As I sit in a divinely comfortable easy chair, sipping Moroccan mint tea, listening to the chatter of bird life and absorb the late afternoon breeze and atmosphere of the majestic La Mamounia gardens, I can now quite understand why Churchill favoured this luxury hotel as a get-away retreat. A haven of tranquility just moments from the dusty, bustling madness of Marrakech Old City.
Seven days ago we arrived here after a spontaneous online booking in search of sunshine, heat and somewhere new. With no prior knowledge and very little background of the city, other than ‘ladies really should cover up’ to respect the muslim religion, we were hit with absolute culture shock when we arrived.
After a short four hour flight from London, we found ourselves dropped in the middle of a red, dusty city, heaving with people rushing about their daily business. A chaotic, noisy, bustling hive of activity, seemingly void of any kind of ‘order’. The narrow streets that wind their way around this fascinating and historic place are a free for all. Cars, scooters, mules and carts share the same narrow passageways as pedestrians and have no qualms with driving towards you in every direction. On first arriving, it’s terrifying, but once you learn to use the second set of eyes in the back of your head, to avoid being hit, well, it just becomes the way of life.
The taxi from the airport left us by the main square of the Medina, The Old City, and we were met with a man with a wooden wheel barrow. Our luggage was loaded inside and we followed him past snake charmers, carts overflowing with oranges serving freshly squeezed juice and street sellers approaching us left, right and centre, straight into the madness of Marrakech and beyond! We gingerly followed, wondering where on earth we were going, as we were led down winding alleys, through tunnels beneath houses, dusty rubble underfoot, down a dark narrow passageway and finally to a small front door. A big smile from our guide indicated we had arrived at the Riad Azaar, home for the next four days http://www.riadazzar.com/en/welcome/.
We are welcomed by the owner, a friendly Dutch lady, and enter a little peaceful sanctuary. Rooms line the four walls, spread over three floors with a lovely terrace on the roof and in the centre on the ground floor, a refreshing plunge pool.
Over the next few days we soak up the tastes and flavours of Morocco; delicious mint tea, made from green tea leaves, fresh mint and sugar, served from ornate silver tea pots into delicate small glasses, freshly squeezed orange juice, almond pastries, traditional tagines, couscous, and an array of local bread and pancakes that are quite different to what we are accustomed to back home.
We walked around the famous souks; hundreds of little shops filled with local handicrafts, spices and foods and absorbed the fabulous colour and life these bustling market stalls command. We visited the Tanneries where the leather is stained and treated before being turned into shoes, bags and pouffes. We were handed a small posy of mint when we entered and soon had them glued to our nostrils to hide the almighty stench and stop us retching. The tanneries are essentially a collection of stone baths, filled with lime, which is where the animal skin is left to soak until it is turned to leather. Despite the stench, it was amazing to see the men still working in the traditional manner that has been used for centuries, and encouraged me to buy two beautifully hand crafted pouffes from the neighbouring leather goods shops to take home as souvenirs!
It’s worth noting shopping here requires some strength! The locals love to haggle. It is a big performance and can be quite tiring or hugely fun, depending on your nature, and the temperature that day! We quickly learned two tricks of the trade. Firstly, offer half the vendors starting price and only carry cash for the amount you are prepared to spend.
As culturally rich as this city is, the huge amount of dust and pollution from the vintage vehicles charging around the narrow streets, combined with the intense Moroccan heat, leaves you feeling permanently grimey and dirty. No wonder, then, that there are plenty of Hamam spas to choose from. Something of a novelty for the visiting tourist, you can see how entwined these bath houses are in the culture of the local people. We enjoyed two in the short week we were there, and I recommend both the ISIS spa http://www.spa-isis.com/uk/ and for a little more of a luxurious spa experience, La Maison Arabe Hotel http://www.lamaisonarabe.com/. The traditional Hamam treatment involves being washed, scrubbed, and scraped squeaky clean in a hot steam room, followed by a beautifully relaxing and restorative massage. It feels wonderfully cleansing and almost a shame to step straight back out into the dusty, dirty streets again afterwards!
Twice we escaped the madness in search of cleaner air. We spent a day on the outskirts of the city at the Beldi Country Club (http://www.beldicountryclub.com/en/piscines.html), which boasts a beautifully tranquil swimming pool and gardens that provide the perfect antidote to the bustling city and we also headed to the Atlas Mountains, to a lovely olive grove, an hour’s taxi ride from Marrakech.
Located in a beautiful setting, L’Oliveraie de Marigha (http://www.oliveraie-de-marigha.com/) has a well known restaurant with rooms scattered amongst the pretty gardens and olive groves. It has 2 swimming pools, a mini golf course and has recently introduced a wellbeing centre with a hammam & traditional beauty treatments.
Following a recommendation suggesting the Majorelle gardens are the best and most beautiful to visit, we headed outside the Medina, and travelled along the old city walls via traditional transport – horse and cart! Not nearly like the splendour of an English or Botanical garden, Majorelle is small but colourful. As the plants are mainly bamboo trees and cacti, which are only seasonally in bloom, the colour is from the garden walls, spaces and features throughout the garden, which have been painted in white and a fabulous bright cobalt or ‘Majorelle blue’, a shade named after the painter and founder of the garden, Jacques Majorelle. Turtles and fish inhabit the large lilly pond and the various ‘rooms’ of the garden offer peace and shade and a very different experience.
The garden has been open to the public since 1947 and owned by French designer, Yves Saint Lauren since 1980, who like many other fashion designers, found great inspiration from the vibrant colours, culture, intricate Moroccan mosaics and architecture found in the city. Hermes also has a private home in Marrakech; a “little kingdom” of Riads according to the locals.
Our second home for the week, the “P’tit Habibi” was owned by a Norwegian based in Oslo. Signs of his homeland were scattered around the riad; antlers, horns, sheepskins and a rather unusual mirror of a space invader. It was a bit rundown and neglected and in need of a spruce up and a lick of paint but the manager, Abdullah, was incredibly helpful during our stay.
Moroccan cuisine must definitely be tried. Dried fruits, apricots, dates, raisins and candied citrus peel are used in many of the Tagines to flavour the meat and fish. It’s like a Moroccan stew. The cous cous which is served as an accompaniment to this, is usually covered in chick peas and root vegetables, meanwhile, pastillas, which are a sweet pastry parcel covered in nuts and filled with anything from pigeon, chicken or lamb amongst other meats, is a rich and acquired taste. Having tried these dishes which feature high on every menu a few times during our stay, we really felt once you’ve tried one, you’ve tried them all, and even the price tag didn’t really reflect the quality. We chose to eat in some more expensive restaurants; Riad El Fin, La Maison Arabe and La Mamounia and I honestly felt the standard of cooking was not that high and we probably enjoyed the dinners cooked by the staff at our first Riad Azaar and eaten on the roof terrace more. I would say it’s still worth venturing out and exploring the different places and restaurants on offer, if nothing else, to soak up the atmosphere.
Marrakech is most certainly a fascinating place to visit. Exploring the Medina is like taking a step back in time, but the new town is like any other cosmopolitan city, with western shops and restaurant chains. We didn’t really take the time to visit this, as we were more interested in exploring the old town. At the end of the week, I leave less shocked, and more charmed by the colour and unique way of this historic city. Would I go back? Quite possibly. Will I forget it? Never!
My Top Ten Things To Do in Marrakech:
1) La Maison Arabe – Spa/Cooking Course
2) ISIS – Hamam
3) Cafe Arabe – Great bar/restaurant with lovely terrace and vista of Atlas Mountains
4) L’Oliveraie De Marigha – Beautiful restaurant and swimming pool within an olive grove, 1 hr drive from Marrakech
5) Le Morocain restaurant, La Mamounia Hotel – book this for a special evening
6) Majorelle Gardens – designed by Yves Saint Laurent
7) The Beldi Country Club – lovely pool/restaurant and serene gardens just outside the city – perfect for a peaceful day relaxing on a sun lounger
8) Stroll around the Souks – be prepared to bargain!
9) Enjoy traditional Moroccan Mint Tea
10) Experience a traditional Hamam