Travel: 48 hours in the life of Marrakesh
Saturday 07 February 1998
Why go now?
Because February is dry, clear and warm (average 20C). Because the towering High Atlas mountains provide a snow-capped backdrop to a vibrant, exotic world just three hours away. And because Ramadan is over.
British Airways (0345 222111) and Royal Air Maroc (0171-439 4361) fly from Gatwick and Heathrow respectively to Marrakesh. Through discount agents such as Hamilton Travel (0171-344 3344) you can get a fare of around pounds 250-pounds 260 return; booking direct can cost pounds 100 more.
Get your bearings
Marrakesh is in fact two cities side by side. The walled old city, or Medina, is a bustling warren of winding bazaars and medieval buildings, centred around the colourful square of Djma Al-Fna and the towering minaret of the Koutoubiya mosque; the new town, the Nouvelle Ville, is all modern blocks, broad boulevards and French colonial town planning, built around the wide Place de la Liberte. The two city centres are connected by the wide thoroughfare of the Avenue Muhammad Cinq.
The small airport is just a few kilometres away and a taxi to either town centre should cost about 60 dirhams (pounds 4). Make sure you agree a fare in advance. Within Marrakesh, taxis tend to use their meters, and it is very hard for a trip to cost more than about 70 pence.
Most of your time will be spent exploring the Medina, and here it is easiest to walk through the maze of alleys and markets, or travel by horse- drawn carriage. Again, fix a price in advance. From the old city walls to the Djma al-Fna costs about 70 pence. Ignore the "guides" who hassle you as you walk through the Medina. It isn't hard to navigate the bazaars, and if you want to be guided you can hire an official guide through your hotel. For about pounds 10 for a half-day you can get someone who is reliable and knowledgeable, and will keep off the touts.
There are plenty of cheap hotels around the central Djma al-Fna, the most popular being the Tazi and the Foucauld. I wouldn't recommend any of them. There are plenty of "international" five-stars in the Nouvelle Ville. I wouldn't recommend them, either. My two tips are both close to the centre of the Medina: the Club Med (00 212 4 44 4016) strangely ignored by all the guidebooks I've ever read on Marrakesh, is a haven with idiosyncratic rooms, a great pool and a hammam (traditional Moroccan sauna). You don't have to join in kitsch French cabaret, and it's great value at about pounds 30 for a double room; in the fantasy range there is the palatial Mamounia (00 212 4 44 89 81), Winston Churchill's favourite holiday retreat, one of those rare fabled hotels that lives up to its reputation. Opulent and expensive (from about pounds 140 for a double) but for that unforgettable 48 hours.
Take a ride
To get a feel for the place, hire a carriage at the Djma Al-Fna and ride out through the heat and hustle of the Medina to make a half-circuit of the walls. The air is cool in the palm groves around the city and the mud ramparts and towers go pink in the dusty sunlight. Re-enter the walls from the south, beside the mirror-smooth Menara pleasure lake.
Take a hike
Leave the carriage by the forbidden palace of the ruling Sultan Hassan and visit the Al-Badi ("The Incomparable") Palace. Open 9am-12 and 2.30- 5.30pm. This is the vast ruin of a 16th-century complex so luxurious that it took the mad Sultan Ismail 10 years to strip out its gold, marble and jewels. Now you can explore the (scary, unlit) dungeons and wander through the echoing courtyards and roofless pavilions where huge white storks nest. Next door, after passing through a narrow tunnel, you'll find the necropolis of the Saadian dynasty. Sealed off and forgotten until the French opened it up in 1917, it is a tranquil place with beautifully tiled and carved tombs.
Lunch on the run
For about pounds 2 a head, the Venezia, on a terrace overlooking the Koutoubiya mosque, offers a good view, fast, friendly service and local beer. It serves pizzas and local specialities such as couscous and tajeen - a stew of meat or vegetables cooked in a conical clay pot with lemons, prunes or olives.
The best place to soak up Marrakesh culture is in the streets and bazaars, but to get a feel of traditional Moroccan arts and crafts, it is worth visiting the Dar Si Said (open 9am-12, 2.30-6pm). This is a sumptuous house, built in the last century for the "simple" brother of a wealthy courtier. It now contains a museum of Moroccan arts (the carpet displays are especially fine).
This is the best reason to come to Marrakesh - to wander the markets or souqs. There is a crowded maze of passages around the Djma Al-Fna, with each trade having its own bazaar. Amidst streams of people you pass through clusters of stalls specialising in slippers, leather, spices, perfumes and metalwork. In one square, you find traditional medicine stalls selling rare roots, dead crows, dried chameleons and other supposedly magical ingredients. In another, all sorts of multicoloured baskets. Best buys in the souqs are ceramics, silver, woodwork, and, of course, carpets.
There are no prices marked and you must bargain for everything. When bargaining for an expensive item, I recommend an initial offer of about one-tenth the vendor's asking price. Don't be afraid if he oohs and aahs and acts offended. That's all part of the ritual; he will come back with a lower price. Drink the mint tea that is offered (without any obligation to buy) and take your time. You can always go away and come back later. I once bargained with a carpet merchant, on and off, over the whole of a long weekend.
Take a break from the entropy of the old city and drink a pastis, or a local rose, at one of the relaxed, French-style cafe-terraces in the Nouvelle Ville. Try the Renaissance or the Cafe Les Negociants.
In the Nouvelle Ville, the French-run Rotisserie de la Paix (68 rue Yugoslavie) has a cosy fire for winter and a garden for summer. It does French and Moroccan food for about pounds 8, and specialises in grills. For a blow-out, try Yacout. You will be met by a guide and taken to a spectacular town house in the heart of the Medina for a traditional Moroccan feast (about pounds 25 per head).
Sunday morning: go to church
Non-Muslims are banned from mosques in Morocco, but you can visit the medieval religious schools, or madrasas. The most beautiful is the intricately tiled and carved Madrasa Ben Yousef, to the north of the Djma al-Fna. In the same area, you can admire (from the outside) the ornate shrines of two Muslim saints and the glorious Mouassin mosque.
The best place is Pergola in the Nouvelle Ville on the south side of Place de la Liberte. For a couple of quid you get a generous Continental or American breakfast in a pleasant pavement setting. At the more basic MikMak, on Place Foucauld, they do a reasonable croissant and coffee for 50 pence.
A walk in the park
Marrakesh has a number of public gardens, some of which date back to medieval times, but the two best are private. The Jardin Majorelle is Yves St Laurent's garden in the Nouvelle Ville (entrance pounds 1). Cool and leafy, it is full of flowers, with fountains and courtyards brightly painted to match. In the grounds of the Hotel Mamounia, groves of oranges are criss-crossed by shady formal walkways, lined with silver olives. The paths are draped with bougainvillaea and scented with jasmine and lemon blossom.
The icing on the cake
Evening in the Djma Al-Fna is a unique and literally magical experience. Circles of onlookers fill the wide square, where fortune-tellers, faith- healers, conjurers and story-tellers mingle with Berber dancing boys, fire-eaters and snake-charmers. Dozens of food stalls are set up and the spicy smell of sizzling merguez sausages fills the air. Brightly-lit stalls around the square's edge are piled high with nuts, dates and oranges to squeeze right then and there. Take a seat in one of the cafes alongside the throng, order a cafe au lait and watch a medieval world go by.
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