This is an extended version of an article published in the February 2014 issue of Echelon.
The Almoravids under Abu Bakr founded Marrakech sometime around 1060 and it later became the most important of Morocco’s four imperial cities. His cousin Yusuf ibn Tashfin, with the help of Christian and Negro mercenaries ousted him. Yusuf conquered Northern Morocco and by the time of his death in 1106, he had conquered most of the Spanish Muslim principalities. This opened up Marrakech and Morocco to the civilised world of the Mediterranean. Physicians, philosophers and poets from the whole Islamic world visited the city. After a period of decline, in the early 16th century, Marrakech regained its pre-eminence under wealthy Saadian sultans and again became the capital of the kingdom. The French ruled Morocco from 1912 to 1956.
Some say the city’s name from murra kish, meaning “pass by quickly”—a warning about highway robbers. The “Red City” of Marrakech is a magical place, combining old world mystery and French elegance. Marrakech is the third largest city in Morocco after Casablanca and Rabat, and lies near the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the Sahara Desert. The city has two distinct parts: the Medina, the historical city, with its intertwining narrow passageways and the new European modern district called Gueliz or Ville Nouvelle.
Getting There and Staying There
If you are flying from the US, Canada, Asia, you may have to change planes in Casablanca for a 45 min flight to Marrakech. Plenty of low cost companies now fly from Europe to Marrakech. Ménara International Airport in Marrakech is 3 km southwest of the city centre receives several European flights as well as flights from Casablanca and some of the Arab world nations.
Marrakech has over 400 hotels. The Mamounia, the “grand dame of Marrakech hotels”, is a 231-room five-star hotel in the Art Deco-Moroccan fusion style, built in 1925. The hotel has hosted Winston Churchill, Prince Charles and Mick Jagger (not at the same time). Other hotels include Eden Andalou Hotel, Hotel Marrakech, Sofitel Marrakech, Royal Mirage Hotel, Piscina del Hotel, and Palmeraie Golf Palace. There are innumerable modestly priced riad hotels (riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) listed on Trip Advisor. Customers describe most as clean and quiet.
The Best Food in the World?
Lemon, orange, and olive groves surround Marrakech and influence the cuisine. Food is rich and heavily spiced but not hot. Ras el hanout is a kind of garam masala, a blend of spices including ash berries, chilli, cinnamon, nutmeg, and turmeric. I enjoyed a rabbit tajine. Tajines are slow-cooked with steam in a clay pot with chicken, lamb, beef or fish, adding fruits, olives and preserved lemon, vegetables and spices, including cumin, peppers, saffron, and turmeric.
Shrimp, chicken and lemon-filled briouats are another traditional specialty of Marrakech. Rice or couscous is cooked with saffron, raisins, spices, and almonds. I also enjoyed a pigeon pastilla, a filo-wrapped pie stuffed with meat that has been prepared with almonds, cinnamon, spices and sugar.
Harira soup includes lamb with a blend of chickpeas, lentils, and tomato paste, seasoned with coriander, spices and parsley.
Green tea with mint is served with sugar from a curved teapot spout into small glasses.
I was lucky enough to stay with a local family in the medina and enjoy home cooking – traditional specialities like low-roasted lamb cooked in a hammam, roasted aubergine and white bean soup. Villa Flore is an art deco, black-and-white riad right in the heart of the souks, which provides aromatic, lamb and duck, presented by stylishly suited waiters. At Haj Boujemaa, the adventurous can try sheep’s testicles. At Dar Moha, Morocco’s foremost celebrity chef, Mohamed Fedal presents quail in a flaky warqa pastry nest, foie-gras and melon ‘couscous’ with thyme honey.
Music – Africa Meets Spain
Jelly Roll Morton said jazz should have a Spanish tinge. Berber music is influenced by Andalusian classical music with oud accompaniment. Gnaoua (people of Sub-Saharan African origin) music is loud and funky with a sound reminiscent of the Blues. It is performed on handmade castanets, ribabs (three-stringed banjos) and deffs (handheld drums) and can take the audience into a trance. Performers take to the outdoors and entertain tourists on the main square and the streets, especially at night.
A Masterpiece of a City
Marrakech contains an impressive number of masterpieces of architecture and art, ramparts and monumental gates, Koutoubia Mosque, Saâdian tombs, ruins of the Badiâ Palace, Bahia Palace, Ménara water feature and pavilion.
The Jemaa el-Fnaa square was once used for public beheadings. The name roughly means “the assembly of malefactors”. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. The square attracts dwellers from the surrounding desert and mountains to trade here – wild dishevelled snake charmers, dancing boys of the Chleuh Atlas tribe, acrobats, magicians, musicians, monkey trainers, storytellers, dentists, and pickpockets still ply their trade here.
The Saadian Tombs were built in the 16th century as a mausoleum and contains corpses of about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty. It was lost for many years until the French rediscovered it in 1917 using aerial photographs. Outside the building are a garden and the graves of soldiers and servants.
The Medina holds the tombs of the seven patron saints of Morocco, which are visited every year by pilgrims during the weeklong ziara pilgrimage. According to tradition, it is believed that these saints are only sleeping and will awaken one day to resume their good deeds. A pilgrimage to the tombs offers a cheaper alternative to the hajj to Mecca.
Traditional Meets Modern and Becomes Modern
Marrakech has the largest traditional Berber market (souk) in Morocco, selling wares ranging from traditional Berber carpets and shawls made of sabra (cactus silk) to modern consumer electronics. Wooden items are generally made of cedar but orange wood is used for making ladles known as harira. Thuya craft products are made of caramel coloured conifer wood indigenous to Morocco. Metalwork made in Marrakech includes brass lamps, iron lanterns, candleholders made from recycled sardine tins, and engraved brass teapots and tea trays used in the traditional serving of tea. You can find designer clothes in Nouvelle Ville and jewellery in the mellah, the old Jewish quarter.
Getting around the City and Getting away to the Mountains
Marrakech is walkable and the Medina is closed to cars. I would advise leaving driving to taxi drivers. Petit Taxis charge Dh5 to Dh15 by day for trips within Marrakech, and slightly more at night. As in Colombo, you need to check that the meter is on. Grand Taxis are Mercedes, which take up to six people to out-of-town destinations. Red double-decker buses of Marrakech-Tour do a circuit of major landmarks and allow you to get on and off where you please. Public buses leave for the Nouvelle Ville from Place Foucault and cost Dh3. Calèches are the horse-drawn green carriages you will see at Place Foucault next to the Djemaa el-Fna.
If you wish to join Crosby, Stills and Nash on the Marrakech Express, Marrakech railway station connects the city to Casablanca, Tangiers, Rabat and Fez. The main road network within and around Marrakech is well paved. The major highway connecting Marrakech with Casablanca is the A7A. A new road connects Marrakech to the seaside resort of Agadir, 233 km to the west. I found Agadir pleasant but it became more touristy on subsequent visits.
The Ouarzazate area is a noted filmmaking location. Films such as Lawrence of Arabia were shot here, as was part of the TV series Game of Thrones. The fortified village (ksar) of Ait Benhaddou west of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many excursions through the valley of the Draa River into the Sahara start from Ouarzazate. Some companies specialise in Kasbah tours.
Check online for many companies offering guided treks in the high Atlas. I trekked in the Jebel Sahro region with Exodus Expeditions. These mountains, though running parallel to the main Atlas range, are very definitely part of the great Sahara Desert. It was strenuous but unforgettable camping under the stars. It was also very cold at night – my water bottle froze. Even during the day, waterfalls were frozen to the mountain.
One night we camped at Bou Gaffer.
This was the site of a bloody battle in 1934 between the Berbers and the French. There is a desecrated grave of an Unknown Soldier. Old munitions littered the site and I found a wine bottle dated 1932.
The trek took us through dramatic plateaux, deep gorges, pinnacles, ruined forts and sandcastle Kasbahs and introduced us to the warm hospitality of the Berber people.