The magic of Marrakech

With its rich history and culture, dazzling patterns, architectural wonders, great shopping and more, there’s a lot to discover in Marrakech, says Tiffany Eslick

Nothing prepares you for the sights and sounds of Marrakech – Morocco’s ‘Rose City’. Terracotta-toned buildings and towering, skinny palm trees stand out against cornflower blue skies. Aromas of spices and orange blossom waft through the air. And its medina, wrapped within ancient ramparts, will suck you into its labyrinth of alleyways, bedazzle your senses and then spit you out. Attempting to see everything this mysterious place has to offer is near impossible, but I hope that by following these steps, you’ll be off to a good start.

Once the scene of public executions and a place where traders exchanged salt for slaves, Djemaa el-Fna is the medina’s main square and it’s where a daily drama unfolds. Snake charmers take to their flutes mid morning and henna tattoo ladies set up plastic stools in the afternoon, but the real action begins at sunset when food vendors fire up their grills. Amid a smoky haze, Berber musicians strike up the music, twirling dancers clack castanets, soothsayers want to tell your fortune and slapstick actors put on a show. However, be warned: pickpockets are fellow audience members and, as I soon learnt, photography is the currency in this plaza, so unless you’re willing to pay, ideally don’t hit ‘shoot’.

Berber musicians strike up the music, twirling dancers clack castanets, soothsayers want to tell your fortune and slapstick actors put on a show

As an old imperial capital, Marrakech showcases some classic examples of Islamic architecture such as the  Koutoubia Minaret and Ali ben Youssef Medersa. Intricate marquetry and traditional painted wood ceilings adorn Bahia Palace and for a riot of colour and a trippy desert-inspired garden head to The Jardin Majorelle, previously owned by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé.

Marrakech was a great muse to the famed fashion designer and the Jardin, with its fantastic cacti, lotus flowers and fountains often served as his al fresco atelier.

Next door to this lies Morocco’s latest cultural addition, the cutting-edge Yves Saint Laurent Museum (museeyslmarrakech.com), which opened just last month. Inside this beautifully constructed building dedicated to the oeuvre of the legendary couturier, you’ll find a collection of his flamboyant designs, hundreds of drawings and photos charting the history of the fashion house and a good bookshop and outdoor café.

The-Jardin-Majorelle
The Jardin Majorelle

Marrakech’s craftsmen have been making and touting their wares in the souks for centuries. Meandering through the maze of market streets (and testing your bargaining skills) is a quintessential experience. From rows of rainbow-coloured babouche slippers to shiny silver teapots, leather messenger bags to coins and twinkling lamps, shopping here is like hanging out in a massive magpie’s nest.

Souq Semmarine and Souq el-Kebir are the main thoroughfares, but smaller spots dedicated to artisan workshops such as Souq Haddadine are worth visiting, too.

Shopping here is like hanging out in a massive magpie’s nest

It’s inevitable that you’ll be tempted to buy a rug. If you’re serious, I suggest heading to La Porte d’Or (laportedor.com) – the favourite high-end antiques and carpet haunt of visiting Hollywood stars. Owner Hakim Lebbar will tend to you personally as you explore the private bazaar. His collection incudes an enviable array of traditional 100% lamb’s wool Berber rugs made by the Beni Ourain tribes living deep in the Atlas Mountains. If their beauty doesn’t win you over, Hakim’s charm will.

Having personal shopper Abdelhay Binebine (personalshoppermarrakech.com) by my side certainly helped me mission through the Medina’s muddle. One of his top picks and the last stop on our morning tour, Maison du Caftan (facebook.com/Maison-Du-Caftan), quickly became a favourite of mine, too. High-quality caftans (in every shape, colour and size) line the racks of this double-storey store. Suitably high price tags accompany the garments, but buy more than one, and the salesman will strike a deal.

A wave of concept outlets selling contemporary fashion, jewellery, homeware and more are spread across the city. Perhaps one of the most well-known is 33 Rue Majorelle (just opposite the Jardin Majorelle). Inside this Scandi-style emporium are items from local designers and producers including hamsa hand bracelets, stylish ceramics and gorgeous garments. Chabi Chic (chabi-chic.com), which sits underneath popular restaurant and bar Nomad, is a foodie-traveller treasure trove offering spices, tea-glass sets and striking salad bowls. The boutique at El Fenn, (el-fenn.com) belonging to Vanessa Branson (Sir Richard’s sister), is where to go for totes, table books, candles, perfumes and many more Moroccan-inspired items that have been given a modern twist.

As for the question of where to stay, that’s easy: founded by King Mohammed VI to showcase the very best of Moroccan artistry and hospitality, Royal Mansour lies on the eastern edge of the medina between the historic centre and the Ville Nouvelle. It’s a remarkable resort, which in my opinion, should be at the top of all must-visit lists.

The-stately-entrance-at-Royal-Mansour
The stately entrance at Royal Mansour

A total of 1,200 artisans produced this architectural masterpiece in just over three years and from the minute you enter its gargantuan etched bronzed doors you’re transported into a true sanctuary which seems worlds apart from its city locale.

The ‘lobby’ is a marble and mosaic-clad courtyard with babbling fountains and billowing curtains, while the 53 guest riads are set along winding alleyways flanked by cascading bougainvillea, knobby olive trees, pomegranate trees and date palms.

Inside these three-storey mini kingdoms (each one is spread boasts a unique aesthetic), you’ll find an outdoor area, a living and dining room, a sumptuous bedroom, a bathroom with MarocMaroc amenities and a private rooftop terrace with a plunge pool.

Michelin-star chef Yannick Alléno is behind three onsite faultless restaurants: La Grande Table Marocaine, La Grande Table Française and Le Jardin. And the all-white spa is famed for its glorious hamman and indulgent treatments.

Something I found most remarkable during my stay here, was that I hardly saw any staff. That’s because they were busy travelling between underground passages at all times to ensure privacy is key.

Staying at an abode of such grandeur also grants you exclusive access to a side of the city that other travellers will not see. Just one example is the hotel’s recent collaboration with Marrakech insiders (marrakechinsiders.com), a vintage sidecar tour company. They took me whizzing through the medina’s back streets before reaching the private home of fashion designer, photographer and perfumer Serge Lutens. I was fascinated by his riad, which like Royal Mansour, pays homage to Moroccan craftsmanship, but is not ordinarily open to the public.

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