The Red City
Marrakech is known as the ‘Red City’ thanks to the blush-coloured walls that surround it. Constructed in the 12th century, the bricks are made from tabia, which is a mixture of red mud and water from the Hazou plains. But anyone who’s been to the city will know that its nickname doesn’t do it justice. Red is just one colour in Marrakech’s kaleidoscope.
You’ll get the best feel for this in the city’s souks. Bright spices are piled up in pyramids, freshly-dyed carpets hang from the sides of stalls, and silver lamps glint with the promise of a genie inside. It’s a similar story in Jemaa el-Fna, Africa’s biggest square. Ten times busier than Piccadilly Circus at rush hour, the market place is alive with snake charmers, story tellers and potion sellers.
Away from the bustling medina area, Marrakech wears a cloak of green. The region around the city is carpeted with gardens. And they’re no ordinary public parks, either. The Menara gardens were built by royalty in the 12th century and the Jardin Majorelle was owned by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, until his death in 2008.
Things to See and Do in Marrakech
Souks, snake-charmers and spices collide in the hypnotic city of Marrakech – but what you won’t find are beaches. Instead, relaxation revolves around the hotels. Most of them come with smart pool scenes where you can escape the bustle of city life. If you find you’re hankering for sand between your toes, though, the best place to head is Agadir. The journey takes three to four hours, but the prize is worth the effort – the beach here is one of the biggest and best you’ll clap eyes on. Golden sands unravel for an incredible two kilometres. While it’s made for sunbathing, there’s plenty more to merit your attention. Take your pick of watersports like jet-skiing and windsurfing.
The shops look more like showrooms in the Guilez district. On Rue de La Liberte and Rue Majorelle clothing lines by up-and-coming designers and art by one-to-watch artists ring through the tills. You’ll also find vintage stores and interior design boutiques. When you’ve finished shopping you can toast to money well spent in the area’s juice bars and cocktail lounges.
If you’re a barter-phobic, make your way to Marrakech’s fixed-price boutiques. A good percentage of these shops have addresses in Rue Laksour and Souk Kchachbia. Creative juices oil the gears of these places. Local designers make slippers from flour sacks, mirrors from oil drums, and handbags from recycled t-shirts.
For flat-out bargain hunting head to Marrakech’s souks, which concertina around Rahba Kedima, just north of Jemaa el-Fna square. Barter for butter-soft leather bags, hand-woven carpets, chunky costume jewellery, tagine cookery pots, and copperware. For a more suitcase-friendly souvenir, take a scoop to the spices that are piled like haystacks on almost every other stall around Souk Semmarine.
Marrakech’s cafes don’t follow the 9 to 5 like they tend to in the UK. Instead, they’re open until 9 or 10 at night. The tea and coffee choices in these places are even more inventive than Starbucks – think saffron coffee and you’re on the right lines. The cafes on Rue de Yougoslavie also serve a mean Moroccan pancake.
If you’re in a bar before 10pm in Marrakech, you’re early. The nightlife starts late here. Some of the most stylish bars centre around Mohammed VI Boulevard. Here, red carpets lead up to rooftop bars and cocktails are served by swimming pools. The distance between these bars and the nightclubs on Rue Echouhada isn’t exactly high heel-friendly, but it’s doable. If you want to go to Pacha, though, your feet will thank you for taking a cab.
These mattress-soft Moroccan pancakes are street food at its best. They’re made to order on hot plates the size of dustbin lids all around Marrakech. Their recipe is basic, calling for flour, butter, water and oil, and they can be eaten with sugar and honey for breakfast or with cheese and herbs at lunchtime.
Ironically, one of nature’s slowest creatures is fast food in Marrakech. Market stall holders in Jemaa el-Fna square serve up shelled snails by the bowlful. They tend to be cooked in a thin gravy-like sauce and they’re eaten with toothpicks.
This bread is a utensil first and foodstuff second. It’s a simple bread, made with flour, salt and water, that’s made in an oval-shaped dish called a gsaa. It’s served with most meals in Marrakech and it’s usual to use it instead of cutlery to scoop up tagines.
Marrakech’s statement sausage has more right to the name banger than its British counterparts. It’s made from lamb and flavoured with a hot harissa spices, so the taste is more explosive. Unlike the British bangers, it’s not served with mash – you’ll usually find the sausages on a plate with cous cous or olives.
The mint tea in Marrakech is more refreshing than a pack of Wrigley’s gum. The tea vendors in Jemaa el-Fna square pack pint-sized glasses with sprigs of the green herb, add a few ice-cube-size lumps of sugar and pour hot water over the top.