Marrakech has always been on my travel bucket list with my imagination of getting lost in the souks, drinking mint tea, seeing the oriental architecture and getting to know the Moroccan people. It was my first time in (North) Africa and we spent one week in Marrakech with trips to Essaouira at the coast and to Zagora, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. In June the temperature goes up to 39 degrees, but due to the dry air the heat is quite bearable. In one week we spent 3 whole days and two evenings in Marrakech itself, which seemed to be sufficient to visit the sights and get an insight in the Moroccan culture and atmosphere. We stayed in the Riad Vendôme and Spa in the center of the old town (Medina). It is recommendable to stay in one of the Riads (Moroccan mansions), which are often hosted by a family and have a courtyard with a pool and a rooftop for sunbathing. Here I want to share the photographs I made and give some advises about what to visit, what to eat and also tell about the trips to the coast and to the desert.
The main square Jemaa el-Fnaa is the heart of the Medina in Marrakech and one of the best-known squares in Africa. In the Middle Ages the square was used for public decapitations and attracted tradesmen, snake charmers, acrobats and musicians. Today merchants are selling fresh orange juice for 40 cents, women are offering henna tattoos and even snake charmers are trying to get attention. When the sun goes down the square turns into a busy night market where you can buy typical food for a cheap price. You should try Tajine, a pot dish which can be prepared with chicken, lamb, beef or fish or just vegetables, slow-cooked with spices. My favourite Tajine combination was lamb with prunes and almonds. Couscous and Harira, a soup with lentils, chickpeas and tomatoes are also typical and very yummy. Not forgetting the mint tea and the fresh orange juice. Next to the square you can find the Koutoubia Mosque, which is the largest mosque in the city. As we went to Marrakech during Ramadan the road in front of the Mosque had to be closed, because so many people came for the prayer when the sun went down.
It’s exciting to get lost in the labyrinth of alleyways with stalls and shops and see what the traditional Berber market has to offer. The souks are usually divided into retail areas for particular items, but my impression was that every stall has almost the same stuff. You can buy pottery, carpets, shoes, clothes, leather bags, lanterns, spices, cosmetics, blankets and more. It’s hard to refuse not to buy anything. I came home with a ceramic bowl and a plate, a traditional teapot with small glasses, rose oil and rose water, some spices, a pillow and small lanterns and probably more that I don’t have in mind :). At first the merchants ask an unreasonable price for the items, so haggling is very important.
Medersa Ben Youssef
The Medersa Ben Youssef is a former Islamic college, which was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa. The college closed in 1960 and it is since then open to the public. What fascinates me the most were the tiny carvings in the cedar, stucco and marble all over the walls of the courtyard. The shallow pool in the middle of the courtyard was for the ablution before the prayer in the neighboring mosque. 130 small and simple student dormitories are located upstairs, where up to 900 students may have housed at one time.
Maison de la Photographie
Near the Medersa Ben Youssef you’ll find the Maison de la Photographie, a beautiful photo museum in a former Riad. The museum exhibits more than 8000 historical photographs, which were made in the last 150 years. The photographs document the social, cultural and technical development of Morocco and picture for example the life of the Berber in the Atlas Mountains or the street scenery in Marrakech. The museum has also a rooftop, where you can have a drink and something to eat and enjoy the nice view over Marrakech and the snow-covered summits of the Atlas.
Palais de la Bahia
We had only a few minutes to visit the Bahia Palace, because people on the streets told us the wrong opening hours, but it’s definitely worth to have a look at it. The palace was built in the late 19th century by the Grand Vizier of Marrakesh, Si Ahmed ben Musa who resided there with is four wives, 24 concubines and many children. The Bahia Palace is one of the most beautiful palaces in Morocco and captures Islamic und Moroccan architectural styles. The rooms are open onto a courtyard, with beautiful floor tiles, orange trees and carved wood and stucco.
The Majorelle Garden is located in the new town and is named after the landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, who planted the garden in 1923. Since 1947 the garden is open for the public and in 1980 the famous fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent bought the garden with his partner Pierre Bergé, who established the foundation “The Majorelle Trust”, which takes care of the steady preservation of the garden. Here, Yves Saint Laurent got his inspiration for his collections. The garden has a large collection of plants such as cacti, bamboo or palm trees. The cobalt blue, which is used very often in the garden is named after the painter: Majorelle-blue. The Majorelle Garden houses also the museum for Islamic art, which costs 3€ extra to the entrance fee of 7€ in the garden.
La Mamounia & Hammam De La Rose
The Mamounia Hotel is a beautiful five star luxury hotel with a big garden, where famous people like Winston Churchill or Prince Charles have stayed. Another spot we visited was the Hammam De La Rose, a Moroccan Spa, to relax a little bit. There, we first got washed with eucalyptus black soap in a steam bath. Then a women removed the dead skin from our bodies with the traditional rough glove and after that we got a face and a hair mask and chilled some time in the steam bath. In the end they put rose oil on our skin and served us mint tea and water in a chill room. The visit in the Hammam is a great experience and worth its price (25€).
Trip to Essaouira
Essaouira is a nice destination to escape the heat of busy Marrakech and to catch some fresh air from the Atlantic Ocean. While Marrakech is known as the red city, Essaouira is famous for its white houses with blue windows and doors, which reminded me of those in Greece. We booked the round trip in a travel agency somewhere in the Medina in Marrakech and it costs us around 20€ per person. The ticket with the public bus costs 8€ per ride, but the minibus from the travel agency picked us up directly at our riad that’s why we chose this transportation. It takes about 3 hours to get from Marrakech to Essaouira and most agencies offer a daytrip, but we decided to stay one night there. Our cute Hotel Palazzo Desdemona was located perfectly near the bus station and the port at the beginning of the Medina. We strolled through the souks and recognized that the people and merchants were more relaxed than in Marrakech. Of course, we tried a fish tajine and fresh grilled fish and prawns at the port. It is also nice to stroll through the fish market in the morning and see what kind of sea animals are sold there. We also enjoyed some time at the wide beach and soaked up some sun.
Trip to the desert
We also booked a 2-days trip to Zagora, the so-called gateway to the Sahara Desert. Every travel agency offers the same trip and it is recommendable to compare the prizes. We paid around 40€ including the ride, dinner, breakfast, a night in a Berber tent, a camel ride and stopovers at two ancient cities. We got picked up at 7 am with other people from Spain, Argentina, Costa Rica and China and drove until mid-day to our first big stop at the city Aït-Ben-Haddou, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 and several films have been shot there like Gladiator, Prince of Persia or also some parts of the TV series Game of Thrones. There are some families, which are still living there even though there is no electricity and no running water. The village with its merchant houses and fortresses (Kasbahs) is built out of clay. After a lunch nearby we drove another 3 hours to Zagora, where the camels already were waiting. I was a little bit shocked about the bad state of the camels, because they had wounds and were very dirty. I was also a little bit disappointed about the desert, because I expected big sand dunes, but instead we rode next to the street in a stone desert. Although the camels had a saddle on their back it was quite uncomfortable to ride almost one hour. When we arrived at the camp we had dinner together, played some music and slept under the stairs because it was way too warm in the tent. The next day, we rode back with the camels where the driver picked us up again to drive back to Marrakech with another stop at a similar city like Aït-Ben-Haddou in Ouzarzarte. Although the trip differed a bit from my expectations, it was I great experience with cool people and we had a good time and so much fun.
Other things that I’d like to mention is that we didn’t had a bad experience with the people in Morocco and that we never felt scared. The people were very kind and merchants invited us once in a while to drink some mint tea or even to break fast with them and eat some homemade Tajine. Out of respect for the culture and the religion especially during Ramadan, we didn’t dress ourselves too revealing, but we also saw some tourists who did and it didn’t seem to be a problem. Marrakech is truly a dream of 1001 nights.
From Marrakech with love,