Travel journalist Sarah Pollok shares the best things to do in Marrakech, Morocco during a trip.
They call it the Red City. They also call it the modern city. The former for the rust-rich clay it was formed from in the 11th century. The latter because, compared to its Middle Eastern and African neighbours, this ancient city vibrates with a restless, progressive, undeniably teenager-like energy. This is ‘the New York of Morocco’. This is Marrakech.
It’s 7am when I wake and head straight to the rooftop of Riad Bahia Salam for breakfast. The sun has beat me here, sitting fiercely in the powder blue sky, hovering above a patchwork of rooftops, the Atlas Mountains a faint suggestion lying along the horizon. Motorbikes zoom below but otherwise, it’s quiet and I’m impatient to make the most of the morning calm.
Stepping out of the hotel, located a street away from the old town Medina, the colour hits as viscerally as the heat; a boisterous palette of crimson and tangerine, indigo and burgundy and saffron and emerald. From piles of ceramic bowls to entire buildings, shop signs and local garb, everything is a rich tone that spills (sometimes literally) into one another. My home city’s tidy uniformity suddenly seems bleak and unfun in comparison.
But today, I’m not home, I’m in Marrakech and the day is a blank page until 6pm, when I’ll meet my Intrepid Travel tour group for a 7-day trip. So, I grab my camera and head towards the old town.
Streets here are decorative and dense, the kind of thing you should consume slowly and with a tiny fork. But I jump in face first, hungry for the sights and smells and sounds, enamoured by how foreign and alive it feels.
Signage skips between Moroccan Arabic, French and English, as do snippets of conversation; a hangover from France’s brief but brutal colonisation in 1912. With shutters lifted and doors pushed aside, shops spill out into the street, ornate gold lanterns and overflowing spice sacks squished beside pyramids of glass teapots and patterned Berber rugs. Whatever a place sells, it always appears to sell a lot of it, in every shape, size and colour, if you’re willing to duck into the cavernous shops but today I’m happy to skip along like a stone.
Medina is fragrant and hot and full of movement yet for every local rushing somewhere or yelling out to someone, I count three perched on a bench or upturned crate with a cigarette and mint tea, letting the world spin by. Still fresh to the city, I can’t be quite so mindless, not in a city where road lanes are suggestions and motorcyclists treat laneways like race tracks.
Fortunately, calm is often just one corner away. Moving deeper into Medina’s terracotta labyrinth, I turn a corner and encounter a pocket of sweet quiet, empty aside from a puddle of kittens lazing in front of one of the many unmarked, elaborate wooden doors. Turning again, however, and I’m face-to-face with a pop-up produce market packed with bodies and conversation, forced to skip around dusty tarpaulins covered with bananas and potatoes, tomatoes or slimy gutted fish.
After an hour, I retreat to the hotel, wired and tired but it isn’t long until I’m tempted back out to visit the Jardin Majorelle. Standing outside the building, I realise tickets are only sold online, something made challenging by my lack of Wi-Fi or international data. Fortunately, a friendly tourist lets me use their phone and soon I’m in. Google ‘what to do in Marrakesh’ and the small landscape garden, created by French Orientalist artist Jacques Majorelle, tops most lists. The arrangement of gigantic fuzzy cacti planted on immaculately groomed stone beds is delightfully bizarre, while the cobalt blue, bright yellow and orange buildings create a surreal Alice in Wonderland atmosphere.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that, despite being built in 1923, the place is simply a collection of Instagram backgrounds. In certain spots, people queue and crowd, some with outfit changes and DSLR cameras on tripods, waiting to get ‘the shot’ before moving on. The lack of signs or information also makes it hard to learn why the gardens are significant outside of looking beautiful and I leave after 45 minutes.
Back at the hotel, I meet my Intrepid Travel tour group, which consists of just nine other travellers and Brahim Hanaoui, a man with kind eyes, militant organisational skills and an impossibly vast knowledge of Morocco.
As the sun sets, we’re drawn towards the bright lights and music of another ‘must-see’ spot, Jemaa el-Fna. During the day, the massive square is mostly empty but now it heaves with hundreds of stalls touting juices or street food, incense or performers.
Wandering deeper into the carnival of chaos feels like entering a Baz Lurhman scene, surreal and garish. Dozens of smells, signs and sounds clamber over one another, reaching through the dark smokey air for your attention. Pairs of women sit on stools, painting hands with henna, while circles of men dance and sing to foreign instruments or push chained monkeys towards tourists for photos. We quickly move away, to the food stalls, which are just as performative.
Here, young men pace around with menus, scanning for people to tempt. Behind the stalls, fellow staff sing and clap, cheering when a mate successfully beckons a group to their table or jeering when he fails. Thanks to a sensitive disposition (and stomach), I typically avoid markets like Jemaa el-Fna, but with Brahim leading the pack, it doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming. Striding ahead, he cuts a line through the chaos and ushers us towards a particular stall before ordering a round of vegetable soup with bread. Locals later tell me food here can be a dice roll but I already trust Brahiim completely and there is no doubt that if you want to be in the heart of Marrakesch’s madness, this is the spot to enjoy a meal.
Thankfully the hotel is a two-minute walk away and I don’t fall asleep as much as submit to the gravity of exhaustion, barely kicking off my shoes before collapsing on the bed.
“Marrakech is a place with 1000 mosques, 1000 churches, 1000 synagogues and 1000 discotheques,” says Nagip Tyouss, the local helping us navigate Marrakesch’s Medina today. “It means this is Morocco, you can do what you want,” he adds.
In actuality, there are around 120 mosques, three synagogues and less than a handful of churches but today our first stop is a palace. Bahia Palace to be exact. Leaving Tinsmiths Square, we’re instructed to walk ‘like a camel’ (single-file) but also quickly; it’s 8.50am and Tyouss says we must get there exactly when it opens to beat the crowds.
“The beauty in Morocco in the old city is hidden behind the doors,” Tyouss tells us as he glides around the mayhem of the streets, gesturing to one of the countless unmarked wooden doors you pass in Marrakech. “It’s like human beings, the beauty is in the heart.”
Bahia Palace is no exception. Outside, the tall walls stand dusty and plain but once inside, it’s quiet, cool and unbelievably beautiful.
A palm tree-lined path leads to a courtyard where Brahim flashes our pre-purchased tickets to an employee and we breeze on into the palace itself; a living example of late-19th-century Moroccan architecture at its absolute finest.
The first open-air courtyard is laid with an intricate pattern of indigo-blue and white tiles that beg to be photographed. It’s just one of many spots to see, so Tyouss nudges us along, explaining how Ba Ahmed, the ruler at the time, dedicated the palace to his wife, Bahia. How his other three wives felt about the romantic gesture, one can only imagine.
Moving between the network of courtyards and rooms, I notice the same four colours used on rotation and it’s not by chance, Tyouss explains. Red, green, white and blue are the colours of Marrakech and symbolise the clay, evergreen trees (olive, orange and pine), snowy Atlas Mountains and sky that is blue 300 days of the year. Legend goes if you don’t see all these colours in nature during a visit, you must return to Marrakesch, Tyouss tells us.
Much like an art gallery, the palace is objectively exquisite, with lofty painted ceilings, marble courtyards and manicured gardens. Yet, it only becomes properly fascinating with Tyouss, who reveals the history hiding within the walls and, in one instance, the floor. Entering one room, he asks us to guess why the floor is shiny and smooth. It was the ballroom? Correct; a place where royalty wore down the tiles with endless nights of dancing. However, none of us could guess why all palace musicians were blind. “So the dirt of the palace stays in the palace,” he reveals, leaving us to imagine the debauchery that went down in such a lavish place.
As Tyouss predicted, by 10.30am the palace is buzzing with crowds so it’s time to head back into the market-lined alleys towards Koutoubia Herbal. Like many Marrakech gems, the store is marked by a small, unassuming door that hides a spacious two-storey atrium. Inside, the air is woody and sweet, no doubt from the dozens of glass jars stacked along the walls which hold dried roots, leaves, powders and seeds. Labelled in French, some names are easier to guess than others; thym, macis, paprika and carvi, cumin, poivre noir and canelle.
We take a seat and a Moroccan woman donning a white lab coat explains how the women-run herbal co-op began. They aren’t anti-men, she jokes, but rather, for providing jobs for women so they can be independent. “You come here as a woman and will leave as a queen,” we’re promised, as staff present a parade of herbs to smell, taste and massage into our skin.
Whether you suffer from snoring or low libido, dry skin or arthritis, these women have the cure in plant-based oil, cream, tea or paste. Whether or not it’s more effective than Western medicine, I don’t know, but it’s certainly more fun (and fragrant) than a pharmacy. Inspired by the potential remedies for our collective maladies, we mooch around the shop and I leave with a chunk of amber resin to use as perfume. Unlike the markets, it’s a fixed, high price but I’m content knowing the profit goes towards the co-op.
As is the case with our lunch spot, the Amal Association; a not-for-profit training centre and restaurant that teaches and employs disadvantaged women in Marrakesh.
The objective alone makes it worth a visit, so the delicious food is simply a bonus. It’s Friday, which means one thing in Morocco; couscous. Lifting the lid of my tagine, buttery steam billows out from the soft golden pyramid, surrounded by tender slabs of pumpkin, zucchini and eggplant and topped with a dollop of caramelised onion. Portions here are generous and although I’m full halfway through I polish it off and count it a success I don’t lick the plate.
Sated and sleepy, most of us spend the afternoon resting at the hotel. At 8pm, we’re back where the day started, Tinsmiths Square, waiting for a woman named Zineb. The local has never met our group before (aside from Brahim), yet we’re about to do something arguably quite intimate; go to her home for dinner. After quick introductions, we follow Zineb’s purple headscarf as it bobs through the crowds, along a street, then a side street and finally through a literal hole in the wall.
“This is not a renewed raid or a fancy hotel, this is the real Medina,” Brahim says as we climb a gloomy set of concrete stairs before shuffling along a narrow hallway. To the right is a shoebox kitchen, small to make space for a large guestroom, which holds a low wooden dinner table surrounded by plush red couches. No matter how rich or poor you are, the guest room is the fanciest in any Moroccan house, Brahim explains.
To be hosted in a local’s home is honour enough but tonight we’ll also be joined by Houwayariat, an all-female band who specialises in traditional Moroccan Houariyates music. Six-women strong, the group have been together 14 years and play at weddings, birthdays and any other events that need a little hell-raising.
While digging into a tapestry of dips and bread laid out before us, three of the musicians walk into the guestroom, sit down and, with zero warning, launch into song, the lead singer’s voice loud and raw over the beat of a small drum and tambourine
As a genre, Houariyate music has always been charged with emotion. In the late 19th century, we’re told it was played to motivate the Moroccan rebellion against French colonisation. Today, Houwayariat use it to express women’s fierce emotions. Occasionally, Brahim yells out lyric translations and they sound like something you’d expect to hear from Joan Jett or Patti Smith; lines about fury and lust, conflict and desire. About giving an angry man a glass of whisky and, if that doesn’t calm him, shoving him down the stairs.
“Most families are conservative in Morocco,” Brahim said, so for birthdays or weddings they’ll often have multiple rooms for dancing. “Women, they want to dance freely without men. So they have their own space,” he said, adding that Houwayariat would play for such rooms. It sounds like a club I’d want to be a part of, and am, just for tonight.
Without windows, the room quickly turns muggy with the smell of warm bodies and mint tea. There is no microphone or sound system but the women’s sound is thunderous; it soaks into my skin, thumping against my chest. Eyes full of wild joy, the women grin mischievously as they rock their bodies side to side in perfect time.
Eventually, the main dish arrives. Seffa medfouna which means ‘buried’ and consists of a pile of buttery thin noodles that ‘bury’ a slow-cooked chicken or pile of vegetables. As we eat, the band continue at full pelt. There is no microphone or sound system but the women’s thunderous voices and drums soak into my skin, thumping inside my chest. One woman stands up onto a chair, grabs a fistful of her long velvet dress and shakes her hips to the beat before pulling us up to join. Soon, we’re all standing on the couches, arms in the air, skin slick with sweat, whooping and hollering along.
Time blurs and soon it’s 10pm so we gather our belongings and say our goodbyes, still fizzing with euphoria in the cool night.
“The happiest people in Morrocco live in Marrakech,” Brahim says as he leads us through the moonlit streets. Thinking back to the women, careless and jubilant, I don’t doubt him for a second.
Air NZ, Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and Lufthansa all fly from Auckland to Marrakech with two stopovers on a codeshare basis.
Intrepid Travel offers several itineraries visiting Morocco, including the 15-day “Premium Morocco in Depth”, priced from $4140pp with several departures every month.