By Beth Tulley
Noisy, smelly, chaotic, crowded…but a city that will lure you in. Marrakech, despite its popularity, continues to deliver. This city showcases Morocco’s past, present and future, with the new city acting as the contemporary antidote to the historic Medina for which Marrakech is renowned. In the Medina, getting lost in the labyrinth of souks is part of the fun, as each wrong turn will lead you towards new sounds, scents and sights. The new town represents Morocco’s more cosmopolitan culture, where you will find boutique galleries, shops and bars.
Flights with Easyjet from London Gatwick are as little as £50 return in low season, and taxis from the airport should cost no more than £10 (140 dirham). Within the Medina it is possible to walk everywhere and taxis to the new town cost no more than £3 per journey. Taxis do have meters but these are often broken – agree a price before you set off to avoid a disagreement when you get there.
Book accommodation within the Medina to make the most out of your time in Marrakech. Hostelworld.com have a few hostels listed, but staying in an eighteenth century riad does not necessarily break the bank and is likely to be one of your most memorable experiences. Riad Dar Hanane is excellent. A little out of the way, but the staff and the roof terrace more than make up for that. Other options include Riad Dar Al Hamra, which is cheaper, or Hostel Riad Marrakech Rouge, another budget option, particularly for the solo traveller.
Tagines and couscous are certainly on the menu in Marrakech, but so is more modern cuisine. Unlike typical hotels, riads are likely to cook some of the most authentic cuisine in Marrakech, from rich and sweet lamb tagines to couscous dishes embellished with dates and vegetables. Good restaurants include La Perle du Sud, which is near the main Djemaa el-Fna square, and has great food at good prices. Avoid restaurants that are expensive – Moroccan food is meant to be rustic, and it is unlikely that the higher price will translate to better food. Cheap street food is dotted all around the Medina, but most obvious in the Djemaa el-Fna square in the evenings as the many stalls will try to coax you in with their specialities. Quality and hygiene levels vary so try to eat at a stall that is busy with locals.
Café Clock in Marrakech’s Kasbah district puts a modern twist on Moroccan flavours. Make sure you order the famous camel burger with an amazing date milkshake. Café des Épices is the perfect mid-souk lunch stop, and again offers more modern, snack food, such as hummus and halloumi salads. Mint tea is a way of life in Marrakech. Make sure you enjoy several cups of this sweet and refreshing drink at one of the many cafés watching over the Djemaa el-Fna square as darkness begins to fall and the evening entertainment begins. In the day, quench your thirst with a freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the many vendors in the square for a mere 4 dirhams (30p).
Mosques, Markets and Modern Art. Any travel guide to Marrakech will point our the main attractions – the Koutoubia mosque at the main entrance to the Medina, the Ben Youssef Medersa, or the various museums – but you will capture more of Marrakech by meandering through the alleys and stumbling across these sights for yourself.
The souks are synonymous with Marrakech, with thousands of shops trading jewellery, scarves, leather goods, pottery and spices. You will see locals buying their fresh meat and vegetables, but will also quickly realise that many of the stalls are catering to the tourist market. As long as you know this going in, have fun with bartering for the things you’ve eyed up, and don’t be too disheartened if your ‘genuine’ silver ring makes your finger green when you get home.
In the new town, there is a thriving modern art scene, with galleries such as Galerie 127 and the David Bloch Gallery housing work by Moroccan artists in contemporary spaces. The price tags are by no means budget, but there’s no harm in looking.
Jardin Majorelle, which houses the Yves Saint Laurent memorial, is a must-see landscaped garden in the new town. You will be overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the cobalt blue colour that dominates the garden and be welcomed by the calmness of the garden that perfectly counterbalances the chaos outside.
If landscaped gardens fail to relax you, there is no doubt that a trip to a Hamman (traditional Morrocan bath) will. Les Bains de Marrakech is a good option to be expertly scrubbed and lathered up so that you leave feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the Medina once again.
Marrakech is not a nightlife destination; it’s mint teas than mojitos. Morocco is a Muslim country, and while it is more open-minded than its neighbours, do not expect alcohol to be served in Medina restaurants or cafes. That being said, your riad is likely to serve beer and wine, and some of the bars in the new town serve alcoholic cocktails. Kechmara is a restaurant that turns into a cocktail bar in the evening. Head to Comptoir for drinks and a belly-dancing performance. If you want to splurge, La Mamounia is the iconic Marrakech hotel in the Medina, and is pretty special for an evening drink, if anything just to see the hotel and explore the grounds.
From Durham with Dirhams
Marrakech is as cheap or expensive as you make it. If you book cheap flights, a reasonable riad, and don’t go too crazy on buying saffron, a four day trip should cost no more than £300. Bear in mind that extras add up, and often you get more out of simply exploring than actually going into ‘the attractions’. Be aware that you are unable to import or export Dirham, and will have to change your money once you are there. Check the exchange rate before you go to make sure that you get a good deal. This also means that you cannot leave with dirhams so either plan carefully how much you will need or be prepared to change them again before you leave.
Illustrations: Mariam Hayat, Photographs: Beth Tulley