Our first trip to Marrakesh and planned to celebrate my retirement. We have never been to Morocco and thought this would be a good place for some heat and sun at the start of May. So a great surprise when it starts to pour with rain and then to hail as we drive from the airport to our hotel. Marrakesh is famous for its souqs, "riad" boutique hotels, moorish architecture and museums. We want to balance exploring all of these with relaxing in a spacious hotel on the edge of town.
The Deux Tours hotel is located with a number of smart villas and other more upmarket hotels in the "Palmerie", an oasis of palms on the north side of town. On the way you pass groups of camels waiting to carry tourists on tours of the palms. We arrive at the hotel to a friendly welcome. The hotel is build as a series of villas, in local style, spread out among fine gardens and trees. Palms, frangipani, olive and orange trees surround the paths, birds flit among the branches and terrapins and frogs mingle with the water lilies in the pretty ponds. Our room is in its own garden behind a heavy old blue door. As well as the swimming pool, gym and spa you can enjoy a traditional hammam (we do) and in the evening the barman mixes great cocktails which you can sip listening to gentle African music.
On day one we set off to explore the northern part of the Medina, or old town. The hotel shuttle drops us in the Nouveau Ville, rather a long walk as it turns out to the walls of the Medina. Finally we reach the famous Koutoubia tower and then the central square - Jemaa el Fna - via a circuitous route. The square only really comes alive at night but we are still hassled to have our photo taken with a cobra, and to buy fruit and trinkets as we dodge motorbikes and "petit taxis" coming from all directions.
Actually most of the people we meet are super friendly and helpful although there is still a mix of hasslers and rogues. As a result you are not sure whether to be defensive or open when people approach you. From the square we dive into the souqs - what seems like miles of corridors disappearing in all directions with stalls packed with lamps, leather goods, sandles and slippers, spices and oils. Vicky is looking for Argan oil, a local speciality used for everything from salads to hair oil and skin lotion. We are not sure about quality so hedge our bets and buy from several shops. We try to haggle but probably still pay three times the local rate!
From the souqs we head into the Marrakesh Museum, a fine converted palace with beautifully restored tilework and ceilings (below). Although a "museum" it was however remarkably empty of exhibits. Then a rather good, light Moroccan lunch in Terrace de la Medersa, a simple place round the corner where we sit on the roof. As we leave lunch we are approached by a man: "my friends you are lucky. There is a Berber fair in town, last day is tomorrow. My friend can show you the way". This sounds interesting so we follow the 'friend' who passes us off to another 'friend'. This guy takes us towards the tanneries, which we wanted to visit anyway, and gives us small bunches of mint - "Berber gas mask" - as we go in. Big vats of lime, preservatives and dyes, many covered in old rugs, are full of animal skins in various states of treatment. These are sheep and goat skins. Further down the road are Berber tanneries where they also tan cowskin. Finally we arrive at the 'Berber fair' which turns out to be an upstairs treasure cave of leather goods, jackets, sandles. Basically all the stuff we have already seen in the souqs. Nothing catches our fancy and the guide gets nasty when we give him only a small tip. We have learned our lesson. Don't look like you don't know where you are going and don't be fooled by 'Berber markets'.
After the tanneries we enjoy a local street market before taking a cab to the very fine Majorelle Gardens and Berber museum. Later we visit the Riad Mansour where we sit by an attractive central pool and enjoy a good Moroccan dinner.
The next day we are determined not to get lost and have downloaded the map of Marrakesh on MapMe which turns out to be an excellent app. The southern Medina is less crowded than the streets further north and we explore the Bab Agnaou, a fine gate in the city wall, before queuing for the Saadian tombs. The Saadian dynasty make Marrakesh their capital in the 16thC and Sultan Ahmed el Mansour built these spectacular tombs which now contain his family's graves. They were beautifully restored in the early 20thC. By 10am there was a long queue to see the most spectacular mausoleum but it was worth the wait (see below).
This part of the Medina was the 'mellah' or Jewish quarter. In the narrow streets we visit the Lazama synagogue and Jewish cemetery before visiting the Bahia Palace, another beautifully restored but empty building. It was built for a Grand Vizier who passed it to his son (along with the role). He was clearly unpopular as when he died his family was driven out and the whole place looted.
Other sites that we visit in the Medina include the very fine Dar Si Said palace which now houses a carpet museum, and the splendid Mamounia hotel where we enjoy (rather expensive) cocktails on the terrace. There are plenty more things to see both here and in the new town although we rather exhausted the suggestions our mini guidebook (Pocket Rough Guide). Sadly the El Bahia palace ruins and the Tiskiwin ethnographic collection were closed on the two times we tried to visit. We also ate in the Cafe el Badia (good simple Moroccan lunch with great views), Riad el Fenn (fabulously restored building but rooftop restaurant menu disappointing) and Cafe Arabe (great rooftop terrace, OK food and alcohol license).
On day three we leave the heat of the town and head up to the High Atlas. As you leave Marrakesh on a long straight road you pass lots of new construction - a fancy conference centre, "Oasiria" - a swimming pool complex popular with the kids at weekends apparently, and "Golf Cities". I wonder who built all these places? Gulf money perhaps? Our tea stop turns out to be another women's Argan oil cooperative - we take tea and coffee but don't buy more stuff. As the road slowly starts to climb the Asni valley we pass Berber villages on hilltops and fruit orchards along the river, all the time with views of snowy peaks in the distance.
Some friends had asked us if we were staying in Richard Branson's beautiful Kasbah hotel. We do stop at Kasbah Tamadot where a charming man shows us around. The Kasbah itself is beautifully decorated with eastern antiques and additional guest rooms have been added as luxury tents in the gardens. Perhaps if we are feeling rich we can stay here another time! You can see it right of centre in the photo above. More pictures in my gallery.
We have chosen to go up to Imlil rather than the Ourika valley which, according to our hotel, is a pretty Atlas resort but more touristy. Imlil turns out to be a quiet spot with shops full of trekking gear - crampons, ropes and harnesses - rather than tourist tat. Of course you can still buy a carpet or more argan oil if you want. A young chap acts as our guide up to the Kasbar du Toubkal, named after Morocco's highest mountain, where we have booked to have lunch. This kasbah was once the home of the local chief and was restored by a travel company in 1995. Photos in the library show how it was converted to a Tibetan palace, complete with stupas and prayer wheels, when it was used to film Kundun about the young Dali Lama. There appears to be an art course going on when we visit. The food is good - particularly the lamb tagine - and the views spectacular. It is also a lot cooler when the sun goes in as we are now up above 1800m. A number of treks into the High Atlas start from here - perhaps something to do on a more adventurous return visit.
Our last day and a half are spent relaxing by the pool, visiting more riads and catching up with old friends. It is the start of Ramadan so the streets are quieter and some of the museums closed. Marrakesh has been a great success and I would be interested in coming back - perhaps to stay up in the mountains to walk or trek. Check out my photo gallery by clicking here.