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18 July, 2013

The Quintessential Guide to Marrakech

Marrakech City
Marrakech
Marrakech - the gateway to the snow-capped Atlas Mountains - is a trickster: at times the city is perplexing and exasperating, then just around the corner it manages to thrill and amaze. The fabled Red City has blended Arabic, Berber, French and Moorish influences into a confounding exotic mélange but somehow it all works. Although Marrakech has long been a magnet for adventurous travelers, the city has never been better equipped to ensure a marvelous stay, provided you're prepared for all your senses going into overdrive. Where else could a single day encompass breakfast on the roof terrace of your sumptuous riad, shopping in the souks, a tour of a fairytale palace, a candle-lit tagine dinner in the Kasbah and the circus of the mind-boggling Djemaa el Fna square? So what are you waiting for ... grab your passport ... Marrakech awaits! 



The Medina in Marrakech
The Medina
Marrakech, known in Arabic as Al-Hamra, has about 900,0000 residents living in two distinct sections. The first is the ancient walled city, called the Medina, and the second is the "new" city, dubbed Ville Nouvelle, which in turn is divided up into two neighborhoods: Gueliz, the modern business centre, and Hivernage, a mostly residential section lined with palm groves and sleek modern hotels. 

The Medina, an evocative but bustling maze of streets, markets and passages is a UNESCO Wold Heritage Centre. In addition to decadently lush Riads - traditional Moroccan guesthouses - you will find in the Medina the word-famous Djemaa el Fna square, the souks, the Kasbah, the Koutoubia Mosque, the Badi Palace and of course the ancient city walls. 

If you've never traveled in Africa, be forewarned: you will see abject poverty but you'll also encounter smiles and advice that are completely genuine coming from folks who welcome you to their enchanting country. The principal language is Arabic but some Moroccans - particularly those in the tourist industry - speak English, French or both languages. Morocco is a Muslim Nation and you'll see many women wearing burkas, caftans and veils. Particularly when you venture into the Medina, dress respectfully and avoid tank tops, shorts and other clothing that is revealing. Be a good will ambassador and call attention to yourself in a positive way. 


Djemaa el Fna Square in Marrakech
Djemaa el Fna
The Djemaa el Fna is the city's world-famous open-air square, an incomparable site that is the city's must-see attraction and a gathering place for Moroccans and travelers alike. Arrive around dusk, when the large plaza swells with magicians, food vendors, snake charmers, musicians and hawkers all playing their trades. There's nothing like it on Earth, so sit back, sip a freshly squeezed orange juice, eat a plate of couscous from one of the open-aire stalls and watch and listen to the show. 



Koutoubia Mosque and Minaret Marrakech
Koutoubia Mosque
The Koutoubia Mosque, which boasts the elegant 12th century Almohad minaret is the enduring symbol of Marrakech. At 77 meters high, it hovers gracefully over the Medina, thanks to a local edict that restricts all other structures in the old city to the height of a palm tree. The name comes from the Arabic word koutoubiyyin which mean's bookseller as lots of book vendors used to work in the streets around the Mosque. Unfortunately it is not possible to visit the Mosque as non muslim but in the gardens surrounding the Mosque, you can relax and admire the view of this beautiful building, the most prominent landmark of Marrakech.

Continue to the El Badi Palace an evocative ruin on the site of a palace built by the Saadian Sultan Ahmad-al-Mansur in the late 16th century. The original structure was intended to be the most sumptuous in the city and boasted with more than 350 rooms, an immense courtyard and a huge pool, all fashioned from Italian marble and lavishly appliqued with Sudanese gold. The compound's design is based on that of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Sadly in the 17th century the Sultan Moulay Ismail ransacked materials from El Badi to adorn his new digs in Meknes, near Fes. Be sure to see the storks that have nested alongside the crumbling walls and terraces before leaving the El Badi ruins.



Berber Souk in Marrakech
Berber Souks
North of the Djemaa el Fna square, you'll find the largest largest traditional Berber souk a tightly packed labyrinth comprising hundreds of food, crafts and other stalls. Inveterate shoppers should take the rue Semarine entrance which quickly immerses you in the bazaar atmosphere, while others should try the rue Mouassine entrance which leads to a more restrained section with some fancier boutiques. 

The different quadrants of the souks have different specialities including rugs, textiles, spices, food, ceramics and pretty much everything else under the sun. Favorite gifts and souvenirs include lovely embroidered babouches (slippers), Berber jewelry, pretty tiles and pottery, freshly groups spices, and, last but not least, carpets and rugs. It is easy to get lost in these narrow alleys but no panic, sooner or later you will end up again at Djemaa el Fna square. Bargaining is a must in the souks. It can be a bit overwhelming walking around here but if you want to buy some souvenirs, you are in the right place. 

As evening rolls around, return to the Djemaa el Fna square, where you can engage a horse-drawn caleche for a carriage ride around the Medina's city walls. Yes, it's touristy, but you are a tourist, and there's a reason why the experience is so popular. The ancient walls glow red and ochre at sunset, casting a romantic shimmer on exotic Marrakech. If you're the more adventure type, you can also hire a bicycle and go on your own but the best way to experience the route is by carriage, which offers a slow-paced, bird's-eye perspective on the Kasbah action. 



Snow-capped Atlas Mountains Morocco
Marrakech the gateway to the Atlas Mountains
A must see outside the Medina is the Majorelle Garden, a gorgeous 12-acre botanical garden designed by the expat French artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and '30s. The great fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent acquired the property in 1980 and his ashes were strewn at the garden after his death in 2008. You'll see masses of bougainvillea, cacti, lily pads and more but the most memorable thing has to be the brilliant cobalt blue of the garden's buildings, a hue justly called 'Majorelle blue'. Visit the foundation's adjacent boutique, which sells embroidered textiles and other fine gifts. 

It's no secret that Marrakech swelters during the hight summer, when arid, high temperatures engulf the city. Try to visit during the spring or autumn months when the daytime highs are balmy and warm but the evenings nice and cool. 

We passed through Marrakech on our way to the beautiful Atlas Mountains, where we did a 4-day Atlas Trekking. We started with an acclimatization hike through the Imnane Valley, followed by the 2-day ascent of Mount Toubkal and on our last day we hiked through the Berber Villages around Imlil. We only had a short break in Morocco this time but we definitely made the most out of it.



Freya - Holiday Nomad, a Travel and Photo blog


30 comments:

  1. I can't wait to go to Morocco. It's on my list. Thanks for the tips. Was your riad then in Medina?

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    1. We were only one night in Marrakech and spend most of the time in the Atlas Mountains were we stayed in a lovely riad around Imlil.

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  2. What a great account of Marrakech highlights and lovely selection of photos. I like your comment about the smiles and friendliness of the people. Would love to visit someday and I'll be prepared to have my senses go into overdrive!

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  3. Very nice pictures Freya! Never knew about Majorelle Garden. Would love to visit some day.

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    1. Hi Esther, The Majorelle Gardens are very beautiful, really worth a visit.

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  4. I know I'll be spending more time in the souks and walking around to indulge in their culture. Nice collection of photos!

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  5. Great overview, Freya! I've never been to Morocco. Can't wait to go there.

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  6. I would love to shop here - wonderful!

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    1. I loved looking around in the souks.

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  7. Thank you for this post and amazing photos! I'm planning to go to Morocco next year, I love hiking, I hope I'll get a chance to hike there!

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    1. Hi Tom, the Atlas Mountains are the perfect place to hike. It is so beautiful over there.

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  8. Great post - I've not been but have often dreamed of it. Now I have some intel to fuel those dreams into plans. Thanks!

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  9. A trek in the Atlas Mountains as well as a visit to Marrakech has long been on my wish list.Your photos and descriptions are wonderful.
    Was a 4 day trek long enough??

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    1. A 4 day trek was long enough but of course if you have more time you can add days to that as it is a very beautiful area. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to stay longer.

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  10. Marrakech has long been on my list of places to see - it seems like such an enchanting place. I imagine that I could spend hours shopping in the bazaars and markets there!

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    1. It is indeed a beautiful and fascinating city.

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  11. These are all great sites to see and experience in Morocco. Love the pictures here that beckon for a visit. I have Morocco on my list for awhile now. I think I can spend days at the Berber souk.

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    1. haha Mary indeed there is so much to see in those souks and you can buy pretty much everything there.

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  12. Loved reading about Marrakech and enjoyed a virtual visit with your pictures.

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  13. HI Freya,
    Great post on Marrakech. Love what you said about the smile and the people. So true.
    Marrakech is very special to my heart. That where my husband and I got engaged :)

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    1. Hi Marisol, wow that is so unique getting engaged in Marrakech! I liked Marrakech very much but I can understand why it's so special to your heart.

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  14. Good post on Marrakech. I'd love to visit one day. I think I'll particularly love the souks!

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    1. It's for sure an interesting experience but it can get quite overwhelming

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  15. Awesome guide! Marocco has been on my bucket list for quite a while and I'm planning a trip this autumn :) Have you been to Fes?

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    1. Hi Elena, Marocco is so beautiful I'm sure you will have a wonderful time. No unfortunately I have not made it to Fes yet.

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Freya - Holiday Nomad