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Marrakech, Morroco 72-Hour Vacation

Magical Marrakech
Exotic Souks and Cool Kasbahs
By Meera Freeman


The pink Medina of Marrakech

The Imperial city of Marrakech is the gateway to the south of Morocco. With its exotic red buildings, rose gardens and palm groves set against the dramatic, snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the city is Morocco’s primary tourist destination. The weather in Marrakech is good throughout most of the year. Even in the coolest months, December and January, temperatures rarely drop below 40 degrees at night and 65 degrees in the daytime. The only months to be avoided are July and August, when average temperatures hover around 105 during the day and 70 at night.

Marrakech is divided into two main sections: the traditional walled city, Medina, and the modern city, the Gueliz, built during the French protectorate which lasted from 1912 to 1956. The Medina with its souks (markets), kasbah and Mellah (Jewish quarter), all located around Djema l’Fna Square, must be explored on foot. For longer trips, take a “petit taxi” (horse drawn carriage) or hire a bicycle or mobilette from one of the city's many outlets. You can also hire a guide to escort you around, so you get an idea of the town’s layout before venturing out on your own. This is also a good solution for one of the many excursions to the Atlas Mountains; the town of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast; or a trip over the High Atlas via one of the mountain passes to Taroudant and Southern Morocco; or Ouarzazate and the oasis-lined Kasbah Route to the dunes of the Sahara Desert.

La Mamounia: a hotel favored by royalty and the international jet set

Marrakech offers a wide range of accommodation options. Most of the international hotels, with their swimming pools and glamorous facilities, are situated in the Hivernage area of the new city. The prestigious and expensive La Mamounia, built in the palace of an Alaouite prince, has breathtaking gardens and is located just inside the ramparts. There is a large selection of hotels in the Gueliz as well. Those preferring to be in the thick of all the Medina activity should consider staying in a riad, or guest house, built in restored traditional dwellings inside the city walls. Riads range from basic to luxurious, the latter category often having their own Moorish bath, or hammam, where you can get all kinds of spa treatments and massages. Once you’ve decided when you want to visit, be sure to book your accommodations in advance, as the city caters to many international conferences and can be very crowded, especially during the New Year and Easter holiday periods. Eating and shopping are two activities that will take up quite some time during your visit to Marrakech, so bring a good appetite, your bargaining skills and half-empty suitcases!

DAY 1

Begin the day with an early morning familiarization tour. Take a caleche for a leisurely ride around the red city ramparts, with their beds of flowering rose bushes, and through the city’s lush orange and olive groves. Check out some of the city’s nine gates, especially the beautiful 12th-century Bab Agnaou, which leads into the kasbah. Ask the driver to take you for a tour through the Hivernage area where, during the French protectorate, many luxury villas were built. These days it contains most of the city’s luxury hotels.

Tajines for sale
Moroccan slippers or babouches

If you have time, stop at the Menara Gardens to see the large reservoir and pavilion (or go there in the evening for the sound and light show) and end the caleche ride at the Koutoubia garden. Visit the ruins of the original 12th-century mosque with its iconic minaret, a magnificent example of Almohad architecture and the first of such structures, the other two being the Hassan tower in Rabat and the Giralda in Seville, Spain.

From the Koutoubia, continue South, entering the Kasbah through Bab Agnaou and then follow Rue de la Kasbah to the 16th-century Saadian tombs, built to house the remains of Mohammed Ech Cheikh, the founder of the dynasty, and other members of the royal family and their dependents. The complex contains two beautiful mausoleums and a fragrant garden containing many tiled graves of other members of the Saadian court. The magnificent architectural features of the complex have been extraordinarily well-preserved as it was walled up by the Alaouite sultan Moulay Ismail in the early 17th century and was only rediscovered in 1917.

Cacti at Majorelle Garden

After visiting the tombs, make your way to the ruined El Badi palace built on a grand scale by the Merinid sultan Ahmed al Mansour. This palace was so magnificent that its renown spread far and wide. It was systematically stripped over ten years by Moulay Ismail, who used its fittings and furnishings to adorn his palace in his new capital, Meknes. Each year, in late May or early June, the El Badi palace is home to the two-week long Festival National des Arts Populaires with performances held every evening.

Stop for lunch just near the Palace at Douirya Restaurant, which serves some of the most delicious Moroccan salads and tajines in Marrakech. It is set in a grand 19th-century mansion that belonged to a leader of the Jewish community, and which abuts the entrance to the markets of the Jewish quarter. Weather permitting, ask for a table on the terrace where you can enjoy views over Medina. You can also choose a light lunch at Ryad Tamsna where you can browse in the bookshop and boutique featuring homewares and clothing, much of it designed by owner Meryanne Loum Martin.

After lunch, make your way via Riade Zitoune el Kedime to the Djema l Fna Square. Stroll through the various market stalls and get a first impression of the performers, snake charmers and fortune tellers before heading into the souks. You may like to engage the services of a guide for your first foray into the souks to help you get around and protect you from being hustled by unofficial guides. Rue Souk Smarine, just past the potters’ souk, leads into the depths of the souks and then opens up into the small square Rahba Kedima before branching off into two minor lanes, Souk el Attarine and Souk el Kebir. Souk Smarine sells mainly clothing and textiles. Rahba Kedima leads to the wool, sheepskin, apothecary and carpet markets. Follow Souk el Attarine and you will soon arrive at the dyers’ souk, followed by those of the carpenters and blacksmiths. Souk el Kebir leads to the jewelry and leather markets. These two lanes are joined by a web of covered stalls or kissarias. You will easily lose yourself for a couple of hours here, browsing and haggling. Prices are negotiable in most places and bargaining is a national pastime.

Douirya Restaurant

When you’ve had your fill, make your way back to the Djema l Fna and have some mint tea at Café Argana or Café de France. If you are lucky, you will be able to secure a table on the terrace, so you can watch the goings-on in the square. Here crowds of locals gather as night begins to fall, to listen to story tellers, watch the acrobats or have their fortunes told as the many food stalls set up for the evening. Start your Djema l Fna adventure with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the stalls on the periphery of the square. Then, stroll around and check out the fare on offer. You could have a bowl of snails cooked in aromatic broth with herbs, or some harira soup accompanied by a small dish of dates or chebbakiah, fried cakes dipped in honey. For meat lovers, Stall 10, Jaafar, is a good choice. Make your selection from tangia, a specialty of Marrakech—lamb with saffron, spices and preserved lemons cooked in an amphora, kebabs or steamed sheep heads! Many of the stalls serve fried fish, salads and couscous and the competition is fierce. Spruikers will direct you to their stalls, so be firm and have a good look around before deciding where to eat. A glass of spiced Chrifekhodinjal with some sellou or cooked flour sweet with sesame and almonds at Stall 4—is a delicious tonic to ensure you get a good night’s sleep after your exciting first day. Continue to Day 2

 
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(Updated: 06/02/08 HC)


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