Cities in September: Marrakech

It’s currently a balmy 24 degrees in Marrakech and a city perfect for those seeking that final dose of summer sunshine.  Madeleine Wilson shares the city’s best bits…

It was the sensory shock of bustling souks, vivid colours and peaceful, elegant courtyards that won my heart in Marrakech. Wandering the alleyways, you’d think this city hadn’t changed in over 100 years with pungent smells – not all of them pleasant mind – and shopkeepers trading their trinkets, some antique, others wholly unconvincing. But the real sensations lie behind unremarkable doors. Cafes, restaurants and riads offer decorative courtyards, many with fountains or orange trees as their centre pieces, inner sanctums away from the city’s frenetic pace. We had breakfast on roof-terraces, were served cleansing mint in the afternoon and for dinner, candles were lit and we enjoyed homemade tagines under the stars.

In my guide to Marrakech, I share all my favourite spots, but I’ll leave the shopping to you. The souks, piled high with slippers, silver teapots, leather-bound books and more slippers, are there to explore and get lost in. Just remember, haggle, haggle, then haggle some more.

Ramadan in Marrakech

September is the month of Ramadan although this year it falls mostly in August (11th August-9th September 2010), a Muslim fast when people do not eat during daylight hours. Before you stop reading, you’ll be surprised to discover that Ramadan is a fantastic time to visit Marrakech. While you should be respectful and avoid eating, drinking and smoking in the open, the people in Marrakech more than make up for this in the evening when there is a fantastic party atmosphere and everyone finally gorges on food. Only the very small cafes and bars targeted towards locals will shut and although alcohol is hard to come by, we headed to one of the luxurious hotel bars for our cocktail hour.

A splash of colour

Marrakech is a colourful city with spices piled high in the souks and dyed threads strung-up across the alleyways. But the Majorelle Gardens (Avenue Yacoub El Mansour) are something else. They were created by the French artists, Jaques and Louis Majorelle in the 1930s. The gardens are now privately owned by Yves St Laurent but they are open to the public. The pools are graced with water lilies, elegant koi carp and paddling terrapins. You can catch glimpses of the wonderful Majorelle blue house as the electric colour flashes between the bamboo groves. Inside, you can visit Jacques Majorelle’s studio with embroidery, lithographs and jewellery.

Beautiful budget riads

Remember, what makes Marrakech special is finding that peaceful and ornate sanctuary. With so many beautifully decorated hostels in Marrakech, you really are spoilt for choice. In Morocco, guesthouses are called riads. The beautiful Riad Karmela is located just 8 minutes’ walk from Djemma El Fnaa, the main and most exciting square in Marrakech. With gorgeous furnishings in all the rooms, this riad also has the all important roof terrace with fantastic views and where guests can enjoy their free breakfast. Treat yourself to a massage or relax in their onsite hammam. Private rooms from €35 per person, per night.

Complete with pet turtle, guests love the friendly and helpful staff at Riad Marrakech Rouge. It ranked top 3 for ‘best value in Africa’ in the HostelBookers Awards for Excellence and is also located just moments from Jemaa el Fna. You’ll find more of a hostel atmosphere at Riad Marrakech Rouge so it’s a great place to meet fellow travellers. Enjoy endless cups of Moroccan mint tea and puff away on a shisha pipe on the roof terrace which has views to the Koutoubia mosque. Breakfast is included in the price of the double, triple and dorm rooms. Private and dorm rooms from €12pppn.

Anything but tagine!

Just a few nights in Marrakech and you’ll notice tagine has become a staple part of your diet. If you need a break, try lunch at the picturesque Rôtisserie de la Paix (68 rue Yougoslavie) for charcoal grill of chicken, lamb, and homemade merguez sausage served under pretty umbrellas in the garden.

Marrakech events in September

Festival of Marriage – Moussem des Cimes d’Imilchil
24th-25th Sept 2010
Up to 40 couples tie the know at this annual event drawn from Morocco’s own Romeo and Juliet love story. Legend says that the lakes of Issly and Tisslit were formed when a man and woman were forbidden to marry and cried themselves to death. The families were so grief-stricken that on the anniversary of the lovers’ death they established a a day when members of different tribes could meet and marry. The lively event is accompanied by dancing and music by the Berber tribes. It’s a 4 hour drive from the city so opt to stay overnight in the town of Tinghir at Riad Agraw and explore the medina and hike through the gorge.

Desert thrills

Quad biking is very popular in the area surrounding Marrakech. And no wonder. The desert at dusk has never seemed so thrilling. We were collected from our riad, given a training session and en route, were served tea at a traditional Berber village house. It’s not cheap, to drive your own quad costs from €50 but I hopped on the back of my boyfriend’s for €30.

Dining in style

Marrakchi (52 rue des Banques) occupies a fantastic location with curved windows providing a fantastic panoramic view of Jemaa el Fna. The food won’t be much of a surprise, the usual but tasty tagine and couscous for about €10. The big draw here is the stunning interior decor. The setting is perfect for a romantic meal with rose petals strewn across tablecloths, Bedouin-style furnishings all glowing in the dim candlelight. They serve a few local wines which helps on nights when entertainment is offered to diners.

My coffee kick

At Cafe Sepices (75 Rahba Lakdima), sit inside or on the roof terrace overlooking the square with a cup of spiced coffee made with cardamom, massis, cloves, peppers, nutmeg, ginseng, ginger and cinnamon. They also servce salads, sandwiches and special homemade dishes of the day.

A city escape

Although Marrakech won’t be at the height of summer, the High Atlas mountains do offer respite from both the heat and the city crowds. You can go by bus but be prepared for lots of waiting around. If you’re travelling in a group, it makes sense to hire a car with a driver costing about €20pp. This way you can sit back and enjoy the view in an air-conditioned and roomy vehicle with photo opportunity stops. You can find a ‘grand taxi’ (labelled on the side of the car) outside hotels and stations to take you to the Atlas mountains for the day.  A scenic journey takes about 3 hours each way. Just be firm about the detours, many drivers want you to visit every shop, every Berber house and every carpet dealer en route. Eventually we refused to get out of the car and our driver took the hint and we all laughed about it the rest of the way.

The easiest route is through the Ourika Valley, arriving at the village of Setti Fatma. The village itself is nothing special, the usual cafes and souvenir shops but the backdrop is superb with streams, grassy verges and of course the grand High Atlas mountains. You also have the opportunity to employ the help of a number of guides all on hand to hike with you up to the seven waterfalls. The first is easy enough, picking your way over a few rocks but the others are more strenuous. Our guide charged us about €5 to see the first two waterfalls.

An atmospheric drink

The city runs a little dry during Ramadan and many local bars have no alcohol in stock. Marrakech offers limited alcohol the rest of the year and it is always expensive but many practising Muslims become particularly vigilant during Ramadan. However, most of the hotel bars still serve the usual cocktails and nightcaps. Alcohol is not cheap, between €5 and €10. But a short walk from Jemaa El Fna and inside the elegant Hotel les Jardins de la Koutoubia (26 ru de la Koutoubia) is the Piano Bar. On certain nights it plays its fair share of schmaltzy crooners but you can always relocate to the poolside terrace and a starry sky.

Like this? Read Cities in September: Florence and Cities in September: Sydney.

Thanks to rhurtubiaanjčiEduardo Bombarelli, korniliakoukoutsi and Adamina for the images off Flickr!

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