Marrakesh – "Morocco City", as early foreign travellers called it – has always been something of a pleasure city, a marketplace where the southern tribesmen and Berber villagers bring in their goods, spend their money and find entertainment. For visitors it's an enduring fantasy – a city of immense beauty, low, red and tent-like before a great shaft of mountains – and immediately exciting. It's known as the Red City from the natural red-ochre pigment that bedecks its walls and buildings, but there's certainly no shortage of other colours.
At the heart of it all is a square, Djemaa el Fna, really no more than an open space in the centre of the city, but the stage for a long-established ritual in which shifting circles of onlookers gather round groups of acrobats, drummers, pipe musicians, dancers, storytellers, comedians and fairground acts. However many times you return there, it remains compelling. So, too, do the city's architectural attractions: the immense, still basins of the Agdal and Menara gardens, the delicate Granada-style carving of the Saadian Tombs and, above all, the Koutoubia Minaret, the most perfect Islamic monument in North Africa.
Like all Moroccan cities, Marrakesh is a town of two halves: the ancient walled Medina, founded by Sultan Youssef Ben Tachfine in the Middle Ages, and the colonial Ville Nouvelle, built by the French in the mid-twentieth century. Each has its own delights – the Medina with its ancient palaces and mansions, labyrinthine souks and deeply traditional way of life, and the Ville Nouvelle with its pavement cafés, trendy boutiques, gardens and boulevards.
The 19 kilometer (11 mile) long Remparts de Marrakech encircles the biggest medina (old Arabic town) in Morocco, which has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list since 1985. It is the historical heart of Marrakech. The beautiful minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque , dating from Almohad times, overlooks the medina, whose epicenter is the famous Jemaâ El Fna . The ochre buildings, the hustle and bustle of the markets and commercial streets filled with artisans, and the beauty of the monuments and riads (guesthouses) hidden behind alleyway walls make the medina an enthralling place to visit.
Starting directly north of Jemaâ El Fna square, the Souks quarter is made up of ancient souks (markets) that are divided into craft guilds, which have retained their location on the square for centuries. This is probably the most touristy quarter of the medina, with its numerous surrounding riads and its maze of little alleyways, which are full of shops and always crowded with pedestrians. In the center of it all, you'll find the shadowed kissarias (covered souks) area. To the east, Mouassine Street leads to the big Mouassine Mosque and the Fontaine El-Mouassine .
Dar El Bacha Quarter
Between the Souks quarter and the Bab Doukkala quarter lies the Dar El Bacha quarter, whose name comes from the former palace of the despised Pasha of Marrakech in the beginning of the 20th Century, and the lively Riad El Arous area. Riad El Arous is one of the main motor vehicle-accessible streets in this part of the medina. In the northwestern part of the medina, the area of Bab Doukkala, which served as a leper colony during the Middle Ages, offers many riads along with some of Marrakech's best restaurants, such as the Dar Moha , Le Restaurant , Pavillon and the famous Dar Yacout . This lively and dynamic storekeeper quarter occupies a favorable location, as it links the medina's Souks Quarter to the east, and to the modern Gueliz district to the west. The busy bus station lies after the Bab Doukkala gate. You can easily reach the Bab Doukkala area by taxi.
South of the medina, this was the center of power of the political capital that was Marrakech during the Almohad period. Saadian rulers in the 16th Century also settled here, as is evidenced by the vestiges of the Palais El Badi that Sultan Ahmed El Mansour commissioned to be as distinguished as his reign. The political importance of the Kasbah has lessened recently. South of the quarter stands the Royal Palace, built in the 18th Century, which is one of many domiciles belonging to the current King of Morocco, Mohammed VI. South of the palace lie the Agdal Gardens ( Jardins de L'Agdal ), dating from the 12th Century. Northeast of the Kasbah quarter is the Mellah quarter, the historical Jewish quarter, which unfurls row after row of lively alleyways full of little shops and markets. North of Mellah, Riad Zitoun El-Jedid Street, with its nice shops, leads to Jemaâ El Fna Square and the museums of Dar Si Said and Maison Tiskiwin (Musee Bert Flint) , along with the Palais de la Bahia . Though it doesn't attract the touristy crowd of the souks, the Riad Zitoun area is one of the most Europeanized quarters of the medina.
Ville Nouvelle (New Town)
The New Town lies outside the medina's ramparts. It dates back from the times of the French Protectorate, when the Gueliz district was built west of the medina. The project was assigned to a French urban planner in 1912 and first aimed to accommodate the French administration and its officials. Many buildings from those times are now threatened by the present real estate frenzy in Marrakech. The name of this district comes from Gueliz Mountain (which was used for the building of gate Bab Agnaou ), west of Marrakech.
Today, this district serves as the downtown of modern Marrakech. It is the district of offices and business headquarters, of banks, travel agencies and the train station. In the manner of the Rue de la Liberte, a little shopping heaven, it is also the district of mega-shopping, offering mostly luxury shops and international brands. On the cultural side, there is the Theâtre Royal . The Avenue Mohammed V crosses the Gueliz district. This central avenue, always very trafficky during rush hour, links three squares, namely Place Abdel Moumen Ali, Place du 16 Novembre, and Place de la Liberte, after which it enters the medina through gate Bab Nkob. Behind Bab Nkob, you'll find the Cyber Park Arsat Moulay Abdeslam . Place Abdel Moumen Ben Ali is easily accessed by pedestrian-only streets and hosts the Delegation Regionale du Tourisme de Marrakech along with cute coffee-houses and shops. As for the Place du 16 Novembre, its home to the central post office and the large municipal market (Marche Municipal) where the district's inhabitants come to buy fruits, vegetables, spices, etc. for daily cooking needs. The magnificent Jardin Majorelle & Musee d'Art Islamique lies north of the Gueliz district.
This quarter lies southeast of the Gueliz district. Several big standing hotels and some ritzy villas have been constructed here in this posh and verdant district that's appreciated for its quietness, but also for its happening nightlife spots like the Casino de Marrakech , the TheâtrO or the Comptoir Darna . The Hivernage district is expanding around the ever-expanding Avenue Mohammed VI.
The history of Marrakech is indissolubly linked to its palm grove, which was born at the same time as the city, thanks to an ingenious irrigation system commissioned in the 11th Century by the Marrakech's founder, Youssef Ben Tachfine. The palm grove stretches northeast of the city for about 6400 hectares (15,814 acres). This surface is much smaller than it used to be, evidence of its frailty due to constant drought. Some measures have been taken to aid the palm grove, like the creation of a date-palm nursery in order to replant the trees if they die. But the palm grove isn't only a big garden planted with palm-trees in the shade of which grow the fruit trees; it has also become one of the most sought-after residential districts, and undoubtedly the housing goal of most Marrakech VIPs. In the shade of the palm trees lie golf courses, luxury hotels and the villas of some politicians and stars from France and abroad.
In compliance with its tourist obligations, Marrakech abounds with restaurants. Some of them are only tourist traps revamped with belly-dance shows, while others are true gastronomic jewels. But Marrakech is also a city of culinary fusion where world cuisine is prized, and you'll find a little bit of everything in the “Red City.”
You cannot leave Marrakech without having sampled a pigeon pastilla (basteeyah – a sweet and sour squab pie) or one of the many recipes of tajine (a dish made from meat and vegetable sauce, whose name comes from the traditional pot in which it is cooked). In most of the best Moroccan dining – at both restaurants and guesthouses (riads) – elderly women are the cooks. The best Moroccan restaurants also boast a setting as genuine and as groomed as their cuisine, like that of Dar Zellij, Dar Yacout and Stylia . Marrakech features a sort of “Tropezian” atmosphere, with Mediterranean restaurants mostly attended by European (especially French) clientele. This is the case at La Table Du Marche , whose concept comes directly from St. Tropez inspiration. If that sounds like what you're interested in, try Pavillon . As for Le Restaurant , it gives cordons-bleus the opportunity to take Moroccan cooking courses. Movie-goers should head toward the Dar Essalam , which, incidentally, appears in a Hitchcock movie.
Morrocan cuisine is diverse, as demonstrated at the Dar Fez , where the cuisine of the city of Fez is celebrated. Famed French chef Alain Ducasse added his touch to the restaurant Crystal , located in the Pacha Marrakech , one of the city's snazziest nightclubs. These restaurants tend to be rather expensive, but don't panic - the budget traveler can opt for a perfectly tasty meal at the lively and distinctive setting of Jemaâ El Fna square.
Great Michelin Guide-rated French chefs have chosen to donate their flavors to Marrakech, for the pleasure of our taste buds! Marrakech fine dining combines the refinement and the creativity of French cuisine with the freshness of Mediterranean cuisine revamped with Moroccan products. Try Ksar Char Bagh or Dar Ennassim , in the Palmeraie.
For lovers of Italian cuisine, rendez-vous at La Trattoria to sample their refined dishes or enjoy the warm atmosphere of Catanzaro . For Moroccan fusion cuisine Dar Moha is an excellent choice.
Some trendy Marrakech spots are a perfect mix of night-club/lounge plus restaurant, like Comptoir Darna , Palais Jad Mahal and La Casa , which are all located in the Hivernage district. Beware, though, as the check increases quickly and the dishes are not always up to standard. But these more informal dining spots are a nice change from the gargantuan set meals (prix fixe) of many touristy restaurants. (And you can dance the night away after your meal!)
Jemaâ El Fna
The starting point for this tour is Marrakech's lively town square, Jemaâ El Fna . It is a place where merchants set up spice stalls and food carts, and where snake charmers, singers, dancers and musicians perform for tourists and locals alike. You'll be sure to find something interesting here, whether you browse the square for a few hours or just a few minutes. Then head towards the street of Souk Semmarine, a cross street of the Bab Fteuh Square. Souk Semmarine will become Souk Nejarine Street and then Souk El Kebir Street, but will remain the main axis until Ben Youssef Square. This will be your fixed point during the visit of the Souks quarter, a must-see of any visit of the medina. After crossing the Souks, you reach Ben Youssef Square. East of the square is the Musee de Marrakech , which occupies the beautiful former palace of 19th-century defense minister Mehdi Mnebhi. To the northeast lies one of Marrakech's most interesting landmarks, the Medersa Ben Youssef, whose courtyard is a true architectural jewel. For an upscale dining experience, head to the Pavillon or to La Table Du Marche .
A few steps north to Ben Youssef Medersa, you will reach the Fondation Culturelle Dar Bellarj , which is the perfect place to pause and have a mint tea while discovering the fine craftsmanship of various artists. West of Ben Youssef Square you will find Mosquee Ben Youssef , which faces the oldest monument in Marrakech, the Qoubba Ba'adiyn . Take Baroudienne Street, northwest of Ben Youssef Square, and then turn left onto Mouassine Street. Go down the street until you cross Sidi El-Yamani, then turn right and you'll see the big Fontaine El-Mouassine . You are now close to the Dyers Souk. If you are a lover of architecture and design, backtrack and continue down Sidi El-Yamini where you'll find the Ministero Del Gusto hidden in the Derb Azouz alleyway. Then walk back to Mouassine Street where you will see the big Mouassine Mosque with its beautiful minaret. The whole mosque complex was built in just ten years, during the second half of the 16th Century. Follow Mouassine Street to reach Bab Fteuh Square. You are almost back to your starting point, the Jemaâ El Fna Square. You will appreciate resting and enjoying a light lunch as you take in the vibrant activity of the square from the terrace of one of the many coffeehouse, such as the Cafe de France .
Mosquee Aux Pommes D'Or
Start in front of the Remparts de Marrakech , and admire the Bab Agnaou gate. Behind the gate, head toward the Kasbah Mosque also known as Mosquee Aux Pommes D'Or . The Tombeaux Saâdiens , behind the mosque, are a mark of the Saadian dynasty in the 16th Century. The next stop is the Palais El Badi , whose vestiges are just a hint of its former glory. To get to it, you will have to reach Bab Berrima by coming back to Bab Agnaou and then turning right on the street Arset El Maâhl, up to Place des Ferblantiers (the Tinsmiths Square) which is the entrance to the historic Jewish Quarter of Marrakech, the Mellah . After a visit to the Badi Palace don't hesitate to explore the shops and restaurants of this popular quarter. Then come back to Place des Ferblantiers and follow the signs that lead, by turning right, to the Palais de la Bahia , a vast 19th-century palace. Head back to Riad Ez-Zitoun El-Jedid, which is overflowing with beautiful gift and craft shops. Then turn right in Bahia Street to visit the ethnological collections of Maison Tiskiwin (Musee Bert Flint) . Follow Bahia Street and cross the little street that leads to Dar Si Said . It is worth visiting both for its architectural beauty and its collections of ancient woodwork items. From here, you can follow Riad Ez-Zitoun El-Jedid Street up to Jemaâ El Fna where you can rest on a coffeehouse roof terrace. Or you can go back to Place des Ferblantiers to have a meal or a drink at the KosyBar , there is a nice view of the square from the terrace.
Marrakech Souks Guided Tour (http://www.hostelsclub.com/act-en-1012.html)
City Sightseeing (http://www.city-sightseeing.com/index.phtml?command=search&clear-search=true&destinations=marrakech)
Morocco Adventure (+212 44 1786 816 160 / http://www.wildcat-bike-tours.co.uk/morocco-adventure-road-tour.htm)