As a more exotic weekend destination, Marrakech is certainly a far cry from Rome or Vienna.
Things to see…
The Unesco-designated Djemaa el-Fna is Marrakech’s main square. The name means “Assembly of the Dead”, harking back to its old use as a place of public execution. These days it’s far from dead. A hive of activity in the evenings, the square is hopping with fortune-tellers food stalls, snake-charmers, acrobats and Gnaoua troupes. Wandering away from the square leads you to the medina, a rambling warren of shops and stalls where haggling is imperative. Good for presents and trinkets, it can, though, be hard to find anything really interesting, with many stalls selling the same goods aimed at tourists. However, careful searching might allow you to snap up a deal on an authentic rug, leather goods, spices or silverware.
For less frenetic sightseeing, try the Yves Saint Laurent museum and neighbouring Jardin Majorelle. Originally the home of acclaimed landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Bergé, saved the gardens from dereliction in the 1960s. Now it’s home to a selection of the designer’s most iconic creations and the gardens offer a calming and shaded tranquility in the heart of this lively city. The museum is open every day from 10 am until 6 pm except Wednesdays.
Food and drink
Couscous and tagine are everywhere, and often they are a good choice when set against any Northern European culinary choices – which can be distinctly mediocre. It’s worth noting that despite being a Muslim country, beer and wine are available in many establishments, although certainly not all, and usually drinkers are accommodated on roof-terraces so as not to offend local sensibilities.
Water from the tap is not potable, so do think about whether you really need that ice in your drink, or to risk it.
Mint tea is a staple across Morocco and commonly drunk with plenty of sugar, after an elaborate pouring back and forth from glass cups to eliminate any bitterness and mix the flavours.
For the more adventurous, dishes such as pastilla can be an unusual encounter for the European palate. In this case meat, usually pigeon, is combined with ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar and wrapped in pastry. Sweet and savoury, it’s an intriguing and delicious combination – reminiscent of British medieval cookery.
There’s no easy way to put it – Marrakech airport is a shambles.
On arrival you will need to complete a landing card – available in the arrivals hall – so have a pen handy. The queues to get through passport control on arrival can be lengthy – an hour or two, so be prepared, and also you will need to have your bags scanned on arrival for good measure.
Leaving Marrakech is also a bit of a palaver. At the time of writing, all people entering the airport have to show boarding passes and have their bags scanned at the door. Also, before you can progress to security, you will need to have your boarding pass “validated”. This is particularly annoying for those travelling with hand-luggage only. Also note that Marrakech airport has not yet embraced e-tickets – so you will have to be in possession of an old-school print out.
Most hotels and riads offer a private car service to and from the airport. This is absolutely worth taking up. Riads can be notoriously hard to find, even for native taxi-drivers, and the tiny streets often mean access can be tricky. In addition, it’s always a relief to have a car waiting after you’ve navigated the miles of queues at the airport.
Rumour has it that there are different prices in Marrakech depending on whether you speak Arabic, French or English. So, unless you are lucky enough to speak Arabic, better dust off your school books and get practicing to score a bargain.
Where to stay?
We have selected our favourite three hotels to cater for varying budgets:
Riad La Perle Rouge – 80 Derb El Mnabha Quartier Kasbah, Kasbah, 40000 Marrakech, Morocco
This newly opened riad is in the heart of the Kasbah district of Marrakech and a ten minute walk from the Djemaa el-Fna square. Despite the chaos in the surrounding streets, busy with food stalls, donkeys, mopeds and hawkers, the property offers a true oasis of calm. The riad is laid out around a central courtyard with a small swimming pool and also has a stunning roof terrace should you want to top up your tan.
Service is impeccable, and the decor looks straight out of an interiors magazine. All in all, well worth the money.
Le Cazar – Douar el Aïn, Tameslohte, 40000 El Aïn, Morocco
Le Cazar is a guesthouse situated just outside Marrakech, but still within striking distance. Perfect for a romantic retreat, the property has only seven rooms and offers a luxurious family feel. It’s run by a charming French couple, Olivier and Agnes, and boasts an acre of grounds and a large pool.
Another big plus is their four boisterous dogs, who add to the “luxury weekend in the county” feel of the place.
No expense spared:
La Maison Arabe Hotel – 1 Derb Essehb Bab doukkala, Medina, 40 000 Marrakech, Morocco
Conveniently situated right in the midst of the bustling Medina, this luxurious riad has a heated pool in the garden, a spa with two traditional hammams, massage rooms and even a jazz bar. This is five-star living, and with a price to match. Their restaurant, Les Trois Saveurs, offers French, Moroccan and Asian cuisine, and is renowned throughout Marrakech.
Expect excellent service, great food at and your every whim catered for.