Like many Moroccan cities, the city of Marrakesh comprises both an old fortified city, the Medina, and modern neighbourhoods, the largest being the Gueliz. It is served by Ménara International Airport and an impressive train station with rail links to Casablanca and the north. Having planned a 7 day trip to the city of Marrakesh several months ago now, the holiday had sneaked up on us quickly – the 7.45am flight from London Heathrow meant we’d ready arrived in 45 degree centigrade heat of Morocco by midday, Monday the 25th of June.
Marrakesh has the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco and also has one of the busiest squares in Africa, the Jemaa el Fna. The square bustles with acrobats, story-tellers, water sellers, dancers and musicians. By night food stalls open in the square turning it into a huge busy open-air restaurant. We spent our first day exploring the market stalls in the Medina during the afternoon and taking in the atmosphere of the Jemaa el Fna as night fell. It was captivating to see how alive the area became after dark, it felt like the complete opposite to the streets of London.
The food stalls take over the Jemaa as soon as the orange juice sellers have packed up and gone home. The food is prepared from fresh on the spot, and you can choose between fish, meat or vegetable dishes. The concept is easy, you point at everything you desire, indicate the quantity and within few minutes it is there in front of you.
Be careful to check the bill when it comes though, after the free mint tea (they like you to remain at their stool for as long as possible, so they look popular, attracting more punters) they tend to scrawl a list of numbers and add them all up together. Ask them to point out each dish and it’s correlating price and you’ll be sure to knock 100 dirham off the total. We were initially charged 210 MAD (Moroccan Dirham) which is about £15 GBP, we managed to knock £3 off that in the end – not our biggest bargain of the holiday but £4 each for a 3 course meal!
It did take us a few days to get used to the different currency, after getting ripped off a few times I think we’d managed to grasp the £1.50 to every 20 dirham note… Getting around the city wasn’t as simple as I thought it would be. We had to get taxi’s to pretty much everywhere we wanted to visit. This meant at least 2 taxi fares a day which ate into our budget’s quite a bit, despite everything being so cheap there. But with the heat and lack of local knowledge / direction it was the only way to get to where you wanted.
Places to visit
Yves Saint Laurent Memorial Majorelle Gardens
The Majorelle Garden is a twelve-acre botanical garden and artist’s landscape garden. It was designed by the expatriate French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s, during the colonial period when Morocco was a protectorate of France. The garden hosts more than 15 bird species that are endemic to North Africa. It has many fountains, and a notable collection of cacti.
On returning from my holiday, I thought it was interesting to read that the special shade of bold cobalt blue which Jacques Majorelle used extensively in the garden and its buildings is now named after him, ‘bleu Majorelle’. It was such a powerful colour splashed throughout the garden amongst bright yellows, oranges and turquoise. Definitely worth a visit, it was the first place we visited and probably my favourite of the ones to follow.
As we spent a lot of the holiday relaxing by the pool at our hotel, Hotel Amine, we tended to visit a lot of the tourist attractions close together in one day (saves on taxi fares and we are student’s after-all!). On the Friday we visited Palais El Badii, Palais Bahia and the Medrasa Ben Youssef.
Palais El Badii (El Badi Palace)
These days the El Badi Palace (meaning the incomparable palace) consists of the remnants of a palace commissioned by the Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur in 1500s. The building of the palace was financed by a ransom paid by Portugal after the Battle of Three Kings. The original building is thought to have consisted of 360 rooms, a courtyard and pool, richly decorated with Italian marble and large amounts of gold imported from Sudan. It also has a small, underground, tunnel-like jail with about four cells where the king kept his prisoners.
It was once extremely grand but was looted and left as a ruin by Moulay Ismail the following century. The palace was torn apart by Ismail, who used the material obtained from El Badi Palace to decorate his own palace in Meknes which I thought was a very interesting fact. Today, the ruins can be visited between the opening hours of 8.30-11.45 then 2.30-5.45, with an entrance fee of 10dh.
Would I return there? Probably not – but I’m pleased that I’ve been, the views from the walls over the City into the Mellah were amazing and the Storks (birds, look like Herrings) make quite an impressive sight, having created large nests on top of the ruins.
Palais Bahia (Bahia Palace)
The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens built in the late 19th century, intended to be the greatest palace of its time, the name Bahia means “brilliance”. This attraction was a lot more touristy than El Badi Palace, in fact we were surprised to see so many British and Americans in one place after 5 days in and around the city only hearing English voices from other guests at our hotel. We weren’t sure how we’d managed to avoid them! There were a few walking tours taking place around the Palais Bahia, but in all honestly they seemed a little boring. I even heard one British couple mutter to one another “this is boring, I want my bloody money back” – so I was glad we were able to whiz around and take in the architectural, plants and flowers in our own time.
Images from Palais El Badii, Palais Bahia and the Medrasa Ben Youssef.
Medrasa Ben Youssef (Ben Youssef Madrasa)
Our final destination on the Friday was to the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an Islamic college named after the Almoravid sultan Ali ibn Yusuf (reigned 1106–1142), who expanded the city and its influence considerably. According to Wikipedia the Ben Youssef is the largest Medrasa in all of Morocco.
As an old koranic school, it does have some amazing architecture. The tile and clay work is in an excellent condition and shows the best of Marrakesh architecture. We found it quite hard to find, as it’s down a dark corridor which opens into a very pretty courtyard with a pool in the center. Inside you can walk up two staircases which take you into the very small living spaces of the students that used to go to the school. One downside is that all the information is in french, it was also quite expensive for what it was (60 dh, compared with the 10 dh at the other locations), but overall I’m pleased we went.
Koutoubia Mosque, it is said that the minaret of the Koutoubia mosque is to Marrakech as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.
We found finding things in Marrakesh quite difficult so a map is a must and constantly asking for directions is a good idea. Although, as you’d expect this can cost you a fare bit. As soon as we paused to view the map and readdress our location, a young Moroccan boy would shout place names to us in English asking whether we wanted to find them. On one occasion, we were so insistent on not paying for directions that we went with our gut instinct… leading us down the wrong road for a good 10 minutes. We had to turn back to be greeted but the same teenage boys shouting “you’re back, you’re back!”.
To anyone planning to visit the beautiful city of Marrakesh, I would give you one piece of advice (well, maybe two) – research a few places to visit before you go (and find out where they are in relation to where you’re staying) and make sure you understand what the going rate (price) is for food, taxi’s and tipping!
Overall, I had a lovely holiday. The weather was only once below 30 degrees (and that was in the evening!) and the city sites really are beautiful. I enjoyed tasting the local cuisines, from tagines, to couscous and the famous mint tea (which is delicious, very sweet!). Midweek, we also took it upon ourselves to go on a camel ride, which we were able to organise through our hotel. The trip lasted an hour, with 30 minutes either side of a mint tea pit stop. An experience not worth missing out on!
If you’d like to have a look through the rest of my holiday snaps, you can view them here. Also, I’d just like to apologise for the variety of spelling throughout this post! I blame the internet, is it Marrakesh or Marrakech?
All the images published in this post have been taken by myself using a Nikon D4o.