06 September 2014

Morocco day 14 & more: Marrakech

Marrakech – mere mention of the name conjures up images of the exotic!

We arrived on the public bus from Essaouira around 6pm, taxied to our hotel for refreshing showers, then headed out just after 8pm for the 40-minute walk to Djemaa el Fna, the huge square that forms the very heart of this great city. The square is a busy place during the day but it’s at night that it truly comes alive, pulsating to the beat of musicians and acrobats; full of snakecharmers and men with monkeys urging tourists to pay for photos; with women who will henna your hand with a pretty design for just 20 dirhams; containing orange juice sellers and food stall holders, enticing you to drink and eat their freshly cooked local produce. Scrumptious!



That dinner and another, at the hotel the following night, marked the end of the organised part of our Intrepid travel ‘Best of Morocco’ tour but I had booked an extra 3 nights to explore this exotic city. So, what attractions did I visit in Marrakech?


My sightseeing started with a visit to Le Jardin Majorelle. Frenchman Jacques Majorelle began to landscape this garden in 1924 and opened it to the public in 1947. After his death in 1962, Yves St Laurent and Pierre Berge acquired and restored the property to ensure its continuing existence. It’s a shady haven in the 40 degree heat and, as well as enjoying the magnificent plantings, I found the use of bright colours on pots and walls very picturesque. As well as a small but exquisite Berber Museum, there is a memorial to Yves St Laurent within the grounds, plus, if you fancy a little retail therapy, boutique shops selling his artwork and garments.

The following day, we explored two former royal residences, the first of which was the Bahia Palace, whose name means magnificent. And it certainly was! Constructed between 1894 and 1900, it includes a selection of beautifully decorated rooms surrounding courtyards planted with lush gardens. The decoration includes zelliji (mosaic tile work) and finely sculpted and painted plaster and wood, as you can see from these images.

It wasn’t much further on to the Bardi Palace, which, though now mostly a ruin, was still fascinating. The palace was constructed in the 16th century by the Saadian dynasty, by Sultan Ahmed el-Mansour Saadi, to celebrate his victory over the Portuguese army in 1578 in the ‘Battle of the Three Kings’. The tall earthen walls, on top of which storks have built huge nests, enclose a large central pool surrounded by four sunken gardens planted with orange trees.


Later that day, I had some time to myself so walked around the Koutoubia Mosque, close to the main square. I didn’t go inside but could still admire its beautiful Islamic architecture – the curved windows and arches, the ceramic inlay. Built in the reign of Yaqub al-Mansur, who reigned from 1184 to 1199, the mosque has an impressive 77-metre-high minaret. The mosque looks very picturesque when floodlit at night and, as it was Ramadan, it was flooded with Muslims every time the call to prayer rang out over the central city.


The next day my fellow tour members had all departed so I had a day to explore Marrakech on my own. Rather than walk from place to place in the 40 degree heat, I bought a ticket for the Hop-on Hop-off tourist bus. First stop was the Menara, a 12th-century 100-hectare park, or rather a gigantic olive grove. Though redesigned in the 19th century, the Pavilion dates from the time of the Saadians, and contains the beautiful tile work and painted ceilings I had come to love in Moroccan architecture. It fronts on to a large water reservoir, which serves to irrigate the gardens and would provide nice reflections of the Pavilion, if it was better tended – the pond and water were looking rather dirty when I visited though did still create an illusion of coolness in the overwhelming heat.

Camels parked in La Palmerie, for tourists to sit on and have their photos taken
As well as touring around the central city attractions, one of the tourist buses does a circuit of La Palmerie, a huge area of date palms covering about 12,000 hectares, not far outside the city. Legend has it that, after eating dates brought back from the Sahara, the soldiers of the 11th century Almohad Sultan Youssef ben-Tachfine spat out the stones around their encampment, the stones germinated and thus began La Palmerie. Nowadays, the area contains the expensive houses of diplomats and princesses, all set within patrolled and secure gated communities. Not my idea of a pleasant place to live.

Did I mention the bazaars and the shopping?


That night was my last in Morocco – the next day I was off to Manchester, to begin 5 weeks visiting friends in various parts of England. Morocco had been on my list of places to visit for many many years so my expectations when I arrived had been high. I’m happy to say I was not disappointed – the Intrepid Travel tour was excellent, we had visited some amazing places and enjoyed some wonderful activities and experiences, and the people of Morocco were friendly and welcoming. I would love to return for a much longer time, to work and live in this magnificent country.