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From the early days of our relationship, Austin and I contemplated a trip to Marrakech. It’s long been near the top of my travel wish list for its sheer aesthetic and architectural brilliance, and my history buff husband relished the idea of visiting a place steeped in the past.
As we considered our February vacation, Marrakech re-entered our conversations. Having recently returned from Costa Rica, we weren’t feeling a beach or physical adventure, and Europe was too cold for our “escape the winter” criteria. Lucky for us, Austin found flights to Marrakech at a price we couldn’t beat. Morocco it was!
We caught an evening flight and arrived the next afternoon in Marrakech, the bright sun warming our bones. A driver met us at the airport and we drove about 20 minutes from the airport into the Medina — the walled old city that’s the beating heart of Marrakech.Note: the Marrakech Menara Airport (RAK) is quite small, but currently undergoing rapid expansion with a new Terminal 2 being built to accommodate the increasing influx of tourists. We can expect in the coming years for flights to become more frequent and less expensive as more carriers stop in RAK.
We opted to stay in a traditional riad — think of it as a Moroccan bed and breakfast bursting with traditional carving, pools, glinting lanterns and orange trees, with an innkeeper and cook who care for a dozen or fewer rooms — over a hotel, right within the Medina gates.The Medina is a place of narrow alleyways and oases behind imposing wooden doors. In seemingly barren alleyways, you step through doorways into alternate worlds alive with olive and orange trees, beautiful sweeping courtyards and tranquil rooms.We stepped through the doors of La Riad La Terrasse des Oliviers to be greeted by our gregarious Swiss innkeeper, Renaud. The open-air space was impeccable, with intricately carved furniture, a small tiled pool, strewn lanterns and flowering trees abounding. Heaped trays of oranges and mandarins were placed around the property to grab and enjoy.It felt like something out of an old movie.
We were brought traditional sweet mint tea and pastries, and Renaud took us to the terrace overlooking the Medina to settle us in — rattling off key routes, sites to see and places to grab a drink.Note: Renaud warned us before we ventured out of the riad not to take directions or advice from young people who may approach us and then demand payment. Instead, if we were to become lost, we should find a shopkeeper and ask for help. This was immensely helpful advice to have as we set out to explore.
Sunset approaching, we washed up and headed into the winding souks to Cafe Arabe for a pre-dinner drink. Marrakech is a predominantly Muslim and thus dry city, but licences are granted to a handful of restaurants to serve alcohol. We grabbed glasses of surprisingly delicious Moroccan-grown rose, and watched the sunset from Cafe Arabe’s rooftop.
We returned to the riad, met with the heady smells of our dinner. We pre-arranged with the riad to have dinner at home our first night, and Fatima, the house cook, prepared a traditional spread of salads, dips and tagines with flatbreads for us to enjoy. We stuffed ourselves silly with courgettes, soft aubergine, tomato salad, chicken tagine with preserved lemons and bright green olives, and other delicacies.The next morning, we woke early for a cooking class outside of the city. A driver picked us up and we drove about 30 minutes to a secluded orange grove where Faim D’Epices, Marrakech’s noted cooking school, is located.
Michel and Fatima led us through a full day of cooking and instruction in traditional Moroccan fare, including tea service and a blind spice tasting. Through the day, we made flatbread, prune and lamb tagine, a trio of salads and msemen, a breakfast sweet bread.Lunch cooked, we retreated to the orange grove where tables had been set for our meal. Sitting in a fragrant grove, eating food I had just made, warm sunshine beating down on my back, sitting across from my husband, remains one of the loveliest experiences in recent memory.Back in the Medina and bellies full, we headed to Mythic Oriental Spa for a full Hammam and massage. Austin and I giggled at the hilarity as we sat together and were rubbed raw with black sea salt, then washed clean and doused in oils to be massaged (no photos of this part of the day!). We left the spa a few hours later, softer and more limber than I can ever remember being and fell into bed.
The next day, we awoke well before sunrise and with the morning’s prayers over the Medina loudspeakers. Five times each day, the faithful are called to pray from the central mosque. Even as a non-religious person, this daily act was deeply moving and something sombre to witness.We were driven deep into the countryside toward the Atlas Mountains to prepare for a sunrise hot air balloon ride over the mountains. I love hot air ballooning and couldn’t wait to share this experience with Austin, as we’ve talked about ballooning since we first met. (We actually were scheduled to go up when visiting Santa Fe a couple years ago, but our flight was cancelled due to high winds…)Our montgolfier, Ahmed, took us on a great flight, high over the mountains and covering serious ground in about 45 minutes — over villages, lush green farms, olive groves in a perfect blue sky. He was a great captain, flying a bit lower but covering more ground than the other balloons in the distance, which were hanging in place.As I am most familiar with North American ballooning customs, where you brace your knees for landing and plop into a field, I was shocked when we got a few feet from the ground and our crew expertly maneuvered the balloon right onto the back of a flatbed truck. Amazing!We retreated to a local family’s home, where a traditional Berber breakfast was set out for our enjoyment — sweet breads, honey, oranges, boiled eggs, cured olives, baghrir (cornmeal pancakes) and hot mint tea. We stuffed ourselves with the delicious provisions to prepare for the rest of the day’s events.We left the Berber home and ventured a bit deeper into the countryside where we met our camel caravan! I joked with Austin as we planned our trip that I wanted to ride a camel — thinking back to my donkey-riding days as a girl in the Greek islands — and we made it happen!My camel, Zou Zou, was such a babe — if a bit smelly. She batted her eyelashes and plopped down to the ground so I could hop on her back. We led our caravan on a ride through the desert, eight camels in a line.Exhausted from a long morning in the fresh air, we returned to the riad for afternoon tea and a short nap.
Rested, we set out by foot late in the afternoon to see the Jardin Majorelle, Yves Saint Laurent’s celebrated botanical gardens (featuring primarily succulents and cacti) just outside of the Medina. The gardens were designed in the 1920s by French artist Jacques Majorelle.The gardens were Saint Laurent’s artist paradise, coloured in cobalt (a special eponymous shade of bold cobalt as seen in the photo above, called Bleu Majorelle), creamsicle orange, lemon yellow and pale teal — the palette just made me smile. We explored every nook and cranny, admiring the pops of colour, tile-and-stucco work and immense cactus gardens carved into the winding property.The gardens house the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakesh, a delightfully small and well curated collection of North African art, textiles and jewelry. We were happy to have paid the extra admission to see the collection. I was especially fond of the jewelry room, which was organized by period and showed how the Berber women used their baubles as armor.As the sun set, we made our way through the winding souks to Jemaa el-Fnaa square. By day, the expansive square is vast and empty and by night it transforms into a bustling food market with hundreds of numbered food stalls — from mint tea to braised snails to tangia to fresh fish to delightful sweets — you can find a booth for every craving.
Even armed with the research we did in the lead up to our trip, we couldn’t conceive of how awesome the night market was until visiting in the flesh. Renaud had offered us a few of his favourite stall numbers (the tangia at #47 stands out, as does the fish with garlicky eggplant at #48, mint tea at #1) and we hopped from stall to stall, tasting as we went. $12 and as many plates of food later, we were sated and winding back through the dark souks to the riad.I can’t describe how much we loved Jemaa el-Fnaa. We immediately decided we would return again before our travels were over.
Tip: You will be harassed and followed in the square. Men will call out to you, get in your face, and chase you with menus. There’s no getting around it. The best way to handle this, we found, was dealing a firm “non, merci” and to just keep walking. There are hundreds of stalls in the square and each hawker just wants you to eat at his own.We began our fourth day in Marrakech at dawn, meeting two guides who would lead us through the city’s many mosques, tombs and madresas. We met up with Aziz and Jamal back in the main square to set out for the day.Our first stop was the Koutoubia Mosque, or the main mosque of Marrakech, located in the southwest corner of the Medina. While non-Muslims are not allowed inside the city’s mosques, we explored the grounds and the Almohad architecture.From there, it was a short distance to the Bab Agnaou, one of 19 — and the most famous — gates into the Medina, dating to the 12th century. It leads to the royal kasbah, which includes the El Mansouria Mosque, El Badi Palace and the Saadian Tombs. I loved the contrast of the richly carved and hued orange-turquoise gate against the speeding yellow taxis, the interplay of ancient and modern.A short walk into the gate, we found ourselves at the Saadian Tombs, which date to the 16th century but were only uncovered in 1917. The tombs inter about 60 members of the Saadi Dynasty and feature intricate cedar wood carvings, tile and stucco work. As a lover of pattern and colour, I was overcome by this space.
Aside: for years, I had the pattern at top of this post as the background on my iPhone, with no clue to its origins. I was so surprised to walk into the Tombs and see such a familiar sight in real life!
We wound through the streets to the Maison Tiskiwin museum, which admittedly I wouldn’t recommend — it was sloppily curated and we spent all of 15 minutes in the space before heading out. Marrakech has so many rich cultural and historical sites that your time is just better spent elsewhere.After breaking for a traditional lunch at a local riad, we walked to El Bahia Palace, a labyrinthine compound of about 150 rooms and courtyards, built in the late 19th century. Each room is a spectacle of design and intricacy. Today, the entire palace often shuts down as residence to the royal family when they pass through town.We also took some time to wander and get lost in the city’s famous souks — narrow, winding markets overflowing with vendors tucked into every nook and cranny — leather goods, lamps, shoes, pashminas, olives, oils, perfumes, produce, carpets, pottery — there’s a vendor for everything. The sensory overload can be a bit much, but it’s colour, texture and vibrancy like no other place. Austin and I aren’t big shoppers when we travel (on account of how we pack) but I’ve known friends and colleagues to return from Marrakech with whole new suitcases for their wares!A favourite stop of the day was the Ben Youssef Medrasa, a former Islamic college and largest medrasa in Morocco. Your neck pulls in every direction standing within this courtyard to take in the intricately carved cedar, complex geometric patterns out of bright marble tiles and stucco finishes. We loved being able to climb to the upper-level classrooms and take in the space from its tiny windows.After returning to the Riad for pick-me-up tea and pastries, we were off to Dar Moha for a very late dinner. This was our “fancy” meal of the trip — dars are elaborate restaurants housed in riads that serve multi-course set meals and cost a pretty penny, by Moroccan standards. Dar Moha is the former residence of couturier Pierre Balmain, so my fashion loving side was also stoked. We happened to be dining the same night an elaborate function was underway, and so spent many hours entertained with drummers, belly dancers and a raucous crowd of locals.For our final day in the city, we began by exploring New Marrakech, outside of the Medina gates. Meandering along the wide boulevards, we stopped off at the Marrakech Railway Station, built in 2008. While an obviously modern building, it was a nifty space incorporating traditional stylistic gestures (carving, tile work) through new materials, like painted steel and glass.On a roll and enjoying the beautiful weather (it was about 70 degrees and pure sunshine) we walked and walked toward the Menara Gardens in the west of the city. The public gardens date back to the 12th Century (!) and are a popular spot for locals to gather and picnic, with a massive cooling basin of water surrounded by olive groves. Full disclosure: you won’t see much here — it’s literally just the basin, groves and small Menara, but we enjoyed the midday respite.We flagged a cab back toward the Medina (a few dirham, and well worth it given all the walking we’d done so far) and stopped off at La Mamounia. This fabled and palatial five-star hotel is famously known as one of the world’s most expensive and elaborate. While staying there was out of our price range, guests are welcomed, so we sat in the gardens for tea and pastries, then took some time to wander around the vast grounds and about the lobby.The Mamounia is just outside the Medina gates closest to El Badi Palace (so many palaces in this city, it’s hard to keep track!). We didn’t know it at the time, but we had saved the best for last. El Badi — literally, “the incomparable” — Palace, is a palace in ruins dating to the 16th Century. The vastness of the site is overwhelming.Photos capture it to an extent, but you truly have to stand within the ruins to understand its haunting beauty and magnitude — I can only imagine what the palace would have looked like in its glory days. Storks have taken over the palace, and you can spot their immense nests atop its many minarets. Austin and I spent an hour in the solitude and silence of this space, taking in the past all around us.For our last evening in Marrakesh, we couldn’t help but return to Jemaa el-Fnaa for another round at the delicious stalls — more snails, more eggplant doused in garlic oil, more braised tongue, more tangia, more mint tea. We were delirious and full and happy and already plotting our return.We woke the next morning for our flight to Geneva, a packed and perfect time in Marrakech complete. This city is my platonic vacation mix — a great pace of life, beautiful sites to see, bustling streets to roam and delicious food at every turn. If you’re at all on the fence — go! It won’t disappoint.
Planning Your Trip
La Riad La Terrasse des Oliviers
Cafe Arabe (one of the few restaurants in the Medina that serves alcohol)
Jemaa el-Fnaa Square (every evening at sundown)
Hammam at Mythic Oriental Spa
Hot air ballooning with Marrakech by Air
Jardin Majorelle and Islamic Art Museum of Marrakesh
El Bahia Palace
Ben Youssef Medrasa
Marrakech Railway Station
El Badi Palace
Step-by-step guide to building a travel itinerary.
How to pack a capsule suitcase.
My Marrakech board on Pinterest.
Travel + Leisure’s best restaurants in Marrakech.
Designer Ula Johnson’s Marrakech.
Living like Royalty in Marrakech (CNT).
[Our Marrakech, Morocco photos on Flickr.]