Monday, October 03, 2011

First-timer's guide to Marrakech

Respected travel writer and co-publisher at Eland travel books, Barnaby Rogerson takes a look at Marrakech and reports on what the first-time visitor can expect.

Marrakech is exotic. Marrakech is Moroccan. Marrakech is African. Marrakech is also at the summit of fashion. Its image is indelibly established as an international trademark of style. Ancient red city walls offset by the soaring solidity of the Koutoubia minaret combine with the hum of the covered market and the ceaseless bustle of the Jemma el Fna square - the whole set against an astonishing backdrop: the vast blue on blue of the High Atlas mountains, rising like a fairy tale to seal the southern horizon. Within this walled city there are ancient palaces, glittering royal tombs, hidden courtyard restaurants, mile upon mile of bewildering narrow streets, venerable doorways, arched alleys, sonorous prayer halls, smells and sights to fuel a lifetime of recollection. Wandering through the Souk of the Ironsmiths, the thousands of glittering gilded slippers that line the Souk of the Babouche, the massed tottering piles of killims in La Criée Berbere you realise that life here actually exceeds the imagination.

Marrakech has always been fashionable, though the last few years have seen an extraordinary intensification in its popularity and the simultaneous growth of jewel-like boutique hotels. Initially confined to within the walled medina, these have spread to the garden suburb of the Palmery and now out into the foothills and slopes of the mountains. Nor does a month passes by without society gossip chronicling the news that yet another great designer, international businessman, ex-ambassador, bewitching hostess or man-of-letters has decided to set up home here.

 However Marrakech is more than just a fab destination. Firstly it is the great market town of southern Morocco, the natural trading centre for the Berbers of the High Atlas mountains, the desert dwellers, the steppe-land herdsman and the farmers of the lush Haouz oasis. It has also always been a centre of power within Morocco, indeed the very word Morocco is an European corruption for Marrakech. The city it was founded as the advance base for the great cavalary armies that stormed out of the Western Sahara in the 11th century to establish the Almoravid Empire. Side by side with the city of glamour there is the Marrakech of the besuited administrators, a centre for education and the lawcourts.

It is also the city of its citizens, home to 900,000 Marrakechis, skilled craftsmen, heroic mechanics, indeftigable salesmen, cooks, musicians, powerful landlords as well as the destitute and the unemployed. Whether seen through the eyes of a jaded palace-bound expatriate, a visiting country-boy, a package tourist up from the beach resort at Agadir or a European couple on a weekend break, it also a city of pleasure and mystery. A place of entertainment filled with hotels, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and bars for every possible division of price and class. It is also a city of shops, indeed to my mind only Istanbul can match it as one of the worlds most triumphant shopping places. The covered souk is the heart of Marrakech - a city of shops within the city.

It is above all a city of contrasts - extreme contrasts. It is a place of palaces and poverty, of shops and shepherds, of drought and scented rose-water, of camels and private-jets, of flea markets and opulent bazzars, of boistrous street theatre and quiet domestic interiors. It is also a place that enduces extreme reactions. One moment you curse it at others it tangibly pulses with invigorating energy as if the whole city, every evening, is warming up for a rock concert. In short it is fascinating but exhausting. You can both love it and loathe it, all in the space of one day.

So how do you cope?

The first thing to do is double your stay or cut your itinerary in half. You simply need more time in Marrakech to accomplish what you want. You should also take on board that Marrakech is divided into two sections; the Medina - the cramped old city within the walls and the Ville Nouvelle (the New Town) - the European-looking quarter, spacious and dominated by gardens and cars as designed by the French in the 20's.

The second thing to bear in mind is the afternoon siesta. This need not necessarily be taken in your bed but at a cafe table or in one of the out-of-town gardens. This is not just about your own energy levels but about the mood of the city. The period between the mid-day (lunchtime) prayer and the mid afternoon prayer is an inpropitious time of day, the period of the djinn, when tempers can be lost and accidents happen. An afternoon rest also allows you to re-enter the fray at the peak time of early evening when the pavements are packed. You will notice that the Moroccans are looking washed, rested and well dressed, in contrast to the bedraggled and exhausted tourists who have kept going all day.

afternoon siesta
 The third thing to remember is that Marrakech is a paradise for shoppers and can become a purgatory for non-shoppers. Even the most dedicated cultural expedition will somehow turn into an oppurtunity for someone, somewhere to show you some carpets or jewelry. Do not fight it, go with the flow, accept the hospitality (usually expressed in a gift of mint tea) and start enjoying the shere artfulness of the proceedings. If you are really going to enter into the spirit of the city you need to become a connoisseur of salesmanship, and bannish any sense of embarassment in not buying. If you are going to survive in Marrakech, Anglo-Saxon guilt must be put on hold until to you find a more deserving cause than a shopkeeper's artful smile.

The fourth thing to bear in mind about Marrakech is that it is continental. Unlike practically any other great resort city that you can think of, it has no sea-front or river-front. It has no neutral area to clear your mind, no Bosphorus, no Seine, no Thames, no Mediterranean shore. The Marrakech equivalent is a trip into the valleys of the High Atlas with their fast flowing mountain streams, wooded slopes and noticeably calmer style of life. To my mind it makes a perfect contrast on your third or fourth day in the city.

The fifth of my Marrakech rules is to swing high and swing low, to go cheap one day and act rich the next. At least one evening should be spent eating at the mobile kitchen stalls of the Jemma el Fna while another should be spent cocooned in the courtyard of one of Marrakech's fabulously palatial restaurants.

My sixth, and last item, is about dress. Marrakech can be hot but it is not in the desert. It is too far north for the palm trees to bear fruit. Marrakech is in fact in the zone of olive and orange - like Seville. It is a city whose citizens dress well. There is no need to pack a bag full of khaki, combat or Saharan survival gear. In fact dress up rather than dress down. In the confines of your hotel and pool-side garden you can wear as little a thong as you want, but in the streets you will look very much the brash tourist in just shorts and a singlet. If in doubt try to look either Italian or Spanish.

Landmarks and Attractions:

The Koutoubia mosque and its minaret dominate the skyline of Marrakech. It is a haunting presence in the city, whether lit up by dusk or floodlit at night. It is however not a place to visit (as all mosques in Morocco apart from the vast new Hassan II in Casablanca are closed to non-Muslims) but a place to pass by especially since the piazza has been tidied up.

Not so the nearby Place Jemma el Fna, the odd shaped tarmac square at the centre of the old Medina and at the entrance to the great covered souk. A place of fruit-juice and nut sellers by day (with one or two desultory acts aimed at passing tourists) it becomes a fair ground at dusk lined with mobile kitchens and filled with snake charmers, musicians, mummers, fortune tellers and acrobats. Expect to tip each act you 'visit' and especially anyone you photograph. The picturesque water sellers now seem to rely almost entirley on photo shoots rather than thirsty customers for their daily bread. When exhausted, or out of change, back out of the square and take refuge in one of the surrounding cafés where you can continue to feast your eyes from the roof terraces.

Medersa Ben Youssef,
 What you should not miss is the Medersa Ben Youssef, a stunning example of one of the great Koranic colleges of Morocco. Built by a Saadian Sultan (the contemporaries of out Tudor monarchs) to match anything that the rival northern city of Fez could offer. The open air courtyard and its prayer hall, surrounded like a beehive by the cells of the scholar-students, is a gem of the Hispano-Mauresque to be put alongside the Alhambra. Getting there (right at the far end of the labyrinthine covered souk) is at least half the fun.

Nearby is the Dar M'nebhi also known as the Musée Privé de Marrakech. Visit as much for the chance of exploring a lavish 19th century Marrakechi palace as for the local art collection. On my last inspection the loan show of textiles and jewellery was stunning. Also make use of the museum shop which has a good selectionof 20's and 30's high galmour posters of Morocco amongst the hefty art books.

On the other, the southern side, of the Medina there are two other fabulous 19th century palaces. Don't pack in more than one a day but if you have time the Dar Si Said and especially the Bahia palace are as close to archetypal Oriental glamour as we will get this side of our dreams. The Dar Si Said is the more difficult to find but is more reliably open as it is a national museum of decorative arts. The Bahia can be closed for state receptions and similar events.

Of a completely different take is the vast sunbaked ruins of the El Bedi palace. Built by a contemporary to Elizabeth I it was once of a size and complexity to eclipse Hampton Court. Now stripped of all its decoration and treasures it is awesome but still oddly satisfying. The perfect place to settle down to sketch whilst your partner admires its one glittering treasure, the thousand year old minbar of the Koutoubia formed from a thouand different marquetry panels first cut in Cordoba.

The Saadian Tombs are the city's most famous site yet the one to be most cautious about due to the relentless stream of group tours. Seen in the right conditions these royal tombs of the Golden Sultan, encased within a secretive walled garden at the back of the Kasbah Mosque, remain one of the glories of Moroccan architecture.

Majorelle Gardens

The Majorelle Gardens are another very different, jewel found off a dull suburban street in the New Town. The walled garden of two generations of French painters has been meticulously preserved by the present owner, Yves St Laurent. The Aegean blue pavilions may be recognized as the backdrop to many a fashion shoot. Less visited is the private museum at the back of the garden filled with St Laurent's collection of North African treasures and some Majorelle pictures.

Dropping down a scale or two in grandeur is the private textile collection of resident anthropologist Bert Flinnt in his traditional house, the Maison Tiskiwin (close by the Dar Si Said museum). Architectural purists swoon with delight at the Koubba el Baradaouiyn but it can usually be left for your second visit.

Last but not least you must consider a tour, or partial tour, of the city walls of Marrakech and some of the gardens. It is impossible to pack it into one day so you might think in terms of a number of horse-drawn carriage rides. Key points to aim for are the Menara gardens with its beautiful royal pavilion perched above the great irrigation tank like some Persian minaiture. There are also the more extensive, ruinous, quieter but occasionally closed Aguedal gardens. You should also get driven through the Mechouar, the public spaces arranged before the Royal Palace, taking a passing look at the Agnaou gate and perhaps stopping off to explore the open-air tanneries near the Bab Debbarh gate. These are not as picturesque or extensive as those in Fez, but are nevertheless quite odiferous and fascinating.

Jemaa el Fna
For a cheap local meal eat on the Jemaa el Fna square in the evening or in any of the two dozen cafes in the streets around. None of these will be licenced to serve wine or beer. For a chilled bottle of rosé with your meal, either at lunch or in the evening, choose from one of the  restaurants in the old walled part of town. .

For an unforgettable - and stomach extending - banquet, served with all the finesse and style of a Moroccan palace, you should book ahead; not least so that a uniformed and lantern bearing valet can guide you to your destination. Allow between £30-40 a head for an almost embarrassingly opulent evening. There are many to choose from but personal favourites include Dar Yacout, Dar M'jenna, and the Stylia.


The Jemma el Fna should be the focus of your nightlife but you will need a change even from this endlessly fascinating square.

Jemaa el Fna character
 Think about a fantasia evening at Chez Ali, or one of his lesser rivals. It is a completely over-the-top, Aladdin-esque romp for tourists and well healed Moroccan families but it is undeniably well managed and there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Part musical, part feast, part circus - it has an unforgettable conclusion with the traditional 'powder play' of a Moroccan cavalry charge. Book through your hotel desk, the evening involves a short coach ride out through the olive groves.

Most of the grander restaurants and indeed many of the hotels play around with floor shows, though to my mind they are more of a distraction than an attraction in their own right.

For a discotheque-night club in one of the big hotels, choose between Le Diamant Noir in Le Marrakech Hotel, the Paradise Club in the Pulman Mansour Eddahbi Hotel, or the Cotton Club at the Hotel Tropicana out in Semalalia. For a longer taxi ride head out to New Feeling at the Palmeriae Golf Palace Hotel.

For a more sedate evening awash with a St Tropez glamour, pop into the Piano Bar at the renowned Mamounia Hotel.

All photographs: Suzanna Clarke

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