Colin White explores an imperial city full of sights and sounds combining a heritage of traditional craft with an evolving modernity.
With a population of over one million, Marrakech acts as a gateway to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara desert. The main tourist destination in Morocco, what makes the culture of Marrakech truly unique is its people. Here you can get lost in the humming souks and discover culture around every corner.
An Islamic-dominated society, Marrakech is also a liberal and cosmopolitan city and alcohol is sold in many hotel bars and restaurants. Arabic is widely used as the main language, but many people have excellent French, and English is spoken well by anybody involved with the tourist industry.
Real estate and hotel development have grown dramatically over recent years as the city enjoys an upsurge in tourist numbers.
As with many north African cities, Marrakech is separated into the old city (medina) and the modern city, a residential district of boulevards.
Although regarded as one of the safest locations in Africa to visit, travellers more accustomed to the costas of Spain would be forgiven for being somewhat overwhelmed upon arriving at the Red City – named so due to various buildings constructed in red sandstone during the 12th century.
I had prearranged some lavish digs for my three-night stay. A modern boutique hotel, maison mk is located in the heart of one the city’s 18 souks amongst winding alleyways. Marrakech, somewhat surprisingly, has impressive infrastructure in place and only a short drive is required before arriving at the destination. The recent improvements to the city’s highways have assisted with the increase in tourism, and Marrakech now attracts over two million tourists annually.
Arriving at dusk, I’m immediately struck by the heightened senses: exuberant smells, vivid colours and a cacophony of sounds engulf the spirit.
First impressions are positive. It’s like nothing I’ve ever encountered before on my travels. The hotel somehow manages to exude a laid-back vibe amidst stunning furnishings and meticulous attention to detail. It’s a hotel brimming with confidence. Abstract artworks and original paintings adorn the walls and halls of this highly regarded riad (a traditional Moroccan house), while the courtyard offers beautiful lighting and a refuge from the African sun. Add to this a three-tiered rooftop terrace that provides breathtaking views across the city, and it all adds up to a spectacular place in which to wile away a few days.
LOST IN THE MEDINA
The hotel is relatively tucked away, yet only a short three-minute stroll to the bustling Jamaa el Fna – the jewel in the crown of this great city. And where better to begin a Moroccan adventure? Just before setting off, the hotel guest manager (and personal assistant during the stay) Wafaa imparts a friendly piece of advice regarding navigating the old city: “You haven’t visited Marrakech unless you get lost amongst the souk.” Armed with my geographical acumen, a map, as well as a complimentary mobile phone from my room loaded with useful numbers, I took her statement as hyperbole. Six minutes later, I had no idea in which direction the Jamaa el Fna – or the hotel for that matter – was located!
The souk district extends over a wide area and is linked by a confusing network of narrow lanes. I was trapped inside a Bowie-less labyrinth. One-nil, Marrakech. Finally salvation, as the Jamaa el Fna opened up in all is majesty: awash with colour, teeming with life and character.
Previously, the site of public executions (Jamaa el Fna translates as ‘Assembly of the Dead’), the bazaar is a veritable spectacle of storytellers, acrobats, musicians and entertainers.
Exuberant smells, vivid colours and a cacophony of sounds engulf the spirit
Trade and crafts are vital to the local tourism-fuelled economy and the souks in Marrakech employ more than 40,000 people in pottery, copperware, leather and other crafts. On offer is stereotypical Moroccan fare – snake charmers, traditional pottery, leather goods, fabrics, spices – as well as a host of other temptations, from Messi-adorned football shirts to tasty street food.
Some visitors may not court the attention of local merchants and have little interest in the majority of goods on sale, but who cares when such lust for life is packed into such a modest amount of space?
At this stage, hunger had long ago registered as an issue that needed addressing and a visit to one of the many restaurants lining the periphery of the square was called for. Having known it would have proven tricky to pick up Moroccan dirhams in Dublin, I had put all my faith in a cash withdrawal from the many ATMs dotted around the city – a decision that proved unwise. After several unsuccessful attempts to withdraw cash, I headed back to the hotel where, not for the last time, maison mk staff went above and beyond the call of duty and supplied a much-needed hot meal at such a late hour.
UP ON THE ROOF
Gently awoken by a stirring morning prayer from the nearby Koutoubia mosque, Friday morning brought early delight in the form of a Moroccan breakfast.
The city is surrounded by lemon, orange and olive groves and these, along with chilli, cinnamon, cumin, and turmeric, feature heavily in much Moroccan cuisine.
The fare was mouth-watering: ‘msimmen’ pancakes, local breads, homemade yoghurts, fresh eggs, homemade jams, local honey and oils, a seasonal fruit salad, just-squeezed orange juice and even the coveted ‘argan’ spread.
One will undoubtedly quickly acquire a fondness for Moroccan green tea with mint, served with sugar from a curved teapot spout into a tiny glass.
Sat in the shade of the rooftop terrace enjoying panoramic views of Marrakech, it becomes evident why the roof terrace is employed by maison mk as a major selling point to attract visitors. By day, the terrace conveys serenity. Sun worshippers lounge by the bar, while maison mk’s charming staff are always available for necessary refreshments.
EAST MEETS WEST
Suitably nourished, the first activity of the day was an East-West package at spa mk located on the ground floor of the hotel, where traditional Moroccan methods and argan oils are combined with contemporary European expertise. The ‘East’ part of the package consists of a hammam, a Middle Eastern variant of a steam bath practised in Morocco for thousands of years.
The hammam is an integral part of Moroccan culture and can be described as an attack on the senses; an invigorating and all-encompassing cleansing experience, akin to a cross between a rigorous massage and a visit to the sauna.
The hammam was followed by soothing 45-minute massage performed in calming darkness, ensuring total absorption and relaxation.
SPACE IS ACE
Outside of the old city, Marrakech is home to numerous shopping malls, boutiques and nightclubs and the city is increasingly becoming a desirable stopover for European big spenders, with it being referred to as the ‘second Saint Tropez’ in some French quarters. There are many individuals willing to splash the cash in this exotic wonderland. Nowhere is this more epitomised than at the Four Seasons Resort, a short distance to the west of the medina.
Having come from the tightly wound alleys of the old city, the spacious landscape and decadent grounds are seductive on many levels. Spreading across 40 acres next to the historic Menara Gardens, its low-rise accommodations are nestled among olive and palm trees. The resort is certainly targeted at the gentry and a visit here is undoubtedly further removed from a true Moroccan experience, but the resort is nevertheless a stunning complex.
Returning to my maison mk digs at dusk as the falling sun painted the sky red, excitement was building ahead of a five-course tasting dinner at gastro mk. Expectations were high as the restaurant had garnered a reputation for being the place to eat in Marrakech.
Open to both internal and external guests, gastro mk has been lauded in many quarters for the quality of its cuisine and its rating as the number one restaurant in Marrakech on Trip Advisor only added to the suspense.
After enjoying sweeping panoramic views of Marrakech and a delicious cocktail on the roof terrace, the banquet awaited. What followed over the next two hours was an exquisitely concocted and presented array of culinary delights.
The magnificence of the cuisine was matched by the charming staff, who offered a quality of service to rival any top-class restaurant throughout the world.
With a full belly, the lure of Rock ‘n Kech – a soul bar just a stone’s throw from the hotel – was too strong to resist. The hip bar provided the ideal way to end a perfectly wonderful day exploring this enchanting city.
One of the most visited sites in Morocco, Majorelle Garden is the lifework of French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962). Interestingly, Majorelle’s garden, rather than his paintings, turned out to be his true masterpiece. Majorelle Garden is the city’s true oasis of calm. In 1980 after years of neglect, the garden was bought by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge. The pair had fallen in love with the garden and after his death in 2008 his ashes were scattered there.
An enchanting space with marble pools, raised pathways and 300 different species of exotic plants, the garden provides shelter from the day’s heat, while both Majorelle and Saint Laurent’s imagination evidently runs wild throughout. Birds chirp and turtles swim in the ponds, while beautifully vibrant colours provide a serene harmony at this Art Deco paradise.
The garden also houses the Museum of Islamic Art, which includes north African textiles from Saint Laurent’s personal collection as well as ceramics, jewellery and paintings by Majorelle.
MODERN VS TRADITIONAL
A visit to Marrakech can be tailored to suit any traveller, whether a thrifty backpacker or an international jet setter.
Numerous luxury, as well as affordable, options are dotted around Marrakech’s souks, and maison mk’s rise to one of the top-rated hotels in Marrakech is all the more impressive considering the relatively short time it has been in business.
The brainchild of Aoibheann and Paul Hopkins, their concept was to create a cutting-edge designer riad in the heart of the action in Marrakech. They have maintained the authentic house architecture of the riad, as it was restored lovingly by hand. The result is an eclectic mix of modern versus traditional.
Although Marrakech offers a feast of activities for travellers, there is much to experience within the walls of maison mk.
The fact that the hotel has garnered a reputation for its cuisine is well deserved and – although not a major focus for the owners – hopes for a Michelin star nod wouldn’t be misplaced.
It’s a stylish boutique hotel that prides itself on offering a VIP service and is an ideal place in which to relax after a day’s exertion. However, maison mk’s biggest selling point is its staff. Every member of the team is exceptional and a welcoming charm inhabits the riad – the perfect oasis of cool in a hot, bustling and mystical city.
The northwestern African mountain range is easily accessed from Marrakech and offers wonderful mountain retreats and beautiful scenery.
Stade de Marrakech
Home to Kawkab Marrakech football team, the stadium has a capacity of 45,240 people and is the main stadium of the city. Why not check out a game?
With its many waterfalls, this lush valley is one of the best-preserved in Morocco
THINGS TO DO
Majorelle Garden is a botanical and artist’s landscape garden designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s.
It also houses the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakech.
Jamaa el Fna
Jamaa el Fna remains the main square of Marrakech, used by both locals and tourists alike, is located in the medina quarter of this great city.
The largest mosque in Marrakech is also known by several other names, including the Mosque of the Booksellers, and is located in the southwest medina quarter.
Dating back to the 16th century, these tombs comprise the interments of members of the Saadi dynasty. Accessible only through a small passage in the Kasbah Mosque, the tombs were neglected until aerial photography exposed them in 1917.
Originally built in the late 19th century, it was converted into a palace by the Moroccan architect El Mekki on behalf of the Grand Vizier Ba Ahmed ben Moussa said Hmad.