Words and images by Dawn Bradnick @DawnJorgensen
Located in western Morocco, the former Imperial city is a major economic hub and home to mosques, palaces and expansive gardens. Dating back to the Berber Empire, with thriving souks selling traditional textiles, handcrafted pottery and intricate jewellery. Surrounded by a vast palm grove, Marrakech is fondly known as the ‘red city’ because of its buildings and ramparts constructed using red earth from the surrounding desert.
Attractions in Marrakech
The Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh’s medina quarter is the heart of the city, drawing hordes of both locals and tourists. By day snake-charmers, story-tellers and traditional dancers entertain, while by evening hundreds of outdoor restaurants pop up for trade.
The symbol of the city and visible for miles is the Moorish minaret of 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque. As local ordinance forbids any other building in the Medina from being taller than a palm tree, the Koutoubia Mosque towers over the city. Non-Muslims may not enter but you are welcome to walk around the exterior and enjoy the gardens.
Possibly one of the most visited sites in Marrakech, the Jardin Marjorelle is a two-and-a-half-acre artist’s landscape garden that was created by the French Orientalist artist, Jacques Majorelle over a period of forty years. Acquired by him in 1923, it features a Cubist villa designed by the French architect, Paul Sinoir in the 1930s. Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé went on to buy the Jardin Majorelle in 1980, saving it from falling victim to a real estate project and becoming a hotel complex. They decided to live in the Villa Bou Saf Saf, which they renamed Villa Oasis, and undertook the restoration of the garden in the vision of Jacques Majorelle.
Next to it is the Musée Yves Saint Laurent Marrakech, which houses many of his designs, accessories, sketches and a collection of photos taken during his long and inspired career, as well as the story of his connection with this city he loved.
Visit the Bahia Palace, a set of gardens built in the late 19th century and intended to be the greatest palace of its time. The name means brilliance. Also the Menara botanical gardens located to the west of Marrakech, near the Atlas Mountains. They were established in the 12th century by the Almohad Caliphate ruler Abd al-Mu’min and the name derives from the pavilion with its small green pyramid-shaped roof, meaning lighthouse.
Shopping in Marrakech
Follow the Rue Semarine into the heart of the bustling Souk Semarine where you will find excellent deals on finely-crafted leather sandals and bags, colourful baskets, spices, brass and glassware. Remember that you are expected to negotiate on the price. Shop for handwoven rugs, painted ceramics bowls, stain glass lamps, envy-inducing tiles and ‘Fatima Hands’ in every shade of good luck. The main Avenue Mohammed V, Marrakech’s high street, is home to high-end stores, hotels and restaurants. Enjoy endless cups of sweet mint tea and pause for a freshly squeezed orange juice from one of the many vendors between shopping missions. When hunger strikes, indulge in moreish mezze platters and delicious tajines.
Transportation in Marrakech
Marrakech has various means of transport, although the best way to visit the medina is on foot. There is a hotel shuttle bus available at Marrakesh Airport or a taxi can get you into the city within 15 minutes. If you’d like to explore beyond the borders of the city consider renting a car, the roads are excellent. Take note that there are two kinds of taxis in Marrakech: the small ones called ‘petit taxis’ and the big taxis called ‘grand taxi’. The smaller ones are used in the city centre while the larger ones are for out of town excursions. All taxis in Marrakech have meters, but you may need to encourage the drivers to use them.
Accommodation in Marrakech
Rivalling for top spot is the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech set within 20 hectares of fragrant gardens and olive groves. A five-star luxury resort only minutes from the city center with an elegant, contemporary resort feel, stunning villas, a world-class spa and excellent dining. Within the city and part of the fabric of Marrakesh is Hotel La Mamounia, a place of sophisticated luxury with incredible views of the gardens and towards the Koutoubia Mosque. Royal Mansour Marrakech, the prestigious palace of Marrakech, will have you treated like royalty at one of the most historic properties in the city.
For a more traditional style of accommodation book into a charming Riad. La Sultana Marrakech is an oasis in the middle of the city, Riad Azzar places you in the heart of the medina and Dar Darma, which feels like stepping into a movie set from the ‘20’s, is an easy 10-minute walk from the square. An hour out of the city is Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot, bought into the Virgin fold during one of his famous ballooning expeditions. Another magnificent spot on the outskirts of the city is the White Camel Lodge & Tents, with endless views across the Agafay Desert. Even if you don’t stay there, go for sundowners or a meal.
Flights to Marrakech
The Marrakech Menara Airport (RAK) services a multitude of airlines at its three terminals, including KLM, Air France and British Airways. From Cape Town and Johannesburg consider an easy connect via Europe, or a stopover in Casablanca, which is serviced by Qatar Airlines, South African Airlines and Emirates, before taking the short hop to Marrakech with Royal Air Maroc, the National carrier and the country’s largest airline.
Our Experts Preferred Spots in Marrakech
Fall in love with true Majorelle blue, breath in the aromas of the exotic medina, savour the sounds of traditional drums on Jemaa el fna and the muezzin’s call to prayer at the Koutoubia Mosque. Visit La Maison de la Photographie, the House of Photography in Jamaa Lfna, a fascinating archive of photographs of Morocco taken by anonymous travellers and famous photographers between 1870 and 1960. Opened in 2009 it offers charming insight into the evolution of the ochre city – going up to the roof is a must. Watch skilled craftsmen at work in the souk and take a guide to introduce you to the school, mosque, bakery and fountains of the inner medina communities.
On the outskirts of the city, marked by the outline of the Atlas Mountains, discover Berber villages. A journey into the ochre walls of the city will take you back in time as you scout its numerous alleys, discover occasional street art and find quiet cafes to retreat to. A city of romance, mysticism, theatricals and royalty, Marrakesh lends a rose-tinted view to the world and is the ideal destination for adventure seekers, romantics and those looking to leave behind their reality – for just a while.
What we as South Africans need to know.
Visas: South African citizens require a tourist visa to visit Morocco.
Currency: Moroccan Dirham
Language: English is widely spoken in Marrakech, but the official languages are Arabic and Berber.
Weather: The best time to visit is from March to May and between September and November.
Words and images by Dawn Bradnick @DawnJorgensen