Marrakech, Morocco’s best known city has a life of its own. With its frenetic energy, it is a constant hive of activity through a maze of bustling streets and lively squares. Few cities in the world enjoy such a dramatic setting as the ancient walled city that sits low beneath the snow capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains.
Marrakech has attracted visitors for centuries, the exoticism of Arabia blends with the vibrancy of Africa to offer a unique and heady experience of sights, sounds and colours.
I found the city easy to explore as it is split into distinct areas, two of the most popular are the Ville Nouvelle (new city) and the Medina (old city). The Ville Nouvelle is home to modern restaurants, cafes and bars in wide tree lines avenues, while steps away, the dark, maze like alleyways of the Medina enclosed by an ancient wall, has the market square, Djemaa el-Fna, at its heart.
During the day, a multitude of souks in the Medina offer pretty much anything you can think to buy and wish to haggle for! From traditional Moroccan slippers, leather goods and silks, to pottery and textiles all offered with the pantomime of bartering and cups of sweet mint tea. For those worried about the hassle of haggling, aggressive behaviour is not tolerated in Marrakech and is punishable by law.
Djemaa el-Fna really comes to life as dusk falls and the carnival begins, an extraordinary collection of musicians, fortune tellers, fire eaters and dancers gather to entertain the ever shifting circles of mesmerised onlookers. Snake charmers ask for a few dirhams for a photograph with a snake draped over your shoulders – and a few more to have it removed!
Shopping completed, I visited the Ali Ben Youseef Medersa, a 16th century Koran school, where up to 900 students once lived and studied, known for its breathtaking interior. The peaceful courtyard and facades are covered with intricate tiling, stucco and carved cedar so striking that it was said to have upstaged Kate Winslet in the scenes they shared in the film Hideous Kinky!
A visit to the MajorelleGardens offers a stunning yet tranquil experience, once owned by the French artist Louis Majorelle, the gardens house one of the largest collections of rare and exotic plants in North Africa. The gardens were purchased in the 1980’s by long-time Marrakech resident Yves Saint Laurent who tended then till his death in 2008 and whose ashes have been scattered amongst the great palms and pools filled with water lilies.
I ended my trip with a stay at the Kasbah Tamadot in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Sir Richards Branson’s luxurious retreat (bought during one of his famous ballooning expeditions!) is an hour’s drive from Marrakech and lies in extensive grounds filled with fruit trees, cacti and rambling roses. The location is simply magnificent, where dramatic views can be enjoyed on the rooftop terrace of the snow capped mountains and of the neighbouring valley below.
The Kasbah employs local Berber staff from the surrounding villages, giving guests a sense of staying in a Moroccan home rather than a hotel. There are 18 antique adorned rooms using traditional Moroccan furnishings and 10 spectacular Berber Tented Suites (some with views of MountToubkal, the Atlas’ highest peak), each with a uniquely descriptive Berber name which tells you something about it. (mine was Ayour meaning moon as the light of the moon illuminates the room at night!)
Dine around the candlelit pool or under the stars on the rooftop terrace, try an authentic Moroccan Hamman in the spa where ones skin is deeply cleansed, purified and softened or discover the beautiful Atlas region by foot or for the more adventurous – by mule!
I found it difficult to leave Marrakech behind, and I’m sure as many who have travelled before me, as soon as I returned home, I quickly found another reason to return!