The really useful guide to Marrakech
If you’re planning to head to Morocco’s desert city, read this first
You might have been mesmerised by its dreamy otherness on TV travel shows, in magazine spreads and on people’s Instagram feeds. From a distance (roughly 7,000km from our part of the continent), Marrakech looks like something out of a romantic adventure — vivid bolts of colour meet arid landscape, mint tea meets market meandering.
The allure of the Moroccan desert city is seductive, and so is the promise of an almost-on-par currency. The FM made the trek and gathered some essential info (through trial and error), guaranteed to make your visit there marvellous.
As with most African destinations north of the equator, it’s impossible to get to Marrakech direct from SA. You can fly via European cities such as Paris, Madrid and Lisbon, and then from there to the city, which has a huge, airy, beautiful new airport.
The FM flew via Cairo and then connected to Casablanca — or "Casa", as the locals call it — which is itself worth a visit if you like a big-city buzz. It’s only a 2½-hour drive from there to Marrakech, so hiring a driver (it’s not pricey) to do the trip beats the waste-of-time flight between the cities. The highway to Marrakech is great, and except for French trucks and Arabic signage, the landscape is so similar to ours, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled onto the N1.
Where to stay
The endlessly flat, palm-tree-dotted terracotta city of Marrakech blossoms from the old town — the Medina — outwards. Most trippers stay in the Medina for its old-world, "authentic" charm. Here, behind ancient high walls and tight, chaotic, snaking streets (they’re car-free, but the motorbike traffic is hideous), there are charming riads, the traditional inward-facing homes of the area.
Come midday, when the sun burns your skin through your clothes, you can make for the courtyard guesthouse and collapse at the pool or under the shaded roof terrace with views over the higgledy-piggledy city skyline.
The FM stayed at Ryad Zouina, all ornately carved panels and mosaic tiles. The high-end hotel El Fenn — owned by Richard Branson’s sister Vanessa — is just up the road.
A tip worth noting that applies to overseas travel in general is to download Maps.me — an app that allows you to navigate cities by means of maps, offline and without using data or Wi-Fi. It’s essential in the Medina.
And here’s something else to know. The Medina’s frenetic labyrinth definitely isn’t for everyone. Instead, you can stay in the New Town or, on the edge of the city, at the Beldi Country Club, which does picturesque, high-end accommodation.
Forty minutes out, the Berber Lodge offers nine ultra-relaxed, Berber-style rooms in the ountryside.
What not to bother with
The shops and stalls in Marrakech all see tourists coming a mile away. The markets (and particularly Jemaa el-Fnaa, the large square in the Medina) are tourist traps of note. It’s worth giving the snake charmers who are badgering cobras in the scorching heat and the hundreds of traders selling the exact same tagines a wide berth, unless you are prepared to barter and bargain to get to a reasonable price.
It’s preferable to look for interesting, contemporary adaptations on classic Moroccan fashion, homeware and gifts at Max & Jan in the Medina. Lifestyle brand LRNCE does cool ceramics and updated, crazy carpets. El Fenn has a boutique stocked with all the high-end products made in the region. These include the fantastic, local Heritage Berbere perfumes — all inspired by region — such as the spicy Mascate and Ambre Extrême.
From a cultural perspective, there is the new YSL museum that opened last year. Fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent spent many years holidaying in Morocco (he was born in Algeria) and, along with his partner, Pierre Bergé, bought and saved a sprawling house and garden called Majorelle (named for the painter who developed and loved them). Today, it’s a wildly popular place to visit. The ultra-mod Studio KO-designed museum is next door.
You can buy an inclusive ticket for both at the museum first and skip the endless queue outside the garden. It’s worth facing the mass of selfie-taking tourists to see the archive of glorious, sumptuous fashion and then meander around this shaded enclave with its pops of vivid Majorelle blue (yes, it has its own colour), Eau de Nil and yellow.
For vegetation of an equally spectacular kind there is Le Jardin Secret, which is in the centre of the Medina. Built over 400 years ago, and home to the city’s who’s who over the centuries, it was recently rescued from complete obliteration. It is now a dazzling display of vernacular architecture, craft and horticulture.
Close by is the Museum of Marrakech. This spectacular space was once the Dar Menebhi Palace, which was built at the end of the 19th century. Its vast mosaicked surfaces and vaulted ceilings are the backdrop to collections of pottery, art and embroidery from the area.
When it comes to food and drink, Marrakech is also a maze of hit-and-miss set menus and overpriced holiday-making havens. Perfectly reasonable but pricey tagines and wildly expensive booze can be found at some of them but for really great, authentic cuisine, it’s best to ask locals where they eat.
Plats Haj Boujemâa in the New Town is a good example. You can join families in this simple joint and get stuck into traditional food like pasticcio (pie), couscous and chicken, and citrus tagine loaded with green olives. The aforementioned Max & Jan in the Medina has a Belgian chef, so the food it serves has modern touches and is fresh and unusual, and can be enjoyed on the lovely rooftop terrace.
It’s good to always have ample cash for eating (many places don’t take credit cards), taxis and buying those tassled earrings you suddenly can’t live without.