious and salubrious, with wide avenues and parks. It is probably the pleasanter place to live, but for the visitor it has little to offer other than one or two gardens, and the opportunity to buy alcohol.
Old city/new city
The French made some attempt to incorporate local features into the new city’s architecture, creating a style known as ‘Mauresque’, but the ambience of the place feels more European than African to me. The main unifying theme between the two cities is the pink pigment that gives the buildings of both a common colouring; the French insisted that it should continue to be used even when modern materials replaced pisé, and the edict is still in place today. Marrakech is sometimes called The Red City in consequence, although this rather overstates the ruddiness of the shade.
There are three main palaces in the Medina. One of these – the Royal Palace – still functions in that role and cannot be visited. The other two represent different periods and differing degrees of decrepitude:~ The Badii Palace, built as a boastful statement by a 16th century sultan, was originally one of the most grandiose and lavishly appointed on earth. But after a change of dynasty, his successor stripped out the gold, marble, onyx and other precious ornamentation, leaving the palace to decay. Now, it is simply a ruin, the most salient feature being the storks’ nests that crown the crumbling pavilions around an empty central square. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
~ The Bahia Palace is more recent, dating from the late 19th century, and was the home of an over-mighty grand vizier. Its ostentation aroused the resentment of the sultan (echos of Louis XIV, Vaux le Vicomte and Fouquet), who had many of its treasures conviscated. Despite this, much of the inbuilt decoration remains – intricately moulded stucco, carved cedarwood and zeliij tiling in bright geometric designs. Its interior courtyards are prettily laid out and planted too.Each of these in its different way is well worth a visit and a snip at 10 dirham (85p) entry. So, at the same price, is the Dar si Said Museum near the Bahia, with some lovely courtyards, painted ceilings and other exhibits. For a combined fee of 60 dirham (£5) one can visit three other historic buildings in the Medina:
~ Musée de Marrakech. A restored 19th century palace, which matches the Bahia for the artistry and elegance of its interior decoration in similar materials and style. The objects on display are mainly local art and artefacts, some of them very attractive, but the main exhibit is the building itself.~ Medersa ben Youssef. An archaic hall of residence for religious students. Some medersas/madrassas elsewhere in the world have become notorious as hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism, but this one, being disused, seemed innocent enough. The living quarters are interesting though uninviting, and the main attraction is the central courtyard, another outstanding example of stucco, carved wood and tiled ornamentation.
~ Koubba el Badiyin. A little complex in the grounds of a mosque, this includes the remains of waterworks that date back to the earliest days of Marrakech, among the oldest surviving structures in the city. Doubtless fascinating to archeologists, but to me as a layperson this site seemed ill-kept and unappealing.
Mosques loom large among the historic buildings of Marrakech, and the wailing calls to prayer that emanate from them are one of the signature sounds of the city – as in cities throughout the Islamic world. The minaret of the most famous mosque, the Koutoubia, is also a landmark, visible from many vantage points, though to my mind its rather chunky, square-in-section style lacked grace. Perhaps its reputation depends on its decorative detail and its interior, which infidels are not allowed to see.Not feeling strongly enough about entering as to pretend to be a Muslim, I missed seeing inside, as I did the Kasbah Mosque adjoining the Saadian tombs. The courtyards and chambers that house the tombs themselves, though, are open to the public, at another 10 dirhams (85p) and well worth it. The Saadian dynasty flourished some four hundred years ago, but the tombs – sixty-six in total – are well-preserved, and decorated in the customary Moorish style and materials, with calligraphic motifs based on the Koran.
Souks and fanouks
The souks demand a visit for their colours and clamour, for the profusion of brightly-dyed silk and cotton textiles, carpets, robes and slippers, bags and patterned leather accessories, furnishings and pottery, lamps and lanterns, ornaments and keepsakes, spices and sweetmeats….and much more besides. The stalls are mostly open-fronted, the displays of goods spilling out to jostle with the passers-by, whom the merchants try to entice inside with their unceasing sales-spiel. Recommended to all but the claustrophobic and the shy.Dotted around among and beyond the souks are a number of half-hidden courtyards known as fanouks or foundouks. These were originally merchants’ hostels, like little caravanserais, where itinerant traders could stay and set up shop. Some are now, in effect, extensions of the souks, simply more stalls in a slightly different setting. But others house craftsmen’s workshops, with the goods being made there as well as sold. We were particularly taken with The Foundouk My Hfid, which is occupied by a weavers’ co-operative (Association de Tissage). Here we were shown round the workshops and saw some fine textile wall-hangings and bedspreads being hand-made by methods traditional to the point of being primitive, though producing far from primitive results.
Marrakech has several notable gardens, not all of them, alas, open during our visit. The Mamounia Hotel was closed for refurbishment, and even my wife couldn’t persuade the watchmen on the gate that this need not preclude us from looking at its garden. The Agdal Garden, attached to the Royal Palace, was closed to the public because the king was in residence; I managed to steer my wife away before she debated the point too insistently with the armed guards who brusquely waved us off.
Parks and Gardens
We did, though, visit the Koutoubia Gardens that surround the mosque, a comfortable enough place to sit in the shade of an orange-tree and recover from sight-seeing, but rather municipal in layout and never out of earshot of traffic. By contrast, the Menara Gardens are so large that one can escape the road entirely, but they are rather flat and featureless – more olive grove and orange orchard than a garden in the European meaning of the word. There is a vast ‘tank’ – reservoir – in the middle with a pretty pavilion that one has to pay to enter. The 10 dirhams (85p) entry fee was not a problem, unlike the pest of a self-appointed guide who would not let us enjoy it in peace. Pestering of this kind is all too commonplace wherever one goes in Marrakech.By contrast again, the Majorelle Garden tucked away down a back-street in the new city is an oasis of green calm – provided one does not coincide with a coach-party, since it is rather small to absorb the crowds that it attracts. Nevertheless, the dense shade of the palms and bamboo thickets that surround the pools and fountains make it a cool and restful place. Even if the bougainvillea isn’t out to splash some contrasting colour on the scene, all the structures and pots are painted, some in deep cobalt blue, some in turquoise and some in citric shades of orange and yellow. Unusual and rather lovely, it also has a courtyard restaurant for a tasty and reasonably-priced lunch.
Eating and drinkingThere is food available all over Marrakech, from haut cuisine in pricey hotels to dirt-cheap snacks at roadside stalls. I have already mentioned some of the better-value places at which we ate – and the local dishes available in them – in my review of the Jemaa el Fna*. We also snack-lunched on harira – a delicious lamb and vegetable soup – at two riads: the Anika, on its roof terrace, decent enough and good value; and the Donab, in its pleasant pool courtyard, classier but more expensive. The most expensive meal we ate was dinner at the Sultana, in its pleasant pool courtyard after a drink on its roof terrace, but even that was not truly expensive by UK standards.
What is expensive, stingingly so, is booze, and hard to come by in the Medina except in tourist hotels. Arriving late on our first night we relied on our hotel minibar, something we seldom do, taking care not to look at the price list first unless it put us off. It would have done so. I drank local beer, which turned out to be over £4 for a tiny (25cl) can. The only wine was a 20cl split of champagne, so my wife drank that. I later discovered that the price would have bought a couple of full bottles in a British off-licence. One lives and learns. What we learned was that it was well worth taking a ‘petit taxi’ to the ACIMA supermarket in the new city where one could stock up at something like UK prices. The local rosé proved quite drinkable and on departure we took pleasure in leaving a few empties in our room.Two other eateries merit a mention: the unpromisingly named Kosybar, the terrace of which overlooks the Place des Ferblantiers – the metalworkers’ square that resounds to the clang of hammers on iron; and the Patisserie des Princes, which does its best to emulate a Parisian salon de thé and succeeds pretty well, though its petits fours are mostly Moroccan confections based on nuts and honey rather than the classic French equivalents.
Just in case you were wondering what was meant by ‘riads’ above, they are small hotels arranged in traditional style around gardens or courtyards, and they are definitely where to stay in Marrakech. There are over fifty of them dotted around the Medina, often hard to spot since typically they have only a discreet sign beside the doorway in an otherwise blank wall to announce their presence. Inside, though, they tend towards the ornate and the luxurious. Prices vary; few are cheap, but most are open to negotiation, as with everything else in Marrakech.
Where to stay
We stayed at a supposedly mid-range example – Les Jardins de la Medina in the Kasbah district near the Palace – where the least expensive room in low season is listed at 1425 dirhams (£118) b&b a night. Ours, designated ‘superior’ and which in fairness was stylish and spacious with its own balcony, cost a bit more, though not nearly as much more as stipulated in the tariff. Apart from the minibar, it wasn’t bad value. The breakfasts were tasty and ample, taken on a terrace overlooking the green, tranquil garden and decent-sized swimming pool.If you want to be really posh, you’ll delay your visit until the Mamounia, Marrakech’s swankiest hotel with a list of celebrity guests stretching back to Churchill and beyond, reopens after refurbishment. Waiting will give you time to save up; I shudder to think what rates will await you.
There are also large, modern hotels of all standards in the new city and on the way out to the rather impressive airport – newly built, but with traditional motifs incorporated into its architecture. And there are hostels and cheaper places to stay all over the city.
Most hotel staff, taxi drivers, waiters in restaurants and salesmen in the souks can manage a little English, so you can get by for tourist purposes with that alone. It’s easier, though, if you speak some French, which is universally understood. If you speak Arabic, so much the better, since you might be able to avoid paying inflated tourist prices. And if you speak Tamazight, the local Berber dialect, you are probably a native anyway and will have no need of this review.
There are public buses in Marrakech, though they don’t seem to operate in the narrow lanes of the Medina, which is mostly where the visitor wants to be. We tended to walk. We did take the basic and often battered ‘petit taxis’ a few times. They have meters, but we preferred to agree a known fare in advance to avoid being taken by any roundabout routes. Base price for tourists tends to be 20 dirhams (£1.60) anywhere around the old town, so quite affordable. For a change, we took a horse-drawn calèche out to the Majorelle Gardens, negotiating the initial asking price of 100 down to 60 dirhams (£5); a petit taxi would have been half the price but less of an experience.We didn’t have time for any of the main day-trips available out of Marrakech – up to the High Atlas passes or down to the coast at Essaouira. Buses for these routes are by all accounts cheap, but very crowded. Alternatively ‘grand taxis’ can be hired, often on a shared basis, at reportedly very reasonable rates.
Well, obviously, Eurostar to Paris, TGV through France to Barcelona, AVE through Spain to Algeciras, ferry to Tangiers and then the Marrakech Express via Casablanca for the rest of the journey. How could you contemplate any other route?
Unfortunately, constraints of time and money mean that most of us, myself included, not only contemplate other routes, but take them. It’s simplest to fly direct to Marrakech from a number of UK airports. Easyjet, Ryanair, and Royal Air Maroc all do it, as do some charter carriers serving packaged tour operators. We flew Easyjet from Gatwick, which was quite cheap and went perfectly smoothly.
If any refutation were needed of the notion that one can’t have too much heat, Marrakech would provide it, with summer temperatures soaring into the mid-40s Celsius (c.110F), which must feel a bit like being cooked in a tagine. Late Autumn or early Spring would be good, though I understand Easter is regarded as a peak period and is priced accordingly. Visiting in February, we found the days pleasantly warm in the low 20s, though the nights were chilly. Insofar as Marrakech has a rainy season this is it, but we only experienced one short, thundery shower during our visit.
Marrakech is an enjoyable place to visit, though not in quite the way I had anticipated.Conscious of its role as the former capital of an empire, I had expected more mementos of its erstwhile splendour. In fact there are few, typified by the spectral shell of the Badii Palace and the neglected battlements. The city’s relics and monuments, from varying eras throughout its history, are scattered incoherently around the Medina and convey little combined sense of lost magnificence, splendid though some of them are.
What they lose in coherence though, they gain in atmosphere. Marrakech today is a tourist town, and a fashionable one - the number of visitors has soared in recent years - but it doesn’t present itself in that role. It doesn’t feel like an exhibit, artificially conserved. Visiting is an exciting experience because it is chaotic – a bubbling stewpot of the old and new, the everyday and the extraordinary – not despite being so. For anyone unacquainted with the cultural flavours of North Africa and the Middle East, it is like a tasting menu, and as such a visit to it is recommended.
* Note; the review of the Jemaa el Fna can be found at http://travel.ciao.co.uk/Jemaa_el_Fna_Marrakech__Review_5820488
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