THE RED CITY
Step back in time on a visit to the charismatic city of Marrakesh. SALLY EVANS explores beautiful mosques, enchanting palaces and thriving souks
Bordering the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, Morocco is a North African country with Berber, Arabian and European cultural influences. With more than one million inhabitants, Marrakesh – known as the Red City due to its famous pinkish- red tinted walls, plazas and narrow alleyways – is one of Morocco’s largest cities. The world-famous medina is quite an assault on the senses; the smells, sounds, energy and the constant bustle is overwhelming, but once over the culture shock you’ll be ready to explore and appreciate the vibrancy of this medieval town. A protected heritage site, the buildings have scarcely changed for centuries, with narrow streets and no pavements you’d be wise to adopt the custom of walking in single file on the right-hand side to avoid the never-ending stream of mopeds, motorbikes and donkey carts whizzing past!
You can hire a guide if you’re worried about negotiating the medina’s narrow winding streets. They will happily take you through the maze of stalls and covered marketplaces where you can haggle for handcrafted leather goods, spices, jewellery, carpets, hammam shawls and pottery. There is an art to bargaining and you should feel confident to walk away if you can’t agree a price as the item will certainly be in the next aisle or just around the corner.
As a Muslim country, the medina has a mosque on almost every corner, so expect to hear the haunting call to prayer or adhan each morning from around 4am. Callings are heard before dawn, noon, afternoon, after sunset and night-time with the most important day of prayer being Friday. With religion in mind, tourists should be respectful of Islamic cultures and women should avoid skimpy clothes and cover shoulders.
It was customary in the medina for all classes to live together and seen as bad form to flaunt your wealth. The buildings look the same on the outside, which is why the interior of the riads offer such a welcome surprise! They are light and cool with walls decorated in traditional carved plasterwork and elegant furnishings with rich fabrics and tapestries. There are no exterior windows but an inner courtyard adds light and allows Muslim women privacy to move around their home without covering up.
Most restaurants accept credit cards. In the souks cash is key. Dirhams are best but occasionally Euros are accepted. Always have small change as taxis and stall holders will claim they have no change!
TAKE YOUR CAMERA TO…
The Djemaa el-Fna, or ‘Big Square’ to locals, is a spectacle at sunset when there are snake charmers, monkey handlers, musicians, dancers, acrobats, fire eaters and horse-drawn carriages offering trips around the square.
The Koutoubia Mosque is the largest in Marrakesh and the prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 worshippers. The magnificent minbar (pulpit) is over 800 years old and the intricately carved wood panels are a national treasure. The Moorish minaret is an impressive landmark that can be seen from the Djemaa el-Fna.
Bahia Palace, meaning ‘The Beautiful’, is a historic palace built in the late 1800s. It has floor-to ceiling adornments of painted, guilded inlaid woodwork. It’s been home to rulers, warlords and French colonisers.
Ali ben Youssef Medersa Over 500 hundred years oldand once one of the largest Islamic
schools in NorthAfrica, the buildinghoused up to 900 students living and learning the Qu’ran. It’s a fascinating example of Moorish architecture with an inner courtyard, mosaics and a prayer room with a large dome.
EATING AND DRINKING
Although Muslim, Morocco isn’t a ‘dry country’ and alcohol is available in some restaurants, bars, supermarkets, hotels and clubs. While there are no pubs or wine bars in the medina, there are a few restaurants that serve alcohol and cocktails including Café Arabe and Naranj Restaurant.
Kui-Zin offers authentic Moroccan and Mediterranean fayre at reasonable prices with friendly service. A typical lamb tagine dish costs around £8 and a cheeseburger and fries around £6. There is a selection of delicious salads and traditional dishes including pigeon tagine, fish tagine with argan oil and rabbit with paprika. Live oriental music is played each evening. The atmosphere is welcoming and the service excellent.
The Atlas Mountains
About three hours by taxi from Marrakesh, it is worth the trip. There are cascading waterfalls and panoramic views of the breathtaking mountains, with river restaurants along the way. Take a jacket as it is cooler here and wear sensible shoes or trainers.
It’s worth allocating a day to see this cosmopolitan city with its historical monuments and French-colonial buildings. The city has a modern vibe as it is the business and creative heart of Morocco where new industries prosper.
This port city and beach resort is about 21⁄2 hours from Marrakesh by taxi. Ideal if you want to relax and enjoy the spectacular views in peace after the madness of the city.
Plan your day – know exactly where you want to go before leaving. Outside your riad or hotel, locals in their dozens will offer to guide you. If you accept, agree a price and have change ready to pay.
Marrakesh is split into the old medina and the new town, Gueliz, which is just a 30-minute stroll from the old town. It’s as different as night and day, with modern art galleries, shops and restaurants serving multi-cultural cuisines.
The Jardin Majorelle, or ‘The Yves Saint Laurent garden’, a 12-acre botanical garden designed by French artist Jacques Majorelle is one of the city’s most popular attractions. Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Berge bought it in 1980 and gifted it to the people of Marrakesh. They nurtured the gardens and added the famous cobalt blue and yellow shades to create a hidden garden, gallery and Berber museum in the city.
WHERE TO STAY
Enjoy the generous hospitality of the Marrakesh Riad comprising four traditional riad properties around the old town medina, each with its own distinctive personality: Riad Star (featuring Dar Star), Riad Cinnamon, Riad Papillon and Dar Habiba. Each has English-speaking Moroccan staff offering a complete 24/7 concierge service. Delicious three-course Moroccan dinners can be dished up on request. Guests can expect extras such as breakfast served at the time of their choosing; help booking restaurants and excursions, and the loan of a local pay-as-you-go mobile to tap into the Moroccan hosts’ local know-how while out exploring. The Riad Star has a small hammam on the roof terrace which offers a host of therapies as well as a couples’ treatment. Rooms at Riad Star cost from £112 per night. Airport transfers (15-minute drive) can be arranged for £15 each way (minimum two people). For information visit www.marrakech-riad.co.uk
CURRENCY Moroccan Dirham (MAD) – it’s a closed currency which means you can’t take it into the country so it’s a good idea to buy it when you arrive at the airport. Currently 1 MAD is around 78p.
LANGUAGE Predominately French or Arabic, but basic English is also widely spoken. CLIMATE Morocco generally has warm weather all-year- round. Temperatures in Marrakesh can reach 36°C in July and 18°C in January.
GETTING THERE Flights are reasonably priced, a return flight from London, Liverpool or Manchester is from about £85 and deals can be found using several budget airlines, EasyJet and Ryanair. Flying time is 31⁄2 hours from the UK.
GETTING AROUND Outside the medina there are plenty of air conditioned taxis – write your destination on a piece of paper to show to the driver and agree a price before you set off.