Rockin’ Maroc

Koutoubia mosque

Koutoubia mosque

I love Marrakech.  Parts of the medina look like life hasn’t changed since the middle ages, yet Marrakech is very firmly on the map of the international party jet set.  I love the colours, the setting (between palms, mountains and the desert), the architecture and the friendly, hospitable people.

Being a tourist in Marrakech can be hot, sweaty and hectic.  So, my top tips are a mixture of throw-yourself-in-there activity and retreat-and-take-a-breath hideaways. I like to wander through the souks with a specific (and hard to find) shopping objective.  The salesmen are crafty and persistent – beware, browsing seldom ends without a purchase!!  Moroccan artisans really can make anything.  Typical souvenirs include spices, leatherware (eg bags and babouches), home accessories, (eg ceramics, tassles, carpets and lamps) and silverware.  Maps exist, but you will get lost.  Guaranteed.  Any number of young boys will happily lead you out again (via their brother’s shop and/or for a couple of coins). When it all gets too tiring, try Le Jardin or  Le Bouganvillier (33 rue el Mouassine) – both deep in the heart of the souks – for a refreshing thé à la menthe.  Just before lunch, you’ll see kids taking rounds of dough to be baked at a communal oven.

I find Moroccan, islamic and Moorish architecture inspirational.  Some of the best and most accessible examples of zellij mosaicwork, interior fountains and decorative stucco are in the medina at the Ali Ben Youssef Medersa (Koranic school).  The nearby Museum of the Friends of Marrakech is in a building which is beautiful in itself as well as exhibiting interesting objects. The photography museum is also recommended, although I haven’t been.

Outside the walls of the medina, the ultimate outdoor chill out destination is the Jardin Majorelle.

Jardin Majorelle

Jardin Majorelle

Erstwhile gardens of Yves Saint Laurent, they are beautifully kept and feature a museum and a lovely cafe. Take a taxi from the medina (they are now obliged to use the meter).

One of the big attractions of Morocco is the food – the tajine (a stew made in a conical pot) is ubiquitous.  I recommend at least one evening sampling the open air delights of the Place Djmaa el-Fna.  At dusk, the tooth-pullers, soothsayers and snake charmers retreat and the hawkers’ barrows are wheeled onto the square.  Pick the guy with the twinkliest eyes or the best patter, and take a seat beside the smoking charcoal braziers. The constant banter between the staff, the smoking barbecues, the call of the muezzin for the last prayer and the thousands of flickering bulbs make the atmosphere really special.

As far as restaurants go, it’s hard to keep up.  I love the decor of Le Tanjia in the Mellah.  It’s near the el-Badi and la Bahia Palaces – also worth a look when you need to escape the crowds.  Not far away, on Riad Zitoun Kedim, at Restaurant Dar Essalam, you can have a good value set menu in a former palace and in the knowledge that you are on the set of a Hitchcock film (The Man Who Knew Too Much).  The musicians and dancers are a bit cheesy, but the setting is incredible.  Other places which get good reviews are Pepenero and Al Fassia (the latter has 2 locations, run by women).

Place Djmaa el Fna at dusk

Place Djmaa el Fna at dusk

The ultimate relaxation is, of course, a hammam.  The basic choice is between the local neighbourhood hammam (find out when the women’s session is) which is convivial, but not for the fainthearted, or a more up-market spa, eg in a hotel.  New venues in the latter category seem to pop up every month.  Whichever you go for, the normal practice is to sit in a very hot and steamy room for some time to open the pores, then you are scrubbed to within an inch of your life with a rough mitt known as a kiis, washed with gloopy olive resin soap and you might even get a mud shampoo known as ghassoul.  All while wearing just your knickers.  The most alarming thing is the strings of dead skin the kiis manages to scrub off, known colloquially as ‘spaghetti’.  Yuk!  Afterwards, in a more upmarket place you might get an argan oil massage, which is great for replenishing all the scrubbed-out moisture to the skin.

Those are some starters for ten. Other important tips: always haggle, always try to be polite (even when you are being offered your umpteenth pair of ‘bargain’ slippers), always ensure the taxi driver will use his meter before he pulls away, and always watch your pockets.

Have a great time!  Those who have been, please post your tips, updates and reviews in the comments box!

This post was originally published at on October 10, 2011

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