The Kingdom of Morocco is an incredible country to visit. There is so much to see and do in this nation of 33 million. If you have the time, I recommend seeing three big cities — Marrakech, Rabat (the capital), and Fés — the Sahara desert, the Atlas Mountains, and two charming towns — Chefchaouen and Moulay Idris.
I’ll tell you more about the cities and towns in other articles, but let’s start with an overview of Marrakech, one of Morocco’s four former imperial cities and perhaps the most popular city for travellers.
“Medina” is the term for an old fortified (walled) city, and Marrakech’s is a UNESCO World Heritage site. While you could stay in one of Marrakech’s more modern neighbourhoods, you’re visiting Morocco to see what is unique and different. I therefore recommend staying in a traditional riad — a Moroccan palace turned into a boutique hotel — inside the medina walls.
There is a specific Marrakech neighbourhood called the Medina, but from the perspective of most travellers, the whole of the old city within the ramparts counts as the medina. We include the Kasbah and Mellah neighbourhoods as essentially being part of the medina, though we differentiate the hotels there simply to help situate which part of the old city they are in.
As the medina is the ancient part of the city — the 19 kilometers of reddish ramparts were completed in 1123 — it is not built for cars. There are a few medina streets that have been opened to cars, but for the most part the narrow streets are for pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles, and the occasional mule-, donkey- or horse-drawn cart. In Fés’ even older medina, there are no cars whatsoever, motorcycles are illegal, and even bicycles are rare (mules, though, are not!).
Medina streets are not only narrow, but they twist and turn. It is easy to get lost. The street scene changes throughout the day and even throughout the week. The shop with the bright scarves open when you leave for your excursion is likely to be closed when you come home after dinner, the motorcycles with sleeping cats will have disappeared, and the street will look completely unfamiliar. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, many shops will also close, and the street you thought you knew will again look different. In the medina there are very few signs, not only naming streets, but naming shops, restaurants and even hotels. The buildings edging the street have two to five-story tall walls, all the same pinkish ochre by decree. A door may be brightly coloured, or up above you may see a pretty window, but the streets are surprisingly difficult for the newcomer to differentiate.
A Moroccan medina is one of the few places left in the world where you can delight in getting lost. But after a day of losing yourself and discovering treasures, you will need to eventually find your way home.
• You could hire a guide, but I don’t think that is necessary unless you are extremely limited for time, want to do some very specific shopping, and/or have a great fear of being lost.
• You could ask for directions, though this will often result in a kind soul escorting you, though for a fee.
• Your hotel will not only give you a map, they’ll often lend you a cell phone with their number programmed in, and even sometimes escort you on your first day or to a difficult to find place.
• Google Maps works quite well in the medina (more so in Marrakech, but is still more than functional in Fés). The high walls do occasionally block the GPS, and not every street and alley is on the map, but I had no trouble getting where I wanted to go (eventually!).
Stay tuned for my next article about what you can expect when staying in a traditional Moroccan riad. The hotels are lovely, but there are some factors to be aware of and, depending on what it important to you, may help guide your choice of hotel.
Wandering around the medina, browsing the shops in the souk (market), stopping for mint tea or a meal, and visiting the hammam for a scrub and a massage can keep you occupied for days. But there are a few Marrakech highlights not to be missed:
• Jemaa El-Fna Square. The busiest square on the continent, every tourist, both local and foreign, as well as every Marrakchiate will eventually make their way here. Often several times. This square is great for people watching, for buying a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice (4 dirham, or about 40 cents US), and for tourist activities. I found the storytelling circles charming, the water carriers intriguing, the smells of the food stalls mouth watering, and the drumming scene-setting. I was far less impressed with the henna ladies who refuse to take “no, thank you” for an answer, and disturbed by the snake charmers who taunt their cobras and vipers to strike, and by the men who force their chained monkeys to perform tricks, all for tourist photos and tips.
• Koutoubia Mosque. Next to Jemaa El-Fna, the largest mosque in Marrakech. Though you can’t see its 77 meter (253 foot) tall minaret in many of the medina’s alleyways, it still makes a useful landmark. The nearby garden is full of fragrant orange trees.
• Majorelle (Yves Saint Laurent) Gardens. About a 20 minute walk outside the northern part of the medina, these picturesque gardens are a respite from the sounds, smells and sun of Marrakech. The shade of blue featured throughout the garden is called bleu majorelle, named after the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle who built and designed the property. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé bought the garden in 1980, lived in the villa, and restored the grounds. Their collection of Berber art and craft is now housed in the on-site museum. Garden admission 50 dh ($5 US), museum additional 50dh.
• Ben Youssef Madrasa. This Koranic school built in the 15th and 16th centuries (the Saadi era) has intricate wood and plaster carvings in and around the courtyard (photo at top of the page). The rest of the building, though, made me happy I wasn’t one of the 900 scholars living in one of the small cells. Admission 10 dh ($1 US). Close by is Dar Housnia.
• Menara Garden. A long walk (particularly in the heat) or short taxi ride from the medina, this 12th century garden features a large artificial lake surrounded by orange and olive groves. On a clear day you can see the snow on the Atlas Mountains. There are often dromedaries hanging out near the entrance. Free admission.
• Mellah. The old Jewish quarter, next to the Kasbah, in the southern part of the old city. Because Jews were not allowed to own property outside of the district until the French arrived in 1912, the streets here are narrower and the buildings taller, as residents needed ingenious ways to expand within the constrained space. The Mellah is quieter for wandering than the souks in the centre of the medina, and it is interesting to see the large Jewish cemetery and the Alzama synagogue. Riad Dar One is in this neighbourhood.
• Saadian tombs (in the Kasbah). These tombs were built in the late 16th century, sealed a century later, and not reopened again until 1917. There are two mausoleums, about 60 royal tombs, and beautiful mosaics and carvings. If you’re staying at La Sultana, or just there for dinner on the rooftop terrace, you can peek over the edge for a glimpse of the tombs of soldiers and servants in the garden. Admission 10 dh ($1 US).
• Bahia Palace (Kasbah). This palace was built in the late 19th century by the grand vizier of the sultan. Bahia means “brilliance”, which was also the name of one of the vizier’s four wives. It was intended to be the greatest palace of its time, but (perhaps it is just my 21st century taste) I found the mosaics and design too busy, and the work at many of Marrakech’s riads finer in detail. Admission 10 dh ($1 US).
• Palais El-Baadi (Kasbah). My favourite of Marrakech’s tourist attractions, enough of the ruins of this Alhambra-influenced palace remain to really spark the imagination. I pictured the Saadian king who had it built (1578) wandering his 350 rooms, watching children splash in the 90 meter long pool, and banishing enemies to the underground tunnel-like jail. The palace, known as the “incomparable palace”, was destroyed during the reign of the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail (1672-1727), who used much of the Italian marble, Sudanese gold, Indian porphyry and Chinese jade to decorate his own palace in the city of Meknès. Amongst today’s ruins, you can enjoy the smell of orange blossoms and the small photography museum within the palace grounds. Admission 10 dh ($1 US), includes photography museum.
Near to Marrakech
As many attractions as there are in Marrakech, you should get out of the city too. You can easily take a day trip out to the Atlas Mountains so that you can see snow in Africa (well, not in the height of summer, but still!). You can stop in a Berber village for tea during the 1.5 hour drive, have lunch by the Ourika river, and hike to a waterfall. The towns perched on the foothills are lovely to photograph.
If you need a driver to take you to the Atlas, I can recommend Mustapha Rizoui of Sahara Touristique. He’s knowledgeable about the area, can take you to soft-sell cooperatives selling argan oil products and carpets, and will entertain you with stories of Berbers and Tuaregs living in Morocco. His SUV is spotless and very comfortable, and his driving impeccable. You can reach him by email at MustaphaRizoui@hotmail.fr and cell at +212 667 154 523 and via his Sahara Touristique Facebook page.
If you’re looking to rent a car, including a 4×4, contact another Mustafa, Mustafa Lamkirich, at TifaTours@gmail.com (www.TifaTours.com).
If you have time, you can also take a trip to the Sahara from Marrakech (at least overnight, preferably more). I didn’t get there this trip, but I’m told it is stunning. Mustapha Rizoui can drive you there and make the necessary arrangements for you too.
Soon to be published: what to expect from staying in a Moroccan riad, exploring Fès, Rabat and the pretty towns of Chefchaouen and Moulay Idris.