Presentation of the destination
Noisy souks, steamy bathhouses, Berber silver, donkey carts, snake charmers… Marrakech is an intoxicating experience from start to finish. The fourth-largest city in Morocco, nestled beneath the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, Marrakech has an ancient past that goes back to Neolithic times. Nowadays it’s a chaotic and beautiful city, crammed with peaceful pools and hectic market places, golden mosques and street sellers of all descriptions. Blisteringly hot in summer and pleasantly warm the rest of the time, Marrakech conveniently uses GMT. The city’s a melting pot of cultures, from Arabic to Berber to French to Spanish to Saharan African, although only the first three languages are spoken widely. The currency is the Moroccan dirham, used to haggle at every opportunity.
Points of interests / things to see
As soon as you venture outside your door in Marrakech you’ll find yourself inexorably drawn to this massive square, for a thousand years the beating heart of the Medina (the old city). In the day time there’s orange juice sellers and henna tattooists, snake charmers in traditional costumes and young men with Barbary apes on strings, each trying to fleece tourists for their money. The clanging brass cups of the water sellers and the clatter of wayward donkey carts punctuate the daily hubbub. It pays to be firm in Jamaa el Fna, so keep your wits about you and your dirhams close. As the day wears into night, huge crowds descend on the square to watch dancers, magicians and storytellers weave an incredible tapestry of sound, leading Unesco to recognise the square’s uniquely rich oral traditions with World Heritage status in 2001. Among the snake oil peddlers with a cure for all ailments there’s also hundreds of food carts where the smell of grilled meat rises into the air. The action happens from around 9am to 1am, later during Ramadan.
If you thought that Jamaa el Fna was hectic, try diving into the various souks off to the side of the square. They’re a labyrinthine wonderland of carpets, leather slippers, silverware, glowing lamps and spices. Different souks specialise in different products, from the olive souk to the pottery souk. Jewel-coloured tea glasses, ornate sheeshas and embroidered kaftans are all on display, making the souks an incredible destination for photographers or trinket hunters. Don’t be afraid to banter and haggle – the first price given is always far too much, and it’s considered rude not to join in the fun anyway. It’s well worth visiting the tanneries, too, where you’ll learn about traditional leather-making. It’s not for the faint of heart nor the sensitive of nose, which is why you’ll be given a sprig of mint. The souks may leave you overwhelmed, and you’ll quite possibly leave carrying a carpet you didn’t know you wanted. Nonetheless, their energy, colour and passion are unparalleled and utterly addictive. Orient yourself by the dome of the Koutoubia Mosque and you won’t get too lost.
After the sensory overload of the Jamaa el Fna and the souks, many visitors are desperate to chill out, relax and enjoy a bit of pampering. Luckily, Morocco is famous for its hammams: Arabic steam rooms where the locals head once a week to clean up and unwind. The Hammam Dar el-Bacha is the city’s largest traditional baths, with star-shaped vents twinkling in the great domed ceiling, a friendly atmosphere and masseurs available for an extra fee. All public hammams are single sex as visitors go naked but for their pants. Enter three rooms, each hotter than the last, where you use black soap and a sisal mitt to wash while you chat with your friends. If you choose to pay for a massage be warned: your masseur will spare no effort in scrubbing you to within an inch of your life. You’ve never been so clean! You’ll need to bring your own toiletries and towels. Address: 20 Fatima Zohra Street. Admission: Dh10. Opening hours 7am – 1pm (men) and 1pm to 9pm (women).
Step back in time with a trip to the Photography Museum of Marrakech where nearly 4,500 old photographs of Morocco bring the past to life. The collection is housed in a renovated ‘funduq’, a kind of inn for travelling merchants, in the heart of the Medina. The mosaic floors and high ceilings make this a stunning setting for an incredibly diverse range of images spanning the history of photography in Morocco. Pictures of unspoilt landscapes, red mud kasbahs and archaeological sites rub shoulders with portraits of 1960s hippies and fashionistas and turbaned 1950s Berbers in their mountain camps. Images of musicians in the courtyards of Tangier, young French couples dancing in the grand hotels, and camel herders in the harsh Sahara paint a rich, varied and deep picture of Morocco. Among the daguerreotypes, glass negatives and other documents there’s also a rare colour documentary capturing Morocco in the 1950s. The museum offers a range of delicious lunch deals on their panoramic terrace. Address: 46 Fassi Street. Website: www.maison-delaphotographie.com. Admission Dh40. Opening hours: 9.30am – 7pm.
The Bahia or ‘brilliant’ Palace was built in the 1860s by Si Moussa, the grand vizier of the Sultan, who dreamed of creating the greatest palace in the world. His groundwork was later developed further by the black slave Abu Ahmed, who acquired great power and wealth, which he used to embellish the building. Capturing the very essence of Islamic architecture, the 160 rooms are absolutely filled with detail: ornate fountains, intricate carved screens, exquisite marquetry and stained glass windows. Most of the rooms are closed, but you can still take a tour including the rooms of Abu Ahmed’s harem. Although the furniture was looted after his death, the silk tapestries and opulent carvings can still be seen. Outside shady colonnades give way to walled gardens ripe with date palms and fig trees, and a vast marble-paved courtyard with Andalusian design influences where dignitaries would await the vizier’s attention. A part of the palace is still used by the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Address: Riad Zitoun el-Jedid Street. Phone: +212 524389564. Admission: Dh10. Opening hours: 9am – 4.30pm.
Escape the chaos of Marrakech with one of the day tours running up to the Ouzoud Falls, 150km from the city. These spectacular waterfalls tumble from the Grand Atlas Mountains in a rainbow haze of spray, where you can view them from among the olive, pomegranate and lime trees and the tiny mills the local villagers use to grind grain. The falls are also home to the cheeky Barbary macaques, who often come to drink from the river.
You might well recognise the red mud fortress of Ait Benhaddou – it’s made an appearance in pretty much every swashbuckling Eastern adventure Hollywood ever made. Located on the old camel caravan routes running from the Sahara to Marrakech, Ait Benhaddou’s exotic kasbah building is the most impressive in Morocco. Climb up the peaceful winding streets of this Unesco World Heritage site and you’ll be rewarded with beautiful views of the surrounding peaks. Less than three hours south of Marrakech, hire a driver or take a bus.
Somewhere between French fishing port and Morroccan medina, beautiful Essaouira gazes out across the Atlantic, where sea birds and windsurfers harness the famous ‘alizee’ winds. A welcome step down from the endless energy of Marrakech, Essaouira’s famous light draws artists in droves. Listen to gnawa music, dine on fresh fish and snap up the famous silver jewellery. Coaches, buses and taxis make the three-hour trip from Marrakech.
If the summer heat gets too much in Marrakech, head for the Ourika Valley, overtaking camel drivers as you enter the Atlas Mountains. There in the depths of the valley you’ll find Setti Fatma, a town of seven waterfalls. Work up an appetite clambering over rocks, and then tuck into the legendary tagines, stews slow-cooked for hours over charcoal and served on tables crammed into the riverbed itself. You can hire a driver in Marrakech who will take you the 30km to Ourika for around Dh600.
How to get there ?
Fly into Marrakech-Menara Airport direct from a range of European cities, including Casablanca, the transfer point for flights from the Americas and Asia. There’s plenty of low-cost flights from the UK, including easyJet and Ryanair. There’s also internal flights to and from Agadir, Casablanca, Fez, Ouarzazate, Al Hoceima and Tangier. The airport’s 5km from the city, with a regular air-conditioned bus for Dh30, a much better bet than the mafia of taxi drivers at the airport exit. If you do want a taxi it should cost Dh40, so head away from the terminal building to escape the cartel. Internally, fairly basic trains run to Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier (see http://www.oncf.ma/ for more details). There are also long-distance bus companies, the best of which are CTM, Pullman du Sud and Supratours. The Medina of Marrakech is eminently walkable, though there’s plenty of buses and ‘petits taxis’. Or go all out and hire a horse-drawn caliche carriage at the Square de Foucauld beneath the Jamaa el Fna, for around Dh80 per hour.
Hotels in Marrakesh (Marrakesh-Tensift-El Haouz)