Place Djemma el Fna.
If your holiday requirements include dipping your toes in a different culture - or winter sunshine within four hours flight time from the U.K, you may wish to consider Morocco. But bear in mind that different cultures have their own etiquette and restrictions - a little consideration can go a long way!
Morocco is a big country and a lot of it is comprised of mountains and desert. On the northern ‘corner’ of the country is the onetime artistic enclave of Tangier - only a short distance across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain. Fez, Rabat and Casablanca are also in the northern part of the country. However, although they have some wonderful historical features, they are less accessible to the UK visitor than the cities a bit further south.
We have visited Marrakech a number of times and also Essaouira on the Atlantic coast and Taroudant south of the Atlas Mountains, both of which we’ll consider in a further posting.
On about the same latitude as the Canary Islands, the most popular city with European visitors by far is Marrakech - and yes you can get there on the Marrakech Express - as sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash all those years ago! However most visitors arrive at the recently extended terminal of Marrakech Menara airport, only a short drive from the city centre. Hotels and ‘riads’ (a bit like b&b’s) all provide transfers to and from the airport as part of their offer and is well worth it to help negotiate the warren of streets and alleyways in the city centre or ‘medina’. Often taxis or limousines can only get so far and your baggage is transferred to a little old man with a handcart who you are obliged to follow into the depths of the Medina to reach your hotel or riad.
A gateway to the Souk. Note the loudspeaker to call the faithful to prayer.
If this is your first visit, don’t forget you are in Islamic North Africa and the hubbub of life on the street can come as a bit of shock to genteel European sensibilities! Also note that the second language in Morocco is French - so a smattering of school French often helps - especially when negotiating taxi fares!
For visitors to the city, the city can be considered as comprising five elements:
1 The Souk - the mainly pedestrian ancient core of the city: a warren of cafes, riads, shops, and workshops. The streets and passages are shielded from the sun, so can feel claustrophobic the first time you attempt to negotiate them. In addition to pedestrians bicycles, mopeds and donkey carts are also allowed all adding to the commotion. Some areas are gated and closed at night.
2 The Medina - the souk and the surrounding old city still within its ancient red walls with bars, cafes, galleries, hotels, mosques, museums, palaces, riads, shops and workshops. Access is still through the ancient gateways in the city walls - Bab Doukala is one such portal.
3 Hivernage - an area outside the walls comprising tree lined streets with large European style villas in gardens, upmarket bars, cafes and restaurants and big resort hotels.
4 Gueliz - the new city of wide boulevards lined with apartment buildings, bars, cafes and restaurants, cinemas, hotels, parks, the bus and railway stations and theatres.
5 The Palmeraie - yes lots of palm trees with winding road for access to villas and expensive garden style hotels inserted discreetly among the palms and a golf course adjacent to the Oued Tensift river.
To capitalise on the success of Marrakech as a holiday destination there has been a rash of new hotels out into areas that were farmland until only recently - some are very stylish and sophisticated but not within easy walking distance of the city centre.
A quiet moment in the Souk. Note Moroccan slippers in a plethora of colours.
Amazing colours in a dyeworks in the Souk.
Tassles are big in Marrakech! The end product of local dyeworks and manufacturing.
If you’re just wanting a sunny respite from cold northern climates, then one of the big resort hotels in Hivernage would suit you very well. Occasional forays into the Medina are perfectly possible for local colour and culture. But if you’re looking for the real Marrakesh experience, staying in a ‘riad’ is essential.
A relatively new accommodation phenomenon, the development of ‘riads’ in the Medina of Marrakech and other Moroccan cities are not mentioned specifically in my 2001 Rough Guide - only hotels, although the definition is somewhat blurred.
Riad or courtyard houses offer a cool respite from the heat and excitement of the Medina.
Riads are traditional courtyard houses within the Medina that have been repurposed for visitors by their Moroccan owners or purchased by Europeans or North Americans with an urge to make an often dilapidated building into a wonderful evocation of the exotic or to give it a modern upgrade. Some owners have combined more than one building to offer extended accommodation and facilities. The contrast between the often chaotic street scene or unprepossessing narrow passageway when one steps over the threshold of a riad is breathtaking. Behind the usually large and heavy door to the street is a beautiful courtyard, big pot plants or palm trees, cool tiled floors and often with a fountain and extensive carved architectural details in plaster and wood. On arrival your hosts usually offer complimentary snacks, tea or a soft drink. Lower rooms are usually accessed directly from the inner courtyard, others are from open balconies or staircases. Rooms are usually long and narrow with working fireplaces and traditional ‘tadelakt’ plastering in the bathrooms. Some riads offer a traditional ‘hammam’ spa and/or a small pool in the courtyard. Roof terraces are a big feature of riad living with breakfasts served here and drinks and snacks later in the day, weather permitting. The flat roof sometimes has a traditional or modern tented structure and some have a small pool here too.
Rooftops of Marrakech, the Koutoubia Minaret and backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. The modern building with satellite aerials is the Koutoubia Gardens Hotel.
The wonderful thing about these rooftop views is that you’re basking in the sunshine with the wonderful contrast of a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains still topped with snow.
Most riads have a resident cook who provides a Moroccan take on breakfast and snacks throughout the day. Dinner is usually available to order and sometimes you may find that your riad is providing a reception and/or dinner to a non-resident group - or is the location for a cooking demonstration or tv programme!
Rooftop of the Riad Kniza, a traditionally decorated riad near the Bab Doukala [gateway].
Although a Moslem country, Morocco is a bit more liberal regarding alcohol than some nations and the local wine, available in cafes, restaurants and riads is very drinkable and usually reasonably priced. Drinking alcohol on or near the street is strictly forbidden and we’ve yet to find a shop to buy alcoholic drinks to consume independently. We very much enjoy the ‘Pinot Gris’ - a light very drinkable white wine with a slightly pinky hue.
Call to prayer
As mentioned Morocco is Moslem and 5.00am is the first call to prayer of the day. If your riad is near a minaret, be prepared to be woken at this hour as the call echoes across the city as each mosque winds up it’s amplified message to the faithful - you do get used to it!
Major directions in two of the three alphabets of Morocco: Arabic, Berber and Latin.
Marrakesh is very much a walkable city, although you need to keep your wits about you as anything wheeled seems to have right of way even in the narrowest of streets. All the main cultural and historical sites are walkable - just wandering around and inevitably getting lost is all part of the experience!
Don’t forget hats and sunscreen are essential even when walking round the city - raw necks and noses are a familiar sight - and dress ‘modestly’ don’t offend local sensibilities - you’re not on the beach!
If you venture further away from the Souk and Medina, taxis become a more practical option - public transport is essentially for residents. There are lots of stories about being ripped off by taxi drivers in Marrakech but our experience has not been too bad and prices are reasonable. Bigger taxis (grande) can take up to 5 passengers and the smaller (petite) take 3 occupants - drivers can pick up additional passengers if not full. Meters are not always fitted or working or used - short trips should be under 20 dirhams - prices double at night. Alternatively your riad can arrange a pickup in the nearest street, inevitably more expensive but hassle free, especially for longer trips.
As mentioned local buses are really for locals, but long distance coaches depart from the ‘Gare Routiere’ just outside the Bab Doukala gate to all destinations throughout Morocco. It all looks a bit of a scramble to get on board -a major operator is Supratours is owned by ONCF, the Moroccan national rail company.
Morocco had a limited but surprisingly good train system with a route north-south Tangier to Marrakech and east-west from Casablanca to Rabat and Fez, terminating at Oujda. The 'trains rapides climatisés' are modern and well appointed, especially in first class and relatively cheap with overnight trains too for long distance trips thus offering a way to travel all the way from the UK to Marrakech without flying (if you have the time). New TGV trains have been delivered to start operations in 2018 and will cut travel times in half - better than the U.K.! On our to do list.
1 Majorelle Gardens and Yves Saint Laurent Museum; 2 Medersa Ben Youssef; 3 Musee Marrakech; 4 Djemma El Fnaa; 5 Koutoubia Minaret, Mosque and gardens; 6 Palais El Badii; 7 Palais de la Bahia; 8 Maison de la Photographie; 9 Cyber Park Arsat Moulay Abdeslam; 10 Le Parc El Harti; 11 Menara Garden; 12 MACMA Musee d’Art et Culture de Marrakech; 13 Le Jardin des Arts; 14 Les Jardins de l’Agdal; 15 Mamounia Gardens; 16 Musee Tiskiwin; 17 Jnane Tamsna; 18 The Dar Si Said Museum; 19 The Secret Garden; 20 Anima Gardens; 21 Le Tobsil; 22 Al Fassia; 23 Le Maison Arabe; 24 Le Cafe Arabe; 25 Kechmara; 26 Grand Cafe de la Poste; 27 No 16 Cafe; 28 Grand Hotel Tazi; 29 Hotel Jardins de la Koutoubia; 30 Kozybar; 31 Zizzi.
Main Roads and Streets. Red dashes are the remaining city walls.
A Avenue Hassan II; B Boulevard Mohammed V; C Boulevard Mohammed VI; D Boulevard Mohammed Zerktouni; E Rue Moulay EL Hassan; F Boulevard de Safi; G Avenue Prince Moulay Rachid; H Avenue Houman el Fetouaki; I Rue Lalla Rika; J Avenue du 11 Janvier; K Avenue Fatima Zohra; L Rue Dar El Bacha; M Taolalet Issebtiyenne; N Rue El Gza; O Rue Bab Dbagh; P Triq Bab Ghmat; Q Derb Mouassine; R Rue Riad Zitoun Lakdim; S Derb Dabachi; T Rue de Berrima; U Route des Remparts; V Rue Sidi El Yamani; W Avenue Guemassa; X Rue Imam El Rhezoli; Y Rue de Bab Haar Z Rue Oqba Ben Nafaa.
Galleries, Gardens, Museums and Palaces
There’s a surprising number of places to visit and things to do in Marrakech - some being absolutely free and none are overpriced. We enjoy just walking around in the sunshine checking out the gardens and public spaces. These are some of the highlights of our visits.
Majorelle Gardens and Yves Saint Laurent Museum
Top of our list is the walled sub-tropical garden resurrected by the fashion designer and his partner, originally conceived by the artist Jacques Majorelle and evolved from the 1920’s to 1950’s. It has a cubist style villa now housing a gallery/museum and shop and a nearby small cafe. The planting and water features are a wonderful oasis in the city and the signature blue painted pots and walls are a striking and memorable feature. We have enjoyed our visits to the garden immensely- but it’s very popular - go as early in the day as possible.
Since our last visit there are new gardens to visit too, see the brief listing below.
The recent addition of the adjacent Musee Yves St Laurent designed by the French Studio KO looks really exciting - curved brick walls and brick patterning filtering light and containing a permanent archive and exhibition of Saint Laurent’s work, temporary exhibitions and a meeting space. It opened in 2017 and is a must see for anyone interested in architecture, art and design - it’s on our list for our next visit.
Medersa Ben Youssef
This is a wonderful building around a formal open courtyard built as a school for Islamic studies. Initially constructed in the 12th century and extensively rebuilt in the 16th century, possibly by Spanish architects, all surfaces are richly carved plaster and wood in subtle shades of beige and pink - very photogenic!
Architecture reflected in the pool of the Medersa Ben Youssef.
Richly decorated dome in the Musee Marrakech.
Near to the Medersa Ben Youssef, the museum is housed in the Dar Menebhi Palace, constructed at the end of the 19th century for Medhi Menebhi and renovated by the Omar Benjelloun Foundation and converted into a museum in 1997. The building is a magnificent example of Moorish architecture but recent reports have stated that the exhibits and general demeanour is somewhat tired.
The restored 12 century Almoravid Koubba or Koubba el Baadiyn next to the Marrakech Museum. The inscription refers to Abdullah, the Caliph of Baghdad and patron Ali ibn Yusef.
Djemma El Fnaa
This is main urban open space in the city - the name translates as ‘assembly of the dead’ - it has market stalls and itinerant entertainers during the day (and a proliferation of henna painting on hands) it is transformed into a brightly lit open kitchen at night - patrolled by tourist police nowadays, so it has less of a reputation than previously for nefarious goings on and being ripped off. Respite from the hubbub can be achieved in the surrounding cafes and restaurants - Chez Chegrouni is our favourite, excellent food with good views from the roof terrace. There are entrances to the Souk on the northern side of the square - coaches and taxis drop off visitors to the south adjacent to the Koutoubia Mosque, Minaret and gardens.
Koutoubia Minaret, Mosque and gardens
The Koutoubia Minaret is the major orientation structure in Marrakech. Dominating the skyline it is invaluable to the visitor who has wondered slightly off-piste. It was constructed in the 12th century for Sultan Yacoub El Mansour and refurbished and restored around 2000 without being replastered and repainted - ad was the traditional style. It is floodlit at night and looks stunning.
The adjacent gardens comprise a private walled area attached to the mosque and a paved area with avenues of orange trees and the Lalla Hassna Park with vast amounts of rose bushes, benches and a central mausoleum, the grave of Lalla Zohra. Open every day and at night too for experiencing the lighting effects.
Palais El Badii
One of our favourite haunts is the rooftop of the Kozybar on Place des Ferblantiers (Metalworkers) adjacent to the monumental walls surrounding the ruined palace and a convenient home for numerous storks who build huge nests on the top of the walls. Built for Ahmed El Mansour using Portuguese ransom money from a disastrous battle (for the Portuguese) fought in 1578. Built on a vast scale the ruins are now gardens comprising large raised basins and interconnecting walkways and trees at a lower level. There are a number of pavilions within or extending from the walls and the ruins of dungeons and stables. It is also the ‘temporary’ home of MMPVA a museum of photography - unfortunately the website is hacked and the new building to be built to designs of David Chipperfield is on hold.
Palais de la Bahia
Just north of Place des Ferblantiers is this 19th century mansion and series of interconnected courtyards - it has been stripped of furniture and presents a rather bleak notion of Moorish style, but the balance between the buildings and courtyards makes it worth a visit.
Maison de la Photographie
This is a private institution that has a collection of photographs dated up to the 1960’s, exhibitions of historical photographs of the region and an extensive publishing programme. The exhibition spaces are in a cool domestic environment with a small ‘terrasse panoramique’ and cafe on the roof. Well worth a visit, staff are friendly and enthusiastic about the exhibits and reproductions are available at different sizes to purchase on site or through the online boutique.
Cyber Park Arsat Moulay Abdeslam
On Boulevard Mohammed V, adjacent to the Bab Nkob gate is this free park with a small museum of telephony sponsored by Maroc Telecom. Pleasant respite if walking round the Medina and on to Gueliz.
Le Parc El Harti
Near Place 16 November, large park with water features and formal bedding is a pleasant respite from the noisy boulevards of Gueliz. An impromptu market appears at the gates on certain days.
At the end of Avenue Prince Moulay Rachid are the eponymous gardens from where you can see planes parked at the airport! A bit of a walk from the Medina but transport readily available. Open every day and free, comprising olive trees and a single massive basin with a poolside pavilion and backdrop of the snow topped Atlas Mountains - very popular, very photogenic! Often drinks stands are around the gate - and camel rides!
Other recommendations but not visited by us or only recently opened:
Musee d’Art et Culture de Marrakech is a private institution on Rue Yugoslavie in Gueliz opened in 2016, comprising a permanent collection of paintings, photographs and handicrafts, temporary exhibitions and a bookshop founded by Nabil el Mallouki.
Le Jardin des Arts
On Boulevard Mohammed V facing the Berdii roundabout - small with a cafe/ restaurant garnering mixed reviews.
Les Jardins de l’Agdal
Large traditional Moroccan style garden originally established in the 12th century - essentially an orchard with tanks of water - just south of the Royal Palace and only open certain Fridays and Sundays - we were never there at the right time to visit.
The Mamounia Hotel actually takes its name from its gardens, which are over a hundred years older, laid out by Prince Moulay Mamoun in the 18th century. The gardens aren’t huge but the orange and olive trees, colourful flowerbeds and assorted flora are all meticulously maintained and together create a charming environment. If you fancy a stroll round the gardens it’s best to dress smartly. Certain times are free, but you can also combine your visit with a buffet lunch or afternoon tea near the pool. The hotel was originally built in 1923, revamped (disastrously so we gather) in the 1980’s and virtually rebuilt to designs by interiors guru Jaques Garcia and reopened in 2009 - overpriced and stuffy for some reviewers, strict dress code - no sandals?
Bert Flint is an anthropologist who journeyed from Tangier to Timbuktu and now offers a curated overview of traditional artefacts and handicrafts in his riad home - Maison Tiskiwin. Apparently most of the articles on display were purchased from the Marrakech souk rather his anthropological journeys.
Three properties, five swimming pools and a tennis court in well kept gardens in the Palmeraie area. Lunch and swim option available if not a resident and to enjoy the gardens maintained by ethno-botanist Gary Martin. Wife Meryanne Loum-Martin designed the rooms and keeps an aesthetic eye on facilities - they offer motorbike and sidecar trips!
The Dar Si Said Museum
A impressive smaller version of the Bahia, it houses the Museum of Moroccan Arts. Berber jewellery is the stand out exhibit here, plus various weapons and a marble basin from 10th century Cordoba.
The Secret Garden
Two private linked riad spaces in the Medina designed by British landscape design practice of Tom Stuart-Smith working with the owners and local suppliers and craftsmen. The larger area was restored as an Islamic paradise garden, the second to include a wide variety of plants and trees. There’s a cafe and a bookshop is envisaged too.
A short distance from the city (22 kilometres) is this garden full of artworks and installations conceived by multi-media artist André Heller. Two hectares of dense planting established over five years. There is also a museum with art and photography from around the world and a cafe ‘Paul Bowles’ (the author?) There is a free shuttle bus service (not July and August) from the Koutoubia car park for those visitors with tickets purchased on line.
Eating and drinking
Many restaurants have maintained their reputation for many years and still receive plaudits from reviewers. Gueliz and Hivernage have most of the contemporary venues but the Medina also has an interesting range of offers.
Restaurants can be categorised as traditional Moroccan fare or as a contemporary interpretation. Moroccan food can be presented as ‘palais’ style - all inclusive (sometimes including drinks) and entertainment throughout the evening usually in a riad in the Medina or in regular restaurant or as a more basic home cooking style cafe.
Somewhere special for New Years Eve on our first visit to Marrakech - the traditional option was Le Tobsil. In a narrow alleyway off Rue Sidi El Yamani, you are met at a street corner by a cloaked attendant who delivers you to the door. You are seated at a low table with a view into the covered courtyard. Many courses follow: a meze starter, then pigeon pastilla, two types of couscous and desert accompanied by traditional Gnawa type music and dancing by a troupe of tarbush hatted dervishes rotating the tassels on the top of their hats at an ever increasing speed - a full evening of entertainment and no Auld Langs Syne or Hokey Koke! Dar Mariana is also highly recommended.
Famous as much for the all female staff as the excellent food and environment, Al Fassia is located on the ground floor of a modern building on Avenue Mohammed Zerktouni in Gueliz. You can order as much or little as you like, but with such good food it’s difficult to be modest. Some comments have been made about slow service, but overall the cooking and experience is very good.
Le Maison Arabe
We splurged on a meal here, as much to see the premises as have a good meal. In the Bab Doukala area of the Medina, off Boulevard Fatima Zahra this is a hotel established in 1946, as well as a famous restaurant, offering an upmarket experience for those who appreciate a traditional environment. The menu is all Moroccan but emphasises a lighter touch, the staff are very attentive and the food is very well presented. Moroccan wines are available but with about a £10.00 additional markup compared to some other locations. Overall cost for two (two starters, two mains, wine and water) about £85.00 - as seen on a recent bill on Tripadvisor. There’s also a country club in the Palmeraie accessed by free shuttle bus. A day pass is 400MAD - currently just over £30.00 for towel, water, welcome drink and lunch. Considered a fair price by Tripadvisor respondents.
Lounge area of the rooftop terrace at Le Cafe Arabe.
Le Cafe Arabe
Not to be confused with the above - this cafe/restaurant is in the Souk on Rue Mouassine and offers a rooftop terrace bar with views over the Medina - and next doors cat and washing - the Berber Lounge, with a fireplace for groups, a courtyard restaurant with alcoves for inclement weather and other sitting areas in the interconnecting spaces. The Manager — Italian who was very amenable when we visited and this is evidenced in the menu: a mix of Italian and Moroccan staples. The courtyard is very pretty at night with candlelit tables under the lemon tree. Best though is the funky rooftop for drinks as the sun sets and the mountains glow pink!
On a side street in Gueliz, Rue de la Libertie, Kechmara has a bright modern interior with a roof space, with live music three nights a week. Run by two French brothers and charming staff, food is bistro style with mixed reviews, but we’ve always enjoyed it and the environment chills down at night. Usually interesting clientele, nice photographs on the walls. ‘Informal and funky’ - according to Hg2 - and we agree wholeheartedly!
Grand Cafe de la Poste
One of favourite restaurants - maybe not for the food, but the charming colonial style decor and people watching - who you attract matters - it’s not just food and service! Located near a busy intersection on Boulevard Mohammed V, opposite the big PTT building, it’s a bit like a pyramid of spaces - street level tables with big umbrellas shading customers (no alcohol allowed here) next level up is the covered terrace, shaded by wooden blinds with rattan style furniture - and newspapers on bamboo canes - so continental, then through to the interior: multi coloured tiles, iron columns and Thonet style bentwood chairs and finally an upper level of sofas and tables. Very fashionable and thus quite expensive for meals, we drop by around cocktail time when complimentary snacks are sometimes served. The vast majority of reviews are very positive, but some US clients thought they were ignored by not being European - read chic! The long time manager Eric Conte Moustakidis does have his favourites - he runs this highly recommended establishment like a sophisticated family gathering that you happen to also be invited. The closest thing to meeting Humphrey Bogart in Rick’s Bar you’re likely to experience!
No 16 Cafe
Almost forgot this contemporary venue only a few steps from the Grande Cafe de la Poste on Place 16 Novembre with yellow and lime green decor and speciality patisserie (map location seems to differ from our recollection - is it age?). The menu has breakfast and lunch set offers, quiche and sandwiches, lots of indulgent cakes and pastries and chef specials. In the evening reservations are taken and a pleasant three course meal with wine from Moroccan producers, cocktails, numerous teas and coffees. The management have also opened 16 Kawa - an extension to a shop featuring clothing and design objects - opposite the Majorelle Gardens and closing here at 8pm.
Another place in the Medina that serves alcohol, this hotel has a busy street level lounge and restaurant and although we would not care to stay there - facilities look somewhat basic - it’s a good place to the south of Place Jemaa el Fna to take a break with a glass of rose. On the corner of Rue de Bab Aguenaou and Avenue Hoummane el Fatouaki, that leads down to Place des Ferblantiers. Lookout for the guy with the cart outside offering cumin infused snails - very popular!
Entrance, pool and huge mirror adjacent to the Relais Restaurant, Hotel Jardins de la Koutoubia
— behind the curtains on the right.
Hotel Jardins de la Koutoubia
Just off a busy corner at the Jemaa el Fnaa end of Boulevard Mohammed V, this is a large modern hotel with Moroccan overtones. It is structured around a larger and small courtyard, both with pools plus a further rooftop pool. It has three restaurants, a snack bar and piano bar. We negotiated the corridors and had a very good meal in the contemporary Relais de Paris restaurant overlooking the smaller pool. This has a bistro style menu of favourites that has had mixed reviews, but we had a good experience and is not too expensive - Formule sirloin steak and chips with special sauce and vegetables is currently about £13.00, Moroccan wines are priced £12.00 to £24.00.
Cool interior and balconies in th Kozybar.
Another cool option for a late afternoon or early evening drink on the seductive rooftop terrace. Accessed through a single door in a corner of Place des Ferblantiers, the dark interior has spaces for eating inside, but the big draw is the rooftop. Food is fairly basic during the day, more sophisticated in the evening with a mix of European and Moroccan dishes plus a Japanese chef who does a mean line in sushi.
Just round the corner from Kechmara on Boulevard Mansour Eddahbi is this bar with an open courtyard screened from the road where bottled beer is the drink of choice. The name seems to have changed, but a recent review confirms it’s still there - one of few places serving alcohol outdoors for local residents - mainly men - only one toilet on our last visit!
And finally . . . we fondly remember Chez Jac’line on Boulevard Mohammed V, an outpost of French cuisine for many years overseen by the fading owner, supported by her faithful retainers - a bit like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The food was classic French bistro fare with Jacqueline herself seated with a ‘petit vins’ ensuring all is well (if you spoke French) . . . alas no more.
Time for tea?