By: Stephanie Johnnidis
It’s mid-morning in Marrakech, long after dawn’s first call to prayer, and the roosters have finally calmed. On a quiet hotel terrace, a young couple sprawl out on white-cushioned loungers and chat about going for a swim in the courtyard pool after breakfast. From their perch, they can peer out over the jumble of ramshackle Medina rooftops to the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque. Meanwhile, in the labyrinth of streets below, the Medina is already moving at full speed. Craftspeople scurry from stall to stall, sellers call out to passersby, children chase a soccer ball, and donkeys totter along, all while mopeds whiz by. Sunlight streaks through the alleys. It’s warming up and the air is thick with the smells of spices and food.
Morocco has long been a country where grit and glamour mingle, where hedonism and faith coexist, and Marrakech, an ancient city located in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, is the epicenter of its famous dichotomy.
The country is in the middle of a growth spurt, spearheaded by its monarch, King Mohammed VI, who took the throne in 1999 and immediately began improving the country’s infrastructure, vowing to quadruple tourism by 2010. These developments have had the greatest impact on Marrakech, where in the past few years, a handful of fine new hotels have opened with another dozen or so on the way.
Gone are the days when Western visitors like writers William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles came searching for what they considered exotic and sought risqué encounters and inspirational isolation. Yes, the snake charmers and belly dancers can still be found (indeed, these customs are deeply rooted in the culture), but so can modern design, haute cuisine, and couture – influences made by visitors such as Jean Paul Gaultier and the late Yves Saint Laurent. And while many residences within the Medina are hidden behind unassuming doors, new condo high-rises loom over the broad avenues in the Ville Nouvelle (the new quarter). This mix of old and new, of North African and European, is what makes the city so fascinating.
Marrakech’s oldest section is the pink-hued Medina, or old city, encircled by 10-mile-long ramparts. Just outside the Medina’s enduring walls is the Ville Nouvelle, including the Gueliz and Hivernage neighborhoods where the French settled, where the wide avenues, streetside cafés, vibrant nightlife, and neoclassical architecture wear a distinctly European look.
A fruitful week can be spent exploring the city alone, starting in the Medina and working outward. Another week could be whiled away visiting the harbor town of Essaouira on the southern Atlantic coast and trekking into the High Atlas Mountains.
View our Morocco slideshow by photographer Ehren Joseph for a closer look at this North African jewel.
“The only way to see anything in the Medina is to walk. In order to be really present, you must have your feet in the dust, and be aware of the hot dusty smell of the mud walls beside your face.” Paul Bowles’s observation about Marrakech still rings true today. Many of the city’s monuments and palaces have deteriorated or been looted over the centuries and mosques can only be seen from the outside unless one is a practicing Muslim, but walking the Medina will uncover many hidden treasures. Admission to most monuments costs 10 to 15 dirhams, or $1 to $2, which most often includes access to on-site guides. Although Marrakech has no major museums, visitors will find plenty to see, and first-timers may want to hire a guide to help navigate the chaotic streets.
The impressive remnants of several ruling powers – the Almoravids, the Almohads, the Saadians, and the French – stand throughout the city, founded in 1062. It’s impossible to miss the Koutoubia Mosque (Avenue Mohammed V, opposite Place de Foucauld and Djemaa el Fna). Its minaret, completed in 1195 by the Almohads, rises above the city near the Bab Agnaou entrance of the fortifications. At the center of the Medina is Djemaa el Fna, the main square famous for its snake charmers, fortune-tellers, magicians, and hawkers selling everything from orange juice to teeth-pulling services. Most vendors don’t set up shop until the late afternoon, so visitors should stroll there in the evening or watch the action from one of the bordering terraced cafés while enjoying a drink. South of the square, on Souk Semmarinne, an excellent selection of Moroccan crafts and antiques, including Berber tapestries, hand-carved wood furnishings, and pottery, can be found at La Porte d’Or (115 Souk Semmarine; 212-024-44-54-54, firstname.lastname@example.org). This is an established store with fixed prices, meaning less intense bargaining than at other souk stalls – but there’s always room for a little negotiation.
North of the square, Ben Youssef Medersa (just off Rue Souk el Kehmis), a former 14th-century Islamic school rebuilt by the Saadians, combines a particularly impressive blend of Berber and Moorish architectural elements, a mix found throughout the Medina. It includes tall arabesque arches, tadelakt (carved plasterwork), and carved friezes. The Saadian Tombs (Rue de la Kasbah), constructed by Saadian sheikhs in the 16th century and rediscovered in 1917 by a French general taking aerial photos to map the region, are elaborately adorned with intricate carvings and Arabic script. During Alaouite dynasty leader Moulay Ismail’s reign (1672-1727), he dismantled the adjacent Badi Palace but only sealed up the tombs, either because he did not want to disturb the dead or, perhaps, found them too beautiful to destroy. Past the souks in the Mouassine quarter stands Dar Cherifa (8 Derb Chorfa Lakbir; 212-44-42-64-63), a café and art gallery in a 17th-century building showcasing exhibits by local and foreign artists. It’s a great place to stop for a cup of tea.
The hammam, a traditional bathhouse, can be found throughout Marrakech, most often adjacent to bakeries that share the heating facilities. Many locals frequent the hammams weekly, and visiting one offers a quick immersion into Moroccan life. For a more pampered, westernized experience, many tourists visit Les Bains de Marrakech (Derb Sedra; by appointment only; 212-044-38-14-28, www.lesbainsdemarrakech.com), where a traditional hammam treatment (steam, soap, and scrub) is complemented by massages and other modern spa services. Subterranean La Sultana (403 Rue de la Kasbah; 212-524-38-80-08, www.lasultanamarrakech.com), a lavish hotel spa with a pool, provides candlelit treatment rooms, hydrotherapy baths, Vichy showers, and steam rooms.
The Majorelle Garden (Avenue Yacoub el Mansour; www.jardinmajorelle.com), a colorful botanical retreat in the Ville Nouvelle, can provide a welcome respite from the heat of the Medina. Created by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and later purchased and refurbished by Yves Saint Laurent, the garden today houses rare cacti, palms, bamboos, and aquatic plants. The often crowded yet tranquil sanctuary, decorated with bright cerulean-blue clay pots, includes shaded walkways and Majorelle’s former studio, now a museum of Islamic art. The Menara Gardens (Avenue de la Menara), an olive grove next to a large pond and a green-tile-roofed pavilion, is one of the most photographed sights in Marrakech. Also in the Ville Nouvelle, the Casino de Marrakech (Avenue El Quadissia; 212-524-44-88-11), built in the early 1950s, is the oldest casino in Africa. In this lively playground, cabaret acts and belly dancers wander the floor.
Side Trip: High Atlas Mountains
North Africa’s largest range, the Atlas Mountains stretch from the Atlantic coast and along the Moroccan–Algerian border and ascend to 13,665 feet at Jebel Toubkal, the region’s highest peak. Access the remote foothills after about an hour’s drive from Marrakech. Most hotels offer day trips into the mountains. Visitors can also arrange for a driver to take them there and back; a half-day trip can be booked through Apex Car (212-537-77-88-01). For those wishing to spend more time in the mountains, the location of Kasbah Tamadot (212-024-36-82-00, www.virgin.com/kasbah) cannot be beat. Richard Branson’s spectacular castle-hotel offers stunning views of the High Atlas peaks, rivers in the valley below, and the nearby mud-and-brick village of Tansghar, built right into the face of the forested mountainside. Splurge on an overnight stay there and consider a tour into the mountains. The best of the property’s 24 rooms are the six private tented suites that sit in a row and come with their own outdoor plunge pool. During the day, guests can eat meals on the pool terrace or just lounge there, wander the grounds, go to a hammam, or arrange for a guided hike, mule ride, or hot-air balloon tour of the region. Both the little roadside villages of Asni, closest to the Kasbah Tamadot hotel, or Imlil, a little further south (buses and taxis move regularly between the two towns), offer a glimpse of Berber life.
Side Trip: Essaouira
Seaside fortifications edge the whitewashed, blue-shuttered fishing village of Essaouira, which appears more Mediterranean than African. The windy beach town is about a 3-hour drive west of Marrakech that passes a portion of the Sahara’s desert expanse as well as groves of argan trees. (Moroccans use the argan’s fruit for oil.) Here visitors can see a Moroccan oddity: goats in trees. The goats climb up into the branches to get to the fruit. Many travelers opt to stay overnight in Essaouira to wander its cobbled streets and Portuguese fort or ramble the rocky coastline. One can simply stretch out on the sand or take windsurfing lessons; windsurfing outfitter Club Mistral (www.club-mistral.com) is located on the beach next door to the Ocean Vagabond café (www.oceanvagabond.com). Chez Sam (212-044-47-65-13) serves fresh seafood like grilled John Dory, tuna, and fried sardines, while prawns and sea urchins are on hand at Le Chalet de la Plage (212-024-47-59-72). The rooftop at Madada Mogador (212-524-47-55-12, www.madada.com), a chic guesthouse hotel just behind the walled city’s ocean-facing ramparts, offers sweeping views of the port and beach. The large terrace at Taros Café (212-644-47-64-07; www.taroscafe.com) is a happening scene day and night; the restaurant serves Moroccan and French dishes. To get to Essaouira, take the national railway (www.oncf.ma/en/horraires .aspx) or hire a driver through Apex Car (212-537-77-88-01).
Where to Stay
Marrakech has all manner of hotels, from ultramodern to extremely simple, spread throughout the city. First-time visitors should stay in the Medina to best experience the rhythms of this ancient metropolis. Riads are Moroccan residences of traditional design, built around a courtyard with windows facing inward; some of them have been converted into hotels and guesthouses (or restaurants and cafés). More than 400 riad hotels of varying sizes are scattered throughout the winding alleys of the Medina; most have only 5 to 10 guest rooms – and are always unique in size, layout, and design. Many boast rooftop terraces where guests can enjoy a meal prepared by a staff chef, or simply lounge while soaking in the sounds of the Medina and the adhan (call to prayer). Such accommodations are usually affordable and of high quality, thanks to strong artisan and architectural traditions. They contain fine detail work such as tadelakt, moucharabieh (wooden latticework, sometimes lined with stained glass), and zellige (terra-cotta tiles with geometrical mosaics). The hardest part is picking one for a stay – and then finding it. Maps rarely include all the tiny streets and most riads are marked only by plaques next to their doors. Ask the staff to provide someone to guide the way there from a more well-known landmark.
A standout is the 3-year-old Riad Noir d’Ivoire (212-524-38-09-75; www.noir-d-ivoire.com). Interior designer Jill Fechtmann successfully transformed her private residence and studio into a stylish hotel, with the help of local craftspeople. During the renovation she found herself constantly amazed by the city’s skilled artisans. “Their willingness to try new things, based on centuries-old ideas brought up to date, is an inspiration,” she says. Her riad has two courtyards as well as its own hammam, plus a bar where guests are offered ginger lemonade upon check-in. Rooms blend North African styles with eclectic decorative objects from Pakistan, India, and Syria. The hotel provides guests the use of a private cell phone and WiFi service in the courtyard.
Nearby, Riad Farnatchi’s (212-524-38-49-10, www.riadfarnatchi.com) nine suites offer a modern hideaway with Moroccan flair: lantern-lit dining rooms showcase expertly carved and painted stucco walls, while guest rooms feature headboards with sculpted ironwork. The bathrooms contain Philippe Starck sunken tubs, some inlaid with fossils excavated in Morocco. Owned by two British fashion photographers, trendy 2-year-old Maison MK (212-524-37-61-73, www.maisonmk.com) bypasses traditionalism for a design that incorporates a curvy plunge pool, a rooftop terrace with copper fire pit, a high-tech screening room, and a sleek spa. The more traditional AnaYela (212-524-38-69-69, www.anayela.com) epitomizes Moroccan artisanship. The 300-year-old former palace, restored with the help of more than 100 local craftspeople, includes 10-foot silver doors with hand-hammered calligraphy telling the love story of a young woman, Yela, who once resided there. The palace contains only three guest rooms and two suites, with furniture designed by German owner Bernd Kolb and Yannick Hervy and built by local artisans. Newcomer Riad Meriem (212-524-38-77-31, www.riadmeriem.com) is the creation of New York–based designer Thomas Hays, who visits Marrakech every few months. His five-suite hotel showcases what he calls global fusion. “I layered in a lot of antique textiles from Pakistan and Sumatra,” he explains. Rooms feature his photographs as well as lanterns and light fixtures designed by the royal family’s lamp maker, and closets resembling Moroccan fireplaces. The riad has a lovely courtyard brimming with bougainvillea and rooftop terrace overlooking the Medina.
Several anticipated hotel openings have generated significant buzz, especially the relaunching of La Mamounia (212-524-38-86-00, www.mamounia.com), just beyond the Medina’s ramparts. A Marrakech institution since 1923, it has hosted guests like FDR and Winston Churchill. Plus Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much there. After three years of renovations, the hotel will open in September 2009 with 136 rooms and 71 suites, a new spa and four restaurants – amid Moorish architecture and decor by interior designer Jacques Garcia. The extravagant Royal Mansour (212-524-37-83-39, www.royalmansour.ma), expected to open in November, is owned by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and will comprise 53 sultan-worthy riads with flowering courtyards, pools, and fountains. A moat will surround the huge spa, and Parisian chef Yannick Alléno of Restaurant Le Meurice fame is overseeing the development of the property’s three restaurants.
Palmeraie is a desert suburb about a 15-minute drive from the city with several luxury resorts. A new Mandarin Oriental Hotel Jnan Rahma (212-524-32-83-75, www. mandarinoriental.com) will open there in the winter of 2010 with 161 rooms and suites, all with private terraces and some including Atlas mountain views. Four riads within the property’s gardens have private courtyards and pools. The interiors, decorated by local artists, include frescoes, handwoven carpets, and colorful chandeliers. Nearby, the 18 octagonal villas of Terre Resort & Spa (212-524-33-40-60, www.terre.com), topped by sculpted Moorish domes, offer travelers a great value. The resort spans 12 acres and houses 52 suites.
Where to Eat
Moroccan cuisine incorporates many influences, mainly Arab and Berber with a dash of French. The most popular dishes are tagines (meat simmered in a clay vessel); couscous with vegetables and fruit or meat; and bastilla, a distinctive stuffed pastry. Most traditional restaurants offer prix-fixe menus that include all of the above in hefty portions. Marrakech Essentials (www.marrakech-essentials.com) is a great new English-language resource for finding restaurants in the city.
A classic Moroccan dining experience awaits at the end of a sleepy Medina alley in Dar Marjana (212-024-38-51-10, www.darmarjanamarrakech.com). Enjoy aperitifs like mahia (a fig liqueur) in the lovely open-air, lantern-lit courtyard where local Gnawa musicians pluck two-stringed banjos. The first course includes six or so traditional hot and cold Moroccan salads like carrots sautéed with cumin, spicy tomato puree, and roasted eggplant, served with pan-fried liver, sweet tomato jam, and homemade bread. Next comes the bastilla, filled with layers of pigeon, eggs, onions, spices, and crushed almonds, and topped with cinnamon. After that follows a succulent lamb tagine with prunes and figs; then vegetable couscous; and finally fruit and a sweet, flaky bastilla topped with powdered sugar for dessert. Le Tobsil (212-024-44-40-52) offers a similar banquet in a romantic former palace.
While many Islamic countries have strict bans on alcohol, Morocco takes a more tolerant view in some areas. The country may not be well-known in the West for its winemaking, but it turns out about 40 million bottles a year, some of it quite good. The major wine- producing regions around Meknes (close to Fez) and Ounagha (near Essaouira) craft high-quality varieties like the CB Initiales merlot and cabernet sauvignon blend, Les Celliers des Meknès’s cabernet sauvignon, the Medaillon or Val d’Argan Syrahs, and the Volubilia rosé. A fine selection of these and other bottles, along with Moroccan-Asian fare, can be had at Kosybar (212-024-38-03-24, www. bestrestaurantsmaroc.com) a rooftop terrace bar that is one of the Medina’s few watering holes (most bars lie outside the Medina in the Ville Nouvelle). Le Maison Arabe (212-524-38-70-10, www.lamaisonarabe.com), a 17-room riad, provides cocktails and music in a 1930s-style piano bar that recalls the days when its former restaurant welcomed Churchill.
For restaurants with dishes diverging from traditional Moroccan cuisine, head to the Ville Nouvelle, where many establishments serve lighter fare. Kechmara (212-024-42-25-32, www. kechmara.com) offers tasty sandwiches and salads in a sleek white-and-chrome dining room with a rooftop terrace. Le Grand Café de la Poste (212-524-38-80-12, www.grandcafe delaposte.com) prepares Mediterranean-French fare like lamb shank with potato gratin and African oysters in a colonial bistro setting.
A 15-minute cab ride from the Medina is Bô-Zin (212-024-38-80-12, www.bo-zin.com), a trendy restaurant and outdoor lounge replete with a tented garden, a fire pit, and dozens of flickering candles. The menu of international, albeit pricey, cuisine with an Asian touch includes scallops and sole wrapped in nori. Another quick cab ride away from the Medina, the Murano Resort Marrakech (212/024-32-70-00, www.muranoresort.com) sister to the Murano Hotel in Paris, is a sexy 37-room resort with a red-tiled, 105-foot-long pool. Go for a drink at night when the pool lights reflect off the tiles, lending the water a ruby-red glow. Find a livelier party atmosphere at Le Comptoir (212-524-43-77-02, www.comptoirdarna.com) a decadent lounge-style club and restaurant. While the decor doesn’t scream Morocco – and the clientele is mostly European – the hookahs, belly dancers, and DJs have made it one of the city’s most popular nighttime hangouts. Just a short stroll away, Jad Mahal (212-024-43-69-84) provides an extravagant after-dark venue with Indian-style decor (including a big bronze elephant) and a house band that covers American hits from the 1980s as well as international tunes.
Making It Happen
Getting There & Around
Royal Air Maroc is the only carrier that offers direct service from the U.S. to Morocco, via New York’s JFK to Casablanca. Catch a connecting flight from Casablanca to Menara Airport (about 4 miles southwest of Marrakech). Most nonstop flights from New York to Casablanca take almost 8 hours. Flights from Los Angeles to Casablanca stop in New York and take 13 to 15 hours. Direct flights from Casablanca to Marrakech last about 40 minutes. For sightseeing excursions, hire a driver through a hotel or tour company. Use local taxis for hopping around the different neighborhoods. Morocco’s railways (www.oncf.ma/en/horraires.aspx) run several daily trains to Fez, Rabat, Tangier, and Essaouira.
When to Go
Avoid summer’s heat and crowds; fall and spring see mild temps and reduced rates.