Such a perfect day in Marrakech
Usually at this time of the year I would be in Marrakech attending the world’s greatest experiential travel trade show, Pure Life Experiences, where the best brains in the industry gather to share ideas, learn from each other, and have a jolly good time while doing it. Sadly, for obvious reasons, that won’t be happening this year, so as I reminisce about one of my favourite places in the world, here are a few of the things that would fill a pretty perfect day for me in the Red City. One day isn't even close to enough time in this giddyingly exciting place, but it's a start, and we're going to squeeze in as much as we possibly can. Get ready, it’s a bit of a whirlwind.
8:00 am Yes, it’s an early one, but I hate to miss a single second here. Jemaa el-Fnaa is the beating, palpitating heart of Marrakech, and whilst it can get a bit much as the day progresses (i.e. you'll encounter sad-looking chained monkeys in nappies waiting to have pictures snapped, snake charmers with what I suspect are drugged cobras, etc.), in the morning as the city starts to wake it’s a pretty good spot for a coffee. The square is over 1,000 years old and has always been a gathering place for storytellers, dance troupes, orange juice sellers and water vendors in elaborate fringed hats. Later in the day, your ears will be battered by the sounds of brass bells, reedy flutes, drummers drumming, the beeping of motorbike horns, and voices calling you over to their food stalls where you can dine on a whole sheep's head should that be your thing. But in the morning Le Café Glacier is as good a place as any for a café au lait, with wide open views over the whole square for some of the most exotic people-watching around. You'll be in the company of shop owners and local businessmen grabbing a quick caffeine fix and a read of the newspaper before they start their day of trade. It's what people have done for centuries around this square.
9:00 am Nothing in the Medina really starts opening until around 10-10:30am, so this is the perfect time to wander the narrow lanes with camera at the ready to see the souks before they fill with people. At this time the alleys are owned by the Medina's residents bringing their freshly-baked bread home from the communal oven or heading to the hammam, and you'll be able to admire the multi-hued patina of the walls before they're covered with carpets and kaftans for sale. You'll need to keep one eye in front of you to avoid being run over by speedy mopeds and carts pulled by tiny donkeys, and remember to walk on the right - this is the rule here and if you're dawdling down the centre of a lane, you're likely to have people remind you to move (i.e. yell at you to get out of the way). Please also go and pay the lovely people at the Jarjeer Mule and Donkey Refuge a visit if you have time - although donkeys have been used as beasts of burden for centuries here, the condition in which some of them are kept is absolutely heartbreaking.
I have a number of favourite wandering routes for the early morning, but since we're already in Jemaa el-Fnaa, we'll turn right out of the café and through the first gate we see, down Rue Riad Zitoun el Kdim. From this point on we'll just wander, take photos and potentially get lost, which is part of the fun of the Medina. If you do find yourself confused about where you've ended up, ask any shopkeeper for directions and they'll show you where to go. And surprisingly, Google Maps does a fairly good job in these meandering streets.
10:00 am - Before we dive headfirst into shopping, which we will do plenty of, let's make a brief stop at the Bahia Palace for spectacular symmetry, carved stucco walls and zellij tiled floors. The palace dates back to the late 1800s when it was built by the excellently titled Grand Vizier and it grew over subsequent years as more and more rooms were added. It became the quarters of the Resident General during the French protectorate times, a royal residence after independence, and ultimately the museum that we can wander around today. When set against those clear blue skies that Marrakech is so often blessed with, the colours pop even more, with the marble floors being so smooth and shiny you could skate on them.
11:30 am - We've managed valiantly until this time without stepping inside a shop, so let's just go for it now. We'll enter the labyrinthine Medina around Dar El Bacha and head down Route Sidi Abdelaziz. But before we do, let's head in the opposite direction down the continuation of the same alley on the other side of the street. Around 100 metres in on the right-hand side is a large unassuming wooden door, and behind this door are treasures like you've never seen. Mustapha Blaoui's emporium is piled high with hand-hammered brass lanterns, deep-pile white and black Beni Ourain rugs, Touareg beaded head sculptures, hand-carved hexagonal wooden tables, silver embellished ceramics, and much, much more, spread over room after room after room. If you can't find something you like here you may as well get on the next flight home. It's an astonishing selection, and is a favourite of riad owners and interior designers around the world. You could stay here for hours, but don't. We can always come back later, and Mustapha Blaoui ships globally, so don't worry if you fall in love with one of the African fabric-covered armchairs. For now, let's head back in the direction of the Medina.
We can stop for a quick juice or cold Casablanca beer at Palais Donab, a hotel with a beautifully tiled central courtyard that feels strangely unloved and never very busy. Perhaps it perks up in the evening, but in the daytime it's quiet, calm and feels almost as if it's been forgotten. One day I expect to come and find it completely reinvented, but for now you're likely to have the courtyard all to yourself. Refreshed, it's time to press on. A little further up on the righthand side is my favourite shoe shop of all, run by lovely Loubna. I'm not sure if the place has a name, although I suppose it must do. All you need to do is look in the shop windows for her rainbow of slip-on pumps made in soft suede in all the colours you can imagine, with contrasting tassels attached. If you're lucky enough to have Loubna's Whatsapp number you can message her before your visit and she'll custom-make any colour combination you could wish for. I've done this on many previous visits, and can't even begin to admit to how many pairs I now own.
We have a little time before lunch, so we should probably go on the hunt for kaftans - after all, can you even say you've been to Marrakech if you don't add a couple to your wardrobe? My go-to is Norya Ayron, just upstairs from the pretty green-tiled Le Jardin café, for the perfect cuts in perfect fabrics with a touch of retro to some of the designs. You can dress them down or dress them up, and you'll simultaneously feel as if you're wearing your PJs but also looking quite glam with the right accessories. Just around the corner is Max & Jan, an outlet that's grown in recent years from a small boutique to a multi-room space with a rooftop terrace café. If we continue deeper into the Medina we'll come across La Maison du Caftan Marocain where you can pick up fairly pricey colourful beach kaftans that look fabulous in holiday pics and that would be even pricier were you to buy them anywhere else. Just opposite is a tiny Berber medicine shop where you can buy simply packaged yet very high quality argan and barbary fig oils, and the shop owner does a magical neck massage. And if we head back towards the Bahia Palace, there's a lovely white airy room above a couple of nondescript shops where I bought the most exquisite silver pleated floor length kaftan on my last visit, which proved to be quite the head-turner when I wore it on the back of a moped through the Medina one evening.
1:00 pm Time for lunch now, although we may get distracted on the way to La Terrace des Epices as it's located on the roof of Souk Cherifia where you'll find pile upon pile of local handmade glassware, ceramics and hammam towels. Resist the urge to stop in every shop, and head up to the sunny roof terrace where we'll dine on Moroccan salads and tagine, accompanied by a bottle of Vin Gris, the Moroccan wine that's somewhere between a rosé and a white and is the perfect lunchtime tipple. We could easily stay here all afternoon, sipping wine, nibbling olives, but there is still more shopping to be done so it's time to head back down into the thick of it.
2:30 pm Fortunately La Terrace des Epices is located on the edge of a really interesting part of the Medina. No doubt we've acquired a few items by now, so let's head to the Place des Epices to pick up one (or more) of the ubiquitous straw beach bags that are Marrakech must-haves. The centre of the square here is full of them, and although there are varying levels of quality, in the end they're all about the same. You can choose bags that are just plain and simple, adorned with gold sequin stars, or with "La vie est belle", "Out of Office" or even "Hermès" embroidered on the side in brightly coloured wool. There are traditional herbalists around the square selling powders and potions and rhassoul clay, a shop with a beautiful selection of silver Berber jewellery and leather tassels that can perk up any handbag, and a place I avoid like the plague which for some reason has terribly sad, sickly looking chameleons in tiny cages. Back into the tangle of alleys and you're in babouche, or traditional slipper, heaven. Again, quality and prices don't vary too much so find a vendor you enjoy interacting with and buy from there. I have a penchant for gold sandals and stock up when I come here - this is something I find does vary in quality, with some leathers being much tougher than others. Try before you buy and you'll find something that suits you.
4:30 pm We still have a couple of hours of sunlight left, so let's jump in a taxi and head over to the Majorelle Gardens, created by French Orientalist artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s, and purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé in 1980 to rescue it from ruin. The cobalt blue walls, yellow windows, and spiky cacti provide the ideal escape from the Medina when you need to clear your head and feel a bit of space, although you may want to flip this itinerary upside down and visit in the morning as it can get quite busy in the afternoons. The Yves Saint Laurent museum is just next door, showcasing hundreds of the designer's iconic dresses and housed in a beautiful building made of local terracotta bricks and earth-coloured terrazzo. And just across the street is 33 Rue Majorelle, a concept store full of clothes, bags and accessories by local designers, and a wide selection of prettily coloured straw hats by local milliner André Le Chapelier. They pair perfectly with one of your new kaftans. Time is running away with us and Marrakech nights can get pretty exciting, so let's head back to our hotel for a quick refresh and change before heading out again. Marrakech has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to accommodation choices, from the exquisite craftsmanship of the Royal Mansour, formerly the King's guesthouse, the lush gardens of La Mamounia, or my old home in city, Four Seasons, where you can choose from two enormous pools to cool off in the shade of tall palms. Or you can choose to stay in the heart of the Medina in a small riad such as Riad Jardin Secret with its plant-filled central courtyard, extraordinarily detailed stucco carvings and friendly little Yorkshire terrier, Petite.
7:00 pm You could choose from plenty of different places for an aperitif in Marrakech, but for real old-world ambience that harks back to the French era, it has to Le Grand Café de la Poste with its ceiling fans, potted palms, black and white floor tiles, and central curved wooden staircase. But before we head in, we could make one more pitstop across the road to Atika shoes. Loved by local expats and visitors alike, this is the place to pick up shoes that are startlingly similar to Tod's suede driving shoes, but - dare I say it - with even more colours to choose from. Anyway, back to Le Grand Café where we'll sink into a red leather sofa or wicker chair for a nice cold Casablanca beer or another Vin Gris. Don't get too comfy though - this being Marrakech, we're going to do a bit of bar-hopping tonight.
9:00pm Entrepote is one of the places I always go to with my Marrakech friends. It has a cosy, leafy terrace, good snacks, good wine, and all in all a good vibe with friendly people - and everyone always seems to know everyone else. It's close to Le Grand Café de la Poste, and is a good jumping-off point for our next stop of the evening, Palais Jad Mahal. I don't know how my friends still have the patience to go there with me as they must have been a thousand times and I ask to go every time, but it's just hugely, monumentally, extraordinarily fun. Once you enter through the large wooden doors, you're in another world, a world of louche red velvet curtains, a welcome by ladies of a certain age balancing candles on brass trays on their heads, fire dancers in the courtyard, bellydancers shaking everything they have between the tables... and this is just in the dining room. You can eat there - I have on many occasions - and it's not the best food you'll have in Marrakech, but it's a great start to the evening.
As things heat up, the crowd moves to the bar for more drinks and fun, and then things start to get really interesting. The whole place turns into a sort of cabaret, with African drummers, Russian dancers, gnawa players crashing cymbals and spinning their tasselled hats. A band gets up on stage playing everything from Motown to Bruno Mars. A Michael Jackson impersonator is next, then an opera singer, then the crowd-pleasing Arabic pop starts. Everyone knows the words to everything, everyone dances, everyone is friendly, and it's the most democratic night club I've ever been to. Some people dress up, some dress down, and everyone has fun. At one point the bellydancers are back, dancing on tables, circulating through the crowds, the gnawa players join the mix, and the African drummers. It's like a mini Jemaa el-Fnaa with all of the energy of the Sahara combined with the rest of the world - and a fair amount of vodka - converging in one place. When the show stops, it feels like something monumental just happened. It's one of my favourite nights out anywhere in the world, and I know that the next time I'm in Marrakech I will insist on going once again, even though it's pretty much the same experience every time.
This being Marrakech, the night is far from over, and my friends will take us on to another venue or two, for something to eat perhaps, and we'll get home in the wee hours, as we always do.
And then we'll start all over again tomorrow. Marrakech has an energy like nowhere else on earth, and I'll miss it terribly this year. I can't wait to go back.