A beginner’s guide to Marrakesh
Its nicknames include the Red City and Daughter of the Desert, but the origin of the name Marrakesh is thought to come from the pairing of two Berber words, mur and akush, which mean Land of God. You’ll see it written as Marrakech, also, as this is the French spelling. This beguiling city is an easy weekend destination from the UK and captivates the visitor with its exotic easygoing charm. Here’s what you need to know if Morocco’s famously intriguing destination is calling.
Many UK travellers head to Marrakesh on a direct flight with easyJet or Ryanair. Fares can easily be found for as little as £50. Don’t be concerned about travelling in the British winter as temperatures in the city are relatively mild – perfect sightseeing weather – though the nearby Atlas Mountains will have snow. Scheduled operators include British Airways and the Moroccan flag carrier Royal Air Maroc. Flight time from London is about three and a half hours.
Arriving overland can be an adventure in itself – in a good way. The first time I visited (back in 1997) I caught a ferry from Algeciras in Spain and took the train to Marrakesh. I had a stop in Fès on the way down and in Rabat to break the journey in the opposite direction. You can catch a train from Tangier Ville station now and in 9 to 10 hours, arrive in Marrakesh with a change in Sidi Kacem. Alternatively, there’s a sleeper train overnight which takes about 10 hours. It’s usually OK to book a day or two ahead once you get to Morocco.
From the airport, most people jump in a taxi or arranging to be met by your hotel. If you opt for the former, check the rates on the board outside arrivals as a general guide and then agree a price with the driver through the front window. Only get in when you are happy with how much he’s charging. If you haven’t much luggage, bus #19 travels between the airport and the Djemaa el Fna via the Sofitel and loops back through the Ville Nouvelle (including a stop at the train station). It costs 30 dirhams per person single and 50 dirhams return.
For the purpose of sightseeing, the city can be split into two: the old city or Medina and the Ville Nouvelle, also called Guéliz or the French Quarter. Pretty much the only way to get around the Medina’s souks is on foot, where you’ll need to watch out for men racing donkeys laden with hides, straw and other goods through the narrow passageways. Within the rest of the old town, mostly it’s compact enough to walk. To get to the Ville Nouvelle, the easiest way is to flag down a taxi, but there are buses which depart from the Djemaa el Fna and the Koutoubia minaret – easy to spot. Another useful bus route to know is the #12 which you can use to get to the Jardin Majorelle (Ben Tbib stop). Tickets cost 3 dirhams. Check out the bus website for more routes:
Calèche rides (horse-drawn carriages) are a common sight in the city but you’ll need to bargain with the drivers to take a tour. Check that the horse looks fit and healthy and then begin negotiations. Aim for about 150 dirhams per hour. Make sure you’re clear on whether that price is for everyone or per person as it’s common for there to be some “confusion” when it comes to the time to pay. It’s a lovely way to see the city, particularly the ramparts and Ville Nouvelle.
Where to stay
The first time I visited Marrakesh, I stayed at the railway station hotel, now an Ibis. It was convenient, but lacked soul. The second time, I decided I wanted to stay in one of the courtyard mansions known as riads and opted for one deep in the souk. It had character in spades, but trying to find it without a ball of string in the labyrinthine alleyways was a nightmare. More than once I had to call the hotel for them to talk me in which was funny at first and then enormously embarrassing.
The third time, I got it right. I found a characterful riad which was a twenty minute stroll from the Djemaa el Fna yet on an easy to find road near the El Badi Palace and Saadian tombs. Riad Dar Karma was delightful, cosy, chic and quiet – a cocoon from the hustle and bustle of central Marrakesh. It also has its own hamman. When I got sick (do not eat salad in Marrakesh no matter how well travelled you are), they brought me chicken soup. I cannot recommend them highly enough:
What to see
Plunge in and explore the souks right away. Getting lost in the smells, sounds and sights of narrow winding alleys lined with tiny shops piled high with anything from spices to scarves is the quintessential Marrakesh experience. Don’t try to follow a map. You’ll get lost regardless, so embrace this lack of control and immerse yourself. When you’re ready to leave, if you’ve lost your bearings, as is likely, just ask someone to point you in the right direction. Try not to miss the dyers souk with vibrant skeins of wool hanging from the walls and of course the tanneries on Rue de Bab Debbagh, which you’ll smell long before you see.
Haggling is a must if you wish to purchase anything. It’s best to make a return visit to the souk when you’re ready to buy; shopping later in the trip, you’ll have a better idea of what things should cost and know what your target should be. The general principles are that if you make an offer, it’s the honourable thing to pay up if it is accepted, and a final price of 30-40% is usually good going. Remember, the vendor will need those extra few dirhams more than you so don’t haggle too fiercely. Read my tips on how to haggle successfully:
Djemaa el Fna
Though its name loosely translates as the Assembly of the Dead, there is nowhere in Marrakesh that comes alive like its main square, the Djemaa el Fna. It’s busy by day but really comes into its own at night when it transforms into a night market with row upon row of delicious street food. You’ll see water sellers posing for photos, snake charmers, acrobats from the Sahara – even street dentists who’ll pull out a molar there and then for a fee. If it’s your first time out of Europe it’s a veritable assault on the senses but one that you won’t forget.
The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque looms large behind the Djemaa el Fna and is worthy of closer inspection. So the story goes, when it was constructed, the alignment was wrong and it was knocked down so the builders could start again. What you see dates from the 12th century and got its name from the booksellers who once congregated around its base.
El Badi Palace
This ruined palace is a good one to explore and lies within walking distance of the Djemaa el Fna. Its name means Palace of the Incomparable and there’s certainly nothing like it in the city. It was built in the 16th century by Sultan Ahmed al-Mansur Dhahbi to celebrate a victory over the Portuguese. It’s possible to walk within its walls and courtyard. You’ll frequently see storks nesting there.
Yves St Laurent gifted this garden to the city of Marrakesh after lovingly restoring it to its original beauty. It was designed and created by the French painter Jacques Majorelle; begun in 1924, it was a labour of love and a lifetime’s passion. The vibrant blues and bold yellows of its walls and pots set off the mature planting to form a breathtaking space that will delight, whether you’re a keen gardener or not. Be prepared though: it’s a busy place with around 700000 visitors a year so you’re unlikely to have it to yourself.
Out of town
Captivating though Marrakesh assuredly is, it’s well worth heading out of town if you can. On the edge of the city you’ll find the Palmeraie, a good place to ride a camel while shaded by around 150000 palm trees. The Menara Gardens are located close to the airport. They were laid out in the 12th century and from them you have a tantalising glimpse of the mountains beyond. A bit further away from Marrakesh and you can visit waterfalls and visit Berber villages and markets. The surf at Essaouira is a two-hour bus ride away and a visit to the Atlas Mountains is another favourite. Your hotel or riad can fix you up with an organised tour or a driver/guide.
I took an excursion to Ouarzazate, stopping off along the way at Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO-listed, ruined fortified village which has been the setting for many a film, including The Mummy and Gladiator. At the Atlas Film Studios, just outside Ouarzazate, you can have a lot of fun re-enacting scenes from those movies and more amidst the sets and props which remain. Check out their website but note, when they say “Famous Shootings” they don’t mean with a gun:
A final word of advice
Scamming of unsuspecting tourists is a sport in Morocco and although the level of hassle is considerably less than in other cities, it’s wise to be on your guard. A few key pointers:
Never use a taxi or ride in a calèche without agreeing the price first, the same holds for any services you use e.g. henna tattoos, photos of water sellers and so on
Carry small change to avoid prices being rounded up
Make sure you ask to see your guide’s licence as it is illegal to work without one
Nothing is ever free, even if your new friend says it is
And a scam I’ve never experienced, but is reputedly common: you visit a restuarant and are given a menu with temptingly cheap prices. When the bill comes, the prices are higher; if queried, a new menu is presented with the more expensive prices clearly shown. It’s an easy one to prevent: take a photo on your phone of the original menu prices and call their bluff if necessary.
Do you have any tips for Marrakesh or any advice for travellers planning their first trip there? If so, please leave a comment.