„The longer you stay in Marrakech the more the city gives back to you.”
Very wise words from Aziz, manager of riad Tlaata wa Sitteen, who brought it to the point. I am so thankful for this expression as for days I was looking for a definition that can describe this mystical city.
Marrakech… chaos, traffic, spices, red coloured walls. The souk, Djemaa el fna, Bahia and Badia palace, Dar Si Said, the Koutoubia mosque, Ali ben Youssef Medersa. The medina and it’s hidden riads. Since years I was dreaming about magical Marrakech and as Aziz explained, the longer I stayed the more I felt in love with it. And I knew forever that Marrakech would take my heart and represent one of my inspiration countries for my online-shop www.silviagattin.com.
The very first days I was bit overwhelmed by the masses of people on motorbikes and donkey carts in combination with heat (it was still very hot mid September) and hundreds of little shops in the souk and most of all with Marrakech’s labyrinthine alleyways. Orientation is a foreign word and your map a nice accessory actually unnecessary to carry with you. But this is all about: go with the flow, get lost and every single day you will discover something new.
Starting describing Marrakech you have to begin with the never-sleeping centre of the city, the square Djemaa el fna. During the day place of thousands of people, motorbikes, yellow taxi cars and horses crossing the medina from west to east and south to north. During the night melting pot of numerous food and orange juice stands, Gnaoua musicians, actors, snake charmers, story tellers, dancers, fortune readers and henna tattoo drawers. Having dinner at one of these food stands is a must as you will never ever forget these unique moments in between this intoxicating mix of the smells, the steam and the masses of people.
From Djemaa el fna three entrances lead into the magical world of Marrakech’s souk (maze of covered market streets). Again: forget orientation, forget your map and go wherever your eyes lead you. Dive in headfirst at the touristy shops at the beginning and work yourself through trendy silver leather poufs, uncountable babouches, kaftans and tunicas, ceramic bowls, colorful key chains, leather bags and jewellery. The deeper you get the more interesting it gets because then the souk starts to divide into the specializations of real, traditional handicraft and you can watch professionals how they work with leather, wood, ceramic, brass and silver.
Now and then it happens that sales man in the souk do not want to sell you anything (which really is an exception) and just want to chat and hear about new countries and cultures. Such as Naji, an interesting young man from the desert, who spends every year three months in Marrakech to sell old berber jewellery from his family to earn some money to survive the rest of the year in the desert. I wanted to mention him in this blog as it was fascinating to see all these old treasures, hear his thrilling stories. As technology develops also in the Sahara you can write him an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) once you decided to make a trip to the Moroccan desert, he will be more than happy to guide you and show you his life in between camels, sand and oasis.
Emerging exhilarated from the souk some hours later, carpet in tow, find your way back to Djemaa el fna as there Marrakech’s second important sight steels your glance: the Koutoubia mosque with its 70m high tower. Five times a day the muezzin calls the faithful in all four cardinal directions to prayer.
Another magnificent architectonical building representing real Moroccan style is the Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a learning centre founded in the 14th century, which was once the largest in North Africa (900 students in 132 dorm rooms studied religious and legal texts here) and today remains one of the most splendid.
I visited amongst others the Dar Si Said, a fascinating museum of Moroccan Arts that highlights Marrakech’s graceful riad architecture and local craftsmanship: traditional carpets, dagger collections, embroidered textiles, flower-painted instruments, kitchen implements, etc. show the wonderful history of handicraft which I find so interesting.
As fashion victim I could not miss going to see the Jardin Majorelle, one of the 20th century’s most mysterious gardens. Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergere bought the Yves-Klein-blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, painter Jacques Majorelle. The garden is an overpowering abundance of vegetal shapes and forms representing five continents and reflects Majorelle’s significance as one of the most important plant collectors of his time. I truly recommend to spend some time in this botanic wonder world as you can totally relax from Marrakech’s chaotic life outside.
TO SLEEP, EAT AND DRINK
My journey started at Riad Zara (www.riadzara.com), a petit and beautiful blue/yellow coloured riad (“riad” is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard) run by wonderful French Monique who gave me the best introduction into the secrets of surviving as single tourist in Marrakech. Located in the east of the medina (old city) with 20 minutes walking distance from famous square Djemaa el fna Riad Zara offers 6 differently furnished rooms in typical Moroccan style, all equipped with own bathrooms. A charming roof terrace and the comfortable courtyard invite you to relax after a day in the souk.
Several years ago Monique, like numerous other foreigners, fell in love with the imperial city and decided to move from France and start a new life with her renovated guesthouse. No wonder she is fully booked most of the time as you can see how much heart Monique is investing in her riad and her guests. Every morning she serves delicious breakfast and chats with her guests from all over the world recommending her favorite sights.
In the south of the medina, just a 5 minutes walk from Djemaa el fna you can find the maison d’hotes (a combination of riad and hotel) L’heure d’ete (www.lheure-dete.com). Newly renovated the original Moroccan style went bit under as rooms are very modernly furnished and the roof terrace could be also somewhere in France. Clean, nice breakfast but apart from that L’heure d’ete does not offer any extra. Oh yes, it does: an in-house hammam and the possibility to have a massage, but I honestly would not recommend to book one as 30 minutes tend to be only 17 and you get rather stroked than massaged. However, Hammou, one of the receptionists takes care of his guests and helps with any matter.
If I should ever get married I wish to spend some days of my honeymoon in breath taking Ana Yela (www.anayela.com). “Ana Yela” translates “I am Yela” and is the beginning of a romantic love letter, which was found by Andrea and Bern Kolb while reconstructing a 200 year old riad in the medina of Marrakech. Both fell in love head over heals with the Moroccan imperial city and also decided to open a hotel which, when spending some time there, actually remains an unforgettable soul experience.
The AnaYela – “place of inspiration” is indeed an oasis that in the hectic of the medina offers calm and rest and simply a totally different world. This is Marrakech, the quiet Marrakech with its traditional architecture and furniture chosen by the Kolbs with incomparable taste. The whole atmosphere – with the pool in the middle of the courtyard, the comfortable white leather poufs, the mint tea and the delicious pastries, the marvelous roof terrace – touches your soul. No wonder inspiration flourishes here. Housna, the hotel manager, will fulfill every single wish of her guests ranging from dinner parties on the roof terrace, traditional berber concerts, company presentations and fashion shootings – everything is possible at AnaYela.
Gwyneth Paltrow, Sienna Miller, even Richard Nixon and Winston Churchill were there. And I had a coffee for converted EUR 15.00,- at the pool there. Was it worth it? Well, it’s the Hotel La Mamounia (www.mamounia.com), the art-deco grande dame of chic Marrakech hotels. You definitely feel like a star when entering the complex with butlers simultaneously opening the swing doors. The entrance hall (indeed it’s a hall) is cozy, bit dark (obviously they want their guests not be recognized?), covered with huge velvet carpets on both floor and walls, little high end fashion shops for the rich clientele and massive couch tables with bowls full of dates invite guests to chill or spend some more money. Breakfast is served at the pool where I had the chance to relax as well for a moment. Observing the building and the surrounding I came to the conclusion that if I should ever have enough money to finance a stay in such a hotel I would definitely prefer something more authentic and more personal such as the riad AnaYela.
Talking about personality I turn to where I found my new home in Marrakech. In the north of the medina, close to Ali ben Youssef Medersa I found riad Tlaatawa-sitteen (www.tlaatawa-sitteen.com), which translated means “63” and stands for the house number of the riad. Simplicity is the key word but despite the effortless there are so many details, which stand for the wonderful and above all totally relaxed atmosphere. Little stools are pulled up to green wooden tea tables, on the rooftop two canvas chairs and a cozy couch covered in Moroccan pillows stand as if they were standing there forever, the rooms are simple but chic and I have never come across such fancy shared bathrooms in tadelakt style. The characters of riad manager Aziz and his team (Mohammed, Attika, etc.) definitely contribute to this fantastic easy ambience. The moment I checked in I felt immediately welcomed and “at home” also thanks to the other guests I was greatly lucky to meet there. They have been this kind of acquaintances that found space in my heart. Having breakfast at one table all together, exchanging thoughts about Marrakech, religion, business, politics, leisure, travels and so on, enjoying the tremendous view over the city’s roofs on the terrace, going food shopping for dinner, all this little moments made my stay in Marrakech unforgettable. Thank you Muriel, Michel, Roger and Amir.
Behind all this and the Tlaatawa-sitteen stands a young man who understands how to transform simple things into something special. Entrepreneur Kamal Laftimi started out with Tlaatawa-sitten to shortly after open up his second, more sophisticated riad Dar Najma (www.darnajma.com). Cafè des Épices (www.cafedesepices.com) followed: an unique location in the heart of the souk on square Rahba Kedima where you can enjoy a light lunch overlooking the magical happening on the market in front of you. Couple of years later Kamal successfully went for a new venture, Terrasse des Épices (www.terrassedesepices.com) – again in the middle of the souk. This rooftop restaurant offers laidback seating, a marvelous 360º view over the roofs of the medina, relaxing lounge music, a chalkboard with today’s menu covering traditional Moroccan meals (I went for the couscous tajine with chicken, very very yummy) and European specialties.
At the moment Kamal is busy finishing his latest project, restaurant and next place-to-be “Le Jardin” opening this October. I had the honor to test the future light organic food that will be served in Le Jardin at Kamal’s home at a dinner, which will too remain unforgettable. The whole world was sitting on one table, hospitable Kamal assembled international friends and friends of friends and guests of his riad and suddenly New Zealand was next to France and Austria next to Spain. At this point, Kamal, thank you once again for this fantastic evening, I wish you all the best with Le Jardin and I am sure that this place too will rock Marrakech soon.
Apart from above mentioned restaurants and cafès don’t miss Grand Café de la poste (www.grandcafedelaposte.com) in the new area of the city, Guéliz, which built in the 1920s was originally a post office. It has been restored with a colonial ambience complete with white linen cushions on rattan chairs representing now a relaxed and friendly deco Casablanca-style cafè and restaurant. I sat in the shades of the covered front balcony and enjoyed a delicious club sandwich, which I can warmly recommend.
Another fancy place to have coffee, drinks, lunch and dinner is restaurant-and-bar-in-one Café Arabe (www.cafearabe.com) located in the heart of the historic medina. I sat on the roof terrace above the noise of the streets dubbed by background lounge music. Food is reasonable though bit expensive.
However, most authentic and typical Marrakech place to eat is Abdillah’s little restaurant in the medina and close to riad Tlaatawa-sitteen. He and his fantastically hospitable team offer two simple menus, traditional tagine (Moroccan dish named after the special pot in which it is cooked) or a variation of grilled meat served with several salads. The whole atmosphere is unique as you are sitting on small straw stools strung along tables that are assembled on a little square surrounded by shops and watching the happening in front of you while chatting to Abdillah and his friends.
Located on the Atlantic coast and only a 2,5 hours bus ride from Marrakech you will find Essaouira, a little former pirate village today hot spot for kite surfers, hippies and independent tourists that want to hang out where Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley used to do so.
Essaouira, also known as the “windy city”, stands on a vast bay sweeping south with miles of superb sandy beach. These sea breezes, the mild climate, the artsy atmosphere, the picture-postcard white walls with dark blue windows and the laid-back attitude make the place famous.
Spend the day with strolling around the medina, get lunch and fresh grilled fish at the fishers’ harbor and turn back to the beach valley to gaze at the kite surfers. Relaxing place to eat and indulge some sun is the café/restaurant Beach and Friends (www.beachandfriends.com).
I stayed at Riad Dar Afram (www.darafram.com) located in the heart of the ancient medina offering a broad selection of accommodation including both single and double rooms with shared bathrooms. A cozy courtyard transformed into a lounge and dining room is the place where dinner (optional and on request) is served while breakfast is provided on the fabulous roof terrace with amazing view over the Atlantic and roofs of Essaouria.
To sum up, my Marrakech has been an unforgettable experience and I truly hope to go back soon. Until then get moroccodized and decorate your wardrobe and home with some of my new products on www.silviagattin.com.