The name Marrakesh is derived from a term meaning “Land of God” in the language of the indigenous Berber people of Morocco. The visitor soon understands why Marrakesh is likened to an earthly counterpart of heaven. It is a city of pillared palaces, pleasure gardens, grand tombs and mystifying souks. At sunrise and sunset a fat North African sun paints the city the colour of honey.
Marrakesh was founded in the 11th century, and boasts countless monuments of its early days, ranging from the Kasbah to the Koutoubia Mosque, with its minaret reaching 77 metres into the sky and its gigantic doors. Other architectural masterpieces include Bandiâ Palace, Ben Youssef Madrasa, Saadian Tombs and Jemaa el Fnaa, the famous square that resembles a living theatre.
In the modern age, tourism has altered the look of Marrakesh. This is especially so in the medina, or the walled city, guarded by its red sandstone ramparts that appeals most to visitors, who come to shop and dine in the labyrinth of ancient alleys. Stop for a while, and carts heavily laden with oranges, timber and spices trundle by. Across the street, weavers work at traditional wooden looms. The aroma of delicious, freshly baked khubz, the local bread, wafts through the air.
This is where you’ll find riads, or houses built in the traditional manner around a courtyard, that have been converted into boutique hotels. For the past 15 years the conversion of riads into stylish accommodation has been a craze among foreigners. Among the best are Riad Sapphire and Riad Star, once the home of singer, dancer and actress Josephine Baker. They offer cosiness and culture in equal measure.
Most riads lack the benefits of staying in more conventional hotels, such as a concierge and room service, but they appeal to guests happy to exchange such luxuries for a taste of the authentic Morocco. The riads are usually painstakingly decorated with old-fashioned inlays and mosaics, and have customary features such as indoor fountains. They have become tourist attractions in themselves. In the middle of the 1990s there was just a handful of riads to stay in, but they have mushroomed since. This gives the visitor ample choice – especially given the sheer number of ultra-luxury hotels to choose from, such as Royal Mansour, La Mamounia, The Fellah, Palais Namaskar and Amanjena, which are all top choices.
For an insight into the culture of Marrakesh, visit Cafe Clock in Derb Chtouka. The cafe is the brainchild of Mike Richardson, formerly a noted restaurateur in London. It seeks to preserve and reinvigorate the Moroccan art of hikayat, or storytelling. Such traditions are in danger of dying out as young Moroccans turn to other sources of entertainment. The establishment serves delicious coffee to customers who listen to tales and fables related in the time-honoured manner – although they are now related in English as well as Arabic.
Hikayat is also kept alive in Jemaa el Fnaa, where every evening hundreds of people gather to eat, socialise or just soak up the atmosphere. The square is the place to try Moroccan soul food.
From one of the many stalls, you can order tagine, a stew steamed in a conical earthenware dish. At other stalls are bubbling pans of bean soup and rows of skewers laden with meat. Hawkers sell steaming bowls of escargots cooked in the French manner, beef sausages, slow-cooked lamb and chicken kebabs. The food is generally fresh and safe to eat. But, to be certain, it pays to eat at the busier stalls and choose vendors that cook the food in front of you.
Visitors seeking to eat lunch or dinner in a restaurant are spoilt for choice. Terrasse des Épices is ever popular because of its Franco- Moroccan menu, which lists lamb and fish fresh from the sea.
At lesser-known places, especially in the colder months, the locals often eat pastilla, a rich pigeon or chicken pie. It is heavy but heavenly comfort food. Couscous, which originated among the Berbers, complements everything. Morocco is not noted for its desserts, but look out for orange custard with caramel, and the simple and refreshingly tart Moroccan orange salad, or oranges dusted with cinnamon.
If the heat and dust makes you long for shade and refreshment, then I Limoni is just the place. Lemon trees scent the air of this Italian restaurant in the heart of the medina. Many expatriates proclaim it has the most authentic Italian cuisine in all of North Africa and wax lyrical about the spaghetti with peppers and tomatoes. Another great place to escape to is the elegant 4.8-hectare botanical garden Jardin Majorelle. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé discovered the garden in 1966, during their first stay in Marrakesh. They liked it so much they bought it.
Marrakesh has plenty to nourish the mind, too. One must-see is the Musée Boucherouite, which is devoted to Moroccan folk art. The museum is named after the colourful type of rug made of rags by women in remote Moroccan villages. Boucherouite rugs were once dismissed as being fit only for the poor, but many today are highly prized. The museum’s exhibits include historical photographs and other examples of folk art such as Berber doors.
Another museum worth visiting is Maison Tiskiwin in Rue de la Bahia. Dutch anthropologist Bert Flint has crammed the building to the rafters with his private collection of decorative arts from Morocco and the Sahara. Look for the tent made entirely of camel hair and a camel saddle of the type used by the Tuareg, the Berber nomads of the desert.
One of the best ways to absorb Moroccan culture, though, is to fold away the map and trust your instincts to guide you around the medina. Once you are deep in the souks, you’ll discover treasures such as the brightly coloured apothecary shops brimming with jars containing everything from crystals and spices to magic potions. Seek out that caftan you’ve always dreamed of, or sit and take tea with an elder of the community who’ll share his wisdom.
Donkeys, merchants and cart-wheeling children share the alleyways with you. If you get lost, for a few dirhams, an eager and enterprising boy will show you back to your riad.
If you can overcome your nervousness at the prospect, go ahead and get lost on purpose. You will be rewarded by your discovery of intriguing people and places that are usually hidden away, and you’ll emerge feeling that you have been on an adventure.