Marrakech - East Meets West

Stephen Bellingham on 15 December 2013
We were attracted by the lovely Riads, colourful crafts and deep-rooted heritage, so different and yet so near to Europe across the Gibraltar Strait. Relatives joined us knowing they would have an adventure - a good test for the country too with a vegetarian and a celiac within our party.

Choice of location and properties were based on wishing to experience the diversity of Morocco and its Riads, (traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with an internal courtyard), which were unique to their owners and reflected the local way of life.

Within the same time zone and a 3½ hour early-morning flight from Gatwick, it is not surprising that we met many taking a 4-5 night break. There’s a new Bristol departure too for those in the South-West.

Although the weather was not our priority we were lucky. We had sunny days (22 degrees in Essaouria) and cooler evenings. Temperatures did drop significantly in the High Atlas at night, which to be fair was what we expected. Arabic is the official language here; however we felt the need for a French dictionary to supplement our school-day French, as it was so widely spoken.

Moroccan Dirhams must be purchased locally, with a limit to be taken home, so reliable debit/credit cards are a must along with cash for Guides, tours, taxis etc. It’s worth stopping at the Airport Exchange Kiosk on arrival - we got a good rate.

Our first stop Marrakech was at the lovely Riad Assakina close to the Bahia Palace. A perfect location – within the city walls in the historic “Mellah”, the old Jewish Quarter of the Medina. Whilst within walking distance of Marrakech’s main attractions, the area was a little less crazy. Each day we returned to an oasis of calm and tranquillity. Greeted by Noelle with mint tea and pastries, we sat in one of the many communal areas. The sunny roof terrace was our favourite with Medina views and the snow-capped Atlas nearby. The sunset over the rooftops and storks flying into roost on neighbouring chimney-pots was another bonus.

Our spacious and tastefully furbished, first floor rooms opened up onto the gallery over-looking the central courtyard complete with plunge pool, local artisan products and exotic plants.

We received great hospitality and help from Noelle and Hashim, as the owners were away. Thank you Noelle for taking us to the china shop we couldn't find and Hasham for those informative evening chats – much appreciated and we have a little bit of Morocco at home to remind us of our fabulous trip!

Many places reflect the history and culture, most inside the Medina walls. The immensity of the country’s past is reflected within the countless museums, palaces, mosques, tombs and ruins, often with opulent décor.

We took a taxi (via the Tannery) to the Majorelle Garden. Yves Saint-Laurent owned and restored the botanical gardens to their former glory. His ashes are scattered here. The Islamic Art Museum within the grounds is also well worth a visit. Choose a hot day, to take advantage of the cooler temperature and shaded areas. From here a horse-drawn carriage (caleche) is a great way to get back to the Medina, to carry on exploring or stopping by at one of the excellent cafes or restaurants for a bite to eat.

Initially it’s rather daunting visiting and getting lost in the winding labyrinth of the Souk area north of Jemaa el Fna Square. Slatted roof shades have replaced the original – they help keep off the sun and rain, at the same time giving an air of a timeless present.

The main Souk area is divided by trade into areas like leather, lanterns, traditional clothing and woodwork, so we suggest separate visits. It’s good to take time to watch local artisans at work and stop to have a chat with them – it’s all part of the experience. Just don’t say you like something or ask the price unless you are intending to buy! Jemaa el Fna Square comes alive at dusk with snake charmers, fortune tellers, freshly squeezed orange stalls, sweet treats and food stalls, all vying for trade. We viewed it from a rooftop café watching the comings and goings before venturing to the Food Stall recommended by our Riad.

We debated whether Marrakech is best visited first or last. I believe first, as there is so much to do and see, best experienced at the beginning, and then you can move on to somewhere more peaceful.