Marrakech is where European, African and Middle Eastern cultures collide with such a vibrant energy that it might seem quite daunting at first, but it’s ultimately impossible not to get swept away with its charm. We spent a couple of days there last August as a stopover before and after trekking in the High Atlas Mountains – more on that later.
My personal highlights barely even scratch the surface of all that Marrakech has to offer, but hopefully this list provides a quick flavour of some must-dos, in no particular order, as well as a couple of important don’ts.
1. Majorelle Gardens
Set in the Ville Nouvelle, (the new city, as opposed to the older medina within the city walls), these gardens were a ten-minute walk from our hotel and a welcome botanical sanctuary of tranquillity, having arrived at the airport only a few hours earlier.
Jacques Majorelle, the French painter, began creating the gardens in 1924 and they opened to the public in 1947. They fell into disrepair after his death, but were bought and renovated by Yves Saint-Laurent in 1980.
Although smaller than I had imagined, they were lovely to stroll around and I enjoyed the gallery of YSL’s “Love” series of card designs, as well as the Berber museum in the building that was originally the artist’s studio.
2. Bahia Palace
Within the medina, this “Brilliant” palace was built in the late nineteenth century by a powerful vizier to house himself, his wives, and his concubines – their rooms are situated around a beautiful courtyard centred by a fountain.
The ruling Sultan at the time was said to be so envious of the palace that he had it stripped and looted when the vizier died. It does have a slightly sad and empty aura – the whitewashed rooms are bare, and green paint is peeling from exterior wooden doors; but that said, the incredible timeless detail of the carved cedar wood and sculpted stucco is beautifully preserved and well worth spending time looking at closely. I hadn’t noticed Arabic wording within the patterns until our guide pointed it out.
If you like the look of this place, you might also enjoy the Dar Si Said museum, which is a very short walk away. I must confess, I wasn’t especially interested in the carpets, rugs, and history of weaving, but if you’re a textiles person, this could be for you. As well as the rugs, the museum houses ornate artisanal Moroccan objects from the eleventh century right up to modern day, in an incredibly ornate two-storey building which is in itself worth the visit. Again, there is the stucco decoration, mosaic tiling, arched doorways and stunning ceilings – give yourself a good hour to wander around.
It wasn’t busy at all when we arrived mid-morning. Pomegranate, palm and fig trees line the walkways of the garden making it difficult to believe this quiet haven is just a stone’s throw from the hubbub of the souks.
3. The Souks
This warren of chaos can be intimidating at first, but the best thing to do is take a deep breath and throw yourself in.
The vast majority of traders were friendly and genuinely interested in where we were from and what we were doing there. Most of them spoke good English and we got by with that and a little French. We were offered the ubiquitous sweet mint tea by an old man and his grown up son, who was taking over the shop, and we had a lot of fun chatting with them. They played us their favourite old American and English chart hits on YouTube via their phones and sang along really badly, making us laugh.
Of course we’re not daft and knew this was a buttered-up sales pitch, but it really is important to most traders that you go away happy with your purchases, and it quickly becomes second nature to barter a fair price that everyone is satisfied with.
There’s generally a good-natured humour to the bargaining, so don’t be too afraid to do it for fear of offending anyone. One shopkeeper offered me a hundred camels for my friend because she was so much better at haggling than him, he said he would give up and let her run his shop!
Do keep your wits about you whilst enjoying the fun – be careful at all times to keep your valuables out of sight, and don’t venture too far away from the busy tourist areas. If you get a feeling things are slightly more hostile or it’s too quiet, turn back. Others in our group were actively told by vendors, “No tourists here – go away!” We only encountered one unfriendly trader who for some reason refused to engage with us when my friend offered him a price for a snow globe. His loss.
You might think it would be easy to get lost in the labyrinth, but actually, you are only ever a short distance from the main square, Jemaa El-Fna, and you will quickly find your way back.
We came away laden with a traditional silver teapot and coloured glass teacups, several pieces of crockery, two pairs of silver earrings, yoga pants, a few bottles of argan oil we’d seen pressed in front of us, bags of herbs and spices, and a few tackier souvenirs and fridge magnets.
Refreshments were needed and we had a drink in a bar overlooking the Jemaa El-Fna as it livened up for the evening. Although Morocco is a Muslim country, it’s not difficult to find licensed bars in Marrakech if you fancy a beer or a glass of wine, and it’s well worth seeking out the rooftop bars for great views across the city. Be aware you’ll pay more in some of the centrally located bars than around the Ville Nouvelle.
4. Jemaa El-Fna
The medina’s central square was once the “Assembly of the Dead”, where executed prisoner’s heads were gruesomely displayed on spikes. You will get a varied impression of the square depending what time of day you visit.
In the morning, there are traders selling fruit and vegetables, mules pulling carts loading and unloading goods, and various hawkers and fruit juice sellers. It’s busy, but with a purposeful working atmosphere. (Incidentally, make sure you only buy juice you’ve seen squeezed in front of you and don’t get any that’s been left standing.)
In the evening, things start to gear up for the tourist trade and by 9pm it’s in full swing – a full-on chaotic assault of the senses, with the tarpaulin of the stalls flapping in the warm breeze, snake charmers’ pipes blaring, drums beating, acrobats flipping, tooth-pullers and fortune tellers setting out their mats, street food stalls sending out delicious-scented smoky wafts, young men from restaurants trying to place leaflets in your hand for today’s deals, women grabbing your arms to decorate with henna, men with frustrated tethered monkeys being passed from tourist to tourist… all criss-crossed by overladen mopeds whizzing in every direction, and thousands of people; locals, tourists, old and young, milling about everywhere.
I’m glad we saw it, but we didn’t stay long because there was a slightly aggressive edge to the atmosphere and we got fed up of being harassed. I hated the sight of the captive monkeys, snakes, hawks, and various other caged animals, and would implore anyone visiting not to perpetuate their suffering by paying for photos with them. On a similar vein, the calèches (horse-drawn carriages) are recommended by many guide books as a great way to see the city, but you don’t have to look too closely to see that the ponies are not very well looked after. You can get a regular taxi much more conveniently and cheaply; which is what we did. Sadly, Marrakech still has a long way to go with animal welfare, but all tourists can do their bit by shunning these types of trade.
5. A hammam experience
On our return from the mountains, we were tired, achy, and ingrained with the pink Atlas dust that somehow manages to permeate every layer of clothing. We could have splashed out and gone to one of the many posh riads to have a lovely relaxing spa treatment with other tourists; but why go all the way to North Africa for something we could do at home? Four of us in the group opted to join the locals at the traditional Hammam Essalama… and it really was traditional.
The entranceway divides the building down two corridors, male and female, and once inside we were each given a bag for our clothes. Our guide, who’d had to ditch us at the door, had given us a brief lowdown of what to expect, and told us we should take off everything except our (under) pants, and the staff would show us where to go and what to do. He said if in doubt, just watch what others were doing and copy them.
The staff comprised three elderly dark-skinned women with kind, wizened faces and long grey hair, tied up in buns. They wore bathrobes and spoke Arabic, no English; and despite our best efforts with French, they didn’t understand that either. The first few minutes were very awkward as we stood trying to cover our modesty, wondering where to go, with the women gesturing in an impatient manner that we should remove our pants too. It was too late to worry about our prudish British comfort zones, so all our clothes went in the bags, and the bags went behind the counter on shelves. We’d already been told there were no lockers, so we’d only taken the money we needed and left all valuables back at the hotel.
We were then given black buckets of the type you could mix cement in – this is a strictly no-frills experience – containing a towel, a pair of sliders, an exfoliating mitt, shampoo, black soap, and what looked like a bag of mud. I started to wonder if the bucket really was for mixing cement. We had no idea what to do, and shuffled nervously in our sliders into the adjacent steam room; a large white marbled room with high windows just underneath the ceiling, and several water taps at waist level around its circumference. We were told to sit on the floor with our buckets and then left alone with the three other customers.
Were the staff coming back? Our guide had told us they would do all the work, but it seemed like they’d left us to it. I remembered him saying, “If in doubt, copy others.” I glanced across the room to the three locals: two were chatting to each other in Arabic and one was squatting to lather her nether regions. I meekly took out the shampoo from the bucket and began washing my hair.
Finally, two de-robed staff members returned and gestured that two of our party should lie flat on the floor. I was one of the ones left sitting, and we tried not to laugh as our friends were very unceremoniously washed with the black soap, exfoliated quite forcefully with the mud (this was actually rhassoul clay), had their hair washed and scalps scrubbed, before being ordered to sit up and had buckets of cold water thrown over them.
Going from the scorching Marrakech mid-afternoon humidity into a steam room might sound like a crazy idea, but I have to say, once I’d got over the embarrassment, lying flat-out on a cold marble floor being scrubbed by a naked old woman felt amazing.
Afterwards, the ladies brought mint tea for us to drink in the changing rooms and we understood why the hammam is a popular part of Moroccan weekend culture – I for one would be back there every Saturday. We’d never felt so clean. I couldn’t believe how soft and smooth my skin felt and had to stop myself stroking my arms during the rest of the evening.
So, there are my five favourites from our trip. I haven’t even mentioned the food, which is unusual for me and an indicator of how much else was going on. As it happens, we had a complete range of dining experiences, from cheap tagines in local cafés, to a full three-course evening meal in one of the fancy hotels. It was all good – there is something for everyone in this magical city.
Thank you to fellow traveller Jez Hanton, who has a better camera and more skills than me, and let me use five of his photos in this article.