by Janine Deane-Dinnis
Marrakech, a former imperial African city is the fourth largest in the Berber Kingdom of Morocco (after Casablanca), and has a plethora of mosques, palaces, vibrant market places and famous gardens.
The medina (A UNESCO World Heritage site) is filled with densely packed souks selling everything imaginable from local crafts, pottery, spices, richly woven rugs, leather, gold jewellery and so much more.
Often known as the Red City due to the reddish hue of the bricks that make up the walled part of the old city, Marrakesh, after Morocco’s independence from France in 1956, became famous ‘as the place to be’ as a direct result of visits during the 60’s by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other celebrities of the time, and fast became a Mecca for hippies and artists such as Andy Warhol. It is now a major holiday destination although recently there have been some concerns about the potential for terror attacks.
I travelled there one Christmas and was bowled over by the atmosphere, the sights, sounds and smells plus the sense of an ancient culture jostling with a 21st Century modern lifestyle, seeming to thrive as a cultural melting pot.
Dusty roads run parallel with modern highways, high-rise luxury hotels, alongside traditional Moroccan Riads (houses built around a central garden courtyard), glittering shopping malls filled with expensive branded goods, in contrast to rows of ancient rickety shops meandering down a maze of back alleys.
Locals and visitors alike gravitate to Jemaa El-Fna – meaning “The Assembly of Trespassers”, the central square of the Marrakesh Medina, which is perhaps the busiest and best known in the whole of Africa.
The square is best visited in the evening when it is packed with street entertainers, dozens of food sellers sending enticing smells into the night air, exotic belly dancers, snake charmers, fire eaters, acrobats, etc, in fact quite overwhelming to all the senses. (Hang onto your bag or wallet though!)
Marrakesh is just as well known for its gardens of which the Majorelle Garden is probably the most famous. Once home to the landscape artist Jacques Majorelle, the property was bought and restored by the fashion designer, Yves Saint Laurent, and has been open to the public since 1947. It boasts a huge collection of plants from five continents, as well as housing the Museum of Islamic Art.
The Musée, opened next door to the gardens in 2017, by Yves Saint Laurent is dedicated to the fashion label owner’s work and has a permanent display of hundreds of garments from his 40-year career – his ashes are also buried there.
An activity not to be missed when visiting this fascinating city is to take a ride in a horse-drawn 4-wheeled carriage. Known as a Calèche, you could either hail one as they gallop past or find them at a stand just outside the west of the square. This is a perfect way of exploring the maze of narrow streets and soaking in the sights of the city at sunset, including the famous Minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque.
Moroccan food is divine and there’s nothing more delicious and satisfying than tucking in to a meal of fish, vegetables, meat or a combination, served from a Tagine. This is actually a clay pot with a cone shaped lid that slowly cooks food to perfection. Moroccans usually sit in a circle around the dish and eat with bread, called hobs.
If you are a bibliophile as am I, an opportunity to peruse books is never to be missed. An often unknown aspect of Marrakesh is its strong connection to the historical booksellers of Morocco although sadly most of the book sellers have now been pushed out of Jemaa ElFnaa into the district known as Bab Doukkala which is perched just on the edge of the old medina walls. The famous 12th-century Koutoubia mosque itself is known as the Mosque of the Booksellers.
Road to Essaouira
Although it’s impossible to tire of Marrakech, an opportunity to visit the coast and the laid-back, enchanting seaside town of Essaouira (which means ‘Little picture’ in Arabic – pronounced ‘essa-weera’) (formerly known as Mogador) is not to be missed. It’s easy to pick up a bus for the 2/3 hour journey at a cost of +£5.00 or book an excursion coach which is probably more comfortable although quite expensive at approx £25.
On the road to the coast an amazing sight that might be seen, those of goats up a tree. Almost unbelievable but there is a very good reason for this. ARGAN OIL, which, in recent years has become famous as a beauty and food product is only grown in this area of Morocco. The goats love eating the outer husk and pulp of the Argen nut and will climb the trees to get at more, once they have consumed all the low lying fruit.
Traditionally, farmers used to gather the nuts (which are not digested by the goat) from their poop! Today, thank goodness, more modern methods are used to collect the nut kernels which are then ground to produce the highly valuable oil.
It’s worth stopping off at the Argen Co-operative to watch the women using the ancient methods to grind and extract the oil.
Their shop offers a range of products for sale but these are a great deal more expensive than elsewhere. (NB: You will have to pay a fee if you want to take photos of the goats, and don’t be tempted to pick up any of the fruit, as this will not only incur the wrath of the local farmer but may well cost you a hefty fine as it is protected.)
Arriving in Essaouira, one is struck by the contrast of the deep blue sea against the stark white of the buildings. Quite small and easily traversed, the town is quaint and cute with narrow streets filled with shops, restaurants and musicians. Also cats! They are everywhere, sunning themselves, sitting on the stock in the shops and generally behaving as though they own the place – which apparently they do!
The car-free, walled Medina area has one central square called Djemaa El-Fna has a souk with a multitude of stalls and vendors selling a range of interesting and traditional items as well as the usual tourist tat!
Stroll on the beach (camel rides are an option!), amble down to the small harbour area and feast on seafood to die for! Cheap and plentiful, it is fresh and everything is on offer from shell fish to line fish caught that day. Walk off your meal around the dock with their bright blue boats.
Not called the ‘windy city’ for nothing, Essaouira lends itself to all manner of water sports including kite surfing and paragliding.
This is a place to which I would dearly like to return. It doesn’t have the frenetic place of Marrakesh, is certainly more relaxing with a lot to offer at very reasonable prices. British Airways, Ryan Air and Easy Jet are amongst the airlines offering competitive direct flights from the UK.
Needless to say; a return visit to magical Marrakesh and enchanting Essaouira, as well as exploring everything else Morocco has to offer is at the very top of my ‘bucket list’.
Creative Writer at The Amathuba Network
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