My first beautiful visit to Marrakech, between confidences, mint tea, colorful slippers, and embracing atmosphere…
There are important anniversaries in the life of each of us, which bind us to special people. My special person is Emilie. Our professional decisions over the years have put hundreds of kilometers between us and many months of physical distance every year. Still, we try not to miss the appointment with “our anniversary” in late October.
For many years we met in different places, combining business needs, desire to discover, or the moment’s mood. The desire to discover a certain atmosphere was exactly what brought us to Marrakech, the Red City.
Marrakech is the most important of the imperial cities. Founded in the eleventh century, it was influenced by the Andalusian style, visible, for example, in the sandstone walls that surround it and palaces looking like those of Arabian Nights and the embracing atmospheres. Ideal to meet a good friend on the picturesque rooftop terrace of a riad, in between cushions, mint tea, some traditional sweets, and rivers of words …
The program of our stay was quickly established: start walking in a different direction every morning and see what would inspire us along the way.
Strolling around Marrakech
It is said that all roads lead to Rome, but I assure you that in Marrakech is also “all roads lead à la Place” unless you get lost in the labyrinthine Medina! What for us is and will remain the Place is nothing but the Jemaa-el-Fna square.
Today the vital center of the city and once the site of the gallows … this immense square is seeing the consistent performance, organized or otherwise, by the residents or by tourists, voluntary or endured …
Until early afternoon is mostly occupied by a vast open-air market, whose stalls offer spices, exotic fruit, tons of oranges to be squeezed on the spot or take away, fabrics, henna meant for immediate use by getting hands, feet, and face decorated, handicrafts … but also snake charmers, water sellers with their fantastic costumes, street performers and many “dentists,” though perhaps teeth-rippers is a better word!
Towards sunset, the stalls are replaced by tables that seem endless and kiosks offering traditional dishes cooked on the spot. Fumes, aromas, music, and lights create a Babel from which it is easy to get carried away and clouded.
To cross the square can take a very long time, but our determination has allowed us to get out and then cross the avenue that houses hundreds of chariots drawn by horses more or less young and bold, reaching the Koutoubia. Literally, the mosque of the booksellers, dominated by a beautiful Almohad minaret dating from about 1120.
Decorated with friezes in white, cobalt blue, and turquoise ceramic and impressive carved arabesques. The remaining tiles are now very few, but if you close your eyes and try to imagine it when it was completely covered with them, the vision is almost dazzling!
Another pearl of the Red City is Dar Si Said’s palace, an ideal setting for many stories of the Arabian Nights. Impossible not to let the imagination roam, going from one room to another, from one patio to another … for me, a dream.
A few hundred meters away, passing through an artistic expanse of spices or slippers, honking mad walls and carpets, there’s the Palais Bahia, or the Palace of the Beautiful, occasional residence of the royal family. Its interior is a miracle of architecture and traditional Moroccan decoration. A masterpiece composed of thousands of mosaics, carvings, fountains, stained glass, moucharabis, coffered ceilings, arches, columns … and almost unreal silence.
Next to La Bahia is the Mellah, the old Jewish ghetto dating back to 1558. At that time, it was a real city within the city, with its synagogues, parks, souks, and the still open and, I must say very impressive cemetery. It is an expanse of white tombs that, to me, simply seemed scattered at random, and in many cases, free of plaque.
On its walls tower, huge stork nests and their flight has enchanted us during a long lunch.
When we finally decided to get up from the table, we headed toward the Kasbah, the ancient royal citadel dotted with intricate streets, doing first a stage at the Tombs Saidiane that close in the early afternoon.
A funerary complex built by Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur and dating back to 1557. It was re-evaluated in 1917, and the restoration of his two mausoleums, decorated with stucco and cobalt tiles, lasted decades.
The site is of small size and needs to be visited calmly and with good patience because the mausoleums are only visible by small openings and then appreciated by only two or three people at a time.
A few meters from the graves is the complex of the Royal Palace with the ruins of the majestic Palais El Badi. Truly immense and quiet. It was a pleasure to sit in front of the remains of the vast central pool and just let the thoughts run disturbed only by the flight of some stork.
However, my favorite visit was the one to the Medersa Ben Youssef, an ancient school of Koranic studies developed around a beautiful courtyard decorated with thousands of mosaics and a fountain that reflects everything. In the side galleries, there are dozens of small cells used as a residence for students. The panels in cedarwood inlaid characterizing the upper galleries leave you breathless. I didn’t want to leave it!
When I finally decided to do so, we walked towards the ville nouvelle, passing first by the district Dar el Bacha with its merchants of leather, and then by the district of Guéliz. It is part of the modern Western-style city, and I saw no char at all in it, but the big positive note is that all the bars have freshwater spray systems! 😉
Here you can find the luxury boutiques, banks, international hotels, and all the services common to every major city.
Step by step, risking the collapse due to the heat and hopping from one shade area to another, we came to the garden of Majorelle, where stay the ashes of Yves Saint Laurent.
The garden is named after Jacques Majorelle, who in 1919 built the beautiful art nouveau villa in electric blue, today defined as blue Majorelle. Great collector and lover of botany, he created a garden with plants from all over the world.
When he died in the ’60s, both the villa and the garden were abandoned and were Yves Saint-Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé to deal with the restoration.
It is a perfect place to lose track of time while indulging in its alleys, near one of the many fountains or in the shade of the big sails stretched above the patio where you can dine or enjoy a fresh lemonade … of course, we did all this!
The last stop on our short stay was the Garden of Menara, reached in a carriage. The garden is surrounded by a vast olive grove in the shade of which families can relax during the weekend.
The magical element is the large rectangular pool of water that offers wonderful light games and reflections at all hours of the day. Depending on the moment, you can see mirrored the Atlas Mountains and the clouds or the pavilion of the Menara, with its tiled olive green roof.
During our visit it was a little overlooked … I hope that now it is better.
The souk of Marrakech
The souk is a paradise for endless negotiations, fragrances, aroma, colors, soft lighting given by the sunlight filtered by reeds acting like a roof … a real city in the city, ready to swallow the tourist willing to chat with traders … and of course, we were!
The main souk is located in the center of the medina, north of the Jemaa el Fna to the Ben Youssef Madrasa. The central streets that cross the souk consist of a series of stalls selling mostly handmade products from the workshops on the adjacent streets.
Each business category is historically structured and established in a precise area of the medina and is subject to a professional hierarchy and quite rigid rules. A whole world, in fact.
We drank mint tea with many of them, especially with the owners of tracts of multicolored slippers, bags, and small accessories in boiled wool or tadelakt. We got lost in absurd negotiations and conversations about their tradition and the origins of Emilie, who, for the local, looks like a perfect Berber girl. However, she has not a drop of Berber blood …
Where to eat
Marrakech is full of food and beverage options for everyone and especially for all budgets. Among my favorites:
- the Café des Epices in the same name square. It serves excellent juices and sandwiches, with views on the colorful market
- the Kasbah Cafe, very touristic, but the view from the terrace is really great
- the Terrasse des Epices in the Charifla souk. A beautiful place, with tables set in a beautiful alcove and excellent cuisine! Ideal for dinner
We stayed at the Riad Mariana. A small jewel hidden in a tiny pedestrian street ideally located for sightseeing. As all the riad, you access it through an anonymous door, which opens, revealing an exotic patio surrounded by silence and soft lighting. Particularly theatrical. The beautiful roof terrace and the bathroom with tadelakt made me dream!
Beyond the dreamy appearance, I was a little disappointed … The first day was delightful, with a pleasant stylish staff. The second day the owner left for France, and from there everything changed: lots of noise even at night, the staff started wearing a suit and bedroom slippers, and also the friendliness disappeared … a real shame.
Ah, as more or less everywhere in Marrakech, the wake-up call is given before dawn by the singing baritone voice of the muezzin of the neighborhood!
Leaving was not easy for many reasons: I did not know when I would see Emilie again, and the short stay made me want to visit again for longer to see the nearby sites.
The first problem had no immediate solution, while for the second, I quickly booked a return flight for a few weeks later 😉