Marrakech: the Medina and Beyond
Walking onto the famous UNESCO World Heritage square Jmaa El Fnaa will have an effect on you – whether you like it or not. During daylight this vast expanse of space is relatively empty; the ever-present orange-juice stalls line one side, carpets are rolled out around the square on which toothy Moroccans have laid out a selection of woven ‘sun hats’, dusty trinkets and shiny plastic sunglasses. Three old men sit in the middle of the square in front a few snakes coiled around each other, basking in the sun. A slight hint of interest by a passer-by will trigger the men to grab their flutes and play a song. The snakes seem disinterested. I only see one react and move to the music, like a teenage boy unwillingly dancing at a school disco.
At night the square truly comes to life; out of no where hundreds of stalls appear, selling anything from snails, to lamb shish and steaming tagines. Huge crowds of locals and tourists alike crowd around entertainers. Covent Garden is nothing compared to this. On our first night we were so overwhelmed by how many people there were we asked a local whether there was a particular special occasion. He laughed kind-heartedly and told us it was like this every night.
People are divided on what they think of Marrakech. More often than not people almost gave me a pitying look when hearing I was off to Morocco for a week. I loved it six years ago and loved it once more upon my return. But I can see how the busy souqs, the hectic but proud salesmen, the winding maze-like medina alleyways and the heat can get to you. Ideally you want to spend a few days at most in the medina and then find some peace and quiet in the Palmerie, the Atlas Mountains or the Atlantic Coast further a field.
Where we stayed
In the Medina
Riad Joya €€€
Derb El Hammam, Marrakech
An oasis of peace in the heart of the bustling Mouassine area North West of Jmaa El Fnaa. This stunning riad is not easily found, but once there you won’t want to leave. The style is Moroccan Milanese – stylish as well as traditional. Each room is different, from ‘Arabe’ to ‘Zanzibar’ themes, some with small fireplaces, others with huge metal bathtubs. We stayed in the Ambre Gris room, ‘grey’ the key word. The room radiated a sense of calm, from the vast soft bed to the large shower with plenty of potions and lotions to cleanse you of the medina dust. The manager, Noubine, is always around, always ready to help you and advise. The roof terrace is expansive, you can have your (delicious) breakfast there or sunbathe if you can take the heat. One of the pricier riads in the medina, but also known as one of the best.
In the Palmeraie
Dar Zemora €€
Rue el Aandalib, Marrakech
Not so much a hotel as a very charming English-owned home. With only three rooms and three suites, this beautiful house is surrounded by the most beautiful garden. You’d never think a lawn could be quite so green having passed through Dar Zemora’s dusty surroundings. Arriving here from the hectic medina is (literally) a breath of fresh air. It is no surprise that so many birds and bees have made this place their home. The style is very Moroccan, the standard rooms a good size, simple but comfortable. The suits are large, very large. We stayed in the Perla Suite and were overwhelmed by the size! Especially our roof terrace was incredible, with our own pagoda. The pool and area around it is beautiful and peaceful, the service excellent; bringing you cold water and a cold towel every so often. I would definitely recommend you stay for either lunch or dinner (or both) – fixed prices for a fixed menu. The drinks menu also has very reasonable prices, unlike most other Palmeraie/5* hotels.
Where we ate
Les Terrace des Espices €€
15 Souk Charifia Sidi Abdellaziz
Beautiful setting, wonderful vibe. We found Cafe des Espices and believed this was it. The waiter shook his head and led us into the deep and dark souqs until we finally found the sister restaurant. The ‘terrace’ is worth getting lost for – huge, atmospheric, with nooks to lounge in. While it does not serve alcohol you come here for the food. It is exceptional. We went for the Moroccan salads to start (fresh and tasty) and then had a lamb and prune and a lemon chicken tagine. The best tanginess we had all holiday. And all for a very reasonable price.
Cafe des Arabe €€
184, rue Mouassine | Medina, Marrakech
Owned by an Italian, this chilled out restaurant/cafe/lounge is ideally located minutes from Jmaa el Fnaa and near the souqs. It is the only place in the heart of the medina which has an alcohol licence, which means it attracts quite a few tourists. Again, the roof terrace is ideal for a lunch in the shade, the food a mixture of Moroccan and Italian. Great place to come for a cold beer as a welcome break from the hot sun. Also lovely in the evening.
Villa Flore €€€
4 Derb Azzouz, Marrakech (around the corner from Riad Joya)
Trip Advisor reviews perhaps give this place a bit too much flattery. Or perhaps we just went for the wrong courses. Yes, it is a beautiful riad (I would have been interested to check out the rooms) and the court yard, where there restaurant is, is sophisticated and welcoming. But the menu is limited. The lamb – much raved about on Trip Advisor – was super expensive so we went for a tagine and the duck instead. Portions were small. The food was good but nothing special. It was perfect for us though as it was round the corner from our riad. So we did not get lost that night.
Dejeuner a Marrakech €€
24, Place Douar Graoua, Marrakech
I loved this place! Slightly removed from the centre of the medina, but actually quite easy to find from Jmaa el Fnaa, this tall terracotta building has seating areas on each level. The best is, of course, the roof terrace, with views across the medina. I really liked the menu – a mixture of Moroccan and more international cuisine. Their salad options were good – a duck and goats cheese salad, a chicken with tarragon salad and a smoked salmon and dill blinis salad. I got excited by the idea of blinis so went for the latter which I actually wouldn’t advise as the salmon was still a little frozen. Loved our experience here though and would definitely come back for dinner.
Other places we wanted to visit but did not get round to:
13 Derb El Arsa, Riad Zitoun Jdid, Marrakech
Meant to have fantastic set menus in a nice setting. A little bit out of our way so we chose restaurants closer to us.
A hotel, restaurant and country club, all rolled into one – this is the ideal retreat to head to if you’re staying in one of Marrakech’s riads and need a cooling dip and some fresh countryside air. Beldi is only 6km form the pink city, so it’s easy to come here for the day to lounge by one of their many pools, have lunch at their amazing restaurant, or enjoy their spa and hammam. Rooms from £140 per night.
Where we drank
47, Place des Ferblantiers, Marrakech
This was our first ‘destination’ in Marrakech and we were not disappointed. Situated in the mellah (the Jewish area), it is a max 10 minute walk from the Jmaa El Fnaa. Ideal to come here as the sun is setting over the medina – the views from the roof terrace are beautiful. You can see stalks nests high above and hear children laughing and playing in the square below. The cocktails are pretty good and an average price for Marrakech (around 90 Dirham, or 7 pounds). A good place to start your evening.
Sidi Mimoun, Marrakesh
For those who want to have a glimpse of this iconic hotel – where Churchill stayed and loved it so much the bar was named after him. The bar is super swish, the cocktails truly excellent and you are minutes walk from the medina but yet surrounded by beautiful gardens. The only draw back are the prices.
Sky Bar €€
89 Angle Bld Zerktouni et Mohamed V Gueliz (above Renaissance Hotel)
We didn’t make it here but I heard good things about this cool bar. Again, nice roof terrace, average priced drinks and a pleasant atmosphere. Close to Jmaa El Fnaa and Un Dejeuner a Marrakech.
We were lucky enough to get an Abercrombie & Kent guide to take us round the main highlights of the medina. There is not a huge amount to see, it is by no means Rome or Paris. But just walking around, bartering for a leather bag and having a drink at a local cafe is part of the experience.
If you’ve had enough of the noises, heat and smells of Marrakech then the place I suggest you visit is Essaouira – a beautiful, small, breezy, beachside town. My experience there will be the topic of my next blog, including tips on where to stay, eat and drink.