“Just go out of the front door and head for the main alleyway,” Mohammad Aznaque explained to me, “then follow it until you see the arch where the donkey carts are. Next, take the middle passageway through the souks until you reach the main road leading to the plaza…”
He made it sound so simple but, as expected, within 15 minutes I was hopelessly lost. It didn’t matter, though. I’d visited Marrakech many times and was aware that being adrift in this labyrinth was often part of the excitement.
There’s a common refrain in this most magical of cities that “if you didn’t get lost in the souks then you weren’t really in the souks.”
Mohammed, who works at the lovely Anayela Riad on the northern edge of the medina, has years of experience in extricating tourists who’ve become hopelessly entangled – like flies in a spiderweb – in the maze.
Since I first visited 25 years ago, Marrakech has been one of my all-time favorite cities and my favorite thing to do here is simply wonder like Alibaba through the Thousand and One Nights and see what I stumble across.
Here are my five top suggestions for soaking up the atmosphere.
Fortunately, for a city that could otherwise potentially be exhausting, Marrakech is home to the world’s most invigorating drink. A glass of syrupy-sweet mint tea on the rooftop (the so-called Grand Balcon) of Café Glacier is my first stop at the beginning of every visit to Marrakech. From here you can gaze right over the Djemaa el Fna – the great plaza that is the setting for the world’s greatest never-ending “festival”. Ideally, I try to be here around 4pm when a convoy of 50 or more food stalls roll out, like a wild west wagon-train. When the sunset prayer-call echoes out from the ancient Koutoubia minaret the smoke from scores of barbecues begins to waft like dancing djinns across the shimmering lights of the stalls and the Djemaa becomes more magical by the minute.
The little plaza of the Spice Souks is universally known to tourists so, for something infinitely more authentic, I love to head into Souk Laghzel. This tiny plaza (down a short alley off the south-western corner of the Spice Souk) has a disturbing history: it used to be the slavery souk. Today, it’s the workplace of dozens of women who sell second-hand clothes, along with a couple of hidden antique/bric-a-brac stalls. As you enter the plaza you find Bezzari Zakaria, a tiny bazaar selling a mindboggling array of traditional remedies and strange charms. On the opposite corner is a little eatery with no name. It is run by Fatima (known as “the mother of the souks”) and is where the stallholders get their afternoon meal. As such, it is perhaps the best value, heartiest food in Marrakech.
Ace-guide Ali (who can be booked through marrakechfoodtours.com) is a wealth of information not only on his city’s culinary heritage but also on all aspects of history and culture. An evening with Ali is a gastronomic adventure, taking in some secret spots that you would never stumble across as a tourist. Whether you’re an adventurer willing to challenge yourself with steamed “goat-face”, sheep’s brain, and snails or a street-food junkie tempted by sfnj (deep-fried donuts) or msmen (savoury Moroccan pancakes), Ali’s tours provide stories that you could dine out on for weeks to come.
Majorelle Gardens – best known for its connection with Yves Saint Laurent – is one of Marrakech’s premier icons but, for something more unexpected (and within the walls of the old city) I prefer La Bahia Palace and Le Jardin Secret. The aptly named “Secret Garden”, which had been falling into ruin for almost a century, was restored in 2016 to create a real oasis of calm in the frenetic bustle of the souks. La Bahia Palace is a wonderfully cool expanse of marble courtyards and reception rooms at the southern end of the Mellah (the old Jewish quarter). Both these gardens deserve an hour or two, allowing time simply to sit under the palms listening to the birds.
The hammam (steam bath) is a ritual not to be missed. But, as with any ritual, there are codes of conduct that can sometimes make it daunting – and no two hammam are the same. The lovely Riad Star, in the heart of the Medina, has a private hammam on the roof (open also to non-guests) where an attendant will scrub and soap you. Of the public hammams Mouassine, dating back to around 1571, is one of the most historic. There are separate male and female sections and at 1.5 euros it is one of the best-value experiences you’ll ever have. An hour spent comfortably simmering on the tiled floor is closer to transcendental meditation than to a mere bathing session.
If you choose to stay in the medina all sights are likely to be within easy strolling distance. Tuk-tuks are ideal if you want to get back to your hotel after dark since the drivers (all people with special needs) can steer down the tightest alleyways after the stalls have closed. For longer journeys a “petit taxi” (rather than the bigger inter-city Mercedes) works on a meter system.
There are hotels and guesthouses to suit all budgets in Marrakech but a riad (from about 60 euros upwards) makes for one of the world’s most evocatively romantic accommodation options. Typically windowless, historical houses with all the rooms looking inwards to a central courtyard, the best riad also have wonderful roof terraces. You can’t go wrong with Riad Anayela or any of those featured on Marrakech Riad.
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