10 PLACES TO VISIT IN MARRAKECH

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An oasis in every sense of the word.

Founded in the 11th century, Marrakech was once a beacon for the trading caravans that had driven north through the desert and navigated over the often snow-capped Atlas Mountains. It was the capital of an empire that stretched from Spain to Senegal, trading gold, salt and slaves bound for Europe.
Today Marrakech is a reverberating collision of Africa and Europe, West and East, Arab and Berber villages and the place where sub-Saharan Africa meets Arab North Africa. This market town located on the edge of nowhere remains a compellingly exotic port of call. Thousand-year-old palm groves, fabulous palaces wrapped in red and ochre walls, Marrakech casts a magic spell and exercises a powerful hold over tourists from all parts of the globe. One´s senses are assaulted by brilliantly coloured spices, entrancing music, rich folds of carpets, delicious cuisine, whirling dervishes, intertwining geometric tiles, perfumed gardens shimmering in still waters of reflecting pools, wonderful architecture…

The Koutoubia Mosque

Marrakech´s landmark monument boasts a tower that dominates the skyline for miles around. It´s a fine representation of Islamic art and architecture as well as being the spiritual centre of the city. Its minaret (approx 70m high) is the city´s pre-eminent monument, towering above all else and has always been the first visible sight of Marrakech for travellers approaching from afar. This is wholly fitting, because the mosque is not only the city´s main place of worship, it is also one of the city oldest buildings, dating back to the 12th century, not long after Marrakech was founded. Unfortunately, as with nearly all mosques and shrines in Morocco, non-Muslims are not permitted to enter the Koutoubia, but its an impressive sight nonetheless. South of the mosque is a garden with a mix of palms and deciduous trees, topiary hedges and colourful roses which is open to the public.

Jemaa El Fna

Marrakech has the busiest square in Africa and probably the world; Djemaa El Fna.
The medina´s central square is considered to be a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”, according the UNESCO. Inclusion in UNESCO´s list is intended to raise awareness and preserve something unique and irreplaceable; Jemaa El Fna certainly qualifies. Jemaa El Fna means “Assembly of the Dead”, a reference to a time when the heads of executed criminals would be displayed here on spikes. Although nothing as gruesome is on view today, the square is still populated with some extraordinary sights such as snake charmers, acrobats, dancers, musicians, monkey trainers and colourfully-costumed water sellers, story tellers, fortune tellers, orange juice stalls, spice stalls etc…
Each evening as the sun goes down, dozens of food-stalls open in the square turning it into a huge busy open air restaurant. Serving areas are erected and tables and benches are put out to create one vast alfresco eatery. Beneath a hanging cloud of smoke from the crackling charcoal grills, locals and visitors alike tuck into a vast array of Moroccan cuisine.

The Souks

Marrakech has the largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco.
Marrakech´s earliest inhabitants made their living from trading with the Africans and with the Spaniards who came by sea. Luxuries like gold and ivory came from the south, while leather, metalwork and ceramics were sent north. Even today trade continues to be the city´s mainstay. A labyrinth containing literally dozens of narrow alleyways all lined with shops the size of a cupboard is home to thousands of craftsmen eeking out an existence. In the maze of souks that fills much of the northern half of the medina, shop keepers sell cloth, brass lanterns, leather goods, metal work, jewellery, carpets, candles etc…Each area used to be dedicated to a single item, so you can see a street packed with nothing by colourfull “babouches” and another by sellers of glazed pottery only. You will get lost in the souks. Alleyways are narrow, winding and constantly branching, while landmarks are few. However, the area covered is small and you are never more than a few minutes´ walk back to Djemaa El Fna. Locals are friendly and will point out the way.
A trip to the souks is part history lesson, part endurance test – to see how long you can keep your purse in your bag or your wallet in your pocket, so compelling are the sales pitches of the shop owners.. In fact, talking about wallets, although Marrakech has a very low crime rate, the crowds milling around Jeema El Fna at night are perfect cover for pickpockets. Be careful with handbags and wallets.

The Majorelle Gardens

An obligatory destination for all garden lovers. Created in the 1920s by French painter Jacques Majorelle, the artist set about creating a botanical garden around his studio. A beautiful bamboo forest and an arid cactus garden with more than 1800 species of banana trees, cacti, tropical flowers and palm trees from around the world share garden space with pools and fountains. Most stunning of all are the flowering masses of red and purple bougainvillia. The name Majorelle also lives on in an electrifying shade of cobalt blue (known as Majorelle blue) inspired by the Berber homes of southern Morocco. His former studio is strikingly painted in this colour. The studio now houses an Islamic Art Museum and a boutique and a coffee shop. Currently owned by the Estate of the late French couturier Yves St Laurent, the gardens are (for a small fee – 40DH -) open to the public. Open daily 8am to 5pm (Oct-May) and 8am to 6pm (Jun-Sep) Address: Avenue Yacoub El Mansour, Gueliz.

Medersa Ben Youssef

Behind a typically unremarkable Marrakech façade hides what is arguably the city´s finest building. This medieval Islamic school was named after Sultan Ali Ben Youssef (reined 1106-1142) who contributed greatly towards the growth and expansion of Marrakech. The Medersa, where students memorized the Koran by heart, was founded by the Merenid Sultan Abou El Hassan in the 14th century. It was, however, almost completely rebuilt under the Saadian rule in the 1560s and it is they who made their distinctive mark in its architecture and art.
The buildings are covered in an abundance of decoration; carved cedarwood, exquisite stucco work and colourful Zellij tiles.
In the middle of the Medersa is a large courtyard with a central pool for ablutions. Behind the courtyard is a sizeable prayer hall, which contains the most elaborate decoration. The interior is covered with an abundance of pine cone and palm motif, which are used around the Mihrab to create a three-dimensional appearance. Around and above the central courtyard are the small windows of the tiny student dormitories. The rooms are arranged around smaller inner courtyards, rimmed with fine wood railings. Nearly 900 students were once housed here and it is difficult to imagine how they all squeezed in. Via stairs in the entry vestibule visitors can explore all the rooms and enjoy good views over the courtyard.
The Medersa is a place one must visit in order to have an insight into a bygone age. It provides an interesting insight into a world which is very different from our own.
Open daily 9am to 7pm (April to September) and 9am to 6pm (October to March)
Address: Place Ben Youssef, Medina.
Fee: 50 Dhs (appox £4)
Note: combined ticket to visit the Museum of Marrakech and the Koubba El Badiyin (which is close by) cost 60Dhs (approx £5)

The Saadian Tombs

At the heart of the Kasbah area in the south of the Medina, this garden, part of Al Mansour Mosque was built by Sultan Ahmed El Mansour for himself, his family and ancestors. This is a secluded burial place used by the Saadian dynasty in the 16th century to house the tombs of their kings. Those tombs stayed unknown to the outside world until the 1920´s when they were revealed by the curiosity of a French Official, a leading member of the “Beaux Arts” in 1917. The complex may be modest in size but it is beautifully decorated in the Alhambran style with plenty of carved cedar, stucco and polychrome tiling. Saadian tombs themselves are richly decorated with coloured mosaic. Inside the Mausoleum, the rooms are also decorated with brilliant domed ceilings, stalactite plaster work, intricate carvings and marble pillars. A white Datura and a number of Palm trees adorn the entrance. The central hall of 12 columns, bearing the tombs of Ahmed El Mansour and his family is dark and richly decorated ornementated with a huge domed roof and grey marble pillars. In total nearly 200 Saadians are buried here. Even today, the grandeur of the Saadian tombs is almost intact. Reached via the narrowest of twisting passageways, the tombs remained a closely guarded secret for centuries. Even today visiting remains an element of discovery for tourists.
Open: daily 8:30 to 11:45am; 2:30 to 5:45pm
Address: rue de Kasbah, Medina
Adm: 10Dhs (about 80 pence)

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace was built in the late 19th century and was intended to be the grandest palace of its time. This palace beautifully portrays the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. Made up of a set of wonderfully decorated houses, all leading to flower filled patios. The Bahia palace includes a mosque in addition to several tiled courtyards encircled by extravagantly embellished reception halls and private quarters. The Palace´s interior design consists of carved stucco, carved and painted wood work and shiny ceramic tiles. Some rooms are really exceptional.
With his significant other, BA the sultan´s Vizir, a very influential man in Morocco from 1894 to 1900, took the Bahia Palace as their place of residence. For information the Vizir had 4 wives and not less than 24 concubines!!! Later on French General Lyautey, who didn´t have bad taste either, was to use that same palace as his place of residence during the French Protectorate (1912-1956)
The Bahia Palace is undouboubtly a place to be visited in Marrakech, widely known as “the resplendent”.
The Bahia Palace covers around 8 hectares and is surrounded by splendid perfumed gardens. It is a wonderful example of Moroccan Art which is visited by tourists from all parts of the globe.
Open daily 9am to 16:30pm
Address: rue riad Ez Zitoune El-Jedid, near place des Ferblantiers, Medina
Adm: 10 Dhs