Marrakesh is a tale of 2 cities, the old and the new. The new city is located in the southwest of the city and has everything that upmarket holiday seekers would wish for. The Amanjena, where David Beckham had his 40th birthday party and Sex and City 2 was filmed, sits alongside Roberto Cavali and Louis Vitton stores. High class modern restaurants and huge Casinos and nightclubs, however this is not what I travelled to Morocco to experience. I wanted to feel the heartbeat of the ancient city, and understand what is it that made Marrakesh the number one travel destination in the world in 2015.
Stay at a Riad
To do this I booked into several Riad hotels scattered across the old town Medina. A Riad can best be described as a boutique hotel, rarely being more that 12 rooms and situated around a central atrium normally housing a small pool.
The journey from the airport consisted of me grabbing the front seat, expecting to wipe out one of the many scooters that weaved in and out of cars i realised that they all obviously possess some kind of 6th sense that prevents a never ending stream of carnage.
We pulled up in a small market square and we were greeted by a uniformed porter who was standing with a donkey and cart who led us through the maze of narrow alleys. When we did get to the Riad’s unassuming door, we entered into a Oasis of calm and luxury that was impossible to predict.
Riad Noir d’Ivorie greeted us with cool air and modern refurbished interiors that still kept a sense of the old Arabian luxury, deep rugs and a candle lit main courtyard with 3 story high waterfalls cascading into a small modern pool. We ate a fabulous french Moroccan meal of Calamari Risotto and Chicken Tagine accompanied by a fantastic bottle of Gerard Deipardieus own Moroccan wine called Lumiere.
The next day we moved to our next Riad. Dix Neuf Lakasor. This Riad was one of several run by a British expat called Madeline. We were met by the engaging silver haired Madeline and once settled we joined her for a glass of chilled wine and a chat about Marrakesh and just how this seemingly chaotic city really operates. There is a big expat, ex-hippy community from the UK, France and the US all living and working in the city. They have adapted to the chaotic on the surface yet relaxed undercurrent of life in Morocco.
Madeline led us through the narrow alleyways to expat hot spot, Le Jardin. There was a sense of Narnia once you entered the small low door off the crazy narrow alleyway into a lush tree filled courtyard, with good wine and a delicious sweet and savoury pigeon pie you can see why it is so popular.
The wisdom is that when in the old town of Marrakesh, you will get lost. There is no escaping that. However, the locals are extremely friendly and aware of visitors predicament. I would, however recommend that you look for someone who is not a shopkeeper when seeking directions, as you are likely to end up coming away with spices, rugs and ornate ornaments along with a clearer set of directions. If this is not your thing, fear not, every Riad supplies you with a mobile phone to use whenever you venture out and they have an uncanny way of knowing where you are and a porter is dispatched to bring you home.
A stress free way of seeing the city is to opt for a horse and carriage ride around the old medina. There are lines of ornate carriages located at the main square and for 150 dirhams (€15) you get an hours guided tour.
Yves St Laurent
La Maison Arabe is one of Marrakesh’s best known and most luxurious Riads. Boasting a 3 floor Penthouse with jacuzzi and private terrace. it was here that we opted for the Moroccan massage and body scrub called a Hammam. The treatment requires you strip down in a warm chamber and are massaged with your choice of aromatic oils. Just when you start to feel comfortable, albiet a little too warm, the vigorous scrub begins. This is not unpleasant but it is decidedly aimed at exfoliating every bit of dead skin on every square inch, almost, of your body. The end result is that the last time you had skin this soft you were wearing a nappy.
Within the walls of the Medina are the legendary souks. These ancient market places are where the energy of Marrakesh springs. Each shopfront is about 8 feet wide and these expert negotiators sell everything from hand made leather goods and aromatic spices to fake designer watches. A keen sell is the viagra tea, or as it was described to me ‘make your wife happy with some jiggy jiggy tea’. But even the best western businessman would be put to the test in negotiating skills to get the better of these traders. However, do not shy away from it. It is a part of the culture and if you approach it with a sense of humour it can be a bit of fun. I found that a good rule of thumb is that if you feel that you got a bargain then everyone wins.
The Majorelle Gardens are an homage to their saviour, Yves St Laurent. The street on which they are located is even named after him. The designer, who originally came from North Africa, rescued the gardens in 1980, after their original architect the artist Majorelle passed away. With hundreds of varieties of plants and trees as well as a fantastic small museum on the Berker tribes, who are the original people of Morocco, this is a popular attraction not to be missed.
If your interests are more energetic any Riad or Hotel can arrange for day trips for hot air balloon rides, camel trekking or 4x4 excursions in the Atlas mountains. These are all day trips.
Another day trip, although i would strongly recommend a much longer stay, is to the seaside fishing village of Eassouria. This was our favourite part of the trip. Eassouria is a bohemian enclave put on the map years ago by stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Frank Cappa and Cat Stevens who all spent time here smoking marijuana, writing music on the beach and chilling out to the max.
Nothing much has changed as the mix of residents include British, American and various other Europeans who have escaped the rat race to open beach bars and Kite-surf schools.
Since it has been on my to-do list for years i tried out the Kite surfing at the Explora surf school run by the prefect example of this unique melting pot. Sara Jolly is an english girl, married to Nasser who is Moroccan. My trainer was Youniss, who is married to a Finnish girl. It usually takes about 2-3 days to become competent. After a bit of salt water and pride swallowing i began to get the feel of it and i have to say it was exhilarating.
We also opted for the horse riding experience along the beaches at sunset which was a truly memorable experience and novel way to see more of this enchanting country.
The street markets here are much more relaxed that the hectic pace of Marrakesh. There are no cries of “My friend, my friend”, simply locals going about their business, although i suspect that there is one price for them and another for the tourists. If you are a seafood lover you have to check out the fish market, where you pick your selection of freshly caught Lobster, Shrimp and whitefish before it is cooked and served to you minutes later.
There is a lot of artwork for sale, again reflecting the culture of artists and hippies that reside here. Although there are 5 star hotels to stay in we opted for a much better accommodation solution. The former home of 2 british artists, Emma and Graham. This house was lovingly restored to such a degree that it has been featured in several architecture and lifestyle magazines and has to be seen to be believed, which you can do at their website www.castlesinthesand.com