Last November I spent six days in Marrakesh, with my boyfriend on a much needed holiday. People always ask me why we chose to go to Morocco, and to be honest it was a whim, but I’m so glad we went. I wanted a holiday to somewhere warm, cultural and cheap. I found Marrakesh though lastminute.com (which I thoroughly recommend) and it ticked all the boxes.
Where to go
Djemaa el Fna
The beating heart and soul of Marrakesh is the Djemaa el Fna. All the souks and alleyways radiate off this central square and it is a constant hive of activity. The Djemaa el Fna is over looked by the Koutubia, the tower of the mosque and the highest point in Marrakesh. If you get lost in the never ending labyrinth of the souks (which you no doubt will) you can always look for the Koutubia. The Djemaa el Fna is bustling in the day time but it really comes alive at night with music, acrobats, snake charmers, story tellers and food stalls. Do watch out for the abundance of mopeds and scooters whizzing through the square and down the alleyways, and if someone is hassling you to buy something just make it clear you aren’t interested.
Marrakesh is all about contrasts; busy, bustling markets contrast with calm riads and gardens. My favourite garden is the Majorelle Garden, located in the new town, Gueliz. It was designed by the French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and later owned by YSL.
The Bahia Palace is a stunningly preserved palace. The Zillij tile work, carved woodwork and painted ceilings are incredible.
El Badi Palace
The El Badi Palace is known as the incomparable ruin, and wandering around its high walls and sunken gardens you get a sense of the grandeur that once was.
The tombs date back to 1600, but where only discovered in 1917 when the french conducted an aerial tour of Marrakesh. The tombs contain about sixty members of the Saadi Dynasty plus servants.
Essaouira is a beautiful coastal town about three hours away from Marrakesh by coach. It’s known as Africa’s windy city and is very popular with kite surfers. Whilst you wouldn’t want to lounge around on the beach, it’s lovely to spend a day walking long the battlements, exploring the town and it’s restaurants and cafes. Where as in Marrakesh everything is a faded earth red, here everything is blue and white and the Portuguese influence is noticeable.
The Atlas Mountains
It’s definitely worth spending some time in the Atlas mountains. We took a couch tour up the Ourika Valley and got to see a bit of the Berber lifestyle.
What to eat and drink
Mint tea is the national drink of Morocco and is made with fresh mint, green tea and lots of sugar. It is served in beautiful silver tea pots with little glasses.
Fresh orange juice
In the Djemaa el Fna you can pay 4d (about 30p) for a glass of fresh orange juice. Just make sure it is squeezed in front of you, not poured out of a jug.
You can’t go to Morocco and not try a tagine. My favourites were chicken, olive and preserved lemon tagine, and lamb and prune tagine. They are served steaming hot in a traditional earthen ware tagine, with bread to mop up all the delicious juices.
The french influence can be seen throughout Marrakesh, and one place where it is particularly apparent is the patisseries and cakes. There are plenty of traditional Moroccan sweets available in the markets, made with nuts and honey, but I sound these too sweet for me and instead enjoyed the excellent viennoiserie.
For a meal with a view try one of the many cafes and restaurants with a terrace over looking the Djemaa el Fna. The view at night is spectacular.Picture form Pepe Nero website
The best meal we had in Marrakesh was at Pepe Nero. You follow signs though winding alleyways, dodging mopeds, until you find a plain wall with a wooden door. Inside the door is the most magical restaurant. We sat at a table in the courtyard of the converted riad under a lemon tree, and enjoyed the most wonderful food and ambiance. Dinner was served with a complimentary glass of prosecco and washed down with mint tea.
What to Buy
The Souks are full of so many amazing things to buy, particularly traditional handcrafts. Everything is very exciting when you first enter the souks, but you quickly discover that nothing is really unique and countless other stalls will have the same beautiful products. It pays to shop around and whatever you do don’t forget to haggle. Never take the first price offered. I found it helpful to decide what I’d like to pay before I started haggling them try to work the seller down to that price, which usually works. If you’d prefer not haggle there are craft centers with fixed prices.
Moroccan leather is very good and reasonable priced. I came back with a pair of handmade turquoise suede brogues for about £30 and my boyfriend came back with a very large tan leather duffel bag for about £20. Leather slippers and pouffes are a Moroccan classic, and there are also plenty of satchels, bags and wallets.
Marquetry is a specialty in Morocco and my boyfriend came back with a beautiful lemon wood inlaid chess set.
There is a huge range of beautiful decorative tagines and dishes available in the markets. For practical tagines used for cooking try the roadside shops.
I wish I bought a rug whilst I was in Morocco, but anxiety about getting them home prevented me. Moroccan rugs are all handmade, so they aren’t cheap but they are very beautiful.
The souks are famous for their stalls with fragrant spices piled high. Apparently luxurious saffron and argon oil are big sellers with tourists, but I just went for some Ras El Hanout and some turmeric. Ras El Hanout, a Moroccan blend of 35 spices makes a great gift, especially if presented in a decorative tagine.
Morocco is unique in that holds on steadfastly to it traditions, the souks that look unchanged in 100s of years, and yet welcomes outsiders with open arms. Morocco is full of life, colour, culture and music. It is a true gem of a place.