Holidays to Marrakech offer up more colour than a HD TV. Prepare for amber desert sands, blush city walls and spices in every colour of the rainbow…
The Red City
Souks stacked with spices. Mosques with towering minarets. And street scenes starring acrobats and snake-charmers. Marrakech – AKA the Red City – is worlds away from your average Med resort, but that’s all part of the pull. And at less than a four-hour hop from the UK, it’s closer than you think.
Most of the action takes place in the medina. Plum in the middle you’ll find the town square, Jemaa el-Fna. While this place isn’t much to write home about during the day, come sundown it transforms into a circus of fire-breathing showmen, dare-devil acrobats and storytellers weaving their magic over the crowds.
When it comes to retail therapy, there’s only one place to head. The maze of market that fill the lanes around Jemaa el-Fna are packed with stalls selling everything from brass lanterns to beaded slippers.
Old meets new
Outside the walls of the medina, you’ll find Guéliz, the ‘new town’. In these parts, you’re more likely to find smart restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.
The heady scent of fresh mint is everywhere in Morocco because the ritual of sitting down for a glass of super-sweet mint tea is big in these parts. Moroccans like their tea bubbly, so the traditional silver teapots have curved spouts so the liquid can be poured from a height.
Things to See and Do in Marrakech
Being 150-odd miles from the coast, Marrakech isn’t big on beaches. Most hotels and riads offer swimming pools to cool off in instead. But if you do fancy a bit of sand-and-sea action, Morocco’s Atlantic coast is just under 3 hours away by car.
The big beach
The main spot everyone heads to is Essaouira. It’s a bohemian coastal town that used to be a hangout of Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens and Mick Jagger. The beach is a wide crescent of golden sand, framed by whitewashed buildings and seafood stalls. There are pretty strong sea breezes here, so it’s a hotspot for wind and kite-surfers.
The secret beach
For somewhere with a little more breathing space, make for Sidi Kaouki Beach, about 20 kilometres south of Essaouira. You might recognise it from the second Sex and the City movie – these sands played a starring role as an Abu Dhabi beach. It’s a popular spot with windsurfers, but other than that you’ll have the sands pretty much to yourself.
You’ll find all manner of weird and wonderful things for sale in Marrakech’s maze-like souks. How cheap they are depends on how hard you haggle. Head to Souk des Babouches for colourful silk slippers, and Souk Cherratin for the pick of leather bags, belts and purses. For a taste of Marrakech, try Places des Epices – ‘Spice Square’ – and snap up bags of saffron, ginger and cinnamon.
If you’re looking for a few exotic bits for your house, there are various options. Souk Chouari is the place to snap up carved wooden cabinets and screens. Souk Haddadin is the blacksmiths’ quarter, with wrought-iron lanterns and genie-style lamps among the spoils. And Souk des Chaudronniers is a good bet for shiny copper teapots.
For a haggle-free spree, head to the Guéliz district. The boutiques on Rue de la Liberté sell pottery and paintings at fixed prices. Or take a taxi to Sidi Ghanem, where you’ll find high-end design and furniture warehouses. Opening hours can be a bit erratic, though, so you may need to make a couple of trips. Berber carpets are a great buy in Marrakech, too. You can find these in the shops around Guéliz, or in the carpet souk, Souk Zrabia.
A night wandering around Jemaa el-Fna should be on everyone’s to-do list. Post-sunset, carpet traders take a backseat as food sellers fire up the grills, and jugglers, storytellers and soothsayers compete for your dirham. If you’re looking for something a little smarter, head to the city’s modern quarter, Guéliz, for a good range of restaurants.
You’ll find the hottest bars and clubs around the exclusive districts of Hivernage and Guéliz, outside the medina walls. And just south of Hivernage, along Avenue Mohammed VI, is North Africa’s biggest club – Pacha. For something a bit different, try the Fantasia dinner show. You’ll tuck in to traditional Moroccan dishes while acrobats, belly dancers and daredevil horse riders do their thing.
The granddaddy of Morocco’s food scene has to be the tagine. It’s named after the pointed-top terracotta pot it’s cooked in. Inside, there’s a meat or vegetable stew that’s dished up with steaming couscous. The most popular? Chicken with almonds, and beef with prunes.
This traditional soup is a bit like an Italian minestrone. It’s made with chickpeas, lentils, tomatoes and spices like saffron and ginger, and is real stick-to-your-ribs stuff. Usually you’ll find it on the breakfast menu during Ramadan. It’s a bit of a favourite at Moroccan weddings, too.
Paper-thin filo pastry is an essential ingredient in loads of Moroccan dishes, but this sweet-and-savoury pie is a particularly good example. It’s traditionally filled with pigeon, eggs, almonds and loads of spices, then baked and dusted with sugar and cinnamon. You can also get it filled with chicken or fish if pigeon’s a step too far.
Moroccans know a thing or two when it comes to pastries, and ktefa is no exception. This traditional pudding is made from layers of crispy pastry filled with fried almonds and a creamy custard sauce. This whole thing is then scented with orange flower water for an extra kick.