BACKED BY the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, one last great barrier before the sub-Sahara, Marrakech remains one of the most intoxicating places in North Africa.
It was founded in around 1062 by the Berber Almoravids and was the capital of an Islamic empire that reached from central Spain to West Africa and included the Algarve, or Al-Garb as it was known then.
The rule of Yousef Ben Tachfine blessed the city with its legendary walls, ornate mosques, gardens and palaces. In addition, Marrakech gained some of the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Andalucia, which it has retained to this day. In more recent times, Marrakech, Morocco’s Pink City, has impressed poets, artists and bon vivants with its languid, lush and occasionally even lascivious lifestyle.
Around 30 years ago, French couturier Yves Saint Laurent started the 20th century’s love affair with the city when he bought a villa in Marrakech. Nowadays, P Diddy owns a plush Riad – a typical Moroccan villa – and jetted pals to Marrakech to celebrate his 32nd birthday. Jean Paul Gaultier and Richard Branson have also bought places in Marrakech.
But the city is not just for the super rich, it caters to all manner of tastes and pockets. It is a sprawling city and a blend of ancient and modern, although most visitors tend to spend their time in the old city, a maze of long winding lanes and alleys, dim archways, dark tunnels and cool leafy courtyards.
The Medina, or market, is the old city’s heart. Entrance is via the Djemaa el Fna, or Place of the Dead, claimed to be the largest square in the whole of Africa. This was originally the square where prisoners were executed, but it is now anything but dead!
Look out for the healers and fakirs with pots of herbs, ready to dispense cures for any ailment imaginable. Once you’ve had enough of the hustle and bustle, escape to one of the cafés and restaurants that surround the square – perfect places to relax with a mint tea.
To the south of Djemaa el Fna are palaces, tombs and museums, while the souks stretch north. Marrakech veterans recommend simply taking a deep breath and wandering into the labyrinth. After five minutes of rambling, you will be totally immersed in another world, peopled by hooded craftsmen and brash salesmen imploring you to look at their goods.
Look out for pottery, dried fruit, textiles, wool, sheepskins and leather slippers. Take the time to explore the apothecary stalls, the carpet weavers and the leather craftsmen – you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time, to another century. If you decide to buy, however, expect the price to start at a very modern level! This is where your bargaining skills will be tested to the limit – bartering is the traditional and polite way to buy. Experts in this field suggest you have the final price you want to pay firmly in mind before you even start negotiations.
If you prefer to simply admire the goods on offer, or would rather not enter the atmospheric, but to some daunting, Medina, a good alternative is a museum or mosque visit. There are several good museums in Marrakech. At the Dart Si Said, the Museum of Arts boasts carpets and kilims, furniture and jewellery. Nearby Maison Tiskiwin is a private museum in an elegant mansion, with exhibits that are similar to those at Dar Si Said, plus fabrics and clothes.
The Majorelle Gardens and Museum of Islamic Art – privately owned and maintained by Yves Saint Laurent – is an extremely tranquil place if the bustle of Marrakech becomes too much.
One of the most popular sites in Morocco, the Saadian Tombs survived in pristine condition until rediscovered and opened to the public in 1917. There are 66 members of the Saadian royal family buried here altogether, along with a number of retainers and some much older graves. Within the mausoleum, the rooms are richly decorated, with magnificent domed ceilings, ornate plasterwork, intricate carving and marble pillars.
Finally, a must for any visitor to Marrakech is the Koutoubia Mosque, which dominates the skyline and is a great landmark when sightseeing. Marrakech’s tallest building, it dates from the 12th century and was one of the earliest great monuments.
End your day by dipping into Marrakech nightlife, which covers everything from modern discos to belly dancing. The Medina provides traditional evening entertainment in the form of cafés, food stalls and street entertainment, with everything revolving around Djemaa el Fna. Several of the hotels have rooftop cafés overlooking the square, while a number of riads have been converted into upmarket restaurants.
The main area for modern entertainment is Guéliz and the Avenue Mohammed V, particularly around Place Abdel Moumen ben Ali, where you will find most of the city’s bars, as well as a wide variety of restaurants, bistros and pavement cafés. And if you’re longing for a cool cocktail to wash away the dusty streets, don’t worry – although Morocco is an Islamic country, alcohol is permitted. Note, however, that it is not a common custom to drink outdoors.
When to go: Morocco has a beautiful climate, although it can get very hot in the summer. The average January temperature is 14ºC (57ºF). Expect around 33ºC (95ºF) in July.