Reza Amirinia returns to Marrakech, to give us his highlights pick of where to go and what to do.
As I approached Marrakech after a three-and half-hour flight from London, my excitement grew. It was like coming to a meeting with a dear friend as that’s what Marrakech is to me. I love the city’s high red walls, the hustle and bustle of the souk, bantering and bartering with the traders and enjoying the simple but tasty food. Like me, many writers, painters & poets have been attracted to this iconic location.
The anticipation grew as the cab driver drove around those familiar red walls and entered through Bab Debbagh into the old city. My hotel (Riad) was in the pedestrianised zone so the cab took me as far as possible after which I had to fetch a porter from the Riad Star, where I was staying, to help me with my luggage.
The Riad Star gained a certain fame by having 1930s night club singer Josephine Baker live there after escaping from France during WWII. From 1941, while living in the riad she continued to aid the French resistance, as she had in France. For her bravery she was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Rosette de la Resistance after the war.
The next day I started exploring the alleyways around the neighborhood near the Riad Star. At the first cross section, there was a hammam (the equivalent of a Turkish bath) for ladies and there was a mosque opposite Derb Alilich alley where the Riad was located.
Further down the road a boy sitting by one of the open doors invited me to discover the newly opened Orientalist Museum of Marrakech. This traditional riad had been converted into a museum, housing paintings and artefacts. The roof terrace of the house was a good location to get a panoramic view of medina.
Afterwards I continued to wander through the winding lanes, but I wasn’t in the souk just yet. On the way I saw many little shops, a grocery store, a herbal shop and a bakery. It was not too far before I arrived at the souk.
The houses and the shops nestle closely together in the souk to create a great sense of community. Your journey through this historic maze almost teleports you back in time. As I strolled deeper into the medina, I got lost in an urban environment unlike any other, and began to feel an extraordinary flow of energy that lifted my spirit.
I reached Place de La Kissariat Ben Youssef, a large square in the heart of the medina where the Marrakech Museum is situated. The square is surrounded by several monumental buildings and intersections to souks. The Dar Menebhi Palace, built in the 19th century, houses all the modern and ancient Moroccan exhibits in the museum. The façade of the building is a very good example of traditional Moorish architecture. The large courtyard with a café and a large wooden gate marks the main access to the Palace behind which you can find an atrium and fountain. It is best to allocate enough time (an odd hour isn’t enough) to view all the exhibits.
The eleventh century Mosque of Ibn Yusuf, the oldest mosque in Marrakech, is located to the north side of the square. The medina grew around the square of Place de La Kissariat Ben Youssef. Ibn Yusuf mosque is only open during prayer time. Adjacent to the mosque is the Ben Youssef Medersa, an ancient Islamic School. This traditional school is the largest medersa (any sort of school or educational establishment) in Morocco with 130 dorm cells housing up to 900 students. I couldn’t visit the medersa, as it was under refurbishment.
Opposite the Mosque of Ibn Yusuf stands the Almoravid Koubba, a small 12th century monument that was buried for a century before it was rediscovered and excavated in 1952. Hosting the oldest inscription in the Maghrebi script to be found in North Africa the building acted as a place where people could refresh themselves and do a ritual wash before entering the mosque.
Wandering around Place de La Kissariat Ben Youssef in the heart of the Medina I wanted to get a better glimpse of life in one of the most important intersections in Marrakesh. I watched a man who was busy laying several pieces of treated and dyed leather out to dry in the sun just outside the walls of the Mosque of Ibn Yusuf. This is perhaps just as his ancestors had done for hundreds of years. On the other side of the square, there were fruit and vegetable carts selling their local produce as tourists took pictures of the mosque and museum.
The square leads to souks through three connected alleys. In the west side, there were several shops selling traditional Moroccan clothing called Djellaba (which is a long and loose costume designed with a hood). If you start a conversation with the storekeepers, you’ll find that they are very persistent in their efforts to sell you something and sometimes can be very assertive. Haggling is all part of a practiced game in the souk so be prepared to say no and walk away even if you really want to buy an item.
My next stop Herboriste la Sagesse, a herbal shop, selling Argan Oil and a variety of other traditional medicine and healthy products. There are many shops in souks claiming to sell original Argan oil, so be careful as some are not authentic.
Continuing my stroll through busy souks, I was experiencing the hustle and bustle of this human ant’s nest. I reached the vibrant Jemaa el-Fna square at sunset. This hectic and animated marketplace was lit by several stalls which were quite entrancing, but dinner beckoned, so I stayed for a shorter period than I planned to.
After so much walking I took a tuk tuk back to the hotel. For those who have never travelled on one, it is a very simple vehicle, but very handy to maneuver in the narrow and winding pathways of the medina. The driver had to use his horn continuously to clear a path through the crowds as the evening brought out more shoppers.
Although I ended my day with some delicious Moroccan cuisine back in the hotel, Marrakech does offer an astonishing variety of restaurants to choose from. Meals will likely include aubergines, couscous, salads and rice in the first course with a tagine of some description to follow. Homemade desert and Moroccan mint tea tend to round off a meal.
All images (c) Reza Amirinia
Tell me more about exploring Marrakech
Visit Morocco Tourism for further information about Marrakech.
The Riad Star offers B&B (Double or Twin Room) from £92.00 per night for 2 persons.
Iberia, KLM, Ryanair, Swiss and Royal Air Maroc Airlines offer indirect flights from Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted to Marrakech from £64.00.