Marrakech, a heady blend of labryinthal souks, mysterious snake charmers and acrobats performing at the Djemma El Fna and the enchanting sound of the call to prayer echoing around the medina. So much to see, so much to do, but it can all seem a little intimidating at first glance, especially when you first get off a plane.
Just a 3 hour flight from the UK, Marrakech is an ideal week or weekend break destination, offering a tantalisingly different experience to visitors. Even better, the airport, serviced by many budget airlines in the UK, is only a 15 minute taxi drive to the city, rather than some of the other dubious locations when you have a 1 hour bus drive from the 'city airport' The seductive sights and sounds of North Africa appeal to all the senses and there is plenty to keep you occupied within Marrakech itself for 2 days, with many other sights such as the Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert for visitors planning on coming for longer and wanting a change to the city.
Marrakech is split into 2; the new town, which is full of hip shops with a more Western feel and the Medina which is the old walled city, filled with small winding streets, market stalls and the main square; Djemma El Fna. If you are the type of person who likes to stay in 5* resorts, then you will be heading to one of the golf resorts outside the city. People who want to explore the souks by foot and stay in the heart of the action should opt for staying in a riad in the medina.
Once you have arrived and booked into your accommodation, you will no doubt be itching to get out and explore your surroundings. The souk - a term used to describe the rambling markets - used to be notorious for Western travellers. It was said that if you entered them alone you would be mobbed and even the hardiest of travellers did not manage to emerge in one piece. Thanks to a crack down by the tourist police, this is no longer the case. It is perfectly possible to explore the souk alone, without a guide. Selling and heckling is done in good humour and is very definitely not threatening. The dangers come more from the mopeds that whizz past (apparently the definition of pedestrians include vehicles with 2 wheels.) The other issue with the souks is that you can guarantee 100% that you will get very lost at some point during your stay. the derbs (streets) are very badly signed and with so many people around, it is easy to get distracted. This is all part of the experience and one to be treated with a sense of humour. The market traders are all human and (despite what your guide book might tell you) it is perfectly possible to ask them to help you find your bearings on a map.
So, out of your 2 days in Marrakech, you need to allow at least half a day to wander around the souks, getting lost and shopping. You will also need to schedule in plenty of time for refreshment. Mint tea is the nation's favourite drink and it would be criminal not to partake. After all of the trudging through the souks, you may well have built up quite a hunger. If so, try to find your way to the Place D'Epices to find the cafe d'epices. A chilled out cafe where you can watch the hustle and bustle of the souks and enjoy a reasonably priced lunch. After refreshing yourself, it is time for a dose of culture. Try starting off with a visit to the Palais El Bahia This palace was built in 1880 and whilst there is no furniture inside, you get a real feel for the architecture of the time, with beautiful decor on the walls and ceilings and mosaics on the floors. The peaceful courtyards are a breath of fresh air after the craziness of the souks, with cypress trees and large alcoves offering welcome shade.
You should make sure that at least one of your evenings in Marrakech is spent at the Djemma El Fna - the main square in the medina. Whilst it is a hive of activity throughout the day, it really comes alive at night when the street food stalls are set up and many of the locals come down to take in the vibe. Crowds gather around story tellers, acrobats and musicians and hawkers mingle amongst the crowds trying to sell their wares. The atmosphere is entrancing, electric and you will find yourself listening avidly to the performances, even if you can't understand a word.
Assuming you have had your fill of the souk on the previous day, you might want to indulge in a little more sight seeing. There is plenty more to see. The Ben Youssef Medersa in the north east of the Medina is worth a visit. Built as a school for young boys to study the koran, the building is a typical example of the architecture of its time. Intricate details on the ceilings in the courtyard form an interesting juxtaposition to the simplicity of the cells.
Another sight worth taking in is the Palais Ed Badi, at the south of the medina. Built in 1578 and influenced in design by the Al Hambra, the palace was the ego project of the Saadian King Ahmad Al-Mansur. But, like all great palaces, fashion plays a part and the palace which took 25 years to build was later ransacked in order to build a bigger and better one in the city of Meknes. Now, all that remains are the magnificent ramparts (complete with resident nesting storks) and impressive ruins to wander round. The sheer scale of this place makes it a very interesting visit, after having been exploring in the small, compressed medina. On your way out, there is the lovely Kosybar, with great views of the ramparts and the southern end of the city.
There are other sights of note in the city - the Saadian tombs in the medina and the impressive Majorelle gardens designed by Yves St Laurent. Alternatively, if you fancy a change of pace, then there are cookery courses , hot air balloons or horse and carriage rides.
Ultimately, the key to a successful visit to Marrakech is balance. You need to have time to explore (and get lost in) the souk, you may also want to pick and choose some sight seeing, but above all, you need to make sure you have enough time to people watch at the main square. If you are lucky enough to have more time for your holiday, then after two days you will probably feel the need to move on. Either to visit one of the other imperial cities (Fes or Meknes), to the laid back coastal city of Essaouira, or for the more adventurous souls, to head off camel trekking in the Sahara or perhaps to go and climb Morocco's highest mountain.
Hi, thanks for a good read, I wish I had stumbled upon this before heading out myself. We still had a great time though. I've pulled a little something together on the basics of Marrakech, in terms of getting around. I really struggled to get this kind of information before my trip.
Chris 8th February 2011